How Chance the Rapper’s ‘Acid Rap’ changed an industry — and Chicago
“I think we knew we were witnessing history,” says one insider 10 years later.By Alejandro Hernandez
Ten years ago, Chicago’s Chance the Rapper released his sophomore mixtape, Acid Rap. It would go on to have a seismic impact on the city and on the music industry.
At the time, mainstream radio was still king, but hip-hop’s “blog era” was peaking. Independent hip-hop artists could reach dedicated fans through underground music blogs by offering their best music at no cost at all.
Many artists birthed from this era used the following they gained in the blogosphere as leverage for major label deals and quickly became household names. Others chose to stay on the independent route in order to maintain ownership of their art. But few were able to accomplish what Chance The Rapper did — becoming a Grammy-winning music superstar all while maintaining independence. Acid Rap is a big reason for that.
Several special events will commemorate the release of Acid Rap in the coming months, including an August concert at the United Center. To capture the influence of Acid Rap on Chicago and on music, WBEZ contributor Alejandro Hernandez interviewed five music experts and historians who have followed Chance’s career. Here’s what he learned.
What was your first impression of Chance The Rapper?
Andrew Barber, creator and owner of the Fake Shore Drive music blog who heavily covered Chicago and Midwest artists throughout the blog era: I first heard of Chance in 2011 or late 2010s. I did an event at the old Adidas store on Rush Street with [former Chicago band] Kids These Days, and Vic Mensa told me about Chance that night. “He’s next, keep an eye on him.” So I keep an eye on him. By late 2011 or early 2012, I took a meeting with him at my office. He had just gotten out of high school, so he was still 18 or 19, super young. And I think from the moment I met Chance, I could just tell that he was a star. I remember him walking in my office and he had, like, that aura around him.
Alex Fruchter, a DJ and founder of indie hip-hop label Closed Sessions: I saw his very first public show at Sub-T. He was the first act and I think there may be 10 people in the crowd, but he absolutely killed it. And I remember he performed “Brain Cells” and “F*** You Tahm Bout” and from then on, you can go back to my tweet from that night that was like “just saw this kid chance rapper. He’s dope.”
Ayana Contreras, the host/producer of Reclaimed Soul on Vocalo Radio (WBEZ’s sister station): My first impressions of Chance was that he was a hard worker and that was truly committed to honing his craft. I met him when he was a teen through my work as a mentor at YOUMedia (at the Harold Washington Library). It was clear to all me and my fellow mentors that he was very talented and charismatic even then.
Briahna Gatlin, the founder and CEO of Swank Public Relations: Honestly, I was like, who the hell is this? And what is this crazy noise that he’s making in his songs? He didn’t sound like anything else in the city so “Where is he from?” was my next question … Then I actually saw him perform, and I was like “Oh, wow!” That’s what got me into Chance as a brand and his music, was seeing him perform.
Travis “Yoh” Phillips, author, music journalist and documentarian based in Atlanta: I discovered Chance The Rapper through the Royalty mixtape by Donald Glover and became aware of him, his voice and his likeness. He was a good writer. I thought his wordplay was interesting. I think he had a very poetic style. I did think his voice was not the ideal rapper voice at first, but as far as his pen, I thought he was sharp. He just had an energy about him, and I think that that’s the cool part about finding a rapper that’s young and talented. There’s all the rough edges, but the stuff that sparkles and shines through in such an illuminating way, you’re kind of captivated by the light, and Chance had lights. I was drawn in by that light.
What made Acid Rap stand out from the crowd to you as a musical project?
Barber: I think we knew we were witnessing history. Only two times in Fake Shore Drive’s history did our site ever crash because of too much traffic. The first was when we had the world premiere of the “I Don’t Like Remix,” which was [drill artist] Chief Keef featuring Kanye West, Big Sean, Jadakiss, and Pusha T. The second time was when Acid Rap dropped.
I booked him for a South by Southwest show I did with Red Bull … just a month and a half before Acid Rap came out. The buzz was crazy because he had dropped the video for “Juice” and “Acid Rain.” He had just those two songs out and [debut mixtape] 10 Day and the hype around him was really big to the point where all these executives came out early as hell. They don’t do that for anyone. I remember after, he thanked me, like, “Thank you, this is the most money I’ve ever made from a show.” From that day on, I could never afford to book him again.
Fruchter: He would work on it sometimes at our studio Soundscapes. One day, I took a break, and he played me what he was working on, and I think when I really hear something amazing or that hits me, my first thought is always like, “How did he do that?” And that’s what I thought when I heard Acid Rap.
Contreras: I think the success of Acid Rap ties into not only the quality of the record, but the spirited energy and charisma that it captures.
Gatlin: It was so Chicago. He was so South Side too. His terminology. Like the bars, the stuff that he talked about in it. It was just so Chicago … Acid Rap made me feel like if I was anywhere in the world, and I heard that, I would know that person is from Chicago. His voice, his cadence, how he said things when he talks, he brought Juking back into the forefront as well. And that’s something people don’t realize he’s always been consistent with. For him, it was like he took so much pride and that’s what I got from his music.
Ten years later, what is Acid Rap’s status in hip-hop lore? What impact did it leave on the industry?
Barber: It was really well done. It had a lot of emotion in it. He touched on a lot of subjects that maybe people hadn’t talked about in Chicago, and I just think it home. Sometimes you get that perfect storm of the right person at the right time with the right message.
For whatever reason the industry wasn’t paying attention to Chicago. We’re the third biggest city in the United States, why aren’t more big names rappers coming from here? Then boom, the drill thing [the Chicago born-subgenre drill becomes mainstream] happens. Keef comes in, Lil Durk comes in, King Louie comes in, Herb and Bibby start to emerge at that time in 2012. Let’s not forget about Derrick Rose too so there was a lot of exciting energy in Chicago.
Then 2013 is the year of Chance, then Vic Mensa blows up with Innannetape. That’s when Saba, Mick Jenkins, Noname and other people start to emerge from that time too. So I think the outside industry finally found the story here. I think Chicago as a whole changed the industry.
Fruchter: I do think it’s one of the best mixtapes ever. I think if you look back at the blog era, it was symbolic and a pinnacle of that era.
Gatlin: I always tell people that I feel like Chief Keef opened the door for everybody, and I think the Chance angle wouldn’t have happened if there was no Chief Keef. Wait, let’s not get it twisted, I’m gonna bring King Louie in this, too, because that was my first major drill artist. And I always bring the connection of Chance to drill because if people wouldn’t have been shining their light on this city at that moment, then I think the impact of Acid Rap wouldn’t have made the impact that it did make.
I think what Chance did was show that Chicago has so many layers, and so many different angles of the city and perspective. And it just opened it up to say, “OK, well, I can be the kid that grew up in the hood, but I don’t have to be carrying no gun and being in a gang” and things like that. So I think for him, he literally brought a totally different perspective of young Chicago Black youth coming up.
Phillips: It was a shift in perspective more than anything else. I don’t think we’ve gotten another album that created the experience that Acid Rap did. But the perspective shift? The belief it created? It’s like [Kanye West’s] College Dropout to some people. It changed what you thought was possible.
It will probably go down as one of the last great albums of the blog era, and Chance will go down as one of the last great superstars of that era. And I think it put a period on the blog era. Acid Rap for sure lives as one of the last shining moments of that time.
Alejandro Hernandez is a freelance writer based in Chicago.