photo: Sherri Johnson
Chantala Kommanivanh's background is different from that of most hip-hop artists. Born in a refugee camp as the youngest of five children, he migrated to Chicago with his family in 1983 to escape the turbulence that was plaguing Thailand at the time. Good move - otherwise, he probably wouldn't be creating conscious hip-hop as part of the Maintenance Crew a quarter-century later. Centerstage had an opportunity to sit down with Chantalism (his creative moniker) before a recent show.
Tell me about how Maintenance Crew came to form.
We attended Roosevelt High School on the North Side together. We shared the same musical interests, specifically hip-hop, and always wanted to work on something. We started recording after high school and eventually released Eternal Sunshine of the Simple Mind in 2005 and Simple is the Way It's Spoken in '07.
You weren't originally from Albany Park, right?
I'm from Laos and Diego Prieto [Ubiquity, the other half of Maintenance Crew] is from Mexico.
In your bio you mention that you were born in a refugee camp in Thailand; did you grow up in that environment?
I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand 1982, but fortunately my family got sponsorship and migrated to Chicago in the winter of '83. Luckily for me I don't remember any experiences during our family's migration.
How has your family's experience as refugees affected you and your creativity?
The refugee experience through my immediate family is a part of my identity and a big part of who I am. So when I create, it's natural for me to do the best of my ability when the opportunity is there. In other words when you come from nothing it's inherent that you persevere.
You paint as well. Do your painting and music crossover or is one expression independent from the other?
My paintings are the visuals to the music, and sometimes they serve as the blueprint. I like the audience to read my paintings as poems, a visual poem rather than a picture because it's much more complex, and the music is the literal version of the painting.
What would you say is the driving force behind your art then?
The ultimate driving force behind my art and music is the wack art coming from the students at the Art Institute of Chicago. And wack music in general. How has Chicago as a whole molded your sound?
The city of Chicago has been a definite inspiration to the music we create. The city is a multi-dimensional mystery in the sense that there are different sides of it that we don't even know about. Living here, everyday, surrounded by the city, definitely creeps into our creativity. And all that's aside from Chicago's musical history, which is also a big influence in our music.
What neighborhood do you live in now?
I live in Mayfair and Ubiquity lives in Jefferson Park, but we record and get together in Albany Park, where much of our roots lie. This allows us to tap into the time and space that enabled our creativity.
Do you have any favorite spots that help you relax and tap into your creative zone?
Chillin' in the basement and in the studio is where we're most creative. Working together in the same room is the best place for us because that way we can vibe off each other's energy.
Tell me a little bit about your newest album, Plain & Simple.
The latest album is a reflection of our love for good music and its simplicity. At the same time, the album is about how simple situations can build an extremely complicated conundrum we all know as life. The words are an extension of what we see and breathe, and we tried to make 20 tracks that were true in both form and sound. Hopefully, it's something people can relate to. It's our interpretation of hip-hop through jazz, blues, Technics, and beat machines.
What's motivating you to get up and create on your day-to-day?
The fact that the sun's shining and the clouds are still grey.