Article submitted courtesy of Corrine Cassels.

Chicago’s summer festivals are filled with up and coming local artists. A duo that has become seasoned in Chicago’s music scene is Grimms & Blacknight. They played 2017’s Ian’s Party in January and made their second appearance at Dark Matter Coffee’s annual summer festival in July, which is becoming a staple for West Town Chicago.

Photo by Ethan Barnowsky

Grimms & Blacknight, like other Chicago artists, are in the midst of finding their footing in the constantly evolving music industry. Quitting their jobs and using insurance money from a car accident to rent a touring van, they embarked on their first 13,000 mile US tour. A tour that started out being half-booked and ended with 11 shows, validating their drive and ultimately their place in the scene. Using that fire, and some lucky connections, they began work on their second full-length album (to be released 2018) with producer Brian Deck who has worked with artists like Modest Mouse and the Counting Crows.

Their first album Basement Type Secrets, self-released via their website 3 years ago, led them to a chance encounter with Brian Deck after being billed with Sub Pop’s CLIPPING. Basement Type Secrets’ cover features J.A. Grimms in a Chicago basement communicating with Blacknight via a beer can string telephone. On the three year anniversary of its release, let’s see if we can listen in on that conversation.

Grimms & Blacknight consist of Jamal Semaan and Rob Lorts based in Chicago. They bill themselves as a “dreamhop duo”, with Grimms (Semaan) as the lyricist and rapper and Blacknight (Lorts) as the producer with plenty of rock guitar contributions. Semaan and Lorts began their musical journey in 7th grade when they met in Lake Orion, Michigan when Semaan, born in Canada, was originally a drummer, and have been playing together ever since. Semaan used his rhythmic background to build his Grimms persona, where his rap took on a unique folksy style. Each syllable is like a beat on a drum–deliberate and melodic. Lorts, on the other hand, bleeds rock n’ roll, which is evident not only in his guitar playing but also in his style of production. Blacknight’s sounds take on a trippy, symphonic haze, as intentional as Grimms’ rhymes. Their 2014 release, Basement Type Secrets, is a “journey through first love” where Grimms says the heartache of losing a relationship leads to digging within one’s self to find the “basement within”. Blacknight’s gritty guitar and range of musical accompaniment, from dark gothic sounds to crisp bell-like tones, help the downward descent.

Basement Type Secrets starts off with “Sweeper”, where we are introduced to Grimms’ storytelling rhymes. Every annunciation is intentional, with each syllable and word placed in a specific time and space. The end result is almost a vocal sounding verse. You can feel the influences of not only lyricists and hip hop artists, but also jazz and R&B singers of days gone by. Blacknight envelopes the words with his distinctive style of distorted sound that gives the background vivid imagery for Grimms’ words to float in.

In the next few songs, Grimms’ clever wordplay and intense poetry become evident as Blacknight provides a solid base for them to shine. “Modern Timed” has a fun vibe with crisp vocal backings and playful echoes. “Big Bends” is a song that makes you close your eyes and bob your head, with a vivid aura that surrounds you. I found myself visualizing each word as if each note had its own color.

“Brunch” uses repetitive, simplistic lyrics and rhythmic beats to explain the intensity of the simplicity of love; to just simply exist with someone, to look forward to the mundane details of daily life because they include that person. The song had a distinct intimacy that stood out and easily made it one of my favorite tracks. “Sleep” went down the same path with an upbeat sound, again about the intimacy we sometimes take for granted in new relationships.

“Potions” is passionate spoken word. The lyrics managed to be eloquent and poignant all while being explicit. The line “less of an object and more of a notion” may be my favorite line of the album. The soft, mellow backdrop set by Blacknight makes this a compelling component of Basement Type Secrets’ overall sound.

The album takes a darker turn with “Homeland”. Its intense rock vibe and aggressive rapping is intentionally more rough than previous tracks. Grimms’ lyrics suggest he is done repressing his dark side, and we’re going to get to see it whether we like it or not. I’d have to say I like it. The emotion is raw and palpable and continues into “Ghouly” which is a fitting title for its haunting sounds and slow, drawn out vocals. “Drone 13” has a universal, eclectic vibe. Its repetitive line “stand out in the far out” suggests the descent into self-discovery and cements that sentiment with the line “I guess we’ve all got to grow”. Grimms once again has a way of portraying pain as a necessary step to happiness. And on that note, we’ve made our descent to the final track “Basement” which is an instrumental ending to an intense journey. The melodic electric guitar seals up the emotion of the lyric heavy songs in a fittingly quiet way.

Basement Type Secrets is an authentic exploration of love and loss. The tracks are in perfect order, leading us down the descent into the basement thanks to Grimms’ descriptive storytelling. Much like a folk singer with his acoustic guitar, Grimms uses his voice and words as notes and chords, with the help of Blacknight creating a beautiful landscape for them to land. Together, Grimms & Blacknight are a synergistic team whose musical talents feed off each other. Grimms’ lyrics paint a colorful picture and Blacknight’s production is the gilded frame.

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