Numerous prominent hip-hop artists have emerged from Chicago: Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Common, Chief Keef, Vic Mensa, Psalm One, and Mick Jenkins (to name a few). And yet a feature-length, comprehensive documentary about the history of the local hip-hop scene has yet to come to fruition. The team behind Midway: The Story of Chicago Hip-Hop hopes to change that.
“Everybody knows the New York story and the LA story—and now, pockets of the southern hip-hop movement, Atlanta and Houston,” says Ryan Brockmeier, director, cowriter, and producer of Midway. “But for whatever reason, Chicago tends to be the place that is overlooked when it comes to hip-hop culture.”
Currently in production and set for a late 2017 release, Midway will tell the story of Chicago’s unique hip-hop scene—from its formation in the late 1970s to the present—through the memories and recollections of its diverse artists and advocates. The project also aims to reverse the generally negative stereotypes associated with hip-hop culture by showing how Chicago’s scene “brought people from all walks of life together, regardless of race, gang affiliation, or socioeconomic background.”
“We came up in the Chicago hip-hop scene,” Brockmeier says of his filmmaking team, which includes producers Rahsaan “Sean Doe” Hawkins, Kevin Beacham, and Chad Sorenson (aka DJ Risky Bizness). “So rather than just presenting a linear history, we wanted to go more in-depth and show that there was a big foundation built here for a lot of people to stand on.”
Meanwhile, the Midway team is working with the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago to archive music, photographs, videos, posters, and other materials as a means to educate audiences about Chicago’s hip-hop culture. They’re also partnering on a website, Brockmeier says, that will be a separate entity from the Midway documentary site. As he describes it, “It’ll be a place where people can go to look at old photos and see old videos—and at some point, will be able to read or watch the interviews we did for the film.”
In gathering interview subjects, Brockmeier says he focused on spotlighting the “unsung heroes” of the community. He spoke with local record-store representatives, promoters, dancers, and graffiti artists as well as better-known MCs, DJs, and hip-hop groups. He hopes that their community-building stories will educate younger hip-hop artists about the importance of “knowing where their influences come from” and of being familiar with the progenitors of their local scene.
“It’s part of that midwestern, blue-collar mentality,” he says of the culture’s entrepreneurial spirit, “that a lot of people were like, ‘We’ll just do this ourselves.'”
This ethos extends to the project’s fund-raising efforts. Besides moving through the traditional channels of investors, sponsors, and grants, the Midway team has set up Patreon and PayPal donation pages to help cover the costs of postproduction and travel and make sure crew members get paid. “It hasn’t been much,” Brockmeier says of the donations received thus far, “but every little bit helps.”
Brockmeier has been working on Midway for nearly three years and sees the project as having three phases. The first phase, he says, was an “organic, grassroots build”—the crew quietly filmed about 40 interviews and slowly created buzz through word of mouth. “And now we’re in the second phase,” he explains, “which is a more targeted effort to obviously get funds, but also to spread the word [through social media] and make people more aware of what we’re doing.” Phase three is, hopefully, a finished film in a year’s time that will merit a wide release.
Though pragmatic about the financial goals he still needs to hit, Brockmeier seems confident about the film’s prospects, based on the hundreds of interviews already shot and the support the project has already received. “We want it to be more—and it will be—more than just a YouTube or Vimeo video,” he says. “It’s gonna be a big film.”