This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
For Chicago-native beat-maker/producer Ramon Norwood (aka Radius), the city’s neighborhoods are more than just secondary landscape to his music-making. The nine neighborhoods and two interlude roadway tracks are the music, a vividly real sonic canvas he used on his debut album, Neighborhood Suicide, expressing all aspects of the emotional terrain he’s absorbed and traversed during his life thus far at age 26.
The album captures a period when he fought to flip the script on a barrage of frustration, confusion, and depression, all unfortunate companions to the doldrums of a brutally cold Chicago winter.
During the winters of 2006-2007, Norwood battled to find the significance of the nine neighborhoods and how they impacted his life and music utilizing soulful samples, hypnotic beats, and deftly placed sound bites, as well as a genuine love for Chicago’s beat-driven traditions and richly diverse cultural real estate.
To get the feel of the album’s sonically physical roots, I meet Norwood at Hyde Park’s Promontory Point, a pivotal place for Chicago’s hip-hop and house scenes on the city’s south side. From there, Norwood discloses his deep love for Chicago music history, his frustrations, and how the album was a deep emotional journey he needed to take in order to survive, all while we walk along the same streets he pays tribute to.
Looking out towards a southern view of Chicago’s skyline from the Point, the spot’s crucial role as both the birthplace for his development as a student of hip-hop’s key elements and as a creative sanctuary overcomes him. While the waves of Lake Michigan crash against the shore and the late afternoon sunshine shimmers off the water, Norwood says “It’s so beautiful out here…”
Behind us is the field house, a hangout spot that Norwood references on the eighth track, “Hyde Park (I Miss You)”, amidst a steady stream of dreamy pianos, gently popping snares, and smooth bass lines. Norwood also anchors the track’s geographical significance with a sample of Chicago rapper Common’s “Nuthin’ to Do”, getting double use out of its lyrical shout to “The Point” and Common’s soulful influence.
With a low steady voice, humbly plotting out his next thoughts, Norwood explains how ten years ago, as a teenager, his life physically intersected with Hyde Park’s hip-hop and house music history, which dates back to the ‘70s when his parents partied in the same park. “This is where we would come after school on Tuesday and Thursdays back when I was a sophomore in high school; it’s where I had a chance to really live hip-hop besides just listening to it. Some of us would graffiti, or b-boy, or DJ. I came first to graffiti writing, but then I got more into break-dancing and b-boying. It was a good place to come, because there were a lot of negative things we could’ve gotten into.”
On Neighborhood Suicide Norwood bypasses the zip code clichés often associated with hip-hop artists and dives deeper, demonstrating how the nine locations have formed him, using simple-but-complex instrumental loops of jazz, soul, and funk, and mixing in sampled sound bites to communicate pain, depression, hope and heartache—something most artists struggle to do with too many lyrics and not enough honest emotional feeling. ““The title is a combination of my emotions of my moods. I didn’t feel like I wanted to die, but I was feeling like I was stuck and was dying. I feel that a lot of people commit suicide because they feel like they can’t turn anywhere. I felt that way, but not enough, obviously, to go kill myself. The title also is a reflection of how your neighborhood can make you feel that way, and how so many elements of living in a neighbor can draw a person to that conclusion. I’ve lived in a lot of [Chicago’s] neighborhoods, and even never been super broke, but I was feeling those elements, like not being able to eat sometimes. That’s was just the mood I was in back then.”
The album grooves, glides, and purrs through the neighborhood tracks, but it goes to depths that surpasses traditional hip-hop chest-thumping joints made to rattle rims and bump back seat woofers. Norwood had his sights set on a place more genuine. “When I was finishing the album and trying to get back in that mood…a lot of times I’d start off by going through my records and try to find sounds that were similar to that feeling, or also that time—the vibes, tones instruments—and base it around that, or if I was out and about I tried to find samples.”
The journey Norwood created on the album is a contemplative burrowing that puts you in the passenger seat as you cruise through Humboldt Park, Uptown, Logan Square South Shore, Bucktown, Englewood, Hyde Park, Rogers Park with roadway interludes “Lake Shore Drive” and “90/94”. All the while, Norwood guides, following the aesthetic lead of DJ Shadow’s turntablistic lush layering, Jay Dee’s stand alone beat samples, minimalist repetitious and hypnotic rhythms, a truly tested terrain of soulful stomping, and gospel-tinged hand claps juxtaposed against smooth, laid-back orchestrations of funky, trickling jazz pianos, snappy snares, and righteous hi-hats.
Like the album’s journal-style liner notes, Norwood takes me though the local homages of each track’s back story. But since we can’t go to all the neighborhoods in one evening, our journey focuses on Hyde Park’s neighborhood as he expounds on how the music of an area rich in progressive beats and rhymes was his melodic medicine.
On our way to Hyde Park Records, Norwood shares his thoughts on the current spotlight shining on Chicago hip-hop thanks to rappers Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco, and Rhymefest. And showing his love and appreciation for all music genres, he keeps the city’s whole musical landscape in perspective. “Yeah, the hip-hop has been great, but music overall is being influenced in Chicago.”
Still, Norwood knows that Chicago is a pay-your-dues music city, pointing out the pros and cons of the aforementioned stars’ recent success. “It’s good have guys like Common and Kanye put Chicago on the hip-hop map, but in a way it makes people think that that’s how all the music in the city sounds. And it’s hard to categorize the music I make, especially my album, too. Is it hip-hop or an electronic album?”
As we get closer to the record store, our conversation slowly turns to the harsh reality of being an independent artist in the 21st century. “It’s also been hard with distribution; some people are close-minded and didn’t want to go with hip-hop right now. I try to play as many as live shows as I can. Doing beat battles with other artists has really helped get my music out, too. I don’t normally like to do a whole lot of changes live to what I make in the studio, but I do some changes live. But I never want to say that I can’t do something if that something will allow a new group of people to hear my music, because when it comes to making music and pushing boundaries, you have to do whatever it takes to stand out.”
So what does he see as his options right now? “…giving [your music] away is the best way, at the moment. Vinyl is still strong, and we’re always trying to find ways to get our music out there, and the truth is, Chicago isn’t always the outlet for guys like me. I’ve found that, a lot of the time, labels don’t know how to market it or take a chance with what I do.”
Earlier this year, Norwood digitally released Radiushead, a free downloadable remix EP of Radiohead tracks, hoping, like many other producers/beatmakers, that reworking high-profile tracks would showcase his producing talent. “It was a positive result… the main issue has always been distribution… I gave away the EP to avoid lawsuit issues, and then Radiohead went ahead and authorized the remixes a few months later, and that made it harder to get what I had done out to more people, because there was so much more out there now.”
As we enter Hyde Park Records, Norwoods says with a shrug “I just make [the music]…I don’t know how to classify it.”
Milling around the aisles, fingering the stacks and rows of albums, Norwood credits his early love for beat wizardy to Wu-Tang’s RZA, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock . “Those guys were always inspiring to me with how they used samples.”
But then he pauses, smiles and takes a deep appreciative sigh, getting ready to answer the question of his biggest influence. “…it was Jay Dee, man. He was the big one that really pushed me over the edge. In my opinion, his beats were way beyond what anybody was doing. You didn’t need a rapper to be on his albums…and he would do so much with so little… I could listen to one of his loops for like three or four minutes.”
When I ask him which specific albums he’s used on Neighborhood Suicide, he pauses awkwardly, which is completely understandable. An artist like Norwood prides himself on the art of crate-digging, hoping to find that perfect buried groove that he can sample, re-contextualize, or even better, twist around a more recent beat from a top artist without listeners knowing, but still enjoying his new instrumental interpretation of a perfect jazz or juke beat, gritty blues riff, or brassy soul horn blast sample.
Norwood says that in 2001, he began by using Acid Pro and Fruity software, then in 2004 he added an MPC 1000 to his beat-producing arsenal, a talent he’s featured on fellow Hyde Park hip-hop duo Mass Hysteria’s Chi City Beat Vol. 2 and The Secret Life of Sound’s (TSLOS) Ill Noise Redux mix tapes. But he’s ready to evolve. “I like the MPC, but I want to get into using software again, because it can take me further than when I first started using it.”
With the setting sun and Hyde Park Records behind us, our journey nears its end, heading inward, as Norwood explains the heavy emotional undercurrent and the two-year span it took to make the album.
“Since I don’t own a car, I began experimenting with certain samples and then transferred them to an MP3 player so I could take them with me on the train or bus.” And the understated emotional fabric of the album that began two years ago still lingers. “Looking back, I feel a lot of those tracks were dark, but I also feel that they were the kind of darker tracks that can bring someone out of a deep sadness and help them feel a more positive vibe as well… The zone I was in was very depressed…which is very similar to how I feel now…as I find myself unemployed once again…”
“Back in 2006, I was really moody and I was trying to express how I was feeling and going through all these different emotional phases…at different times….and in order to understand the music and myself, I would try and stay in whatever mood for as long as I could, and then go on to the next one, and then go back to that mood and music …so the making of the album was very back and forth at times, and I forced myself to round out the edges and make everything fit together.”
Creating the perfect laid-back, soulful, melodic mood was just as important as capturing the Chicago flavor with sparsely placed sound bites. “Those were added in later, when I knew all the beats and tracks were going to be a full album. Because at first I didn’t see the original tracks as being a full album—all I was trying to do initially was just capture a particular mood and time period in the music. Then, when I knew this was going to be an album, I started gathering the samples, most of which are Chicago related. I was trying to represent both Chicago and myself in the same sample or sound bite. I started a lot of the tracks in the winter of late 2006 and early 2007, then I came back earlier this year and got a few things mastered before I turned it in. I was also trying to create a visual representation of a Chicago winter in the mind and emotions of the listener, sonically showing how it can be cold and rough as you’re waiting for the bus or train.”
Norwood smiles as he explains that his grandfather still plays bass at local Chicago gigs, and mentions with a sense of regret that his mom never played around him, but that she used to play clarinet and saxophone in college, letting go of playing before he was born. “I really wished she had played around me…actually, the ‘Humboldt Park (3241982)’ track was made on my birthday—that’s why I used my those numbers in the title—and I found out later that when my mom was pregnant with me, my parents were living in Humboldt park. I didn’t know that…then one day my mom and I were driving around and she told me. And before she told me, I had already made that the intro track.”
Then came rap music. “At first, my parents had problems with the rap music that I was listening to. I got most of my knowledge of Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest from my cousin when I would visit my dad. But now my mom understands what I do and she supports my music, and she sees it as a way to express myself and knows that I always try to think things through when it comes to my music. My parents both come to all to my shows, but they usually can’t stay too late.”
So where does Norwood see his next steps taking him? Even though his love and respect for his Chicago roots will never escape him, he thinks that his future might be outside of Chicago by teaming up with local collective Moment Sound. “I’d like to take what we do live on the road. The Electric Buffet showcase sets are really new in Chicago, but they’re real big in Los Angeles and overseas.”
Norwood is trying to take both his music and employment situation one day at a time. “My situation right now is tough since I’m in transition and looking for a job, but the way I try to stay consistent is by making two or three tracks a day…or I’ll take a break for a week…I always fight to stay in the zone, but with so much going on it makes it hard.”
Staying constant with the mathematics inherent in his moniker and music making, Norwood is excited about his next project π (Pi), which is expected to release later this year and is a collection of tracks he’s created incorporating reinterpreted clips from the 1998 movie of the same name.
Photos by Colleen Catania