Meet Supa Bwe, the Chicago MC Who Hears Bells in His HeadBy Donna-Claire Chesman | Posted December 6, 2017
There has been plenty of conversation about hip-hop going punk in sound, but what does it mean to be punk in form? 28-year-old Chicago mainstay Supa Bwe both asks and answers this question in several genre-breaking breaths on his newly-released album, Finally Dead.
Born Frederick S. Burton, Supa Bwe draws as much inspiration from Prince as he does Stevie Nicks. Somewhere between his father’s love of hip-hop and his mother’s attachment to folk and goth rock, Supa found his own voice—be it screaming or vibrato. For him, music is about tapping into a universal energy, and his vast musical upbringing has given him the ability to tap in and rebel against the confines of genre.
With such a swath of influences, Supa describes the essential aspect of his creative process as listening for the “bell” in his head. “When you’re listening to a beat, there’s kind of like this ringing, like a bell,” he explains to me over the phone. “Is that bell screaming, is that bell singing, is that bell rapping? As long as I can actively translate that, the only real work is putting lyrics to it.”
Hearing the bell is no easy task. Between losing his studio and being overcome with anxiety, Supa Bwe’s ability to create was temporarily stunted. In that way, Finally Dead is an ironic title, considering the album is all aspects of Supa’s creative energy come to life. His rebirth comes on the back of immense “self-work,” as he describes, and the graciousness of Chicago legend Twista, who let Supa work out of his studio for eight months free of charge.
As it stands, Supa Bwe’s current Twitter name is “Freddy’s Got Magic.” Between his admittedly “goat-ish” vibrato (“Thot Goddess”) and the visceral screaming (“I Hate Being Alive”) that frames the album, Freddy’s “magic” is summoned by his willingness to pursue the bell even when boundaries between genres don’t seem permeable.
Late last month, Supa Bwe and I spoke at length about his early musical influences, his multi-faceted creative process, the danger of isolation, the benefits of self-work, hearing the “bell,” and his newest album Finally Dead.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get your start in music? And how did you break into the Chicago scene?
I got started pretty early in life. Everyone in my family raps as far as on my father’s side. I didn’t start recording until 2012 and really didn’t take it seriously until about 2014. My parents were pretty helpful, they got me a microphone pretty early on. I downloaded FL Studio and taught myself off YouTube tutorials as far as how to [produce].
As far as the Chicago scene, I’ve always been a resident, a native. I already knew a lot of people who were involved, and eventually, I caught on. People were checking out the SoundCloud, checking out the videos. And then the buzz got too big for itself [Laughs].
What music did your parents play in the house?
My dad used to like a lot of Prince, Eazy-E, hip-hop in general. My mom’s from England so she’s into a lot of goth rock like Depeche Mode, and Fleetwood Mac, folk music and such. I had a really weird, very eclectic upbringing when it came to music. Because I had so many different genres around me at all times, it let me appreciate music for what it is, which is vibes. It helped me understand what I appreciate about all different types of music, where I can say ‘I like this song because of 808s’ or ‘I like this song because of her vibrato,’ you know? I don’t have to only appreciate one type of music.
Were you ever overwhelmed by the vast number of influences?
I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming, but it can toxify creativity at a point. Like folk music and vibrato, like hearing Stevie Nicks’ voice is soothing to me. For someone who’s never heard that, [it] might come off as goat-ish. People might not understand what I’m going for, so you could be shooting yourself in the foot creatively. But for the most part, it’s an advantage—like anything, it has its downsides.
When did it become clear to you that you’re "an artist"?
Me, it became clear in 2012-2013. I quit my job, I quit school and just dedicated my life to music. I was interning at a studio and bought their B-room with the money I saved up. I went full force. My parents started to accept it once the results came in 2014-2015. It was always something I was trying to do, trying to make happen, but it hasn’t come together until recently.
For Finally Dead, describe the process you employed to refine your sound.
The difference is now I have a home studio. I was able to spend a lot of my advance money on new equipment. My old equipment really deteriorated and that crippled my ability to create. I had to go to other studios and when you’re not in your comfort zone, it’s hard to really express yourself properly. Once I was able to get my own space and get my life in order—because there was a lot going on with me personally offsetting my music as well—things just fell back into place and the music is taking its natural next steps.
Musically, you’re bridging punk energy with melodies and really strong raps. How do you balance all of these elements and remain in that comfort zone?
It’s more so trying to figure out, what did I hear the first time I heard [the beat]. When you’re listening to a beat, there’s kind of like this ringing, like a bell. Is that bell screaming, is that bell singing, is that bell rapping? As long as I can actively translate that, the only real work is putting lyrics to it. The process is really just listening and hearing what I hear on the inside. If I hear some screaming, then I need to approach the lyrics that way. If I hear some boom-bap rap, I need to approach it more structured. I gotta listen to the bell in my head.
How long did it take you to clearly hear “the bell”?
It’s definitely a process because there’s a lot of misses. For someone like me, I get distracted. This world is too much for me. I can’t even look at a text message without going on Twitter first. Since I’m in my house now, it’s easier for me to stay on task. It’s like getting your homework done, you know? I’m the type of person, I can’t do my homework at the park because I’m gonna go play. As long as I’m in the studio, in my home, then it’s easy to maintain that bell.
Do you ever find yourself over-isolated?
I think that’s my biggest problem as far as my career goes. I really just don’t feel comfortable being outside and being in business situations in general. People force shit on you everywhere you go and it’s just beyond uncomfortable. I kind of hurts my reputation, because it makes me seem standoffish, so when I finally do see those people we don’t have that connection. We see each other on Twitter, but it’s not the same as really seeing each other. It’s like being in high school and being that kid who doesn't go to parties. That doesn’t mean you’re not cool, but it is a lot harder to make those connections.
Is the music how you connect?
Yeah, it’s really my only way at the moment to really put myself out there. I see the music as damn near like a brochure. Here’s who I am as a person, do you fuck with me or not? I almost don’t want to meet people until they read that brochure, so I don’t have to go through that process of ‘Oh, you’re weird.’ I don’t surround myself with a bubble of people who are likeminded. But I do surround myself with people who’ve walked a similar path, or feel the way I feel about things, who just are in touch with the way they feel in general.
Your writing across the album is so visceral—even the title. How do you tap into that space?
That’s the double-edged sword of isolation. On one side it cripples outside relationships, but on the other side, it gives me time to work on myself. I think that’s why the music is getting better and it’s showing because I’ve been by myself for like a year and a half now. It’s just me and my girlfriend, my manager and my two best friends, and no one else. I think my biggest issue in life is I need to figure out how to cope with my circumstances, and how to feel and navigate those feelings. It’s easier for me to do when I’m sitting in my house all day long thinking to myself and working on myself. I think self-work is important.
When you have connected with others—your feature on Taylor Bennett’s Restoration of an American Idol and vocals on Twista’s Crook County—the results have been acclaimed.
Those are my actual friends, so it’s not difficult at all. All my friends are musicians. When we connect, that’s what we’re doing anyway. I think it’s a lot harder to connect with musicians that you don’t spend a lot of time with. With Taylor, the few times I do pop outside, I’m probably at his house or chilling with Twista. It’s more like continuing a conversation when I do work with them. Let’s say I’m working with Saba, he’s one of my good friends but I don’t get to see him that often. So I get that ‘Oh man, I hope he doesn’t think I suck’ feeling in the pit of my stomach.
What is it like to work with Twista?
It used to be a very surreal feeling, like when you breathe too fast and shit gets bright. [Laughs] It doesn’t really cross my mind like it used to. Before it was like, ‘Damn! This is insane, I’m working with someone that I looked up to since I was a child.’ Now it’s like, ‘Cool, I’m working with this n***a, let’s put this work in, let’s get this started.’ The fear is gone. I used to be really anxious around Twista because damn, I’ve been listening to him since I was eight! If he thinks I’m trash at rapping, then I’m gonna have to shoot myself or something.
Twista has been very complimentary of your work, please don't shoot yourself.
That’s my uncle. He really helped me get through a lot of things. For a while, I was super fucking down. I didn’t have a studio, my band had just broken up. I didn’t have anywhere to record. Twista let me come over to his studio for eight months, didn’t charge me a dime or nothing, just let me come in there and work and do what I needed to do. It’s crazy that one of your childhood heroes is the person that helped get you out of a very serious hole in your life. Thinking about it right now, I’ve never said this out loud that much, so it hit me really hard… it’s a blessing. I’m coming into a lot of blessings right now in my life.
It sounds like the release of this album represents the start of a new chapter.
I used to feel really down and negative all the time from just the atmosphere and letting things get to me and not processing them the right way. I turned 28 this year and I’ve been seeing things a lot differently. Before, everything was a contest. I felt like I had to drop more projects, and do more and more and more, and I don’t feel as competitive as I did. I think that’s a good thing. I’m just working now. I’m working at my own pace, and there’s no one hitting my back and telling me to do more. I can just sit down and work.
Now that the album has been released, what do you hope will happen?
I want the project to put me in a position to where people see my project as a return of authenticity to hip-hop. I want people to pull the raw emotion and real life. I don’t wanna be like, ‘I want y’all to know my story, hear my struggles!’ It’s not about that. I just want people to appreciate the art. I don’t expect anything, I just want it to be appreciated.