There’s a moment at every Ric Wilson concert where he stops the show to part the crowd.
Big rooms, small rooms, festivals, doesn’t matter. If Wilson is performing, there will be a Soul Train line. And he’s going to lead it.
Since at least 2015, the funk and dance-leaning Chicago rapper has made a name for himself with conscious, foot-moving singles that took him from working as a political organizer to one of the most exciting names in music emerging from the Midwest.
In 2019, he brought his party to Pitchfork Music Festival, the annual event highlighting indie acts hosted on the West Side of his hometown and a benchmark in any rising artist’s career. Chicago Tribune named the performance the second-best show of the year in the city, just behind Lizzo.
This weekend, he takes the Pitchfork stage for the second time as he celebrates Clusterfunk, his critically acclaimed latest album.
It’s a far cry from where he was in 2020 when the coronavirus lockdowns sent derailed a lot of artists’ plans. Largely independent with a distribution deal with Empire, Wilson lacked the support structure that helped artists on major labels survive.
He had ended 2019 on a high, but the next year, Wilson wasn’t even sure he’d continue making music. Living with his parents in Blue Island, just south of the city, he looked for regular jobs and plotted a new life for himself after climbing the ranks as an artist for the better part of the last decade.
But then Wilson’s manager Russell Redeaux started working on a podcast project with producer A-Trak. Redeaux told A-Trak about Wilson, which led to a phone call between the producer and the artist. They hit it off and A-Trak asked Wilson to fly to Los Angeles to work together.
“We didn’t even set out to make an album,” said A-Trak. “In the beginning we thought we’d just make a few songs. But the music came together pretty easily, and the more we recorded the more we wanted to make a well-rounded project. So it turned into an album. Finishing it took longer, just because we all got busy once lockdown ended.”
The time in LA felt like an artistic boot camp. Sessions ran every day from noon to late afternoon, which left Wilson with the rest of the day to explore empty streets and write what would become Clusterfunk.
“It was the summer of 2020, the summer of George Floyd and BLM, and, in addition to being a musician, Ric was deeply rooted in activism. It was interesting to meet this young man who had years of experience in that field and who had a lot to talk about outside of music,” said A-Trak. “Dave and Pee [from Chromeo] were keen to work with a rapper, and they saw me as the bridge because I work with rappers all the time and I could also curate the project.”
“So our first time in the studio, we spent two hours talking, me, Dave and Trak, about social history, like, past movements or whatnot, social justice. Dave and Pee are, like, the two biggest f—ing hip-hop heads of all time,” said Wilson. “They know the most niche s— about hip-hop. And I wasn’t the first artist they worked with, but they never produced this sound with the Chromeo sound. I’m the first rapper they ever done this with ever.”
Clusterfunk, with its mentions of the prison industrial complex, radical Black leaders and “slapping Nazis like a pack of new squares,” proved to be the outlet Wilson needed. His time on the West Coast also allowed him to see his hometown through a wider lens afforded by distance and other perspectives.
On “Whiskey In My Coffee,” he taps drill artist King Louie to discuss the ambivalence that can seep into the mindsets of those on the margins and the mindset of those around them to never fold (“Sometimes I wonder why it feels like the bullets over here/we living through our fears but not defined by our tears”). The opening track sets the tone-pairing the gritty realness that is Chicago with supporting production that delivers it without the usual heaviness.
“Everybody Moves to L.A.,” featuring Felicia Douglass, is a relatable ode for anyone who’s lived in Chicago. For years, the city has grappled with a creative drain to the coasts. But on this track, Wilson focuses on lost love and the growing pains of young love in a more traditional dance single.
“When Mariame Kaba Speaks You Listen” is Wilson using his platform for others. Stepping away in the middle of the project, he gives his mentor center stage to speak about the prison industrial complex. “I tell people our criminal justice system is racist, that it’s classist, that it’s sexist, that it’s transphobic and it’s wrong.”
Taken together, the project explores a surprisingly wide array of musical and lyrical contexts.
Chicago is the birthplace of house music: itself a form of protest music for counterculture and LGBTQ individuals in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hip-hop possesses similar roots, so the musical marriage between A-Trak, Chromeo and Wilson turned out to be a natural one.
The work on Clusterfunk, along with the gradual lifting of coronavirus restrictions reignited Wilson’s career. The momentum from that collaboration sent him to England to begin 2021, where he refound the spark he’d been missing and discovered more opportunities. By the time he returned that summer, the idea of doing anything else was a distant memory.
Four years after his original high point in 2019, Wilson is on top of the world. His face on the cover of Rolling Stone, his feet in Vans he gets from endorsements, he sits on a couch in the house he just bought with his tour earnings, his new album playing from the speakers.
There are few places in the world where funk and soul have stretched out as thoroughly as they have on the South Side of Chicago, and Clusterfunk is a love letter to Wilson’s hometown.
On Friday, he’s returning to show to his hometown and the world at large what many of us have known for years: Ric Wilson’s soul train doesn’t stop.