Review: The Cool Kids Bring Night School to Thalia Hall

Well over a decade into their career, The Cool Kids remain two of hip-hop’s most unheralded influencers. Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks helped lay the groundwork for what would come to be known as “blog rap,” a label used to describe the young scene of DIY rappers garnering huge followings on the internet in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The Cool Kids’ lo-fi production, oddball personalities, and hipster ethos paved the lane that would go on to lead artists like Tyler, The Creator, Mac Miller, and BROCKHAMPTON to mainstream superstardom. Even more impressive than their web of roots beneath the contemporary hip-hop scene, is The Cool Kids’ dedication to exploring new territory not only in their music, but in the presentation of their live show as well. This brings us to Night School, a unique three-part experience at Thalia Hall.

Due to very limited seating, I was not able to attend the first portion of the Night School experience, a gourmet meal curated by Chuck Inglish. This is probably for the best, as my palate is pedestrian at best and my analysis of the meal would likely go along the lines of “It was good.” I arrived at Night School just before second period, a live taping of an episode of Mystery School, a podcast/twitch stream hosted by Mikey Rocks of The Cool Kids and DJ Owen Bones. The show consists of the two lampooning the wilder and more absurd side of current events as well as an obligatory freestyle about said ridiculous “news” items. The guests on the show were Chuck Inglish, comedian/rapper/illustrator Zack Fox, rapper Guapdad 4000, and fashion designer Joe Freshgoods, all of whom performed later in the evening (except for Joe of course, I’m not sure how a fashion designer would “perform” exactly).

The hot topics broached during this episode of Mystery School included a professional chess player allegedly cheating using anal beads, a biopic being produced about a bear that ingested 88 pounds of cocaine, and a Spanish mascot for public transit whose name is an English euphemism for gay sex. The conversations that ensued were about as tasteful as one might expect based on the topics, but the looseness and friendly volatility of the whole event made it refreshingly intimate and charming. Despite watching from the balcony of Thalia Hall, I really did feel as if I was on the couch with them, laughing more at how much they were laughing than anything else in particular. The freestyle section was a raucous good time, as the four rappers present (and one guest from the audience) passed the mic back and forth and tried their best to hold in their laughter as they traded cocaine bear bars. While I was unfamiliar with Mystery School up until the show, this laid-back precursor to the actual concert provided a comfortable familiarity with the various rappers who would be performing later on, and genuinely made the audience feel like they were in on a secret that the rest of the audience who was arriving for the concert wasn’t aware of.

The third and final period of Night School, the concert, was hosted by Zack Fox , whose meteoric rise has been both pleasantly surprising and completely deserved. Fox’s evolution from behind-the-scenes writer and illustrator for Atlanta’s Awful Records, to niche internet micro-celebrity under the twitter pseudonym bootymath, to currently being involved in critical darling TV comedies like Bust Down and the Emmy-winning Abbott Elementary is nothing short of astonishing. Fox’s “hosting” of the show amounted to nothing more than a handful of words, but his presence was a treat nonetheless, as he remains one of the most beloved underground hip-hop tastemakers, despite crossing over into the relative mainstream.

Fox introduced a short sketch by The Cool Kids that was played before the concert, in which Mikey Rocks is tasked with getting a new phone from a particularly dubious cellular store. The sketch warranted a handful of pleasant chuckles, and while it wasn’t drop-dead hilarious, it did illustrate the unique creativity and whimsical nature of The Cool Kids that makes them so magnetic. Whimsy is not something that is regularly championed in the hip-hop world, so it was genuinely wholesome to see it on display.

The Cool Kids came out with an abundance of energy, performing tracks from their 2022 project BEFORE SHIT GOT WEIRD. The wonky production and off-kilter flows that made The Cool Kids such a revelation in the late 2000’s are still very present, though they’ve been appropriately updated for the modern hip-hop landscape. Rather than a traditional opener-opener-headliner format, The Cool Kids opted for a more open-mic style of presentation, bringing out guests whenever they damn well pleased and letting them command the stage for a short set before taking back over. The first of these guests was Guapdad 4000, an internet-personality-turned-rapper who offers boatloads of charisma and not much else. Luckily, Guap’s silky smooth voice and inimitable charm are genuinely enough to carry him very far, as I would happily listen to him say just about anything. He performed a couple of his own songs, including the viciously catchy “Black Iverson,” and his Cool Kids collaboration “IM COMING OVER THERE.”

Zack Fox was the next rapper to perform a song, opting for the viral internet hit “fafo” off of his comedy-rap debut album shut the fuck up talking to me. While the phrase “comedy rap” is understandably dubious due to its association with cringe-worthy (Caucasian) cornballs such as Lil Dicky and Bo Burnham, Zack Fox gives the subgenre a level of life and legitimacy that lesser funny men seem unable to tap into. The major difference comes in how hip-hop as a genre is treated by these comedians; rather than openly mock and point fingers at the absurd aspects of hip-hop, Fox revels in them, pushing rapper tropes to their breaking point of ridiculousness. But more than anything, the difference between Fox and his comedian contemporaries simply comes back to the fact that Zack Fox makes good rap songs. The beats are contemporary, the flows are catchy, and the one-liners are sharp. Fox understands that many things about hip-hop are inherently funny, and don’t need a detached observer to inform the audience of why. Fox’s music is an homage to the absurdity of the form, rather than a parody of it. The sense of humor in Fox’s music feels inherent to the form, rather than an awkwardly added extra ingredient to it. Fox’s performance of “fafo” was so entertaining, in fact, that my major criticism of the show is that he only did one song.

The final guest was Chicago native Joey Purp, who performed a medley of his more popular songs (including the bounce-inducing Chance The Rapper collaboration “Girls @”), successfully reminded the crowd why he is still a relevant figure in the Chicago hip-hop scene without overstaying his welcome as the last guest performer. The Cool Kids then closed the show with underground classics “Bassment Party,” and “Black Mags,” off of their landmark 2008 EP The Bake Sale. Night School was a raucous good time that felt less like you were watching pre-rehearsed sets by famous rappers, and more like you had stumbled into a jumping house party. There are plenty of rappers who are more materially successful than The Cool Kids, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has more fun.

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Aviv Hart