The past few years have been kind to Austin resident and full-time rapper Christopher Harris, 30, who goes by the stage name Chris Crack.
His 2015 self-released album Public Domain 4 garnered a respectable review by Pitchfork magazine, which noted that the Oak Park native has “played local support for acts like Slick Rick, Mystikal, and Can Ox.”
Last May, Crack was the subject of a Twitter shout-out from the actor John Leguizamo after the Carlito’s Way star was mentioned in a song, “Wanna See a Dead Body?” on which Crack collaborated with his two musical mentors, the widely respected underground rapper Vic Spencer and the rapper/producer Tree.
“I’ve contemplated quitting almost every day,” said Crack during a recent interview in his Austin apartment. “This isn’t very lucrative, but it’s like right when you want to quit, that’s when things start happening.”
Crack’s elevated stature in the Chicago hip-hop scene didn’t come out of nowhere. The rapper developed his sound alongside his longtime best friend and roommate Paul Gulyas, 30, who goes by the name Cutta and is something like Crack’s muse (the rapper shouts out his best friend in virtually every song).
In their teens, the former elementary and high school classmates would meet inside of Cutta’s parents’ basement studio, cranking out mischief and music during rambunctious jam sessions that, in the beginning, were heavier on the mischief than the music.
“It was pretty much us [messing] around and recording,” Gulyas said. “It would be a bunch of people in the basement. Over the years, people would fall off. It wasn’t really who they were. They were just doing it for fun, so the crew got smaller and smaller. Now, it’s really just us and our one mission is to make great music.”
The duo, who call themselves the New Deal Crew, have since gotten more serious about the work that goes into making a career of this. Crack sounds like a craftsman recalling that he learned from Spencer how to write his lyrics in a more efficient and workmanlike way.
They are now focused on cultivating a sound that Pitchfork music critic Winston Cook-Wilson described as “lightly psychedelic,” “personable,” a bit quirky and spontaneous, less ambitious than atmospheric (“On every level, this is music that is about just living, moving forward and getting by, told from the perspective of a proverbial Lothario and party-hunting nomad, loose in the city at night”).
A brown-skinned Barbie doll still in the box hangs inexplicably on a wall in the musicians’ bachelor pad like a statue of the Virgin Mary, which might add to that Pitchfork characterization, i.e. all nocturnal, hazed in smoke and tinted in the proverbial neon glow of club life.
But during the day, Crack talks about properties he owns, which allow him to rap full-time, a process that varies by the season. A small shelf of books underneath the television betrays deeper sensibilities, which the rapper said “make up like 80 percent” of his lyrical content — Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
“If you play 10 songs, eight of them will have that [stuff] in there,” Crack said. “It’s like super-conscious. I feel like that awareness [of injustice and systemic racism] skipped the last generation.”
Cutta, who produces much of Crack’s music, is also a musician in his own right, working as a full-time sound engineer for live concerts. But the pair is right where they want to be.
“Most people aren’t in this music thing forever,” said Crack. “Some just do it for months, some try to make a hit and some do it for a couple of years. Then you’ve got people out there who are like, ‘Yo, I’m going to die doing this.'”