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The battle for the soul of Chicago hip-hop

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Even after the phenomenal worldwide success of Kanye West, in recent years Chicago hip-hop took a back seat to the sounds coming from the left and right coasts, as well as the Dirty South. You know the knock: The Windy City is the home of backpackers, granola-eating hippies and feel-good rappers like Common, Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco, the Cool Kids, Kid Sister and Psalm One who, even if skeptics begrudgingly granted their skills, just weren’t “real hip-hop.”

That idiotic slight comes, of course, from the fact that if any one thing ever has characterized the diverse group of musically inventive Chicago-bred rappers who’ve grabbed the national spotlight in the past, it’s been the refusal to exclusively pander to gangsta stereotypes, the same old nihilistic celebrations of hopelessness, sexism and violence, instead collectively painting a much more nuanced, often more positive and ultimately more realistic portrait of the lives of the majority of young African-American men and women.

In the hip-hop underground, the rise of the troubled teenage rapper Chief Keef and so-called Chicago “drill music,” with its celebration of all those tired but still lucrative gangsta clichés, has been the major story of 2012. And thanks to Keef’s repellant shenanigans—from the use of a weapon in a run-in with police that first gave him bad-boy bragging rights to his now-infamous Tweet about the shooting of rival Lil Jojo—the “new Chicago hip-hop” is becoming a topic for the national mainstream media, with stories running side by side with coverage of the city’s increasing gang problems and skyrocketing murder rate.

And let’s not even go near the more exploitative end of things, including Pitchfork taking Keef to a gun range for a video shoot and then pulling the clip from the site once things got a little too controversial and too real.

Disappointingly, West has given Keef’s soulless rap his endorsement by including a remix of the 17-year-old’s “I Don’t Like” on Cruel Summer, the new and largely underwhelming compilation album from his G.O.O.D. Music crew. Not that Keef is signed to ’Ye’s label: He’s inked a multi-million-dollar deal with Interscope for his forthcoming major-label debut. As the man behind Dr. Dre, Marilyn Manson, 50 Cent and Eminem, and a tireless champion of cheap shock and desperately offensive schlock, we expect Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine to be a Keef fan. But we expected better from West.

In recent days, other established Chicago stars have reacted differently to Keef’s rise. Common, who also appears on Cruel Summer, has called for a summit between the old-school rappers and Keef and the new breed. “I feel like we just gotta sit ‘em down and build with them,” Common told BET. “Talk to them, get some type of peace thing going. It’s bigger than rap. Kids is dying. I would tell Keef and all of them cats, 'Man we gotta sit down and figure out how we’re gonna get to a peace meeting.’”

Meanwhile, even as he’s dropping his fourth studio album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, Lupe Fiasco is saying he’s considering quitting rap, largely because the success of artists such as Chief Keef disgusts him. The two rappers fought it out on Twitter after Lupe said the following in a radio interview: “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture that he represents… The murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing, and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it—they all look like Chief Keef.”

Fired back the ever-eloquent Keef: “Lupe fiasco a hoe ass n---a And wen I see him I’ma smack him like da lil bitch he is.”

Chief Keef.

Lupe Fiasco.

Will empty nihilistic drill music come to represent the new sound of Chicago for the world, flipping the script on what Keef’s predecessors have built up as the city’s hip-hop legacy? Is it part of the problem on the streets, or a symptom? And what are its merits and demerits on a purely musical level?

These are complicated questions that this blogger only is beginning to wrap his head around. Meanwhile, the most cogent and insightful conversation on the topic that I’ve encountered to date was posted yesterday by the invaluable music-news aggregate The Daily Swarm (which has its roots in Chicago). The latest installment of the site’s “Rational Conversation” series, editor Eric Ducker talks Keef and drill music with Andrew Barber of the Chicago hip-hop website Fake Shore Drive. Among his comments:

The scene still has its supporters and stars. It’s by no means dead, and there is more to Chicago than just the “drill scene.” That’s what bothers me the most about the coverage Chicago is getting right now. All anyone wants to talk about is Chief Keef, but there are a ton of other artists here whose content is completely different. Artists like Rockie Fresh, YP, Spenzo, Chance the Rapper, Sir Michael Rock, and Kids These Days are incredible talents and deserve the same recognition. Around ten artists and producers from Chicago were signed in 2012; many of them sound nothing alike and have their own styles and movements. Record execs and A&Rs hit Chicago like the gold rush this past spring and summer, and I think a lot of artists’ stuff will see the light of day on a major label. Now the artists just have to stand out, but all eyes are on Chicago right now, good or bad…

I can say that as far as cities go, Chicago has had a big year—its biggest since Kanye first emerged, and arguably the biggest in all of hip-hop in 2012. I just hope that when it’s all said and done, the scene is remembered for the music instead of the controversy surrounding it.

The interview is a must-read. And here is another, a provocative think-piece from Gawker. As for Keef's music being a must-listen... well, as I said, I'm still grappling with that.
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