Smoko Ono is one of the most interesting and exciting artists coming out of Chicago right now, and for good reason.
The fast-rising musician has established himself as a go-to producer for familiar names, a longtime collaborator with the likes of Chance the Rapper. But after years playing behind the scenes, producing for names like Megan Thee Stallion and Denzel Curry, Smoko has been stepping more into the spotlight recently. And we chatted with him about his latest collaborations, staying focused and what comes next.
"It's just a slow grind," says Smoko Ono, chatting with Variance over Zoom. "I'm really in no rush, if that makes sense."
Smoko recently teamed up with fellow rising artist Samm Henshaw, whose debut album arrived earlier this year. And the two teamed up over the summer for the new song "Pull Up." That infectious offering is in addition to Smoko's recent standout "Wraith" with Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa as well as "Moonlight" with SG Lewis and Rich. But he's already got even more music in the bank, aiming for an exciting 2023.
"I think it makes sense for me to like, little EPs," he says. "Three songs, five songs. Stuff like that. These short introductions."
He has new collaborations with Knox Fortune and Joey Purp in the pipeline, and that's just what we've heard so far.
"The next one will be the Knox Fortune," he teases. "I was gonna drop it at the end of this year, but we had clearance issues, and that's another thing when you're ready to drop music. You need like, four weeks, so they can get it in the system and make sure all these things check out. So things got pushed back, and I'm just stacking up more songs."
He currently has what he describes as an "indie deal" with Sony's Ultra Records. And unlike some artists, who have come to reconsider their label decisions, Smoko says he believes the relationship is a good one.
"It's like, 50-50 in both our favors," he explains. "It's like a partnership, as opposed to them owning everything. So we split everything, and it's not a traditional album deal. I can drop singles if I want. I can package it as an album or I can keep doing singles. I think that's good, especially for new artists, to find deals and teams who want to work with you and they believe in you."
He continues: "A lot of artists have a deal where you've got three or four albums, and the label isn't pushing your stuff. And it can feel lonely. Here, I feel like I have a lot of freedom and it feels like we're all in it together. They help with playlisting and infrastructure, and getting your songs out, which would be more difficult if I didn't have a team."
As the music industry tries to come back in a post-Covid world, the landscape is quickly changing. And Smoko acknowledges it can be discouraging when it seems like everything is changing so fast or in ways you didn't expect, but he's learning to stay focused on what's important.
"I think with all this shit, man, it's about patience," he says. "Everyone has a plan, but the plan changes. It's a marathon, and I have to remind myself of that. It's easy to become discouraged, and you can kind of be like, 'Damn, there's another 50 songs dropping today!' I get it. I've been there. But you just keep going. Keep working."■