On October 10, the day local hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive turned ten, it launched Fake Shore Dive (that’s right, “dive”), a pop-up bar in the same Wicker Park storefront previously home to Riot Fest’s temporary restaurant—and before that the Saved by the Bell diner, Saved by the Max. Fake Shore Dive stayed open for three nights, and in that time many big-name Chicago hip-hop players stopped in to thank the site for championing the local scene when few others paid it much attention—among them Chance the Rapper, Twista, and Bump J. Even the slate of DJs was full of scene VIPs, including DJ Oreo, the Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish, Jugrnaut co-owner Manny Muscles, and FSD deputy editor Ty Howard (who spins as SomeGuyNamedTy).
FSD’s celebration of its ten-year milestone didn’t end there, though. On Saturday, the site takes over the Portage Theater to present the first show in more than a decade by New Orleans rap legends Big Tymers. Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley, a rising star in his own right, shares the bill, which also promises “surprise guests”—code words for the parade of locals who’ll no doubt all take a turn on the mike. The show is part of Red Bull Sound Select’s “30 Days in Chicago” series, for which the music-promotion company throws one big show in the city every night in November. Fake Shore Drive’s partnership with RBSS goes back several years, and their events together are one of the many ways founder Andrew Barber has transformed his afterwork hobby into a vital organ that supports hip-hop throughout the midwest.
When it comes to talking about Chicago hip-hop, Barber is generous with his time. When I first interviewed him—it was five years ago, for a story on the relationship between Chicago’s streetwear and hip-hop scenes—Barber came to me, driving to Wicker Park to meet me because I had my hands full cat-sitting for a couple friends. Not even two friendly kittens, who encroached on his personal space until he was covered in fur, could distract him from speaking passionately about an art form he’s dedicated his life to learning about. So I was pretty sure that with his site’s big tenth-anniversary show approaching, I’d be able to call Barber and get him to talk in depth about Fake Shore Drive’s history and the evolution of Chicago hip-hop over the past decade.
What is the biggest difference in the hip-hop scene now versus when you started the blog?
Andrew Barber: The industry has changed pretty significantly in those ten years. There’s a disruptor every ten years within the music industry. Right now we’re in the streaming era, but ten years ago it was the blog era. Then ten years before that it was Napster, when that whole wave happened.
That was the wild, wild west at the time, in 2007, because it’s almost like the people had control. The labels were kind of trying to figure out what they were going to do. They were losing money. They couldn’t stop piracy and really come up with a solution that worked. The blogs were the tastemakers of that time. They were able to put certain artists on a level playing field with huge stars. You would go to a blog and see a Cool Kids post followed by a Kanye West post; really, no time before that could you see these two types of entities exist within the same realm. I mean, sometimes on [BET’s] Rap City or Yo! MTV Raps. While you couldn’t take somebody to number one on the charts during that early blog era, you could definitely help people get noticed, help people get record deals, and help get them to the next level of their career.
As the blog era is dying out and turning into the streaming era, it’s a totally different ball game. I think the labels have retained their power, and the streaming services have power; the artists are able to sell music and make money selling music again. Once the streaming thing figures itself out and more people come on board, you’re gonna see even more artists making a living doing it.
When you started, it seemed like some of the older artists you were connecting with were a little reticent because they didn’t really understand what you were doing. How did you manage to create this space for yourself in Chicago?
I was working a full-time job during the day, not working in the music industry. I was doing advertising sales for a television network, and then at night I was going to every hip-hop event I could. One of the first things I did when I started Fake Shore was try to make it seem like a real thing. I went and printed up 200 business cards for 20 bucks. I would go to these events and try to meet people, and I would try to explain to them what it was. The older artists could not understand the concept. They were like, “You want me to give you my music for free? Are you crazy? We’re selling CDs.” This was still when people tried to sell CDs and mixtapes outside of venues after concerts. They weren’t passing them out—they were trying to sell them.
It was definitely a learning curve, trying to usher some of the artists into the new era. But hey, blogs are a thing now. You don’t have to just shoot to try and get your video on MTV or BET—there’s YouTube now. When I was first doing that, there was really no social media. There was MySpace and Facebook—but Facebook, you had to be a college student to do it. Just any geek off the street couldn’t do it. Social media wasn’t a thing. But you could reach out to people via MySpace, and I think once people saw that on MySpace you could kinda upload songs, and people were starting to post their own music—that caught fire.
Some of those early cosigns definitely helped bring other people in to understand what I was doing. I think the first major person who reached out was Bump J and his manager and brother, Shake. I think they might’ve been googling themselves, and they somehow found [Fake Shore]. We struck up a friendship via e-mail; we started going back and forth, and they started sending me exclusive records. They would send me little MP3s of freestyles of Bump. A lot of people are stingy with information or connections, but I think they understood that in order for a scene to grow and to flourish you have to be open to sharing information.
They ended up putting me in touch with different people, like No I.D., who let me interview him. I was able to get to the Legendary Traxster through him, and Twista, Mikkey Halsted, and all these other people I have great relationships with now. Once you get some early cosigns, then everybody else comes on board.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Cool Kids were pretty easy to work with at the beginning. It seems like you were able to cross a lot of divides that other people had challenges with. What were some of the communities you were able to bring together early on?
Bump J and the Cool Kids, them being in the same room together now doesn’t seem weird. But at that time, there was a such a divide within the city, between neighborhoods, between sides of town. Some west-side artists didn’t work with south-side artists. There’s always the gang issue or things of that nature in Chicago. Now you see kids from all over the city working together. You can have a Chance the Rapper working with G Herbo. But that wasn’t necessarily a common thing back then.
That’s really what I wanted to do—to showcase everything that was happening here. Not just something that was happening in street rap, or in hipster rap—as they called, like, the Cool Kids, Mano, and all them at the time. I wanted to showcase it all, because there’s more to this city. In 2007, the big four at that time were the only ones really getting any national coverage. That was Kanye, Common, Lupe, and Twista. And Lupe, Common, and Kanye are all from that same kind of school and kind of style of rap. A lot of people thought that was what Chicago was, when in fact there was a lot of other stuff going on. What we wanted to do was highlight that and give some of these underground artists, who are really dope and sell out shows, a platform nationally. Obviously didn’t happen overnight, but brick by brick we were able to help build that.
Being able to share the variety is something I find so challenging too. These days people are just interested in talking about Chance—for good reason. I do see that there’s an openness to covering artists who don’t have the same level of popularity. I mean, how much has the work you’ve done with Fake Shore helped broaden people’s understanding of what Chicago hip-hop is?
I’m not really trying to take any credit for it. I was there at the right time with the right idea. And thankfully, we were able to help early on coverage for some of the big stars that came out. You know, 2012 was probably the best time. That was only five years into Fake Shore Drive. That’s when the Chief Keef thing happened, and then Chance the Rapper explodes. And that’s the drill boom versus, like, the Save Money-style boom happened right around that time.
I wasn’t getting a lot of calls from label execs during those first five years of Fake Shore Drive. I was getting to know people. L.E.P. Bogus Boys used to drop a mixtape every Halloween, and every year they would do a listening event for it. People would fly in—all these different execs, media people, tastemakers, bloggers, and whatnot—from New York City and LA. They would have [news producer and radio host] Sway [Calloway] here, B.Dot from Rap Radar, Carl Chery, who was at XXL at that time—who is now the head of artist curation at Apple Music.
I’m able to meet a lot of these guys at different events, but at the time it wasn’t like I was getting a lot of phone calls from the industry, curious about what was happening here. People paid attention, and we had certain artists that were breaking, but nothing that really crossed the threshold. Within that first five years, the only artist that signed a deal was Jeremih. While we did post “Birthday Sex” before anybody else did, that was still very different—it was R&B. It wasn’t our traditional wheelhouse.
But once the Keef and the Chance thing happened, everything changed. That’s when labels started flying here all the time. My phone was ringing off the hook, and everybody was coming here and trying to figure out, “OK, what’s in the water in Chicago? What’s happening out here right now?” You saw everybody jump on that train when the Keef, Louie, and Durk thing exploded. In the next six to nine months, the Chance the Rapper thing happened. And then they’re not calling about the drill guys anymore—they’re calling, like, “Hey, who’s like Chance?”
You’ve been doing the Red Bull shows; you’ve got your show on [Sirius XM Radio channel] Shade 45. How has doing these other projects under the Fake Shore Drive banner affected the relationship you and the site have with the scene at large?
I see this as an elevation of what we were already doing. In the early days there were a lot of blogs, and people were going to their favorite blogs. Then the larger media companies that had investments and money behind them were able to grab a lot of that top talent from the blogs, start massive companies, and churn out videos clips or other kinds of content that bloggers couldn’t afford. I saw that happening, and I was like, “OK, I can’t compete with them. So what can I do? What is something else that Fake Shore Drive can do to stay relevant, sustain, and continue to do things that other people aren’t doing?”
Red Bull Sound Select definitely helped with that. I think we’ve done 30-something shows now. We’ve done stuff all over the world, and we’ve been able to bring in some of the best talent this city has to offer as part of the program: Chance, G Herbo, Save Money, Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, Mick Jenkins, Smino, Tink, the list goes on and on. On top of Chicago getting the credit it deserves, I feel like the midwest as a whole doesn’t really get the credit it deserves.
For years I was trying to get a show on Shade 45, and luckily we were able to get The Drive, which now airs every Sunday and has been for the past two years. We play nothing but midwest music for two hours. Ty [Howard] and Fake Shore Drive do that whole first hour, and we bring in a guest DJ from another market in the midwest to play what’s hot in their city or region. We wanna give people who typically wouldn’t get played on the radio some airtime, and let the DJs in these various markets play what’s going on in their city.
And finally, one of the things I was able to work on is the New Chicago playlist on Apple Music, which helps Fake Shore Drive jump into the streaming era. I know that’s where we are now. Carl Chery at Apple Music—I’m thankful that he brought me in to do this. That’s just another piece of the puzzle that lets this thing continue to work.
When you launched Fake Shore, did you imagine anything like what it has become?
Absolutely not. I just did it as a hobby. I was working a job—it was a good gig, but my heart wasn’t in it. My heart was still in music, and I wanted to have an expressive outlet where I could at least write about things. This was at the time that other blogs started popping up, and I was reading all these other websites. I’m like, “All right, there’s some great writers out here.” Byron Crawford was somebody who was relevant early on, was really a dominant blogger. Noz, who ran Cocaine Blunts. Eskay from Nah Right. Those were three of the early rap blogs I remember reading and being popular. I’m like, “Yo, I know just as much about rap as these other guys. Why can’t I throw my hat in the ring?”
I just did it. Four years later I was able to make it my full-time job. It was leap of faith. I was not making enough money to live on when I quit. I pretty much did Fake Shore for free for four years, making almost no money or very little money. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was the one who lit the fire underneath me and was like, “Yo, if you don’t do it now, you’re never gonna do it.” Thankfully it worked out.
I believe it was the No Jumper interview where you talked about how, being a white guy in hip-hop, you have to know everything. How was your race played a role in building Fake Shore up?
My thing with being a white guy in hip-hop—it’s always been this way, that you’re a guest in the house of hip-hop. It is an African-American- and Latino-invented art form. White people are a guest in the house of hip-hop, so you better have the utmost respect of the culture. In my opinion you have to earn your respect and prove yourself. If you wanna sit at the hip-hop table in high school or whatever, and you’re a white guy, you gotta know as much, ’cause if you don’t, they’re not gonna let you sit at the table with them. You can’t just jump in a conversation with them about hip-hop—you gotta know everything. Know it all, and treat it with respect, otherwise you’re not going to be accepted. I’ve always treated it very delicately, been very respectful and appreciative that I’m here and people like what I’m doing. I’m still a guest in the house of hip-hop.
Part of what I’ve loved about Fake Shore is your ability to find folks who are equally knowledgeable and passionate about hip-hop and bring their knowledge to the floor. You’ve got Ty working with you. Over the years you’ve had other people work for you: Matt Lyman, Chance’s first manager. Tiffany Walden, who cofounded the Triibe.
And Alex. Alex Russell, who went on to write for The Fader and a bunch of different outlets.
Figuring out who can write for you in a way that illuminates the culture and what you do at Fake Shore can be as challenging as figuring out who to write about. How do you figure out who to bring in?
When you wanna bring somebody on or work with somebody, you need to make sure it’s authentic. You need to make sure they care about the genre, and they care about doing cool things—about uplifting, about doing great work and championing the artists. So many people come in with agendas. So many people come in just trying to gain clout. When I started it, believe me, it was not cool to be a blogger. People definitely thought I was a square early on. Like, “Oh, you’re a blogger? You’re a writer? That’s not cool.” In 2017, I think it has a different meaning. I think a lot of people have used blogs and writing to propel themselves into doing other things. It’s almost a good point of entry for people, and at the time that was definitely not the case.
You can tell when people have really good ideas, that wanna do the work, that want to earn their spot. Much like I wanted to earn my spot. What I wanted was an opportunity to show what I could do. I didn’t need anyone to pay me. I didn’t care about being VIP, going backstage, or doing all of that. To me, that’s something that’s earned—that’s not given. Getting on the list for a show, if that’s something you expect, that’s something you should earn. I think that’s what separates the people who come in and do a great job versus people who fail and then try and start a blog and move on to something else a few weeks later. I could’ve stopped and gone on to do something else years ago, but I stuck with it and stuck with the mission and what we wanted to do.
In the same way that you look for talent as far as rappers, you look for fellow journalists and up-and-coming writers. Having a good eye out for people, like, “Do they really care about this? Are they talented? Are they working hard? Are they gonna flake? Are they just doing this to be cool or are they doing it for clout?” All of those things kinda come into my head when I’m exploring that.
Since Fake Shore launched, there have been other great local blogs that have come and gone. Ruby Hornet is back, now that RTC [aka Alex Fruchter, who founded Closed Sessions and used to run Ruby Hornet] bought the website. What impact you guys have on the local blogging scene?
Look at how many there are now, and thriving—some are doing really great. Early on I feel like I was more competitive; I was more territorial. In the beginning, Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet were the only ones that were doing it. We were all friends, because we were the only people that were doing it at the time. I’d see Alex and [Ruby Hornet cofounder] Virgil [Solis] out at every event. We were the only media people that would show up to a lot of these events early on. And we were competitors. We were friends. I would say we were friendly competitors.
I learned a lot from Ruby Hornet and Alex and what those guys did early on. They worked hard, and they made me better. They stepped it up and started doing events, got camera people, started doing videos and interviews—and they started making music. They did a lot of great things; I have to shout them out for what they have contributed. They did contribute so much in those early days, when it mattered the most. So it’s great that Alex bought the company and brought it back and plans to do a lot with it. I think that’s important, and I don’t think that their work and contributions should go unwritten from the history books. And I think that Alex is gonna take control and make sure that doesn’t happen.
As it’s gone on, we’ve got Elevator and Lyrical Lemonade. And it’s great—I think it’s dope. The more attention that people can bring on Chicago and the midwest, and bring more energy into it—it’s important. The more the merrier, at this point.
Is there anything that you’ve been like, “Ugh, we missed this earlier”? Is there anything that you’ve covered heavily that other people have completely blanked on?
I would usually say it takes people about two to three years to catch on to what we start promoting early. We did that Best of Lil Herb + Lil Bibby mixtape in 2013, almost five years ago. At the time, we were telling all the industry people about them, and they were kinda just like, “OK, whatever. Another street rapper from Chicago.” And then fast-forward four or five years later: G Herbo sells 20,000 copies independently his first week. He’s a media darling. Everyone’s like, “He’s so great—this album is so great.” I’m not talking about people in Chicago, because people in Chicago have always known that, but the industry at large. Now everyone wants to work with him, and he’s the hot guy.
Same with Joey Purp. We did a Best of Joey Purp mixtape in 2013 as well, and now everyone loves him. It’s like, “Yo, we’ve been trying to tell you about these people for years.” But nobody wants to listen. It’s really frustrating, in that a lot of times—and more so now in the streaming era—everybody’s being dragged around by what teenagers think is cool. Or what’s doing the most numbers. Or “What’s got the most amount of SoundCloud plays?” instead of “Hey, this one only has 2,000 plays, but this is actually really good—we should get behind this.” And I think we’re losing some of that right now in this era, in the streaming era.
What’s the biggest challenge for artists in Chicago specifically, and what’s the biggest challenge for you covering those artists?
For me, it’s how do we continue to grow. How do we continue to keep coming up with creative ways to do good things, to do good work? That’s just watching everything, trying to make great decisions, and partnering with great people—and trying to be around people smarter than me, so I can learn and get some of that energy as well.
But I think what’s gonna usher Chicago into the next era, as far as rap music is concerned, is we need to get some hits. We need to start churning out hits and dominating radio. I think we have the Internet locked up. If you look on a lot of websites, the coverage is incredible. But I think we need more artists in the Hot 100. We need more artists on [Soundcloud playlist] Rap Caviar and on [Apple Music playlist] A-List: Hip-Hop. That has been a challenge. I mean we arguably have the biggest rap star right now—Chance is massive. I hope we can get some more people in there to do that and continue to dominate charts and be huge. And prove that this market is a force to be reckoned with.