Rap as a genre has never been shy about forging boldly forward to push the boundaries of music further than before. Think Kanye. This is hardly a bad thing, and usually produces some of the most prolific and incredible art in our culture. However, there are some who would say that progress for progress’ sake is not always what’s best. The old head mentality you might call it asks for those who love and appreciate rap, fans and artists alike, to understand where the genre came from and the legends it produced.
The Cool Kids did exactly that, combining their appreciation for an old school sound with new age mindset that worked perfectly during rap’s transition period of the late 00’s. Their big-shirted, skinny-jeaned influence sent ripple effects through the genre that wouldn’t be fully realized until much later. They were integral to helping hand off the reigns of the game from megastars like Wayne and Eminem wearing 59FIFTYs to young independent innovators like Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$ wearing snapbacks and Polo hats.
Chuck Inglish of Detroit, and Mickey Rocks of Chicago were aware of this influence as it was happening. They refused to sell out with a big record deal. Instead blazing a new path based on blogs and viral hype. And while they’ve been away these past few years, rap has been fully realized into a machine driven by the internet and young people, not execs in boardrooms. They never got to fully enjoy the culture they influenced, but maybe a strange year like 2016 could be the perfect time for them to return and bask in the glow of what they helped create.
Sure enough, Christmas came early last Saturday when I received a little notification on my phone that read, “Running Man (feat. Maxo Kream) by The Cool Kids has been added to Spotify.”
I stared at my screen with a mix of shock, disbelief, and joy. It’s one thing to say you’re getting the band back together and it’s something completely different to get back together forreal and then immediately deliver a dope new single less than two months later. The boys are back in town.
My Cool Kids allegiance started back sometime in late 2008 when I heard the earth-rattling 808s on their single “Mikey Rocks” for the first time. Nothing was the same after that (sorry Drizzy). I listened to The Bake Sale about a million times walking to class as a sophomore at Maryland. The “tick tick clap, tick tickticktick clap” intro on “What Up Man” is a bold and lazily self aware homage to rap’s 1980s beginnings. The beat is literally Chuck’s voice saying the words “tick” and “clap.” It perfectly captures their style and approach. Top to bottom every single song on that 10-track tour of rap braggadocio, Motorola beepers, and Mitchell & Ness jerseys changed my ideas about what rap was and could be.
Little did I know how great their influence on the culture as a whole would be at the time, but now that they have announced their return after a five year hiatus, we should realize how much they meant to rap and how much they’ve been missed. In a series of tweets about their impending reunion Chuck Inglish said, “So prepare for things to go back to the way they were supposed to be. The Cool Kids together is what is right in the world. It’s on.” I couldn’t agree more, Chuck.
I first caught a glimpse of The Cool Kids live when they made a stop at Sante Fe Bar in College Park (RIP to the greatest) in April 2010. My friend Ed and I threaded our way through a packed crowd to the front of the stage. A lot of these cats were there to see Asher Rother who was also touring with Chuck and Mikey, riding high on the wave of “I Love College.” But Ed and I were there for another reason. We had been listening to Bake Sale for a solid five months. It was time for the real deal. We were ready to rap along to every word with them in the flesh. And for over an hour they threw down with cuts like, “88,” “Gold and a Pager,” and “Black Mags.” We might have been a couple underage kids in a small, shitty college bar, but it felt like we were at Howard Theatre or Webster Hall. Rap paradise.
In the three times that I’ve seen The Cool Kids live there is a common thread that runs through their shows. Pure. Unadulterated. Energy. They perform with uncut, Columbian-grade adrenaline from start to finish, putting such effort and vigor into each song that it’s as if they will never deliver them again. By the end of the show Mikey Rocks, or Sir Michael Rocks as he’s gone by since the group’s split, has shed his big baggy shirt and his skinny, tattooed frame is covered in perspiration. As much as these dudes rap about not caring, they clearly give a damn about their craft and their performance shows it.
After Bake Sale, Chuck and Mike released two mixtapes, Gone Fishing and Tacklebox, in 2009. These two tapes were filled with a great deal of material that was likely meant for their oft-delayed debut album rumored to be titled When Fish Ride Bicycles – a nod to their ongoing aquatic theme while also thumbing their nose at their major label, implying that the album would be finally released once salmon were peddling Huffys.
I would highly recommend checking these tapes out, because they give you an idea of what Bicycles would have sounded like had it not been held up by label bullshit. Both projects lack the tightness and cohesion of a Bake Sale, but you can hear the creativity and stylistic experimentation bleeding through in tracks like, “Volume II” and “Fishing Lessons” on Tacklebox. Other cuts like, “Freak City” and “Systems” could be on a Bake Sale B-Sides. “Gold Links” and “Jump Rope” from Gone Fishing are absolute classics. “Back on that gold chain shit, cooler than a whistle.” While not exuding the chilly barrenness nor the brevity of Bake Sale, these two tapes are a window into the duo’s development as artists and put us on notice for what was to come years down the line.
After a nearly 37 month delay between official releases, the pair finally gave us their debut album in 2011. Top to bottom this project is a significant departure from anything they’d done before. Chuck Inglish’s booming barebones production is now layered with snippets of funk and spacey sounds that build on top of their 1980s-soaked style. Both Chuck and Mikey Rock’s deliveries are as aloof as ever, “She wanted me to beg, but I beg your pardon/I’m Park Place, you’re Marvin Gardens.” Almost bored-sounding as if to say, “I’m actually too dope to really be rapping right now, but I’m gonna do it anyway.” Cuts like Penny Hardaways touch on what these dudes rap about best: style. “Them Bally loafers and them Cartiers/ I do my thang Penny Hardaway.” You won’t be blown away by their rhyme schemes or poetry, but you damn sure will know what kind of watches they’re wearing.
Bundle Up is a song that draws directly from The Bake Sale‘s “What Up Man” with a minimal bassline that could easily be a recording of Chuck and Mike stomping their feet in the studio underneath a basic Casio synth line. On one hand, you could try to criticize the lack of artistry in this approach, but honestly you would be wrong to do so. The rough-shod feel of the instrumental fits perfectly these dudes DGAF attitude.
Another departure from their first release is the incorporation of guest verses, courtesy of Ghostface Killah, ” In my years I sported igloos, Alaskan Ice/ The light bulbs in my jewels show off in the night”; Chip Tha Ripper, “I need a soccer mom like that MILF off Weeds who sell weed”; and Bun B, “Blue plate special with the blue paint drippin/ Carolina blue J’s on my feet and I ain’t trippin.” Chuck also relinquished some of the production duties on two songs to none other than the Neptunes.
The duo even take a dip into the pop rap pool with the Neptunes-produced,”Headlights,” which is easily their most non-Bake Sale era track to date. It’s a catchy, bold-faced parody of a summer rap jam and doubles down on the notion that they could go pop if they really wanted to, but their ideals about what rap should be will not be compromised by label interests and record sales.
At the time, in summer 2011, it appeared that the Cool Kids star was on the rise and would only get brighter. But soon after releasing Bicycles, Mikey Rocks signed with Jet Life Recordings (shouts to Spitta the God!), while Chuck released several solo instrumental tapes. It appeared that the label battles had killed what was supposed to be a long tenure as rap’s premiere duo. Both members appeared to (cordially) part ways and explore new individual musical pursuits.
Briefly, in 2014 the pair put out two tracks that appeared to be the makings of their follow up album, Shark Week, but alas it was not to be. In 2015, Chuck took to Twitter to say that a reunion was never going to happen. After all the build up and dopeness of the late 00’s and early 2010’s we were left with a small sample of what these two could have been.
But then came 2016, which is a year that has been many things if not, um, unexpected. Over the summer there were rumors that the pair were chilling again and plotting a reunion. A half decade-long hope that was finally realized in July. Chuck Inglish fielded questions on a podcast about a reunion and finally unleashed a long Twitter rant. “The Hiatus is over. We miss being us,” he mused. We, as rabid rap fans, have missed you as well, gentleman.
Their new single, “Running Man,” is here. And appears to be just the beginning of a long roll out of new material heading into 2017. The least I can hope for is a new batch of genre defining music and even more excitingly, the possibility of experiencing the energy and fervor of another Cool Kids live show in the near future. Now that they’re back I hope they stick around long enough to earn the praise they deserve for pushing the genre they represent into a new and exciting space.