The Swarm

September 24, 2012

A Rational Conversation: Fake Shore Drive’s Andrew Barber on Chief Keef and Chicago’s Murderously Successful Rap Moment...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

Chicago hip-hop, particularly the infamous, teen-fueled “drill music” movement, has been one of the biggest stories of 2012. Given the city’s escalating murder rate and epidemic of gang violence, Chicago hip-hop scene has been increasingly viewed from a sociological perspective, especially given breakout star Chief Keef’s criminal history and connections. One of the true authorities documenting this latest stormy evolution in Windy City rap history is Andrew Barber, whose website Fake Shore Drive has been exhaustively and exclusively covering local hip-hop since 2007. Ducker and Barber discussed the current climate in Chicago following the inevitable major-label gold rush, and almost equally predetermined bloody backlash that’s proven, yet again, deeper than rap…

Eric Ducker: With regards to Chief Keef and the other Chicago rappers around his age who come from the same areas as him, I’m trying to understand what the draw is. And I’m not saying that in a judgmental way. It seems that, for people from Chicago and for people from outside of Chicago, the draw is different. I’ve read people say that Keef is huge in Chicago’s black teen community, because he’s a reflection of their outlook, whether they consciously realize that or not. And at times, it feels like people outside of Chicago are interested in Keef because he is a personification of the news stories we’re hearing coming out of the city: the skyrocketing murder rate, the gang violence, the Twitter flash-mob attacks, and so on. However, I want to know what you think the draw is.

Andrew Barber: In the beginning, before anyone caught on to what was going on here, these kids had a pretty large following across pockets of the city – with no national, or even local, media attention. I think it resonated with the kids because they saw a little of themselves in the artists: the rage, the emotion, the anger, all coming from someone in their own community. These MCs were people they could touch and hold on to, not just some figures created by a record label whose music they might enjoy, but couldn’t really relate to on a personal level. These were kids from their own high schools – semi-local celebrities. Instead of the basketball players and athletes being the idols, the rappers were.

As for the outside perspective, I think a lot of people really liked the music, but they loved the backstory even more. The media grabbed on to it because the story was hard to believe: a group of inner-city teenagers became local stars with no money, no funding, nothing. It was a total DIY approach: these rappers had hundreds and thousands of views on YouTube without leaving the South Side of Chicago, and that’s a story in itself. All of the rappers, producers, and videographers were self-taught, no help.

And it just so happened that the figurehead of the movement had an even better story. He was a 16-year-old kid who became rap’s hottest commodity while on house arrest at his grandmother’s place. He got a multi-million dollar deal from Interscope Records without leaving the confines of his grandma’s house. That immediately grabbed everyone’s attention, and once they looked, a lot of them loved the music. Then Kanye added his stamp, and that took it to another level – now the world was paying attention.

ED: Do you think some people outside of Chicago have started to walk back their enthusiasm once they realized the realities of the great backstory? Do you think they started feeling guilty about what they were being enthusiastic about?

AB: Absolutely. I think even people in Chicago are starting to turn their back on the movement, due to the backlash it’s received over the past few weeks. But unless you were in the know, then you would’ve had no idea a lot of the songs contained gang messaging. However, there are still supporters of what’s going on here. But music fans are incredibly fickle, and a lot of journalists and sites are probably already on to the next trend: “Chicago is sooooo summer 2012!”

ED: Where does that leave the artists? The ones who got a lot of money from labels and are expecting them to deliver profits in return, in whatever ways a major label can expect profits these days, and those who thought that this was their opportunity to be noticed?

AD: The scene still has its supporters and stars. It’s by no means dead, and there is more to Chicago than just the “drill scene.” That’s what bothers me the most about the coverage Chicago is getting right now. All anyone wants to talk about is Chief Keef, but there are a ton of other artists here whose content is completely different. Artists like Rockie Fresh, YP, Spenzo, Chance the Rapper, Sir Michael Rocks, and Kids These Days are incredible talents and deserve the same recognition. Around ten artists and producers from Chicago were signed in 2012; many of them sound nothing alike and have their own styles and movements. Record execs and A&Rs hit Chicago like the gold rush this past spring and summer, and I think a lot of artists’ stuff will see the light of day on a major label. Now the artists just have to stand out, but all eyes are on Chicago right now, good or bad.

ED: It’s tough, because although there should be a variety in the type of music coming out of a city – and that’s totally logical with Chicago given that millions of people live there – I think hip-hop still has its own authenticity hang-ups. If everyone is convinced that Keef is “the realest” dude out of Chicago, that’s who everyone outside of the city is going to want to align themselves with.

AB: Right, and that has been the case thus far, for sure. But my hope is that a lot of these other guys and girls get their just due as well.

ED: What’s the climate in the city like for rap artists right now? Do you get a sense that they feel that everyone is watching them and scouting them?

AB: The label attention has been good and bad in a few ways. Rap is dangerously competitive as is, but with ten people getting deals in such a short period of time, it raises the bar even higher. It creates a lot of hate and tension. Some of the more seasoned vets are understandably upset that they’ve waited years for their big break only to be outshined by teenagers who’ve only been around for a few years or, in some cases, months. Some will work harder to reach their goal, while others will just be bitter and hate on the new guys. The deal rush has also created a false sense of hope where people now just expect to get signed without doing much of anything. They feel it’s deserved, not earned. But on the other hand, now artists are making some of the best music of their careers and are really stepping it up knowing the world is watching.

ED: Have you seen any older artists try to change their sound up so it’s more in line with drill music, thinking that’s their best opportunity?

AB: Without a doubt. With drill music being the dominant force, a lot of people have changed their sound. Maybe not so much their content, but the beats are noticeably more drill influenced. But that’s typical with all music for the most part. A dominant sound emerges, and people head that direction. I don’t blame them.

ED: Personally, how do you as someone who has exclusively been covering Chicago for hip-hop for years feel about the attention? On one hand, there are people like me who are seeking you out for your expert opinion, but on the other, are you like, “Where was this attention three years ago, and will you be still be interested three years from now?”

AB: I loved the initial attention. This is a city that didn’t have a major label signing since the mid-aughts, and many of those didn’t take off; to have double-digit signings within eight months is unheard of. But of course, with the good comes the bad, and the recent coverage has been a hard pill to swallow. I feel like the rest of the country, and many locally, were ready to pounce on what was going on here: “We told you it was a fluke. We told you Chief Keef was trouble.” It’s almost like people wanted this to fail. But as with everything, when the negative coverage took off, every media outlet in the country wanted a quote from me, locally and otherwise. But there was no coverage like, “HOLY SHIT LOOK WHAT’S GOING ON IN CHICAGO RIGHT NOW, THERE’S ALL THESE AMAZING RAPPERS GETTING DEALS AND BLOWING UP.” No one called for quotes on that one – only the negative stuff. And that is frustrating.

ED: Do you think the right artists got signed?

AB: Yes, but there’s still more who haven’t been picked up. I just hope none of the first signees fall victim to the major-label shelf. There are plenty [rappers] missing [from being signed], but do they even need deals in 2012? That’s a whole different conversation.

ED: So what do you think is going to come out of this?

AB: I can say that as far as cities go, Chicago has had a big year – its biggest since Kanye first emerged, and arguably the biggest in all of hip-hop in 2012. I just hope that when it’s all said and done, the scene is remembered for the music instead of the controversy surrounding it.

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