Mykele Deville isn’t letting sub-Arctic temperatures cool his ambitions. The West Side Chicago rapper calls me just a week after Illinois’ governor issued a disaster declaration to combat the frigid air, and he has been diligently selling tickets for his upcoming show both online and face-to-face. Though his preferred distribution method reveals his roots in DIY communities, the twenty-nine-year-old rapper is determined to sell out Lincoln Hall next month to commemorate the release of his new project Maintain via local label No Trend Records. The project radiates warmth, pairing Deville’s evocative rhymes with loose soulful production, and it’s the most complete statement yet from the veteran of Chicago’s independent arts scene.
Deville first started writing while growing up in Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. He was initially attracted to fiction, writing short stories and dreaming of novels, but Deville says focusing on prose “made [him] into a recluse.” He discovered a talent for acting toward the end of high school, and it earned him acceptance into Gallery 37, a Chicago Public School program “like Hogwarts for the arts,” as Deville describes it. He attended University of Illinois at Chicago and graduated with a BFA in theater, but grew disheartened with acting as a career. “I was growing restless sitting in on someone else’s vision of what I should be: the approachable black guy in the Best Buy commercial,” he admits.
After firing his agent, Deville found solace in Chicago’s DIY music scene. “There was a loyalty to these bands that I didn’t get in theater. In theater, sometimes you’re performing for old rich subscriber bases,” says Deville. “Going out in the punk scene, you see people coming out in the snow to see their favorite bands that nobody knows of.” In the summer of 2015, Deville helped found The Dojo, a DIY venue that functioned for the ensuing eighteen months in the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen. The connections he made there formed a “built-in fan base,” once he decided to take the stage himself as a rapper and poet. Deville self-released a series of mixtapes, including 2016’s Super Predator and 2017’s Peace, Fam. He also formed the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective with producer Jeffrey Michael Austin and poet McKenzie Chinn, releasing an album in 2017 and taking their performances from house shows to Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.
Deville takes aim at Chicago’s self-appointed gatekeepers on “Free Soul,” one of Maintain’s singles. Though the beat by UK producer Elements buzzes with upbeat saxophone like a vintage Native Tongues track, Deville implores “fuck your clubhouse clout” as a frequent refrain. “Chicago has such a rich history of support. No matter what, there is room for all of us and all of our individualized voices—but there are those people out there, in the industry or outside the industry, who are into creating hives, clubhouses, groupthink,” he explains. “I just got really fed up with that!”
Maintain consolidates Deville’s years of navigating Chicago’s creative communities into a cohesive whole. “Free Soul” opens with a communal “Chi-town’s got the funk” chant, and “Type Love” channels the tenderness of Deville’s fellow Gallery 37 alum Jamila Woods. The music is lightweight like a summer breeze, even under heavy subject matter, like romantic disillusionment on “Type Love” or the pervasive threat of police brutality on “Kalief.” Maintain is also brief at just seven songs. “You can be concise enough with the tracks that you have, and make each of them feel like different universes or different stories with their own arcs,” he explains. The artist also planned the short tracklist as a boon for streaming fans’ short attention spans, preferring the quick runtimes of G.O.O.D. Music’s seven-track 2018 releases over the sprawl of hip-hop monoliths like Drake’s Scorpion or Migos’ Culture II.
“Chicago has such a rich history of support. No matter what, there is room for all of our individualized voices—but there are those people out there who are into creating hives, clubhouses, groupthink. I just got really fed up with that!”
The production on Maintain stays true to a specific vision of ’90s boom bap, emulating it without slipping into pastiche. “I am figuring out how to modernize that, where I can speak over a beat and be articulate and not be drowned out by heavy bass,” Deville says. “The character of the song can’t outshine what is said over it.” Deville works primarily with homegrown beatmakers; the lone exception was Elements, who reached out to Deville across the Atlantic with a beat pack after getting to know the MC’s past projects. Rapper/producer Montana Macks supplies the chopped-up guitar arpeggios on “Type Love,” and musician Tony Piazza pairs jazzy piano with boom bap drums on the multi-part “Loosies + A Poem For Us.” The remaining three tracks were all products of rapper/producer Malci. “When I’m looking for a beat, I definitely go through that Rolodex in my head of people who played my basement,” Deville says.
Deville’s songwriting showcases a refined sense of storytelling. He cites the positive pro-black messages of neo-soul artists like Erykah Badu and Common, artists he grew up hearing around the house thanks to his mother, for inspiring the motivational themes on his album. Deville also emulated his forebears’ ability to pare down their lyrics to the core of an idea in contrast to his early mixtapes, where he wanted to show off his skills via multiple verses and hooks per song.
“You’re Enough” is a prime example of Deville’s strong songwriting; on the track, he nimbly recalls his earliest daydreams: “Chasing fickle inspiration / can a brother like me from where I’m from make this my occupation / bottling lightning.” But the wordy verses only serve to emphasize the chorus and encourage contentment with oneself in the present tense. On the hook, Deville repeats the title phrase like a mantra amongst other affirmations aimed at black people in need, like “You’re enough, know it’s rough / but you must learn to trust / that’s a fact, just adjust.” Deville calls “You’re Enough” his attempt at “positive brainwash.” “We have so many songs based in materialism and constantly trying to sell you something,” he points out. “That song is my attempt at, ‘Whoever is in the audience that needs this right now, I’m gonna say it about sixteen times: You are enough and there is enough.’”
After Maintain drops, Deville intends to spread his messages even further. He has prepared all the parts of an album cycle that he missed for his early mixtapes: singles, music videos, a headlining album release show. Beyond that, he hopes Maintain is the project to push him into the national spotlight, allowing him to tour the world while supporting himself with his music. “This is the first time I’ve written a record where things are good in my life,” he tells me. “This record is a rumination on being able to maintain the peace you’ve fought for.” FL