They asked me who this record's for.
Lando Chill says matter-of-factly, thus issuing the seven words on his new album that will introduce him to many of the fans he's about to gain in the next year.
Just a couple months ago, this was a real conversation between Lando and his best friend, Mike Scharnhorst. Lando, or Lance Washington as his mother named him, is the type of kid you instantly want to be friends with. He's warm and open and genuine. He's as chill as his stage name suggests, though he shortened it from Lando Chillrissian to simply Lando Chill before releasing his first album ("It seemed like I was a Weird Al pun," he says). Lando is fashionable. He's the kind of guy photographers want to take pictures of because he knows what to do in front of a camera, or he'll play around, at least, until he's given you the right thing. This skill, among the others, certainly doesn't hurt an up-and-coming hip-hop artist.
But Mike's not like Lando. Mike is quiet—that is until you ask him a question that he has a strong opinion on, then he's off like a rocket. And, that's what Lando likes about Mike: he's honest no matter what... even if it hurts. So when Lando sat, trying to figure out what to call an album he spent over a year making, an album that encompasses a lifetime of pent up feelings unleashed in 12 tight tracks, he looked to Mike and Mike asked him who the record was for.
Lando wrote the four words, at first. Those four words would prompt him to write the intro piece to his album—expressing what he'd wanted to say all along and sating him, to some extent, like an itch finally scratched.
As if music ain't already an open book. Past years nailed shut with pride and pain, knocked open every once and a while because, of course, vulnerability is key, even though she didn't think you were worth it.
They've paused their "Star Wars: Battlefront" game at Lando's Barrio Viejo apartment. On his bookshelf next to his "office"—a desk compulsively surrounded by sticky notes, there are a few Jones College Prep yearbooks, lit classics like Orwell's 1984, a book on how to become a chef, a Fix It Yourself manual, some consciousness-expanding compilations and Scrabble, among other things. Lando is picking out a record now, but his phone won't stop going off, between text messages, phone calls and Facebook's chat app.
It seems like everyone wants a little bit of something from Lando these days. So many of his live performances end with an absurd number of encore demands—five might be the most so far—and he obliges. His band clears the stage. There's no backing track, but Lando gives them one more a cappella, then another a cappella, then a cover a cappella—maybe an Outkast song or Mike Snow's "Animal." He can keep pitch like you wouldn't believe. He doesn't need accompaniment, and, when given the chance to harmonize with himself as he does on his album's overdubs, he shows a vocal prowess that puts him in a category apart from most rappers. Lando's got pipes.
Unfortunately, he doesn't really know when to stop because he wants to give the crowd what they want and, the truth is, he hasn't been performing that long. It doesn't matter though. They hastily eat up whatever he gives them. He's put all of himself into his lyrics—old bad habits, past addictions, former lovers and, most prominently, the death of his father when he was only a toddler—it's all there and he's giving it away.
"I'm a pretty private person," he says. "Even now, though, I feel like I haven't given enough of me until there's nothing left."
On stage, this openness makes him magnetic. The smokers come in off the patio, the drinkers leave the bar stools they've posted up on all night. He often makes unflinching eye contact with attendees, and the girls swoon accordingly. He's smooth, sure, but he's not looking to break any hearts. Really, Lando's just comfortable on stage. It's a cliché, but he says it's his home.
"Each hour leading up to the show, you know you're on your way home," he says. "You know you're only there for so long. You cherish it.
"I know everything is fleeting. This voice is fleeting. These arms, these legs—you just take everything in stride," he says.
I said they asked me who this record's for. Ready to partition pity like the Salvation Army in the wintertime. Bells set to chime for the dime because, of course, empty pockets in your soul got the rich feeling kind of poor. I guess life ain't lit when the fire in oneself is out. Burnt to ash with misuse and mistrust and left to dance on the wind.
It wasn't always grinning at cute girls in the front row while feeling at home on stage surrounded by a backing band of equally talented musicians. Lando grew up in Chicago and was raised by his mother, Jacquelyn. He went to grade school and high school with Chicago rap's current golden child, Chance the Rapper—some say the two had beef, but Lando insists there's nothing but respect there.
Lando moved to Tucson to go to the UA for film school, but it wasn't working after a year.
"I had no reel, no equipment, no true knowledge of film," he says. Lando also was, as so many college freshmen are, hooked on prescription meth—you know, Adderall. The difference, though, is instead of just taking the pill, Lando used razorblades to open up the time-release capsules.
"I ... eventually OD'd on it, alone, in my dorm bathroom," he says, recalling a lyric in his song "Hell & Back." "The pressure of trying to maintain school, [a] social life that was completely new to me and a budget got to me ... I'd stay up for days, pulling all nighters ... I thought it made me smarter."
Alive, but uninspired by his current film path, he switched his major to journalism in his sophomore year. Despite his ability to make people follow his word like gospel on social media nowadays, writing with rules didn't go much better for Lando.
"I couldn't follow deadlines."
Finally, he landed on anthropology.
"I got to write and learn about culture. I like people," he says. "I also felt like this was a way I could learn more about myself."
In 2014, after "all the money dried up," Lando left the UA. By then, though, he had already started making music as Lando Chillrissian.
I said they asked me who this record's for. It's for the kid who's ready to give anything to follow that path they said was too steep to climb and too long to walk and too painful to bear.
Lando went to Coachella in 2013 and saw Kid Cudi—one of his favorite modern artists. While Lando enjoyed the performance, realistically, he thought, Cudi wasn't doing anything he couldn't do.
"He was great, but I wasn't in awe, per se, because I knew what they were doing was what I needed to be doing."
So he started to make his written words flow. For a while, he'd just have one of his own songs playing when a friend came over to see their reaction. Almost every time a friend would ask who he had on. "Oh, it's mine," he'd say.
"It's not like it was a ploy," he says, explaining that he just wanted an honest opinion. "I've never really had a negative reaction."
Since, Lando's had comparisons drawn to "if they're older, The Roots ... or The Fugees. The younger they are they'll say things like Childish Gambino or Andre 3000 or Kid Cudi." Of course, comparisons to Lando and his old schoolmate Chance the Rapper abound.
"I appreciate those comparisons because those people are established, but I don't sound like anybody else," he says, pausing for a minute and then starting back up again—speaking a little louder and a little faster now.
"You know, that shit sucks. We're sold the idea that only a certain archetype or perspective makes it. It's crazy to think about, but the music industry has become a merry go round of recycled material. Pretty soon art is going to be old news the second it's created—that's what we're aiming toward," he says. "Subculture exploitation."
He's filleting a piece of pizza crust in his hands now, pulling the doughy middle apart piece by piece. He admits it's from the freezer, though he says if he wasn't pursuing music, he would've liked to be a chef. He worked at Oriental Express, most recently, until "they fuckin' fired me," he says.
"I always try to do things my way and they want me to do it their way." Now music is his full-time gig.
To some extent, he is right. His music is distinct. His style is equal parts rapping, singing and spoken word. So in just two short years, Lando's crafted that unique voice and built a following—not just in the hip-hop community, but reaching into scenes traditionally occupied exclusively by rock 'n' roll types.
Pike Romero runs the Scratch Shack—an independent hip-hop venue off Speedway Boulevard. He says Lando first came into his scope via Twitter, oddly enough. Romero put him on a show bill, and "he just shined," Romero says. It's no surprise to him, really, that Lando's found support in several different circles.
"He's talented and people recognize talent. He's also a social butterfly," Romero says.
For Lando, it's a matter of not being afraid to step up and ask for what you want.
"Nine times out of 10 you'll get an answer you can work with," he says. "If what I'm doing is working at hip hop shows and also Lenguas Largas or Katterwaul shows, I must be doing something right."
Playing DIY venues, as well as Club Congress, The Flycatcher and District Tavern (RIP) is just the tip of the iceberg, though. In November 2015, Lando and his band, which consists of bassist Christopher Pierce, producer Andy Lasso, guitarist Jimmy Borquez and drummer Isaiah Briggs, got the chance to play at Night of the Living Fest alongside of Montreal, Diane Coffee, Deerhoof, Cakes da Killa and more. Working with original live-band compositions added another level to Lando's performance—a richer, fuller sound and a more collaborative, energetic experience. Plus, the large crowd introduced him to a whole new set of fans.
"I've had people tell me, 'I don't really like your type of music, but you're awesome,'" he says. "It's kind of like throwing more closed-minded people into situations they can't control."
So, with his debut record release on Feb. 29 rapidly approaching, Romero says now's definitely the time for Lando Chill.
"He's ready to move on, I think," he says. "Whenever an artist releases something like that publicly, it's like a weight off his shoulders. It helps him move forward."
While Lando is certainly looking forward to putting out the new record so he can begin work that more explicitly includes his band, the emotional weight of the record is palpable and it'll be a relief once it's lifted.
It's for every fatherless child, too proud to ask for help because they believe their dad wouldn't raise a weak son.
Lando's father, Mark, died of a heart attack on Feb. 11, 1995. As Lando says that date aloud, it's clear he's just now realizing that it's Feb. 10, 2016. Eleven years, less one day. He pauses. This album is undeniably a working tribute to his father and an outlet for him to express the pain of losing his dad at such a young age.
Lyrically, the album shifts between talking about his father to break-up tracks to his struggles with addiction to his different social ideologies. He makes references to Billie Holiday's haunting jazz classic "Strange Fruit" and Booker T. Washington one minute, to millennial cultural icons like Netflix and kombucha the next and follows that all up by ribbing George Lopez for not being funny.
As Romero put it, Lando's style is marked by the "ability to glide effortlessly between the lyrical veracity of hip hop and the ethos of blues and soul." His ability to manipulate his tone allows him to go from a fierce snarl to smooth, melodic crooning between tracks, but somehow it all fits.
Backing up his varied vocals are equally genre-bending samples. Using two local but largely undiscovered producers—David "Jetlag" Manin and Duncan Odea—Lando's songs offer some of what you might expect, but, mostly, they serve up a fresh perspective on sampling all together. Manin and Odea worked on five songs each, with two of the tracks on the album being spoken word pieces. Although they are both amateurs, working day jobs and making beats on nights and weekends, using these two for the album has functioned in Lando's favor—it's given the album a sort of sonic variety that he's more than adept at utilizing.
One of the album's most powerful tracks, both musically and lyrically, is Lando's sermon, "Gospel of the Chill," which evokes strong racial themes and channels his mother's past as a pastor.
"Watching her ability to inspire through that medium was always fascinating," he says. "The two verses of mine are two sermons, at two different parts of my life, with two different messages. Sort of a road map, an emotional warning of sorts ... It's crazy to think, we have to fall, die and hope our seeds of liberation and equality germinate and grow into a consciousness that wants to make the world a better place."
The backing track is a pulsing, intense march.
Conversely, one of the most emotive songs on the album, "Save Me," uses almost imperceptible bass accompaniment to deliver its message nearly a cappella.
"'Save Me' has this interpretive double meaning attached to the song," he says. "It's essentially a letter to God speaking indirectly through a past relationship that had failed, where I struggle to accept what is, due to the death of my father."
Overall, Lando is endearingly proud, almost to the point of cockiness, of what this album accomplishes.
"Oh, it's dope as fuck," he says. "I know who I am. I am a fucking rock star," he says, quickly adding, "I'm lucky enough to have band as talented as they are, and the people who support me."
This is for the mother who lost her best friend, and yet championed motherhood and fatherhood like she was roll tide.
Jacquelyn Washington is sick, literally. It's flu season in Chicago, but it doesn't matter. She'll take a call and talk about Lando (she, of course, calls him Lance) no matter what.
While mom is a role that is inherently influential in any kid's life, Lando's mother Jacquelyn is seen in almost every facet of his art: from writing to his multi-genre approach to his ease in performing to his somewhat defiant proclivity to do things his own way. It might not help him keep a part-time job at Oriental Express, but it is the reason his voice is strong.
"Mom made me read a lot, made us read the dictionary," he says. "When you read, you find the words to express yourself—you can articulate your soul. You can see it and you can feel it as well, and your music gets better."
"He had a voracious desire to read. And, he was exceptional when it came to vocabulary," Jacquelyn says. "Him writing isn't something new—it's part of who he is."
However, Lando didn't start writing regularly until his mother urged him to as a form of release.
"My mom encouraged me to keep a journal because I never talked about my father's death," he says. "He was rather young when his father died and it was a way to have him begin to deal with his grief," she says.
Performing was also part of his young repertoire—at family functions, in school theatre and as a member of a children's chorus. Jacquelyn herself was a theatre, dance and music major. Her sister was an entertainer. Her dad and her grandmother were singers.
"I knew [his path] would be something creative, even if he didn't know that," she says. "I don't know if he even thought about it."
As a performer, she sees his potential—the viability of him making this a career.
"He has what it takes," she says in a way that feels like a peer assessing a peer and not a mom massaging her firstborn son's ego. "I didn't want to live the life. I think he's more willing to live that life."
To her, the life can be a lot of closed doors and a lot of pushing them back open.
"It entails being told no. It entails breaking barriers and being willing to be okay with it when every time you think you're ready, someone telling you that you're not ...It's being sure that what you believe to be your path is the path you follow and not what someone else tells you to follow."
She's realistic about what it'll take for him to make it, and Lando, it seems listens to her honest critiques as much as he does that of his friends. Still, she's candid in saying that it takes her some time to connect with his music, being that she's a classically-trained musician.
"I like most of Lance's music," she says. "I didn't grow up listening to it, and I'm not a part of the hip-hop generation. It's retooling my ear to understand what's being said against a cacophony of sound."
With such a forthright album, sometimes what's being said can be a lot for any mom to hear. Lando has given his mom a peek into his life—a life that includes psychedelics and early morning sex sessions as much as it does grief, heartache and anger.
"So far I'll ask him to tell me—because I have no shame in asking—what he said in a specific such-and-such part. He laughs and he tells me," she says. "If I have to listen to it four or five times, I do until I get it...It's making sure I understand the intent of the song.
"I try to understand and not to judge, so I ask him what it's about," she says. "It's his music, not mine. It's not supposed to fulfill or please me. It's supposed to inform me."
After all, it was Jacquelyn who convinced him to begin writing in the first place, and, largely, this album has served that initial purpose that writing was supposed to: it gave Lando the time and space and platform to talk about his father and the life he's had to live without him.
"I think it's one of the most important things that Lance could do for himself," Jacquelyn says.
This is for the father who will never see the legacy he left behind.
"In this perfect storm of me going to Tucson and UA, I was able to find my career and my path," Lando says. "Who knows if Chicago will embrace me? I don't know if it's important."
Lando's about to go on tour with Romero acting as tour manager, DJ and booker. The small southwestern tour won't take him back home, but Lando's already working on bigger plans.
"I don't want to be here in a year talking to you about the same shit," he says. "Sky's the limit."
This album is a jumping point—a "stepping stone," as Romero puts it, and Lando's reaching for a life that goes way beyond music.
"A movie would be dope. A nonprofit restaurant would be dope. I want to help get rid of food deserts and focus on fixing the infrastructure," he says. "Really, it's about making the world a better place through whatever medium you can."
Beginning in November 2014, Lando took over a year to make and perfect this album at the Jivin' Scientists' studio in Tucson, seeking to create something that would be taken seriously and feel professional. It's as much of a career move as it is an intense emotional release.
"For me, artistically, this is what I needed and this is what [my father] missed, but after this I won't have to talk about it anymore," Lando says. "I think I always knew how I had to work it out and it was like this."
So Mike, Lando's best friend, most honest consultant and the dude who sequenced the album so it can include anything from the Muzak-backed track "Hell & Back" to guitar-shredding bangers like "Rock Love" seamlessly, asked him who the record was for, what it was about. He told him it should be titled something personal. Lando picked up a marker, and he wrote:
For Mark, your son.