When it comes to hip-hop, Chicago gets no respect. The speedy run-on vocal style that Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony rode to platinum in 1994 was invented at least three years earlier by Twista and Do or Die, Chicago acts who hover below the mainstream radar even today. Despite his underground rep, Common’s career didn’t blossom until he moved to Brooklyn. And the most humiliating development of all came with the success of Nelly’s Country Grammar in 2000, when Saint Louis, not Chicago, became the city to put midwestern hip-hop on the map.

But recently music industry insiders have started listening more closely to Chicago hip-hop–maybe because local radio is finally acting like we’ve got something here. This past summer two local indie singles–Tru Enuff’s “On My Momma” and TeeJay’s “Windy City”–received the sort of heavy airplay that’s usually reserved for the likes of Missy Elliott. DJ Pharris Thomas pushed “On My Momma” at clubs for months before giving the bass-heavy track a shot on his daily mix show on Power 92 in March; since then it’s totaled more than 300 spins. At its peak in July, the song was played four times a day on both Power 92 and WGCI (107.5 FM) and was popularly dubbed “The Chicago Anthem.” While there’s no album in stores, the single’s success convinced Universal Records to sign Tru Enuff.

Those singles are only the most prominent examples of Chicago hip-hop’s burgeoning profile. Producers like Kanye West, No I.D., and Xtreme have spent years crafting tracks for underground artists; now they’re quietly landing major production and recording deals. Shawnna, the daughter of Buddy Guy and former member of the female duo Infamous Syndicate, toured with Ludacris and appeared on the album Golden Grain as part of his group Disturbing tha Peace; she’ll release her major-label solo debut in the spring. New faces are appearing–a teen prodigy named Lil Wish was named Entertainer of the Year by Truth magazine without a song on the radio or in stores–and south-side crews like Soldiers at War have mobilized grassroots PR teams to push their CDs on street corners.

“It’s very challenging and very competitive here now,” says Eric Sexton, who manages Mike Dunn, the veteran house DJ who produced “On My Momma.” The growth of home studios and indie labels is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Sexton, but it wouldn’t amount to much without radio support for unsigned artists. To satisfy the demand for local music, stations and promoters, once content with pumping major acts, are now combing clubs and basement studios for the next hot rapper.

In the past even hometown acts with major-label support, like Do or Die and Common, found local airplay hard to come by. But when Philadelphia-owned Crawford Broadcasting ditched WPWX’s gospel format two years ago to create Power 92, the scene changed. The new station gave indie acts Malik Yusef, Felony, Bigg Nastee, and White Chalk spins in prime time, and audience response was so positive competitors were forced to pick up the songs too. “We had to put the best of local artists on for us to achieve our goals and be the best,” says Jay Alan, Power 92’s programming director. Translation: with mainstream hip-hop and R & B listeners catered to by B96, stations had to discover new ways to distinguish themselves from the competition.

Power 92 and WGCI are now unlikely combatants in a battle to prove who’s got more love for hip-hop. Each Friday, Power 92’s Power Hour features unsigned acts. The station has also released a CD of home jams, The Choklit Jox Chicago Power Hour Vol. 1, that’s sold more than 4,000 copies, and spotlights a hometown song of the week that’s played daily. Five or six local rappers are kept in regular rotation, receiving as many as 30 or more plays per week collectively. But that barely hints at the number of aspiring MCs eager for a shot. “We get over 50 CDs [from local artists] a week,” says Trey Brazier of the Choklit Jox, Power 92’s popular nighttime DJ duo. The station plans to release two more collections of local hip-hop by the end of the year.

Meanwhile WGCI runs on-air ads that boast of its support for hometown artists, slips indie acts into its regular rotation, and urges new talent to submit music. One beneficiary of this policy is TeeJay, who’ll perform at the Pepsi WGCI Big Jam III with Nelly, LL Cool J, Syleena Johnson, and others at the United Center in December. Earlier this year he waited eight hours in the WGCI lobby to hand his demo to programmers; his single “Windy City,” a midtempo ode to Chicago club life, was on the air the next week. “Everybody asks that question–how did I get it on the radio–like I had to go through hell,” says TeeJay. “What people don’t understand is that they have to like your song.” But historically that’s rarely enough–label reps give lively video presentations pointing to national trends and demographics to convince a programming director to play a song. If not for the unusual circumstances locally, a relatively unknown independent MC like TeeJay would have found it next to impossible to get his music heard.

Cross-station rivalry has also fostered some vibrant nightlife, with national hip-hop acts doing promotional rounds, performing at club dance parties and concerts two and three times a month. Where there’s a headliner, there’s usually a local opener, and this has created a bustling networking scene.

Producer Xtreme was bumping his own beats while driving on the west side when Jay-Z’s limo pulled up next to him. “He said he wanted my beat and he’d call me next week,” said Xtreme, who until then had never met the Roc-a-Fella mogul. The producer was even more shocked when Jigga actually phoned him a week later. Then Xtreme’s manager Rob Greco passed a demo to Musiq Soulchild’s people when they were in town for a radio promotion. Local production companies Burnin’ Hot Entertainment and Face the Music merged to form the Phaundation–a partnership including Xtreme, Greco, Phil Edwards, and No I.D.–and landed a production deal with Def Jam Records. They’ve produced tracks for Jay-Z, DMX, Aries, and Jaheim and expect to launch their first artist, K. Fox, early next year. “You don’t have to leave the city anymore to be successful,” said Xtreme. “You can produce all your music here and the labels will come to you.”

But if these are heady times for local artists, so were the mid-90s, when artists such as Common, Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, Twista, Cap 1, and Psychodrama were snatched up by major labels. None of those Chicago acts reaped the rewards of hip-hop’s commercial explosion, and many of their careers were marred or nearly destroyed by legal drama and business naivete. Common was forced to change his name from Common Sense after a little-known ska band of the same name sued him. Twista’s career was bogged down by a three-year legal battle to leave locally based CWAL records and renegotiate his solo deal with Atlantic. (Though still signed to that major, Twista also runs his own indie label, Legit Ballin, which is currently in negotiation with Roc-a-Fella.) “The dopest lyricist can only go so far,” says Rawl “Raw” Stewart, Twista’s road manager. “You need a business team that’s going to do your work and take it to the next level. Most of these artists didn’t have that.”

Artists now have more access to business information, due in part to a flurry of education programs. Griff Morris, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, claims the group’s membership has tripled over the past few years because of the demand for education services. “It’s really a community effort to teach each other about the music industry,” says Morris. In fact, business forums have become popular hot spots for networking. WGCI’s annual music seminar drew over 5,000 people this year. “People’s awareness and professionalism has stepped up and it’s still growing. We can use the success stories of the pioneers to build on,” says Power 92’s Alan.

They might do better to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. Today’s indie artists have more access to radio and performance venues, but it remains to be seen how many can convert local exposure into national sales. Of the indie artists currently in regular radio rotation, only Twista’s crew Legit Ballaz has an album in stores. The other acts claim their CDs will hit in January, a delay that’s frustrating to both retailers and consumers. Dropping a single months before an album’s release may help generate buzz, but it’s also fattening the pockets of bootleggers.

“It’s a huge mistake,” says Mike Webb, owner of Music Tracks, an indie CD store on the south side. “When [a single’s] hot on the radio, that’s when everyone wants it. Stores are sitting, wanting the merchandise, wanting the stuff, but we can’t get it. If they don’t come out with it soon, the CD burners and the bootleggers already have it. By the time the real CD comes out, it’s already old to the public.”

Power 92’s Brazier agrees. “People always call and say, ‘Where can we buy their CD?'” he says. “We’re doing our job by playing it on the radio–it’s the artist’s job to get it in the stores.”

Despite high hopes, then, some members of the local hip-hop community are apprehensive, knowing that the fates of its members are linked. Just as one artist’s success can draw national recognition for others, so one artist’s mistakes can sabotage everyone. “One bad deal messes it up for all of us,” says Greco. “You don’t want major labels feeling they can come to Chicago and give us crazy deals because we don’t know any better. It sets a bad precedent.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Brock, Jim Newberry.