West Side Story with Chicago boy-band Pivot Gang
Photography Hannah Siegfried
Photographed by Hannah Siegfried
Styled by Hannah Black
Interview by Isis Nicole
Spring had just wrapped its arms around Chicago. Hours before meeting with your next favorite group, photographer, Hannah Siegfried played the role of chauffeur, Hannah Black, the analytical stylist in need of an iced coffee, and myself, the emotional editor who ate her breakfast too slow.
Buckled in our seats, we cruised around the city early morning with the radio set to 107.5 WGCI-FM. "Angels" by Chance The Rapper featuring Saba played at full volume and we hummed along in excitement, "Wear your halo like a hat, that's like the latest fashion / I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded."
By noon, the three of us had entered back on location for our scheduled shoot with said future favorite, Pivot Gang, a Chicago-based boy-band featuring Joseph Chilliams, Saba, John Walt, and MFn Melo.
Straightway, their sense of brotherhood enhanced and influenced the atmosphere during their arrival. Nick Howe, our videographer onset, for instance, started out bashful, then naturally, became somewhat of a 2004 version of Nigel Barker, only in this moment, capturing classic poses on VHS.
Pivot Gang made their way to the clothing rack and commended Black's flair. I served cans of ginger-ale and a list of questions about big family, milestones, and growing up on Chicago's West Side.
Isis Nicole: We've been talking about dreams manifested in your life. Can we start by sharing what it was like growing up as brothers?
Joseph Chilliams: We were really good in school. Growing up, we had all the game systems and what not which was pretty sweet. Dad and mom broke up. I don't know what year. Maybe 1997 or 1998? So we lived with our grandparents, I played basketball, and my brother [Saba] played, too. He wasn't as good as me.
Saba: Look … I was pretty great! I know if I tried out I would have made the team. My grandparents didn't let me try out because [Joseph] tried out and when he was on the team it was like, schoolwork or basketball. He picked basketball and his grades dropped a little bit.
J: No. They dropped a lot.
S: Our grandparents were like, "We're not going to let that happen to our other grandson." So he ruined that shit for me. I would have one hundred percent made the team. I had gym class with all the basketball players, busted their ass consistently.
IN: How did you end up from athlete to recording artist?
J: I was like 13-years-old [when] I bumped into spoken word because I went to a Christian summer camp to play basketball. They had a court so I was like hell yeah I'm for that. They were like, "Yeah you guys are not really learning anything. You're just playing basketball, so let's offer you things that you have to participate in." It was either board games, like chess or checkers, or you had to go to this spoken word thing. I did spoken word since you could actually have conversations. At the end of the first time that I went, I wrote a poem. It was entirely bullshit. Something like, ‘Do you have a dollar I could borrow / call me tomorrow / and I’ll let you know if I have a dollar you can borrow,’ and everyone laughed when I said that. That's pretty much how I got into rap.
MFn Melo: I kind of got in there late. After we started Pivot Gang we’d go to Young Chicago Authors workshop, and before that, I was going to YouMedia. One time for brother Mike. I never took it serious until after I graduated and came over to their crib.
John Walt: My uncle, aunt, mom and dad all did music, like rap, when I was coming up. My uncle [found success] and was signed to some label. As a child, I never took it serious. I used to freestyle, I'd say around 2011. I realized that my cousins Saba and Joseph had a studio like five minutes away from my house, and I was like ‘what!’
IN: And now you're like Pivot Gang! How many members total?
S: There's your infinity!
IN: Can anybody join?!
S: No. You have to pay us $500.
J: Monthly fee.
S: You gotta pay $500 at the start and then just give us $50 every month.
JW: First and last month's.
IN: This is expensive. I could never be a Pivot Gang member.
J: Don't say that.
JW: We got layaway.
JW: Aye if you do something great you might be an honorary Pivoter.
S: That is true.
IN: Would you do it on stage like how Kanye received a chain?
MM: We ain't got no chains yet.
J: We could just tell you.
IN: On stage. It has got to be on stage in front of an audience!
Hannah Black: Oh my God!
J: Hey if you make that a thing, totally! We put on for our Pivoters.
HB: How did you guys become Pivot?
J: We made a lot of songs together naturally, and needed a name. We had a photoshoot in Wicker Park and after that, went to Reckless Records. I'm a big fan of the television show Friends and bought the first season for around $2 or something. I got into this long conversation with an employee at checkout out, and then everyone who worked behind the store came over [for] this ten minute conversation. I was like damn that's never happened before. People really fuck with Friends. It's totally a thing. There's an episode where Ross Geller [played by David Schwimmer] is moving a couch and he yells, "Pivot!" It's really funny, and the next day I wrote a rap where I say, ‘Call us the Pivot Gang.’
IN: Everyone shouts pivot at your shows!
J: Like Ross did.
IN: Can we talk about boy band inspirations?
J: I consider any group of boys that made music together boy bands. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Wu-Tang Clan, whatever you know. They're all boy bands to me. I've always felt like they all had some sort of image. It was easier to get behind them as a group than them individually. I felt like that would be a good thing for us to try, to make our presence that much more felt. All the boy bands, they had things about them that inspired me but like, NSYNC, is probably the most inspirational for me. Justin Timberlake with the cornrows [was] like what's really going on there? But their songs are really good. If [people] can get down with Justin in cornrows I feel like we have nothing to worry about.
IN: Do you feel like you're in a boy band?
MM: [Laughs] Most definitely. How can I not? I think it's energy that makes a boy band. I wasn't always for it. I didn't really get into it for real, but that is what is it and I think it's pretty cool.
IN: Me, too. How do you guys feel about your dreams actualizing as a boy band and creatives?
S: I feel great about it. It's coming along and it's one of those things where it's like, we've been doing it so long now. Hella years, and this is just the beginning. Then we do something else that's like a milestone and [again] it's like, this is just the beginning. The cool thing about having art as your job is that there's no real success indicator. It's kind of like you just chill and do what you love. You get to put art into the world and kind of see it become your world and I think that's, you know … that's real cool. We've got to do some cool things so far even this early on. It's really just a matter of waking up everyday excited to do something that you love.
IN: That's awesome. I relate just thinking about when Hannah and I work on our magazine. Seeing things come together with no blueprint necessarily, making your own rules…
S: Yeah we were winging it for a very long time. I think this is the first year where we have some plans or strategy being implemented … I guess. I mean, we're still kind of winging it but before, we were young. We had a nice amount of trial and error and shit in certain aspects where we [now] know what to do and what not to do. It's still really early so I think we're learning as we go. There's no person or group of people above us or helping us. We're kind of just doing it.
IN: I was going to ask about your uncle. Has he been an example or did you get to learn anything while he was a recording artist?
S: He told us a lot but the thing is, the music scene is so much different.
JW: The information [our uncle told] is kind of dated.
S: It's more of a history lesson rather than a you should do it like this. It's cool to know that even if he were to pursue this same dream today, it would still be very different. With art everybody's experience is different. Artists generate different [experiences] and responses. You've got to just find a way to implement [information] into your plan rather than just doing what someone else did. I think a lot of times older people don't get it.
IN: Especially many parents.
S: Talking to our cousins or my dad even, because my dad makes music, it be funny. He's starting to get it now that we're starting to get responses back and we’re able to do stuff via our music. He's kinda seeing it. Me and my dad used to get in heated arguments because when I was 16-years-old I told him I was putting my music out for free and he was like, "That's the stupidest shit I've ever heard. Why would you ever do that?" I'm like, ‘Dad no trust me this is a good idea. Selling it is stupid.’ Now he kind of sees the reaction that just being able to release free music has gotten.
IN: Does he react at all to you being on the radio?
S: Uh well he's in New York, so I'm not on the radio [laughs] but he knows that it's a thing [in Chicago]. He's real supportive. Anytime I do a show out there he'll come to it. He's one of those Facebook dads who's like always on Facebook anytime I do something, or anytime my brother does something or anytime anything really happens that's on the Internet. He kind of sees the vision now but it's like you know … sometimes it's not even worth it to argue your ideas with people because you've got to take what they say into consideration but know that that's not your path and kind of do what you do and then they'll maybe see it how you see it. I think that statement would be true not just art.
IN: Absolutely. Do you guys have any short terms goals for the winter?
S: I want to go somewhere else for the winter, at least for like a month. If I could make that happen that would be cool.
MM: Same thing. I just want to be able to go somewhere dealing with my music.
MM: I'm with it. I've never been.
IN: I've never been.
MM: You trying to go?
IN: If i'm the honorary, I'm IN.
Originally published in IN #5, Fall 2016