A Plan Comes Together: In Conversation with Joey Purp
Joseph Davis never really planned to be one of his city’s most acclaimed emcees, but with a little help from his daughter, he's learning to look into the future.
Header photo and all in-article photos by Conor Herbert.
Joey Purp is teetering on the brink of fame. That wasn’t a part of the plan.
He might not be a household name, but Purp boasts a resumé that includes helping found SAVEMONEY, the vanguard of Chicago’s exceptional decade; releasing iiiDrops, one of that movement’s finest mixtapes; dropping Quarterthing, an exceptional if underpromoted record; and getting a shoutout from President Obama, amongst others. These kinds of things don’t happen by chance, but Joey’s not going to pretend his future was assured.
“I didn't really care to plan for me,” he confesses, almost embarrassed by the thought. It’s by some cosmic coincidence, then, that Joseph Davis – now, as Joey Purp, one of Chicago’s most celebrated emcees – ended up in a Collingwood coffee shop in mid-October. He’s dressed a bit too warm for the mild day, but maybe I’m just being optimistic: the weather can change on a dime out here, something he’s about to discover for himself. Plus, it’s his first time in the country. How was he to know?
It’s been a year since we last spoke, and a seemingly quiet one at that. Quarterthing – his most recent project – was lavished with praise, a commanding display of versatility that cast Purp’s sensibilities as the lynchpin of his ever-shifting sonic direction. As we sit down, he’s just a couple of weeks out from his most recent single, a collaborative cut with his friend and onetime offsider KAMI. Earlier in the decade, the pair cut their teeth as Leather Corduroys, honing the voices that they’d one day use as their own.
Sayless is less of a reunion and more of a reconvention: the duo have never strayed too far, and though they’ve been honing their own distinct voices over the last few years, their interplay is strong as ever. “We just didn't want to put the title Leather Cords on it... we’d rather just make a Joey Purp and KAMI vibe,” he tells me, explaining the shared billing on their recent single. That vibe, familiar to longtime fans that clamour for their rapport, is as freewheeling as the reasons underpinning it. “Me and bro both work in the same way, we catch vibes and we're in a certain vibe for a certain amount of time, so right now we just so happen to be in the same type of vibe,” he explains, revelling in the comfort of a longstanding creative relationship. “We got a bunch of songs that could be what you would call singles, and we got just a bunch of music, so we're just gonna put it out… we just gon' do it however we really feel like we want to at the time, you know what I'm saying?”
It’s a question he asks a lot, one which speaks to the clarity of his mission. He’s checking in because he wants you to know – he needs you to understand – a conviction that comes through in each and everyone one of his tracks, whether they be conscious boom-bap or incendiary party-starters. “If I was a painter, I wouldn't be like an abstract painter, I'd be like a photorealist, like I want my shit to look like real life,” he says, touching upon one of his most indispensable emceeing assets. There’s no doubting Purp’s technical prowess, but it’s his immediacy that truly sets him apart from his peers.
Chicago itself has a long history of vivid streetcorner storytelling, whether that be Malik’s My City, West’s Everything I Am or Lupe’s Kick, Push. Even Chance, an emcee known more for his positive affirmations and Christian inclinations, tapped into the minutiae of his reality with Acid Rain, the bloody, beating heart of Acid Rap. Joey’s ability to so clearly and evocatively enunciate an idea – whether that be in a greater narrative, or bar-to-bar in a looser cut – pushes this tradition forward. “Sometimes people don't like that, either,” he muses, unconcerned. “They want to be taken to this place where they can escape their life with music, and I don't think a lot of people want to hear that real life. Even if it's a party track, they don't want to hear exactly what's happening.” Take Cornerstore, a stirring story of Chicago youth, and Godbody (Pt. 2), a fierce testament to his resolve: two very different cuts, mournful and assured, bridged by their striking immediacy.
The word ‘escapism’ enters into the mix, and though Joey’s quick to latch onto it, he offers his own take on the idea. “I kind of like my shit because it's not escapism... like, you can escape whatever you're going through and enter this that I'm going through.” Sometimes, that includes those very feelings of desperation, such as on iiiDrops closer Escape, a powerful affirmation that pits his convictions against the powers and people that would hold him back.
“It's like driving through the back corner to a bad neighbourhood,” he offers, eyes gleaming. “You drive through and you're looking, and you're like, ‘okay, that's what it looks like.’ You're not gonna hop out and kick it!” It’s music that vividly illustrates the shared bonds of human experience, bringing you so wholly into a foreign moment: it’s in the tenor of his voice; the cadence of his flow; the barbs of his inflection; and the crevices of the instrumental. You need never have stepped foot in that bad neighbourhood to envision it. Joey enunciates beyond words, and it’s with these skills that he’s made himself a hometown exemplar.
“I think my shit is like that – not necessarily bad neighbourhood vibes – but whatever the vibe is, it's like I want to bring you there. I don't want it to be like, ‘this is a song about the club.’ It's like no, this – is – a – song – about – the – party – and – we’re – in – it – and – it’s – poppin’!” His closed fist comes down on the weathered wooden table with each and every word, rattling the half-finished coffee that sits before me. It’s a far greater parallel to Joey’s rapping than I think he realises, and if there’s any chance I wasn’t listening before, I’m definitely on board now. He smiles, impassioned. “Know what I'm saying?” I do.
Storytelling is, of course, but part of the greater hip-hop mosaic, and last we spoke, Joey was floating more involvement in the production that underpins his presence. “I haven't been like producing hands-on, like learning how to work the program per se, but I've been more into having input into production,” he admits, and the very fact that Thelo sits just a few feet away suggests there’s no need for anything more. “Before would just be like, ‘Thelo, send me some beats,’ but now it's like, ‘okay, what vibe are you in? What vibe am I in? We're on this type of vibe, let's try to find this type of sample from this type of section with these type of elements in it, and then let's make records like that.’” Thelo nods silently.
It’s an approach reminiscent of hometown hero Kanye West who, though a prodigious hands-on producer, has moved into far-reaching collaboration and executive oversight. That fact isn’t lost on Joey: in the eyes of any Chicago emcee, West is all but the literal God he claims to be. “As opposed to before, when they throw everything at the wall – the wall being me – and whatever sticks, sticks. Now it's more solid: okay, we know we're looking for, we kind of curated the sound we're looking for… now let's start seeing what we can do.”
It’s a promising tease from an artist so unbridled in his beat selection, let alone an artist currently immersed in the process. It’s a weekend in Melbourne before a roundabout trip back home, where the roles and responsibilities await him. There’s no all-encompassing tour to pull him from album mode: this is an exception, the buffer that breaks up those long nights spent in booths and behind consoles. “That's like the vibe I've been on,” he says when I mention Frank Ocean’s infamous reticence, “and I’m about to pivot from Frank Ocean to Lil Wayne!” It’s not surprising that it only takes a few minutes to get to Wayne: if Kanye remains a personal hero, then Wayne is something else altogether, and Joey’s reverence is as indescribable as it is intangible. It just… emanates. I ask him about one of his Wayne takes – one of many, mind you – and we’re off.
“Lil Wayne is Allen Iverson with championships,” he begins, fusing two of his foremost loves into a compelling analogy. It’s something he’s put a bit of thought into. “If Allen Iverson was 6'6", he'd be easily the greatest player of all time. Easily. Easily! No comparison. He did all the things that he did at 5'11", arguably six feet.” Wayne is shorter still – a mere 5’5” – but that’s hardly the point. “I guess how I look a Lil Wayne, man, it's just like for whatever reason people don't look at him like they look at Jay-Z, maybe because he didn't present itself as as much of a boss, or his business wasn't handled as well,” he regales, the passion shining through.
“The Birdman thing hurt, the rock and roll thing probably hurt his image for some people, how massively popular he became probably hurt his image to some people, and so I think that that's what it is. It's like Allen Iverson, when people think of Allen Iverson, they almost don't even think about his career. They think about all the image and the practice, you know what I mean? They think about him stepping over Tyronn Lue, but they don't think about the fact that he was like the greatest player, pound for pound!”
Purp’s appreciation for Wayne, perhaps the most unsung of this century’s truly great emcees, speaks volumes about his own creative mission. When he tells me that he’s “about to pivot from Frank Ocean to Lil Wayne,” he’s scheming on turning a lowkey absence to a prolific run. Wayne’s legend, in direct contrast to Ocean’s, was substantiated by his nigh-constant onslaught of records and mixtapes, each and every one an opportunity for some career-tainting disaster. That disaster surely arrived – exactly when, and who was to blame, is the subject of fierce debate – but up until it did, Wayne was merely rapping for the love of it, dropping track after track with uncommonly reckless abandon. His greatness wasn’t curatorial: instead, it was powered by raw talent, weaved into the awe-inspiring consistency of his pithy pen.
A more reserved artist though he may be, Joey’s chasing those same heights, even in the quietest moments. “People have been saying that to me a lot, like, ‘man, it's been kind of quiet for you as far as music's concerned,’ because I haven't been putting stuff out, but I've been making more music than I ever have,” he admits, a real sense of pride coming through. “I have a daughter, so that's the major part of my life, and then outside of that, it’s just coming to those eureka moments where you think about something that you, ‘ah!’, and you write it down, or you type it out, or you formulate the plot of it, you know?” Again, I do.
Just as Joey’s pushing outward musically – involving himself in production, taking a more curatorial role – he’s taking his pen game to new mediums. “I've had a couple of conversations about possible acting roles and stuff like that,” he says, tight-lipped, shooting a glance at Thelo. “We've been developing multiple different TV show ideas… me and Thelonious got a couple of ideas we've been working on, [and] I've been working on a couple of solo ideas ever since we talked last time.”
It’s clearly not all he’s been honing in the interim. The more Joey talks, the more his creative inclinations unfurl, painting him as too ambitious for any single craft. “It's just like trusting my instincts, trusting my gut, waiting for that eureka moment, and then executing on them… that comes in the form of album sometimes, that comes in the form of video idea, sometimes a t-shirt idea, a logo, a brand name, whatever it is.” Even amongst all this, Davis is Purp through and through: “I'm always making music,” he assures me, “so I'm excited to start just putting it out!”
Exciting though it may be, his cavalcade of music, movies, television, design, and who knows what else, are but a fraction of his greater life, one he views as nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, he might have got free Stones tickets, courtesy of fan Mick Jagger – “I sent my mom,” he says, “she had a blast!” – and ended up on fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama’s best of 2018 playlist – “I would have never thought that a president would even hear my voice on a song, let alone like post it somewhere on a list of his songs for the summer… that'd be like if Michael Jordan posted my shit, it'd be like if Kanye posted my shit, it'd be like if Lil Wayne posted my shit!” – but he’s eager to downplay any grand misconceptions. “This life is like everybody else's life, man,” he offers. Maybe he’s right, but then again, it could just be wishful thinking.
Indeed, it’s when we touch on the topic of his daughter that Joey seems most at ease. “She'll be six at the end of this month,” he tells me. “Kindergarten. Super crazy, super crazy. Just a blessing, you know?” He’s gushing, eyes wide, smile wider still. Of all the things we’ve spoken about – rising to the top of one of hip-hop’s most hallowed scenes, counting old friends as artistic peers, seeing unprecedented success, earning a Presidential cosign – it’s this that has proved the most transformational change in Joey’s yet-young life. “Now I have to make decisions that are going to you know, kind of project me and my lifestyle and my life into a certain space for the next 20 years,” he says, “because what if she wants to go to med school, or she wants to take the bar you know?”
One such decision involves touring, which sets Purp on a whirlwind journey far from home. “I'm gonna be touring. It's necessary, man. Me being a family man, like, I have to understand that if I don't tour, that may change the opportunities that she's afforded later in life.” It’s a sacrifice, and he’s the first to acknowledge that, but Joey sees it as time invested: not in any one particular path, but in the great, boundless future he envisions for his daughter. “If I want to set up that same infrastructure and stability for her to have the idea of life that I would like for her to have, or that I feel like she is deserving of, part of that is touring,” he explains. “I'm gonna have to miss out on some time in order to provide.”
He finds some solace in the working life of a musician, one less beholden to the traditional working week, even if it’s not his ideal scenario. “I really don't like working at night, but when I have my daughter I have to,” he says, adapting to his various roles and responsibilities. “I spend a whole day with her and then when she goes to sleep, I'll have her at my mom's or something like that, and so I'll wait about ‘til she's asleep.” It’s an admirable balancing act from an in-demand artist; a father literally moonlighting as a prodigious emcee. It may seem like that’s an inversion, but were you to ask Joey, he’d surely list them the same way.
“I understand it like, with my job not being conventional, I'm already there a lot more than somebody who has a regular job.” Those little moments – dropping her at school, picking her up, sharing those late afternoons – are so often erased by a nine-to-five, and Joey relishes the chance to spend them together. “As she gets older I'm gonna communicate with her more about it. I've talked to her about it now, but she doesn't really grasp the concept as much.”
It’s that idea – her getting older – that has Purp in his head. He recalls his teenage years as a time of reckless abandon, spent doing whatever was to be done in the pursuit of happiness. “It took me until I was 20 years old – when I had her – to really see the future because I saw her growing and I thought ‘oh shit,’ like, before my life was just ‘whatever I wanted to do’ kind of vibes.” It took her arrival to instil that sense of responsibility, and whilst a laissez-faire approach to life worked for Joey, but it’s not a chance he’s willing to take on her behalf “I think that's something I didn't think about before because my life was always whatever I wanted to be. My mom needed something, I would make sure she got it, but now that I have a child, it's just a whole different ball game.”
He can tell I don’t quite understand, but not for lack of trying. “It's inexplicable, the relationship… people ask me what it's like to have a kid, and the only way I can explain it to them is like... if you are good with your mom, having a child is like the feeling you have towards your mom, but like, amplified in an unexplainable way.” It’s the way he’s saying it, not what he’s saying, that almost distils the inexplicable. “A hundred and fifty times more respect for my mom,” he waxes.
“If you ever wanted to understand the feeling that you that you can have for a child, just think about the feeling you have for your mom, and that's like, comparable.” Something in his voice tells me he knows that it falls short, but it’s the closest he’s ever got. There was a time before his daughter, and Joey remembers it vividly, a recollection that makes the bond all the more indescribable. “Yeah. It's great,” he adds, selling it with an earnest smile.
A quiet time in the life of Joey Davis is busier than most. He’s a father now, a huge responsibility in which he relishes. He’s in the studio, busier than ever, honing his craft, learning others anew. On this particular afternoon, he’s in a coffee shop halfway around the world, taking in some totally foreign locale with an impressively mellow gaze. Perhaps it’s that he sees life not in days and weeks, but years and decades, a new perspective instilled by somebody who lives day to day themselves. Davis sees the future so that she might live in the present; a sacrifice familiar to parents the world over. Inside his head, the new decade is already playing out.
“The next thing is coming on, man!” Thelo looks over, and they share a laugh. “Next thing’s coming well, we're like halfway through the next thing.” It’s all he’s willing to say, but it’s all I’m down to hear. Purp has proven himself an artist capable of reinvention, and the suspense is part of the charm. Whatever happens next, though, one thing’s for sure: it’s all part of the plan.
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