How Closed Sessions Is Opening Up Chicago Hip Hop
Get to know this influential duo
Photo courtesy of Closed Sessions
It’s an unseasonably warm Tuesday in Chicago when I arrive at the Closed Sessions townhouse, the kind of day every Chicagoan treats like it’s 70 degrees even though it’s actually 50. The building is home to not only Closed Sessions but also label co-founder Mike Kolar’s SoundScape Studios as well as Kolar himself, who lives in an apartment on the third floor. Sequestered behind a black iron gate, the building projects a hidden-in-plain-sight air that is belied the moment I am buzzed inside.
“We like to do shenanigans,” says Kolar, smiling mischievously over his thick black glasses, clad in a black hoodie and selvedge jeans.
In the small driveway behind the building, Kolar, along with Cooper Fox, a Closed Sessions intern who has since then become a full-time employee, and BoatHouse, one of the label’s artists, have dragged their old, tattered studio couch to receive something of a Viking funeral. Kolar loads into his white jeep and rolls over it, like he’s at a monster truck rally, the weight of his wheels collapsing the cushions before the entire piece of furniture buckles in one great, cathartic crack. BoatHouse and Fox laugh over the pile of unearthed couch goodies—pens, coins, business cards, food wrappers—as Kolar returns his car back to its spot and exits.
“I bet I know how you’ll open your article,” he says to me.
Closed Sessions began in 2008, a partnership between Kolar and Alex Fruchter. Both are veterans of Chicago’s hip-hop scene from long before its current Chance the Rapper-led boom, albeit each in different realms. Kolar was working as an engineer for prominent local artists like Rhymefest and Kidz in the Hall. Fruchter was DJing under the name Roosevelt Treasure Chest (now DJ RTC), most notably playing a monthly residency that began in Wicker Park. He also ran the Chicago-centric hip-hop blog RubyHornet. The two met briefly backstage at Rock the Bells, but their shared vision was born when Fruchter was working on a mixtape with Kidz in the Hall frontman Naledge, a friend of his from childhood. The artist invited Fruchter to hang out in the studio, which just so happened to be SoundScape.
“We had this moment where we’re both like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Fruchter explains from his Columbia College Chicago office, where he lectures about business and entrepreneurship. He’s been a full-time lecturer since last fall, and also oversees the student-run record label, AEMMP Records. His office space is filled not only with Closed Sessions logos and albums but tokens of iconic moments in Chicago hip-hop, including a poster, addressed to him by Chance from a 2012 show at the Metro.
After Naledge and Fruchter finished the mixtape, he asked Kolar to master it, and offered to pay him, but Kolar had another idea. “He was like, ‘Yo, you could pay me for this, I don’t mind, or we’ll work something out,’” Fruchter recalls Kolar saying. “’You can have the studio whenever you want because you’re doing cool things with these artists, but the trade is anytime you’re doing cool things and need a studio it has to be my studio.’”
The pair began working together frequently, with Fruchter documenting sessions and doing interviews while Kolar mixed the records. As Kolar recalls, the rise of rap blogging had turned covering the local scene into a perpetual frenzy of who could be the first to post a new song or video, but they’d come up with a formula to circumvent that.
“At the dawn of the blogosphere, it was a crazy rat race to be the first to put shit up,” Kolar explains from the second-floor patio of the Closed Sessions townhouse. “Instead of being in a race to put up other people’s content, why don’t we put up our own content? We have a recording studio here, we have a monthly party series that Alex was holding down.”
That party series was essential to the formation of Closed Sessions. When New Orleans rapper Curren$y came for his first show in Chicago, he connected with Kolar and Fruchter, who helped put on the show at Debonair Social Club. Afterward, Curren$y, a notorious studio rat, wanted somewhere to record. Kolar’s studio was the perfect fit, and CS was born.
“We filmed it, and we ended up calling that documentary ‘Closed Sessions,’ because [Curren$y] was like, ‘I don’t want anybody here, except if I invite a couple girls,’” Kolar explained. “So it’s just me, Alex, and Curren$y, and that was the first one. We made a record and then we interviewed him about his creative process and put it out, and people loved it.”
From there, Kolar and Fruchter made a mixtape, Closed Sessions Vol. 1, and began collaborating with both local talent and any rapper who came through Chicago in need of a space to record. These days, the label not only continues to get exclusive interviews and sessions with rising artists who come through town, but they’ve also developed a roster of formidable talent from the Windy City and the surrounding area. The artists include Kipp Stone, a rapper from East Cleveland, Kweku Collins, a dexterous rapper from nearby Evanston; Jamila Woods, a poet and soul singer from the South Side; the cerebral producer oddCouple; Milwaukee MC Webster X, whose album Daymares just dropped; and BoatHouse, who began his career as a CS engineering intern before Kolar and Fruchter encouraged him to share his tracks with them. He now brings an electronic edge to the label’s soul and rap sound, d has crafted soundscapes for many of the Closed Sessions vocalists.
”Alex and I are old-school—we want to A&R for real,” said Kolar in his brassy Chicago baritone.
While Kolar and Fruchter are obsessive about the search for new talent, they are aware that not everyone they come across is a good fit for the label’s unique structure, in which artists own their masters and are provided with in-house creative services many small labels don’t provide, ranging from graphic designers to videographers and producers, but might not have the financial resources of a major. Others simply may not pass muster with Kolar, whose vetting process can manifest in some pretty unique and harsh tests. Such was the case with Kweku Collins.
“He came by with his dad, this 17-year-old kid. A good way for me to tell a lot about an artist is to get them in the studio quickly and let me engineer the session, let me see what they’re made out of and how they work. It tells me so much, it’s like a psychiatry session,” said Kolar. “I could tell [Kweku] looked a little soft, so I turned out the heat in the vocal booth. It was freezing in there; I wanted to see if he complained. But he just shivered and rapped through the cold.”
The artists are a reflection of the two-founders’ exceptional ears, but the overall culture of the collective—referred to simply as “squad” by both founders—is emblematic of the pair’s complementary but different demeanors, as well as the common mission that pushed them together.
Initially, it’s easy to cast Kolar, who rubs the top of his head as if trying to jar thoughts loose and can barely contain a joke or side remark, as the charismatic dealmaker, with the slim, lanky Fruchter, whose dark features and baritone voice carry a degree of solemnity, as being more behind-the-scenes. But when the two are both present at the Closed Sessions space, rarer nowadays with Fruchter lecturing and teaching classes, they’re both tremendously detail-oriented, constantly double-checking designs, replying to emails, and ensuring that they’re pushing forward the Closed Sessions brand in every way possible. When they notice that the coffee shop across the street doesn’t have a poster for their upcoming show, they want to know why. There’s a yeoman-like, blue-collar approach to everything they do, and while they joke about not living the “glamorous record label lifestyle,” much of how they operate comes from watching major labels stifle local talent.
“I didn’t have a handle on what to do, I had a handle on what not to do,” Kolar explains about the label’s start. “I would be sitting on conference calls with Rhymefest and J Records, having a conference this Thursday, going over the bullet points and minutes of the meeting last Thursday, and talking about what we should have ready by next Thursday and how infuriating that was.”
Transparency is an integral part of the Closed Sessions DNA. Both Kolar and Fruchter stress that about their process for bringing an artist into the fold, but it’s also evident in how they communicate with the staff and even how they’ve positioned themselves since those first videos back in 2008. As a label that grew largely on the internet, everything about Closed Sessions can be found through some careful Google sleuthing, and they maintain that spirit now.
“That’s a unique thing to our label, if you wanted to spend a few hours on YouTube you could literally connect every single dot,” Fruchter said. “This is how we got to here. It’s all public; our whole existence is public record.”
Just as you can trace the rise of Closed Sessions through the YouTube rabbit hole, the townhouse itself is littered with tokens of the label’s success and gradual progress. Framed CS photos, signed records, and annotated album track lists dot the walls and cover nearly every available surface, like a massive interactive timeline. But for every memento of past accomplishment, there’s a reminder of what’s on the horizon. A massive white board that takes up half of the second-floor wall transforms completely over the course of each of my three visits. It includes every upcoming release, promotional idea, and partnership opportunity, written in an assortment of colors that either denotes a carefully planned system or spur of the moment inspiration.
Right now, the immediate issue is South By Southwest where Boathouse and Kweku Collins are playing a series of shows. But while SXSW is important, the long-term focus is on “An Evening With Closed Sessions,” their upcoming showcase at the Metro. It’s a chance for the label to highlight their deep roster and cohesive identity. Kolar and Fruchter are encouraging some of the interns to skip SXSW and stay behind, so they can do additional promo for the show and be available in case anything pops up last minute, but they’re also keenly aware of the appeal a week-long music festival has for the squad.
“I’m not going to tell you all what to do. If you want to go to South By, it’s not a bad use of time,” Kolar says. “But we’ve got to pack the Metro with 1,000 people in it.”
There’s little disappointment or bitterness from the interns, who instantly begin planning how they can best use the time in Chicago to help promote the show. The long-term mission of Closed Sessions clearly comes above a few wild nights in Austin for everyone.
Closed Sessions wouldn’t be what it is without the many connections and shared savvy that Kolar and Fruchter honed over their years in the Chicago hip-hop community, but the enduring takeaway from spending time around the two founders is the genuine earnestness toward everything they do, and a commitment to building a community of not only artists but people with a shared vision. It’s the reason that Collins, whose songs have been streamed millions of times on SoundCloud and Spotify and whose ascent as an unconventionally melodic, endlessly creative force feels a bit Chance the Rapper-ish, is perfectly content to post up on the floor, sandwiched between interns, and help the label promote the showcase.
“The same way I want to see Kweku Collins grow and become Kweku Collins in big lights—or Jamila Woods or Kipp Stone or Webster X—they’re looking at it like, ‘I know Alex has had this goal since he was a teenager DJing and interviewing people, and I can be a part to help him reach that goal,’” said Fruchter. “We’re all very up front and transparent with what we’re trying to do.”
When talking about the culture that they’re striving to create, Fruchter brings up some of hip-hop’s most storied and influential labels like Def Jam and Roc-a-Fella, not to tout his massive ambition, but to emphasize that what matters most is the people he works with having pride in what they are representing.
“Having the Roc-a-Fella chain to those artists, they were like, ‘We’re going to wear the fuck out of this.’ So for us to make hoodies a couple months ago, and every time I’m seeing Kweku he’s wearing the hoodie, and everyone’s always wearing these hoodies,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow these people are proud to be part of this.’ That’s what I’m the happiest about it.”
While Fruchter and I met at his office, a BBC1 radio DJ named MistaJam was supposed to play Collins’ “Stupid Rose” during a block celebrating noteworthy up-and-comers. As I get up to leave, Fruchter unmutes the radio stream on his laptop.
“I wonder if they’ve played it already? That’d be so cool if I turned it up, and they were like, ‘This is Kweku Collins,’” he says in a mock British DJ accent.
Sure enough, the chorus of “Stupid Rose,” the breakout single from Collins’ Nat Love, comes blaring from Fruchter’s speakers. It’s just another example of how Closed Session’s timing could not be more perfect.