What Makes Chicago a Breeding Ground for Hot Hip Hop Talent?

Andrew Barber

Wherever you’re from in the US or even further afield, if you know music, you know Chicago and the wider Midwest has been a hotbed for hip-hop and R&B artists for decades. Forever.

Generations of influential rappers, MCs and DJs, such as Common, Noname, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Chief Keef, Twista and, of course, Kanye have their beginnings in this city. And they’ve all got a lot of love for Chi. ’Ye even said this when talking about his hometown:

“Never think I’m not from Chicago for one second.

“I care, but I don’t give a f**k. That’s what it is. Someone from Chicago is very sincere. They got their heart like that…

“But they don’t give f**k about what anybody is saying as long as it’s from their heart. And that’s like what it is to be from Chicago, to be from the Midwest.”

And if that doesn’t prove Yeezy’s love for the city, what about naming his third child Chicago West? That seals the deal.

Photo by Rachel Cook on Unsplash

Many have gone on to dominate the Billboard charts and enjoyed number ones across the globe. In today’s era of streaming, even more enjoy viral success, due to platforms such as Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music and Deezer launching en masse. At the time, illegal downloading was rife, with Napster, Limewire and The Pirate Bay etc. allowing users to listen to the latest drops for free — while the artists got nothing. In order for legal streaming to enjoy wide-scale adoption, the platforms needed to persuade music fans it was more convenient to use their services — and worth paying for.

They also knew that before anyone put their hands in their pockets, they’d need to offer people some form of free incentive. Taking their cues from free online casino promotions on sites like Oddschecker, poker pages, Uber and transport startups, Netflix — the list goes on — most of the platforms decided to either offer free trials or free, ad-supported versions of their product. And it works. As the number of users grew, these new platforms opened up Midwest hip-hop to millions more ears.

Household names have risen to the top from the streets of Chi, but what makes this place ripe for hip-hop and the artists looking to launch their careers?

To get an idea, you first need to look back at the history of Chicago music and how it’s helped shape the city into what it is today.

The first major influence was when the blues came to town. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, Chess Records in the city became synonymous with blues music, right at the height of the genre’s popularity. Artists such as Etta James, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were all signed to the label at one point, propelling Chicago into the cultural consciousness as a music capital.

Following that heady period, house music took over the local scene and it wasn’t long before the rhythms and samples spread beyond the city limits and onto the Billboard charts. Its influence was emphatic and lasting — pay close attention to much of the dance music popular today and you’ll be able to pick up on elements of house running through the tracks like a thread through history. These two genres, both full of energy and feeling in their own decisive ways, laid the foundations for what was to come…

Hip Hop You Don’t Stop

Born in New York in the ‘70s, hip-hop began underground, with the likes of Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa playing house parties and small gatherings. Their experiments with the art form continued to grow in popularity and, moving beyond its birthplace of the Bronx, hip-hop became huge all across New York.

It wouldn’t be until the early 1980s, however, until record labels on the West Coast began to pay attention. And even then, with ‘gangsta rap’ the prevailing sub-genre, it would take even longer before radio stations were willing to air the likes of Ice T and co.

Eventually, though, due mainly down to the force of public opinion, hip-hop and rap spread out throughout the country, sailing upon the airwaves from coast to coast and, of course, arriving in the Midwest.

Local scenes sprung up around the US, each with a distinct flavour. And as for Chicago? Well, it’s been said it, “took a New York creation, flipped it upside down and created a unique, unmistakable version that sets (Chicago) apart from the rest of the country.”

Photo by Jan Střecha on Unsplash

That statement of distinction went well beyond the music though, touching upon the wider culture of the time — and Chicago made it its own using two of the city’s best-known characteristics: grit and determination.

Their East Coast counterparts may have hogged most of the limelight, but Chi’s own MCs, graffiti artists, breakdancers, rappers and DJs worked overtime to earn their place alongside the NYC luminaries. Today, the world’s most influential hip-hop artists, Kanye, hails from Chicago — his unique blending, early on, of old audio samples and pitched gospel tracks set him apart and resonate with emerging talents to this day. Today, betting on Yeezy to top the charts is like playing roulette with free money on a table full of 0’s. Chance the Rapper, tipped to one day become a star on the political circuit, has made his mark thanks to his own individual approach to music. And it’s impossible to talk about hip-hop today without mentioning the likes of Common — who had to work hard to get his big break and is now a household name in the States — Lupe Fiasco and the historical impact of artists like Da Brat (said to have played a large part in Missy Elliot’s formative period).

Chicago is a hotbed for hip-hop talent for the same reason its people love their sports teams, for the same reason it’s grown to become the third-biggest city in the country, for the same reason it’s known and loved around the world: because if you work hard and approach whatever it is you do by being true to yourself, Chicago returns that spirit in opportunity, in equal measure and more. 

I’ll leave you with this quote:

“The Chicago hip-hop community worked hard to earn the respect of the entire country, and without the external pressures of a record label dictating what ‘package’ is going to sell, they did it on their own terms.”

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