In a year filled with turmoil and bad news, Chicago hip-hop made waves internationally with songs of affirmation in the face of adversity. Chance the Rapper spoke to God in public as gun violence continued to claim the lives of his neighbors; Vic Mensa encouraged young people to mobilize and challenge authority, even as he grieved with them for Laquan McDonald and the citizens of Flint; Noname fought to find a space to live and hope for happiness in a society that seems intent on crushing women of color; Saba repped his west-side home, in proud defiance of the Chicagoans who forget it exists until another shooting thrusts it into the headlines; and Mick Jenkins preached love in a hateful world. There’s no single thread connecting these young rappers’ 2016 releases, but taken as a group, they leave the unmistakable impression that they all know they’re in something together. They’ve helped instill the city’s hip-hop scene with a strong sense of camaraderie.
Not that long ago, Chicago had a reputation as an unwelcoming place for rappers. As Spenzo puts it on the hook for his 2012 track “Windy City,” it was “the city that loves to hate.” Around the time that song came out, just as drill was becoming a pop phenomenon, I talked with Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber about his collaboration with local streetwear companies Eschmitte, Enstrumental, and Leaders 1354: a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Chicago hates you.” Barber explained the city’s reputation as “haterville” as the result of “artists becoming big and people feeling like there’s only room for, like, one person to get through every few years.”
Till this decade, history might have sided with the haters—at least if you only paid attention to the local artists who broke out nationally. If there were a SparkNotes guide to Chicago hip-hop history, it would show bursts of activity every few years, whenever the city’s scene attracted the attention of the wider world. Twista was already locally popular in the early 90s, but he didn’t attract national attention till ’96 or ’97, when he was buoyed by a crowd of charting west-side rap acts, including Do or Die and Crucial Conflict. Ten Tray were the first Chicago group to release a major-label hip-hop album (1992’s Realm of Darkness), but because they weren’t riding a similar critical mass, they’re largely forgotten today.
Hip-hop is in its 40s, but before the 2010s only a handful of Chicago rappers had permeated mainstream pop culture. Despite the fact that community and hip-hop have always gone hand in hand for Chicagoans (the posi collective Chi-Rock Nation, formed in ’85, is still going strong), it’s easy to see how a hungry local MC could believe that the window to stardom lets only one person through at a time. And that type of thinking turns potential collaborators into adversaries.
The sea change arrived in the wake of drill, when young black MCs and producers working out of their homes (and, in the case of Chief Keef, while under house arrest) made Chicago a music-industry magnet. No longer could only one rapper at a time fit through the window. And the Internet was in the process of upending the way artists built national followings—why squeeze through a window when you could knock down a wall? This phenomenon isn’t unique to Chicago, obviously, but the drill acts who landed label deals in 2012 encouraged their peers here who wanted to do things differently.
Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and other leading lights of Chicago’s contemporary hip-hop scene have nurtured communities at spaces such as Young Chicago Authors and Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia center. As they’ve risen, they’ve brought their friends with them—and not just by pulling them in to collaborate on the occasional hot track. Chance is probably the best example. Coloring Book probably could’ve come out before 2016, but he delayed working on a follow-up to his breakout 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, to contribute to Surf, a jazz-inflected pop album by his backing band, the Social Experiment, fronted by trumpet player Nico Segal (he stopped using the stage name “Donnie Trumpet” after the presidential election).
Segal and the Social Experiment released Surf for free through iTunes in May 2015. The file tags credit the album to Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, but even a casual listen makes it clear that many more artists were involved—and the “composer” field in the metadata contains an entire world of musicians. Surf gave listeners good reasons to dig deeper and follow connections, helping them discover and cherish the communities that produced some of the best local hip-hop albums of this year. When Chance dropped Coloring Book in May, I didn’t just hear him and his band—I heard vocalist and producer Knox Fortune, soul singer Eryn Allen Kane, rapper Towkio, and the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Chance’s latest is a great example of Chicago’s spirit of collaboration, but it’s far from the only one. Throughout the year, seasoned artists teamed up under joint names instead of trading on their existing reputations—they weren’t just trying to create something distinct from each contributor’s solo work but also putting their partnerships front and center. In January, Vic Spencer and Chris Crack released Who the Fuck Is Chris Spencer? under the name Chris Spencer. The next month Psalm One, Angel Davanport, and Fluffy put out their first EP as Rapper Chicks, Shitty Punk Album. In early October, Ang 13 and Longshot debuted with the self-titled Army of Two. A few weeks later ShowYouSuck and the Hood Internet dropped their first full-length as Air Credits, Broadcasted. The collaborations are still coming, and every new EP, album, or mixtape bolstsers the feeling that in 2016 the big winner in Chicago hip-hop was the community itself. v