There are few people on this planet that I find as genuinely interesting as I do Chaz Kangas. He’s one of those people that, as soon as they start talking, I find myself hanging off every single word that flows out of their mouth. He seems to have a story, anecdote, or piece of advice for every single situation imaginable and is one of the most kind-hearted and authentic people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting here in Minnesota.
Many of you likely know Chaz from his time as the host of ‘First Impressions with Chaz Kangas,’ a weekly show dedicated to supporting anything and everything in both the national and Twin Cities hip-hop scene. The show aired Sunday nights on Go 95.3 here in Minneapolis, and during its run, hit #1 in the ratings and landed Chaz two City Pages Readers Choice Best Radio Personality Finalist nominations.
After hosting over 200 unforgettable episodes in which he interviewed personalities like Arsenio Hall, Jesse Ventura, Tech N9ne, Open Mike Eagle, Chris Jericho, and countless more, the show came to a close with the unceremonious shuttering of Go 95.3, and its sister station Go 96.3, here in Minneapolis late last year.
Losing the station, along with all the personalities that called the Twin Cities airwaves home, was a huge blow for the local hip-hop scene. The loss of those two hours on Sunday nights that helped promote so many incredible artists in this scene was particularly tough, but anyone who knew Chaz was sure that it wouldn’t be long before he found something new to funnel all that creative energy into.
Fast forward to today, and we now understand exactly where that passion went: straight into Chaz’s first full-length record in over ten years, Small Hours.
While some people might only know Chaz as the spirited on-air host from Go 95.3, he also spent eleven years living in New York City attending college and making a name for himself as a hip-hop artist and ruthless freestyle battle-rapper. There’s a bunch of videos on YouTube of Chaz absolutely wiping the floor with aspiring MCs, as well as trading bars with someone named Donald Glover who has since… done some things you have probably seen.
The latest album, which is available everywhere as you are reading this, picks up right where Chaz left off in terms of lyrical prowess and intensity. I want to refrain from getting too far into the nitty-gritty details of the record because I sincerely hope everyone will simply go listen to it for themselves, but the content ranges from struggles with mental illnesses, isolation, loneliness, love, loss, happiness, sadness, or any other emotions one can feel during those times when we’re left to our own devices, all delivered with the textbook, laser-sharp precision one expects when Chaz is on the mic.
In preparation for the release of the album, I had the chance to once again chat with my friend Chaz about topics ranging from the actual contents of the album all the way to former movie star and sex symbol Mamie Van Doren. As always, it was incredibly insightful, and really peels back layers of the record that you might not even realize exist.
Read our conversation below, and give Small Hours a listen at your earliest convenience:
The new album is called “Small Hours” — is there any particular meaning behind that title?
Chaz: Yes! The whole project is a concept album, about those thoughts and internal conversations we have when we catch ourselves alone and awake in the very late/very early hours of the day. Whether the result of insomnia, work, distraction, creation, assistance – the late-night hours seem to really magnify a lot of our inner dialogue. For some people it manifests as recapping every moment of their day, for others it becomes a theater of random memories. Coping with these late-night anxieties felt like a strong unifying thread for covering a bunch of topics.
It’s been about seven years since you released your last EP (The Rex Manning Day EP) and a little over ten years since your last album (A Personal Reference) — was this record something you had always planned on releasing, or did having downtime during the pandemic bring back that creative itch?
Chaz: I’d always planned on making another full-length project. Since the last EP, I’ve continued putting out an original Christmas Charity single every December and recording a few guest appearances. At the start of 2020, I’d actually recorded two songs at DJ D-Mil’s SP Studios, one of which was the Joaquin Wilde produced “Beverly” that was released last August, and had been really rejuvenated in the music-making mode. Then the pandemic happened. After a few months of downtime, I did record a few songs and guest verses using the nearby Go Radio studios, including a song with AEW music producer Mikey Rukkus, my J57 produced Christmas single from last year, and a cover of “I Am A Romeo” for a Sublime tribute album that came out last year. Things really kicked into high gear after my unplanned moving into a new apartment following an unexpected fire/flood last autumn. I used part of my kitchen to fashion my first-ever at-home recording studio and spent the winter writing.
The beat selection on this record is incredibly diverse and a bit different than what we’ve heard on previous releases. Can you share a bit about the different producers you worked with on this project, as well as your creative process behind selecting and ultimately writing lyrics for them?
Chaz: Thanks, the production choices actually stem from an indirect result of the fire/flood. So, I’m an absolute archivist when it comes to music. Always have been, to the point where I still have stacks of decade+ old CD-Rs that still play in pristine condition. Some of those CD-Rs are mixtapes and other mixes from that pre-streaming era of the internet where it was all zip files and links that disappeared after seven days. In 2010 I was very active on a hip-hop messageboard called Philaflava (the one Tyler, the Creator references at the start of Goblin) and around that time super-producer Blockhead posted a bunch of beats he made from ‘99-’03 that never got used on projects. I really dug them, so I burned them and saved them. While moving, I came across these orphaned table scraps again and since I’m still friendly with Blockhead, asked if I could use them for a project. He gave his blessing as long as I clarify that this wasn’t a Blockhead release as he has his own new project Space Werewolves Will Be the End of Us All due out September 3 and understandably didn’t want to cause any confusion in the marketplace.
Blockhead’s the most consistent producer of his generation, and I highly recommend everyone reading this pre-order his new album and familiarize with his previous projects. He’s also coming to Minneapolis on September 2 at 7th Street Entry.
There’s a couple of features on this record (verses by Ka Lia Universe & Nur-D / cuts by M – TRI & DJ Leecy T) — what was it like collaborating with these particular artists, and was it challenging due to the constraints of COVID-19?
Chaz: My approach to features on projects has always been involving people who were part of my life at the time as sort of a snapshot or time capsule of what I was making. Ka Lia Universe and Nur-D both have been making some of my favorite music of the past few years, and I think their COVID-era output has been high quality and nuanced enough to be some of the few pieces of art capturing the time that people will genuinely want to revisit once we’re in a post-pandemic world. It’s so, so hard to create right now, and both Ka Lia and Nur-D are as great as people as they are as artists, so during the making of those two songs, they were both my first choices to fit into that soundscape.
M-TRI and DJ Leecy T I’ve known since my New York days. My friendship with M-TRI began at a 2005 “networking party” at Bowery Electric I randomly attended when I was still a year into having moved into the city and trying to get everywhere I could in the hip-hop world without a fake ID. We connected and have been close ever since, partnering in the Hip-Hop Culture Center’s Rap-A-Thon, collaborating, etc. Shortly after meeting M-TRI, I met Leecy, also a phenomenally talented DJ. They’re married, so their chemistry is unmatched. I was in the early stages of writing the album when M-TRI texted me his latest video, and I liked it a lot. I think that planted the seed so that once I got into the demo stages of recording the album and had a vision for two very precise very distinct styles of scratching for those tracks, I knew the exact two talents to turn to. (Or, should I say, “turn-table to?!” I shouldn’t.)
This was my first time mixing any sort of hip-hop project by myself at home, so I thought it was going to be more challenging than it was. However, when you have that 15/16-year bond with someone, there’s almost a sixth sense or a muscle memory of knowing exactly how to collaborate. They sent the first draft, the reference track, the files and it was a very smooth process. The same goes for the Nur-D and Ka Lia verses. While I was not in the same room with either of them, I feel there’s an intimacy to the collaborations that form a soundscape where on some level we were sharing the same space.
I absolutely love the artwork for the record; can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind that as well as who designed it?
Chaz: Thanks! That’s the mastery of @JaimsVanDerBeek. I’d been a fan of his art and social media presence for years, and we finally met and hit it off right away at Madison Square Garden during my last visit to New York. He did the art for the “Beverly” single last year, and I can’t stress how sleek, stylish, and smart the merch he’s designed over the years has been.
The idea for this particular cover came from something that was very important to me over the initial quarantine lockdown. My mom had given me a Norman Rockwell 2019 Calendar, and that December happened to feature a painting called Grandfather and Snowman, which was having its 100th anniversary. In addition to loving the original painting, that was a very special very happy month for me, so one of the ways I coped during those early months of the pandemic was pulling it back out and hanging it near my bedside so that when I woke up I’d see it every day and it would give me that happy nostalgic feeling.
I’ve always loved plague doctor masks, and in the process of making this album that largely deals with OCD, I’ve always seen the idea of plague doctor masks as a fitting metaphor. The idea that the plague could be stopped by putting something fragrant in the beak-shaped mask to dilute it or block it or otherwise drown it out is one of those things that seems to have a specific line of logic that can be followed, but taken as a whole reveals the absurdity of it. That’s how OCD rituals are, the forcing of logic in an illogical situation. “If I don’t do this one specific unrelated thing, I’ll die and since I did the thing, I didn’t die so it clearly worked” sort of thing.
Adding to that is how the plague doctor masks likely weren’t even worn during the plague. Kirstin Fawcett wrote a great piece for Mental Floss a few years back about how historians now believe they weren’t invented until three centuries after the black plague. So their existence as an icon of something wholly unrelated to what they’re associated with further cements them as an OCD metaphor. The photo of me wearing one on the tracklisting was actually taken in 2018 during a Go Radio photo shoot when we were told to bring props and I’ve always liked it, but being it wasn’t the most inviting imagery for a Sunday night radio show we went with a different shot for the promos. Glad it’s finally found a home.
I think “The Recipe” was my overall favorite track from the record (with “Ghostwork” featuring Nur-D a close second!) — do any tracks stand out to you as highlights or that you’re particularly proud of how they turned out?
Chaz: Thanks! If you’re a shrimp cocktail fan, I hope you actually try the recipe in that one. It was one of the first recipes I ever created while getting super into cooking over the lockdown last summer.
I’m probably most proud of “Rooftop Photo” in terms of tackling a challenging, daunting subject in a way that’s both intimate and specific but relatable. Those drifting apart, falling out, losing touch moments. I wrote that last February when a Facebook memory popped up from seven years ago. Troy Dorman, who mastered every track on the album, really shined helping bring it to life in its final form. His contributions to the final sound of the project can’t be overstated.
I’m also proud of “Panic!” which is the absolute fastest I’ve ever written a song in my life. I tried to play with a lot of conventions over the source of Small Hours to really convey the feelings of OCD, anxiety, panic attacks etc., and this was the first time I really ever just cut loose and let what having an OCD-based panic attack feel like. It’s a hybrid of a few specific ones I’ve gone through and felt really cathartic to finish.
Late last year, beloved Minneapolis radio station Go 95.3, the station where you hosted over 200 episodes of your top-rated show ‘First Impressions with Chaz Kangas,’ as well as their alternative sister station Go 96.3, shut their doors. Tell us a little bit about what hosting that show meant to you, and the impact losing one of the only stations up-and-coming hip-hop artists could get their stuff played on has/will continue to have on the Twin Cities?
Chaz: I loved doing that show. I’m so fortunate that Go gave me a platform to essentially make the radio show I’ve always wanted, and I’m beyond grateful so many listeners got behind it. Losing it really sucks. Like, I’m glad I never took it for granted and had 204 weeks of loving everything I did, and I’m glad I saved enough to give some of my favorite episodes a second chance to be heard in re-runs during the pandemic, and not having that anymore is such a bummer. I loved exposing so many new sounds to so many people, watching artists grow in real-time, watching their fanbases expand and scenes form. So many of those artists are doing amazing things locally and nationally, and to have had a hand in that – even just a grain of sand in the desert of their legacies – is something that makes me feel infinitely proud.
I can’t really speak to the impact of the loss because the scene seems to still be recalibrating as it reemerges, but it warms my heart and makes my day every time an artist I played reaches out to see how I’m doing or shouts me out. Or a listener who mentions what it meant to them. I’m glad some local podcasts and playlist curators have emerged since the end of Go, and I hope they continue to build momentum and showcase what a diverse range of sounds Minnesota has.
We’ve talked in the past about you being an advocate for inclusion in the music industry, particularly in regards to mental health, which is a topic that seems to be at the forefront of this record. Are you happy with the strides the music community has made to be more accepting, and do you have any advice for newer artists in the hip-hop scene who might still feel uneasy about being open about their emotions or personal identity?
Chaz: I am happy that things seem to be getting better. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but I think there has been noted progress even compared to say 2016 or so. I think any new artist should at least try to convey their unique experience with mental health on paper or in the booth. If you’re uncomfortable, it’s totally fine to ultimately choose not to record it or release it, but having something to work with or a tool you can begin to sharpen will make your creative voice stronger.
Also, and I really mean this in the best most encouraging way possible, there’s an audience for everything now, especially in hip-hop. There are artists who sell records and rack up streams that are largely propelled by a shared ideology, with the actual quality of the music itself not the primary priority. However uneasy you may feel about who you are or how you feel, I absolutely promise you that so many people out there feel the exact same way you feel, or at least a comparable way that they can fill in the blanks of the template your unique voice can present. Baby steps are totally fine to get there, you don’t have to learn how to swim in the deep end. Ultimately, every artistic journey is different and there’s no specific linear path to creative satisfaction or commercial success anymore.
You’ve had quite a few opportunities in your life to collaborate with, work alongside, and befriend some pretty substantial characters in this industry. Is there a moment from your career that you look back on most fondly, and is there anyone in particular that would be a sort of “dream collaboration” for you?
Chaz: In terms of dream collaborations, the one person I reached out to who I didn’t hear back from when making Small Hours was actress Mamie Van Doren. I got really into her 50s and 60s films over the lockdown and reached out to her people to see if she could record an intro for “Coming Attractions.” Her social media presence is endlessly entertaining. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch her on the next one.
I’m at the point where I really just want to do songs with artists I’ve loved listening to. I’ve been on a huge No Limit kick lately, which I go on every few years, so something with Master P, Mia X, Mac and/or Fiend would be a cool thing to have in my legacy. Sage Francis is another, and he’s someone I’ve always loved interviewing over the years and he’s mastered such a range of styles and topics, so I think our rapport could translate well to music. I’ve also always loved interviewing DMC and appreciate his zeal for so many kinds of hip-hop and concept records. Ideally, if this could all be the same song and I could be the thread that connects the discographies of Master P, Sage Francis, and DMC, I think that’d be an ideal contribution to hip-hop.
For those of us who sincerely miss hearing you on the radio every Sunday night, do you have plans for jumping back on the mic either in that realm or in some other capacity in the future?
Chaz: I’d love to. The stars haven’t seemed to align just right for that to happen again just yet, but I’d love to.
Any chance we’re going to get to see Chaz Kangas perform some tracks, either old or new, anywhere around the Twin Cities sometime soon?
Chaz: Soon? I really don’t know. To be completely honest, as much as I’d love to be on a stage again, I don’t quite feel comfortable being indoors most places just yet, let alone performing. If the right outdoor situation arose, or if my neighbors would be cool with me performing on my balcony, I’d be interested, but otherwise, I really don’t know. I’m attending the Fairplay Entertainment showcase on August 13 at Pourhouse, which will be my first time attending an indoor concert since February 2020, and after that event, I’ll probably feel more comfortable, but I don’t feel ready putting anything on the calendar just yet.
Small Hours, the latest release from Chaz Kangas, is available now.