Like many of us, Dallas-based hip-hop artist Spike Chester found unique ways to cope over the past three years. Part of his healing included tapping into his spirituality, thinking of life in phases and paying attention to recurring patterns and motifs in his day-to-day. On his latest EP, Retrograde Theory, released in March, Chester shares various stories by way of smoothly crafted rap and hip-hop tracks.
Chester was born and raised in West Dallas and still calls the area home. His childhood was spent in the church and his gospel-influenced ear is evident through the rhythmic melodies that are ever-present throughout Retrograde Theory. Though the EP clocks in at only 20 minutes, the listener gets to tune into various chapters of his life.
“I started to see how life works in cycles,” Chester says. “There's starts, there’s finishes. I began to cope with life in that way. I hate when something has to come to an end, whether it's a relationship with people or just entering different phases in life. I had to develop a healthy way to understand the ebbs and flows.”
While his love of R&B formed as he grew up watching his church choir sing gospel songs alongside guitarists and drummers, Chester became more drawn to rap in his teenage years. As he got older, he and his cousins would listen to rap music, to the point where he studied the words and flows of several artists.
On Retrograde Theory, Chester demonstrates his chops in rap, as well as in R&B, melodic hip-hop and even some rock-influenced tracks. But he thinks of himself as a rapper first and foremost, and says that’s what comes most easily to him.
“One of my friends said the other day that he doesn't consider me a rapper,” says Chester, “which is crazy, because that’s what I represent. I may sing sometimes, but I'm still a rap purist at heart. I can rap circles around most people.”
On one song called “Mickey D Money," Chester delivers his style of rap-singing, as he spits rhymes through catchy tunes and note patterns. On the track, which features Dallas producer and rapper Heavy Ben$, Chester maps out the next cycle of his life, in which he celebrates and shares his wins with his family and loved ones.
“Used to want to be like everybody on the TV screen / Back when McDonald’s money felt like a luxury / Now they want me for a couple mil, that ain’t enough for me / My sisters, nieces, cousins, split the pie and leave the rest for me,” says Chester on the song’s chorus, over a smooth R&B beat.
Just as good is the silky gloss of “Hollywood,” on which Chester channels his inner movie star, living a festive, celebratory life while remaining true to himself. “This ain’t Hollywood, no silver screen,” he sings, alongside Maya Piata, whose magical background vocals give the song a sweet touch.
Before Chester and Piata collaborated on this track, Chester didn’t imagine they would work so closely. He says her presence in the studio made for a burst of positive energy.
“She definitely was somebody who encouraged me to try new things,” says Chester of Piata. “She's an amazing singer, so she would give me little tips and pointers. We had this tribe of artists making this project and we were just locked in, and Maya was definitely a helping hand in that.”
The tribe of Dallas artists is most evident on a song called “Smile,” which Chester worked on over the course of three years. The song is a continuation of another, “Smile 4 Me,” which he released as a single in 2021. The original track was meant to be part of a project that never came to fruition, but “Smile” was always in the back of his mind.
On the Retrograde Theory version of “Smile,” he imagines pure bliss with someone he loves, as the hypnotic R&B track makes a smooth transition into a rock banger by way of sexy guitar riffs and thumping percussion.
Chester worked on the first iteration of “Smile” with Dallas producer Zayland in the latter’s apartment. Though, at the time of its genesis, Chester wasn’t sure what to do with the song, and he “left it on the shelf.”
“Three years later, sure enough, it popped back up in my mind,” says Chester. “I was like, ‘Man, we can try something completely different with it. So [producer] Donnie Domino, who was another one of the Dallas people I locked in, helped a great deal on this project. I played him the song, like, ‘Hey man, we can take it in another crazy direction.’”
Chester had the idea to create an alternative rock song, so he later linked up with Alex Juan Carlos Whitfield, better known simply as Juan Carlos, to add some guitars. Though, at the time, Juan Carlos was on a bit of a crunch, and had to record his parts quickly.
“I was like, ‘Man, you gotta do it tonight,’ and he's like, ‘Bro, I don't have time.’Then I'm like, ‘Nah, you can find some time,'" Chester says. "So literally, he drove past the place we were recording, and he was like, ‘We could do it, but you gotta have it ready for me. I'm gonna hop out the car, I'm gonna come in and I'm gonna play and then I'm dipping.’ He comes in, we have [the audio files] pulled up, and all the guitars you hear on it, he laid it down in maybe like 10 to 15 minutes tops. The whole song. I'd never seen no shit like that before. It blew my mind.”
When writing much of Retrograde Theory, Chester took a free-flowing approach. He imagined each recording as a therapy session, with the instrumental tracks serving as a therapist and Chester using his lyrics to vent.
“Whatever the sound of the music that’s being played, it evokes some kind of emotion out of me,” says Chester, “and I just let it go from there.”
Chester says the most personal song to him is one called “Run N Hide,” on which he reflects on a past relationship, coming face-to-face with emotions he had been pushing away. While he says writing and recording the song felt easy and natural, putting it out was the most nerve-wracking part.
“This is probably the most vulnerable I’ve ever been,” says Chester. “These are real-life experiences that I had to go through and heal from, so I was nervous that people wouldn't understand. But ironically, this is people’s favorite song [on the EP], so it definitely was reassuring that I was doing the right thing. Because a lot of people identify with that song.”
Retrograde Theory tells several personal accounts from Chester’s life over the past three years, and making the EP even more personal is that he collaborated primarily with a team of artists and producers from Dallas.
From Domino to Ben$ to Piata, and everyone else involved with Retrograde Theory, Chester credits the movers and the shakers of Dallas, who work so hard behind the scenes, for helping him craft the project he’s always wanted to make.
“Anything you want, you can find it here,” says Chester, “whether you want street shit, or whether you want more laid back R&B, you want rock, country — anything you want, Dallas has to offer in the highest quality and in the purest form. I think it's just a testament to what the city is, as a whole. The people here make such a melting pot of so many different personalities, cultures, races, and everything, so that just spills over into the music.”