It’s been quite some time since Chicago hip-hop has received this much attention from the record industry and the rest of the country. After years of being lost in the middle of the three coasts, the heart of the Midwest is finally seeing more than just one of its artists in the spotlight. Many claim this is all due to the golden touch of Grammy-winning, super producer/MC Kanye West; others say it’s just, “our time.”
In a strange twist of fate, uncharacteristically mainstream acts from Chicago like Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest are quickly getting signed by major labels and seen on MTV and BET. But what about the mass of independent artists that have been paying dues in Chicago long before Kanye ever picked up a mic?
Local indie labels like All Natural Inc., EV, Molemen, and Gravel have built one of the strongest networks of self-made music companies/crews in the country. Among this movement exist artists as diverse as the different sides of the city they represent. As Panik, CEO of the all-city record label Molemen says, “Our music scene here is a reflection of our social and economic situation.” Amid Chicago’s longstanding segregation, the independent movement embraces hardcore street-level MCs like Vakill, philosophical lyricists like Qwel, and everyone between. Hip-hop is their common ground. Perhaps the diverse nature of our city’s music alone is why the record industry has avoided a large portion of our talent. No one ever said Chicago was easy to pin down.
When talking to the owners of respected indie labels All Natural, EV, Molemen, and Gravel, it’s obvious that for the most part, they do all get along; they are all willing to put their differences aside, collaborate, and expound their respective fan bases. But when it comes down to how they feel the recent attention on Chicago will impact the future of their artists, everyone has their own opinion.
On the independent front, few in Chicago have been around longer than Tone B. Nimble, co-founder of the right-minded duo All Natural and owner of All Natural Inc. In fact, he’s been a catalyst of the city’s do-it-yourself movement since the mid ’90s. Having dealt with both major and indie labels as well as working at Chicago’s top urban radio stations, Tone has experienced all sides of the fickle music industry first-hand. So it’s not surprising he’s skeptical that the success of Kanye West and company will directly affect him and his artists. “I would know if it was helping me,” Tone says. “I mean, I think they help the city, they help shine light on the city, but I don’t necessarily think that light that’s being shined on the city is shining our way.”
When he says, “our,” Tone is talking about the many MCs across the city considered to be “underground” — artists more concerned with maintaining creative control than catering to a focused demographic. Tone would prefer that in 2006, All Natural Inc.’s roster didn’t fall into the underground category. “The object for us is to not necessarily to be underground, it’s just to make good music and put it out there,” he says.
Tim Stroh, owner of the four-year-old Gravel Records, is one of the youngest names in Chicago’s independent hip-hop scene. With his youth, Stroh naturally holds a much more optimistic outlook than Tone. He sees any increased popularity of Chicago-based talent as a potential for his acts to gain attention, even as underground as his artists like Verbal Kent may sound. “It’s cool that artists like Lupe [Fiasco] and Bump J and Qualo for that matter are getting the national attention, I think, Chicago’s deserved for years,” says Stroh. “It really is bringing the spotlight on the independent scene here and hopefully with that, some more light will be shed on even the more underground or lesser-known groups in Chicago.”
Like Tone B. Nimble, Panik of The Molemen is trying to overcome terms like “underground.” But like Stroh, he sees the potential positive affects artists like Kanye and Fiasco could have on indies. “Let’s say Kanye has helped the scene out because he’s saying Chicago in his songs and he’s repping Chicago and [its] labels,” says Panik. “MTV, BET — whoever the hell else is paying attention, they pay attention to that. A&Rs and everybody pay attention to that. So indirectly, whether [Kanye's] doing it on purpose or not, it’s helping out.”
But out of everyone, surprisingly it’s Warren “Overflo” Johnson, label manager of the Chicago area’s newest independent label, EV, who has already seen the direct effect. “I got Modill and LongShot, we just booked a tour with them with Slim Kid Tre Hardson from Pharcyde and Speech from Arrested Development,” boasts Overflo. “Now I’ve gotten responses from three different promoters who have hooked us up with writers for different magazines or weeklies — one’s in Olympia, Washington, one in Portland, one’s in L.A. — who have all been interested in this effect that the success of like Kanye and Common and people have had on the scene in Chicago.”
Being a talent manger as well, Overflo realizes, though, that you can’t just sit around and wait for the industry to reach you — especially in a forgotten city like Chicago. “A lot of these guys — Common, Kanye, Twista . . . even Rhymefest — they’re having to travel out of the city of Chicago to parlay those major label deals because there’s not huge A&R departments in Chicago for the major labels,” he explains. “So a trend that could happen, and maybe is already happening, is that major labels will begin to send more people out here to look and scout for new talent to work with.”
As Overflo knows, there really is no telling which artists will get picked from the crop. So he says indie labels should be focused on “getting their artists out of the city and on the road [to] spread the music.”
Tone B. Nimble, for one, has always been willing to accept distribution and aid from a major label as long as the deal is ethical. Although when it comes down to it, Tone wants to be the one to help his acts, like Eulorhythmics and Rita J, reach a wider audience, not the majors. He realizes it’s an uphill battle, but like Overflo, he knows it’s necessary to push his artists outside of the city limits.
“We need to improve our marketing,” says Tone. “There’s a lot more people on our end that need to let [people] know that we exist. We don’t need to promote at Abbey Pub, ’cause a lot of people would like what we do — they just don’t know that we exist. Now that’s not necessarily easy to do, but that’s what we need to do.”
Everyone agrees the ultimate solution for gaining exposure is to go on tours and to share the music with new fans outside the Midwest. Sure, crosstown collaborations like LongShot’s Civil War mixtape series and The Molemen’s Chicago City Limits compilation have shown the world Chicago hip-hoppers from all neighborhoods and backgrounds can work together. But like Panik points out, before the city can go anywhere collectively, everyone has to unite even further.
“We just need to communicate and cross paths more ’cause there’s a lot of stores in the Chicagoland area, there’s a lot of venues — there’s a lot of things going on that we all need to be aware of,” argues Panik. And he’s not just talking the talk. Just take a look at the lineup of the Molemen’s 4th annual “Chicago Rocks,” which will be bringing together everyone from rising West Side star Lupe Fiasco to subterraneous acts like Modill to perform May 12th at Abbey Pub May 13th at Metro.
“I think what people like the Molemen are doing, creating lineups like ‘Chicago Rocks,’ bringing in all these different types of artists and putting them all on stage is probably the most important thing the scene has seen in awhile,” says Stroh.
But like many indie label owners in Chicago, Panik is not about to become complacent. “We have to be aware of the whole city,” continues Panik. “There’s millions of people here and there’s no reason why independent labels can’t sell 10 to 20,000 units in your city.”
With or without the major’s help, Chicago’s many MCs and producers are in good hands. Being on an independent, it may take a little longer to get on MTV or played on commercial radio. But with people like Tone B. Nimble, Panik, Tim Stroh, and Overflo at the helm, eventually all of Chicago will have its day.
– Max Herman
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