What Is Chicago Rap Supposed To Sound Like in 2013: From Chief Keef to Common

Jordan Pedersen briefly considered going by the handle “URL Sweatshirt.” If you’re like me, the first thing you thought when you heard Chief Keef’s “I Don’t...
By    January 17, 2013

Jordan Pedersen briefly considered going by the handle “URL Sweatshirt.”

If you’re like me, the first thing you thought when you heard Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” for the first time was, “This shit is from Chicago?” I grew up in Chicago – the suburbs actually, to keep it one hundred – and it didn’t sound like any Chicago rap I’d heard before.

What it brought to mind was the B-movie orchestral trap of Virginia-based producer Lex Luger – a churning, synth-heavy motor that backfires hi-hats. To be fair, Lex has influenced just about every producer working today, regardless of region. And how much does “region” matter these days? The leader of the Harlem-bred A$AP crew flashes his “teeth [that] glisten like it’s Memphis” on the opening track of his new record. And though Lil’ Boosie sounded the ratchet call from down in Baton Rogue back in 2006, it was the L.A.-based trio of DJ Mustard, YG, and Tyga who brought strip-club anthems to Kiss FM.

But it certainly doesn’t sound anything like the jazz-soul of prime era Common/No I.D., early Kanye, or Lupe Fiasco before he started rapping over Fall Out Boy solo joints.

But then again, has Chicago ever sounded like “Chicago”? And what does that even mean anyway? Sure, No I.D. and Kanye sampled Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, but so did everybody else. (First song you can think of that samples “Superfly”: go. Did you say “Egg Man” or that Nelly/Christina Aguilera abomination? Bingo.) Granted, Kanye seems to make more of an effort to sample Chicago artists – though not apparently to clear said samples, in the case of Chicago blues hero Syl Johnson – but producers are clearly more about sound that about region.

So what is it that makes a song sound like where it’s from?

It’s probably worth clearing away some of the cobwebs in terms of the history of (reasonably) mainstream Chicago rap. Take Common, the Chicago rapper who’s arguably done the best job maintaining the sound that made him popular in the first place, because Kanye’s been making Coked Up Emperor music since the end of the aughts. Since 1994’s Resurrection, Common’s mostly spit conscious rhymes – with the occasional digression to diss the wheelchair kid from Degrassi – over jazz- and soul-inflected beats by longtime collaborator No I.D. But before that he was rapping about a “Heidi Heidi ho” over NY-style boom bap as Common Sense on 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar? And don’t forget that the other big breakthrough from 1994 came from Da Brat, who got billed by Jermaine Dupri as “the female Snoop Dogg,” and sounded like it, too. The other two big Chicago groups from the 90s? Crucial Conflict and Do or Die, and dudes sound more like the Cleveland-based Bone Thugz than anything else.

So do Chief Keef, King Louie, and Lils Durk and Reese (by way of in-house producer Young Chop) sound much like what we think of as Chicago rap? No, but neither does most Chicago rap. What the Drill scene does produce is a soundtrack to the apocalypse. And, tragically enough, that’s what makes it perhaps the most authentically “Chicago” music that the city has produced in quite some time. Granted, it’s not the Chicago I come from, but the Chicago I come from isn’t really Chicago, and it’s best described by either Richard Yates novels or songs by Dave Matthews Band.

While Chicago has in the past largely been the breeding ground for talent that was then co-opted by hitmakers from other regions, the current crop of Chicago rappers is firmly rooted in the environment that produced them. Durk exhorts his cohort to “throw the L’s up for them hittas” (“L” being the hand signal of the Black Disciples) amidst hails of gunfire and synths that sound like shrieks. Reese says it’s about “us, n****s” because he “don’t really trust n****s,” reflecting the understandable paranoia that characterizes the Englewood neighborhood he came up in. And Chief Keith? He just says “bang bang.”

Trends come and go, so I don’t expect the Drill movement to be around forever. And the reason I’ll be glad to see it go isn’t just because I’m not a big fan of the genre sound-wise.

I don’t mean to dismiss Drill categorically. I’m an avowed booster of King Louie’s playful lyrical dexterity, and Chop has some serious talent: the reggae-leaning obsidian synths of “Blocka” feel like a huge step forward, and I liked his shit to begin with. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that Reese and even Keef are merely mouthpieces for Chop’s musical, well, chops. Much has been made of Lil Durk’s melodic sensibility, but I think that’s overselling what are essentially one-chord dirges embellished by auto-tune. “L’s Anthem” is diabolically catchy, for sure, but that’s on producer Paris Beuller’s epic beat.

No, the reason I can’t wait for the zeitgeist to show drill the door is that it’ll mean that the music no longer speaks so directly to the Chicago Public School kids who made Chief Keef a local sensation in the first place. A million years ago back in January of 2012, Fake Shore Drive’s Andrew Barber announced the arrival of Keef with a piece titled “Who is Chief Keef?” The rest of the year saw the meteoric rise of Keef and the Glory Boyz Entertainment crew, but people forget that Def Jam didn’t sign Reese and Durk, and Interscope didn’t give Keef a couple million, a movie deal, and a line of headphones because bloggers write about them. They did it because teenagers on the South Side see Drill as a standard-bearer for their way of life. And that life, as the Chicago media has reported for the last 12 months, is characterized by crushing poverty and a sky high murder rate. (I’ve said before that I don’t think the connection between Chicago’s violence and its music gets enough coverage, so I won’t repeat myself here.)

A friend of mine who’s a social worker on the South Side spends most of his nights posted up at one of the main thoroughfares near I-94 in Englewood, where Keef and his crew hail from. He hands out his business cards and tells the scores of homeless kids who come through the station to give him a call if they’re looking for a place to stay. Most of these kids aren’t ghouls or thugs. They’re teenagers, kids who might rather have a safe place to hang out with their friends than slang or shoot. And, of course, they love rap.

In short, they’re a lot like the GBE and OTF crews, except without the major-label sanctioning. To put it another way, Chief Keef is a million dollars away from being an at-risk youth. Accordingly, I don’t really fault him for living out the dream of millions of poor kids across the country and using music to escape the ghetto. You may not like Keef’s music, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t resonate: Interscope wouldn’t have signed the kid if it weren’t for the scads of CPS kids who championed him.

However, just because I can sympathize with the artist doesn’t mean I want to listen to his art. It took me three tries to get through the entirety of Finally Rich: save for a few high points (“Love Sosa” and “Hate Bein’ Sober” are earworms of the highest order). For me, the album vacillates between boredom-inducing dirges and moments so annoying (“Laughing to the Bank” isn’t so-bad-it’s-good; it’s just bad) that I almost couldn’t believe such amateurish shit made it onto a major-label album.

The reaction to the album among those I’ve talked to has generally fallen into two camps: it’s vile, morally repugnant trash; or it’s vile, morally repugnant trash, and I love it. The Jim DeRogatis takedown that everyone has been mocking falls into the former camp, and evinces the same kind of moralizing race hysteria that’s plagued hip-hop since the majors first dismissed hip-hop in the early 80s as ghetto trash. Does DeRogatis not understand that Keef is just like the kids whose cause he’s supposedly championing?

The other side of white 20-something Brooklynites pledging eternal devotion to the cult of BANG BANG aren’t necessarily on higher moral ground. You can like it, but there is something gross about watching the willing exploitation of a kid still not old enough to vote (and probably barred by law from doing so, due to his rap sheet). Sometimes it feels like the media is one step short from valorizing Keef’s album Kidz Bop – Trap Muzik Edition.

But these melodies are the musical backing for a tragic life that no generation of kids should have to lead. For me, the most natural response to Drill music isn’t moral indignation or fetishistic delight: it’s sadness.

So yeah, maybe Drill’s more “Chicago” than any Chicago music that’s come before it.

And doesn’t that suck.

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