It’s almost fitting that cold winter winds seemed to finally blow down into Ohio just as reps from the Chicago-based indie record label Closed Sessions came to town to visit their first out-of-town signee, Kipp Stone. After a full day of visiting Stone at his home, touring the city to get a better feel about where Stone is from and the obligatory visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the final stop is Cauliflower Audio at 78th Street Studios to unwind and play a few songs.
The atmosphere is light as music plays in the background. A 12-pack of Stella Artois is nearly emptied as the guys in the room crack jokes about dating preferences and experiences with the Tinder app. Stone is calm and collected as he lays on one of the studio’s couches waiting to be interviewed.
Closed Sessions developed from a working relationship between engineer Michael Kolar and DJ/journalist Alexander Fruchter; Kolar would engineer the various projects that Fruchter would work on while running the blog Ruby Hornet.
“He mastered this mixtape I was doing with a guy named Naledge who was in a group called Kidz in the Hall,” Fruchter says. “When I took it in to master it, I asked Mike how much do I owe for this and he said, ‘You can pay me for this, or how about you never pay for the studio again, but every time you’re doing something cool, you bring it to my studio.’ That was like our deal. So I started doing that all the time. Then, I had the idea of when the artists come to do my party, I can take them to the studio, do video and photo and see where it goes. We did the first version of this with Curren$y and he made a song called ‘Rapper Weed.’ Right after he made the song, he got on UStream and within a few minutes he had a ton of people following him, the song went everywhere. He was like, ‘I don’t want anyone else in this space.’ And that’s how we kinda called it a closed session. It started off as a content piece for the blog.”
Kolar and Fruchter soon began to realize that this closed session approach was going to become its own thing.
“We started doing it with more artists who were coming to Chicago for the first time,” Fruchter continues. “We then made a company and released many compilations like that of artists coming and doing a documentary like that with artists like Bun B, Raekwon and Action Bronson, to the earliest shit from Vic Mensa and the Cool Kids. A couple years later, long story short, we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s just make this a real label; there’s a ton of Chicago artists here.’ We did that in, like, 2013 and put out Vic Mensa’s Innanetape, a record by this dude named Gzus Piece, Tree’s Sunday School II and just a lot of important releases. We worked on a little bit of Acid Rap [by Chicago’s Chance the Rapper] and stuff like that. From there, we signed an artist and got distribution and we have been learning what it means to have a record label in the new digital age of music.”
That record label, aptly named Closed Sessions, had always been primarily focused on artists in the Chicago area, but the guys were drawn to the type of music that Stone makes.
“We’d been looking for an artist who brought the style of music that Stone does because it’s our favorite kind, but the artists on our label really don’t necessarily do that,” Fruchter says. “A friend of mine named Ryan started sending me Stone’s music in maybe the spring or summer. He kept sending me music like, ‘This is the kid I was telling you about and he’d be interested to meet you guys,’ etc. And it just worked out timing-wise where I was like, ‘Man, this shit is dope. Let’s have him come and work with our producers and if there’s a vibe there, then go forward.’ He came to Chicago and spent two days in the studio and made some really dope songs — one of which we’ve put out already. It was just a no-brainer.”
“Also, it’s cool that Stone came to us like real people and he has a good team behind him and he came from a real place,” Kolar adds. “Cleveland is nothing like Chicago. It’s not a construct or anything like that. It’s a realness that’s here. It’s nothing like Chicago, but there is a realness here that we both like.”
“Seen It All,” the first single that Stone released with Closed Sessions, seems apropos as the rapper frequently moved around as he was growing up.
“I’m primarily from East Cleveland,” Stone says when asked about his origin. “I bounced around a lot when I was a kid. Born and raised in East Cleveland. When I was 8 years old, I moved out to Warrensville Heights. I used to go back and forth, between living with my mom dukes and my dad. Then I moved to Cleveland Heights. When I turned 18, I ended up moving back to East Cleveland but I really started writing when I was in Cleveland Heights. I used to write stories; that used to be my thing. It was more fictional stuff like that. But later in life, it just didn’t feel right and I wanted to talk about shit that was really happening. I wanted to put some real feelings behind it because there wasn’t any real feeling in the early shit. But that’s how I started out writing. I started rapping because I saw 8 Mile. I sat on the foot of the bed and watched 8 Mile with my mom, and by the time the movie was over I had written my first rhyme.”
The guys in the room chuckle a bit, but Stone insists that he’s serious. While Eminem’s story may have had some influence on him, he cites a few others as well.
“Obviously Bone Thugs-n-Harmony,” Stone says. “That’s a no-brainer. I have musical influences, but my biggest influences come from the world around me — as cheesy as that sounds, life. Like, my life is my biggest influence.”
The Closed Sessions owners were quite fond of Stone as an artist and fairly shortly after visiting the label in Chicago, Stone was sold as well.
“When they brought it to me, it was like, ‘This is Closed Sessions, they did this, they did that and so forth,’ but that really didn’t matter to me,” he says. “I just wanted to go out there to Chicago and meet these people and see if these were people that I could work with, and within the first 15 minutes, I was just like you saw me laying here, just coolin’. I was thinking, ‘This is cool, I can do this.’ I had heard nothing but good things about ’em, so there was no reason why we shouldn’t do this and see what it’s hittin’ for. When we got there, we just made magic. We made three or four records. I was so used to working with [producer Mr. Anderson] and he engineered my first session in Closed Sessions, and a lot of the ways that he engineered was how he engineered so it was like a continuation of what I was already used to. That was pretty cool. Everybody over there was really cool peoples. Essentially what I want to do with Closed Sessions is that I want to help them grow and I want to grow with them. Everything just gels well. That’s what I like about it. It’s a no-nonsense type of deal. Everything clicks. It’s like a machine.”
Along with Closed Sessions, Stone has L.I.F.E. Art & Content and A Right to Create behind him. The support system he has in place has a stronger foundation than many other artists in the city and it’s working to Stone’s advantage.
“The problem is that nobody really wants to listen, and you can’t run an organization like that,” Stone says. “I feel like if it’s coming from a place where someone genuinely wants to see you succeed and do better, then you’ve gotta hear that shit, even when you don’t want to hear that. Like [L.I.F.E. owner Truth Walker] will call me and tell me something that I already know. He could tell you about it better than I could, but it’s all about focus. Set a plan and stick to it.”
Walker echoes the same sentiment and believes that, at the root of it all, being a good person counts for a lot in the industry.
“I think that once artists here in Cleveland realize that without order there is chaos, then they’ll start to make some traction,” he says. “You’ll have an artist who says that they want a manager, but they don’t know how to be managed. They don’t know what that entails. When someone takes their music as seriously as they say they do, and you tell them that being a great artist is more than just rapping or producing. It’s how you carry yourself. Are you professional? Do people enjoy being around you? If you had to put it on a percentage scale, 20 percent of being a great artist is what you do in the studio and the other 80 percent is the person you are outside of the booth.”
“It’s not about the likes and the views and all of that,” Stone adds. “I’m with these guys — Closed Sessions, one of the biggest if not the biggest indie label in Chicago — and I don’t have that many views on my SoundCloud or YouTube or nothing like that. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all about being a good person.”
“They didn’t sign Kipp because of hype,” Walker says. “They signed him because he’s talented and because he has a sound. Kipp has a standout sound. I can’t think of anyone in the city with a sound like his.”
Closed Sessions appears dedicated to helping Stone be the best artist he can be for them.
“That’s what a label still does,” Fruchter says. “That’s our job to worry about the views and the likes. He should just be worried about making the best music that he can. We have to figure out how to take his art and make more people care about it and how to get it to the people that need to hear it.”
Looking toward the future, Stone plans to keep grinding while carving out a new identity for East Cleveland.
“It’s not a knock to anyone else, but I think Stone, L.I.F.E., Closed Sessions and ARTC — it’s a new identity,” he says. “People talk about Cleveland and people talk about East Cleveland, but no one has ever really talked about it how I talk about it. My biggest thing is that I want to give Cleveland an identity, because I don’t feel like Cleveland has one. I’m just going to continue to drop bangers, work on a project and keep building. Hopefully some touring in the near future. We haven’t really talked about that yet. We’re just trying to get a running start. We’ve got some good stuff coming up.”