It’s been more than two years since drill music and its best-known practitioner, Chief Keef, broke out of the south side, but a casual observer could easily get the impression that they’re still the only thing happening in Chicago rap. Two recent high-profile Web documentaries—World Star Hip Hop’s ambitious and messy The Field, which came out in January, and Noisey’s sensationalist and repugnant Chiraq, which ran weekly from January till March—both focused on the drill scene, and in February the folks at WTTW’s Chicago Tonight ran a story that sounded like they’d just discovered it.
Hip-hop fans around the country know better than to equate Chicago strictly with drill—and the reason they know can be summed up in a single name. Chance the Rapper is proof that a local MC can rocket to international fame without hitching a ride on drill. It’s been a year since Acid Rap came out, and these days Chance makes headlines even when he’s not releasing music. When he was briefly hospitalized last month for tonsillitis and the flu, missing a Coachella date, Rolling Stone and Spin reported on it. He’s high-profile enough that Drake took a shot at him on “Draft Day.”
Fans in Chicago can tell you lots more about who or what’s coming next, of course. The bop scene took over the south and west sides last summer, and now it might break nationally—ebullient duo Sicko Mobb signed to Sony/ATV late last year, and bop king Dlow landed a deal with Atlantic after “The Dlow Shuffle” went viral this winter (in June he and frequent collaborator Lil Kemo perform at the United Center as part of WGCI’s Summer Jam). Calumet City singer-rapper Tink dropped an excellent mixtape in January called Winter’s Diary 2, and now she’s working with superproducer Timbaland. Lucki Ecks recently took time out from working on the follow-up to his brilliant 2013 debut, Alternative Trap, to open a few tour dates for Detroit rapper Danny Brown.
Zoom in one more level, and you get an even higher-resolution picture—you can see dozens of talented locals releasing material that could catapult them onto a bigger stage. For this piece I talked to five of them: Alex Wiley, Saba, Spenzo, Taylor Bennett, and ZMoney. Some of them are friends, despite their divergent styles, and others never cross paths. Wiley belongs to the Village crew, which has expanded beyond Chicago’s borders. ZMoney seems to have come out of nowhere fully formed, his luxurious aesthetic already intact.
You can find photos of Taylor Bennett with Spenzo on Instagram; Spenzo showed up to perform at Bennett’s sold-out headlining show at Reggie’s last month, and he appears on a track from Bennett’s new mixtape, Mainstream Music.
Saba cut his teeth at Harold Washington’s YouMedia Center, where Bennett used to record. These are far from the only rappers in town whose mixtapes could hit it big outside Chicago—it’s all but impossible to keep up with everyone—but they’re the most promising.
“I just do my own thing, OK / And hope it all work out / Tryin’ to set the bullshit ablaze / And hope it all burn down.”
I first met the puckish Alex Wiley while working on a story about Kembe X—he and Wiley are both members of the Village collective. In fact, part of what got me interested in the Village in the first place was Wiley’s fast-paced, acrobatic rapping on “Don’t Quit (Smoking and Shit),” a highlight of Kembe’s 2011 mixtape Self Rule. Since then the collective has grown: Kembe is now working in LA, and rapper-singer Jean Deaux has collaborated with UK pop-rock band Glass Animals as well as Top Dawg Entertainment MC Isaiah Rashad (also part of the Village), who’s been touring with fellow TDE member Schoolboy Q.
Last year Wiley, who’s now 20, signed with local indie hip-hop label Closed Sessions and released his debut, Club Wiley, a psychedelic, maximalist mixtape stacked with high-profile guests—among them Action Bronson, Freddie Gibbs, GLC, and his childhood pals Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper. On “Earfucked” he snarls and croons over a stack of seemingly incongruous samples—the Arctic Monkeys, a machine gun, Ozzy Osbourne, a bleating sheep, Ludacris, a howler monkey—and he makes it sound good.
“Earfucked” also includes a line that exemplified Wiley’s lyrical approach at the time: “We don’t give a shit about shit.” He’d prioritized flow over content, resulting in an abundance of playful, vigorous, and not especially thoughtful rhymes. Since then Wiley has become a more introspective writer, and he demonstrates his evolution on the mixtape Village Party, which comes out Tuesday, May 27. “I want people to know me on a deeper level than just knowing shit about me,” he says. “Knowing shit like I like joints more than papers—that type of shit—that’s not really knowing a person. I feel like I want people to know how I think and certain things that have happened that have gotten me to this point.”
Wiley previewed Village Party in February with “Own Man,” rapping ferociously (and with the same freewheeling flow that caught my ear years ago) about being an outcast in school and figuring out his path. From what I’ve heard of the new mixtape, it’s as opulent and maximal as Club Wiley, though sonically tighter; Wiley also cuts down the number of guest MCs from eight to just one or two, handling most of the rapping himself. “Alex is our first artist, and the artist that has grown with us the most,” says Closed Sessions cofounder Alex Fruchter. “We’re putting all we have into making this project pop.”
Austin rapper-producer Tahj Chandler, aka Saba, released his debut solo mixtape, Get Comfortable, at the end of 2012, but the 19-year-old has been making music for more than a decade. He started playing piano when he was seven, and a couple years later, after hearing Notorious B.I.G.’s “Notorious Thugs,” he started recording rap songs on a four-track in his basement. “After that I was like, ‘OK, clearly this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,'” he says.
At first Chandler was too shy to perform in public, but in 2011, a friend and collaborator who raps as Frsh Waters introduced him to the open mikes at YouMedia Center and Young Chicago Authors. “Going to open mikes probably has changed my life in a drastic way—you can’t rap in front of people and be a shy kid,” Chandler says. “It’s just a matter of going up there and having people believe in you. That was the first time I ever felt that for real—because we always made music, but it never left my basement until I was 15 or 16.”
That “we” mostly refers to Pivot Gang, a west-side crew that includes Chandler, Frsh Waters, Joseph Chilliams, John Walt, MFn Melo, Sway Swala, Kevo B, and Smack. Their impressive debut mixtape, Jimmy, came out in the fall. (“Jimmy” is Frsh Waters’s real first name; he’s in prison, but nobody would say why.) Chandler’s got big plans for Pivot Gang: “I want to be like a supergroup, a super boy band.”
For now Chandler is focusing on his own second mixtape, Comfort Zone, due late this spring; he says it’s the music he wanted to make when he was 16, but back then he didn’t have the skills to realize his grand vision. The J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s Cam Osteen produced the bulk of Comfort Zone, and what I’ve heard so far has a breadth and depth that reminds me of two other mixtapes Osteen punched up with his sparkle and shine: Acid Rap and Vic Mensa’s Innanetape (Chandler also appeared on the Acid Rap single “Everybody’s Something”). Chandler’s earthy growl complements its soulful cuts (“Secondhand Smoke“) just as well as its aggressive numbers (“401K“).
Chandler’s confident performances show no trace of the shy kid he used to be, and the narrative arc of Comfort Zone is the story of how he got from there to here—the “comfort zone” that he’s left behind is his social isolation. “It’s like an understanding of what made me not talk to anybody,” he says. “Then you’re out of the comfort zone by the end of it.”
“Just a kid from Englewood / Finally up out the hood / Used to eat canned goods / Now on them cans I’m good.”
“I was born into a family of music,” says Demarius “Spenzo” Johnson. His mother sang in the choir at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, and his stepfather is DJ Deeon, whose raw, raunchy ghetto-house records helped establish the untouchable reputation of south-side label Dance Mania in the 90s. “When he’d do parties I would go with him,” Johnson says. “I would take the speakers with him.”
The 18-year-old MC says his lineage has had a big influence on his sound. “Wife Er,” a catchy club anthem with a beat by Young Chop (most famous for producing Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”), has a dreamy, floating blanket of synths whose heavenward surge feels just a bit like gospel, and Johnson’s nonchalant lyrics about casual sex wouldn’t sound out of place in a ghetto-house track. Johnson originally dropped “Wife Er” on the 2013 mixtape In Spenzo We Trust, and it’s since become his biggest song—Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah has been listening to it before games, and Johnson says he’s seen people singing along with it at clubs. “You can’t pay people to recite your lyrics,” he says. “So I just listen, and it make you feel some type of way.”
Johnson says he freestyled “Wife Er” when he was 16. “When I turned 16, I noticed my confidence kicked in, like, ‘I could do this,’ and I never was the same from that day on,” he says. That year he met a man calling himself E, who runs the Clinic, a studio in Englewood, where Johnson lived at the time. Big-name rappers have recorded at the Clinic—Johnson mentions Kanye West, Crucial Conflict, and the A$AP Mob—and when I meet him there, I notice that many of them have signed their names on its silver walls. “I first walked in here when I was 16—L.E.P. [Bogus Boys] was here, E was here, a few other people was here. They was recording, and I was chillin’,” Johnson says. “I was like, man, that’s what’s up. ‘I’m here, let me know what’s my role.’ I was a soldier—I still am a soldier, to be honest.”
E has since become one of Johnson’s managers, helping him land a deal with Atlantic in December. Now Johnson is finishing the as-yet-untitled follow-up to In Spenzo We Trust, which he hopes to release in late May or early June. I’ve heard snippets of a dance-friendly track and a soul-influenced song, and both sound like expertly engineered crossover attempts. He’s still deciding which material will end up on the mixtape. “It seems backwards ’cause when you’re writing a paper you come up with the topic first, then the supporting details,” Johnson says. “But with music, with me, I just record it, then I pick it.”
Every weekday at 6 AM, Taylor Bennett wakes up, puts on his uniform—khakis, suit jacket, white dress shirt, red tie, black shoes, black belt—and heads to the Bronzeville campus of the Urban Prep Academy. At 4 PM, after his classes end, he goes straight to a studio; lately he’s been working on his second mixtape, Mainstream Music, which came out Sunday, May 4. The 18-year-old has a deal with his parents to put school first for now, but once he graduates in June he’ll pursue rapping full-time for a year; if his career doesn’t take off, he’ll go to college when that time’s up. His dad, Ken Williams-Bennett, isn’t worried: “I expect to see big things out of him,” he says.
Williams-Bennett has good reason to be optimistic: his other son is Chance the Rapper. Bennett is used to hearing about his brother, but he doesn’t let that get in his way. “My pops told me something that was super important right before I made Mainstream Music, and I think it helped me out a lot,” he says. “He told me, ‘Stop worrying about if you’re gonna sound like Chance.’ My voice might sound like him, but we’re two totally different people.”
On his debut mixtape, last June’s The Taylor Bennett Show, his fiery, mischievous raps make him sound like a running back cutting through a defensive line—he sticks to the ground, in contrast to Chance’s aerial acrobatics. And Bennett has exhibited impressive growth on the recent singles and one-off freestyles he released to promote Mainstream Music. On April’s “New Chevy,” a single featuring King Louie, Bennett rap-sings over an alluring R&B piano melody with an assured, easygoing flow.
The name of Bennett’s tape hints at the central idea it explores—the relationship between underground and mainstream. “Inside Chicago right now, we’re all under this underground rush,” he says. “What I’m starting to realize is there’s a lot of people who are actually following this underground way more than they’re following mainstream music. From that thought I just started to ponder, ‘Well, what exactly is mainstream music?'” South-side producer Saint the Good Boy, who Bennett met last summer while staying in Roseland with his grandmother, produced most of Mainstream Music, and with his help it draws from dubstep, R&B, and country.
Bennett first sat down at a computer to write lyrics at age 14, and in the past year he’s headlined two sold-out shows at Reggie’s. Now he’s got the charts in his sights, and he’s still filling his music with his experiences as a young African-American from the south side. “I made Mainstream Music for a purpose,” he says. “Music is a lot more than just having a good time—it’s about learning something.”
“It’s 90 percent business, 10 percent rap,” Zernardo “ZMoney” Tate says of his music career. “That’s why I’m in the place where I’m right now.” When he says “place” he’s referring not only to his position as a 21-year-old rapper who makes $2,500 a show (or at least says he does) but also to where we meet—west-side soul-food restaurant Emma’s, which he opened in December (it’s named after his grandmother).
The simple, homey interior of Emma’s stands in sharp contrast to Tate’s big-money look—he’s wearing a stylish leather jacket loaded with zippers, several tasteful gold chains, a couple enormous rings, and a chunky, flashy watch. His love of luxury is all over his music too. On “Ferragamo,” from last year’s Rich B4 Rap, he lists brand names he wears, then raps, “I swear I love this shit.” He says his expensive tastes are part of the reason he got involved in a few popular but unsanctioned money-making enterprises before starting his rap career. (“I loved trappin’ so much that I was gonna try and make it legal,” he says.)
Tate is working only aboveboard angles now—he’s got his restaurant, and he’s hoping to open a car wash and launch a couple clothing lines. And then there’s his burgeoning hip-hop career.
“At first I was looking for somebody to put some money behind and invest in, ’cause I’ve always had an ear for music,” he says. “But it turns out I was the guy who I was looking for—it was crazy.” A couple years ago Tate jumped into the booth during a friend’s studio session, and he’s been hooked ever since. He’s got a seesawing, mush-mouthed flow, and he raps about his old life with confidence and style—”Want My Money” has an irresistibly punchy Auto-Tuned chorus that makes it one of the best tracks on Rich B4 Rap. Tate debuted last June by releasing it in tandem with another mixtape called Heroin Musik.
Sometime this summer he plans to drop three mixtapes at once, collectively titled 3mpire. He’s teasing that release with a compilation of new and previously released material called The Greatest Trap Show on Earth, which is supposed to be out by the time this is published. Tate had been planning to tour behind Trap Show, but two weeks ago he was incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation by leaving the state to perform at South by Southwest (he’d received two years in May 2013 for driving on a suspended license). Tate’s imprisonment is a speed bump for sure, but he’s yet to be sentenced and might not be—he could simply be released at his next court appearance. And at any rate he’s got so much music in the pipeline that he’d have to be locked up for a good long time before he ran out of stuff to release—he finished 3mpire several months ago. “I’m just waiting on the right time to market it and everything,” he says.
Correction: This story has been amended in order to attach Alex Wiley and Saba’s names to the proper photos.