Only Going Up
An Interview with Bryan Zawlocki: Curator and Co-Founder of Elevator Magazine
Of all the people involved with hip-hop music in Chicago, Bryan Zawlocki has had the most to say. The co-founder of Elevator Magazine and I conversed for an hour on the record, and another hour and a half after. The tales he had to tell really opened up my mind about the nature of what it means to contribute to the culture of hip-hop. His anecdotes consisted of everything from shooting videos in dangerous neighborhoods and having artists wave guns in his face to being on set at the scene of a crime for a rapper who’s uncle just died. He’s helped mold and shape the careers of many an artist including G-Herbo (formerly known as Lil Herb), Lil Bibby, and Martin $ky. The most impressive aspect of his online publication is that he has no funding for it; Elevator magazine is financed completely out of pocket. For a platform with millions of views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers, that is incredible. If you haven’t been paying attention to ELEVATOR over the past few years, now is the time to start. Bryan Zawlocki is one of the people responsible for this hip-hop renaissance coming out of the Windy City.
How did you get into hip-hop growing up?
“Well I wasn’t a big hip-hop fan when I was younger, except for maybe Dr. Dre and Cypress Hill. In high school I mostly listened to classic rock and grunge music like STP and Nirvana. My dad always had records in the basement, growing up I would scratch them, and he would yell at me but I’d still do it anyway because I thought it sounded cool. In college my buddy Jordon (who’s a co-founder of Elevator) and I had this idea that we should just be DJs, so we started throwing house parties spinning disco, funk, and house music. We had a blog centered on that, it was fun but the brand wasn’t what we wanted it to be or what we wanted to do. People started asking us to listen to their music and next you thing you know we bought a camera, started shooting shit, and then friends asked us to make videos for them, a lot of it ended up being hip hop. Jordan was already a fan of it being from Cincinnati. I didn’t know much about it at the time but I was down for it. We started blogging when Hype Machine started and Ill Roots and Fake Shore were only a year old. We studied the other blogs at the time and then shared any music we thought was dope. Pretty much just fell into it because everybody was doing it. Being a creative in the scene, a lot of the music happening was hip-hop and we were just working with everybody we could, so it sprung from there.
Do you consider yourself a curator of art and hip-hop music?
“Yes, absolutely. I do this every day. One hundred percent.”
Which artists have you worked closely with?
“Definitely Martin, we’ve pretty much become buddies over the years, he used to just come by the old Elevator office and hangout. He might have even blogged for us a few times, although I can’t remember. We had some artists that would come by to post and share stuff out of the same passion for music that we had. Our relationship has got to the point now where he trusts me, and I had to work for that. He would get nervous about a lot of my conceptual video ideas.
Was he nervous about “Reach”?
“I mean yeah he’s hesitant towards most of my ideas, when we first came up working together, and this was a few years ago mind you, he would say that all he wanted to do was wear T-shirts and he didn’t want to be fake. Which I understood but I also wanted to make visually stunning pieces and to let him have fun with it. Now he sends me songs he wants videos for and I just come up with a crazy idea based on the vibe I get from the song and he’s begun to really trust my vision. I’ve heard people say Martin $ky has the some of the best videos in Chicago, so that’s validating to hear. I can’t take all the credit though, our interns Kevin and Antoinne have shot some of our biggest videos. And I have to shout out Fam as well because he helps out so much behind the scenes.
Is Martin $ky someone who you feel you have helped boost their career?
“I don’t take credit for anyone’s success. I know he receives a lot of love for his production, and I think having a strong visual aspect to your music or any art really, is extremely important. You can get away with having a shitty video; tracks blow up all the time with poor production. Personally, the visual part of music makes me enjoy the art form more.
Did ELEVATOR do anything at SXSW this year?
“There were a few events we sponsored and slapped our logo on but nothing too major this year. I went to SXSW back in 2012 the month before we launched Elevator to gather content for the website. Back then it was still kind of small. The highlight of that festival was A$AP Mob coming through, in a venue of six hundred people on a rooftop. Tony Banes, one of my long time friends in the business introduced me to a ton of people down there and I met a lot of kids making really good music.
What represents ELEVATOR? What type of hip-hop are you looking to post, promote, and expose?
“I’ve had to question myself about that a lot lately as well. When we began we were all over the place. We really wanted to create and focus on one thing, our goal in the beginning was that if the song is good lets share it and shoot videos for it. Now we’ve had to change our direction a bit due to the gun violence here in this city, a lot of it being gang related. We’ve also had socially conscious people question our platform, and I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to something with negative influence. Now my rule is if an artist wants imagery like that in their work it needs to serve a purpose, I am not shooting another video with rappers and their friends just waving guns at the camera. There would have to be a theme or plot device that necessitated the use of a gun.
Who are some of these socially conscious people, can you comment on anyone specific?
Not really, I can say that I was at a rally before the release of Spike Lee’s CHIIRAQ. I’m sure you’re familiar with the controversy surrounding the film. Anyways, Father Pfleger was there and said that artists like Chief Keef are responsible for some of the gang related gun violence going on in Chicago. I completely understand where he’s coming from as drill music can come off extremely negative. That being said, I also thought it was ignorant in the sense that if you grow up in a place like the South side of Chicago, your form of self expression is going to reflect the environment in which you live in. I can’t tell an artist he or she is wrong for making music like that, if that’s what they feel and go through, how could I reject that when my platform can bring an artist something positive to their life?
Who is the artist of the music video you showed me where he’s rapping in his late uncles run down trailer?
“His name is Wteve Baker, the song is “Tree Haus”. That was an emotional video for me because he wanted to drive out to the country and shoot on location at his uncle’s place. Well little did I know his uncle had recently passed away and there was still yellow crime scene tape all over his trailers and place of residence. It didn’t seem that Wteve was very close to him because he was stoic and almost emotionless. Watching Wteve rap his track in those run down trailers gives one an eerie feeling, and it was surreal to film him that day.”
Since I’ve been living in Chicago I have followed Elevator Magazine closely. And during the last four years Bryan Zawlocki has grown his platform to be one of the most substantial hip-hop publications in the city and the Midwest. You can find everything from the darkest drill track to the most alternative of rap songs. If you have never visited Elevator and immersed yourself in the hip-hop they have to offer, now is the time to start.
You can visit ELEVATOR here:
And you can follow Bryan Zawlocki on Twitter: @EZBeazy