"This is Chi, right?" blurts Kanye West, arguably the world's most famous rapper, after shouting out three underground Chicago artists — L.E.P. Bogus Boys, Chief Keef, and King Louie — whose exploding stardom might be helping him more than the other way around. That line, on West's recent remix of Keef's "I Don't Like" (featuring guest MCs Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Big Sean) signaled the increasing spotlight on Chicago rap, a scene that's currently burning at its brightest since Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, and Twista first achieved national success in 1996 and '97. The nation's third-largest city, Chicago gave birth to house music yet has always been underrepresented on hip-hop's national stage. The city's current rap resurgence, however, seems to be occurring at all levels, as a younger generation collides with new technology and cheaper distribution. A bustling YouTube culture has magnified awareness of homegrown artists, particularly the East Side street-rap network known as the "drill scene," marked by booming, slow-rolling, Lex Luger-esque beats and rappers like the 16-year-old Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk, and Lil Reese.
Since the success of the Windy City's own Kanye West, Chicago rappers have had moments of notoriety and commercial success, but, like West, artists often left the city to "make it." West helped promote Rhymefest, GLC, and veterans like Common and Twista, but the city couldn't coalesce around his sound, since New York already had claimed it on Jay-Z's The Blueprint. Lupe Fiasco's attempts to build a following were slowed by his crossover appeals to nonrap audiences. The "hipster rap" nexus, with acts like the Cool Kids and Kid Sister, grew out of parties and streetwear boutiques to become a media phenomenon. But the local scene flopped commercially, while artists like Pittsburgh's Wiz Khalifa ended up monetizing that style nationally.
The first sign that things were shifting was the breakthrough of the long-bubbling L.E.P. Bogus Boys in late 2010. The Point Break-inspired visuals of their "Goin' in 4 the Kill" video attained a low level of YouTube virality, reaching major publications and focusing newfound attention on the city. West's former manager John Monopoly co-founded the independent record label Lawless Inc., which soon signed East Side mixtape phenom King Louie as a flagship artist. No I.D., the Chicago producer behind Common's 1994 classic Resurrection, and West's early mentor, became an executive vice president at Def Jam and promptly picked up local lyrical auteur Mikkey Halsted. Labels started pursuing L.E.P., YP (who since has signed with Universal Republic), Rockie Fresh (a crossover candidate who has collaborated with Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump and Good Charlotte), and the hip-hop band Kids These Days (who recently performed on Conan and whose next album is being produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy).
Then, this year, Chief Keef suddenly shot up out of obscurity. Emerging rap stars like Meek Mill, Danny Brown, and A$AP Rocky enthusiastically co-signed him, culminating in the "I Don't Like" remix, a label deal with Interscope, and a publishing deal with Dr. Dre. In April, Keef associates Lil Durk and Lil Reese joined the Def Jam fold. Local radio stations Power 92 and WGCI began competing to bring attention to local acts. But what gave all of these elements the most forward momentum was the pressure that had been building up in recent years as large numbers of Chicago's poorest communities had begun to come online for the first time.
At the forefront of this momentum was the "drill scene," a grassroots movement that had incubated in a closed, interlocking system: on the streets and through social media, in a network of clubs and parties, and amongst high schools. It was this movement that finally exploded and drew the nation's eye to a city that had a plethora of radically different sounds developing in isolation.
The sound of Chicago's hip-hop scene is the sound of extreme segregation. Chicago's white residents once showered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with rocks as he marched through the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, and the city remains the most racially divided in the nation. When Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of Chicago house music, moved to the city from New York in the 1970s, he was shocked by the difference. When he first began DJ'ing to segregated crowds, he initially thought it was a problem with his parties, rather than a preexisting mindset: "The white kids didn't party with the black kids," he told dance-music historians Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. Ride the Red Line train south past Roosevelt and watch white commuters exit en masse. Or ask around about former Chicago Police Department detective Jon Burge, who allegedly ran a squad that freely tortured black suspects and terrorized the South Side throughout the 1970s and '80s, with minimal legal repercussions (Burge was eventually fired in 1993). Perhaps most visibly, look at the remains of Chicago's segregated project towers, monuments to what had been, at one time, the nation's largest public housing system, and which were razed throughout the 2000s. As families were uprooted, the gangs that the older generation credit with policing communities became fractured. Today, the perception is that street violence in Chicago has become more chaotic and that there are innocent victims and collateral damage. (According to the New York Times, homicides are up by 38 percent from just a year ago.) Much of what has made Keef's controversial music resonate so widely throughout the city is that his young age and seemingly reckless lyrics — dense with references to local sets, cliques, neighborhoods, and gangs — appear to epitomize this very sense of having lost control of the younger generation.
Segregation in Chicago doesn't break only along racial lines, although that's the origin of the city's grim economic disparity: Social groups are balkanized by gangs, tiered school systems, neighborhoods, even by blocks. Chicago hip-hop reflects this divisive geography. Although the drill scene and Chief Keef have gotten the most national attention, the last year has seen growing local buzz across the musical spectrum. As the wider world has discovered Chicago hip-hop through local websites like Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet, local artists also have discovered that what they understood as the Chicago scene was actually just a single dimension within a sphere of proliferating scenes, many of which have been thrown into immediate competition with each other.
For example, the freewheeling, Freestyle Fellowship-styled Save Money crew, which has heavy local buzz in high schools, bear little artistic resemblance to the street-rap style of, say, Lil Reese. Chance the Rapper, an 18-year-old member of Save Money, admits to spending a lot of his time listening to "freaky-ass, weird-ass white-people music" like Beirut or Joanna Newsom, and Kanye West's debut, The College Dropout, released when he was ten years old, made the biggest impact on the young rapper. From Save Money's high-school grind to the Treated Crew and their alliance with streetwear boutiques to the YouTube takeover of Chief Keef's GBE collective, a common denominator for Chicago's disparate scenes is how virtually every artist is supported by a wider crew. Chance emphasizes the difference between Save Money and a traditional rap group: "There's a lot of people who make music, but there's also the support side. There's people who are videographers, producers, party promoters." Cheaper equipment has democratized the process of creating an identity and building a business plan before major labels start sniffing around. Rather than looking outside the city for financial assistance or guidance, artists are able to have all aspects of their operation originate from home.
Duan Gaines grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects at 49th and State streets, an area colloquially referred to as the Low End. When he was 12, his family left the projects, and within five years, the Taylor Homes were completely demolished. The continuing destruction of public housing in Chicago caused constant instability for Gaines, his sisters, and their mother, who would move from one neighborhood to another every one or two years. Gaines began rapping and producing as a teenager, visiting a friend's house virtually every day so that he could co-opt his laptop to create beats. He also began creating videos for his music; the first, shot when he was still a teenager, was filmed using a slide phone that could only record about 45 seconds of footage at a time.
In 2008, Gaines started the DGainz YouTube channel and began shooting and producing videos for his brothers, who were a part of a group known as the Buck 20 Brick Boyz. When his hearing became impaired in one ear, he focused less on producing and more on videography. When he posted his work, kids in local high schools and throughout greater Chicago would watch them on their phones, and he built a strong network of followers on Facebook. Most of the time, the songs didn't even exist as MP3s and the only way to hear them was via YouTube; accordingly, view counts could explode quickly.
In early summer of 2011, Gaines was introduced to a rapper named King Louie. Louie, too, had grown up in different parts of the city, attending elementary school in K-Town — Twista's neighborhood — before moving to the East Side. He grew up on the sounds of Tupac, DMX, Eminem, and No Limit Records. "My people country," he says, "So we like Down South shit." Locally, his biggest influence was a rapper named Bump J, who had locked down Chicago's street-rap scene in the early part of the decade, and whose impact throughout the city is hard to underestimate (as recently as this year, rapper Broadway released a track that opens, "It was all a dream, until the day I seen Bump float through in that spaceship / I quickly ran home, told my little girlfriend I swear to God she would never have to work on that day shift"). Bump had pushed CDs heavily in the streets and tapped into Chicago's high schools. He rapped unapologetically about street life and became a symbol of hope for thousands of aspiring local rappers when Lyor Cohen appeared in his home one day to offer him a record deal worth one million dollars. His career was sidelined in 2009, when he went to prison for bank robbery.
By 2007, local rappers King Louie and Big Homie Doe had built up followings by studying Bump J's strategy of high-school-based, hand-to-hand promotion, giving out CDs at bus stops and parties. With gritty, Southern-influenced yet singular production from producers such as Lokey and Hustle Squad Productions, Doe's The Root of All Evil and Louie's Boss Shit arrived at a time when the East Side had become known for other, extra-musical activities, which Doe referred to obliquely as "street shit." According to the University of Chicago's Crime Lab project, 510 Chicagoans were murdered in 2008, up from 445 in 2007, with 80 percent of these victims killed by gunfire; nearly half were between the ages of 10 and 25, and the vast majority were male and from "disadvantaged" neighborhoods (read: African-American and Latino). Doe and Louie also represented a particularly disadvantaged East Side area that became known as Dro City, named for a respected resident who had been killed in 2007. With violence intensifying, the music of Louie, Doe, and another rapper named Pac Man — who coined the scene's sound-defining term "drill" — became not just Dro City's soundtrack, but the soundtrack for youth culture in Chicago.
After releasing Boss Shit and the Cloud 9 mixtape, Louie was struck by a car, breaking both his legs and putting his career on hold (he had to relearn how to walk). In 2010, Pac Man was murdered. Louie's comeback began in earnest at the end of 2010, with the release of his first music video, "I'm Arrogant." His buzz grew steadily throughout 2011, due to a combination of mixtape hustle and social networking. When Louie met DGainz in the summer of 2011, the two shot a video for Louie's "Gumbo Mobsters." It was a local hit, becoming DGainz' biggest release to date. Suddenly, everyone in the city wanted one of his videos. DGainz' name had developed partly because of his visual style and partly because of his approach: He would make videos for artists from any part of the city, from any crew. But he was particular about the talent he worked with, so now his resume reads like a who's who of buzzing Chicago rappers, from Spenzo to Sasha Gohard to Lil Durk. One aspiring artist who contacted Gaines was Keith Cozart, soon to become known more widely as Chief Keef. Gaines shot the video for Keef's "Bang" in 30 minutes.
Without question, the sound of Chicago's drill scene owes a sizable debt to the Atlanta-based street rap of artists like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. The reason is simple: With a series of hits emanating from Atlanta circa 2009, radio and clubs in Chicago, like any American metropolis at the time, relied heavily on the southern rap sound; and for a minute, Gucci Mane was arguably the hottest rapper in Chicago, although he didn't even live there. Because of a limited support system across the Midwest, it has been difficult to build buzz for a local, emerging rapper, preventing Chicago from becoming a regional magnet for talent.
"Here in Chicago, if you're popping, you can get spins on two stations." says Mikkey Halsted, a Chicago rapper who has dealt with record-label politics for at least a decade — he was signed for a time to Cash Money and Lil Wayne has cited him as an influence. "Those people in Atlanta and in the South, they had Houston, they had Monroe, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, so it was like a connected web. An Atlanta artist can go get those spins quicker than I can get them, being from the Midwest. So, the label is pushing the buttons, and it seems like there's a new Atlanta act every day."
Recently, Chicago's rap clubs have been less dominated by the hits of Atlanta acts. According to local rapper Katie Got Bandz, who attends many such events, Chicago-based music began to pop up more and more in the fall of 2011. Once DGainz and other videographers' work started buzzing in Chicago's high schools, it became apparent to a 22-year-old DJ named Amaris that the scene's popularity was real. He'd seen Keef's "Bang" video because one of his younger brothers kept playing it. "I'm like, damn, if kids are liking this, 16-year-olds...I believe the new 21-and-up clubs in a minute are going to be full of the guys that's hooked on Chief Keef. Why not start young? So I reached out to [Keef]."
DJ Amaris is quick to mention that other party DJs — Victoriouz, Twin, and V-Dub — all supported local rap artists. But he's insistent on one thing. "I was the first DJ to break [Chief Keef's] records in a club. I played '3Hunna' first; I played 'I Don't Like' first. I was playing 'Bang' first, I played everything." Spinning at proms, homecomings, high school and college parties, as well as a loose network of drill-centric nightspots like Adrianna's, the Zone, and the Lick, Amaris became a scene-booster, organizing concerts for Keef, Durk, and Reese throughout 2011. Amaris notes that Keef's recent work has "set a tone" in the clubs, so a lot of artists are emulating his sound. But he also observes the unusual way that Chicago's crew-based culture affects his DJ sets: "There's a lot of cliques...If [one] has a song and they might be 30 swoll, and if their movement is in the party jumping, everybody else gonna start jumping with them." This phenomenon is visible at nightclubs and concerts, where different cliques often wear T-shirts with their crew's name emblazoned on the front, and often, an individual Twitter handle on the back.
When asked about a Chicago sound, Amaris doesn't look to Atlanta at all. "It's got more pain in the music [than other places]," he asserts. "You look to Chicago artists, you can really feel what we're talking about. If you look on the news, this shit is real out here. People are dying left and right and it's barely even summer. People are out here spitting their lives on these tracks. It's not no fake shit. People need to realize that right now we're the murder capital. It's people losing family members, people are working at McDonald's and taking their McDonald's checks and going to studio sessions.…This is real, you can hear the pain on the track."
Jabari Evans, known as Naledge from the group Kidz in the Hall, was one of the few artists to see success in the wake of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, yet still maintain a presence in the industry during Chicago hip-hop's lean years. He's also one of the few artists who seems to have touched most corners of the local scene. Naledge is from the city's East Side and attended elementary school with street rapper Broadway, yet he also matriculated at an Ivy League school (University of Pennsylvania) before getting his rap career off the ground; he's performed songs with Bump J, mentored Vic Mensa of Save Money, and was an early supporter of Big Homie Doe, who he used to invite to participate in his studio sessions. "I'm biased because I'm from over East, but you're finally hearing the East Side of Chicago, really. I represent the East Side, but I'm not the quintessential dude from the East Side. But I know it. That's why when a Chief Keef song comes on, I can feel it.
"I think people just don't put two and two together that this kid who went to an Ivy League school could know gangbangers," Naledge continues. "But that's what Chicago is. I could make an entire album full of just Chicago people, and not only that, you wouldn't know they were all from Chicago. Because there's such a different style depending on which neighborhood you have and where you go."
Chicago rap's recent creative success is a result of this seeming contradiction. Deep segregation has engendered a diversity of musical styles; it also has created a closed system that's allowed different scenes to develop in isolation for years without the wider world even being aware of them. With the destruction of the city's housing projects, people at the bottom became less visible than ever before, so Chicago's younger generations have rebuilt online, taking advantage of technology to create monuments to what they experience on a daily basis. As with all things Chicago, their expressions of this experience are as diverse as the spirits of the people living there. In a city once defined by the barriers built between its people, cracks have begun to show and the walls are coming down.