Sky High Chi
The College Dropout turned 11 this year. Long before Kanye West became the voice of a generation — or its antihero — he was a mostly unpolished wisecracker with a deft touch for highlighting the internal contradictions of the rap biz. He also mined milk crates for soul samples like no other, revitalizing hip-hop’s sound by bringing back the lush vocals of seventies soul alongside his own thump-thump MPC drums. The nerve Dropout touched also kicked open the door for a host of previously unclassifiable types from Chicago to come to prominence. The loquacious Twista was first; the surly Lupe Fiasco and professorial Common followed.
At the time, the album propelled the music scene along Lake Michigan to a prominence it had hitherto never seen, which was just as well for purveyors of Chicago’s other main musical export, house music. Long before EDM was even an acronym, let alone a phenomenon, disco-loving Midwesterners were mating dense drum machine rhythms and wah-wah synths to create club-ready tracks that blew up in London and Manchester but were ignored in wide swaths of America. By the time house was re-exported back to the U.S. in the early-90s, it was thoroughly Europeanized. But many of this country’s most-revered producers and DJs — Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Lil Louis, Cajmere, DJ Sneak, Felix da Housecat — hail from Chicago. You can still catch a set from many of them on the European club circuit.
It thus comes as no surprise that the grey area between hip-hop and dance music is increasingly thick with activity — and taking in the Chicago music scene quickly became priority number one as I spent last weekend there, starting with a Friday night gig hosted by Stefan Ponce. I first heard about it as “just some local shit”, but Ponce has some impressive, nationally-known production credits to his name. If I’d have known he co-produced Vic Mensa and Kanye’s “U Mad” and Childish Gambino’s “3005” beforehand or heard his nu disco-leaning remix work, I’d have been way more excited.
I was a little iffy at first when I saw the crowd — half the front row looked like they came straight from Winnetka High soccer practice — but I got way more than I bargained for when SaveMoney crew members decided to show up in droves. The collective’s star producer Peter Cottontale came out with beats, many of them his own, showcasing his wave-y reimagining of the College Dropout soul sound, but with skittering drums that nearly had the place moshing. Rapper Towkio crab-ran right-to-left and back and tried not to run out of breath before the end of his lines. Ponce supplemented the backing band that showed up with his own synth stabs and orchestrated everyone. New people were showing up on stage with regularity. Hype men were exuberant throughout. My beer was spilled and I didn’t care.
The highlight of the following day’s recovery was a trip to Gramaphone Records, the legendary Lakeview record shop. It felt like a pilgrimage. For as long as house and hip-hop have been around, Gramaphone has been a purveyor of those genres’ LPs, EPs, and maxi-singles, much of it on local wax. Electronic music has always been intent on splitting itself into no fewer than several thousand arbitrary subgenres, and Gramaphone has all of them — breakbeats, Italo disco, classic house, future house, you name it. But it was juke that I was introduced to at the Gramaphone listening booths. Juke is a level of difficulty up from most music genres, to both listen and dance to. The drums are dense, the tempo is often frantic, and the production is intentionally basic. I’d heard a few tunes in its antecedent genre, ghetto house, before — like DJ Slugo’s ode to collective promiscuity, “Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Hoe Too?”. I definitely recommend him, and other dudes like DJ Clent and TRAXMAN, though only you bear responsibility if your eardrums collapse.
That night, there was no concert-going planned. After mulling over heading to an underground rave being held in a former morgue (yikes), a relatively ordinary house party ended up being the play. Or? When Miguel and A$AP Ferg tweeted and Instagrammed that they would be holding an impromptu makeup of their rained-out concert at Northwestern downtown that night, it took about 30 seconds for me to decide to go, assemble the crew (s/o my host Rishik and the complete stranger who tagged along), and be waiting for a Lyft. It was a prescient decision. The room didn’t just sing, it joined Ferg in shouting to the rooftops: “I fucked your bitch, n — -a! I fucked your bitch!” Petty, but gratifying. Unannounced, Chance the Rapper came on and performed “Sunday Candy”, which was a perfect early-AM jam for a concert that started at 2 in the morning. As for Miguel, let’s just say that it’s pleasant to make out to Kaleidoscope Dream; it’s an all-time life highlight to do so with Miguel on stage crooning “Use Me” 15 feet away. That’s all I have to say about that.
Your author was a bit groggy when showing up to the Daytrip Music Festival about 14 hours later, following sleep and headache and a meandering street art tour of the working-class Pilsen neighborhood. What was advertised as your standard small-time EDM festival for neon-clad ravers was…not quite that. It did have your nearly-nude go-go dancers and dudes spraying anyone who so desired with fluorescent paint, which most avoided at all costs. But for starters, the lineup was an all-woman cast of DJs. The venue, a converted warehouse, rocked an art-house vibe with smartly designed chandeliers hanging overhead. While the music was mostly garden-variety brostep, the deep house set from Ana de Irrisari was a clear standout. The crowd maxed out at about 20 people due to competition from another stage, but I found myself looking up virtually every track on Shazam. Shufflers shuffled, Buzzballz™ (pre-mixed cocktails sold in plastic orbs, so as to attract children) were sold and consumed, and the third straight day of music had me tuckered out by about 8:30 or so, though I persisted well past dark.
Parchuting in and watching a dozen artists perform over the course of a weekend is awesome, but it does not a veteran of the scene make — there’s always more to hear. The scene for drill, the South Side’s nihilist mix of foreboding trap hooks, 808 baps and fuck-it-all non-rhymes, seems as impenetrable for outsiders as making it out of the violence-wracked streets must for its rappers. A juke show would have been incredible, as much for the music as the insane footwork (another name for the genre) that goes into dancing to it. Smart Bar is one of the most renowned venues in the country for house heads. The South Side is also the birthplace of electric blues, and certainly merits investigation. I could have stuck around for the gospel festival going on in Millennium Park after the obligatory visit to the Bean. Beloved softie Drake was performing at the United Center. A 773 completist might even seek out a Peter Cetera concert or something.
But one can’t shake the sense that the wave of Chicago rap that was kickstarted by The College Dropout’s startling success is still cresting, and it’s not a surprise that its producers are working in some nods to the city’s foundational electronic scene as well. The Second City stakes an impressive claim to be among the first in urban music scenes.