At the end of our phone conversation last Wednesday, I ask Noah Sims if he has any parting words.
“Shout-out to my mom!” He proceeds to tell me about his biggest fan, whose Twitter handle is @_MamaSims (her bio boasts: “Mom and Chicago hip-hop enthusiast”).
Having been raised by a Caucasian “tiger mom” whose conception of acceptable careers covered the vast range from law to medicine, I’m envious of artists whose parents always supported their creative paths. And Noah’s mom is the paragon. Mama Sims initially acquired a Twitter handle to retweet her son’s music, but she eventually started using it to communicate with other artists with whom her son might want to collaborate. And when she noticed the Chicago music blog 1833 was seeking new writers, she grasped at the opportunity to contribute. Now, her status as a hip-hop blogger puts her in an ideal position to find local rappers for her 19-year old son to produce. In fact, it was Mama Sims’s idea for Noah to collaborate with Tree on “She Gets the Best of Us,” the Noah Sims production that first enamored my earbuds, encouraging me to reach out to him. “My mom has always had my back,” he tells me.
Mama Sims’ support began long before Twitter existed – whether it was paying for studio time and production equipment or enrolling him in summer programs – and she comes from a music background herself. Noah’s mother’s family owns a business that sells rare string instruments. “Classical music is a lot different than rap,” Noah laughs, but he appreciates his diverse musical origins. Growing up, he regularly attended classical music recitals, and today he works part-time at his grandmother’s store in between classes (Noah is a sophomore at Chicago’s Columbia College, where he studies audio arts and music business). Noah also has musical genes on his dad’s side. His father is a drummer – his parents met while his dad was on tour – and now he teaches drum lessons. Noah himself plays drums, influencing his percussion-heavy production.
In addition to the fact that music runs through his veins, Noah’s hometown of Chicago has played an important role in encouraging him to pursue music. Growing up in the public school system, Noah first recalls hearing the innovative Chicago genre footwork at recess in middle school, and he graduated from the same high school as Chance the Rapper (or, affectionately, “Chance.”) Noah also credits Chicago’s diversity. He grew up on the border of a middle-class neighborhood and a rougher one – a now defunct housing project called Cabrini Green – which exposed him to a variety of people and sounds. On Noah’s upcoming project Testament, he produces for a number of rappers he’s known since childhood, the project a tribute to how far they’ve come.
While Noah has been making beats for several years, it was his good friend Damo’s death at the hands of an over-zealous Chicago police officer (now an all-too familiar narrative) that pushed him to take music more seriously.
Noah met Damo – a member of Chance’s Save Money Crew – at Lollapalooza when he was 14 and Damo was in his early 20s. Soon after they met, Damo went to jail for dealing drugs. When Damo was released on house arrest, he came across Noah’s music on Soundcloud and reached out. The two hung out often; Damo even became close with Noah’s family, including the famous Mama Sims. But when Damo realized how difficult it was to secure employment as an ex-felon (another all-too familiar narrative), he started on a downward spiral, causing a rift in his friendship with Noah. Ultimately it was the minor act of stealing a bottle of Vodka from Walgreens that prompted an officer to taze him – the act that triggered a fatal head injury.
Noah was a senior in high school at the time, in the midst of what he calls “one of the most intense periods of my life.” As many seniors do, he started skipping school, but Noah’s slump was extreme – his grades slipped to the point that he almost didn’t graduate. He worked his “ass off” to get his grades up, and then his friend died, throwing everything into perspective. Noah grew up with more black friends than white friends, and he never really thought about race. But when Damo died, he realized a sad reality: “I would not have gotten tazed and killed for shoplifting from Walgreens.” Damo’s death also triggered a dark emotional period that Noah put directly into his music.
Noah says a lot of beat-makers treat the genre as merely “computer music.” They have no musical background and just plug in buttons. But for Noah, “it’s never been like that.” His music “comes from somewhere”: “it’s something I don’t know how to express in words, but I know how to express in sound.” And the pain experienced by Damo’s death was the precise type of emotion he could only convey sonically.
As with many creative types, Noah tells me he works best when everyone is asleep. But unlike most creative types, Noah describes his process with impressive clarity, particularly for a 19-year old. He says after getting his “daily shit done,” he’ll come home and unwind for a few hours. And “then it will hit” (that inarticulable it). He’ll “catch an emotion” and head to the computer. Early on, Noah used primarily samples, but eventually he got tired of having to search for a song before he could start creating – so he cut the middle man. Now, he starts with a snap or a melody. His background as a drummer makes adding percussion easy. Then he’ll listen and hum out. He continues to add more sounds. Initially, he’ll overproduce. He’ll let it sit for a while, then take it apart and put it back together.
I tell him it reminds me of my writing process – free-write, then deconstruct. Unsurprised, he tells me he assumes it’s a similar process for most creative endeavors.
Noah tells me his creative process has helped him navigate his teenage years. During this phase of life where people are trying on various identities, Noah has found comfort in his music, in which he’s not hiding or acting, but rather expressing his identity in its “most sincere form.”
Get hyped for Noah in his most sincere form on Testament, which will debut soon on his Soundcloud page.
Follow Noah Sims on Twitter @_NoahSims and Instagram @NoahSims_17
By Anna Dorn
Photograph provided by Noah Sims