Martin $ky On Finding His Voice as a Chicago Outlier
Isolated from his city's music scene, $ky has taken to putting on for himself, his family, and his squad.
Nini’s Deli sits at the corner of Noble and West Ohio Street in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, across from a bodega, and a boat that’s epically posted in a driveway (and that hopefully sees water at some point in its life). On the outside of Nini’s is a mural that reads “Welcome to Noble Square” in pink, white, and blue, over a black background.
Juan Riesco’s family owns the eatery, which opened in October 2011 as a combo grocery-deli. Over the years, Nini’s has become the go-to spot for rappers like Joey Purp, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio, and Smino, among others. Riesco grew up with a lot of the SAVEMONEY crew, and In addition to running Nini’s, Riesco shoots for SAVEMONEY and makes the group’s merchandise. So naturally, it was the perfect place to meet Chicago rapper Martin $ky, who tells me Nini’s is one of a kind. (During our interview, Joey Purp comes over to say hi, a fluorescent green hat barely containing his curly hair.)
When I walk up to Nini’s, $ky—born Anthony Martin—is sitting outside at one of the tables with his photographer Sam Kfar. Even though it’s July, Chicago’s weather is still cool; as the wind picks up, $ky slips into a tan windbreaker, over black jeans and a black Burton T-shirt, a black Stüssy hat on his head. A waitress from the deli delivers $ky and Sam their burritos; $ky gives Sam shit when the breeze picks up their napkins and scatters them across the sidewalk. “Come on bro!” $ky exclaims.
Peeking out from underneath $ky’s hat are braids, and from his inner right forearm, a tattoo of the Eye of Ra. His top knuckles are tattooed with various symbols, including an ankh, a hashtag, and a dollar sign; and his bottom knuckles display the phrase, “Stay true.” When I ask the meaning behind the expression, he says, “Because that’s what I’ve done—that’s how I’ve gotten where I am. Stay true.” Once $ky directs his attention away from Sam, once you get him talking about music, he’s composed, thoughtful, and genuine.
Photo by Caleb Zahm
When he began taking rap seriously in 2013—right before his first South By Southwest festival that year—he garnered comparisons to Joey Bada$$ for their similarities in cadence. After $ky dropped the track “Invitation,” he was also often compared to Tyler, The Creator; “Invitation” samples Cal Tjader’s famous Latin jazz song “Invitation,” which Tyler samples in “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer.” But eventually, as $ky began to shine on his own, those became the only real correlations anyone could make between him and other rappers. Now he’s known for a rough, dark cadence that equally matches his self-produced, 808-heavy beats, the production style that’s become his trademark.
$ky lived in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood until he was 10, then moved to the south suburb of South Holland as Auburn Gresham became more dangerous. When city kids began to flock to the suburbs for the same reasons, places like South Holland worsened. His family eventually moved deeper south to Homewood, further away from the city. “[The city] was just bikes, just city blocks, block parties, car shows, that’s all I knew…It was kind of like a culture shock. I was just a city kid,” he says. Before $ky started rapping, he was producing. In eighth grade, while at his girl’s house, he met another kid who foot-worked. $ky had been footworking since he was a kid—it was a city thing—so the two became fast friends. The new friend showed $ky how to use FL Studio; $ky ran with it.
After perfecting his beats for a few years, $ky began rapping, almost solely because of MF DOOM’s verse from the Gorillaz song “November Has Come.” He began dropping tapes, and then released the galaxy ridden visuals for “Invitation” in January 2013, which was his first big look. The video, which was shot by Visual Mecca, amassed 15,000 views in its first two months and has now over 56,000 views. Though he doesn’t prefer rapping over producing or vice versa, he’s given time to perfecting his process, to his 808s, to the lyrical content of his songs; he’s paid his dues. He gives credence to the city that made him: The 20-year-old rapper makes it known that he’s a Chicago native through and through. But he feels like Chicago doesn’t embrace him. The city’s hip-hop scene has been a tough nut to crack.
Photo by Sam Kfare
$ky released his first real offering in September 2013 called TIME(LESS) (the track “Pearl Gawd” was even featured on BBC Radio 1’s show Diplo and Friends). Because he only partially produced the tape—he raps over Knxwledge and Mndsgn beats, among others—the project allowed him to concentrate on his raps, which he believes was actually a disservice to his craft. “Raps is one part of it, and the beat is the other part of it,” he says, “So they both gotta be good obviously. With TIME(LESS), my problem was I wanted to be this cold-ass rapper. And my beats wasn’t all that…I was like damn, I gotta be rapping about some shit that’s over people’s heads. And then that’s what happened: The project was over people’s heads.”
Most recently, he released Everywhere But Here in March 2015, and produced every track on the tape except “STAY UP 2015,” which was co-produced by Chicago beatmaker Young Chop. The project is a true testament to the time that $ky put in to all elements of his sound, which is still driven by his signature brand of 808s. Besides support from Young Chop, there are three featured rappers on the mixtape: Saba, Rockie Fresh, and Casey Veggies, only two of which are Chicago rappers. Thematically, Everywhere But Here is first and foremost a commentary on the unhealthy cloud of competition that hovers over Chicago’s hip-hop scene. Everywhere But Here is also $ky’s attempt to gain respect in the community: Even though he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he isn’t truly viewed as a member of Chicago’s hip-hop family.
“Chicago has this whole thing where it’s hard to really like come together and create,” $ky says, “Look at Atlanta: Travi$ [Scott], Metro Boomin, Young Thug…PARTYNEXTDOOR, they all kind of come together and push each other. You don’t have that here. It’s kind of like, ‘This is my crew, there’s 500 of us, we’re going to work with each other. We’re kind of affiliated with that crew so we’re going to work with each other, but I don’t know you.’ If we all came together, we would be dominating the whole entire industry.”
Photo by Caleb Zahm
For many, there is a huge differentiation between growing up in the suburbs and growing up in the city. Many of Chicago’s musicians and artists are from the city and came up with each other, which is how they’ve built their foundation, and friend and fan bases. “Me, I’m not included in that. So it’s kinda like I get shut out from the scene, until just recently because when I drop something, it’s doing numbers. When you look at the kids that are included in the scene because they grew here, like they’re not doing that good,” he says. “I’m not a part of that circle. [Chicago people will] listen to it and say, ‘Oh that’s dope,’ but they won’t [say] in person, ‘Damn, you just cold. You don’t fuck with anybody, you don’t take handouts, you didn’t get an oop from somebody. You just here doing it.’ They wouldn’t do that—I won’t get that, for whatever reason.” $ky tries to be inclusive, but the scene doesn’t make it easy. So he’s now taken to putting on for himself, his family, and his squad. “But I could give a fuck if you accept me / I stopped giving a fuck and that’s when I became the best me,” he spits on “Invitation.”
The same sentiment can be gleaned from Everywhere But Here, from the tape’s title itself but also in the hooks for Saba-assisted “Reach,” and Rockie Fresh-assisted “Estate.” $ky’s outlook is a thread that can be continuously pulled from the majority of his work, even from the early days. “Invitation,” for example, was released in 2013, before TIME(LESS). His latest track “Self” expresses the same, “They mad at me cuz’ I’ve been on myself shit / Grinding all day and all night to get the wealth shit / I gotta kill shit everyday boy I can’t help it / I’m putting on for the fam that’s it I’m so selfish.”
Though you could view “Self” as knee-deep in negativity, $ky uses his music as a tool to elevate himself. Not as an ego stroke, but more, so to say, that the proof is in the pudding. The song is fearless, as $ky continues to confront Chicago’s attitude head-on. “Don’t take it personal. I’m worried about me and me only,” he says. $ky has struggled, worked steadily, and now feels he’s on his way to getting the respect he deserves, at least on a national level. But Chicago will always remain important to the young emcee, and a sore subject. When I ask him where he fits in the scene, he says, “I don’t really know. I kind of just have to jump in this shit—I kind of have to make my own seat.”