Today It All Makes Sense: A Retrospective on the Chicago Hip-Hop Sound (Food For Thought)

Published by: Bandini

This the city of Chicago, the state of confusion
The style I’m using is free or at least it would be if my mind was…
” – Malik Yusef, “My City” (One Day It’ll All Make Sense)

Since the 1990s, Common Sense has always been among my favorite MCs. In step with 2Pac, Guru, and Posdnous, it was Comm’s lyrics that always seemed to apply themselves to the course of my life. Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. has a way about his words, which defy age, race, and place—and while he’s (endearingly) considered one of Rap’s most sensitive voices, there’s always a backbone and mischievous side to his accounts of things. In 1997, when Common released what I believe is his master-work, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, the album changed the way I processed Hip-Hop, and how I looked at the world ahead of me.

Within the album, you hear a little-known Canibus as good as ever, an evocative revelation about abortion and cohesive tracks produced by No I.D. and Dug Infinite, but in between, there is an awesome Spoken Word poem, “My City.” The performance piece is by Malik Yusef, who would later join Comm at Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, but the jazz-backed poem captures the cold exteriors of Chicago living, the history, the racial and class segregation, the ‘60s and ‘70s pimp culture, and the soul of a Soul city.

Up until the late ’90s, I’d never much considered Chicago, in terms of Hip-Hop, anyway. Yeah, the Chicago Bulls were still on a tear like no other, but Common was the first artist to really counter the New York and California polarizing soundscape, with dashes of Georgia and Florida. However, that one album eloquently explained to me about the nouvueau sounds and styles from the same city that had a major hand in the Blues, and even the Blues Brothers. Over 15 years before Yeezus, I was convinced that Chi-City had its own perspectives, though I could not have imagined how much the voices from the City of Wind would grab the mic thereafter.

Earlier this month, Ab-Soul discussed his favorite albums. The Carson, California MC cited the impact Twista & The Speedknot Mobstaz and Crucial Conflict had on his music. While Twista, like Jadakiss, has long been an artist that other artists seek out for a feature, he’s been more of a regional star than a superstar. In 2004, Twista worked extensively with emerging sensation Kanye West on Kamikaze. While other Speedknot Mobstaz solo and group projects had merely flirted with the charts, Tung Twista’s fourth solo album went to #1. “Slow Jamz” and the ironically-titled “Overnight Celebrity” introduced younger, out of market audiences to a style of Hip-Hop that had the presentation and sample context to appease Heads, while also appealing in clubs and dimmed lights settings. The stars lined up for a major label artist who was in the Guinness Book Of World Records for his fast-rapping, but rarely a prominently featured face in the media. Twelve years into his career of releasing music, Twista proved that timing is everything.

Chicago Hip-Hop Heroes: Twista & Do Or Die

Twista’s longtime core producer, The Legendary Traxster, also worked extensively with another breakthrough Chicago group: Do Or Die. One of Rap-A-Lot Records’ most successful non-Houston acts, the trio of Belo, A.K., and N.A.R.D. channeled that same soulful sound heard in later Twista, juxtaposed with hard, syncopated rapping. However, the crew that made 1996’s Picture This captured the pimp culture of the same streets that bred Bishop Don Magic Juan, and sponsored so many Player’s Ball DVDs. The group made a Top 30 debut album on the back of “Po Pimp,” and featured involvement from Twista, Psychodrama, as well as current Kanye production cohort Mike Dean. Do Or Die followed their debut with two Top 20 LPs, featuring an assortment of Rap-A-Lot and Death Row Records affiliates—often veering outside of Chicago to market themselves. While the sales were staggering, the exposure of Do Or Die seems to begin and end with their breakthrough #1 single, and 1998 follow-up, “Still Po Pimpin’.” With two gold albums, and never missing the Top 200 in seven attempts, Do Or Die is a group that rarely comes up in conversation on its own with the Heads. But a spin back through Picture This, Victory, or Headz Or Tailz, or even a mention, and people all seem to remember the group that brought some of the Windy City street-life ills to 16 bar verses.

Along with Psychodrama and Common, Twista and Do Or Die are regularly thought of as Chicago’s earliest artistic contributions. These acts made it a point to talk about their city against the coastal dominance. Because of this work, artists could focus on carving their own lanes in the early 2000s, still with Chicago pride, but without a city to put on their backs. Although he wasn’t the first beneficiary of this movement, Lupe Fiasco exemplifies this next generation. Lu, who is admittedly inspired by the East Coast mid-’90s scene, is able to divide his bars between social causes, fashion flare, and flipping subjects on their head. With a debut album executive produced by Jay Z, this former Arista Records hopeful took a deal to Atlantic, and helped the label return to conscious Hip-Hop. Upon introducing himself, Lupe rapped about skateboarding, fashion, and third person narratives that would subsequently command a new association with Chicago Hip-Hop. On his sophomore LP, The Cool, Carrera Lu’ was so confident in his heritage, that he dabbled in Houston sounds, and on subsequent albums, a more global sensibility altogether. Like the city that raised him, the 1st & 15th co-founder is a constantly shifting author who picket lines his label, delivers speeches to the youth, and still associates with street hustlers and kingpins alike, all in the same year.

By definition, Chicago is a crossroads. That’s what makes the influence so appealing. Since the ’80s, the same city that redefined House music, dabbled in the thumping sounds built for amps and kickers in the trunk, with the respect for lyricism from the East. When Chicago produces a hit, all of this comes to the table: be it “Slow Jamz,” Crucial Conflict’s “Hay,” or Common’s jaw-dropping return-to-form, “The Corner.” Just as Lil Wayne sharpened his pencil for Tha Carter II over thumping Bounce beats for his crowning moment, or UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty changed the Hip-Hop conversation, Chi-City has been a constant reminder that the masses crave razor sharp delivery over beats that lose you in the moment. New artists, out to make the playlists and iPods of the most fickle, “take it or leave it” audiences to date, understand this formula. Chicago had a heavy hand in teaching this lesson decades ago.

Hip-Hop Stars Wanting To Touch The Chicago Sound

Along with Lupe, Kanye West and Rhymefest were key figures of Chicago’s snatching the spotlight in the 2000s. It was Kanye who helped Twista garner the recognition that eluded him for over a decade. It was Kanye’s sonic backdrop that helped Common transition after reaching his own 10-year-mark. Although West was introduced to Hip-Hop merely as a producer (he notably flipped Graham Nash’s social battlecry “Chicago” into the beat for Beanie Sigel’s breakthrough single, “The Truth”), it took less than five years for the man who embodied the city that raised him, to become a star of epic proportions. Like Dr. Dre’s ongoing inclusion of L.A. Rap voices, ranging from 40 Glocc to Defari, or DJ Premier’s willingness to work with budding East Coast talent, Kanye’s discography includes nearly all of Chicago’s significant voices, across a spectrum of sub-genres. Infamous Syndicate, Da’Brat, Ludacris, GLC, Syleena Johnson, Shawnna, Do Or Die, Common, Twista, Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco, Malik Yusef, Chief Keef, and Carl Thomas have all worked with Mr. West. Regardless of budgets or labels, ‘Ye used his foot in the door to spread the spotlight as he created a distinct sound for the city. Look no further than “Homecoming.”

In the last year, Chicago’s had more to say than ever. Chance The Rapper made what some consider to be the finest work of 2013 in a free, psychedelic Rap mixtape, AcidRap, while his Save Money brother Vic Mensa stepped out of his group and into the spotlight to put the Hip-Hop world on notice that he’s a legit contender for The Throne. Kanye West delivered the angry, jarring and experimental Yeezus that many consider elite. Chief Keef led the charge on a movement that mirrored the nihilistic reports of teen violence in the streets that have caused the city to be re-dubbed Chiraq, while Common got to work on his hope of a change to come.

Chicago’s Hip-Hop story is growing and increasingly impactful. Substance, the soul, and the sound are out to break new ground in 2014, and for a change, Heads know where to listen.

Photo courtesy of The Blind I.

Related: Ab-Soul Explains His Pete Rock Tattoo & Talks His Favorite LPs. Chicagoans Will Appreciate (Video)