Scratch and stitch | Feature | Chicago Reader

Scratch and stitch 

The well-tailored line between hip-hop artists and the streetwear companies hustling to promote them

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The heart of the Chicago streetwear scene lies in independent boutiques such as Leaders 1354, Saint Alfred, and Jugrnaut, which sell wares from national and local brands. These stores have also been home to the city's underground hip-hop community, helping promote new and established artists with in-store events, advertising for concerts, and playing the latest mix tapes and albums.

"There's no longer a Tower Records or Virgin store where you can go have parties or signings when mix tapes or albums drop," Barber says. "When those went away, the streetwear stores or the boutiques kind of gave these people a place to go hang out. It's almost like a barbershop; people talk about music, they talk about fashion, they talk about everything."

A new southeast Chicago streetwear store called B.R.E.A.D. ("Be Real Everyday All Day") has taken the boutique-as-barbershop concept to its literal conclusion—the basement-level storefront is a barbershop, as well as a retail space and gallery. Open since Halloween, the brand's founders hope to provide a space to engage neighborhood kids, and Leaders provided the blueprint for the boutique. "We've been messing with them guys for a couple years now, going shopping there for a while," says B.R.E.A.D. cofounder Gustavo Diaz. "They inspired me to do what we're doing today and I would love to have a place like that out this way, where I'm from."

Right now B.R.E.A.D. sells clothing from its own line and Local Motives, a brand launched by Chicago newcomer Brian Longwill. The 23-year-old draws inspiration from his new home—Longwill's "Air Freddie" crew neck recasts Queen's theatrical front man onto the iconic "Air Jordan" symbol—but he grew up with the streetwear and hip-hop scenes in his hometown of Pittsburgh. "The main shop back home is called Time Bomb," Longwill says. "Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, those artists came out of that store." (The pair are coheadlining a summer tour that stops by First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Fri 7/27.)

Miller's recent Blue Slide Park, became the first independent album since 1995 to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. "I remember seeing a Mac Miller flyer of him when he was 16," Longwill says. "I laughed and said, 'What is this?' But he was persistent and steady and kept going to Time Bomb and kept working with the music. He really came up through there, as well as Wiz." Khalifa's monster hit "Black and Yellow" topped the Billboard singles chart in 2010. The song's video, which has generated more than 126 million views on YouTube, features a bystander wearing a shirt by a Pittsburgh brand called Blasfome, which is also sold out of Time Bomb; Longwill says the video was so successful for Blasfome, the designer bought a brand-new BMW off of it.

When Longwill moved to Chicago last August, he knew just what he needed to do to learn the lay of the land. "I came out here and went to Jugrnaut," he says. "The first or second day in Chicago, I walked in and said, 'Who are the artists I need to find out about?'"

"You could walk into a shop and hear what's playing and know that's what's in right now—or that's about to be in right now—because a lot of the people who run the shops are tastemakers," says Clinton Sandifer (aka ShowYouSuck). "You can walk into Jugrnaut and see me and St. Millie or other artists. Since they're open all day, artists like me who don't have a day jobs, that's where we hang out."

Beyond that, local stores also help artists through publishing blog posts and videos, and offering a physical space for aspiring MCs and producers to leave free mix tapes for curious shoppers. "It's definitely not responsible for all of the ill shit that's coming out of Chicago, but it's one form of promotion," says Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper. "The streetwear stores in Chicago definitely have supported and help push the Chicago artists on the rise right now."

Chance is one of the more sought-after rappers on the scene since he dropped his #10Day mix tape in April, and he credits stores like Leaders for helping him get his start. "The end of '09 I had a mix tape that nobody knew about," Bennett says. "Leaders threw me a listening party. It was a small gathering of people."

Leaders threw Chance another listening party in the fall, and Bennett says 300 people showed up—and that an additional 100 weren't able to get in.

"We mess with the artists that mess with us, unconditionally, whether you have a huge fan base or you're dropping off a stack of mix tapes and still trying to get heard," says Leaders' creative director Vic Lloyd. "I'm not here just to benefit, I'm here to support. I remember a lot of these guys when they was just shorties, and they didn't even know they wanted to rap or nothing."

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