The Blogger, the Engineer, and the Future of Chicago Hip-Hop

Tosten Burks deserves a day off. The Blogger and the Engineer The living room is not a living room – overstuffed couches swapped for 50 thousand dollars worth of studio equipment, tile floor...
By    January 29, 2014
Chance Colors
Credit: Andrew Zeiter

Tosten Burks deserves a day off.

The Blogger and the Engineer

The living room is not a living room – overstuffed couches swapped for 50 thousand dollars worth of studio equipment, tile floor crowded with new friends and old. A funky smoke lingers. They line up for the dining room that is not a dining room, where acoustic foam covers the stucco walls and cords snake underneath the door.

Naledge. Freddie Gibbs. Fashawn. Hollywood Holt. Rakaa. Faces of Chicago and friends. Rhymefest freestyles with Aleon Craft by the window. Million Dollar Mano and DJ Babu offer up beats. Bun B and GLC film a music video on the porch.

They are a few miles outside downtown Austin in a rented house custom-built for the city’s first grocery store owner. South by Southwest hums along, the occasion for all this synergy. The year is 2010 and Evan Williams is the keynote, still the CEO of Twitter. Earlier that March, XXL named Gibbs and Fashawn among its freshman class, along with Big Sean, J. Cole, and Wiz Khalifa. People were writing Odd Future think pieces. Drake just dropped “Over.”

Credit: Andrew Zeiter

The blog era was adolescent and already powerful. This entire gathering was organized by a blogger after all. Then the editor-in-chief of Chicago hip-hop blog Ruby Hornet, Alexander Fruchter’s goals for the week were to simply build upon the Closed Sessions template he started the previous summer with Michael Kolar, Chicago sound engineer and owner of SoundScape Studios. Connect artists in person and let them make great music, then post it for free as blog content. Film the creative process and post that too. Tear down the walls around the product and let it spread through the blogosphere.

Except Closed Sessions ATX wasn’t free blog content. Decon signed on to sell and distribute the compilation. Lawyers representing several dozen artists spent billable hours signing on board. And by the end of the week, Fruchter was talking like a label head.

“The more I think about it, this is our Rawkus, our Def Jux, or Rhymesayers, or Def Jam. This is our collection happening right now of what we’re doing in Chicago,” he says, resting on the patio after four days of tacos and Tecate, buzz and beard both begging for a trim. “That’s what I really want. I want these releases that we’re doing to be more than just a song that we put out and it goes away.”

Credit: Andrew Zeiter

The holy matrimony began backstage.

On July 19th, the 2008 Rock the Bells tour kicked off at Chicago’s First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. The blogger and the engineer ran into each other in Kidz in the Hall’s dressing room. Fruchter grew up playing baseball with Naledge. Kolar was the city’s preeminent hip-hop sound engineer. They didn’t hit it off.

“I didn’t really like Alex when I met him that day,” Kolar says. “Alex is a very, very self-disciplined, rigid, you know, person. Very different from me. I wouldn’t say he rubbed me the wrong way… But I got that impression of him as like the rap music Larry David.”

Fruchter is lanky, quiet, and usually tapping out emails on his iPhone. The Hyde Park native is partial to plain jeans and his black Treated Crown. Kolar is loud, charismatic, and balding enough that he could claim baldness. He wears a fedora. The two exchanged business cards.

“I realized that you know, while he was, well, different from me, we were cut from the same cloth,” Kolar says. “This is something we’re passionate about. We pay our bills of it – him running Ruby Hornet and me running SoundScape.”

Graffitit wall
Credit: Andrew Zeiter

The connection was too logical. Fruchter, who DJ’s and hosts mixtapes (Rhymefest, GLC, Naledge, plenty more) under the name RTC, found a studio home. Kolar found free advertisement.

“Back when Alex had the site, he needed content. I make content. It’s like, obviously there’s synergy here between our two companies,” Kolar says, recalling the original partnership. “I’ll master your tapes if you put SoundScape ads up on Ruby Hornet.”

And they did. One weekend when Curren$y was headlining a Ruby Hornet showcase, he stopped by SoundScape and recorded “Rapper Weed.” Another time, Truck North and Big Pooh popped in. GLC hit the booth with Bun B. Rhymefest was hanging out. Eventually, the blogger and the engineer had the 14-track Closed Sessions Vol. 1.

The sessions continued, the artists kept coming, and the audience grew. They found themselves in Austin. Soon after, in their hands was a Closed Sessions commercial product. Neither the blogger nor the engineer had any questions about their next move.

“That’s when we actually made an LLC and made a partnership and realized we could sell music,” Kolar says. “We’re on to something.

“I was ready to put my money where my mouth was. And Alex was ready to fucking walk [away from Ruby Hornet] and in that sense put his money where his mouth was. And just do this. Because it is so needed in Chicago. And no one’s ever done it here. There’s so much deserving music of all stripes. It needed it.”

The artists agree.

Says Peter Cottontale (production credits: “Good Ass Intro,” “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Lovely Day,” “Magic” – all mixed and polished at SoundScape): “It sets the bar for quality music around Chicago as far as just like, not having anything that’s badly recorded or mixed. It’s awesome.”

Says poducer Thelonious Martin, whose past few years as Closed Sessions’ go-to producer have been prolific: “It’s pretty dope. Most definitely I see it as representing for the city in a certain way that is very vital. We are doing something that is kind of bigger than just any of us.”

Says Alex Wiley, who released Club Wiley this June, the full solo project under the official Closed Sessions imprint: “This is basically like, man, just slow and steady growth. Trying to have longevity and not just be a flash in the pan… Really just trying to make sure we have careers in this and not a moment.”

Credit: Andrew Zeiter

Every rapper in Chicago knows Ruby Hornet.

Call it a sign of the times. The days of urban radio being anyone’s primary means of music discovery are deader than all of Chicago’s demolished housing projects. Those legacy institutions that remain – Tim Westwood, Sway, Peter Rosenberg – are perpetuated by the blogosphere. A freestyle goes viral only when a blog cycle embraces it. Westwood’s YouTube channel has over 200 million views, surely far more ears than he ever reached on the airwaves of BBC Radio 1.

In turn, no artist looks to the radio for his or her big break anymore either. The same way people point to Power 92’s DJ Pharris as the first local radio DJ to spin Kanye, every rapper interviewed for this story remembers which website posted him first. Bloggers are the new gatekeepers.

In Chicago, this shift started with Fake Shore Drive, founded by Andrew Barber in 2007 (the same month Joel “Shake” Zela started 2DopeBoyz). Fruchter became Ruby Hornet’s editor-in-chief the following year. In rap internet time, Wale was sampling Seinfeld, the Cool Kids were bringing ’88 back, and Jay Electronica was rapping over movie scores.

“[Ruby Hornet] first set out to be a music and culture site,” Fruchter says. “My main thing was the music. The goal was to cover what was happening in Chicago from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.”

Up to that point, Chicago never really embraced it’s own rap. To get onto local radio, you had to already be a star – Da Brat, Twista, Do or Die. But if other cities weren’t already playing your music, you couldn’t count on your own for support.

“Back when the industry was stronger, all you cared about were national records,” Kolar says, reclining behind the mixer in SoundScape’s main B-room. “So if you started making a big enough buzz in Chicago, or people started checking or jocking your records, it’s time to get to New York or LA.”

As Martin put it, “There’s not many desks here.”

The lack of local commercial opportunity and the lack of local coverage is a chicken-egg situation, but Kanye’s first manager and Jive Records’ former Associate Director of A&R John Monopoly laid out the facts of the matter in an interview with HipHopDX: “We don’t gravitate to our own content like they do in other markets… It’s very rare to find a Chicago artist who independently has their own Chicago hits on Chicago radio and in Chicago streets.”

In other words, the bloggers weren’t just modernizing a media niche. They were creating one. For the first time, Chicago could hear its own music.

“Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet saved Chicago’s rap music scene!” Kolar exclaims, setting down the espresso he just brewed. “I think we would be a fucking San Diego if it wasn’t for them.”

Fruchter remembers his first feeling of tangible influence.

“I first started to think we had some kind of impact… when the generation below us – Chance and Kids These Days and some of those artists who were first, Rockie Fresh, those who were not necessarily our peers – would come up like, ‘Man, I just really want to be on RubyHornet. Like, I need to meet with you.’”

Kolar points to the shows.

“As a promoter, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put all my dope local opening acts up and like man, we’re killing this crowd, it’s packed. And then the headliner comes on and thirty, fourty percent of the room empties out. I see the concrete floor all of a sudden.

“Which is great, but man, it was always the inverse. I remember when I started and one of my artists would open for a big touring major label, nobody paid any fucking attention.”

Credit: Andrew Zeiter

Kolar remembers the last time Chicago thought it was having a moment.

Years before Chance befriended Bieber, before Kanye shouted out GBE from the top of a mountain, before all the bitches loved Sosa, Kolar moved into a studio complex in Chinatown owned by a Bulgarian gangster.

“He had a beautiful built out studio,” Kolar recalls. “Mine was in the back of a fucking nasty fucking starter and alternator factory [his dad’s].”

It looked like a golden ticket. The invite came from Monopoly, still managing Kanye. Monopoly had another job at the time too, chief operating officer of G.O.O.D. Music.

“Things were really good for Chicago,” Kolar recalls. “That’s really when things started popping for me.”

These were G.O.O.D.’s early days, when everyone thought West was leading a Chicago revolution. He launched his label in 2004 with GLC, Really Doe, and Malik Yusef on the roster, and then featured them all on Late Registration. In 2005, he resurrected Common’s career with Be. “Touch the Sky” introduced the world to Lupe Fiasco. The radio was playing “Brand New.”

But the camel’s back wasn’t strong enough. Neither GLC nor Really Doe ever released an album and Yusef not until 2009, as resources and energy leaked away towards Consequence and gradually, tragically, Big Sean.

“You know, he tried,” Kolar says, remembering the fate of G.O.O.D.’s first incarnation. “Late Registration was out. He’s had two platinum albums. Phenomenal fucking platinum albums. But it’s like, if your career is only two albums into your major deal, you probably shouldn’t be plotting the future of Really Doe.”

“I realized the people that were supposed to be the next up – the Shawnnas, the GLCs, the Mikkey Halsteds – they weren’t gonna be the next up. And I kinda just fell back to working with young kids again.”

fruchter 2
Credit: Andrew Zeiter

The world is different now.

Music distribution has never been more democratic. Major labels have never been less important. This is why Mac Miller can top the charts and why Macklemore can go platinum with their respective independent debuts. It’s why Chance the Rapper can reasonably turn down 5 million dollars and why Vic Mensa can reasonably turn down No I.D.

“The major industry system has crumbled,” Kolar says. “Regional records are very important now. And majors can’t do regional. So now what’s forming is like, the majors are becoming distributors. And there’s a bunch of real clever non-major distributors that can bring more table distributing than the majors.”

Companies like INgrooves and Alternative Distribution Alliance can accomplish all the grunt work a major label used to do – physical and digital distribution, licensing, account management – while leaving the act of creation to a roster of independent labels that already have relationships with artists and their local audiences.

On top of that, first-class representation to coordinate booking and PR can also be found outside the major system. Continuing the allegory of Chancellor Bennett, he built a national headlining tour with Creative Artists Agency and promoted it all with BWR Public Relations.

“You used to be a fly on a wall in a very fixed box,” Kolar says. “Now, it’s not even like, fuck the box. It’s set the box on fire. Build your pentagram. You know what I’m saying? There are no rules anymore.”

Hence, the Rolling Stone interview in which Chance declared there’s no reason to sign to a major label: “It’s a dead industry.”

Even before these distributors figured out the future of music distribution and made majors all but obsolete, the current crop of young artists grew up hearing that the system was in the process of crumbling. We’ve been gathering all our nails for the coffin since Napster. Closed Sessions seeks to serve those who never knew a time when majors appeared viable.

It’s a beautiful outcome for a city whose last independent hopes failed at the hands of the rise of digital distribution.

“At the time when All Natural could break out or Molemen could have possibly broken out was right when record stores started closing,” Fruchter says, who remembers in college buying 12 inches from Rawkus and Galapagos4 at the record stores in Bloomington. “The industry changed and a lot of that went away.”

He means vinyl went away, but also the entire concept of buying and selling independent music. Reviving this in Chicago is Closed Sessions’ divine calling. There are no aspirations to build the next Kanye out of their humble, unlabeled, three-story brick building in West Town. Simply: enable artists with good music to sell that music, because the means to do so aren’t available otherwise.

ShowYouSuck’s December EP Dude Bro was his first for-sale project. Likewise for upcoming albums from Mic Terror, Alex Wiley, and producer A-Villa. Closed Sessions is opening the door.

“We want to work with those artists that want to start putting out music for sale in Chicago. Working in a space. Working with us. Being able to offer them a lot of the tools that will get their music out without being locked into some crazy thing. And give them more leverage… if their ultimate goal is to reach a major label,” Fruchter says, cracking an excited grin over his polished elevator pitch. “We want the Chicago community to look at us like the hometown label.”

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