Rap, at its core, is all about mythmaking. As artists, rappers are almost obsessed with the idea of writing their own life stories in real time. The reasons for this are myriad, but obvious: In a nation that tries to overwrite your life’s story — which could be cut short at any given moment — you have to control the narrative from the jump. If you don’t, you’re liable to be remembered as just another “thug,” as “no angel,” or as a statistic — that is, if you’re remembered at all.
The members of Chicago’s Pivot Gang understand this all too well. Only two years ago, the pioneering six-man band made up of brothers and childhood friends from all over the Windy City suffered the devastating loss of member Walter Long Jr. — better known as John Walt — who was stabbed in a fight in February of 2017. The harrowing realities of life in the Second City has always been a fixture of the group’s music, but losing one of their integral members shook them to their core.
Now, they hold an annual John Walt Day concert in their hometown to honor his memory. This year, John Walt Day was actually two consecutive days capping Red Bull Music Festival Chicago, held at the popular concert venue Metro in Wrigleyville. It was an opportunity for the band to tell their own story — one that may not have storybook beginning, but already shows all the hallmarks of a legend in the making.
Pivot Gang was formed around 2012 by members John Walt, his cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams, high school friend MFnMelo, and Frsh Waters. The group dropped a mixtape, #Jimmy, in 2013 — so-named for the then-incarcerated Frsh, who said in a phone interview that he never felt like he was being left out because “I felt like I was there because they held me down… It’s the fam, so it just like it was an extension of the same love I already been getting.” The crew added producer DaeDaePivot and DJ SqueakPivot and the cipher was complete.
But the loss of John Walt threw the crew into a tailspin from which they’ve only just begun to recover. In 2018, Saba released the tangled, introspective Care For Me, which picked through the emotional wreckage on tracks like “Prom/King.” Then, in April of this year, the group released their first studio album, You Can’t Sit With Us, bringing them back together as a unit for the first time since Walt’s death. The vibe on that album was considerably different from Care For Me, less moody introspection and more like a group hang, the members swapping jokes and stories, entertaining each other and themselves. It feels like healing, even if it doesn’t necessarily touch on the raw nerve itself.
“The timing was right,” MFnMelo explains of the group’s decision to reconnect and reestablish their brotherhood. “Everybody had time. We were all working individually. The timing of it really synced up properly.” Frsh piggybacks on the idea that they tried to impress each other with their rhymes, saying, “We all got that flair about us… It’s like that effect where everybody just go as hard as they can. We’re going to see what come out of that. Nine times out of ten, you get You Can’t Sit With Us.” The chemistry paid off: You Can’t Sit With Us received positive reviews, including Uproxx’s own RX designation signifying the most important projects of the year, as well as placement on our Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2019 list.
One of the album’s standout tracks was the lead single, “Studio Ground Rules,” which is exactly what the title suggests: A list of dos and don’ts for participating in a recording session with Pivot Gang. When I ask if they have any specific stories that inspired the track, Melo demurs, but helpfully elaborates on the sort of situation that ruins the vibe: “When you come to the studio, you invite another artist or your homie or something and they obviously want to bring another homie along just because. ‘Hey, I’m going to the studio. Let’s all go to the studio.’ Then it’s just six other people in the studio that’s there to not do anything at all but take up space.”
Frsh is more forthcoming, sheepishly admitting that Melo’s mostly talking about him. “I’m usually the one that likes bringing people by,” he laughs. “Cause I’m the social butterfly of our group. I remember it was this one instance. Where Dae Dae was trying to cook and somebody I brought through, they was cool, but they just kind of did too much during that session. They just kept on thinking that they could play keys, but they really didn’t know how to play. They just was over there fiddle-faddling with them… We ain’t really saying nothing cause it’s like, you kind of dig your own grave with us type sh*t. You know you can’t play that sh*t. You see me over here cooking. You know what we on so he just kind of barred himself. That’s one way you can get barred. You stopping the process. You know what you’re here for, you know what you’re good at. Display that, do that. Be good at what you’re good at. Test that other sh*t out on your own time.”
The John Walt Day concerts (I attended both) were an extension of that feel-good, hangout vibe, played out onstage for two appreciative, exuberant audiences. Not only did the group showcase the fan favorites from the album like “Studio Ground Rules” and “Bad Boys,” but each member also received a solo segment with just themselves and Squeak manning the turntables. It highlighted the chemistry and individuality that makes the crew work. Joseph Chilliams performed more upbeat, old-school (think 1980s) party songs as he gyrated and waved his arms, throwing in Lil Uzi Vert-esque shoulder shimmies that made the crowd go crazy.
Meanwhile, Melo lived up to his name, with a measured, slow-paced flow and solid stage presence that provided him a gravity despite his stoic energy. Saba’s solo portions felt like watching an electrifying political leader give an impassioned speech, a fitting parallel to Chicago’s history of activism. And Frsh, low-key my favorite of the night(s), was a fiery whirlwind of battle-ready bars who wouldn’t have been out of place in a backpack rap show 20 years ago, spitting with fury, precision, and almost impossible breath control. DaeDae had the most important role, though; he was the storyteller, the narrator, the one who tied everything together.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the John Walt Day concerts, besides the parade of guests from the album which included Femdot, Jean Deaux, Kari Faux, and Mick Jenkins, was the group’s commitment to the theme. With a stage setup taken right from their album cover right down to the pool table — where Joseph spent most of the night perched — and a hilarious, pseudo-choreographed two-step routine in their black-and-white suits, the group clearly spent more time than the average rap crew designing their set. But I’ve never seen any rap act use a framing device like the one they did. Between each five-minute performance portion, DaeDae returned to the stage with a massive storybook, sitting and “reading” the tale of the group’s rise. It was a masterful way to take control of that narrative, ensuring that they’d determine how the group would be remembered themselves, in real time.
That theme was deliberate. When I asked what they make of the seeming trend of rap groups, from ASAP Mob with Yams Day to Beast Coast with Steez Day, Melo explained, “It’s not up to the world to remember them for what they were to this group. They only going to like what’s going on now. They going to pay their respects, but they only going to really like what’s going on right now. So it’s up to us to keep that alive and to keep them alive because without them, none of this would be alive.”
Incidentally, that “everyone” who came out also included both of Saba and Joseph’s grandmothers Deborah and Karen, who I met by accident at different points on the first night. Both spoke highly of the boys, with Deborah telling me how proud she was, “Because I know where they came from. I’ve seen them grow. They got into this very young and they went after their dreams… I’m sure John would be very proud to see how many people showed up in his honor.” Karen echoed the sentiment: “There’s a legacy,” she said, that the members of Pivot Gang are carrying forward and living up to every day.
Legends aren’t born, they’re made. Oftentimes, they’re created after the fact, in the recollections of those who knew them and then, by those who’ve heard those stories and built on them. That may be why it’s so important to Pivot Gang that they tell John Walt’s story now, to build his legend and his legacy — which includes the John Walt Foundation run by his mother — while they still have the ability to touch and affect the narrative. When I ask Melo whether he feels like Pivot Gang has the potential to become legendary, he didn’t equivocate.
“I feel legendary,” he said. “I can’t speak for all six of us, but I imagine that everybody feels that we’re on the path of doing very legendary things… We’re legendary just because there’s been so many different ways of the Chicago movement and I feel like we’ve been at the foundation of it for a very long time and we are now getting the light on a way broader scale. Even if we were to stop today, I feel like we’ve done some legendary feats already but this is clearly only the beginning. So, it’s only right that we do legendary things from here on out.”