Long Hot Summer: The tension between hip hop and violence

July 23, 2012

Summer after summer, Chicagoans are consumed by violence and a seemingly exponential murder rate. And, it seems, summer after summer, we talk about the need for whole families, better education, jobs and police boots on the ground—yet, the cycle continues. This year, Afternoon Shift hopes to move beyond the headlines in hopes of better understanding the violence—it roots and possible remedy—through frank, forward-thinking, holistic conversations in a series we’re calling, Long Hot Summer.

Hip hop and violence often intersect. Theirs is a tense and complicated dance where no one leads—either component can serve as a catalyst or outlet for the other. And Chicago now finds itself at the epicenter of violence and mainstream hip hop—the city’s street sound is getting serious, unprecedented play as the murder rate climbs. Chicago has certainly produced marquee artists in the past—the Windy City is, after all, the home of Kanye, Common and Lupe Fiasco, to name a few. But artists from Chicago have typically been associated with rap's indie and conscious styles. In other words, Chicago has never had its street moment—until now.

As cheap internet access became readily available in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, young artists came online in droves. They flooded YouTube with their rhymes and homemade music videos; they took to Twitter and Facebook en masse. Suddenly, sending a tape to Kanye wasn’t the only option.


Kanye West's former manager John Monopoly talks about violence and Chicago hip-hop.

Chief Keef is arguably the biggest name in Chicago hip hop right now. The internet sensation’s breakout video, “I Don’t Like,” at press time, had nearly 9.5 million views on YouTube. He reportedly signed a deal with Interscope Records worth millions in June. Freelance writer David Drake recently profiled Keef and other up-and-coming Chicago artists for SPIN.

“Much of what has made Keef's controversial music resonate so widely throughout the city is that his young age and seemingly reckless lyrics — dense with references to local sets, cliques, neighborhoods, and gangs — appear to epitomize this very sense of having lost control of the younger generation,” Drake wrote.

That uncontrolled, reckless vibe that's resonating amongst Chicago’s young emcees is what concerns veterans like Che "Rhymefest" Smith. The hip-hop artist and activist, who shares a Grammy with Kanye West, considers it a personal responsibility to educate younger generations about the potential impact of music—that rhymes can be used as a tool or a weapon. And he has no patience for the latter.

Rhymefest is hoping to drown out the negative notes with theme songs for life. In an effort to stem the violence in Chicago through music, his foundation, Power of Purpose, has teamed up with the Black Youth Project to provide a platform for positive plays. The Pledge Mixtape will be a 13-song CD comprised of songs from various local artists hoping to take back their communal power through music. Artists like Mikkey Halstead, K. Fox and Rhymefest himself will provide tracks to bring attention to the tunes—but will they grab 9.5-million-views-type attention?

Rhymefest joins host Steve Edwards, music writer Jessica Hopper, Pastor Phil Jackson and emcee Teh’Ray "Phenom" Hale for an hour-long discussion about the relationship between hip hop and violence. Afternoon Shift will also hear from up-and-coming emcee, Chance the Rapper. To join the conversation, call (312) 923-9239 or chime in on Twitter at #AfternoonShift.