Three years ago things were just getting exciting around Chicago. Chief Keef had just made the country take a collective gulp as he shoved guns into the lens of a Handicam protected by his thick mop of locks, Kids These Days had just dropped Hard Times and were preparing their proper full-length and a kid named Chance was beginning to get some attention for his recent 10 Day mixtape. The spotlights were on their way, quickly tearing themselves from Atlanta long enough to get entranced by the almost creepy sound of drill, packed full of real-life assertions that played on America’s penchant for struggle behind glass. Fresh off of journalism school I arrived in Chicago, the local scene seemed set for big things and I was at the center of it, reporting at the time for the Chicago Sun-Times.
A few years later, to the outside world, the excitment has somewhat tempered. Following consecutive years that saw the rise of drill (2012), an introduction to Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa (2013), and later Mick Jenkins, Lucki Eck$ and Saba (2014), suddenly the tap seems to be a bit more dry. The talent is still abound, though, as it has been for generations. The difference now might be a sign of the times, a reflection of what transpired after the spotlight began to shine bright and the moves that have been made since. Along with the ‘Go’s perpetual lack of a true music industry backbone, the future of the local scene appears to be both uncertain and as exciting as ever.
As anyone involved in the Chicago music scene will tell you, the city is and has been central to many musical movements throughout history. From blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf) to house (Frankie Knuckles) the city has paced sound and the players and artists that have emerged from the city have left their mark on the world. I happened to stumble my way into the business at a time when the word "renaissance" was being thrown around with abandon. That renaissance certainly hasn’t ended, but it is definitely in a state of marked transition.
2013 was the year. Acid Rap dropped that April and Keef and the drill scene were riding as high as they ever would as the major labels circled and then slowly started offering up contracts. Kids These Days would break up that May, unleashing a flood of talent into the already healthy streets. From that break up would come Vic Mensa’s solo career, the evolution of Nico Segal into Donnie Trumpet and the formation of the Social Experiment, which had begun to take shape while several members were on tour with Mac Miller. By the end of that year Mensa had asserted himself into a national conversation thanks to Innanetape, and year-end lists had the project side-by-side with Chance's Acid Rap.
Heading into 2014 the momentum was extremely evident and it seemed like anything might happen. For those not from the city, it’s hard to explain. Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Miami all are used to having the country pay attention, but for a community that residents call the smallest big city in the world, the attention was as thick as could be. That summer brought us Mick Jenkins’ The Water(s) and Saba’s ComfortZone, a pair of projects that seemed suited to vault both emcees forward similarly to Vic and Chance a year prior. As the drill scene began to take an edge off and Keef faded to California, many promising young talents fell victim to the streets or found themselves in less than ideal circumstances. It appeared then that it would be up to the careful wordsmiths, the conscious hip-hop artists, the kind of authors Chicago’s rap scene has always been so closely tied to, in order to keep the momentum going.
This year has been a bit different, though. The excitement around SURF certainly brought the local community together, while also delivering them to the doorstep of everyone who owned a smart phone. Perhaps a sort of transition year, 2015 has yet to provide a new breakout star from Chicago. Hurt Everybody has a groundswell of furious fan support, but they haven’t reached national audiences with regularity. Acts like Taylor Bennett, Logan, Leather Corduroys and the rest of SaveMoney have proven that they can hang with anyone in the country, but only time will tell where each will go from here. With that said, innovation continues to be central to the music scene here, as Chance, Donnie and company teamed up with none other than Apple Music to offer SURF for free, adding a new wrinkle to the same old conversation surrounding the future of the recording industry.
One act that did find marked success this calendar year is Towkio, who walked the path blazed by Mensa and Chance before him, making good on one of the year’s best independent releases, .Wav Theory. Towkio's case specifically points to the kind of all-hands-on-deck mentality as each acts rolls out. Towkio’s project was Executive Produced by SoX member Peter CottonTale, feautred verses from Chance and Vic, and had the fingerprints of many others all over it. While we have yet to see acts like Saba and Mick take the giant steps forward that they've shown to be capable of making, the former’s performance alongside Chano on The Late Show this week might have been the boost he needs to get there. Meanwhile, NoNameGypsy has slowly become the female version of her idol, Jay Electronica, as her anticipated Telephone album continues to go the way of Detox.
More important than anything else that has happened musically in Chicago, the artists who have incubated and grown from this city have also helped to create something unique. While 2015 might be viewed as a down year for new breaking hip-hop talent, we've seen a steady stream of talented female singers like Ravyn Lenae, Bernie Levv, Highness, and Via Rosa, among others, step up to the plate, while producers Stefan Ponce and Knox Fortune each grabbed a Kanye West feature and bands like Marrow and Whitney further proved that there is plenty of nontraditional sounds being born on the daily. More importantly, a real sense of community has grown directly from those who have made it. Chance hosts Open Mike events with high school kids to get them talking, creating and positively interacting with one another, while his drummer, Stix, has a monthly Jam Night that brings out musicians from across the city to perform with acts like The O’My’s, Social Experiment and more. There’s an honest understanding of creating space for creativity to grow and because of that the city will never be in short supply of new art to show the world. Rather than pour money into senseless initiatives or programs, Chance and this wave of intellectuals and artists have changed the way people think in their hometown. Ideas are bigger, dreams seem more feasible. Shit, even Keef made the diagonal choice of forgoing a record label in favor of Greek company FilmOn.
Talk to a teenager in Chicago on the come up and see if the world doesn’t seem bigger now compared to three years ago. It’s more than just a wave, it’s a movement in the truest sense. It is increasingly annoying that most hip-hop fans on either coast only know the gunshot-riddled sound of a drill movement that has since faded, but anyone willing to sample the music that is being made in the 312 or 773 will immediately know otherwise.
As Mensa nears the release of his Roc Nation debut and Chance continues to tease new solo work with the free release of “Angels,” it’s hard for me not to look back on the last three years and reflect. The first time I met Chance I was covering Kids These Days, who were opening for Childish Gambino at University of Illinois-Chicago in 2012. At the time there was no way to predict all that would happen moving forward, but I can certainly say the ride has been quite fun. Chicago will continue to prosper for the very reasons that has placed the city in it's current state of being. The city is made up of all the best and worst parts of America rolled into a single metropolis and the resulting art is a reflection of existing within such a paradox.
With two of the city’s biggest stars once again preparing to release albums, it’s hard not to feel as though we’re just gearing up for round two. There is no end in sight.