Interview w/ Rahim Salaam
Rahim Salaam wears many hats. He’s known as Uncle, the Mayor of DIY, the Amateur, Rageing Salaam. He has been making music and doing the DIY thing in Chicago for nearly 20 years, and has hosted a weekly podcast called What About Chicago?! for the past three years. TSM editor Sasha sat down with Rahim in his bedroom cluttered with art at Hostel Earphoria, the hostel/venue that he helps run, to talk about his roots in hip hop, the evolution of DIY in Chicago and the ethics of amateurship.
🎩= this hat symbol represents Rahim’s booming, boisterous laugh. His laugh punctuated important parts of the interview, and without it, the interview wouldn’t be the same. 🎩!
Sasha: So, I know you have some sort of theater background and I’m wondering how that plays into your music and more generally the sort of “persona” that you inhabit in the DIY community. You have all these signatures and names…the hat, “Uncle,” “What About Chicago?!,” etc.
Rahim: I never was really super serious [about theater]. I did a few things in high school and the university…I used to be interested in reading people’s scripts and stuff [but] I never had a lot of time, being a young father. I certainly have stayed involved in the arts, but I never really had time to devote, especially, to something like theater. But I’m still alive, so I loved it. If anyone’s doing theater hit me up 🎩. I try to make my performances theater, but, nah, not really.
All this stuff, Sasha, is just me being me. I’m just having fun. When we say DIY or whatever–that’s sort of a general term–it’s a whole diverse group of people that do a whole lot of different things. Some do know each other, some don’t. Hopefully, I think when we put it under that [DIY] umbrella that means that it’s productive, it’s safe, it’s open, more so than, like, a genre. It’s more like, “Hey, yeah, these people are doing it because they love to do it, and it’s open to you, we want you to come.” It’s peace. Hopefully it’ll be fun. Bring your own bag 🎩.
S: And your own hat.
R: Even the hat stuff. I’ve been wearing hats since I was a little kid. I loved that shit. I always caught hell for it though because it’s, like, not what people do. It’s, like, unusual for some reason. I don’t know why. What I wear is very typical. It’s not very dapper, it’s not expensive, it’s all from the thrift store, it’s all old shit. It’s like, put on a shirt and a tie and a sport coat, and you’re good. And a hat. I just love hats. I don’t like baseball hats, I like these hats.
S: Does it have to do with an attachment to a certain time period?
R: Yeah I guess so. I do admire certain times of dress. I kind of don’t like to say… I mean, I think we’re doing a good job now 🎩 with fashion or whatever. I’ve been really conscious lately about bringing up nostalgia for old times. Because old times fucking sucked. Old times wasn’t shit. The new times is what’s going on. And the future times. A lot of the old was terrible, dude. A lot of mistakes were made. A lot of people were left out…I just saw a concert with this old rapper Rakim. Huge fan, man. Was like, instrumental. His words were on thousands and millions of different rappers’ other songs. Little hooks and samples, you know. Everyone loves Rakim. But, like, really listening to him at this show the other day…it’s still the same music. But it’s a different time. It’s very misogynist. It’s kind of violent. And I was kind of jamming, but…I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the message. There was a song about money and he had the crowd saying, “Make money money make money…” and I hate money, man. I mean I know it’s necessary, not to get all, like, super about it. Money’s going to be there. We don’t need to be chatting it and getting pumped up about it 🎩. We pumped up enough.
Yeah, the hat’s clearly an older style…My grandfather wore a hat. I was close to him. It’s just something I do. No science really behind it. I just like it.
S: Do you think you have different personas? How would you describe your persona?
R: Let me say this, it’s selfish what I do because it’s what I like. It’s not like I’m doing this as a favor to anybody 🎩. I do this because I really enjoy doing it. As far as a persona, all I can say about that is…I’m a persona of everybody that I’ve met. Knowing you [Sasha] has influenced me a lot, in just the little time I’ve known you. You’ve influenced me–hearing your music, seeing the things you do at WHPK. I’m constantly being influenced, so that changes the persona every day. The persona for us all is just a conglomeration of what people see of you kind of in a packaged way. Or in a short term way. So I guess what I would hope mine to be is an advocate for art of all sorts–a peaceful person who wants to project that onto others. And just a person that also supports accessibility to all sorts of endeavors and materials. And I just want to have fun too 🎩. I want to get drunk, I want to have fun, get high, all that stuff too 🎩. Hopefully everything in moderation.
S: I like that about your music. You straddle in a cool way being serious, having an ethic–you just articulated an ethics–and being goofy, having fun.
R: Yeah, but also it’s my ethics. Everybody’s got different ethics. It’s okay.
S: Have you always been making art? How did you come to these ethics, this art?
R: My dad was a musician. He played, like, alternative industrial music. So that was kind of a gateway to different genres of music. And that’s the thing, though. I always loved all music. Hip hop was around me the most, but, the way that it was done, I always thought when I first heard hip hop that it was everything, it was this great conglomeration of everything. Now it’s been pigeonholed: “This is real hiphop.” To me if you go to the history, it’s everything. The samples that were used, so many costumes, it was very theatrical [for] some people, the pioneers. Some of it was straight up, like, gangster, though: battles, dancing, breakdancing, graffiti, drawing… That’s everything, so I never understand anyone who claims to be hip hop, like dissing another genre or form of music. I think the essence of it, what makes it hip hop is bringing all these different things together and putting it out in some form or fashion.
Especially in Chicago DIY–and just any music sort of–establishment was very segregated, very genre-based, so much more so than now. And it still is, but I think we’re doing a lot better job of breaking that down. When you’re different, it’s hard. It wasn’t as open, and that’s why I like now. Everybody’s being really fun, keeping the door open, keeping the judgements down, letting the people grow.
S: How did you get into the DIY punk scene thing coming out of hip hop?
R: I just take them walks. For real. I take the walks, and I go in and I say “hi” to people. It’s as simple as that… Talk to the people, man. Say “hi”. Hang out. Go places. I guess when I was young, you go to different parts of town, I’d look up stuff… The Reader was a good thing, it’s different now–nah it’s still good. I try to bring some friends, [or] go by myself. I just love this shit so I be going. You meet people, you stumble around places, and there you are. Seeing what the people are doing. If you like art, I’m interested. I want to know what you’re doing. Hi 🎩. What’s the word? That’s the key–there’s no key.
S: How do you spend your days?
R: I’m working, slaving. I’m a slave. That’s why I’m called the amateur. That’s why I love all you devoted artists. I think I am a devoted artist, but I have another job. I work 40 hours a week with two jobs. And the other job I do because I don’t like money 🎩. The other job I do because I need money. Yeah, so I work, I have a day job. And usually right from there, I do something creative one way or another and go to sleep and do it all over again. Whether it’s trying to attend an event, or making some music, planning out some kind of project, visiting some friends, some artists who are just hanging out, maybe collaborating with people. That’s it, man. I like to go, like, people have photoshoots, and I’ll be like, “Can I come, just to chill? Maybe you need a hand carrying something…” And then you start to know how to do stuff and be useful with that stuff too, so that’s always cool. Band practices… I’ll go to your band practice at least once 🎩. Check it out.
S: Are you writing constantly?
R: I always think of stuff. I don’t write a lot on the run. I might write a sentence or something in my phone, and eight out of ten times I’ll look back on this sentences and be like, “What was I trying?” But usually the best way for me to process things is to dedicate at least a little timeframe to sit down, maybe fiddle with the guitar, think about words and music, all at once. Now if I’m with people in a collaboration thing, I think it’s just important to try to throw shit out to people back and forth as much as you can. Silence is cool too, because sometimes I know you have a thought and you need to finish it. 🎩
S: How do you deal with the fame thing? Like, is there a part of you that has desires to be great and famous?
R: I want to live forever. I want to be memorable. Definitely… I want to be memorable for good, like, peace, good things 🎩. I have children, I want them to remember me for the best of things, hopefully. Hopefully I shared stuff and was cool and was a benefit to be around. I think that’s the way that you live forever. Like, clearly we’re not going to physically live forever. I have great memories of people that live forever with me, and I think that’s what inspires me to want to do that. They had a great impact on me. If it wasn’t for that it would have been something else. I’m pleased with what’s going on now. 🎩