Knox Fortune Talks ‘Paradise’, Joey Purp, & Making Music That Isn’t Hip Hop

words by me; images by Adair Smith

Knox Fortune has made a name for himself as the reigning behind-the-scenes king of Chicago hip hop (he counts Chance the Rapper and Joey Purp as close collaborators, for instance), but his debut album, titled Paradise, is just about the farthest thing from the genre. More accurately, it doesn’t fit any one category; rather, it’s what he calls genre-bending, and it calls to mind greats like Beck and fellow Chi Town local Nico Segal (if you dare try to categorize him at all, that is).

Not one to box himself in (no surprise there), Fortune retains a process about as organic as they come, even though his life is anything but casual these days. Simply put, he starts with a cool sound, builds on it until it’s really something worth listening to, then makes the call on who it’s going to and why. Paradise is an 11-track window into the mind of Fortune, and we’re peeling back the layers even further on just how this record came about, from start to finish. Listen to the full album below, then keep scrolling for our full heart-to-heart with one of Chicago’s finest.

Since Paradise is about to drop, how are you feeling?

I’m feeling anxious and excited. It’s like a weight being lifted, too. I’ve been working on it for what feels like a really long time, and it’s been done for a little while, so—

Ok, so you’ve been sitting on a for a little while?

Not an incredibly long time, but it’s been turned in for like a month or so, so I’ve just been working on the illustrations and videos and the extracurricular stuff, trying to get that all in line.

So you said it’s like a weight being lifted—is it cathartic to get everything out there and put it out into the world? Or is it nerve-wracking because strangers will be listening to it?

Yeah. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking…but I’m not really a nervous person, and not about strangers listening to it, because I haven’t received any negative criticism, so far.

That’s good.

Yeah, it’s good, and also kind of an insane feeling. But I’m a little nervous, just for reviews or you know, that sort of thing. It doesn’t really bother me that much but it’s a lot to think about, especially being something that I’ve been working on for so long.

What kind of headspace when you were writing? Where do the songs come from?

A really genuine place. Some of the songs are older, so literally I was like in a very normal life situation, you know? I wrote a song called “Stun” with Joey Purp on it, I think we made that like three years ago or something, and I was like in college, you know—

Wow, that’s different.

Yeah, I was definitely, maybe not a different person, but my life was insanely different at that time. So it’s like, a lot of the songs I really like because they do capture a point in my life where I was less busy. And not that I’m writing now from a place of making money or anything like that, but back then it was certainly not my profession. I was just making songs because I enjoyed making songs. Now there’s a bit more pressure.

Does it change your creative process when you feel that added pressure?

It has, but it hasn’t recently. That’s just not the way I work. I’m not the type of person who can say, “Today I’m gonna make a down tempo R&B song for this artist.” I just can’t do that. I just need to start, find a cool sound, build from it, and then use the momentum to keep building and stacking to make it into something I like. I don’t go in with a plan really or an expectation.

Is there a huge difference when you’re making something for someone else versus for yourself?

No, not really.

That’s surprising.

Yeah, I just start everything the same way. I don’t start with a person in mind, I don’t start thinking like, “I’m gonna make myself a song today.” I just make something, and determine who it fits best for. I’m obviously first in line, but if it’s kind of obvious that, you know, it’s a rap beat, or something, well I’m not gonna rap on it. And I know plenty of people who will. So sometimes like that it’s a clear choice. But I pretty much start everything the same, with just zero expectation. Just sit down, start, and see what happens.

So as far as the album, do you have a favorite track?

It changes all the time. I hadn’t listened to “Help Myself” in a really long time, because I put it out first, so it was kind of just out there, and I was kind of finished listening to it. But I re-listened to it the other day, and I was like, “I really like this.” And then “Keep You Close”, I really like, and “Lil Thing” I obviously like—all the singles. I like all of it, honestly! I know you’re not allowed to say that—

[Laughs] No, that’s great!

I do legitimately like all of it, and I’m not sick of it, yet. But yeah, “Keep You Close”, I intentionally didn’t use it as a single because I just thought it would be cool for a listener to find later in the album.

Are there any overarching themes that kind of tie everything together? Do you think about that when you’re compiling an album?

Yeah. Sonically, the thing that tied everything was just my voice. That’s kind of what I accepted early on—I knew that some of the instrumentation and production styles were gonna vary somewhat drastically, and I just thought that the cool part about it would be if my voice was the unifying element. And that’s why I didn’t try to do too many features or anything like that, because I really wanted it to be about me. And as far as lyrical themes, it was all just being genuine—that was the most important thing for me. Don’t write about something that’s not true. Because I’m gonna have to sing it a million times, for the rest of my life, and if it’s not true then that’s a problem. Or I would just feel wrong about it. So I just tried to really tap into who I was on that day or who I was at that time and tried to think about things that everyone feels at some point in their life, but doesn’t feel everyday. Like getting dumped or something. Not that I got dumped, but just like those things that everybody experiences one time. So in that moment you’ll have something to relate to.

Like universal experiences.

Right, a universal experience that’s a little more uncommon.

Yeah, I mean if you got dumped all the time that would be awful.

That would be pretty bad. [Laughs] I would have a lot of material though, probably, I was getting dumped everyday.

True, but a lot of depressing material!

Yeah [Laughs] I would definitely be like The Smith’s or something.

So as far as working with people in hip hop and just being a part of that world and then your album is obviously not hip hop at all, those are such different places to work from creatively, so how do you do that? Are you tapping into different parts of yourself for each?

They kind of just come out like that. I kind of found that every time I’m more true to myself, I obviously enjoy it a lot more, and I enjoy listening to it more, and I’m proud to reveal things that are actually me. So I think there’s a lot of reward in just being genuine. You’d kind of be surprised, I think. Like a lot of the hip hop dudes I work with, they love music like mine. They just don’t really know a lot of it. Like I’ll be in the studio with Joey Purp or something and be like, “Yo, you should check out Iceage or Mac DeMarco,” or just something that I know he doesn’t listen to, and he’ll be like, “This shit is raw as hell!” So I think all the people I work with are just general music fans, and you know, we can all kind of appreciate each other. We all grew up listening to everything. So I think my music represents that. It’s kind of like rap drums, and Beach Boys harmony type things, and it’s a weird melding of the two, but it’s pretty agreeable, I think.

Do you find that you’re alone in that in the Chicago scene or are there other people making similar music?

There are other people, but they do it differently than me. Like they have the same genre-bending ideas going, I think like Nico Segal does a lot of stuff like that, formally Donnie Trumpet, Chance’s guy, and he’s always been one to bring me, for instance, into the studio, something like that. And then, Carter Lang, who produces a lot of SZA’s stuff, he produced a lot on my project too, added instrumentation, he does a lot of that genre-bending stuff. Like SZA’s pretty genre-bending, I think. Some of her beats are Fleetwood Mac-y or something, but what she’s doing is entirely different vocally. So I think I see eye-to-eye with a lot of people in Chicago that are around that same sort of path. But just the way I do it is a little bit different and a little bit more intentional.

So my last question is just, with the album about to drop, what are you most looking forward after that happens?

Just making more, as long as that happens. As weird as that sounds. Because making new music has just not been a priority for me, because it’s like I have to finish my dinner before I can eat dessert or whatever, and I have to really finish this stuff, you know what I’m saying? And I just haven’t really had time to just write songs. So ever since I finished the project I’ve just been writing and writing and writing and it just felt so good, ‘cause I hadn’t done it in forever. So I’m really excited to just get back in the studio, get back to working with artists I really love, and just continuing to see where it goes and find new things to combine in interesting ways.