WorldStarHipHop's new documentary on Chicago hip-hop and violence is essential viewing. Just keep a critical eye open.
Earlier this week, WorldStarHipHop released the 40-minute documentary The Field: Violence, Hip-Hop, and Hope in Chicago, which you can watch above.
Since 2012, Chicago has inspired a surplus of documentary coverage: From fascinated foreigners to...even more fascinated foreigners. From Vice magazine to National Geographic's Drugs, Inc. series. From BET's Murder to Excellence to ABC's Nightline. Across the board, Chicago's tragic stories—and the rappers who seem to have become that violence's public face—have captured the eyes and lenses of outsiders, who, if we are to give the benefit of the doubt, wish to wrestle with the knotty moral dilemmas at the heart of the city's gun crime. Or, if we're being cynical, wish to exploit these stories for their own gain. Perhaps both are true at once.
Certainly, it's tempting to suggest that The Field—which was executive-produced by WorldStarHipHop honcho Q—is attempting to bank off the city's situation, as capitalizing on tragedy is a major part of WorldStar's M.O. But this subject is an especially fraught one regardless of the documentarian's background. Ultimately, motives matter less than the film's propaganda aspect: what is it saying about our world? What story is it telling? After all, the charge of exploitation has been levelled often enough against the musicians of these neighborhoods themselves, as it has been against gangster rappers for generations. "Authenticity" isn't enough, if it could even be measured: what is said matters.
As Lil Durk wisely puts it in the documentary: "Now everything I say, it's gonna be in the public eye. So I've gotta be careful with what I say. I take it serious now."
The Field isn't perfectly crafted (at one point, a caption suggests Lil Durk is signed to "Def Jams" records), nor are the arguments it presents without flaw. (More on that in a minute.) But in part due to WorldStar's position as a dominant clearinghouse for this type of content, The Field will likely end up being the definitive video artifact of this era in Chicago's history, for better or worse. To the credit of Director Mandon Lovett and many of the Chicago residents interviewed, it's often for the better. In spite of its shortcomings, the documentary is one of the strongest yet released covering this arena. The only real question is which arena, exactly, this is.
The Field doesn't break radical new ground in the burgeoning craft of covering Chicago gang culture, urban violence, or music. You'll see firearms pointed at the camera. Firearms stuffed into sagging pastel-colored, Louie V-belted jeans. Firearms wielded as totems of respect, authority, domination—tons of guns. You'll see tattoos and tears, dreadlocked, shell-shocked young men, young and younger. And towards the end—thankfully typical for coverage of this world—you'll see those who've stayed in the hood working to halt or slow the violence: Community organizers The Interrupters (about whom Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz made a 2011 documentary, which remains the gold standard of Chicago anti-violence non-fiction), the rapper Rhymefest, who runs the DONDA-funded "Got Bars?" hip-hop songwriting workshop.
You'll see firearms pointed at the camera. Firearms stuffed into sagging pastel-colored, Louie V-belted jeans. Firearms wielded as totems of respect, authority, domination—tons of guns.
The film is bookended by a weighty symphonic score of great dramatic intensity. If the subject matter were anything less than life and death, it would feel heavy-handed. Will Robson-Scott's artfully-shot Chiraq documentary played with similarly portentous music to sound a single note of queasy anxiety. Lovett's film has none of that restraint, which is part of why his film will outlast Chiraq. Garish as it may occasionally be, The Field's focus is its stories, not the textural subtleties of its filmmaking.
Interspersed with original music from Britain and Chicago drill producers LoKey and Cryptonite is the soundtrack of Chicago. Rap artists, their loved ones, and their management form the narrative threads that give this film the bulk of its story. While anyone paying attention to the last two years of Chicago coverage may be familiar with its tools and framing, The Field does hit most of the major beats with a plethora of voices, both confirming and complicating our ideas of What's Wrong In Chicago. (For one example, the notion that all of these kids are fatherless. Certainly true in some instances. But in others? Someone like Durk was following in his father's footsteps; many have always lived illegal, born into it.)
It's thematically comprehensive, for the most part (although its coverage of the music is less so; Chief Keef, currently going through court-ordered rehab in California, is notable in his absence, although he and his family departed the city for suburban living at the end of 2012). And concise. The film goes in, covers its bases, and dips, without overstaying its welcome.
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The artists explain their circumstances in a patchwork of observations, explanations, rationalizations. The film's subtitle is Violence, Hip-Hop, and Hope In Chicago, and the three subjects seem to be listed in order of priority. Violence is the focal point. The gist of the setting, as explained in a series of sentences flashing across the screen: Back in the day, Chicago gangs had structure. The police rounded up gang leadership and put them behind bars. Then, the city's "Plan for Transformation" demolished the bulk of the city's public housing, scattering project residents throughout the city. These two events threw the gangs into disarray, leading to the current social breakdown.
Lil Durk, rapping full-time and signed to a major label, epitomizes hope, and conveys a posture of steadiness, composure. He speaks with an accent strong enough that the filmmakers added subtitles. His is a story of hard fought success: "It was a struggle. We used to scrape up money to go to the studio and do videos," explains Nikki, Durk's baby's mom.
For those who haven't found success in hip-hop, things look considerably darker. An interviewee who goes by Chief Wuk captures the desolate hopelessness of the situation, suggesting his involvement is one of circumstance: "I ain't chose this lifestyle, this lifestyle chose me...I didn't even play with guns, 'til all my people started getting hit up. I had to get with it or get lost."
And he's up front about the psychic cost. "I lost so many guys to this shit," he explains. "Niggas I known since yay high. Really fucked my head up, made me look at life totally different. That shit put a lot of hate in me."
Durk explains the dynamic: "If you're a nobody, you kill him. Now you a somebody. Now everybody scared of you. Everybody want that type of name…You waking up, depressed, feeling like shit. You know you can just go kill him, with all the money, now you got a name. Now you extorting motherfuckers. That motherfucker give you money off the strength of your name...A lotta bullshit."
Young Chop: "Motherfuckers just trying to fit in or something. They don't want to be no lames out here. Man fuck that shit. I ain't never shot no nigga, I ain't no motherfuckin' lame."
Oftentimes, the stories are contradictory. L'A Capone, a rapper who was killed in September, breaks the steady mantra of grim despair with a quip of defiance, one that seems even more discomforting on reflection: "We like this shit. This shit fun, really." Then he, or someone else in the room—it's hard to tell—adjusts to a more measured statement: "We trying to get out this shit, though."
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In contrast with Durk's story of redemption-through-hip-hop, the sequence covering WorldStar phenomenon Lil Mouse shows the evident limitations of hip-hop as a source of opportunity. Or at the very least, the slippery ethical slope that confronts aspiring hip-hop entrepreneurs facing economic desperation. Mouse was a 12-year-old rapper whose song "Get Smoked" became a viral sensation that even ended up covered by Lil Wayne. Lil Mouse's songs cycle through a series of drill's aesthetic touch points: the slang, the dances, the extreme focus on first-person violence and paper stacking. In interviews, he reflects the interview persona of his older influences, suggesting he doesn't sound like anyone but himself, while sounding very much like a compilation of the genre's cliches.
While one of these tracks plays on in the background, Hella Bandz CEO Big Folks explains Lil Mouse's purpose: "He's like the narrator of what's going on in these streets. He just paints the picture."
"Like a news reporter don't go out and kill people, but they report the news every night. And they tell you about these murders and what's going on. And that don't mean they're part of it. They're just really telling you what's going on. In case you missed it."
In the background, Lil Mouse is rapping: "I'm the man and I got bands, my shooters blow like fans."
Earlier this week, I got an email from a publicity agent representing a new rapper: the kid who beat up Chicago footwork and hip-hop producer DJ Nate, and stole his designer belt. The video of the beating first gained attention on WorldStar. This email was accompanied by a video from the rapper, who wore Nate's belt around his head like a crown. The email read:
"Many condemned him for his actions, but looking at it from a different perspective, this is how a real thug handles his disputes with his hands, unlike these cowards that hide behind guns . His is no stranger to legal issues, but music will surely be his way out of the struggle."
Sometime around Christmas, an aspiring rapper in Chicago named Young QC was arrested for arranging the murder of his own mother in September 2012. He was to be the beneficiary of her life insurance policies. After her killing, he appeared on social media flaunting his cash, designer clothing, sneakers, and posing in expensive cars. On his YouTube channel, he filmed himself hopping out of a car and throwing cash into a crowd of "fans."
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In The Field, Rhymefest points to one of the chief problems with this cottage industry of Chicago documentaries. "Violence is an American pastime," he says in a voice over during the film's conclusion. "Violence ain't nothing we really care about. Or nothing we really wanna solve. Next week it's gonna be Louisiana Lebanon. Detroit Syria," he says, referencing Chicago's homicide-related rechristening as Chiraq. "Violence is something that, like—we love it." There's something audaciously risky and honest about ending your documentary with a quote that suggests your product's own existence is fundamentally about entertainment. And that, ultimately, the film is unlikely to be a step towards a solution.
And there's a feeling that this isn't far from the truth: The Onion's grim parody of the city becoming the hot new scene of death nailed the seeming arbitrariness of the media fascination. The homicide rate in cities like New Orleans and Philadelphia was similarly high in 2012, and by 2013, the rate in Chicago had dropped to its lowest since 1965. Even in 2012, when the number of murders reached 507, it was still down significantly from its peak in the early 1990s, when the number was 943.
From this point of view, it's easy to see the documentary cynically, as an advertisement for the artists involved. (One commenter from a rival gang referred to it in the WorldStar comments as an "Oppumentary"—a reference to the "opposition," since the film's selection of artists does not include artists from a rival faction.) Lawless Records CEO Larro almost seems to be making the case that it's the violence itself that advertises the music:
With Chicago not having a real music scene, at first artists was just expressing themselves...It just never got this much light until the violence started getting to the media. Then they started chiming in on what's going on in Chicago. What happened recently is a lot of artists have been getting record deals in Chicago and been seeing some real money. It displays to the youth that you can do something positive to create an income for yourself, as opposed to doing something negative...
If the film has one dominant message, it's an argument that hip-hop is an opportunity for people who have none. That it creates hope in a place where the only other options are basketball and the streets.
Does this sound familiar? "Either you're slanging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot," Biggie rapped in 1993.
This message is still a relevant one, certainly. But hip-hop has never offered a real or fair chance to escape for the vast majority of people looking for it. Becoming a truly successful rapper is like winning the lottery. Some things have changed. But for many people, the limited range of opportunities haven't. Hip-hop will not solve the problem of violence any more than documentaries can. But perhaps hip-hop can alleviate something.
Last summer, Larro, Katie Got Bandz, and King Louie were waiting in LaGuardia airport for a delayed flight to Chicago.
Louie was just a few weeks from releasing his next tape, Jeep Music. He spoke about the state of hip-hop and his career. He seemed a little exasperated. The interviews he'd been conducting recently, he said, all ended up with people asking him about Chief Keef, GBE, and "Chiraq." And, most of all, asking him about the violence. He explained that when he was Keef's age, he and his peers went through the same shit. They just weren't nearly as famous.
"Do you remember when we first talked," he finally said, frustrated. "We talked about the music."
Admittedly, it's a little ironic for a rapper whose music very often describes the behavior of bullets in great detail to wonder why interviewers keep questioning him about violence. But he's right: it's striking how much the discussion had shifted, and how quickly.
I went back and read some of the older things I wrote about Chicago hip-hop around the first time I met Louie. While the violence was an apparent subtext to a lot of it, I rarely addressed it as an upfront conversational point. "It's always been like this," you'd hear, talking to artists. "Since the days of Al Capone." Their music was already about it. The hood ain't safe. Reading my older pieces now, I get a strange dissociative feeling. It's not like I wasn't aware of the context of this clearly violent music. But it didn't seem like a readership interested in hip-hop would need these things spelled out.
But then, I came up in the era where the Notorious B.I.G. was a pop star. Where Mobb Deep released an album called Murda Muzik—just imagine the outrage if Chief Keef tried to title his next record "Murda Muzik" today.
If I was wrong not to explicitly address the social problems surrounding the music I covered, then so be it. But to me, it suggests that history has glossed over the rough edges of hip-hop's very violent history.
This isn't intended to be a defense or rationalization. If I was wrong not to explicitly address the social problems surrounding the music I covered, then so be it. But to me, it suggests that history has glossed over the rough edges of hip-hop's very violent past. The feeling cultivated by the music of drill artists today feels like a direct descendant of the aesthetic embraced by Mobb Deep a decade and a half earlier. And there weren't nearly as many documentaries about Queensbridge's violent context. (At least, not until 2005.)
What has changed?
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If Chicago isn't the only city with an unsteady murder rate, and the murder rate is still down from its early '90s peak, why does this documentary exist?
I would argue that Larro actually had it backwards: Chicago hip-hop didn't gain the media spotlight because of the violence; the violence gained the media's attention because of Chicago hip-hop.
And in turn, Chicago hip-hop was propelled by something else. This year, there's been a lot of talk about the increasing profile in the mainstream media of "Black Twitter." This isn't the only community that suddenly became more visible with the rise of social media. Especially once artists like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Lil Mouse hit WorldStarHipHop.
The Field focuses on violence, and violence is very much a part of the story. But hip-hop is the reason this documentary exists, because its scene is what separates Chicago from the rust belt's many other centers of urban decay.
Considering this fact, as a hip-hop documentary, The Field is somewhat incomplete. For the most part, hip-hop in The Field is portrayed as it was by Big Folks: as if it were a documentary itself. "It's got a lot to do with violence," argues Durk. Says Larro: "It's not no fictional shit. They're talking about things that are happening in Chicago." The art beyond this functional purpose is unaddressed. There's no look at the DJs like Amaris or Victoriouz. The clubs, like Adrianna's and The Lick, and high schools that fostered the scene go unmentioned. There isn't footage of parties, or other parts of South Side life. The origins of "drill music" get a passing mention in King Louie's interview. To say nothing of the (sizable, flourishing) hip-hop scene outside of drill. By and large, it's the violence that has earned The Field's focus.
It's hip-hop that proves the source of the film's most interesting moments, capturing a behind-the-scenes look at many of the bigger personalities with sympathetic portraits, and including freestyles from standout new artists like Tink, Lil Bibby, Lil Herb, and Icy Duck.
But this focus on violence, in contrast with how violent hip-hop was handled in the '90s, might be suggestive of another trend. A recent study found that while violence in Chicago was down overall, and has been since the early '90s, inequality of violence "has skyrocketed." Chicago and its suburbs used to share a proportion of these crimes more evenly among a wider range of people; now, some communities are disproportionately overburdened by the devastation of high murder rates. Chicago is safer than it's ever been...in most parts of the city. In other parts, it's gotten catastrophically worse.
And the music's extremity reflects that. When asked last year about the phenomenon of Chicago's violent hip-hop scene, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates pleaded ignorance on current artists, but reflected on his own experience as a rap listener as a kid. "I think it's worth asking, 'Why do kids listen to violent hip-hop?' I highly doubt the answer is 'To find an applicable value system.'"
I don't think hip-hop so much reflects these violent neighborhoods, as it serves as therapy for the young boys who live in them. It offers a vicarious world where every puerile desire is instantly met. If you listen really closely to music, you will hear it pulsing with teenage insecurity and the angst of the youth. In hip-hop, young people are able to express sentiments and feelings, many of them negative, which they can't really express elsewhere. Living, from the time you are born, with the threat of existential violence is stressful. Stress leads to anger and fear. We don't generally express our anger and fear by saying, "I love the world" or "I pray for an end to world hunger." Living around violence might make you say those things. But the stress of it more often will probably leave you with a string of curse words on your tongue. Moreover, it might even make you want to convert all of those negative feelings into a persona which can't be killed by other males, which never feels rejection from females, and is generally free to engage all its hedonistic desires.
One under-heralded aspect of hip-hop is how rappers can compress meaning into concise shapes, words that mean so much more than they imply, and sometimes even more than their author intended. The Field is a good documentary—flawed as it may be—for capturing some of these moments on film. In the introduction, an unnamed rapper spits a capella for the camera, his urgent vocals laid over an emotional chorale: "Been a man, you been a fan/Killin' shit and still innocent."