A couple months ago Vice’s music site, Noisey, debuted an eight-part video series about the local hip-hop scene (or, more specifically, the drill scene) called Chiraq; it’s the second major extensive, embeddable film about Chicago rap to come out this year following World Star Hip-Hop’s documentary, The Field, which tried to focus on the intersection of violence and rap in this city. The people behind Chiraq had the same lofty goal, or at least that’s how they’ve pitched the series, which places Chief Keef at the narrative’s center and moves out from there to cover a few of his pals while occasionally jamming in a “big picture” question about drill’s relationship to Chicago’s ongoing struggles with crime, poverty, and segregation. It’s a weighty proposition, and I have a lot to say about how Noisey handled it—given my thoughts I decided not to embed any of the episodes in this post, though the trailer is available to view above. Reader film critic Drew Hunt also has a lot of feelings about the series, and we took to Gchat to assess Chiraq:
Leor Galil: Noisey just posted the final episode Chiraq, its eight-part “documentary” series on “the Chicago rap underground,” and I’m fatigued. I’ve got a lot to say, but I’m not sure where to begin, and watching Chief Keef riding an ATV around the backyard of his suburban home is leaving me searching for a place to begin and say something, mostly because that final episode didn’t say anything. What are your initial thoughts on the final episode and how it fits into the series?
Drew Hunt: Well, the fact that they finally got to interview (if you can even call it that) Chief Keef at least provided a sort of narrative conclusion to the whole thing. Keef was host Thomas Morton’s white whale throughout the whole thing. He kept asking people about Keef and what they thought about him what he represented but couldn’t actually talk to him because Keef was serving time during most of the filming. When Morton finally gets a shot, Keef doesn’t do much talking—Keef is a notoriously poor interview, after all—but Morton seemed perfectly content to film him riding ATVs around his house and getting high with his homies.
It totally reinforced this whole myth he’d built for Keef in the preceding episodes, so he seemed downright gleeful to be in his midst and have him behave recklessly. And Keef is all too willing to oblige, which I think is indicative of the primary issue of a figure like Keef, who tends to reflect the image of a reckless black youth that’s been engineered by smarmy white pseudo-lectuals (cough Morton cough) for years. Essentially, Noisey got exactly what it wanted, and I’m sure everyone’s super stoked.
LG: What’s kind of odd about that is Morton and company spend so much time reinforcing this idea of the mythos of Keef. They get all sorts of quotes from sources who aren’t exactly authorities about how Keef is a gangster—and rather disgustingly in the third episode they use a passerby’s comments about Keef being a killer while showing footage of Keef posing with fans, which just pushes this idea that he is dangerous with no real evidence—and yet when we actually see him on camera he’s chowing down on McDonald’s (which, jeez, the last episode just felt like an ad for McDonald’s and ATVs) or smoking weed—like he’s the only teenager to ever engage in those activities.
DH: Right. There was nothing journalistic or objective about this “documentary,” which I’m sure wasn’t Vice’s intent, but it’s discouraging regardless.
LG: I agree that there’s nothing journalistic, but Vice seems pretty intent on presenting it that way—they’re promoting it as an in-depth investigation into the “Chicago rap scene,” yet they’re just showing off their access to a handful of artists who rapidly ascended to fame and fortune in 2012 and calling that investigative. Flaunting connections like that isn’t journalism, especially when Morton doesn’t do anything but awkwardly follow these artists around and ask puffy questions. And considering Noisey is part of a media company that’s estimated to be worth $1 billion it’s pretty easy for them to line up these kinds of extensive “interviews.”
DH: It’s cultural voyeurism, the ironic part being it’s a culture that’s partly manufactured by popular media. The whole thing is basically a tour of reaffirmation, as if Vice gave Morton a check list that said, “OK, get shots of black kids toting guns, get shots of black kids smoking weed, get shots of Chief Keef doing some wild shit, and no matter what, don’t do any real investigative work; we’re looking for page views, not accuracy.” Which explains why he called Logan Square a “suburb” in one of the early episodes. It’s like, “Come on, I walk to that Target everyday.” There was no research or strategy put into this beyond the already prevalent “Chiraq” rhetoric.
LG: Absolutely! Morton and the rest of the crew seemed to do the amount of research necessary to support their agenda—I don’t use that word lightly, and they may disagree with that statement, but Chiraq reeks of a scheme informed by tunnel vision. You can pick a single moment in every episode that shows it. There’s the moment in the second episode where Morton parties with a rap group he presents as one that has strong gang ties and the following morning he says it had been a good night because no one got shot—which shows he was expecting violence to break out, and he sounds both disappointed and relieved when he mentions it. Then there’s the sixth episode where he takes Young Chop to Cloud Gate (also known as “the Bean,” which is what Morton calls it and doesn’t appear to realize it’s not actually supposed to be a bean) and Chop says he’s never been to the sculpture, Morton uses that as his prime example to show that Chicago is segregated—you know, because a kid from the south side has never been to a tourist destination. I don’t know, how often do people from New York go and hang out at the Statue of Liberty? At that rate, why didn’t he just take Chop to the top of the Willis Tower to eat some deep dish and watch a Cubs-Sox game?
DH: Yeah, that was a supremely bogus moment in a series with a lot of bogus moments. There’s absolutely no denying that Chicago is an extremely segregated city, but if you’re using tourist traps to point to racially-motivated civic and socioeconomic inequality, you’re way, way off the mark. Cloud Gate is not a symbol of racial discrimination in Chicago—if Morton and Vice really wanted to make an impact, to illustrate how people like Chop are underserved in the city, they should have taken him to fucking City Hall. Or the mayor’s office. Or a well-funded school. If you’re aiming for symbolism, which they clearly were in that episode, at least symbolize the systemic roadblocks that keep guys like Chop apart from more affluent Chicagoans.
It’s not like Chop couldn’t go to the Bean, he just clearly wasn’t interested. (And, frankly, if you live here and you like going to the Bean, that’s an entirely different issue.) Take Chop to a place where he’s literally barred because of his racial and social status, then you might have a more apt symbol for segregation in Chicago.
LG: But that takes the kind of thinking that the people who worked on Chiraq don’t show—the way they try to fit certain rappers in the scene in the larger context of what’s happening in the city is clumsy most of the time. Hell, the way they show the rap scene in general is at best clumsy and at worst inaccurate. If I watched this documentary without knowing anything about Chicago hip-hop I’d leave confused. The narrative is disjointed to fit the white-whale arc you mentioned—they clearly filmed the last episode before Keef’s NYC appearance happens in the third episode—and where these rappers fit into the broader culture in Chicago and pop music in general is muddled. Keef, Chop, and Durk are presented as exciting new voices in Chicago rap, and they talk about going to Paris to work with Kanye, but the timeline is missing and it’s hard to get a grip on just how popular these guys are—I know because I follow it, but not everyone does or cares to.
I’ve been slightly bent out of shape over the most minute details in this because I know that Vice can and does throw around a lot of weight, and for some this will be their first time hearing about these artists or maybe even realizing there’s new voices in Chicago rap. I mean just a couple weeks ago WTTW’s Chicago Tonight did a segment on the drill scene and calling it a new thing, which would’ve served as a fine story two years ago when the first wave of these artists landed huge deals and made “drill” a thing recognizable outside of the city, but it wasn’t—I e-mailed one of the producers to find out why this segment aired now and part of it is because of a recent documentary on the scene. I’m not sure if it’s the Vice series or if it’s the World Star doc [The Field], but in any case it says a lot that people in this city are learning about parts of the hometown culture through a distorted narrative.
DH: And that’s another example of what little thought Chicago gives its most marginalized citizens. You’d think WTTW would have been one of the first places to say something about drill. Really, drill existed in this perfectly vibrant and unadulterated form for years, even after it left the south-side streets and made its way across the city. It’s been three years, and though drill certainly isn’t “dead,” it’s not the lightning rod it once was. A lot of the original drill artists are starting to try new things. So the fact that all these “documentaries” are coming out now is kind of pathetic. It’s the equivalent of last year’s Thanksgiving when your grandpa asked if you’d ever heard of “this Facebook thing.”
LG: Ha, totally! In a certain type of way I get why these “docs” are coming out now—it takes time to make them, but you’d think with all the time it takes to make them there’d be more of an interest in digging deeper with subjects, in doing research, in actually building a strong narrative. Instead we get irritating and mostly unnecessary commentary from a condescending host who appears unsympathetic and in some cases is put in situations that point out how out of place he is—he’s much more of a character than a lot of folks interviewed, and I don’t really get it. Did I need him to tell me that Keef is riding an ATV and kick up a lot of dust when I can clearly see that happening at the same time? Did I need him to tell me he went to a show that was crazier than he’d ever been to when there’s perfectly useful footage? No. What he should’ve done is provide useful information—that the “crazy” show in “suburban-looking Chicago” is actually Superfest, which took place in the city (Logan Square) and wasn’t all about drill even though Durk performed.
If I recall correctly Lil Kemo was at Superfest, which also means that Morton and company blew a great opportunity to capture the burgeoning bop scene, though that didn’t fit with their narrative—the whole thing is more and more misleading the more I dig into it. The fact that any rap circles exist outside of the distinct south-side scene encompassing Keef, Durk, Chop, Reese, and Fredo Santana barely factors in, and when it does—as is the case in episode five, where Morton hangs out with Vic Mensa and some folks from Save Money—their relationship to Chicago’s scene is hard to explain and mostly glossed over. Instead Morton is shown just talking to Mensa about drill, drugs, and picking up Joey Purp from jail—I bet Morton was stoked to capture that. But, again, if I didn’t know who Vic was I wouldn’t know why there was an entire episode about him—they introduce Vic as part of “Chance’s crew,” which requires any viewer to know anything about Chance or Save Money or Vic, at which point the entire episode is basically useless because anyone with that knowledge will learn next to nothing about Vic or the rap scene. It’s useless.
DH: It really is useless. In fact, it might even be harmful, ultimately. Like the World Star doc, this is another cursory look at an incredibly multifaceted situation that pushes an illusory narrative further. I don’t necessarily want to assume ill intent on the behalf of Vice, as some might, but I’m definitely dubious of their methods. And their creative integrity. These ethical quibbles aside, this series was so simplistically made. It’s very low grade, formally. All these web docs prove is that high-quality cameras don’t automatically produce high-quality images.
LG: Or high-quality reporting.
DH: Well, yeah! Filmmaking requires work, and very little was put in here. In all facets.
LG: Yeah, the series basically rides the coattails of its famous subjects to get hits—after the second episode it feels like the crew isn’t even trying anymore, and the whole thing lumbered to its close. Seriously, who needs to watch Keef ride an ATV for ten minutes? That last episode dragged on way too long. I’d get more out of watching him do the same thing in the “Citgo” video.
Drew: Yeah, they really started to scrape the barrel there.
LG: Which I don’t understand—this city has such a rich, vibrant hip-hop scene with plenty of people who’d be willing to talk. Why focus on just a few people and say nothing?
DH: Clickbait, bro! They knew what they wanted.
LG: And it works, unfortunately. And partially because Vice is such a big media company—they have a substantial reach. Any final thoughts on the series?
DH: Just that a fair and balanced look at this subject has to materialize. Hope it does soon. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting in “suburb-looking” Logan Square.
LG: For now, as Keef says at the end of the series: “I’m done.”