With his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap in 2013, Chance the Rapper offered an intricately written account of being a teen on his city’s South Side, cataloguing everything from sneaking out to smoke cigarettes to the ripple effects of gun violence in the black community. Then, a floodgate opened of introspective, self-aware lyricists like Noname, Saba, and Joey Purp. Along with Chicago’s already established drill scene, which has birthed stars like Chief Keef and Lil Durk, the city has become one of the most crucial and consistently exciting hubs for hip-hop for the last half-decade.
While talent will always be paramount, much credit for Chicago’s hip-hop renaissance should go to the people behind the scenes. The ones nurturing aspiring musicians, covering them in local media, and providing them with opportunities to perform. The internet has made it easier to listen to music from the other side of the world than it is to take the train a few stops to see a local band play a five dollar showcase, but regional music scenes are still vital.
The trouble is, they’ve had to navigate rapidly changing, unfamiliar waters like the rest of the music industry. Places like Baltimore, Detroit, and the Bay Area are overflowing with gifted artists, but are now trying to assemble a puzzle out of familiar pieces like blogs and local radio, as well as new shapes like curated playlists and social media co-signs.
“I think what was good about people having to come up through the local scene and check off those boxes, [is that] it was kind of artist development. I think artists had time to practice a little bit, get their stuff together, their show together, start doing a little press with local outlets,” said Andrew Barber, founder of the blog Fake Shore Drive, which has been covering Chicago rap since 2007 and the broader Midwest since 2013. “So by the time the big boys came knocking, they were ready.”
One surefire way for a local artist to see their play count spike is for an established star to take an interest in their scene. It’s something Drake has done with cities like London and Memphis, and Kanye West did it with his hometown when he put Chief Keef and King Louie on Yeezus. But some artists are skeptical that those kinds of endorsements can make invested, lasting fans out of people who were unacquainted before hearing a song snippet on Instagram.
“If Drake is fucking with it, okay, [outsiders will say], ‘We’ll fuck with it, but I tried five times and I still don’t understand what they’re saying,’” says ALLBLACK, one of the Bay Area’s rising stars. "They see other people vouching and fucking with our culture, so they’re like, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a pass,’ but they’re never going to get it.”
But while outside superstars taking an interest can make a big splash with small ripples, homegrown veterans who look out for the younger generation can have profound impacts. The Bay Area thrives in part because A-listers and legends take an active interest in championing new voices. Artists like E-40, Too $hort and G-Eazy have made it a mission to support ascendant talent like Rexx Life Raj, Chippass, and SOB X RBE. ALLBLACK said the mentality in the Bay has become all about support and unity.
“You can’t hate no more, you’d look like a fucking weirdo hating, period. It’s not like a pretty girl section where you can’t sit with us, it’s not like that. If we can’t share a bag of chips, I’m talking about 11 motherfuckers sharing one bag of chips, if we can’t do that with you, get away from us,” he explains. “That’s how the Bay is right now, there doesn’t need to [just] be one star, we’re not rocking like that right now.”
A younger scene like Baltimore’s doesn’t have as many established stars to help shepherd the rookies, but meaningful bonds between their local artists and national rappers have had a positive effect. Because of the proximity to his hometown of Philadelphia—and Baltimore’s status as a dirt bike haven—Meek Mill took a vested interest in the city’s scene. He was close with Lor Scoota before his death and signed YBS Skola to Dreamchasers in 2017.
"My music experience living in Baltimore was life-altering. To this day, there is no scene that works as hard or puts as much effort into their art." - JPEGMAFIA
According to Lawrence Burney, founder of the multimedia platform True Laurels, the Baltimore scene is healthier than it perhaps ever has been. Even the rappers getting national looks are getting those opportunities because they’ve earned hometown respect. “All of these rappers were big at home first,” said Burney. “Baltimore is that kind of place where it's like you won't even be respected if you're not big at home.”
While gritty street rap is a hallmark of Baltimore, part of the city’s emergence has come through artists who deviate from that sound but are still supported by the community. JPEGMAFIA makes edgy, glitchy commentary rap, while Lor Choc’s last project, Love is Love, is a tender, almost entirely sung collection of romantic songs.
"My music experience living in Baltimore was life-altering. To this day, there is no scene that works as hard or puts as much effort into their art. I don’t think any other place puts out music with no promise of success and still works like Baltimore,” said JPEGMAFIA. “‘Essential’ is the best word I can think of for that. There’s just more emotion and raw feeling in Baltimore music. It can’t be copied."
JPEG was primarily in central Baltimore, which Burney describes as being the artsiest of the city’s different regions. One of the main reasons Burney started True Laurels in 2013 was to unite the city’s different regions. Burney hails from East Baltimore, but frequently champions West Baltimore acts like Lor Choc.
“I feel like anybody who does make it out or has opportunities to give back, without a doubt they should. Anything from spitting knowledge to changing someone’s perspective or educating us on some dos and don’ts,” says Choc. “Giving back consists of the little things as well, and I think Lawrence represents that all day long. He shines a light on the city that leads to bigger and better opportunities.”
True Laurels, which launched a weekly Red Bull Radio show in August 2018, is the kind of hybrid platform that has taken on the responsibility held by blogs in a previous era. By creating playlists, helping throw concerts, and bringing Baltimore rap to the national radio platform, True Laurels is filling multiple key roles in buoying the regional rap scene.
"[Social media] is a whole new way of people finding out what they like, what they don't like, and what they're going to be interested in. And that's just the natural elevation of what the blogs became" - Andrew Barber
In Chicago, Andrew Barber plays a similar role with Fake Shore Drive. Now, Barber hosts The Drive on Shade 45, and regularly puts on shows, in addition to continuing to oversee FSD’s digital content.
“I think social media made it easier to connect with artists. You know, even the blog would filter what you saw but now it's just raw straight to the page, straight to the Instagram page, straight to their stories, straight to live,” said Andrew Barber. “I mean it's a whole new way of people finding out what they like, what they don't like, and what they're going to be interested in. And that's just the natural elevation of what the blogs became.”
Local outlets still do carry weight though, particularly in the very early stages of an artist’s career when they are still trying to break into the local scene. Thizzler on the Roof serves that function in the Bay, and Empire’s Product Manager Ari Simon said that it remains one of his preferred ways to showcase his developing MCs.
“Getting posted on the Thizzler is Step 1 of being a burgeoning local artist. If that’s not happening to you, you need to work on that first,” says Simon. “If I have something super embryonic, I want to send it over to Thizzler.”
One paradoxical aspect of a regional rap scene can be how distinctly local the music actually feels. A rich, unique vernacular and local traditions can be a great way to gain attention, but we’ve also seen that backfire, as artists from other cities have cribbed certain components while doing away with some limiting factors of hyperlocal music. Think about how many of Chief Keef’s stylistic successors have outsold him.
“We say shit that only Bay Area motherfuckers can get. You’ll be listening to something, and if the beat isn’t trap, and on top of that you can’t understand what this n***a is saying, it’s going to make it hard to be attracted to that music for real. That’s how a lot of Bay Area shit is, we say things that will go over your head because you’re not of this culture,” says ALLBLACK’s manager Delency Parham, “On the creative end, it makes the music hella unique, but from the marketing side it’s something that can hold it back.”
Chicago’s Tobi Lou began taking music seriously around the time that Chance the Rapper became the city’s poster star. Lou, who also has a knack for feathery melodies and emotionally candid bars, found that he was saddled with comparisons to the Acid Rap MC that were creatively stifling, but at the time the only main alternative was the gritty drill rap of Chief Keef or G Herbo.
“It was like, who was I? If I couldn’t run with Chance and them, and I wasn’t hard enough to do drill music, who was Tobi Lou?” he explains. “When I say that I didn’t feel fully accepted, it’s that I didn’t have a camp. I didn’t have a true home, even though I wasn’t an outcast or anything.”
Lou wound up leaving the city and moving to L.A. for three years, where he participated in many writing sessions and honed his own sound. Now, he splits his time between Los Angeles and Chicago. He said that in the ensuing years, his hometown’s music scene has diversified to the point that he doesn’t feel he would need to leave to establish an identity were he coming up today.
While many Chicago artists remain fiercely independent, local labels can often have a profound impact on boosting new rappers. In Baltimore, En La Calle and D1 Entertainment have emerged, with the latter helping provide an early boost for artists like Tate Kobang, Bandhunta Izzy, and Shordie Shordie, who have gone on to receive national attention.
Regional labels like Rap-A-Lot in Houston or Cash Money in New Orleans were instrumental in not only crafting a distinct local sound, but helping artists hone an identity before they jumped to the majors. That spirit remains in places like Chicago’s Closed Sessions and D1, as well as many other smaller operations in cities around the country. And having labels not based in New York and Los Angeles ensures that people with power in the industry have an ear in the emerging market.
Empire, which was founded by 2010 by Ghazi Shami, has become an indispensable resource as one of very few high-profile labels and distributors based in the Bay Area. They release music from artists like ALLBLACK, Offset Jim, Rexx Life Raj, and Elujay, in addition to well-known acts from other parts of the country.
“I’d be a sucker if I wasn’t saying that Empire’s my family, period,” ALLBLACK says. “Empire’s a whole different bond. It ain’t one person that’s ever spoken bad on Empire, you speak bad on Empire you’re getting packed out. Empire changed damn near everybody’s life.”
“[In the past we] had to go outside of home to get labels to believe in us, now you’ve got an Empire, you’ve got a label that’s run by Ghazi, someone who is from the Bay Area, and Nima [Etminan], who was versed in West Coast hip-hop,” adds Parham. “These two people definitely understand what’s going on and they have the resources to make the rest of the world understand it.”
"I feel like anybody who does make it out or has opportunities to give back, without a doubt they should" - Lor Choc
Two components of regional rap that seem to be less central nowadays are local radio and having performance spaces. Though stations like the Bay’s 106.1 KMEL, Chicago’s 107.5 WGCI, and Barber’s The Drive are still working to support rising artists, the focus of rappers nowadays is to push their music digitally.
Small venues have been struggling to stay open in cities around the country amid rising rent prices, and many of the people interviewed for this story said that their hometowns didn’t offer many opportunities for young rappers to sharpen their skills as performers. Simon in particular noted that venues in San Francisco tend to prioritize booking touring acts from other cities, but that Empire wants to become more involved in helping their artists book shows.
Though they rarely do so with much deftness, nowadays brands can play a role in beefing up a local live music scene, should it behoove them. Red Bull’s 2017 Sound Select lineup in Chicago featured local artists like TheMIND, Kweku Collins, Eryn Allen Kane, and Tobi Lou. They also partnered with brands like FSD, throwing concerts like one in March 2014 that included locals Saba, Joey Purp, and Mick Jenkins while they were still on the rise.
“It was huge and they invested in [Chicago music], they invested in local talent, they wanted to help break and mold and give opportunities to the city. It was one of the best programs I've ever seen for local artists,” says Barber. “It was very ‘We are here to help, what can we do to assist you? Do you need some Red Bull for a show? Do you need us to host you a listening party?’”
Like every other aspect of the music industry, local rap scenes have been forced to change based on the way we consume art. While an aspiring rapper can now connect with fans globally via social media, building a committed hometown following and engaging directly with the people who support hip-hop in your city is still vital. The buzz of a viral single might give an artist a short moment in the spotlight, but supportive artistic communities with cross-generational dialog and a solid infrastructure can uplift an entire scene and make a tangible, lasting impact.