This interview first appeared in Popmatters.
A chilly drizzle begins to fall and soak the sidewalk as I speak with Chicago emcee Jessica Disu—aka FM Supreme—outside and under awning at the Wicker Well on Chicago’s North Side. It’s an hour before her late night performance at the Great Smoke Out Showcase, where Disu will perform with other up-and-coming Chicago rapper/emcees like Mic Terror and Rocketters. And like them, she’s looking to build momentum, sharpen her craft, and add to her already growing community of fans and supporters.
The rain doesn’t stand a chance against her countenance, beaming a blossoming ambition and brightening up the soggy and damp surroundings. She talks about her music career in fully excited animation, while she also gives bear hugs and flashes smiles in rapid fashion to friends and fans as they walk into the venue. The activist, poet, and entrepreneur fields my questions like she’s been at it for a lot longer than her 20 years would suggest.
When I first stumbled upon FM Supreme at Decibelle Festival last fall, it was the nuance, explosiveness, and skill of her performance that made me take notice, encouraging me to dive deeper into her latest release, The Beautiful Grind Mixtape. During that show and the days after, I considered the possibility that she could be a catalyst for a much needed renaissance of the female emcee in today’s hip-hop culture. I knew very little about her at the time, but soon after her performance I learned that what I saw was the result of an upbringing in the music business and a genuine passion for spoken word.
And in the last year, I haven’t been the only one to take notice. Disu has been featured in local publications as one of Chicago’s “emcees to watch.” And with each passing month, the list of artists whom she’s shared stages with—David Banner, Black Sheep, MC Lyte, Saul Williams, et al.—continues to grow, too.
Her involvement in social and political activism is a strong thread through her music. In January, the Chicago Northside native went to Washington D.C. to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration with a group of other young activists from the Chicagoland area. “Being at the inauguration felt like a utopia,” says Disu. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place be so happy and inspired, even though we all could’ve been sad and depressed about the economy. I was so inspired. It was life-changing for me as person and an artist. I will be proud to tell my kids and grandkids that I was there to see the first black President be inaugurated.”
And Disu hopes to take that inspiration and channel it into developing as a strong performer with something to say, so she can bring back and celebrate the power set forth by female rapper/emcee legends MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Sister Solider, Eve, and Lil’ Kim. And the influences ring true in the way Disu rhymes and carries herself. At the core of her message is a desire to create a “movement.” When I ask her what that means to her, exactly, she tells me it’s her way of creating awareness and building momentum for social and personal action among her peers and her generation using hip-hop, spoken word, and youth activism.
At only 20 years old, I’m surprised at her knowledge and ambition. She smiles and immediately credits her mom—who was a local Chicago producer, manager, and promoter—for teaching her how to build her music career. “My mom was a jack-of-all-trades. She had her own label and she showed me how to be my own manager. I saw how and what she did to build an artist from the ground up, and I applied it to what I do now.”
Disu’s also quick to credit her high school education. “I owe a lot my knowledge of the [music] industry to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. I took a music business class with Jason Patera (Chair of the Music Department). He graduated from Berkley College of Music with John Mayer and Gavin Degraw. He told me, when I was 16, that if I still wanted to do this music thing after I took the class and I learned all the shady shit that goes on—if you still want to pursue a career in the music industry, then I applaud you and I’ll help you.”
Disu started college, but she’s been out of formal school for the last couple years, so she’s found other ways to stay sharp, hungry, and eager. “Over the last year I interned at Warner Brothers Records in NYC. Then I worked in Chicago with Jeff McClusky & Associates, up until this January, while also working at the Jane Adams Hull House as an event coordinator. I plan to enroll at Columbia in Chicago soon so I can finish up and apply my education to my music business plans, too. I’ve learned so much about life, myself, and how to develop myself on the streets in the time I took off from school.”
As a one-woman promotion machine, over the last few months, I’ve seen Disu apply her homegrown grassroots training and mix what she learned with new and social media promotions. From Facebook and MySpace to regular personal text updates to fans, Disu appears to be on her way to creating the movement she desires. I ask her about the fingered “C’s” I’ve seen her flash, and again she surprises me, telling me they’re not to represent the city she lives in, but to promote CommonWealth Entertainment, an organization she envisioned and has been developing since she was 15.
“Ever since I was ten or so, I always wanted to be hands-on and run things myself. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and applied it to creating CommonWealth Entertainment. I’ve always wanted to do everything in-house—because of my upbringing I’m a CEO by nature. So that’s why I’m planning on creating different divisions, so I can do all the stuff that goes into creating an album myself, and promote the kind of artist I believe in.”
Each of the last four years Disu has released a project—The Diary of a Mad Black Woman Mixtape (2005), Forever Maroon EP (2006), Basik Gumbo LP (2007), and The Beautiful Grind Mixtape (2008). But 2009 will be the first year she won’t be releasing anything new, because she wants to make her forthcoming album, The Go State of Mind, slated to drop March 2010, exactly the way she wants it without rushing it.
Then there Disu’s close friend and fellow Chicago spoken word teammate Deja Taylor. In the last few years, Disu has worked with Taylor, 19, to build a community and following among Chicago’s legendary spoken word community. It began with poetry slamming group the Chicago 7, a team Disu created and organized. Then Taylor landed opening slots for hip-hop giants Common and the Roots, putting her on the local buzz list and earning comparisons to a young Jill Scott. In 2008, Taylor won Chicago’s Youth Teen Poetry Slam festival Louder Than a Bomb, and in 2009 she’s featured in Russell Simmons new HBO series about youth slam poetry, Brave New Voices, performing her piece “Ode to the Female Emcee”.
Disu’s plan is to release both FM Supreme and Deja Taylor’s debut album together next year, and to continue to represent and speak to an audience she feels isn’t getting a voice. “I’ve felt for a long time that there isn’t anyone speaking to what my peers are going through,” says Disu. “By releasing our work together, we make it clear that we’re aiming for the same goal of inspiring our generation to be active, honest, and pursue the movement that speaks to who we really are.”
With just a few minutes to go before her performance, Disu tosses me a compliment and explains the interesting backstory to the Decibelle show when I first saw her. “Your review really taught me a lot,” she says. “When I read it I started to think how I can make the live energy come to the studio. People tell me they love to see me live because of the live energy I give off.”
“Since I started rapping and rhyming I’ve learned a lot from [Chicago emcee] DrUNkeN MoNkeeE,” she says. “We talked a few weeks before my live debut at the Decibelle festival and he really encouraged me to let the my “inner beast” out. So I was really excited to perform. When the moment came, I just decided to rock it.”
And she rocked it again. In just a limited two-song set, with fans jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder and the Wicker Well’s small stage at crowd level and the front row only inches away from Disu, she let it rip, rhyming over slick and bouncy retro house beats and spitting triumphant verses from her Beautiful Grind Mixtape.
With every performance, she’s expanding her audience and reaching out to new fans. And she made a point to show her thankfulness, because she knew playing this far north meant voyaging into the northern territory held down by other rising Chicago hip-hop duo the Cool Kids. Disu took her movement of CommonWealth international when she opened for Israeli rapper Subliminal at the Park West in Chicago at the end of May. Yet again, a bigger stage and a larger audience for FM Supreme.