Music

Brian Fresco Is Next in Line for Hip-Hop Fame

Jena Snelling + Alex LevittBrian Fresco.

If you’re not obsessed with Brian Fresco by now, then you will be after one listen to his most recent mixtape, “Casanova.” For avid followers of Chicago hip-hop and rap, the hard-to-miss Brian Fresco is on the rise, and nothing can get in his way.

Fresco, whose real name is Brian Allen, was crucial to the formation of rising Chicago music collective Savemoney. With the help of friends and fellow musicians Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio and Kami, Fresco has added to a new wave of intellectual yet hard-hitting Chicago rap music. In a tight-knit music community that includes Chance the Rapper with his inspiring gospel, the justice-seeking Vic Mensa and the dance-party ready Towkio, Fresco stands out with a style that’s much harder to pin down.

Born in Bronzeville, a neighborhood located on Chicago’s South Side, Fresco grew up in two places: a Bronzeville area once known as the Ida B. Wells projects, and the Harold Ickes projects on the Near South Side.

“I grew up in these projects and had to learn things at an earlier age than most other kids. I saw things most others don’t necessarily have to see,” Fresco said. “Whether it was making sure I was safe or didn’t go hungry, it was always about the hustle.”

Fresco first discovered music as a fourth grader at Chicago’s Beasley Academic Center. The first hip-hop album he ever obsessed over was Eminem’s 2002 classic, “The Eminem Show.”

Jena Snelling + Alex LevittBrian Fresco.

“That album is one of the reasons I started rapping,” Fresco said. “As a kid, my parents liked all kinds ofmusic, especially R&B and funk, so I take influences into my own work from all genres and all spectrums in the music world.”

Fresco met rising Chicago hip-hop artist Kami in grade school, an introduction that would become a stepping stone in the formation of Savemoney. If you’re at all familiar with the Chicago rap scene, then you know that name carries some weight. The creative collective has been at the forefront of the local music and arts scene for quite some time. Primarily championed by Vic Mensa, the crew is made up of students, artists, activists and entrepreneurs. Savemoney is a collection of sounds, aesthetics and styles that are all part of a larger whole, much like the city where its members were raised.

“Having guys like Chance, Kami and Vic in my life has been amazing. They taught me a lot about what life is about, what being happy is about and what it means to grow into a man,” Fresco said. “I used to ride the El with Chance to school every day, and that lasting loyalty hasn’t died down. We all still talk quite frequently, and that means quite a lot to me.”

Each of the members of Savemoney went to different high schools. While Chance studied at Jones College Prep in the West Loop, Towkio attended high school at Lane Tech and Fresco attended Simeon. As they grew older, they began to hang out more. As a result, they furthered their creative curiosities and artistic visions.

“Meeting those guys and knowing each one of them was creative in their own way was incredible for me,” Fresco said. “People started taking notice in the music we were making in high school, and that’s when we began taking it seriously. At first, freestyling and beatboxing was something to do after school just to pass time.”

Although Fresco played sports and was involved in other activities during high school — most notably, the football team — he knew after linking up with Savemoney that music was his true calling. After Vic Mensa achieved success by starting his rock-rap hybrid band, Kids These Days, and after the hyped release of Chance’s first mixtape, “10 Day,” Fresco was confident in setting his sights on a music career.

Jena Snelling + Alex LevittBrian Fresco.

After finishing high school, Fresco attended Middle Tennessee State University before a talk with Kami and Vic about the music business encouraged him to move back to Chicago to pursue his artistic goals.

“Chicago was where I needed to be,” Fresco said. “I constantly wanted to be making music, and I didn’t have the courage to do it until my boys helped me out. I’m glad I decided to move back here. Things have been going well for me since ‘Mafioso.’”

“Mafioso” was Fresco’s debut mixtape, released in 2013. As his first effort, the mixtape was laced with ad-lib heavy tracks, including “Peace of Mind” and the Savemoney classic, “Steamer,” a posse cut that features spitfire verses from other members of the collective, such as Chance and Vic Mensa. Although the tape didn’t receive much attention, Fresco was busy laying the foundation for the beginning of his rap career.

“The tape came from a place where I was watching way too many gangster movies, like ‘Scarface,’ Fresco said. “I was experimenting a lot and just having fun with rapping at that point; I wasn’t really trying to please anyone.”

Shortly after the release of “Mafioso,” which was overshadowed by the ever-popular Chance the Rapper mixtape, “Acid Rap,” released the same year, Fresco dealt with a number of obstacles.

“The first two years after recording ‘Mafioso’ were really a learning experience. I had a kid, I had also moved out of my parents’ house, and I got back into the street life too much,” Fresco said. “Itwas just too easy. The money was too easy.”

Although things weren’t looking great for Fresco, he received a call in mid-2014 from long-time Chicago collaborator and friend MC Tree. The two quickly got together in the studio and created what would become Fresco’s second mixtape, “SoulMoney.”

“MC Tree had sparked a creative energy in me that was sitting under the surface for a long time, and I was thankful for that,” Fresco said.

Although supporting his child remained stressful, Fresco decided to continue focusing on music. With his most recent release, “Casanova,” Fresco wanted to get out of his comfort zone creatively. The Savemoney rapper premiered the first single from the mixtape, “Higher,” on June 28 on the website of The Fader, a New York-based music magazine. He told the website, “I wanted to try something musically I’ve never done before with my homie Trevor, and despite one of my friends telling me my heart wasn’t in it, I still knew this song was a hit.”

“Higher” quickly gained traction and had nearly 700,000 plays on SoundCloud at the beginning of 2017. The neon dancehall beat features Montreal electronic duo Blue Hawaii and Chance the Rapper, and the track was arguably one of the best under-the-radar Chicago summer songs of 2016. Fresco’s goal to create such a stand-out style is achieved throughout the rest of “Casanova.” The mixtape wears its ambitions proudly, right from the first track.

The strongest parts of “Casanova” are the moments in which listeners hear Fresco challenge himself. Listeners hear a style from Fresco that was entirely unexpected.

“On songs like ‘Dandelion’ and ‘Together,’ I wanted to channel as much of that feeling and emotion as possible,” Fresco said.

On other parts of the mixtape, listeners receive a clear glimpse of the struggles that Fresco attempts to explore — most notably, inner conflict.

“When I recorded “Left Liquor,” I was having a tough time figuring my stuff out. The lyric that goes, ‘Family and friends tell me/ Boy, you better slow it down/ Haven’t you learned your lesson from Pimp C and Yams/ Put the codeine down,’ was really a testament to what I was going through,” said Fresco.

“For Casanova’, I just wanted to capture my diverse taste,” Fresco said. “I really sat down with the material on this record and digested it, tweaked it, over and over again. Up to that point, I had not worked on music as hard as I worked on the stuff for ‘Casanova.’ The project took longer than you think to perfect.”

This year has been an extraordinary one for Chicago hip-hop and rap, and even more so for the Savemoney collective. Multiple members of the group are heading into mainstream music: Chance the Rapper has become one of the biggest hip-hop musicians on the planet in the last year, Vic Mensa is fresh off the release of a politically-charged EP titled “There’s A Lot Going On” and Joey Purp is considered one of the hottest new rappers to make it big out of the Midwest — but Fresco isn’t worried.

“We are all friends. It’s not a race. Those are my guys, and they are all talented in their own way, and I’m really proud of all of them,” Fresco said. “The creative place I’m in now is stronger than ever before, and I’m continuing to create more music, even after ‘Casanova.’”

Although it’s been a few months since his last release, listeners can expect more new material from Fresco in 2017, and he has no intention of veering off the path to stardom.

Alex Levitt is the arts and entertainment editor for The PHOENIX. He was born and raised in the city of Chicago and is currently pursuing a journalism degree with a minor in photography at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. In the fall, he will be a junior, and one fun fact: He is ambidextrous.