Year-end music lists typically cover albums, songs, and concerts; these are fine ways to reflect on a swath of great music, but there isn’t always room for the little details that help make a particular track or artist quite so appealing. When it comes to Chicago hip-hop there were plenty of fantastic little moments that have stuck with me throughout the year—there’s Tree’s shout-out to his Cabrini-Green pals on “Most Successful,” Alex Wiley‘s use of a juke sample on “K Swiss,” Lucki Ecks‘s Emmitt Smith reference on “Count on Me.” There are plenty of other wonderful details that helped make 2013 a fantastic year for Chicago rap. These are five of my favorites:
Earlier this month west-siders Lil Kemo and Dlow released tunes that teach some simple moves to the playful and intuitive Chicago-born dance style known as bop; before the kings of the scene rap through the how-tos for “Kemo Step” and “The Dlow Shuffle,” each gives a shout-out to the other bopper. Those brief acknowledgements on the melodic party tunes are emblematic of the inviting and positive nature of bop. The wriggly dance moves are not only easy to pick up, but there’s a communal element to the dance that comes through when scores of kids are giving it a try at the same time—anyone can do it, but it’s really a party when everyone is doing it. While Kemo and Dlow are bop’s reigning royalty—just take a peek at their awesome athletic moves—they’re entirely supportive of each other, working together to make the scene bigger and better.
ShowYouSuck paid homage to harDCore icons Minor Threat with the artwork for “XXX (Straight Edge),” which features a hard-looking 80s punk with a corked bottle for a head set against a red background. It’s a lovely hat-tip to the beloved punk group that unintentionally inspired the nondrinking, nondrugging movement named after one of its songs, “Straight Edge.” Show doesn’t do drugs or alcohol, but he’s expressed some reservations about calling himself straight-edge partially because it’s such a loaded term—calling yourself straight-edge can be alienating to folks who you might otherwise have a lot in common with. Those kinds of awkward, tense interactions spill over into “XXX,” and the way ShowYouSuck is able to convincingly speak (or rather rap) as a person on both sides of an argument about sobriety speaks to his ability to connect with radically different people. ShowYouSuck does that well in concert—his euphoric rap performances are some of the most fun I’ve been witness to all year. No matter what tag he uses to describe himself, the rapper sure knows how to have a good time.
MC David Cohn (aka Serengeti) is from Chicago, but the way he raps, it often sounds like he’s from a world of his own creation. It happens to be like the Chicago we all know, just with a slight wrinkle—Cohn’s alter ego, a blue-collar 50-something with a thick Chicago accent and a bushy ‘stache named Kenny Dennis, is a coulda-been-big-time rapper whose old group (Tha Grimm Teachaz) nearly released an album through Jive in the early 90s. The Kenny Dennis LP is littered with references to local neighborhoods and streets, and Anders Holm of Comedy Central’s Workaholics fills in Kenny’s back story with anecdotes about seeing Tha Grimm Teachaz at the Riviera in 1993 and flying Kenny to LA for his 50th birthday, but the one detail that makes Kenny appear more real happens when Cohn starts rattling off a series of directions at the end of “Directions.”
The tune is as much an allegory about having a purpose in life and rap as it is about racing through the city and telling someone how to get from point A to point B, and Cohn deftly brings those ideas together using Kenny’s blunt, honking delivery. He raps like a tough, middle-aged dude who’s comfortable with his life, confident in his abilities, and knows exactly where he’s going, whether it be in regards to his personal goals or a trip to Skokie. He knows how to get around so well he doesn’t need directional specifics such as street names, Google maps, or anything like “make a U-turn at the Dairy Queen three blocks ahead.” For him it’s just, “you go left, you go right, you go up, you go down, you go right, make a left, make a left, make a right.”
Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon and Chief Keef provide Kanye’s “Hold My Liquor” with much of its strange, mournful aura. Their Auto-Tune washed voices fit together surprisingly well, and simply putting indie-rock’s darling woodshedder and the infamous, mush-mouthed MC on one track makes for one of the WTF concepts on Yeezus, but it’s not the most unexpected combination on the album, or even the song; one of the other contributors is Che “Rhymefest” Smith, the socially conscious rapper who, among other things, wrote a blog post last year criticizing Keef for representing “the senseless savagery that white people see when the news speaks of Chicago violence.” Since then Rhymefest worked on a track that also features Keef, but you’d have to comb through the liner notes in order to figure that one out. The idea of seeing these two distinct figures on one track is, among other things, a reminder that both rappers call Chicago home—so many different people do as well, yet occasionally there’s something that can bring together people who appear to be diametric opposites. In this case it’s Kanye.
Acid Rap‘s closing track starts with a recording of a phone call between Chance and his father, Ken Williams-Bennett, who tells his son to “just keep doing what you’re doing.” It’s easy to tell the pair love each other unconditionally even before they use the word “love”; all the words they share are the kind that every parent and child should have together. Chance and Ken have had their differences, especially when Chance decided to pursue a career in hip-hop after high school, but after Chance saw his friend Rodney Kyles Jr. get stabbed to death a little more than two years ago they’ve become even closer. Not everyone goes through what Chance experienced (though far too many kids in Chicago do), but fortunately Ken and the rest of Chance’s family have been there to support the rapper through the trauma; Ken’s unwavering devotion to Chance is so touching that after I first spoke with Ken I immediately wanted to run to my parents to tell them how much I love them.
That’s the kind of love you can hear in the telephone conversation on “Everything’s Good.” The intimacy of the chat is indicative of just how much Chance was willing to reveal about himself on the mixtape, and just how deep he got; Chance recorded the phone call while he was working in the studio and dropped it into the track without his father’s knowledge, at least initially. Ken found out at a listening party for Acid Rap held days before it dropped. “Everything’s Good” was one of a handful of songs I’d heard while working on my B Side feature on Chance, and at the party Ken told me he hadn’t heard all of Acid Rap, so I figured I wouldn’t say anything about his unannounced guest spot. Instead I picked a spot in the crowd where I could peek over at Ken to see how he’d react to “Everything’s Good”; Ken looked a little confused when the track finally started playing, but when he recognized his voice he looked astonished. He seemed appreciative, dazzled, happy, and overwhelmed, all at the same time. Those are the kinds of emotions everyone should be able to experience with music regardless of whether or not their voice is pumping through the speakers, and I’ve certainly had all those reactions while listening to Acid Rap.