The first thing I did after I pried my eyes open this morning was check Facebook, where someone had posted the status: “RIP Prince of Pivot.”
I knew at once who my friend was referring to, but I thought it had to be a mistake. I went to Twitter and scrolled down my timeline, and quickly saw that it was no blunder or error.
On Wednesday, February 8, 24-year-old West Side Chicago rapper-singer John Walt had passed away.
The first time I spoke to Walt was a year ago, in February 2015. I had been working on a project about Chicago rap and had already interviewed Saba, so I asked if I could interview him alongside his group, Pivot Gang.
I didn’t know much about Pivot; I sat in the basement of Saba’s grandparents house—which doubles as Pivot’s studio—where members Saba, Joseph Chilliams, Walt, Squeak and MFnMelo crowded around me, flaming each other, cracking jokes and telling me both their individual and group stories.
Everyone was bold, confident and comical, except for Walt, who was a bit quiet. I prodded him to talk to me, and when he finally opened up, he was equally hilarious. Both him and Saba told me the story of how they figured out they were related, because—absurdly enough—they went to school with each other, lived down the street from each other, had known each other their whole lives and didn’t know they were cousins. As Saba and Walt told the story, the whole room roared in response to Walt’s reaction, “I was astonished.”
After that interview, Walt became the homie, always making sure to say hello and ask how I had been. The first time I saw him perform was at Cole’s in Logan Square, where he sang one of my favorite songs, “Pineapple Wildwood.” The last time I saw him perform was at Pivot Gang’s sold out show at Lincoln Hall in January, where the whole squad—which they jokingly refer to as the West Side boy band—was glowing up. He asked me if I was "turnt yet," and I told him I was sober, cornily adding that I was high off the fuckin show.
It was an amazing night for Pivot, and for Chicago rap.
Just like Saba and Pivot Gang, Walt has been a staple of Chicago’s rap scene for several years now. In 2013—when he was still going by the moniker John Walt—Pivot Gang released its debut project Jimmy, featuring Melo, Saba, Walt, Joseph, Sway $waLa, KevoB and Frsh Waters. That same month, Walt, Saba and Melo traveled to Los Angeles to create a video for one of the project’s hotter cuts “Take 1,” with palm trees, sand and girls in bikinis acting as their backdrop—a far cry from October in Chicago.
In December 2013, Walt released Get Happy 2.0, a colossal 18-track mixtape that included guest verses from some of Chicago’s now-most prominent artists, including Saba, Smoko Ono, Noname and Mick Jenkins. The tape is also home to Walt’s infamous “Kemo Walk,” a bouncy, hypnotizing, synth-infused track that appeared to be one of his first deep dives into vocal manipulation, and into the R&B sensation we later knew him as: dinnerwithjohn.
While on Get Happy 2.0, Walt was largely rapping, dinnerwithjohn expressed a different side of his artistry; indeed, in the last year, he fully transitioned into dinnerwithjohn. Though both a rapper and singer in his own right, he was Pivot’s crooner; the last few songs he released were further explorations of melody and alt-R&B. On his most recent song “Make It Save,” his Auto-Tuned voice skates smoothly over the reverberating bass as he sings about stacking up his money. He filled a missing void in the group—no one in Pivot embraced R&B like dinnerwithjohn.
In the early morning of February 8, he tweeted, “put your money where your art is.” Of everyone in the community, Walt and his Pivot brethren lived that message to the fullest—especially in 2017, when the entire crew has been truly flourishing.
R.I.P. John Walt. The West Side lost a real one.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram