They call Chicago the “City Of Big Shoulders,” but when it comes to hip-hop, the only thing clinging to the Windy’s brawny frame has been a big ol’ chip. Despite a legendary house scene and recent nesting of noteworthy indie-rockers, Chicago’s rap artists have only to gaze up at the loosely connected and hard-road successes of Common, Twista, Lupe Fiasco and obvious golden boy Kanye West, who’s made passable attempts to raise all of them up at one point or another. The only overnight celebrities made seem to have been Daft Punk as far as ’Ye’s concerned, so what’s really to blame for this long-standing disconnect? Self-hindering over-competitiveness, maybe? Perhaps that unshakable Second City complex radiating from big brother New York? Whatever the reason, thankfully things are changing for this blue-collar crossroads city, often called Haterville by even its own players. There’s indeed something brewing deep within the city’s bowels, and it’s not due to compounded years of “red hots,” gyros and Giordano’s. Nope—Chicago’s dusting off and popping its collective collar, and in true Gangland fashion, it’s being anything but quiet about it.
PARTY ALL THE TIME
“What’s going on, Chicago?” Curt Cameruci, aka Autobot, yells into a crackling mic from a shoddy DJ booth at the Wicker Park bar Subterranean. Along with the other half in his wildly popular DJ duo, Flosstradamus, Cameruci and Josh Young (J2K) are playing to a hyped crowd of loyal fans in the upstairs of the venue that’s about 50 times bigger than the Town Hall Pub, where their now-infamous first “Floss parties” were held just last year. Autobot smartly drops in a treat for the younger crowd on this 18-and-up Wednesday: A trivial departure from their usual juke-meets-mainstream, rap-meets-electrified-indie-rock tracks, Daft Punk’s “One More Time” peels away layers of clothes like it was, well, the First Time. And looking around at the youngsters, maybe it is? A packed house is always to be expected for Flosstradamus, but this isn’t the only party popping tonight. Just one neighborhood away, another duo—one of many local acts Floss has helped hoist into the public eye—is tearing it up as well. At Schuba’s on the North Side, a slightly older, nearly sold-out crowd is blowing the Cool Kids’ minds.
“We thought the show was going to take a big dip,” always-colorful rapper/producer Chuck Inglish tells URB a week later over nachos at a local dive after picking up new Jordans just a few minutes earlier. “If we did go up against [Flosstradamus], there would have been no way because everyone goes to their shit. But it looked like a UN meeting in there, it was so diverse.”
“There were a lot of people we’ve never seen,” partner Mikey Rocks chimes in with eyes wide (partly for exaggeration and partly because he’s 19 years old). “There were dudes there that work at the bank downtown—it was crazy. We didn’t even know they were listening.”
But folks are listening. And not only that—they are dancing. Grown men in button-downs are heavily nodding their noggins to the Kids’ weirdo minimal throwback-rap (think Licensed To Ill-era Beastie Boys meets old-school Slick Rick with a sneaker fetish) until their glasses slide down their noses. Next to them, fashionista fans, grinning ear-to-ear, follow Chuck and Mikey’s every move on perhaps their most popular joint, “88”: “Do the smurf, do the wop, baseball bat / Rooftop like I’m bringin’ ’88 back!”
With Mikey in royal-blue skinny jeans that would splinter a toothpick (famously called his “Aquaman” outfit by local rapper Hollywood Holt) and Chuck in his teal Nike windbreaker and huge Cazals with the lenses poked out, there’s definitely some ’88 being celebrated. But attention-grabbing style aside, something about the Cool Kids’ show is so now, and the boys openly thank Floss, who put them on at several of their Town Hall parties. The two rappers even pay tribute on the slow crawl of “Flossin’”: “What up Autobot? / Young Josh, holler / I nominate these two DJs for president.”
“It’s big what those dudes did—bringing that whole double-DJ thing to light and then giving other people a platform to capitalize off what they’ve done,” Chuck says. “I want to have that opportunity some day, too.”
If Chicago’s popularity keeps growing like this, it will be an unprecedented group effort. And in a very un-Chicago way, J2K and Autobot have no bones about acknowledging the younger Kids’ involvement in the burgeoning scene’s success.
“When we started doing stuff with them is when we were like, ‘Oh shit, something’s growing here,’” says Autobot. “A lot of people came through our Town Hall Pub parties and played, and I guess we put them on, but now, guys like the Cool Kids are putting us on, too.”
But Floss isn’t the only ones throwing parties that become showcases. DJs Willy Joy and yet another DJ duo, Capcom (Dylan Reiff and Carlos Mercado), formed the Fly By Night troupe a year ago, their first parties featuring incredibly underrated Philly-Chicago transplant DJ Major Taylor (who’s said to have created Flosstradamus blueprint Hollertronix). The crew’s credited in part with bringing the juke sound up from the South Side most memorably when “Watch My Feet” rappers Dude N’ Nem juked the hell out of Subterranean in September.
“That’s like bringing General Lee to New Jersey,” Taylor points out with a laugh and stroke of his wily beard as the crew sits around a table at Hollywood Grill, one of Wicker Park’s late-night haunts.
“When we started Fly By Night parties, it took us a while to figure out the right formula,” remembers Joy. “To me, what makes Chicago hip-hop so interesting—people like Dude N’ Nem and Vyle and Cool Kids—it’s not forced. They are open-minded, and they’re listening to everything; there are no limitations and expectations. The thing with Common, Twista, Lupe and Kanye is that there’s no unifying aesthetic.”
“But now, the two biggest contingencies at Chicago parties are ex-backpackers and ex-ravers,” adds Reiff, who, true to his weirdly glamorous nerdiness, can also be seen as the surprise guest on the finale for VH1 reality show The Pick-Up Artist. “Those two together kind of explain what’s happening right now.”