Music

Windtalkers: Chicago's own finally going for the almighty dollar.

Ben Rubenstein

Some of the artists living the life talk about Chicago's rap scene. Plus, PopMatters names the top 10 Chicago hip-hop up-and-comers.

Basking in the glow of the spotlight at Chicago's Metro, longtime local rapper Juice steps to the mic, his eyes gleaming. Thus far his set, the closing performance of the 4th annual Chicago Rocks hip-hop showcase, has lacked much of the energy for which he's been renowned. But now it looks like the man's got something to say. "Fuck Rhymefest", he declares, before launching into a fierce set of songs ripping the fellow rapper, using Fest's beats and words against him.

Most of the crowd knows the reason for this biting tribute; the night before at the Abbey Pub, Rhymefest challenged the crowd with his own controversial statement: "Fuck Juice, I'm the freestyle king". Though the flashy Fest has already had more commercial success than Juice may ever achieve outside the city limits (his major label debut, Blue Collar, was released in July), it was probably an unwise move to challenge the Scribble Jam champion. The result was the unanimous highlight of the two night event, which featured over 20 acts from all parts of the city.


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Ten to Watch

Diverse
A native of Evanston, Diverse's delivery has earned him praise (and guest spots) from the likes of Mos Def, Vast Aire and producer RJD2. (Recommended: "Ain't Right", from One A.M.)

Longshot
A longtime organizer on the scene, his Civil War project calls attention to the divisions within Chicago and creates opportunity for change. (Recommended: "Not My Style", from Sacrifice)

Lupe Fiasco
Perhaps best known for his verse on "Touch the Sky" from Kanye West's latest, this devout Muslim is about to come into his own with his upcoming release. (Recommended: "Kick Push", from Food and Liquor)

Psalm One
Called a cross between Lauryn Hill and Devin the Dude, her new album will be released by Rhymesayers Entertainment this summer. (Recommended: "Rap Star", from Death of Frequent Flyer)

Qualo
This loud-as-they-wanna be quartet was recently signed to Universal, and boast a whole lot of songs that skewer the rap game. (Recommended: "Do What the Track Say", from Believe)

Q.U.E. Billah
Recently named 'Best Unsigned Artist' by The Source magazine. (Recommended: "Night & Day", from Can I Have Your Attention Please?!!)

Rhymefest
Longtime Chicago native perhaps best known for co-writing "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West. (Recommended: "Fevah", from Blue Collar)

Serengeti
The schizophrenic, idiosyncratic MC draws from a variety of influences, from rock to rap to Brian Dennehy. (Recommended: "Dirty Flames", from DirtyFlamingo).

Typical Cats
This trio (Qwel, Qwazaar and Denizen Kane) has released two albums on underground label Galapagos 4 to great critical acclaim. (Recommended: "Thin Red Line", from Typical Cats)

Vakill
In on the Molemen collective since the beginning, this near South Side MC has built a strong following for his dark, gritty rhymes. (Recommended: "No Mercy", from Worst Fears Confirmed.)

It's fitting that an event bent on demonstrating intra-city collaboration and unity should be overshadowed by a dispute over rapping superiority. While it's made strides in recent years, the Chicago hip-hop scene has long lagged behind that of other major cities in large part due to its fractious nature. Many artists appear more interested in bringing others down and complaining, instead of working together toward a common goal. Chicago Rocks, the brainchild of local hip-hop moguls Molemen (Panik, PNS and Memo), is probably the most powerful example of how efforts are being made to change that perception around the city. With Chicago becoming an increasingly visible spot on the musical map, local artists are sensing the importance of seizing the opportunity. But can they work past their differences to make Chicago the hip-hop destination it should be?

"When I look at the hip-hop scene, it's just a reflection of the city; it's very segregated," says Panik, the Molemen's respected leader. "Our goal with [Chicago Rocks] was just to have different people network that haven't networked. Old-school cats and new-school cats... we kinda wanted to do everything."

"It's a chance for the kids to see everybody at one time," says local MC and radio host Pugslee Atomz. "They might not know who these different people are individually, but that night they get to get plugged in... it just makes you want to check out more stuff in the city."

"Please don't call us Haterville"
-- Longshot and Pugslee Atomz, "Haterville"

If Chicago Rocks is a gateway drug to local hip-hop, then Ang 13 might be the scene's most fervent D.A.R.E. officer. At 32, the MC (whose moniker is really just Angie with the "I" and "E" flipped around) has seen what Chicago has to offer, and has no reservations about expressing her displeasure. "Hip-hop has been in existence in Chicago since probably the mid-'80s. At this point, you got cats comin' into the game that think they know what hip-hop is, but they still don't recognize the struggle and the path that it took to get here."

Struggle is something that many Chicago artists know a lot about, and it's not just about working hard to get to a certain point — it's also about pushing others to support the scene. "We really lack work ethic here," says Ang. "I'm guilty of that, too. When I did finally start to get on point with it, I noticed that other people really weren't."

"I think some people don't understand what working hard means," says Pugslee. "They say to themselves, I worked on Saturday, I did a show... like that one day made up for the other six days. Every day, you gotta put forth that effort. Some positive motion has to happen. Otherwise, you just got little sparks happening, but no fire."

Pugslee's been doing his part to ensure the embers don't die out completely. The veteran MC, a founding member of the South Side Nacrobats crew, seems to be present at every important hip-hop event in the city. His recent compilation, Pugslee Atomz presents CTA Radio Chi City Hip Hop, named after the show he hosts on local station WHPK (a necessary stop for any aspiring Chicago artist), features all homegrown talent in an effort to further collaboration and citywide support.

This follows in the footsteps of what the Molemen have been doing for years with their Chicago-themed mixtapes (including the recent Chicago City Limits Vol. 2) and production for a wide range of local artists. "Ever since we got into the scene, we've been a big advocate of networking and politicking with other people," says Panik. "As time has gone by, we've become more and more a part of it. Now I feel Molemen are responsible for pushing that envelope, to have people work together more."

One of the major ways they've done that is through Chicago Rocks. "The first one was cool, the second one was getting better and better, and it just started picking up," recalls Panik. Now in its fourth year, "it's becoming a little bit more of an all-city event. We try to pick some people that haven't been heard as much, and we might wanna bring them to the spotlight. Now we pick the freshest acts out there, known or unknown, who we haven't had there that should be on there."

For all its unifying features, however, the event often highlights the problems within this culture. "When things like Chicago Rocks come up," says Ang, "you give people the flyer and they see all these faces, and they think they should be on there. They say 'what's he doin on there, he just came out, I've been doing this for years!' I'm like, 'you know what the problem is, what are you gonna do about it?' and then they shut down.

"Every day I keep asking myself, why do you still want to be involved with these people? Had I not been doing it since I was so young, I wouldn't be doing it. I don't encourage anybody to be getting into hip-hop right now. If you really wanna do it then go ahead and do it, but really, for Chicago, it's not worth it."

"MC'in from Chi, just bein' from Chi, and if you act like you don't know then you'll be fleein' from Chi..."
-- E.C. Illa & Rubberroom, "Taste of Chicago"

"I've thought about [leaving Chicago] plenty of times," says Panik. "It's kinda like being mad at your family or something like that. You get mad at your family but you realize you're family, so it's like we're back together. I was born and raised in Chicago and it's hard to leave it."

Adds Pugslee, "No one should be staying at home everyday. You should be out connecting with other folks. I try to get out of the city at least once a month, because you gotta spread it. I talk to a lot of the bigger artists here, and that's what got it moving."

Some of those "bigger artists" include Common and Kanye West, both of whom no longer spend much time in Chicago. "If someone leaves and they do well, I'm not gonna hold it against them," says Panik. "Everyone has their own path. I'm gonna stick around. Now it's come to a part when Chicago's trendy, for MTV, for major labels, for major publications. This is a good time to be from Chicago, so why leave now? All that hard work is gonna pay off."

If things are going to happen for Chicago, now is the time. Local artists are riding high atop the industry, and huge musical events like Lollapalooza are putting Chicago at the center of the music universe this summer. As much as the outside world is paying attention to Chicago (and internationally, this kind of attention is nothing new - according to Panik, people in Europe and Australia have been aware of the scene here since the early days), it's going to be just as important that the city continues to build from within and make people notice.

According to Pugslee, the city is ready for whatever comes. "They (national labels) are not gonna miss out on money; if Lupe Fiasco kills it when his record comes out, and Rhymefest kills it when his record comes out, and on the independent side when Molemen's doing their thing and All Natural's doing their thing and Juice with Conglomerate's doing his thing, like, why wouldn't they want our pennies? We gotta dig in, and try to get some of that paper."

Obviously, it's not going to be easy. But those who have been here since the beginning are accustomed to the hard road, and seem willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. "You really can't look for someone to come get you, you gotta go get it," says Ang 13. "If you want it bad enough, nothing is gonna stop you from getting it. It's frustrating, it's time-consuming, it's sickening... and I love to do it every single day."

"We do it like that for those who wanna step to this/Swing a flow like a fist 'cause Chi Town don't miss"
-- Juice, "We Do It Like That"

As his set nears its conclusion, Juice stops the show one more time. "I have a special guest," he announces to the Chicago Rocks crowd. "Where's my man Marvo?" Out comes a rapper who looks no more than 16 (turns out he's 20), swathed in gold chains, a baseball cap perched on his head. He may be small, but he commands the stage with his raps about the city he grew up in and will fiercely protect. What's more powerful than his words, however, is the scene that surrounds him. Gathered around the stage, leaning on speakers, walls, or just each other, are many of the performers from the two nights of Chicago Rocks. As Marvo tells everyone to "put your C's up", cupping his hand in a gesture symbolizing Chicago, the hands of all of them go up. Ang 13 pumps her fist from the corner, Pugslee Atomz, Q.U.E. Billah, Rhyme Scheme and others stop hawking their wares in the crowd for a moment and respond. Despite all the problems that occur here, it takes a kid to help everybody remember that they're all from the same place.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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