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Feature Thu Mar 08 2012
The WHOevers; Dotkom (left) and J.Arthur (right) by Stephen Klapko
To the casual listener, Chicago hip-hop is heavily defined by the works of Kanye, Common, Lupe Fiasco, and maybe Twista, if they know a thing or two. Beneath the surface, however, sounds from artists on the up-and-up like King Louie, Chief Keef, Chandler London, and The WHOevers, stay reserved for those savvy to the young and dynamic scene. From local stage shows to web videos, these artists have succeeded in developing a following based on each of their own unique styles; creating sub-genres within the culture.
The problem is, while diversity in style and content can be a good thing, a segregation has developed between the artists and the groups of people particular to their sound. This complicates the concept of hip-hop as a unifying movement in the city.
"There's not as much of a balance as there used to be," says Andrew Barber, founder of the Chicago hip-hop blog, Fake Shore Drive. "You've a lot of different sounds in this city so within the genre itself you're gonna have different groups that are going to tend toward certain styles."
Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive
The WHOevers, a duo that incorporates a nostalgic sound reminiscent of the late '90s, are just one example of the many artists conscious of the separation.
"I think it's just due to the city that we're in," says J.Arthur, one half of the group. "It's Chicago. You know? There's not a lot of love here. I'm more than willing to listen to the next man's music, but is he gonna listen to me?"
Concerns like this touch on the question of whether or not the next man has a chance to listen. With radio catering to the big names and big markets, local acts depend heavily on music sharing websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud as well as social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The ease of access to all of these tools causes the local scene to become saturated with limitless amounts of music.
"Chicago should change its slogan to, 'Chicago, we've got rappers,'" Barber says. "Everybody here wants to be a rapper. It's not hard to make music and get it out there anymore. You don't need to know how to sing or play an instrument. All you need is a microphone and a laptop or desktop and you can record."
It's because of this mess that a standard is set by blogs like Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet, which then become the go-to-guys for what's good in the local scene. At times, however, these tastemaker roles emphasize the difference and separation between certain sounds in the city.
Alex Fruchter of Ruby Hornet
"The blogs are sort of a representation of what we like to listen to the most," says Alex Fruchter, founder of Ruby Hornet. "I grew up listening to guys like Typical Cats and Mos Def and was definitely sort of a hip-hop snob. Now I really just try to promote artists I feel a synergy with."
Artists like The WHOevers, Chandler London, Show You Suck, and Action Bronson are among some that have been featured on Ruby Hornet and represent a style that would share in a similar audience.
Conversely, Barber admits that he had always tended towards what he calls "more of a street sound."
"It didn't have to be gangster rap," he says. "But I always liked the more hardcore stuff. I would say the stuff from Death Row was probably my favorite."
Because of what he defines as a "street music resurgence" that's going on in the city today, Barber's tendency towards the harder sounds seems to be taking the lead in terms favoring the artists that are receiving the most attention. King Louie and Chief Keef, who have been regulars in Fake Shore Drive coverage, have YouTube video views numbering between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
With such numbers, Barber's promotion of artists that share the same audience with the likes of Louie and Keef is no mistake. He says he is conscious of the content that Fake Shore has a tendency towards, but is also aware of what's necessary for the success of the blog.
King Louie via RubyHornet.com
"It started out as a hobby," he says. "Now it's a business. It's my full time gig so I have to stay true to myself but I also have to understand what people want to see. Not all the stuff I post is stuff I particularly like or think is good, but if it's good for business then it's going up on the site. My track record's been pretty good but I'm not perfect. It's easy to miss some people with all the stuff that's sent my way but I try my best."
If there is a lack of representation for any artist, Fruchter believes it could be due to a lack of initiative among some of them.
"Sending an email is one thing," says Fruchter. "But there's only a few artists that will schedule some time to come in and talk about what they want. We backed Rockie Fresh on his Rockie's Modern Life mixtape because he's one of those guys that was willing to reach out."
The separation of those who want it more than others is one dividing line. The definition of "what's good" compared to "what's good for business" is certainly another, but one that is also a matter of perspective. Some may prefer King Louie because the beats "go hard" and his verses can be both relatable and accessible. Others may enjoy The WHOevers because they can encompass a sound rooted in the influence of artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. The division between their delivery and content is clear but common ground is shared in the fact that each artist is making what they believe to be hip-hop music.
Fruchter and Barber then, are promoters of what they believe to be hip-hop music. While their blogs may differ in style at times, their perspectives do often find points of agreement. King Louie is an artist that has succeed in crossing the threshold. Pilsen emcee, Chandler London is another.
London, who's been featured on Ruby Hornet several times, was only recently reviewed on Fake Shore Drive. The writeup included him in a list of five artists on the rise in the city and introduced him as one that "brings a bit of a different sound than what most people here are used to." London acknowledges the separation of the scenes in the city but believes the culture is "healthy" despite them.
Chandler London by Brandon Escorcia
"Everyone's getting a lot of love in their own scene," he says. "I try to hear everyone though and try to show love to as many cats as I can because we all got the same goal. The goal is just to be heard."
King Louie, who's buzz has carried his sound from the streets of the south side to several different platforms on the web and landed him in venues like The House of Blues, agrees to an extent.
"I wanna be rich!" he says. "But nah, really, I wanna show where I come from. These streets in Chicago will eat you alive. That's why we keep talking 'bout the grit and grime of it."
Whether it's through lyrics or music videos, Louie says his listeners are drawn to him because he's expressing what's real and although perspectives on the real will change, the attempt to capture it is a concept that all artists can appreciate.
"That Chief Keef guy is doin' his thing," J. Arthur says. "If that sound represents his experience and what they're about then I can definitely understand it; even if it's not my preference"
Arthur's understanding along with London's appreciation of every artist coming up in the city represent the potential to reestablish the love in what's been called "The city of hella haters." Falling in suit with this trend, King Louie expresses wants at bridging the gap as well.
"I wanna bring Chicago together," Louie says. "I'm all about that support."
Some artists certainly acknowledge the issue and the want to improve it is there, but at the time of their interviews, The WHOevers had never listened to King Louie and King Louie had never heard of The WHOevers. Thus, the divide remains and the effort to unite hip-hop in the city is hindered by the confusion between a tendency toward a preference, and a disregard of the unfamiliar.
Anyone headed to SXSW can look out for King Louie on Friday March, 16th in Austin, TX. Check out the video for "How We Do," his latest collaboration with another big buzzing artist, Rockie Fresh.
Chandler London can be found in Chicago at Ultra Lounge, 2169 Milwaukee Ave., on Friday, March 23rd. Check out the video for "Stephanie," a track off of his latest album The Science of Sleep.
The WHOevers can be seen tonight at the Darkroom, 2210 W. Chicago Ave., along with Show You Suck, and Scheme + Astonish. Check out the video for "Spectacular Vernacular", a track off of their latest album Renovations.