When I met Nate Alvarado, he was cracking home-runs on my little league team at Wells Park probably 10 years ago. The first time I met Kun Wansom, we were drinking beers in the basement of someone’s adolescent home. Since those flashbulb encounters, the two have gone on to form one of Chicago’s most promising producer/DJ duos though they’ve barely put their collective feet in the water. Mixing traditional Chicago electronic styles with damn near anything else they want, A Billion Young don’t seem very concerned with trying to fit in. On Tuesday, the duo dropped their debut album “Glenwood” and if you haven’t heard it, you should take a break from chilling under your rock to hear it. I got a chance to sit down with the homies the weekend before the drop to talk about a little of everything.
When was A Billion Young started?
Nate: About 2 years ago. In the summer.
Kun: We pretty much did the song Swisher Sweet and that was our first video. That was the first song we ever made together. From then on, we just showed people that song and people we’re fucking with it. Then our manager, Dylan Johnson, heard us and saw a lot of potential and now we’re here.
Before him, did you take it very seriously?
Nate: We didn’t even really think shit of it.
Kun: Yeah, it was just a hobby.
Nate: I don’t even remember our second song?
Kun: I still have it.
Nate: What was it?
Kun: It was MLK. We made it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and there was no school and he came over and we made it. At first, it started as us just going over to each other’s houses. We just wanted to create and make a song.
Did you guys know each other well when you were younger?
How long have you each, individually, been playing music?
Nate: I started playing piano around 10 but I hated playing at the time because it was just a parent thing, so I would never practice. I quit after 6 years. Now I wish I still played. I would memorize each thing and now I don’t remember anything, but I’m slowly getting back up.
Kun: In 7th grade, I was in the band. I wanted to play the snare drum but ended up playing the tenor saxophone. I just bullshitted it and did the homework. I had guitar lessons around 14-15 too. I consciously started making music around 2009..?
Is that when you started producing?
Nate: I was interested in instrumentals and stuff like that, and my parents bought me a midi keyboard when I was a sophomore in high school and I started producing on garage band but it was so limited. So, I looked out and downloaded Logic. That was probably around 5 years ago. My beats were weird and I was into Dubstep at the time so I was trying to do that. Laughs
Kun: I got into producing through DJ’ing. In 2009, I was going to Thailand for winter vacation and my friend threw a party for me with some turntables and let me DJ it. He threw two and spun both as well as spun at a few of my high school’s dances, but I got paid. I was being able to rock out to music I liked but I wanted to be able to play anything. One of my friends, Brendan, shared this musical thing and we went to high school together. I would be on Ableton playing drums and he would play guitar.
What did you spin at the school dance?
Kun: I think I played Ludacris “Splash Waterfalls”. Like, I would play what I wanted but teachers would come up to me and tell me to change it. It sucked; I had to play Katy Perry and stuff for the other students because they were freshman to senior age dances but I was a senior and didn’t care.
How old are you both?
Kun: I’m 21
Nate: I’m 22
How was it transitioning from DJ’ing to producing your own stuff?
Kun: It slowly happened. I didn’t even touch beat pads; I would get loops and run them off Ableton and still be DJ’ing. I had this little mixing board that I would fade loops in and out with. It was all really be DJ’ing. I’d be doing that with Brendan and he would play guitar. I didn’t really get into making my own stuff until 2010 or something.
Nate: I was doing my own shit: a lot of dance music and stuff. I was doing it with my homie Preston (Towkio) and he wanted to start rapping at the time. We would fuck around and make beats and he would rap. My boy Juan, from Nini’s Deli, would drive me to school and he was the voice of reason if it was dope or not. He would be very honest and let me know. It was honestly just for my own pleasure. I would want to get home (from school) and do it.
How did your styles change adding a partner?
Kun: It worked perfectly. Nate’s style is really the skeletal framework of an ABY song. My story is way different coming in with a guitar or something and not making a structured thing. I brought different ideas and so did he.
What do you guys think the influences for the album are? Because there are a lot of different styles and sounds on the album.
Nate: I don’t think we wanted to sound a certain way. We want to mix a little bit of everything in that we can and still sound good.
Kun: Jumping genres and different rhythms. I feel like we listen to a lot of different music and are influenced by so much.
What is the song you put on when you step out of your front door to start your day?
Kun: I was just listening to Phoenix. They’re a big influence to me.
Nate: Their music feels good.
Kun: Yeah. But, I could also be listening to Marvin Gaye or something seconds later. I don’t want to be stuck listening to one thing. A Billion Young tries to showcase that we can be anything.
Often times with electronic duos, they try and find their own sound and ride that. You guys don’t really have a specific sound. Is that something you were going for?
Kun: I don’t really know how we’re perceived but it’s dope that you think that.
Nate: I think a lot of people feel like we’re still trying to find our sound but I don’t know if we’re going to find a certain sound…
Who are the people in Chicago that are really influencing you?
Kun: I don’t know? Does it have to be artists?
Kun: Then shit, like..you! People on their grind who juices us up to be on our own even more.
Nate: Like, Rob makes the Cool Socks Bruh socks and now is making these 3M bras but he’s just always working which inspires us to always be creating too. The feeling of accomplishment also drives us too.
When does the music process happen? Is it in the morning when you first get up or in the night?
Kun: It comes in waves but it usually happens at the start of our days.
Nate: There’s a lot that happens at night too though.
Kun: When it naturally comes.
Do you guys have jobs or anything else going on?
Kun: I’m in school at UIC
Nate: I work at J. Crew
Kun: See, we’re on our own grinds aside from ABY but when we have the time, we create. Deep down, I feel like we only want to do this all the time.
Is that the goal?
Kun: It’s just another grind for us. We just meet up when we can and do it.
Are you guys planning on going out of town to play anytime soon?
Kun: I don’t want to speak too soon, but there are some things in the works. With Nate working and me in school, we can’t just pack our bags up and dip.
I like to be busy. It makes appreciate the time you have for the things you love way more. But I think you guys are going to do very well because you understand how to work. You’re two young dudes from the CPS system who know the right creative minds. I feel like those types really support each other.
Kun: Exactly. I think we’re all here to support each other.
So how did the features on the album come to be? Teddy Jackson is widely unreleased as of now. Miko really isn’t out in the open just yet. Why work with them?
Nate: I think we both have this fascination with working with people who are undercover raw.
So you want to find the sleepers?
Nate: I just think its fun to do so people go “Who’s this?” For our EP, we used our homie’s girlfriend who’s not even a singer on a track and people would ask who it was but she was really just a friend.
I feel like it’s all about features nowadays and how big your featured artists are.
Kun: We want people who will help the music and that we really NEEDED for it. We had heard this demo of Teddy that was just a hook over a beat but immediately wanted to make a song for him, based off his voice. We knew we could make a song with him that complimented his voice and really brought the vibe that would make his talent shine the most.
I think there’s an element of trust that goes with getting a young talent to work with you like that. A young singer with as much talent as him could easily get scooped up by a major label for his talent, but he probably doesn’t want that. And we’ve seen that happen so much growing up. Watching artists who were smacking get too big and lose what we loved them for.
Kun: Exactly. When I would watch him record I would think, “Damn, this dude could be working with anyone.” It’s crazy that he’s working for us!
You know, we watched the fall of someone like Lupe Fiasco, who was everyone’s favorite in the city growing up but sort of fell off with LASERS and everything since.
Kun: I guess it’s how you’re brought up to make those decisions so when you come to those decisions or a fork in the road, you know how to keep doing you.
What’s your goal from dropping Glenwood?
Nate: Pretty much just to have some sort of work out so people can reference us when we tell them about us or they hear about us.
Kun: We want something to solidify us as a group or team. Musically, we just want to keep doing music.
Nate: Not just be DJ’s or something. A lot of times, places want a piece of work to see to get shows and now we have that.
Are you looking forward to playing more of your own shit?
Kun: Hopefully perform it live.
Can you elaborate?
Nate: We don’t have it completely figured out.
Kun: Ideally, being able to reconstruct our songs and make them go into each other.
Nate: And build them on stage.
Kun: Like Justice. Usually people use Ableton but ideally, I want to find some sort of other way to axe out the computer. I’m much more of an analog type person. Justice is a super influence on me so emulating what they do would be amazing. It all depends if our own music is that sought after.
Did you teach Nate how to DJ?
Kun: Yeah, he kind of picked it up watching me. I never gave him lessons, he just watched me and pieced it together.
Nate: He would bring his tables over and we would fuck around and it came together over time.
Kun: All you need to be a good DJ is a good ear and know your tools. When you have both, you can mix music so that was a good and easy transition in for him.
What’s your favorite shit to drop in your DJ sets?
Kun: We do 50 Cent “Just A Little Bit” a lot. Chief Keef’s “Traffic”. We always end our sets with Justin Timberlake’s “Seniorita” so we cover a lot of shit in between but we’re playing classics throughout. From a DJ perspective, people want to feel good and those types of songs make people feel good. We also want to get the girls moving cause that’s what makes the party.
Nate: Our last set, we played R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” and it was one of the most turnt situations. Everyone was two stepping on the dance floor and it was just the most wild.
As someone who goes to see a lot of live music, I like to be surprised.
Kun. Right. I feel like people who DJ with computers are too hardwired to stick to their playlists. But for me, I just carry a book of CD’s with me at all times full of stuff I’ve been listening to and old shit. It gives us a bit of a different aesthetic because people don’t do that as much.
Is that something you guys are consciously going for?
Kun: For DJing, in my background, the DJ’s I liked never used a computer and I want to follow in their footsteps. I just got a vinyl turntable recently and am trying to incorporate that in our sets.
What DJ has influenced you most?
Kun: This dude named Circa. He’s from France.
Nate: I don’t know. I was way more into producing first. I was a big hip-hop head in high school so I would always listen to A Tribe Called Quest or Slum Village, which is how I heard about J. Dilla and sampling. I just love when there’s some sort of jazz element. Any dance track with some jazz or soul in it, I love it.
That’s so funny. Growing up with you, Nate, I always took you for such a quiet kid. It’s never would have that you’re such a dance music head now.
Kun: Nate likes to go crazy in the night.
I feel like, right now, it’s very familial. A lot of the same supporters and fans at the shows and whatnot. It makes it feel like a movement.
Nate: We definitely appreciate how many people support us. Myself, I’m kind of thrown off like, “Damn, you believe in us this much?” A lot of people have a lot of hope for us but they’re our homies so it gives us motivation. Each show has gotten to be everyone there is our homie, but each homie is bringing another homie and the crowds are growing more and more.