Keeping the beat | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Keeping the beat 

Chicago’s beat scene has to do without the attention the city’s rappers get, but it’s a vital incubator for adventurous, ambitious instrumental hip-hop.

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Matt Palenske, aka Consumer., performs a “feature” set during Open Beats at Cafe Mustache on Friday, September 20. - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Matt Palenske, aka Consumer., performs a “feature” set during Open Beats at Cafe Mustache on Friday, September 20.
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

On the night of Friday, August 16, eight young men huddled over Apple laptops and samplers set up on circular tables near the DJ booth at Cafe Mustache. They were there for Open Beats, a sort of open-mike night that gives electronic producers the opportunity to play their music for an audience. The event doesn't start till 9 PM, but the 15-minute performance slots are first come, first served, and these eight producers all wanted a chance. Chicago DJ and producer Fess Grandiose launched Open Beats in January 2016, and he's held it on the third Friday of every month at Cafe Mustache ever since; producer Uncle El has helped Fess host it since July 2017. Each month, Fess and El select a few beat makers in advance to perform "feature" sets, which close the night and run longer than 15 minutes. But Fess has always intended Open Beats to be a platform for aspiring producers, and its democratic promise of an outlet open to everyone remains key to its identity.

This past January, Open Beats threw a three-year anniversary party that Fess says packed Cafe Mustache. Since then, the sign-up sheet fills up earlier and earlier. "There has not been any night where there's been any less than, like, ten artists showing up trying to play," Fess says. "Most of those artists bring in their handful of people with them—they're like, 'Yeah, I'm about to play this thing.' Two or three of those artists get there too late, and I have to turn them away." At August's Open Beats, the sign-up sheet maxed out almost an hour before start. "I was sure, showing up here at 8:05, nobody would be here," Fess says.

Open Beats' success has been a boon to a community of musicians that have otherwise had trouble marketing themselves in Chicago: the "beat scene," as it's rather ambiguously called, is by design very loosely defined, covering producers who make tracks in a variety of interrelated styles. Beat-scene musicians are based in hip-hop, but they incorporate groove-based jazz as well as dance subgenres such as house and techno—and though a few might partner with rappers or singers, most prefer to approach instrumental music as complete and self-contained.


Boombastic
With sets from Jamie Hayes, Damon Locks, Shon Dervis, Mr. Jaytoo, DJ Tess, Ben Fasman, King Hippo, DJ Emmaculate, iRon, DJ Rude One, DJ Skor, Sasha Kokorokoko, Norm Rockwell, Twilite Tone, Alo, and DJ Pauly. Sun 9/29, noon-8 PM, Wicker Park, 1425 N. Damen, free, all ages

Push Beats
Thu 10/3, 9 PM, the Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee, free, 21+

Open Beats
Fri 10/18, 9 PM, Cafe Mustache, 2313 N. Milwaukee, 21+


The phrase "beat scene" can also be used to describe this kind of music, rather than the people who make it, in which sense it's used interchangeably with "live PA"—that is, a performance where a producer uses hardware (drum machines, samplers, turntables, audio effects units) live in real time, rather than simply playing back finished tracks. Many beat-scene producers insist on playing live, and some even improvise, but no one gets turned away from Open Beats for just pressing "play" on a laptop.

Chicago has had instrumental producers for decades, of course, but its beat scene coalesced in the early 2000s. From the start it's brought together multiple generations, and it's characterized by crossover and collaboration. Uncle El, who started rapping in the 90s as a student at Roger C. Sullivan High School, isn't just cohost of Open Beats; he and a small collective of producers also run Push Beats, the city's longest-running beat-scene event, now at the Whistler (its fourth venue). Kevin Johnson, aka Mr. Echoes of production duo the Opus, began making beats in the early 90s for underground Chicago hip-hop group Rubberoom, and in June he celebrated the release of the Mr. Echoes album Needful Things at Push Beats. El's 40th birthday celebration at August's Open Beats doubled as a going-away party for Push Beats cofounder Marcos "Cos" Rivera, who moved to San Diego at the end of the month.

Open Beats founder and cohost Fess Grandiose introduces a beat maker. - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Open Beats founder and cohost Fess Grandiose introduces a beat maker.
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

Cos was the last of Push Beats' founders to leave Chicago. The series started out weekly in 2010 at defunct Wicker Park lounge Lokal, and it quickly became the highest-profile manifestation of Chicago's beat scene. After two subsequent venue changes, it became monthly when it landed at the Whistler in October 2015.

Push Beats may be diminished, but Chicago's beat scene as a whole has hit a growth spurt, partly because of Open Beats. Two similar monthly showcases have cropped up in the past few months: Cutoff at Innjoy in Wicker Park in May and the Choppin' Block at the Silver Room's Wicker Park location in June. Open Beats regular Rodolfo launched Cutoff with the help of producer Obehko, and he's been trying to move it to the Logan Square Innjoy (as of this month he's also changed its name to Live Beats). With producer Azarias, Obehko also cofounded the Choppin' Block, which will need a new home after the Wicker Park Silver Room closes on October 1. The brand-new event series Kinky Yeti, kicked off by Azarias with producer Loony Is Normal and DJ Skoli, spotlights beat makers and vocalists.

  • Radius and Cos collaborate on a feature set at the August 2016 installment of Open Beats.

These events are intimate and specialized, with small crowds that often consist mostly of other producers, but as is frequently the case in the music business, which people show up is more important than how many. Over the past few years, Chicago's beat scene has made its presence felt far beyond the city limits. Veteran producer Ramon "Radius" Norwood, an evangelist for Chicago music, spends most of the year living and traveling in Europe, stocking record stores with copies of releases by his ETC label. Many are his own, but most of the rest are by local beat-scene artists—on October 25, he'll put out the Uncle El full-length Now U C Me? Progressive jazz label International Anthem has booked beat-scene producers for label showcases and released beat-scene music, and one of the most popular artists on its roster, jazz drummer Makaya McCraven, broke out beyond the jazz audience after Chicago beat-scene events spurred him to explore its production techniques on his own albums. He's been positioned as a modern "savior" of jazz, much like Kamasi Washington, and attracted glowing profiles by the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

Producers from the Chicago beat scene have also had successes outside it, even though the scene itself gets almost no publicity. Kenny Keys played a live PA set at Pritzker Pavilion in July as part of the Millennium Park Summer Music Series, and that same month, Marco "Maker" Jacobo released the instrumental album Systematic Soul, his fourth for Los Angeles label Now-Again. Run by Egon, creative director of the J Dilla estate, Now-Again has licensed Maker's music for TV and movies, including 2017's The Big Sick. And Slot-A produced the majority of one of the year's most significant albums: Jamila Woods's Legacy! Legacy!

Strangers of Necessity at Open Beats: from left to right, the duo is Malcome Flex (aka Fooch the MC) and producer CoryaYo. - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Strangers of Necessity at Open Beats: from left to right, the duo is Malcome Flex (aka Fooch the MC) and producer CoryaYo.
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

To begin August's Open Beats, Fess asks for a moment of silence to honor LA producer Ras G, aka Gregory Shorter Jr., who died at age 40 on July 29. Ras considered himself a disciple of Sun Ra and made experimental instrumental hip-hop he called "ghetto sci-fi."

In the late 2000s, Ras and other eccentric LA producers (Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Samiyam, Dibiase, Nosaj Thing) achieved mainstream popularity with the first beat scene to become widely known by that name. Their community's center of gravity was the weekly series Low End Theory, founded in 2006 by DJ and producer Daddy Kev and discontinued in August 2018. Daddy Kev also owns Alpha Pup Records, which has released the music of several Low End regulars. Flying Lotus launched his Brainfeeder label in 2008, providing another platform for emerging artists eager to push the boundaries of instrumental hip-hop, and two years later UK label Ninja Tune began distributing Brainfeeder releases. By March 2011, when Radiohead front man Thom Yorke DJed at Low End Theory with Flying Lotus, LA's beat scene had already had its crossover moment.

Even before then, that community was attracting heads from around the world. In the mid-2000s, beat-scene music from LA had reached DJ and events producer King Hippo, aka Chicagoland native Alejandro Ayala. He was living in Tokyo at the time, and considered moving to LA. "There was a bunch of awesome music that was coming out of there, and it was all coming in at once," Hippo says. "I was super interested to see what was happening over there and thought I would try my luck." Fortunately for Chicago's beat scene, Hippo changed his mind—he came back here instead.

LA's beat scene could only have achieved its influence after the rise of online networking made it easy for musicians to find fellow lovers of subversive sounds. "One of the biggest outlets that we had was MySpace, to be honest with you," Radius says. He'd eventually play Low End Theory several times, beginning in 2009. "We were all listening to each other. I'd come home and have like 300, 400, 500 plays a day. We would be in our top eight—we'd be in Dibiase, Ras G, and Flying Lotus. We all were in each other's vision, trading music."

The message boards for LA label Stones Throw began hosting weekly beat battles in 2007 (if not earlier—the boards are dead, so it's hard to be sure). Each Saturday, the previous week's winner would post a sample for producers to use in an original instrumental to be uploaded by the following Wednesday. Forum users voted for their favorite track at the end of the week, and the cycle started over. The Stones Throw site was a natural hub for beat makers eager to experiment with instrumental hip-hop, since the label worked with two artists who had become foundational to the beat scene: Madlib and J Dilla.

  • Sev Seveer won a Stones Throw beat battle with one of the tracks from this collection.

The Stones Throw beat battles were important for Chicago producer Sev Seveer in the late 2000s, when he was an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It became this community of folks all studying each other's techniques and approaches to each sample," he says. "I had won a couple beat battles on there—during that time was really when I started to develop my own tastes, my own styles, and had a lot of influences as well from there." After Stones Throw closed the boards last year, longtime posters launched stbbforever.com to keep the community going.

Sev graduated in 2010 and moved back to Chicago, getting involved in The Hip-Hop Project, a mix show that's aired on Loyola radio station WLUW since 1995 (it's now run by DJ Scend and Slot-A). He also continued to post original material online, both as part of Stones Throw beat battles and on Soundcloud, and that's how the local beat scene found him. In 2012 Cos heard something Sev had shared and invited him to check out Push Beats.

Sev Seveer performs with a Boss SP-303 sampler at Open Beats. - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Sev Seveer performs with a Boss SP-303 sampler at Open Beats.
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

Cos decided to pursue music after falling three and a half stories off a balcony—there's nothing like a brush with death to help you clarify what you want to do with your life. He enrolled at Harold Washington College to study piano in 2004. Though he grew up on hip-hop, he'd subsequently gotten into boundary-pushing jazz by the likes of Jeff Parker, Ken Vandermark, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

"That's what was drawing me, in my musicality, to seek becoming a better musician," he says. In class, he met Brandon "Illiac" Murphy, who shared his tastes. "We would be in jazz class but reminiscing about hip-hop and talking about some of the current electronic music that was going around," Cos says.

Cos dropped out of college in 2005, after three semesters—he'd had a son, and was finding it hard to keep up with schoolwork. But his bond with Illiac continued to deepen, and as his friend got hooked on electronic production—first with Ableton, then with modular synthesizers—Cos learned alongside him. In 2010, Illiac got invited by his friend Adam Bowsman (aka Abyss) to host a music night with him and Raj Malosh (aka Raj Mahal) at Lokal. Abyss asked Illiac if he could recommend anyone else, and once Cos came aboard, the four of them launched Push Tuesdays, which became Push Beats within a year.

"It was really cool that people could bring what they made in their basement or in their room or whatever, and play it out in front of people," Raj says. Raj caught the production bug while still living in his native Detroit, after hearing producer House Shoes spin tracks by his most famous collaborator, J Dilla. He made his first beats using an MPC 2000 sampler he shared with his friend John Utsler, an original member of Insane Clown Posse and brother of Joseph Utsler (aka Shaggy 2 Dope).

  • Raj Mahal's 2016 contribution to an album series presented by J Dilla collaborator House Shoes

The rest of the Push crew (and the scene growing up around them) shared Raj's affinity for Dilla, but despite their aesthetic consensus they resisted giving a name to the style of music they'd incubated. "We really had a hard time describing the genre—and I still feel like I have a hard time describing it," Raj says. "What was exciting to me—and I feel like was common amongst us—was that there wasn't a whole lot of parameters. There was an essence that existed in it, and that was like a harder hip-hop form, but you could go anywhere around that."

The Push producers, Raj says, decided early on that they wanted to grow beyond Chicago to establish a midwest touring circuit to bring in like-minded producers from the coasts or even abroad. That hasn't happened yet, but Push has thrown parties bigger than its regular events. Cos remembers one during the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival that the police broke up. "Flying Lotus was supposed to play—Jeremiah Jae was onstage, and the cops told him he better not rhyme one more lyric or they're going to take all the equipment," Cos says. "That was fun—400, 500 people in this warehouse across from a Department of Corrections building." The Push crew had better luck with a loft party they threw the following December featuring Toronto's Elaquent and LA's Knxwledge.

The Push collective grew as the events took off—at one point it had ten members. Sev came aboard in 2013. "I sat in front of these dudes, in a multiperson interview, when I became a resident," he says. "They were all sitting in a circle at Cos's place, and there was almost like an initiation."

Push survived the loss of its first three venues—Lokal, Rodan, and Double Door's basement space, Door No. 3, have all closed—in part because the crew's members are so tightly bonded. Raj Mahal and Uncle El, for instance, were roommates in 2011. "I would hear him working on stuff and just be like, 'Whoa,'" El says. "It was awe-inspiring and got me to where I am now, wherever that is." Makaya McCraven says Raj is one of the best beat makers he's met in Chicago.

Push Beats fosters a collegial environment, where producers are encouraged to learn from one another rather than jealously guard their secrets. "Cos is a classically trained pianist, and every one of his shows I've seen has a different feel, because he's actually still playing keys live," Fess says. "That within itself is what made me think, like, 'I need to step my game up, and at least offer more than just me playing premade productions.'"

Sev bought his first Roland SP-404 sampler after becoming a Push resident. "I realize I'm most expressive when I'm using hardware," he says. He started getting booked for more gigs after he began improvising live with Cos. "I would come with a bunch of samples, and he would come with this keyboard, and we would have absolutely no idea what we were going to do going into this set," Sev says. "That's when the dynamic of my performances changed—when folks could see that I knew as much about what I was gonna do as they in the audience did, and they saw that vulnerability."

Vocalist Sonia Morant performs at Open Beats with producer CoryaYo. - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Vocalist Sonia Morant performs at Open Beats with producer CoryaYo.
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

Kevin "Mr. Echoes" Johnson says he played his first instrumental hip-hop set in the early 2000s. Echoes and his collaborator in the Opus, Aaron Smith (aka the Isle of Weight), opened a show at Metro.

"We grabbed our drum machines—Aaron had his ASR-10 and his MPC, I had my MPC—and we basically got onstage and traded beats," Echoes says. "Everything was so slow back then. It was so funny, because he'd load up a beat while I was playing, and then I would literally have to wait for him to finish loading the beat. So I had to be as creative as possible with a track that I'm doing, because I would have to wait for him." Their MPCs used floppy disks, which didn't have much storage space—a single song might require four or five disks.

Before that show, Echoes says, he's not aware of any Chicago producers playing live instrumental hip-hop. There wasn't a regular public forum for people making that kind of music till 2005, when producer Tone B. Nimble (a member of the All Natural collective and the owner of its record label) launched Dance to the Drummer's DB at beloved Noble Square club Sonotheque. "When other people were doing beat showcases, I didn't feel like they were highlighting the producers the way they should be highlighting them," Tone says. "You didn't get to see a real presentation." Dance to the Drummer's DB encouraged producers to bring samplers, drum machines, and synths, and to set up in the middle of the crowd. "I wanted producers to feel the energy from the audience," says Tone.

Dance to the Drummer's DB was the seed of Chicago's current beat scene. The event incorporated a battle component via a March Madness-style tournament, but the competition didn't prevent Tone from bringing together different beat-making collectives and creating a new community. "It became more of a unified thing," says Marco "Maker" Jacobo. "I met a lot of producers there that I didn't really know—it's the first time I met Tall Black Guy—and got to play with a bunch of people."

  • Kenny Keys and Panik both participated in this three-way beat battle hosted by Dance to the Drummer's DB in November 2005.

For Kenny Keys, the series opened new doors. In the late 90s, he'd started producing for Pugslee Atomz's underground hip-hop crew, the Nacrobats, whose Uptown headquarters, Dover Crib, was also a recording studio. (Radius lived there briefly in 2001, learning about production techniques.) Dance to the Drummer's DB introduced Kenny to many more of Chicago hip-hop's heavy hitters—Molemen cofounder Panik, Twilite Tone, No ID—and challenged his approach to performing and recording. "It opened my mind, big time, to be even more uninhibited when I work, even alone," he says.

Dance to the Drummer's DB lasted only a couple years, but the audience it found inspired other producers to start their own nights. Push Beats wasn't the only new series to emerge in the late 2000s and early 2010s: Maker cofounded Face Melt, Uncle El helped start Tronic, and Joshua "Lokua" Kleckner of the Moment Sound collective launched Heartbeats.

Face Melt occasionally threw events at Darkroom and Reggies' Rock Club, and its record label had released two Kenny Keys albums by 2013. Tronic struggled to pull a crowd at its original home, Red Kiva in the West Loop. "Nobody was feeling like the bass-heavy beats music, that whole LA beat-scene vibe," El says. "People would be like, 'What is this?' They were talking to the bar manager: 'Why you letting these guys do this night? What is electronic music?'" The series did better at its subsequent locations, Sonotheque and Darkroom, but still folded a couple years later.

The Open Beats crowd at Cafe Mustache, with vocalist Sonia Morant and series cohost Fess Grandiose at right - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • The Open Beats crowd at Cafe Mustache, with vocalist Sonia Morant and series cohost Fess Grandiose at right
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

Heartbeats was a weekly live PA series at Morseland in Rogers Park that died when the club closed in 2012. "There were only so many people doing live PA," Lokua says. "It wasn't necessarily focused on hip-hop—we had people doing techno, people doing glitchy stuff." In total he booked more than 100 producers for the series, including Radius, who released some music through the label run by Lokua's Moment Sound collective.

Heartbeats was also the event that first hooked McCraven on Chicago's beat scene. King Hippo got involved through Push Beats after moving back from Tokyo, and the two of them met in June 2014 after Radius told Hippo to check out a McCraven show at Double Door. They'd end up working together as part of Hippo's stateside version of a Tokyo event called Raws: a jazz combo would open the show, and then a handful of beat makers would have an hour and a half to make original tracks by sampling a recording of the combo's set.

Hippo hosted a Raws night in Chicago in 2014 with a jazz group led by bassist Junius Paul (Radius and Raj Mahal made beats), then another in LA in 2015 with McCraven and Jeff Parker. Raws was too expensive to do regularly, but Hippo adapted the idea into a Whistler monthly called Fresh Roasted, which ran from 2014 till 2018: DJs would simply pick records for producers to sample.

Subsequently Hippo pitched in to book beat makers at International Anthem showcases and help produce two McCraven albums with beat-scene bents: 2015's In the Moment Remix Tape and 2017's Highly Rare.

McCraven's path into the beat scene is unusual: most producers come to it from hip-hop. Slot-A had his epiphany while watching Flying Lotus play the inaugural North Coast Music Festival in 2010. He picked up tips about hardware at Push Beats and learned techniques from Cos, Radius, and other elder statesmen. The December 2015 death of Timothy Jones, aka influential Chicago hip-hop DJ and radio personality Timbuck2, spurred Slot-A to consider what he could accomplish in the beat scene. "I was like, 'If I only had a couple more years to live, what would I want to spend my time doing?'" he says. "It'd be dope to give other producers a platform. It'd also be dope to share my knowledge." In 2016 he launched Beat Lo-fi Social, a monthly series at Subterranean with a spinoff Web radio show, and it lasted a couple years.

Beat-scene events tend to be ephemeral—even Push Beats, at almost ten years old, is no Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind—but of the series active today, the one that's doing the most to inspire newcomers and revitalize the community is Fess Grandiose's Open Beats. Fess grew up in the south suburbs and began producing right out of high school in the late 2000s, hoping to provide tracks for his own rapping. His 2011 mixtape, Life in Lo-Fi . . . Vol. 1, features guest verses from J Dilla collaborator Guilty Simpson, but it was his last release as a rapper. Around the same time, he got his first invitation to Push Beats from Raj Mahal, who'd found Fess's instrumentals on Soundcloud. "Seeing what they were doing on a weekly basis, when I was like 22, 23—that was everything," Fess says. "When I started Open Beats, I literally went up to Cos, and I'm like, 'Are you OK with me doing this?' Because I didn't want them to even perceive that I was trying to compete."

Cos doesn't seem to have minded, given that Open Beats hosted his farewell party.

Cafe Mustache during Open Beats - ALLISON ZIEMBA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Cafe Mustache during Open Beats
  • ALLISON ZIEMBA for Chicago Reader

Beat-scene music isn't generally chart material, the efforts of FlyLo and company notwithstanding—instrumental music rarely outcompetes songs with vocals in that arena. But a recent development in the streaming ecosystem could drive a flood of new fans to the beat scene's door.

In the past couple years, a style of instrumental hip-hop called "lofi" has exploded online. YouTube channels such as College Music, Chillhop Music, and ChilledCow run 24-hour streams of beat-driven wallpaper. The biggest channels have subscriber counts in the millions, curate popular Spotify playlists, and even sell clothing. Chillhop Music, based in the Netherlands, also runs a record label.

  • Fess Grandiose released this collection of beats in July 2018.

These outlets pitch instrumental hip-hop as relaxation music or "beats to study to." Sev Seveer likens lofi to 80s smooth jazz—and just as relatively rigorous jazz musicians must have hoped to attract some of the smooth-jazz crowd, the beat scene might benefit from the huge numbers of people exposed to a watered-down version of what it does. "I've heard folks identify my stuff as like, 'Oh, you make homework beats,'" Sev says. "I think now that 'lofi chill' or whatever—now that that's starting to reach a much greater audience, it's just starting to be different, and corny in some respects."

Whatever effect lofi will have on the beat scene's listeners, it doesn't seem to have influenced its practitioners. Guatemalan-born producer Rodolfo, who runs Live Beats at Innjoy, is a relative newcomer to the scene, introduced to it at Open Beats just a couple years ago—but he came looking for psychedelic instrumental hip-hop like Flying Lotus.

Fess calls Rodolfo an Open Beats all-star: he's only missed a few in two years, and he played a feature set in July. "Since I came here, every month I wanted to have something fresh—like a new track, a whole new set," Rodolfo says. He's accumulated enough material for what he hopes will be his full-length debut, which he's tentatively titled Tools of Conquest.

Other beat-scene newcomers seem to be following the same path. If this keeps up, when the millions of people listening to "homework beats" get tired of that, they'll have a self-sustaining community of adventurous, ambitious producers to seek out. Among the open-mike performers at August's Open Beats was Hameedullah, a 24-year-old who spent part of his set rapping. He found the series through Instagram while looking for something like Low End Theory in Chicago—a place where he could find other producers eager to make their mark. "I just wanted to be a part of it," he says. "And to see if I can take it to another level."  v

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