Chicago’s spoken-word poetry king, Armond McWilliams, aka Armen Rah, had only one question to ask as he listened to some of HANIBL’s demo tracks for their debut album, “Big Windy.” “What exactly are you guys?”
HANIBL is the earth-shattering collaboration between African-American rapper Ralph McConnell, aka Phee, and Korean-American singer/rapper/producer Peter Kim, aka soundtrack. They were introduced in late 2006 by a mutual friend who thought that, together, the duo could truly make some remarkable things happen. Only a few months later, their demo is done and they’re about to kick things off with a breakthrough performance at the Chicago Korean Festival.
McConnell, who had been rapping on street corners and at SubTerranean in Chicago for about 10 years, had assumed that talent and skill was enough to build a career in music. As his friends gave up on their musical dreams to concentrate on other careers, he realized that it took more than just talent and hard work. There was a difficult transitional period, as he thought about his narrowing options in the music industry. “I didn’t know how much work was involved in creating an album until I met Peter. It takes a lot of skill to write a good song, but now I understand what needs to be done, and we have a product that I can be proud of.”
Kim, meanwhile, was haunted by ghosts of disapproval. He had gone to graduate school, and worked part-time as a deejay, thinking that this was only way to stay involved in music while “having a real career.” But he battled depression and insomnia in a losing battle to suppress his true love: to create beautiful music that, as his pseudonym suggests, would create a “sound track” for people’s favorite memories.
McConnell was surprised, initially, to discover that his musical twin was an Asian-American. But when they finally sat down at soundtrack’s home studio, he was amazed by the potential of their partnership. In less than a week, “Big Windy” was finished.
“People don’t realize,” says Phee, “that producing an album means more than just recording a couple of people with a microphone. It’s nothing like karaoke. I have to give credit to Peter, for making the rhythms, recording the keyboard parts, and re-arranging all the layers of vocals we recorded. But he’s the only one who could’ve created this sound… he’s the only one who could’ve done it in such a short time, and it’s still head-and-shoulders above what’s on radio right now.”
Meanwhile, McWilliams was so impressed that he agreed to perform custom-made spoken-word poetry for the album. His efforts resulted in a narrative that solidified “Big Windy” as a conceptual album about hope, victory, remorse, and their love for music and for the Second City. Meanwhile, McConnell; notes, “some of those who have more rapping skills than me are still on those same street corners. They haven’t gone anywhere, because they don’t have the right producer, and they never learned how to write good songs. With Peter, I think HANIBL has a chance to be something special, because nobody’s doing anything that sounds like us.”
“The best part for me,” says Kim, “was realizing that I could say proudly that a Korean-American constructed this album, which could have mainstream appeal. People are surprised to discover that an Asian is responsible for this album – but Koreans have been in America long enough, it’s about time a Korean-American produced a hip-hop CD. I may be the first Korean-American to produce an American hip-hop album, but I won’t be the last. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, too, because I think there’s something on this album for everybody.”
“Hip-hop is still evolving, creating a culture that is universal. It’s big enough that the color of your skin doesn’t matter, even though historically hip-hop has a certain ethnic origin,” Phee adds. “But if you understand the language of struggle, passion, and frustration - which Peter understands very well – then we’re no longer talking about just hip-hop: we’re talking about creating original music. We’re talking about love songs, dance music, and everything in between. I can appreciate how historically significant it is that the son of Korean immigrants can create something this profound. But overall, I’m excited because it finally feels like this is what we were both meant to be doing, and it’s just our demo!”