By Justin Cabrera
The advent of the internet changed the hip hop scene forever. Back in what many call the “Golden Age” of hip hop, aspiring artists had to physically mail their mixtapes to record labels, and to even be considered they’d have to have multiple connections within the industry. Obviously today those connections still matter, but with the rise of independent music publishing and streaming platforms such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp, it is easier than ever to get your music out there. Underground Chicago hip hop duo, The Palmer Squares (@PalmerSquares), used the internet to kickstart their ascent to cult favorites, releasing project after project and gaining a dedicated fanbase. I sat down with them before their sound check in the green room of 1st Ward at Chop Shop, and asked them about their formation, their influences, and the Chicago hip hop scene.
(Interview edited for clarity and brevity)
PlaylistHQ: How did the Palmer Squares project begin? How’d you meet, how’d you get your name, etc.
Terminal Knowledge: We were always friends, and we always wanted to make words rhyme. But we didn’t think that we were supposed to, you know…as white suburban kids.
Acumental: We were always rap fans for a long time, and I hit a point of listening you know? Listening as a student of fucking rap music. I got my own ideas you know?
PHQ: So you wanted to participate?
AC: Yeah! But it didn’t feel natural I guess. We didn’t grow up with it.
TK: So we started with goofy shit. Almost like parody, like Weird Al-y type stuff.
AC: And Weird Al is white.
PHQ: Very white.
TK: [laughs] And then the first stuff that we started to write that wasn’t a joke, I look back on it and laugh. Yeah that stuff we didn’t share really. We were like closeted rappers.
PHQ: So you would record it and just keep it?
TK: Yeah we’d just show it to some of my friends.
AC: In a very self-deprecating way. Like “oh it’s just something stupid that I whipped together.” Sometimes we’d just undercut ourselves. Like, we’d know our stuff was getting better and be like “oh, we’re just goofin.” And then at some point we made the transition and we were like “I think we’re on to something different. The sound is growing.”
TK: It was putting our stuff on YouTube, and receiving feedback from all over the country and the world. Surprisingly for YouTube, most of the feedback wasn’t things like “go kill yourself.” [laughs] That was the first thing that gave us the idea of “Hey, maybe we don’t suck.”
PHQ: So YouTube comments actually gave you confidence. Because they’re usually, you know, so fucking horrible.
TK: They started saying, and they keep saying, keep doing what you’re doing. We got encouragement from YouTube and the internet.
AC: It actually took lots of mini-steps of encouragement, and I’m actually gonna tie this into some personal stuff. My dad called me last night, at like 11 o’clock. Just to talk. And my dad and I, we’re not super close, but we’re friendly. I’d seen him recently for Father’s Day, and he basically called to tell me he thought I was on the right track. Which is weird, because I’m almost thirty and [my dad is] divorced. People have been going out of their way to tell us that we’re on to something. My boss at work asked me how I was able to do all this. And my coworker told me he was inspired by the project. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but there have been all these signals of people acknowledging that we’re going in the right direction. And now we know it’s not just a goof. It’s great to have people come up and say “Hey, that’s a really good idea” or “Hey man, I really like this song.” That’s originally why we were “closeted” or insecure of our work. I’d rather have feedback, because without anything, all I have is my own idea of the music. And I’ll just be like “No, this is stupid.”
Last year was a good year for us. We had an album come out and we recorded more than we ever have. We’re trying to follow a formula and make sure we have music to put out, and we just did that with NaPalm. We haven’t played for like a year in Chicago so we wanted to put all of our eggs in one basket for a big summer show. I think we did it right. We’ve gone over the hump of our insecurities. We know we’re onto something. We notice our fans and how supportive they are. Even if we wanted to quit rapping tomorrow I don’t wanna let my fans down.
TK: At this point, the fans are why I do it.
AC: Business is a big part of it too. We’re still learning. We have a lot to learn. Music is just a percentage of the whole musician thing. We gotta learn it by just diving in head first.
PHQ: Especially with hip hop. A huge part of it is image.
TK: Especially for us, since we picked our gimmick as being “uncool.” It’s a big part of it, so it’s a hurdle.
PHQ: From In Context on the song “Knock ‘Em Down” you mention MF DOOM as an inspiration. What are some other rappers or musicians that inspire you guys? And which ones are your favorites?
TK: To the first question, MF DOOM was a reason I started doing less parody shit. He showed me that I could do what I do being a white kid from the suburbs. My main thing from that was, if every rapper I’d ever seen was autobiographical, and they talk about their struggles in the streets and that stuff, I don’t have that. He was the first one who showed me it doesn’t have to be all autobiographical, because he’s playing a character. He’s rhyming violent mob with Silent Bob.
AC: It was original and unique, it was on another level with the lyrical gymnastics.
TK: And like us, [MF DOOM] is not really the poster child of cool. He’s got the big belly, and the mask. But other than that, Talid Kweli, The Roots, Little Brother was the first duo I ever got into. Also Method Man and Redman, Canibus…
AC: But that’s like the old OG stuff, listening to Pete Rock and all that. And now music is changing and it’s hard to keep up. Fans are like “Hey, did you listen to that?”, I’m vaguely familiar with tons of artists. And I’ve been trying to stay on top of album releases, like I just got into J. Cole. Now I got into him and I get it now. I’m trying to catch up with the new stuff because my collection isn’t vast like it used to be. I get nostalgic, and listen to old Roots albums or Beastie Boys, because I love that stuff.
PHQ: You two are known for your complex rhyme schemes. How do you sit down and write something like that?
AC: It takes time. It’s rare that I sit down and just write something from beginning to end. It doesn’t just flow out of my fingers. Sometimes you hit those strides and it feels great. But for the most part it starts with little notes. Seth [Terminal Knowledge] mentioned the violent mob Silent Bob thing. You think of that while watching a movie or something. I hear a word and get an idea or angle for a song.
TK: We both write in a Word document. I got free time, I open up the text file while I got a few hours to watch TV with the beat playing on loop.
AC: Yeah that might be a rhyme session for me. If it’s a movie then for an hour and forty-eight minutes I’m gonna try and write rhymes while I’m trying to watch this movie. So it’s a pretty casual approach.
TK: A show might say a word or a phrase I’ve never put in a rhyme before.
AC: For example, I read something that described a character as rarely seen and rightly feared. And I was like, that’s fucking awesome, and they didn’t rhyme it but I like the alliteration. So I turned that into “Rarely seen and rightly feared / My parents think I’m kind of weird / The Square routine I pioneer”, like you just hear something and you want to just bite the littlest piece and write your verse around that.
TK: Like I said, “Body parts in a glass jar upon the mantelpiece”, because fuckin Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood goes [Daniel Day Lewis voice] “GLASS JAR ON THE MANTELPIECE!”
AC: That’s funny because we were known for movie references too. And I’ve heard that song a million times but I didn’t even know that’s where that came from. [laughs] You never know where it’s coming from. Growing up on music, finding something out like that later was really cool. Like, a rap song might sample Scarface or something, and then when I see Scarface for the first time I get it. We like to bury gems like that in the verses, so hopefully there are still some gems to be mined.
PHQ: How’s the underground Chicago hip hop scene?
TK: I don’t really feel like part of any particular scene. I live in Chicago so I feel like I’m there, but I don’t think of it as MY thing.
AC: We can be shut-ins, or socially awkward or whatever. We’re not big networkers.
TK: If we do shows with big intros we do the show and then stand in a corner.
AC: So there’s a whole underground scene that we definitely don’t participate in. We’ve done some open mics and stuff. We’re at this point because we have been building and we’ve been doing that. We’ve played shows to nobody, but at this point we’re trying to establish ourselves as a headlining act.
TK: Back to YouTube, that was our first launching pad. That was before social media was really a thing, and I feel like we kind of utilized that internet outlet before other people. That’s why we never really built ourselves into the Chicago scene, because we established ourselves on the internet. That’s why a lot of people who are seeing us tonight are migrating to Chicago for the show from other states.
AC: We’re going to see a lot of familiar faces tonight. We do have a dedicated support group in Chicago.
TK: It wasn’t so much a choice for us to avoid networking face to face, it’s just how shit happened. Where we saw a little thing going on YouTube, so we got into that.
PHQ: Like you have nothing against the Chicago scene, but you found your niche on the internet and YouTube?
AC: You have to cut your teeth somewhere, and there is a great Chicago scene. Whether or not we’re a part of that, I don’t want to be the one who dictates that. I want our music to speak for itself. We’ve played plenty of shows in Chicago with artists who don’t sound similar to us. And there’s never been any bad blood or beef. But we’re also not super bumping elbows with everybody.
TK: As much as those guys are way bigger than us in the scene, we had five times the hit on YouTube.
AC: We’re lucky to have that.
TK: That’s part of why we never built ourselves into the scene, because we had that online scene.
AC: Lots of artists are one or the other. They could have no online presence but could be underground freestyle masters in the community. And then there are some people who are Vine celebrities or whatever, and that’s all they do, but they’ve never rocked a mic. I hope we’re somewhere in the middle where we can do shows, we can tour, we can do it live, we can deliver our shit, but also you can find fun videos of us online.
PHQ: I think people appreciate that balance, because you have that authenticity of being part of a scene, but you can also use the internet to reach people and have them listen to your music.
TK: We grew up in the suburbs. White dudes who never had a “struggle”. A lot of rappers from Chicago do have that. I don’t want to raise any trouble by being that suburban kid who yells “Chi-Town!”. I didn’t go through that trouble in Chi-Town. City pride, I’ve always found that weird too.
PHQ: [to Acumental] Do you agree?
AC: [To Terminal Knowledge] Yeah, but like, you’re a Bulls fan. And we suck! So there’s something to be said about where you’re from. Our name is the Palmer Squares because we grew up there. There’s something about repping where you’re at, and I don’t know why, but that is important. And I look forward to the day where we live somewhere else for a year and try out another scene. I’m not so attached to my hometown that we have to stay there forever but I get it I guess.
TK: I don’t think it’s better than anywhere else though.
PHQ: So you’re saying you want that more universal appeal, beyond Chicago.
AC: There’s layers to this shit. Most musicians, unfortunately, don’t have fans. And the rest make it to these little tiers. Wherever we’re at, I look up to the tier of people like Danny Brown, or George Watsky, who aren’t the biggest rappers, but they’re established and respected. Beyond that, there are the A-listers like Drake and Kanye, and we don’t need to be anywhere near their level to be successful. If this is as far as we go, it’s still way farther than we ever expected to make it a decade ago. Even if we keep going, hopefully we’re a cool underground word of mouth act. If we’re not some huge thing, we didn’t do nothing. We contributed something to the scene. We’re putting out albums; we’re bringing our ideas to life. We respect anybody who can do that because it’s not easy to fit that stuff into your non-musician schedule. Like after work, you’re gonna go film a video and everybody else might just shit all over it, but you know, you gotta make those leaps. Hopefully in the future people will look back and say we have good tracks, that might be as far as we make it, or much more. But we’ll keep at it for a while.
PHQ: One more question. I saw that after you guys released NaPalm, you guys were super popular on Bandcamp. Was working on NaPalm different than your other projects? And what’re your plans for the future?
TK: NaPalm was different. It was like a five-year anniversary celebration of Spooky Language. Spooky Language was different than all of our other projects, it was the first time we recorded in a studio. It was a commercial voice over studio, not a music studio. And it was a favor of a guy Brandon knew. We did it in two days, two eight hour sessions. We had all the songs written, all mapped out, we went in knowing what we wanted to do in each song. We did each song in like 2 hours. It was super quick and precise like that. We’ve never done it like that after that. This time, we set a deadline, like Spooky Language, and we know what these are going to sound like before we go in.
AC: We don’t usually work this quick but this is just one of many homages to Spooky Language. It was in our spare time in the spring, February, March, and April. We had one song drafted before we went out on tour. But we knew we wanted the album out in time for summer.