Among the many issues bogging down Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is its weak grasp of Chicago hip-hop. Like gun violence and its roots, hip-hop takes a backseat to Lee’s sex satire; this weakness might not be such an issue, except that music is central to the vision of the the city that Lee tried to capture, the title character is an aspiring rapper, and the film’s name came from the local hip-hop scene.
Former Reader staffer Miles Raymer summarized the film’s egregious mischaracterization of Chicago hip-hop for Esquire, and you don’t have to look far to see how Chicagoans in the scene feel. Street-rap master King Louie, who popularized the term Chiraq (he called a 2011 mixtape Chiraq, Drillinois), dropped a track called “Fuck Spike Lee” on Friday, the same day the movie came out (the song also appeared on the eight-song Play Dat Again, which he released later that day).
Long-running local hip-hop label Wicked Entertainment has leveraged the hip-hop scene’s negative response to Chi-Raq to push Trust None, a short film made in 2004 but not released formally until last month. According to Wicked owner Mickey Elahi, the movie is Chicago’s first street film. It’s been circulating for more than a decade in an incomplete version—an unfinished cut was allegedly stolen from the film’s producers in 2004, bootlegged, and eventually uploaded to YouTube—but Elahi has given the movie its due after finding the original footage in a storage unit whose contents he bought last year. He went on to purchase the rights, and he’s been selling the movie digitally and on DVD.
Trust None is imperfect. The footage is raw, the editing is erratic, and the actors don’t seem to be trying too hard to inhabit the skins of fictional characters—mostly they just play versions of themselves. In the credits, most of the actors are billed as playing themselves—and most of them come out of the local hip-hop scene, including members of Psychodrama and Crucial Conflict, rapper Cap-1, producer the Legendary Traxster, and rapper Whitefolks, aka E.C. Illa, who wrote and codirected the movie.
E.C. Illa has been an integral part of Chicago hip-hop since the early 90s, and in a scene that constantly shifts focus between the west and south sides, he’s held it down for the “north pole.” One sequence in the film takes place in the Tip CDs & Tapes, the defunct north-side hip-hop shop that E.C. Illa ran in the aughts. The store’s appearance is a throwaway detail—the film is mostly about a couple of roughnecks trying to hit it big selling syrup from Houston to gangs along Western Avenue—but it’s a telling one.
The Tip was, for some, a home for hip-hop, and if it hadn’t turned up in Trust None, it’d be even more thoroughly forgotten today—it was underdocumented in life, and matters have hardly improved since then. (The Tip still exists online, and you can plunk down $20 for a CD version of Common’s 1991 cassette demo.) While Chi-Raq struggles to describe the way hip-hop inhabits Lee’s fictional Chicago, Trust None establishes its bona fides with no trouble.