The Burgeoning Chicago Hip Hop Scene
I firmly believe that Chicago will be the next city to spawn a nationwide music scene. Compared with the older, more established scenes in New York or L.A., Chicago is very musician friendly mostly because it’s so approachable. There are a ton of great musicians in the area, and a lot of venues and outlets in which to perform. The scene is scattered, disorganized, and not set in its ways, which means that for the aspiring musician or scenester, you can easily make yourself known around town in a way that just isn’t possible in other places.
For that very reason, there are a ton of top notch acts coming out of Chicago that aren’t getting the attention they deserve, especially in the hip hop genre. Sure, there have been a few high-profile artists to come out of the Windy City. But artists like Common, Kanye West, and Twista have all quickly abandoned Chicago as their fame grew, preferring to make their home in other, more established scenes. However, there are many worthy artists that have been left behind, and it is only a matter of time before the Chicago hip hop scene coalesces into a nationwide movement with strong roots in the city, just like the grunge scene that came out of Seattle in the early 90’s. Mark my words: Chicago is going to be the next big thing in hip hop. If you want to get into the scene, there has never been a better time. The albums are cheap, the artists play live all of the time, and this city is practically drowning in quality hip hop music. All you have to do is get out there and listen.
After immersing myself in the music for five years, here are the artists that I believe are worth hearing, supporting, and keeping track of:
Born on the South Side of Chicago, Thaione Davis is a hip hop powerhouse, working both as an MC and producer for some of the biggest names in Chicago hip hop. But to really experience Thaione in full force, you’ve got to see him live. As Ish put it a couple years ago:
I was struck by the force and confidence Thaione brought with him to the stage, the laid-back style of delivery and the manifest energy evident in the performance. But my attention was captured primarily by the beats that backed him. Even in the live setting, where hip hop production is often rendered notoriously flat and one-dimensional, the nuanced subtlety of Thaione’s instrumentals hit me with full impact.
Thaione is such a consummate performer that he doesn’t miss a beat when something goes wrong. Ish and I had booked him to perform in Evanston, IL, and during his set the bar’s speaker system dropped out, leaving him with only a bit of music coming out of the stage monitor. Lesser performers would have stopped cold. Thaione didn’t even blink. He dropped his mic, he motioned for the crowd to gather around him, and he continued with the song as if nothing had ever happened. That is the definition of a professional.
Musically, Thaione is exceptional. In fact, he doesn’t consider himself a rapper or a producer, but a musician first and foremost. “I think like a musician,” he told me, “You try to program drums like somebody could play it . . . listening to jazz taught me about note arrangements and chords.” The seven albums he has released since 2002 - including one completely instrumental album, April January - bear this out, interspersing jazz rhythms and well worn samples with modern beats that make you feel the beauty of the gritty Chicago streets. The track “The Connection,” off of the 2004 album Situation Renaissance, is full of the energy and soul that makes Thaione one of the best Chicago hip hop has to offer. Check it out, and hear it for yourself.
Pick up a CD or catch Thaione live when you get the chance. You won’t regret it.
Situation Renaissance (2004)
It can be tough for women to make it in the male dominated world of hip hop, but female Chicago MC Psalm One doesn’t think it’s all bad. She says, “…having tits and a nice smile does seem to help in some situations. However, I’d like to think my rhymes have made all the difference.” Psalms One has been steeped in hip hop culture ever since she was a child listening to her mother’s Run D.M.C. records, and her rhymes show her mastery of the artform. Lyrics like “got mugged on the front porch of our Inglewood home/He greeted her with a .38, took her bag and her bones/Your girl was in a deep slumber, didn’t hear it go down/And when I woke up I was choked up, couldn’t cope, I broke down,” show the depth of feeling and thought behind Psalm’s work, while the backing beats from such Chicago legends as Overflo, Earmint, and Thaione Davis bring the classic Chicago flavor, by turns dirty, obscure, and beautiful.
In tracks such as “The Flashy Slang” off of Earmint’s Another Early Evening, Psalm One shows off her talent, switching up the rhythms and rhyme scheme every couple bars and keeping the energy going. Check out the finest female MC in town, before she blows up big time.
With her quick rhymes and unique style, she stands equal to the rest of the artists in this lineup. If you are looking to capture the new Chicago sound, a Psalm One disk is a great place to start.
Death Of A Frequent Flyer (2006)
Qualo is like nothing you’ve ever heard before, guaranteed. They are beyond gangster, but they are smart as hell. When asked to name their comic influences, who cites Ronald Reagan, JFK, and Ben Franklin? When I was handed a Qualo mixtape, titled Only In America, at last year’s Chicago Rocks concert, it had an American flag on the cover. The stripes were lines of cocaine and the blue star field was a razor blade. Qualo isn’t just another group of dumb thugs, but you can’t help but ask yourself, “Who do these guys think they are?” Well, they’d be happy to tell you.
“…some people believe in God, and pray to God, but we pray to the souls of N.W.A and Tupac because that’s the spirit we wanna bring back to rap,” they say, and their plan couldn’t be clearer. “Total world domination, nothing less than the world. Cause hip hop is such a powerful force, to penetrate people and mesmerize em. So we keep movin, cause there’s no limit.”
Do yourself a favor and pick up a Qualo CD while you can still find them, because if I had to put my money on it, I’d say Qualo would be the first artist to break onto the national scene in a big way. Their music is completely gangster but delightfully subversive. Check out a track called “Favorite Thangs” off of their 2007 mixtape Pockets, basically a note-for-note remix of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.
How can you not love that? Qualo is the real deal, and the cleverest thing to come out of Chicago in years. They don’t have much out for sale yet, but it is all worth adding to your collection.
A founding member of the Nacrobats, Pugslee Atomz has been on the Chicago hip hop scene since 1993. And like the rest of the artists on this list, he is a hard working performer, regularly appearing around the city at all sorts of venues, from dive bars to the biggest stages Chicago has to offer. If he’s not performing, you can usually spot his dreadlocked head in the audience, taking in the music.
Pugslee’s laid back style belies his sharp talent. He mixes samples into a hazy fog, creating a unique mood reminiscent of the one he felt while growing up in Chicago. The laid back lyrical style, combined with this memory-inducing production, combine to create something that feels like art rather than pop. One of my favorite tracks, “Props,” off of Playing With Matches, combines an Outkast sample with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for a psychedelic rap experience that’s familiar, yet alien at the same time.
Pugslee Atomz has been a key player in the Chicago hip hop scene for so long, you can really get a feel for the city’s style just by listening to his records. Or just go see him live, he’s playing around town all the time.
Playing With Matches (2004)
You can’t talk about the Chicago hip hop scene without mentioning the great hip hop bands that make their home in this city. While all of them - such as Small Change or Bad News Jones - are worth listening to, the Abstract Giants are the most well known. Combining elements of jazz, rock, soul, and hip hop, the Giants have no less than eight people on stage at one time, with guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, violin, and three MCs. Despite the relative chaos, their live show is polished, tight, and full of smooth energy. As the Illinois Entertainer said in 2005, “When their trio of MCs banters back and forth on the mic while the rest of the band lay down their silky smooth funk/jazz induced grooves, the result is not just original, but infectious. When it comes to these musicians, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts — and that’s quite a sum.”
The music is really greater than the sum of its parts. These guys can not only play their instruments, but they manage to blend all of the styles that they each bring to the table into a unified, original whole. What’s more, they have tremendous crossover appeal. If you don’t particularly like hip hop, the Abstract Giants provide an easy way to get used to the language of the genre without getting in over your head, as the track “Integrity” shows.
The Abstract Giants have a few of their own CDs available for purchase, and they are highly recommended, but they have also released two compilations with all of the other hip hop bands in Chicago, making The Chicago Drop Volumes 1 and 2 a perfect way to check out Chicago’s wealth of crossover music.
There are a ton of acts that haven’t been mentioned here, and all of them are worth you time, but this list should get you started exploring the vast world of Chicago hip hop. When you’re done, be sure to check out Small Change, Zoser and Frontline, The PACIFICS, Earatik Statik, Verbal Kent, The Primeridian, Star People, Bad News Jones, and tons of others. With a real music scene, united together, Chicago can spawn hit after hit, not just a few quick flashes in the pan like it does now. For the avid listener trying to keep ahead of the latest trends, that means the Chicago hip hop scene is one worth watching.
What are your thoughts on the music presented here? I’m sure I’ve missed some excellent Chicago acts, so who do you recommend?
J-Ro is a musician and designer. Currently residing in Chicago, he stays awake at night thinking up the next move for The Seminal.