'Knife to the Heart': The Deep Empathy Behind Chris Orrick's Witty, Working-Class Hip-Hop

The Detroit rapper's willingness to listen to other people, and to see himself from their perspective, is one of the hallmarks of his music, his career, and his politics.
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Chris Orrick.

Chris Orrick.

Pop musicians are often dismissive of critics. From Ariana Grande to Young Jeezy, performers want to let you know that they don't care, and that their response to criticism is "fuck the haters." Artists like to inspire their listeners by telling you they're impervious, free, and powerful.

Detroit rapper Chris Orrick takes a different approach on his new album, Out to Sea. The song "Wallow Too Hard" is about a negative review. But Orrick doesn't dis his detractor. Instead, he admits that the criticism hurt his feelings:

I saw a critic say I wallow too hard...
I took it like a fucking knife to the heart.
I know most people won't treat it with that same type of regard
They got a job to do, and I don't blame them for it.

Rather than eviscerate the critic with a couple of barbed lyrics, Orrick swings immediately from his own anger to a point of common ground: The critic is just another worker trying to hump along, like Orrick himself.

Making apologies for one's haters is unusual in America, especially in 2019. But it's typical for Orrick. In fact, his willingness to listen to other people, and to see himself from their perspective, is one of the hallmarks of his music, his career, and his politics. At a time when working-class anger is supposed to be driving white people to hatred, Orrick's experiences lead him to solidarity.

Orrick grew up in Detroit in a working-class family; his father still drives a truck delivering dairy products to local restaurants. He started performing in high school, and released his first album almost a decade ago. In the vein of alternative art-rap performers like Aesop Rock, Open Mike Eagle, or Quelle Chris, his material includes unexpected goofy metaphors, social commentary, and eclectically funky production. His writing focuses especially on working-class life and the addictions that numb its monotony. His 2015 track "Day Drunk" is typical; the video shows Orrick, stocky and unglamorous, dressed in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, hanging out with friends, drinking beer. "This is my attempt at a happy song," he tells me in his deep voice, with a little gravel and a lot of sarcasm in it.

"A journalist I'm friends with said to me, 'Your music is this angsty, white working-class music,'" Orrick tells me ruefully. "'It's exactly what you would expect from [President Donald] Trump supporters.' I'm a hair away from having been that."

In the media, the white working class is often portrayed as Trump's base, even though his voters were overall better off in 2016 than Democratic voters. Orrick, for his part, says that he's not a Trump supporter because his background taught him the importance of caring about other people.

"Growing up without a lot of money—we would turn the gas off in the summer, and put water on the stove in order to heat it for baths.... Growing up like that, it made me really compassionate and made me understand that there are people who struggle. You always have to walk in someone else's shoes."

Chris Orrick Mother Jones hip-hop

Orrick says that he's not a Trump supporter because his background taught him the importance of caring about other people.

The track "What Happens Next?" from Orrick's 2018 album, Portraits, is typical of this approach. Though the song is about Orrick, it's written not from his perspective, but in the words of people who interact with him, like the guy he buys alcohol from at the liquor store. In one verse, he raps from the perspective of an acquaintance who's watching Orrick help his father on the truck: "I heard he's almost 30 / And still working for his dad / Because the music isn't working." It's like Orrick found one of those haters and decided to give them a guest spot on the album. And what the hater sees is someone working. Orrick may be a musician, but he's still slogging through his day job—just like the people who listen to his music, and those who have never heard of him.

On Out to Sea, his newest album, the lyrics don't shift quite as dramatically between different points of view as in some of Orrick's earlier work. But his slice-of-life dramas retain their jaundiced distance. "Liquor Store Hustle," for example, features a groovy, danceable beat from producer Man@Work, over which Orrick narrates a sad, half-drunk trip to the liquor store; the plainspoken, authenticity of his delivery contrasts with the details of the story, which veer from laugh-out-loud to wincingly real. The song culminates with Orrick ordering a pizza, passing out before it arrives, then getting it off the porch in the morning and doing the unthinkable.

Yes I'm gonna eat that shit.
Untouched, unscathed, I believe in miracles.
Can't think of words that rhyme with "miracle."
Ate it cold in the box, then went straight to bed.
At 30 years honestly I call that success.

Being willing to see himself through other people's eyes led to one of Orrick's biggest career moves: changing his stage name. Orrick's professional moniker for most of his life was Red Pill. That's a reference to the Matrix films, where taking a red pill allows you to see the true nature of reality.

But over the past decade, "Red Pill" has become a slogan used by men's rights activists to describe their awakening to the "truth" that women are evil oppressors. The Red Pill subreddit is infamous for defending rape and serving as a passageway to the far right.

Orrick gradually realized that people were seeing his stage name and assuming he was part of the Red Pill movement and even heard from some people who said that they didn't want to listen to his music because they thought he was supporting the politics of the alt-right.

To avoid people getting the wrong idea, Orrick went back and rebranded his entire back catalog.

"It was a pain in the ass to change it, to be honest," he says. "But I just had to be smart enough to know that I can't keep using this name."

Some artists might have balked and insisted that it wasn't their responsibility to correct people who had the wrong idea. Orrick, though, insists that you have to take other people's perspective into account.

"Trump voters are so focused on, 'What have you done for me lately,'" Orrick says. "I can't stand the idea that you only care about something the moment it affects you, and you don't care when it fucks over somebody else."

Orrick's most political song on Out to Sea is "Funny Things," in which he is simultaneously amused and distressed by America's current plight . The song's shifting viewpoints slide over each other like the supple baseline furnished by producer S I M, as Orrick examines himself and his country. "I find it all hilarious / Absolutely nothing going on can be nefarious," he observes drily. "Why aren't you laughing?"

It's an ironic depiction of ironic distance; the joke of the song is that Orrick actually does care about the country, about other people, and even about his haters. That daily grind of caring makes Orrick's music painful to listen to at times. But it also gives his music its humor, its depth, and its love.

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