David Evans contributes essays and cultural criticism to WARR
“(Turn) that monkey shit off. You embarrassin’ us.”
-Pimp C, Sippin on Some Sizzurp (2000)
The Pimp’s direct words are what I’d imagine would run through the minds of any golden era rapper if someone near them turned on any radio station devoted to today’s popular rap music.
On the 21st anniversary of his death, the Notorious B.I.G. may want to take a sip of the sizzurp Chad Butler is passing around in the Great Beyond as well as he looks down on his guy Puffy and appreciates that he finally gets just how few have reached Biggie’s heights and approached his skill level in the two decades he’s been gone.
In the time before rap basically consisted of random new file dumps each Friday, the game belonged to a class of artist who either added something to the vocabulary of spitting or deepened the reservoir of sound producers could extract new flavor from.
A strain of so-called creativity in rap music stemming from that labeled “trap” as it originated in the South, particularly Atlanta, or its more militaristic “Drill” in my hometown of Chicago — two sub-genres who derive their existence from themes of drug dealing, patronizing strip clubs, drug and alcohol abuse and gross materialism, fortified sonically by bass laden drums, horns, synths and sparse samples — took control of mainstream rap music stations throughout the country in the last several years and its execution provides the most accessible path to stardom within the rap “game” today.
Philosophical fissures seem to always exist among rap artists and enthusiasts regarding the direction of the culture and how it is expressed, but how trap and drill dominates and the bleak views each style promotes has sparked a particular response from long-respected artists who see nothing recognizable and nothing to be respected in the popular expressions of today.
Puffy’s semi-rant resonates because of the role he himself played in valuing style over substance in his reign as the most visible and profitable rap star following the death of his beloved Biggie in 1997. Sean Combs rode flash and abstract at the best (completely devoid at the worst) interaction with the truest tenets of Hip-Hop to provide enough respectability to allow him to straddle the rap and pop hemispheres for his entire career.
A very real statement like Puff’s can be mixed in with the likes of a less “real” statement like those in a recent Twitter rant that came from the account of the iconic group Eric B. and Rakim, who not surprisingly have taken it upon themselves in the current climate to reunite and tour for the first time since the early 1990s. As supposedly stated by Rakim in a string of posts, the sentiments and them coming from Ra, who is no less than one of the most trans-formative figures in rap history, caused an uproar.
“You are now witnessing the devolution of rap music,” Rakim said in the string. “The death of poetry and smoothness, they use this. The absence of a message. The inability to create meaningful change through words and verses, but the worse is, they don’t even know they hurt this artful purpose, it’s tragic.”
Unfortunately, the website DJ Booth reported that Rakim did not actually make the tweets and that he has nothing to do with what is released through the account. Though this story was not nearly as widely reported as the original tweets were, DJ Booth reports with an official statement from Rakim’s management. So should we completely disregard the sentiment as expressed in the tweets even if they didn’t come from one of the truely greatest rappers alive? I say no.
Rakim’s ghostwritten comments on contemporary rap were on my mind when my editor sent me writer David Drake’s well argued, eloquent, and yet misguided essay for The Outline entitled, “The Music Industry Wasn’t Ready for Chief Keef,” in which Drake mainly argues that while the South Side of Chicago native’s 2012 debut album Finally Rich sold poorly, it was because most of his audience (teenagers) didn’t buy albums but stream records or listen to singles on YouTube (of which he is correct) making Keef a precursor and trailblazer regarding the most common ways rap artists and their works are consumed today.
Drake — who has covered the rap scene in Chicago for some time both under his name and the handle Somanyshrimp, of which he previously blogged under — also argued that Keef’s musical influence is widespread today even as Keef himself only sporadically releases tracks that have a modest impact themselves. According to Drake, artists such as Philadelphia’s Lil Uzi Vert and Atlanta’s 21 Savage and Migos both took in Keef’s rap style and lingo as expressed in his initial breakthrough and built upon it with elements that they brought from their own city cultures and disparate pieces of other, mostly internet-popular, artist’s styles.
Here I’d say Drake is again correct, however I ask myself: how significant of a legacy is this to uphold? Being a bad rapper who influencing the music of a bunch of rappers who most likely won’t have long or impactful careers themselves, pushing monosyllabic hooks and unintelligible flows mostly disconnected from anything socially intelligent or relevant today is not much of a legacy at all.
Keef’s legacy is most primarily tied in with the trajectories of the Chicago artists who saw their profiles pop in the wake of the music industry discovering Keef and its scanning of South Side neighborhoods like Englewood, Woodlawn and South Shore for the next rough, rugged and homicidal teenager to exploit, among them the recently deceased Fredo Santana, Lil Reese, Lil Durk and King Louie.
Beloved by many in Chicago and elsewhere in much the same way that we all uphold so-called outlaws beyond their expiration points, both real and implied, Santana got many flowers upon his death. You could expect the same for Keef should he pass any time soon. In no way did Santana deserve his fate, in many ways he worked beyond his demons in life and was forward-thinking as an individual and young father, but he and his closest collaborators and rivals all exploited a larger damning legacy in Chicago for the most popular years of their music (2012 to 2016).
To be a relevant rapper in the Chicago drill movement meant contributing at least on a surface level to Chicago’s reputation of being a violent, dangerous city — it would be naïve, and there’s no lack of naivety in our local media, especially those with direct ties to these artists and nebulous ties to their neighborhoods, to not recognize a correlation between the popularity of drill music and sharp spike in gun violence in Chicago during the same period (a mark of approximately 500 murders in Chicago in 2012 that number increased by over 50 percent in 2016 to over 800) much of that violence was implemented recklessly by Chicago youth who emulated and immersed themselves in an empty aesthetic that you can argue would leave a relentless listener just as empty spiritually and ready to take on the world around them with the lack of heart and willingness to settle conflict that’s expressed by their favorite YouTube sensation.
In a new phenomenon of abandonment the leaders of this movement all saw themelves negated in one way or another due to their own reckless behavior — King Louie fell victim to the kind of violence he glorified as well as loved ones of other artists. Meanwhile the two most identifiable “leaders” of the movement, Keef and Santana, moved out of the city to escape persecution either on the street or via the Chicago Police Department.
In a Chicago Tribune article written last summer titled “Chance and Chief Keef: A Tale of Two Rappers,” writer William Lee juxtaposes the lives and careers of two vastly different rappers in Keef and Chance the Rapper, who based his music and movement in a much more positive and inclusive and constructive vibe that he’s rode to a level of success and active legacy which should beget a lasting one that will dwarf anything seen from the drill artists.
In his article, Lee interviews Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive, who said Chance and Chief Keef “are two opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re definitely the yin and yang and they always have been…” and they “come from totally different backgrounds. Telling two totally different stories. They’re seeing things a different way. That’s why they’re both so important.”
Chance’s importance is unquestioned at this point, he’s been awarded and showcased in mainstream circles as much as any Chicago artist this side of Kanye and Common, he’s sparked social movements and invested his time, influence and money into the direct betterment of Chicago Public Schools among other important causes. My question is what’s the importance of Keef, what is comparable that he can claim?
On a pure musical level, is Keef the first Chicago rapper to rap lyrics such as “I’m Southside, I’ll pop out/ O Block bring them Glocks out/ 300 bring them chops out/ We shoot up your block now…” as he did in “Citgo?” What separates this from the bleakest tracks on Adrenaline Rush? The most aggressive content from L.E.P. Bogus Boys? The most strident warnings from the likes of Psycho Drama?
The answer is nothing — rappers of Keef’s type have held up Chicago rap for the past twenty years, most doing so in a much more effective creative space. We didn’t see the first gang-affiliated rappers in the past five years nor the first to have run ins with the law or to have to evade Chicago’s trappings in order to live a comfortable life. Keef and his cohorts did an amazing job artfully using social media and the motivations of a hungry fan base and selective media here in this city — all in need of more attention to some degree — to prop themselves up to a greater level of acclaim and profile than would be available to them in just about any other era of music.
Whether based locally — as in Drake and Barber — or not, promoters, writers and gadflies of many types have failed to realize (or just don’t care) — that this form of creativity they have held up promotes expression that espouses a toxic lifestyle, promotes drug abuse and gun violence and communicates that living excessively to the point of imprisonment or death is more valuable than giving back and empowering to the community which allowed you to exist. All this was done in order to be up on the next big thing, anything to move on from the supposed dusty formulations of greats either passed or considered irrelevant.
What has been passed to the back once allowed a culture to thrive and outlast the label of “fad” and “counter-production” that was heedlessly thrown upon artists at times when rap and Hip-Hop honestly did quench whole communities creative thirsts, connected blacks and latinxs from city to city and emboldened generations of writers and beat-makers to out-do one another in originality not stall each other in simplicity and dysfunction.
If you type “drill” into Fake Shore Drive’s search engine for archived articles, thirty-one pages of posts on drill songs populate. And sites such as The Outline and Pitchfork have also dedicated countless articles to drill artists or even less reputable artists in-authentically riding that wave, oftentimes overlooking Chicago’s vibrant Hip-Hop scene that has existed for years prior to the birth of drill music and continues to produce compelling work.
However, the ascension of the careers of Chicago rappers like Chance is a reflection of drill’s waning influence in Chicago. It is my hope that Drake, Barber and other writers and taste-makers like him, will wake up and see that whatever influence drill (and Chief Keef’s) music has, that influence isn’t elevating rap’s culture, it’s in fact, aiding it’s devolution.
You can credit Drake and FSD with shining light on many Chicago artists beyond the most polarizing but an artist’s chances of being next big thing should not exist only in their ability to spark internet debate.
There are plenty of talented rap artists in Chicago who could use the benefit of Drake’s and Fake Shore Drive’s platform in a more earnest and complete fashion. Putting the brightest spotlight on artists such as Keef is only helping increase their profitability while the culture and the community it feeds off receive little or nothing in return, it does nothing to elevate the status of rap/Hip-Hop culture both now and forever.
David Evans is a Chicago-based cultural critic and commentator. He is also a local real estate agent and investor. Follow him on Twitter at @davidevans9 and @davevansrealtor; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio