“Searching to find out how deep the rabbit hole is like everyone else.” Twitter bios explain a great deal. Tying those words together with Chicago producer/keyboardist Peter Cottontale only makes sense. A true dreamchaser, I speak with Cottontale on a Wednesday night, less than an hour before he goes on stage as a band member for Chance The Rapper’s Social Experiment Tour. Prior to the Chicago performance, Cottontale and crew had performed 23 concerts around the country, most of which were sold out just like their two hometown shows.
This isn’t Peter Cottontale’s first rodeo. Or rather, this isn’t the first time he has pulled a rabbit out of a hat. He has toured before, with the funk rock band Mathien, but never as big as this. Cottontale is a musician, but he’s also a magician. Not only behind his keys, but also a designer for Chance’s acclaimed Social Experiment: an unsigned rapper’s tour that started with Acid Rap, quite possibly the biggest mixtape of the year. The tour has been gaining traction throughout the United States, something that has sold out nearly every single chance it has had. Sorry, I had to.
But even before Acid Rap created a ripple effect and (illegally) managed to chart Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Peter Cottontale has been a buzzing name in the Chicago music scene. Although he refers to himself as a live musician, he has helped produce some of the strongest material out of the area in the last few years. He helped on a handful of tracks on Chance The Rapper’s 10 Day and Acid Rap mixtapes. While Chance was opening for Mac Miller and Eminem throughout Europe, Cottontale was in the studio, wrapping up Vic Mensa’s critically acclaimed INNANETAPE, something Cottontale played a large role throughout the process of. Even more recently, Cottontale helped produce “All Wavy Everything” for ShowYouSuck’s Dude Bro EP.
On top of the hip-hop, Cottontale has done work with jazzy soulstress Lili K., producing entire projects for her like My Favorite Things EP (2013) and Metal Petals EP (2012). You can also find the pianist featured on two tracks on Alex Wiley’s Club Wiley, as well as Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication 5, on the (only) addictive track on the project, “You Song”.
But don’t get it twisted: the party is just getting started. By the time Chance came home from overseas to tour the States, Cottontale was ready to join him on the road. Rather than a DJ and a rapper controlling the crowd, Chance brought along a horn section. Chance involed backup singers and live drums. Chance practiced his outstanding dancing skills and provided a set of background visuals that set the tone, including music video clips and Bill Cosby. Cottontale was in charge of handling the laptop that created the opening projector screen clip: a magnificent rocket taking off into the sky. Lift-off in its finest way. One hell of a way to bring out a 20-year-old buzzing Chicago rapper and introduce him to the world (and reintroduce him to his hometown).
Despite the numerous tours in the past, this round is different for Cottontale. “All of the brothers are here. Nico [Segal, trumpet]. Greg [Landfair Jr., drums]. Nate [Fox, producer all over Acid Rap]. A big live band. There are eighteen of us.”
Cottontale is a musician front-to-back. Morning, noon, and night. Someone who has been playing keys at church from a young age to touring around the coutnry with a psychedelic bus that reads ACID RAP along the side. He spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year and he mentioned how he played keys at church. I ask him if he still does that.
“Yeah [laughs]. When I’m home I do. And it’s not even a local church. I play at this random ass church in the suburbs. It’s a good habit. No matter what happens, no matter how fucked up I got the night before, I still get up for church.”
When I ask Peter Cottontale what 2014 is looking like for him, he tells me, “A big awesome question mark. Touring. Recording. It’s looking good.”
“You’ve done jazz with Lili K. and hip-hop with SaveMoney,” I say to him. “How do you find the right sound?”
“I like both styles a bunch,” he tells me. “You have to be mentally in it. It’s all music. I focus on making good music. Building the best product no matter the genre.”
While he tells me that he can’t say too much, he mentions that he does plan to work with artists away from the Midwest. He says that a rapper from “outside Chicago” will have a mixtape coming sooner than later with some of his work.
I ask Peter how it feels to be home, but he doesn’t have an answer. He tells me that they had to come straight to the venue to set up and prepare for sound check, etc. “Tomorrow we’ll find out,” he tells me. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
Before he has to leave to prepare for the show, I ask Cottontale if he has any final words of advice or any shout-outs. He pauses for a long time. “Stop and think. Yeah. Just stop and think. I’m not gonna explain it but if people really think about ‘stop and think’? Yeah.”
When the show begins, things are different. Everything comes to life. Fans stop talking and start watching. Peter Cottontale is dancing and smiling and shifting between multiple keyboards. He is singing to the crowd and smiling at their reactions. He is making bird calls, just like Chance, for the audience to repeat, to keep the party moving. “Caw—ahh!” stays constant. Even before Chance’s set, SaveMoney members Dally Auston and Joey Purp come on stage, bopping and bouncing and throwing water at the crowd. DJ Rashad soundtracks it all from the venue’s second level balcony, looking down at the hyperactive, youthful crowd. The merchandise table sells Acid Rap lighters for five dollars. Psychedelic T-shirts and posters of Chance looking like a scientist. The entire event is much more professional and appealing than the majority of the hip-hop shows that the Windy City hosts. The fans recognize.
After our interview is over and I shake Cottontale’s hand, I ask him one more question: What is the ACID RAP bus listening to on the road? He tells me to check out Labi Siffre. “You know the sample on Kanye’s ‘I Wonder‘? Yeah, we have been listening to the whole album where that sample is featured (1972′s Crying Laughing Loving Lying).” If Chance’s horn section, if his blues and calypso influences are any sign, his live show (and back-up band) are a fine example of a Social Experiment gone very, very right.
“And I wonder if you know what it means to find your dreams come true.”