The day I visit Chet Hanks at Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, the weather is shoot-me-in-the-face cold, but he gives me the in-depth tour, undaunted. We’re accompanied by Hanks’s fraternity brother–slash–manager–slash–best friend, Briggs Goldberg. First up is Hanks’s apartment, decorated with posters of Biggie Smalls and Johnny Cash, a frat banner, a glass-top coffee table, and stacks of books: The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, a biography of Marlon Brando—“My favorite actor … besides you know who.” I do, and so do you: Hanks is the 21-year-old son of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, a fact that did not go unnoted when, under the stage name Chet Haze, he dropped his debut hip-hop single, “White and Purple,” about a year ago. But then Chet—unexpectedly, as these things go—quietly resolved to get better at his music. He’s been taking voice lessons and honing songs for a self-funded EP at a recording studio. He rhymes less on his newer tracks, which trend toward Bruno Mars–style ballads. “All the progress I’ve made is only a tiny, tiny fraction compared to what I have to do,” he says. “Like, there’s no one on this planet who thinks I’m less of a big deal than me.”
Our next stop is a black-box theater (Chet rattles off a few lines of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet). We stroll through the Norris University Center, the “Times Square of Northwestern. I like to come here to be in the public sphere.” We walk by the planetarium, a “good place for date night, where you can gaze out at the stars.” Finally we circle back to get my car and head into Chicago for dinner. Chet puffs on a Parliament as we cut through the wind.
Chet makes a point of stressing that he’s paying for his music career himself with money he’s made doing small acting roles: “My parents told me, ‘If you want money, then you can come to us and then we can give you a job.’ When I was a little kid, it was washing my dad’s car.” Which is not to say he’s exactly scraping by. Briggs has made us reservations at Japonais, a swanky sushi restaurant downtown. We get there around 10 p.m. and order drinks and talk over the bass.
Chet has become friendly with the rapper Rich Hil, Tommy Hilfiger’s son, through whom he met his producer. “We can’t help but acknowledge each other,” Chet says, “both being rappers who are the son of someone.” (This very specific genre includes 16-year-old rapper Pablo Dylan, who is Bob Dylan’s grandson.) He’s aware of the ridicule he invites. “When that started out,” Chet says, “the person being portrayed was accurate. Because that’s who I was at the time.”
He takes a gulp of whiskey. Between extra orders of pork buns and octopus rolls, Briggs is making sure our drinks are being replenished, and Chet’s getting more animated as we talk. I ask him to imagine that a typical hater was sitting across the table. What would you say to persuade him to give you a chance? “I’d say nothing,” he responds. “Actions speak louder than words. It’s like this, man—let’s say hypothetically that I came up with the cure for cancer. Here’s what it would say in my obituary: ‘Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, came up with the cure for cancer.’ ” But if he’s always going to live in his father’s shadow, he’s made things exponentially harder for himself by trying to crack the cred-obsessed rap world. “I just grew up loving classic hip-hop,” he says. Maybe he just loved it too much not to try.
The whiskeys keep coming. Somehow we get onto the subject of Chet’s maternal grandfather’s harrowing escape from a Bulgarian prison camp. “My grandfather came into this life with nothing, and he put food on his plate. I came into this life with a fucking banquet in front of me. And I don’t want to diejust having eaten that banquet. To me? To just remain at this level? It’s a failure. An utter fucking failure.”
He adds one more anecdote: “Jackson Pollock. One. I saw it at MoMA. Stared at it probably an hour and a half. Mesmerized. Got it. For the first time in my life, I got it. It’s just a big fucking mess. And it’s beautiful. Beautiful. And what is anybody’s life but a big fucking beautiful mess?” Then dinner’s over, and it’s time to roll to a club. “Let’s go hit on some models,” Chet says, and we’re out.