There must be something in the water they pump through those Chicago pipelines. Sure, MC JUICE (no product placement there; that’s really what he calls himself) might have put Chi-town on the map in the early Nineties with his mic-killing freestyles, and Common and Twista have been representing the city’s cutting edge hip hop aesthetic for a decade and change on landmark albums and iconic tracks (Common’s I Used To Love H.E.R. is still considered hip hop’s greatest introspection in many circles). But it wasn’t until the arrogant one-man movement called Kanye West exploded into the global consciousness that hip hop’s third city, next to New York and LA, really began to receive its industry due.
As Kanye’s College Dropout and Late Registration albums achieved multi-platinum success, so grew A Tribe Called West – that loose collection of Chicago youngbloods eager to get their music out to the world. The first shots out of this new generation would have to be Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest, massive lyrical talents in their own right. Rhymefest has been on the freestyle battle circuit since the 90s, annihilating lesser emcees nationwide, while Lupe rose to fame through regional mixtapes. Both got their shine on West’s albums, Rhymefest through his songwriting on Jesus Walks and Lupe with Touch The Sky.
But is the bar being raised, or is this just a case of territorial pissings? Atlanta and Houston might be making more dollars with crunk, Miami might be generating heat with reggaeton, and the Bay Area might be innovating party music with hyphy, but Chi-town’s finest could be holding the torch for hip hop at its most substantial. Carrying over New York’s 90s emphasis on thought-provoking conscious rhymes with Kanye’s penchant for soul-sampling boom bap beats, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest might be right up there with The Roots, Mos Def and Madlib as the art form’s mainstream avant guardians.