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Before '10 Day': Exploring Chance The Rapper's Early Career

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 11, 2013 8:10PM

"Brother" Mike Hawkins (left) and Chance at YOUmedia Chicago/Photo courtesy of Mike Hawkins/Digital Youth Network

By now Chance the Rapper's ties to Digital Youth Network and its Harold Washington Library studio space YOUmedia have became something of a local legend. After receiving a two-week suspension from Jones College Prep High School, a then 18-year-old Chance (real name: Chancelor Bennett) recorded his first mixtape 10 Day, in YOUmedia's humble studio. His second mixtape, Acid Rap, released earlier this year, has resulted in television appearances, national tours and magazine covers.


It took less than 30 seconds to make a connection to local rap phenom Chance the Rapper when Chicagoist visited Digital Youth Network's downtown office space in the DePaul University College of Computing and Digital Media building. The first thing you notice when you visit DYN's office is a copy of one of those magazines, Complex's fall issue, propped casually against a blackboard in the corner, Chance's face splayed front and center on the cover.

DYN and YOUmedia's story doesn't start and end with Chance's success, however.

Opened in June 2009 as a partnership between Digital Youth Network and Chicago Public Libraries, YOUmedia's studio is a 5,000 square-foot space located on the ground level of the Harold Washington Library open to local high school students with library cards to explore interests in music, graphic design, poetry, videography and a litany of other skills. The free program—backed by the McAurthur Foundation's Media Learning Initiative—draws students from all over Chicagoland.

Digital Youth Network's Lead Mentor and Manager of Informal Learning "Brother" Mike Hawkins initially joined the team as the program's poetry mentor when it was still a middle school model.

"DYN was one of the first practitioners to stand with the idea that a lot of communities, especially in urban areas, don't have access to tools and technology to be able to to compete in the workforce or even in school," Hawkins told Chicagoist. It was one of the first programs in the city to implement a one-on-one laptop system with middle schoolers, a concept that Hawkins says was "shocking" to see on the South Side at the time.

When DYN realized a lack of computers in area high schools was preventing students from continuing to pursue the interests they'd pick up with its program in middle school, the organizers decided to find a new space and model.

"Very early on, even when he was a freshman, you could tell [Chance's] level of literacy was way beyond that of the kids' that I knew at that stage, especially in his rapping."
Hawkins admitted he "didn't think twice" about using public libraries at first.

"We were only reaching a certain number of students and a certain demo of kids," he explained. "And the library was having a problem with getting kids to come there."

When YOUmedia opened, Hawkins was running a spoken word workshop but he started getting requests for an open mic. There weren't a lot of places for young people to perform in the city so the draw was obvious.

"It really started out contextualized for poets but then I remember Chance kept coming over and being like, 'Hey, can we do rap over here too?' Hawkins recalled. "I knew he was more lyrical but I told him, 'Well this is a poetry set, dude.' But every week he would be there."

At the time, Chance was still in high school and bound to his parents' living situation.

"They [Chance and his brother Tyler] are extremely middle class, good kids. Their dad is super awesome. He works for the government in some capacity. When I first met Chance he told me he was moving to Washington D.C. because his father was working on Barack [Obama's] campaign."

At that time, Chance hadn't stretched his legs as a solo artists quite yet. He was writing music as part of a group called Instrumentality.

"Very early on, even when he was a freshman, you could tell [Chance's] level of literacy was way beyond that of the kids' that I knew at that stage, especially in his rapping," Hawkins told Chicagoist. "A lot of the stuff I was hearing was pretty basic at best. The only other kid I knew that was as good or, some said, better at the time was Vic Mensa from Kids These Days. I met him probably a year before I met Chance."

Earlier this week, the Internet dug up two previously unreleased mixtapes from Chance's Instrumentality days that exist as proof of the young rapper's early grasp of graceful flows and complex lyricism.

Hawkins recalled a song Chance penned for a city-wide contest that the library was putting on. The theme was "Write a song for Chicago." Hawkins didn't hold back with his feelings about the song, titled "Beddy Bye."

"Now I'm going to go ahead and say on record it's probably one of the best songs about Chicago that I've heard—and I'm putting it up there with the Kanye's, the Common's. To me it was just up there with the classics, especially from a freshman."

Though "Beddy Bye" only snagged Chance second place in the contest (fellow hip hop artist Psalm One placed first) and it was never formally released, it did reach some hugely unexpected ears.

"Mayor Daley came in to take a look at the space. He asked me to get some kids together and talk about some of their work, so I told him, 'The mayor's coming in, you need to play your joint.'

"So Chance comes in and you can see he's got this look on his face like, 'I'm talking to the mayor!' It was kinda of like surprise but a little bit of swag. And then we played the song for Daley and he was the last person I thought would actually listen to a hip hop song all the way through but he never left that computer. If he could have done the hip hop head nod, I think he would have done it."

When his family's move to Washington fell through, Chance began to become reluctant about people hearing the song.

By the time Chance was mid-way through high school, he was already a star at YOUmedia studio, s star with an unpolished performance ethic.

According to Hawkins, remembering the words to his own songs was initially Chance's biggest struggle at these open mics. He told us about a conversation between Chance, himself and one of the libraries cyber navigators with whom Chance had become friends with.

"He told Chance, '[The audience] loves you but they're not going to keep loving you forever if you [can't finish the songs].' I distinctly remember that moment because it was a turning point. I don't think I ever heard him mess up again, I mean ever. He was one of those guys that kinda took those critiques and reshape what he was doing."

Judging by Chance's most recent Chicago show last month, he's still improving on his performance skills every day.

A few months later, 10 Day happened. Initially, Hawkins was "pissed" at Chance for getting suspended. Luckily, the budding rapper didn't squander his time when it came to recording the mixtape and buzz continued to grow.

The rest, as any fan of local hip hop knows, is history. Chance's second mixtape, recorded the following year, blew up, earning the young Chicagoan attention from fans and critics all over the U.S. all before he had a record deal.

Chance is currently crossing the country on his first national headlining tour while YOUmedia continues to serve hundreds of students Monday through Sunday. After seeing success in Chicago and opening four additional branches around the city, the program has expanded to the Bronx, Washington DC and Miami.

The students that nurture their passions at the studio are just as driven as they were before Chance's story happened, now they just have a real-life success story in front of them.