As a white, suburban, engineering major at UW-Madison, Chris “HANKS” Hanko does not have what most would consider a “Hip-Hop” background. In just a year, though, he’s gone from rapping in his dorm room to beating 300 other artists for a performance spot at Summerfest. And now he’s joining other local artists at the upcoming 808s in the 608 Hip Hop festival Saturday night beginning at 9 pm on the Memorial Union Terrace.
Although he is new to Hip Hop, HANKS is no stranger to music. As a long time trumpet player and son of a classically train pianist, music has been an integral part of his life.
“Music has just been always there for me,” said HANKS.
More than just a hobby or an interest, his music career has also been a marker of what he’s been through and how far he’s come.
“I was born with cleft palate that required two big surgeries and over 10 years of intensive speech therapy,” HANKS recalls. “For me to go out and play trumpet at the caliber I did and now rapping and performing for people, it really motivates me when I look back at why I do what I do and how I got to this point.”
Although he grew up listening to rock and alternative music, in middle school HANKS began to gravitate towards Hip Hop, taking a liking to artist like Nas, who he considers one of greatest lyricists of all time.
“I can get sick of listening to rock or pop, but it’s hard for me to get sick of something that just sticks in my brain and if you hear a beat enough you’re going to want to start rapping to it,” he said.
He would print out song lyrics and attempt to rap along to learn artists’ flows and rhythms and became interested in the fast rap and speedy deliveries of artist like Tech N9ne and Twista, who he still tries to keep up with.
Originally from Lake Zurich, Illinois, HANKS also lived for a time in Waukesha. He takes influences from many Chicago- and Milwaukee-based artists. Still, he considers Madison his musical home base, despite it not having a Hip Hop scene that is as established or accepted as its neighboring cities.
“Madison is place that has had notorious problems with Hip Hop,” he said. “A lot of people associate hip hop with violence and drugs but to be honest there is more violence and drugs. I’ve been to hard rock concerts where people have been beat up and where there’s been stabbings. It’s not just the hip hop genre but I think people want to use it as a scapegoat.They want to blame the violence in the city, especially with the recent violence, on the hip hop genre because it’s an easy target because it’s not really a scene that’s solidified in Madison, it’s still on its proving grounds.”
Despite the tumultuous relationship between the city and Hip Hop, HANKS still finds community here within the genre. He credits the start of his career to local artist and fellow festival performer Landon Devon.
“Seeing him grow and seeing how much passion he puts into his music when I went to his shows I thought this is something I want to do too,” HANKS said. “He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I attribute a lot of my growth to him.”
Since starting his musical career barely a year ago he has shared stages with Dj Unk and Layzie Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. He’s also worked with several local artist like 3rd Dimension and Chuck Nash. He released his first song, Raspy in February on 91.7 WSUM, a campus radio station.
Despite his growth, HANKS says it’s an uphill battle trying to prove himself as a white, suburban rapper.
“As a white, rapping, suburban engineer I’m not embarrassed to call myself a rapper because I know I can prove myself,” he said. “I’m not a big talker, I don’t really promote myself on social media. I like to let my music speak for itself. I’m really trying to prove that I’m here to stay and that I’m not just a hobby rapper.”
As an artist, HANKS doesn’t alter the reality of experiences and his background in his music.
“I like to keep it real and I don’t go outside of my own experiences,” he said. “I know where I’m from and I know how I grew up and I understand that just because my circumstances make me different from other people it doesn’t mean I can’t put on a show with energy.
Though a rapping engineer isn’t the most common combination, HANKS says balancing the two is a task that is equally challenging and rewarding.
“Music has been a great release for me, and is one of the integral reasons I’ve maintained my progress in my engineering degree,” he said. “That balance between school, work and music has helped with time management and as soon as I got too stressed from studying, I worked on music and as soon as I got so tired of music, I went back to studying or working which made my life very hectic yet rewarding.”
As he enters his senior year he prepares for the challenge of figuring out to maintain both a full time engineering career and a full time music career.
“Music has always been a passion of mine and it’s something I’m not willing to give up just because I don’t see an interrelation with my career,” he said.
In the meantime, HANKS plans to continue to continue making that music he loves for a city he enjoys and growing his fan base and artist network.
He plans to release new music at the Hip Hop festival this Saturday and deliver a high energy performance.
“If you can’t the support of your local community, how are you going to grow if you don’t have roots? A community aspect is so important to an artist start and artist growth,” he said.