Friday, July 29, 2016

Dividing Chicago hip-hop into ‘Chance and friends’ and ‘the drill scene’ insults its richness and variety

Posted By on 07.29.16 at 07:00 AM

click to enlarge The album art for Sol Patches' new mixtape, one of many recent local hip-hop releases worth your time
  • The album art for Sol Patches' new mixtape, one of many recent local hip-hop releases worth your time

Earlier this week Chance the Rapper announced he'd take over U.S. Cellular Field in September with Magnificent Coloring Day, a single-day festival packed with high-profile musicians: Skrillex, John Legend, Lil Wayne, Tyler the Creator, Alicia Keys, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, and Lil Uzi Vert are on the bill (not to mention the "special guests"). Magnificent Coloring Day is the latest example of Chance using his pop-star power for the benefit of his hometown—and specifically for the benefit of kids on the south side. The promotional poster for Magnificent Coloring Day says U.S. Cellular Field is on "Chicago's Southside"—this isn't news, of course, but it represents an important statement of intent. Though the festival is for the whole city, it celebrates the youth of the south side, and it's set up to be easier for them to experience. (Tickets are relatively cheap, starting at $35—Ticktetmaster's ridiculous service fees add almost $13 to that price.)

I'm fascinated by the way Chance is pressed into service as a representative of the local music scene, especially when people living outside Chicago try to document it. On Monday, Stereogum published a well-intentioned piece on the shift in Chicago's hip-hop scene: drill acts used to attract all the hype, but now that's passed to the rappers and singers who surround Chance. Clumsy and factually flawed, the story was doomed from the start because of its thesis: that is, that Chance and friends are self-consciously using hopeful music to combat drill and its bleak image of "Chiraq." It's an idea informed more by Chicago's image abroad than by the city's reality—and it steamrolls over the subtleties of hip-hop made by artists roped into the drill/nondrill binary just so it can advance the narrative that these arbitrary groupings are pitted against each other.

Before I continue, I need to pause to complain about some of the factual inaccuracies in the story. When Stereogum first published the piece, it incorrectly identified the shooting death of Kevin Ambrose as the inspiration for the Acid Rap track "Acid Rain." Ambrose was killed near the 47th Street Green Line station on May 7, 2013, but Chance had already dropped "Acid Rain" in February of that year.

"Acid Rain" is one of many songs in which Chance talks about seeing his friend Rodney Kyles Jr. stabbed to death in front of him in September 2011. Kyles rapped as In Rod We Lust, and like so many rappers who've come before, he had friends from different segments of the hip-hop scene—he was close with Chance and with members of the Save Money collective, but he was also tight with Monster Mike, who's chopped it up as part of defunct crew the Village and in Lucki's ever-changing collective. (The author of the Stereogum piece, Collin Robinson, switched out Ambrose for Kyles after I made a string of complaints on Twitter, but the story still links to the XXL blog post where I assume Robinson got Ambrose's name.)

All this is to say that the communities within the broader Chicago hip-hop scene bleed into one another and can be hard to sort out. That's certainly easy to see in Stereogum's description of the Save Money crew today: "The Savemoney militia, which once comprised Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio, Joey Purp, Caleb James, Kami De Chukwu, Sterling Haze, and many others, has dwindled in number over the years. Chance, Mensa, Towkio, and Purp along with honorary member D.R.A.M. are the main players." I'm not sure where Robinson got his intel, but after I complained on Twitter, Save Money member Brian Fresco—who recently released the ambitious Casanovachimed in with a gripe of his own. (His tweet: "very misinformed article @stereogum don't ever mention SM core members n not say my name esp wen u including sumbody not in our shit.")

If you've been following the Save Money crew this summer, you've probably noticed that a lot of its members have been dropping EPs, full-lengths, and mixtapes as part of a campaign they've dubbed "Save Money Summer." (Days before Vic Mensa put out There's Alot Going On in June, he Instagrammed a photo of himself crouching over a whiteboard on the floor with the caption: "mark your calendar. #savemoneysummer.") Sterling Hayes kicked off the campaign at the beginning of May with Antidepressant, back when everybody still thought Chance was going to call his next mixtape Chance 3. And yet Hayes and Fresco disappear in Robinson's narrative. Instead he rattles of a slapdash list of Chicago rappers and singers who inform his idea of the scene at large:

The Savemoney Militia, the Social Experiment, Jamila Woods, Saba, NoName (formerly NoName Gypsy), Kweku Collins, and Chance's brother Taylor Bennett are all helping him restore Chicago's soul, personality, and dimension. They are seemingly omnipresent on each other's projects with the same sensibilities, ethos, and pride in their city expressed in their own unique way.

I understand Robinson's reason for grouping these acts together—they've all released positive music (and yes, some have recently put out collaborative tracks). They've also attracted as much interest outside Chicago as the stars of drill did when that apocalyptic sound broke out in 2012. And that's one reason why pitting these acts "against" drill fails—it erases their communities and crews, substituting a single grouping, and in doing so overlooks the considerable work it took for these artists to connect with one another. When I interviewed Jamila Woods for my new Red Bull Music Academy radio program, she told me that part of the reason she'd wanted to work with Chicago indie label Closed Sessions was to get more involved with a specific community of musicians—through Closed Sessions she began working with producer OddCouple and rapper-producer Kweku Collins. (When I spoke with Collins for my recent Reader feature on his breakthrough Nat Love, he told me how excited he was to get the chance to work with Woods—up till then, he'd only been able to admire her from afar.)

And for all the work it took for Chicago artists making more inherently "positive" tracks to connect with one another, the Stereogum piece imagines a brick wall between that community and the drill scene—despite the existence of connections across that supposed divide. And speaking of positive rappers, what about the bop scene, which is all about ebullience? Never count out Dlow, who's collaborated with Chance and keeps cranking out instructional dance tracks that climb the Billboard charts.

It's hard to choose a place to begin to respond to this false binary, so let's go back to the beginning—that is, 2012, when drill blew up. Early in his story, Robinson writes that the "drill subgenre of rap exploded off of the exposure the Chiraq name brought Chicago," which is a questionable statement at best. Rappers such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, and King Louie had cultivated a large fan base among local teens, but it was largely ignored outside the city until a World Star Hip Hop video of a young Keef fan freaking out over the rapper's release from jail went viral at the beginning of 2012. When Keef dropped Back From the Dead that March, it was like a tidal wave had swept up the drill sound—more than a dozen Chicago rappers signed major-label deals, and not all of them made drill (YP, for instance, doesn't fit that mold—he was only loosely associated with the scene). True, the caricature of violence associated with drill cemented the meaning of "Chiraq," but drill's breakout year had plenty of positives too—for one thing, it showed many young black people in this city that, like Keef, they could do it themselves. And Chance was rising at the same time; in early June he celebrated the release of his debut mixtape, #10Day, by selling out Lincoln Hall.

People around here, whether hip-hop artists or just fans, could and do listen to both Chance and drill. I could make a long list of "positive" hip-hop shows in Chicago where DJs lit up the crowd with drill or trap tracks—hell, right before Vic Mensa debuted "U Mad" while DJing at Emporium last year, he had people freaking out over Keef's combustible underground hit "Faneto." Artists on either side of this false divide are capable of working with a wide variety of sounds and emotion; Keef's solemn moan has done more to disrupt drill's violence fetish than a boatload of half-hearted conscious tracks, and Vic's militant edge on There's Alot Going On is harder than a lot of tossed-off drill cuts. Creating a dividing line between drill and "posi" rappers also obscures the way people in different pockets of the scene influence one another, regardless of whether or not they've been close collaborators. Last week drill star Lil Durk dropped one of the biggest Chicago rap releases of the summer, Lil Durk 2X, and on "She Just Wanna" he raps, "Now you mad, Vic Mensa."
The Stereogum piece is symptomatic of the struggle to engage with what makes a specific scene interesting—even when summarizing what's well-known, you're going to miss something. This difficulty is hardly unique to Chicago hip-hop, but it's especially acute here—there's so much happening, and so many avenues to perform and release music. It's even a challenge for those of us on the ground here—just read Chicago magazine's recent blog post on protest music, which suffers from some of the same problems that befell the Stereogum article. I'm reminded of something former WHPK personality J.P. Chill told me when I interviewed him about Stony Island on the occasion of the Numero Group's cassette reissue of the Chicago rap pioneers' back catalog: in the early 90s, the Chicago hip-hop scene (and that includes breakers and graffiti artists) was much more tightly knit, in part because the community was so small. These days the scene is so huge you could ask two people to describe it and get totally different responses.

Trying to capture all the facets of Chicago hip-hop is an exhausting and enthralling challenge. And while Chance Fever continues to reach new heights—his presence at, say, Taste of Chicago earns headlines from national publications—it's also a real pleasure to hear the new sounds coming out of the city, whether they're connected to Chance's sphere of influence or not. A couple weeks ago I got an e-mail from Sol Patches, a trans rapper who uses they/them pronouns. Sol Patches cut their teeth on theater and poetry, and released a mixtape at the end of June called As2Water Hurricanes.

Sol Patches made the mixtape to document the Black Lives Matter movement from a queer perspective—in the e-mail they describe As2Water Hurricanes as "emancipatory journalism," though its interwoven narratives of cultural oppression, gender politics, and death do more than merely report on specific moments of protest. Sol Patches' ferocious rapping and symbolic lyrics require time to unpack, but As2Water Hurricanes makes it easy to put in the effort—it slaps. I got hooked right from the stuttering instrumental that opens the mixtape, and I've kept Sol Patches' songs in heavy rotation in the weeks since. Their multifaceted messages are only beginning to sink in.


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