Lamon Manuel Looks To Try New Things On His New Project, ‘I’m Only Smiling Because I’m Trying To Sell You Something.

Introduce yourself.

My name is Lamon Manuel. I’m a rapper, FUTURE CULT LEADER of AMERICA member, mostly-retired teaching artist and Dawson’s Creek enthusiast from the Southside of Chicago. Woodlawn, to be exact.

When did you first start getting into making music?

I was a late bloomer when it came to taking my writings and actually making them into music. I think I recorded my first song in 2004 with Dove Rock and Itch13 but I started writing in ‘98. I was kind of private about it so I didn’t really develop the confidence to rap until I spent time in the poetry and open mic scene. I learned a lot about thinking my way through writing but I definitely didn’t learn how to rap there. That really happened in my time with Tomorrow Kings starting in 2008.

Somewhere early in all that I realized I was obsessive about music when I started making mixtapes and staying in on weekends to listen to WHPK and record songs onto tapes. So I guess there were tiers to building myself into being an artist.

Earlier this year you were compared to Mf Doom. They said, “he’s the emotionally distressed equivalent to MF DOOM.” What did you think about that?

Damn. That’s actually news to me. Being called any sort of equivalent to DOOM is a huge compliment. Who said that? That’s cool, and pretty interesting considering DOOM’s existence is partly the result of some serious emotional distress. He has a lot of songs that are kind of about everything. He doesn’t really section things off like, this is a song about love and this is a song about being a great rapper and this is a song about drinking too much and this is a song about family. It’s just all in there together. That feels pretty consistent with how we experience things. Everything’s so close together in the song to stress how connected it all is. I’ve been writing more things like that lately.

You’ve been very critical of the Chicago music scene. Why don’t you feel like you’re part of the scene?

There are a few of ways to answer that and I’ll do my best to do the most important one’s justice.

Me not feeling connected to the scene at times is mostly a result of my actions. I work, a lot, and I work on music, a lot. Don’t have much time to do other things. Social media plays a big part in how things are perceived and it can be just as helpful as it can be dangerous. Over time it’s become one of the main ways people keep up with me and that can be dangerous because words on a screen don’t exist with the same context and nuance as words in conversation. Someone reading my opinion online is likely to come away from it with a very different feeling than someone who’s had a conversation with me about the exact same things.

I write about social anxiety and mental health but I don’t know if people really get that these things affect how I spend my time. There are only so many hours in the day, so sometimes I miss things because I’m at home recharging from being social or managing my anxiety or even having a panic attack. As a result, instead of friends and people in the scene seeing me out at a show or their show, enjoying myself and smiling, they get my absence. It sucks but it really does have an impact how or if I’m even able to spend time with other people.

If we’re breaking rap into subgenres, which can also be equal parts helpful and divisive, I’m just not in the same space as what a lot of other folks in the city are doing right now. I think a lot of folks who don’t know more than ten years of Chicago rap history may find it hard to place myself and other artists like Jyroscope and AMS. and SKECH185 and Defcee in its lineage. It often feels like people struggle to understand that rap can be heavy and serious and still fun all at the same time unless they see it live and in its element.

Our scene has become heavily influenced by tastemakers. Their voices and how they use them can influence the difference between music being an expensive hobby and music becoming someone’s career. And I think there’s a lot of one-dimensional coverage here, which makes me disappointed. And that’s not all about me. I think a lot of artists feel like they’re on an island because they don’t see themselves being represented in what gets celebrated and talked about most.

I love Chicago. I’m proud to have been raised here but I know the world is bigger than just this one place. The internet made the whole world almost instantly accessible so why obsess over whether or not The Reader and other Chicago-specific publications want to cover me? They’re always welcome to but that decision isn’t mine. It’s theirs. I’m busy doing the work.

Another thing you tend to talk about is how there’s a fair distinction between rap and poetry and how we like to combine the two…

As far as rap and poetry go, they overlap but are definitely not the same. No one ever expects a poem to make them dance.

How big of an impact did Kevin Coval and YCA have on your life?

YCA had a huge impact on my life. Before I came across them I had zero ideas or plans for what I was doing other than spending hours and hours searching for new rap on the internet back in the Napster days and writing in my parents’ basement. I was on an island and they welcomed me into a place to put all that energy into being an active member of an arts community.

I had absolutely no interest in teaching but being around there I got to see what it looked like up close. I went from barely graduating high school to teaching poetry and performance and rap workshops, mostly in high schools, for more than ten years. My experiences at YCA took me from being completely apathetic about in the classroom education to much of my life is centered around finding ways to engage young people in the classroom.

Not every kid’s going to be a poet or rapper or writer of any kind but writing is something you can’t really avoid in life so having a personal understanding of how it works can be super helpful. And beyond that, the ultimate goal was to empower young people with critical thinking skills and the confidence to speak for themselves. That’s all-purpose. Those things can affect and potentially better every aspect of your life.

At a certain point, I did have to pull away from teaching and that community to focus more on myself and my own work. I don’t think I would’ve ever finished my album if I hadn’t.

Music to Feel Like Sh_t to recently celebrated its one year anniversary. Looking back on it, what song on that project meant the most to you?

The song about my dad, Willie Manuel, probably means the most or is the one I feel the heaviest whenever I listen to or perform it. Our relationship has probably influenced who I am more than any other single thing in my life. I’m really not a fan of making art about things I haven’t tried many times over to reconcile in real life but that was such a hard thing to do and I had so much I wanted to say so a song happened.

I guess most of my life was me trying to reconcile and fix that relationship but I was a kid, so how does a kid initiate that? It took me learning about his relationship with his father before I really understood how much we had in common, after that it wasn’t too hard to just let go of the anger and frustration I felt about it.

There’s also a brief moment on No Funerals where I mention my one-month-old niece dying but it’s the kind of thing that you only know if you’re really close to me or you read it in an interview but that line is still very, very heavy for me to hear or say.

After putting out Music to Feel Like Sh_t to, how much weight was lifted off of your shoulders?

So much weight, then I immediately replaced it with an even greater one by starting another album with no break in between. I set unbelievably high standards for myself and considering how publicly opinionated I am I had a lot to prove. Yes, it was my first solo project but I’m not the 19-year-old “prodigy” (other people’s words, not mine) that I was when folks first started seeing me around the city. When you take 15 years to finally put out a proper project you have to really show people what you’ve learned over that time. When I was 19 I could write but I couldn’t rap. I had to take the time to learn how to write the way I wanted to write in the context of rap and songwriting. Making a song worth listening to over and over again requires a lot more than just writing a good verse. It took time and work to learn how to execute that.

Me and SKECH185 often say hearing Cannibal Ox’s Cold Vein was like seeing Black men fly for the first time so after that, we both knew it was possible. Making a solo record that you’re extremely proud of feels like flying instead of just seeing someone else do it. Instead of just knowing it’s possible, now I actually know what it feels like. And I really like that feeling.

You’ve been talking about how you’re starting to work on your next project, “I’m only smiling because I’m trying to sell you something.” What can we expect differently on this project?

Theres more active acknowledgment and representation of the Black women in my life. Greater attention to detail and I feel more comfortable working my humor into things more seamlessly. I’m spending more time with family so they’re more present in my writing. More than anything, my life is in a different place than it was when I was making Music to Feel Like Sh_t to. Somehow it’s become very focused on selling things. Which seems pretty obvious if you’re in the music industry but to really think about that reality and what it looks like every day, what it looks like privately vs. publicly and all the effects it has on relationships is pretty interesting, I think. It feels pretty relatable for the times with so many people dreaming of turning their art into a job or attempting to monetize their work and existence via social media.

I’m trying a few things that I’ve never done before and other things I’ve done before but with more conviction. There’s more tension. The stakes are higher. There’s a song called Mickey Mod that started as an attempt at writing a country kind of thing and it felt super weird going into it but it’s become one of the songs that I have the most fun with and audiences enjoy most at live shows. I punch myself in the face, hard, like 150 times, sometimes to the point of bleeding, and even though I definitely can’t sing, I sort of sing about breaking my ex’s heart then her breaking my jaw then me killing her dog then her revenge fucking Mickey Mod and all these wild, fucked up things and somehow the audience and I come out of the experience together, smiling and grateful for it.

I like to be pretty literal when it comes to naming things, especially full projects, so the name leads you in with an idea of what you might hear. So even though it’s stressed smiling at times there’s definitely more smiling happening on this one.