For years Chicago was my city, my center and my muse. Chicago was my on again, off again college sweetheart. Sure, we may have taken breaks over Christmas and Thanksgiving and I might have flirted with New York and Denver but I always knew I’d come home to her. We had gone through too many fights, birthdays, finals, and first dates for me to ever stay anywhere else too long. When I was away, she would send me mix tapes infused with that instantly recognizable Chicago sound. Sometimes, when I was lonely in my childhood home in Colorado I’d play Common or Kanye just so I could hear her voice; that wholesome, familiar sound that always reminded me of going to church.
To me, Chicago Hip Hop takes you to Cottage Grove on a Sunday morning. You can see Black people, from Englewood poverty to Beverly wealth, in their Sunday best. In Woodlawn, that might mean an 80 year old woman in a full length fur coat with the flowered hat or a young man in his brand new blue jeans, collared shirt and fresh, impeccably faded hair. If you were to follow any one of these families to their church you’d see variations on the same scene.
Walking through the familiar arched doors, you’d be greeted by ushers with white gloves or just warm smiles. After the church parishioners settle into their seats with their polite neighborly banter, the service would start with gospel music. Each song starts with a lone instrument, usually a piano, though occasionally a trumpet or sax player. The lone player is inevitably followed by either a chorus of beautiful Black voices or the lone soloist for special Sundays. Make no mistake, in this Black church the music is how parishioners catch the Holy Spirit. Music opens your soul up to hear the word of God, to hear truth. Finally, in every Church, after the singing comes the preaching.
Even the voices of Chi-City rappers remind me of church. While there is as much diversity in the syntax of Black preachers as there is the cadence and flow of Chicago rappers some styles are more popular that others. Rappers like Kanye or Lupe possess the same charisma and boisterous cadence of the pastors and assistant pastors at Black Chicagoland mega-churches like Trinity or the Apostolic Church of God, peppered with bouts of contemplative story telling. Few people would deny the uncanny similarity of the charisma of a Black preacher in a Chicago mega-church on the pulpit and Chicago rapper taking the crowd to church. The music video for Kanye’s soulful, religious themed and now iconic single “Jesus Walks” could have been Yeezus dressed like a pastor and ardently preaching to the choir of a Black church.
For me, Chicago’s voice sounds like Kanye West’s “Family Business.” It starts with a bar of piano playing and the light familiar banter that fills the halls on Sunday as parishioners find their seats. It’s hard for me to hear that song without thinking Kanye’s taking me to church. It is a heart wrenchingly well produced ode to the black family. The piano play in the background is solemn but almost cautiously optimistic. The child’s young voice singing along with the choir gives the song both a playful tone and sense of multigenerational history. Everything about the about the song feels communal and familiar. The chorus “Rain, Rain, Rain go way” could be a children’s lullaby. Perhaps the most important similarity between Chicago Hip Hop and the Black church is the frequent homilies about persevering through struggle and carrying on together. Kanye raps:
Y’all gon’ sit down, have a good time this reunion
And drink some wine like Communion
And act like everything fine and if it isn’t
We ain’t letting everybody in our family business
It is hard to hear this song and not want to get my Chicago family together for a birthday or christening. Hearing it reminds me that Chicago was my whole world for over seven years; its struggles and triumphs were my struggles and triumphs. Chicago has such a vibrant sense of multi-generational community. There are whole neighborhoods comprised of families who have lived there since their families left Warsaw, Dublin or first crossed the Mississippi. Each group carried as much of home as they could afford or bear. For most this meant language, culture and family. When immigrants settled Chicago, they carved out pieces of land for their families and their ethnic group. These neighborhoods became more than just where people grew up, they became almost like ethnic city-states. It is this legacy of massive migrations and settlements that give Chicagoans a unique sense of place.
It seems inevitable then that Chicago Hip Hop would share a unique grounding in not only where you’re from but where you’re at. Even as I write this article I’m listening to Common’s “The Corner.” The song opens with a fast paced drum beat and the sounds of a busy Chicago street. It is as if the drum is the heart beat of the city, beating rapidly and strongly, ushering in the sounds of intercity commerce and life like blood coursing through Chicago’s gridded, asphalt paved veins. Common can be heard a few seconds into the song “ugh, ugh, u u ughing” like he’s trying to feel the city’s heartbeat before he launches into a freestyle about the windy city. Yet the lyrics are far too polished to be a freestyle:
Now I roll in a “Olds” with windows that don’t roll
Down the roads where cars get broke in & stole
These are the stories told by Stony & Cottage Grove
The world is cold the block is hot as a stove
On the corners
Common’s lyricism and story-telling prowess is well documented and apparent to even the most casual listener. Yet, for me, I can feel the scene viscerally. I am instantly transported in front of Daly’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove on a Saturday afternoon. Like Common says, “the wind is cold and it blows” as I’m waiting for a friend on the corner during a particularly harsh Chicago winter day. Like the methodic beat on the track that is interlaced with sounds of a crowd, the corner I’m standing on is filled with the rhythmic start and stop of CTA buses and the constant shuffling of pedestrian feet on the side walk. As I’m standing on that real live corner I’m wondering if it is the same corner Common was thinking of when he wrote the song. Just as that thought materializes in my mind, I see a man get robbed on one corner and a child running blissfully unaware into his mother’s tired but happy arms on the other. This moment becomes crystalized in my mind by Common’s description of hard working bitter-sweet south side moments when he says:
The corner where struggle & greed fight
We write songs about wrong cause it’s hard to see right
Look to the sky hoping it will bleed light
Reality’s a bitch and I heard that she bites
The moment is filled with the same earnestness, fluidity and power as the three voices on the track: Common, Kanye West and the Last Poets. Throughout the whole song, Common sounds like he is explaining more emotion and events than he can even process. The words seem to just flow out him perfectly formed, organic and barely processed. You get this amazing sense that Common doesn’t love the city in spite of its grit and grime but because of how the grit and grime became a part of him and his world. The song always fills me with that feeling, like I have more emotion that I can express, as I remember the juxtaposition of that moment. And just like Kanye’s refrain on the hook “I wish I could g’ya this feelin.’”
My time in Chicago is filled of sounds and song that bring back vivid memories. I loved how well a Chicago rapper like Common could paint a scene for me. I became such an ardent consumer of mainstream Chicago Hip Hop that artist like Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Common became as much a part of my identity as my time spent teaching bright eyed South-Side school children. As I went about my daily grind riding the Redline from 95th to 69th for I work, I couldn’t help but overhear conversations of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons trying to get by in this city. I would hear stories of children learning how to read or parents arguing with principals about how their child needs special education services. I would often turn the volume down on my music to hear particularly adamant conversations. I spent thirty minutes everyday hearing about new jobs, promotions, dreams, layoffs and rent checks spoken, shouted or cried over the din of Chicago Hip Hop.
I remember one spring morning when the lyrics of a song seemed to narrate the entire train ride. I had recently brought Common and Kanye’s “The Food” into my morning routine. The beat is essentially a short clip of piano playing on an irregular loop. It sounds almost like a child practicing the same part of a recital over and over again, only moving to next bar every few tries when she gets the crucial intro correct. The beat perfectly matched the lyrics which speak to the feeling of grinding through the same monotonous routine until you get your break. There was a young, well dressed, black man on the train with me. He breathlessly tried to explain to someone on his cell phone why he was late paying a debt. Lines like “I’m up all night, getting my money right” could have just as easily come from the mouth of the man who shared my 6:45 Redline car as Kanye West. Over the years, due to moments and songs like those, my love for Chicago and my love for Chicago Hip Hop became so intertwined that asking me to move would be like asking me not to listen to Common any more. I knew, intellectually, it was possible but it is hard to imagine. Over time, I internalized this connection between the narratives I saw play out in real-time on the streets and the narrative rapped in the lyrics of my favorite artist.
I think that Hip Hop music helped me be a Chicagoan in the truest sense. Through their stories of the city Chicago became my city. Therefore the plight of random Chicagoans on the Redline became more than an intellectual curiosity. I cared when schools were shut down or the Southside Redline was closed. These bureaucratic decisions didn’t change my life directly but I knew they affected my fellow citizens and that made them relevant. My connection to Chicago, and especially to the South and West Sides so prominent in Hip Hop, fueled my commitment to serving these communities.
In college, I worked on low income housing issues on Chicago’s Southside. One of my most unforgettable memories was my first meeting for an event called “Art in Action.” The event was a summer festival geared at bridging connections between University of Chicago students and the larger community south of Hyde Park. I can still remember walking to the Bessie Coleman Library in Woodlawn for the meeting. I’m was listening to my typical mix of Common, Lupe and Kanye and soaking in the sights and feel of the neighborhood. As I was walking, an older Black woman caught my attention and struck up a conversation with me. Taking off my headphones, my irritation at not getting to hear my music was soon replaced by admiration for this woman’s story. She guessed I was student at the University and surmised, given that there were few other reason for a UChicago student to be in area, that we were heading to same planning meeting. She began to talk to me about why she was involved in Art in Action.
She told me that she, by this time in her late 80’s, remembered moving to Woodlawn when it was the only place Black folks from the south could find landlords and neighbors who would let them move in. During our five minute walk and talk she explained how the neighborhood had changed. She pointed out apartment buildings that used to be schools or corner stores and places where she met friends as a young woman. She spent almost her entire life in Woodlawn. Raised a family, went to PTA meetings and voted in every election. It was her home in every meaning of the word. The last thing she said, before we entered the library, was to remark at the irony of how much she loved this neighborhood that she was forced to live in and how the same institutions that kept her out of Hyde Park are trying to “re-gentrify” Woodlawn and displace her.
That brief conversation illustrates Chicagoans’ connection to place for me. That woman loved her neighborhood even with its struggle and history of restrictive covenants. It was her home, her children’s home and her grand-children’s home. It was for stories like that I got so involved in my community and why I never moved out of the Southside in all of my time in the city. Those kinds of stories remind me that, to paraphrase a friend, home isn’t just where the heart is, it’s where you are fighting to get at it. Your home is wherever you find yourself struggling to build a life for yourself; building, facing obstacles and rebuilding.
Yet, after over 6 years of Chi-City living, circumstances caused me to move from my home across the country to live with my sisters in Washington D.C. Instead of spending my last week going from neighborhood to neighborhood saying goodbye to places where I had forged not only memories but an identity, I spent the last week on a Chicago Hip Hop binge. I never really said goodbye to Chicago but I said goodbye to feeling of listening to my music, my Chicago Hip Hop, and walking down the same streets, meeting the same people they reference. I hoped that where ever I ended up, I would grow the same visceral love, loyalty and commitment to service that I had in Chicago.
When I first arrived in D.C I vowed to try and embrace my new city. I wanted to foster than same connection to D.C that I had for Chicago. To that end I’ve been exploring the city daily by walking through it streets that, try as they might, are not really a true grid. I couldn’t get over the feeling during these walks that my Chicago Hip Hop didn’t fit the city or who I was in this city. The more familiar I became with D.C’s sights, sounds and feel the more I realized that this city has its own history, vibe and culture and I was excited if a little uneasy, to discover it.
On an early September day in Southeast Washington D.C I found myself walking down the street with my family. This area, known as Anacostia, has a rough reputation. It has never really shaken off the years in which D.C was known as the murder capital of America. Anacostia is the type of neighborhood where people raise an eyebrow when I tell them, with my Colorado accent and slightly ivory tower mannerisms, that I live there. Though all the new acquaintances that I’ve met over these past few weeks can’t imagine me living there, walking down the street with my family feels right. The street is lined with old, brightly colored houses with impeccable lawns. An older Black couple, who looked remarkably similar to my parents, sat on their porch and waved at their younger selves and my parents waved politely at their future.
Young men with long dreadlocked hair rode dirt bikes down the winding streets. As they rode with one hand to steer and their other hands invariably holding the cell phones blasting Hip Hop. Their music was distinct, with raw methodic Southern beats that dripped through the track like molasses and rappers spat rhymes with East Coast cadences. The music seemed to fit the vibe of the neighborhood, slow moving but vibrant and energetic like the whole city was excited to have nowhere else to be but where they are. The older couples slowly turned to look at the young men too. No recollection crossed their eyes but their warm smiles continued to shine on through the din of the music. All in all it was a pleasant walk.
The amateur urbanologist in me tried to analyze the area. I tried to guess the socio-economic status of the neighborhood by scrutinizing the moderately priced but well maintained cars. I tried to determine whether the young men’s jeans came pre-ripped or whether they were torn from use. My sister, an seven year resident of Anacostia, explained the history of neighborhood while more young people walked and rode through blasting music. She explained how the grid system never made it over the Anacostia River and the haphazard streets reminded me of the bustling, get-in-where-you-fit in culture writers like Langston Hughes wrote about in Harlem. As she pointed out bits and pieces of the local history, I continue to people watch to the soundtrack of D.C Hip Hop. I realized that the music almost perfectly represented the vibe of this neighborhood. It was infused with the same unknown history my sister explained about the buildings. It too was happy to be what and where it was.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve reflected on that morning often as I settle into my new life in D.C. Mostly, I think about the mix of music and the vibe of the neighborhood. My increasingly regular habit of morning walks to the sound of D.C. music is slowly building up memories to make D.C. feel more like home. Yet, I recognize that it has a long way to go before it city and song and I blend as seamlessly as we did in Chicago.
Eventually I decided that if I wanted to grow a connection to D.C like I had in Chicago, my playlist would have to get a revision. I decided to find as much D.C. music as I could and hope the narratives and melodies would make me feel more at home in D.C. The first artist I came across in my search was Chuck Brown. For the uninitiated, Chuck Brown is the God Father of Go-Go, D.C’s unique subgenre of conga infused funk music. I was reading an article about D.C. culture when I came across the term for the first time. I asked my niece if she had heard of it and she gave me that look that only teenagers can give. The look says I thought adults were supposed to be smart? Due to fact that my niece is going through her awkward teenager stage I didn’t receive a definition. Instead, when I repeated my question she pulled out her broken iPhone and played a Chuck Brown song. She looked at me and said “Go-Go is that music that…ahhh.” The sheer elation of at hearing Go-Go music played with a full brass band had rendered her speechless and began doing a dance that I had never before seen but fit the song perfectly.
It was a boisterous, hip shaking, feet shuffling dance that seemed to communicate both a confidence in oneself and the sort of reckless giving into the beat that made Bay Area Hyphy famous. As my niece raised her arms and waved her phone blasting Chuck Brown’s “Blow Your Whistle,” I knew that she was too into the music to remember the question I asked. Instead, I watched as the youthful vibrancy, confidence and elation of the dance and music mirrored my own feelings about D.C.
As my niece might say, if pressed, Go-Go music is the music that makes you “go, go.” It seems in many ways to represent the feeling of intently running in place that D.C. gives me. This is not to say that D.C. is stagnant by any means but more that it is moving to just move instead of moving towards a goal. Like all the interns and staffers who run through Capitol Hill as if they are racing up some professional ladder are running to their dream job but in reality, this pace is the only pace at which they know how to live.
Mambo Sauce describes this perfectly in his song “Welcome to D.C.”:
Welcome to D.C!
You know where you’re at,
The USA Cap
You’re taking this lightly
Stop taking this lightly
Now, how you gonna act
Oh you gonna be right back
Well we gonna be right here
We gonna be right here
WE ain’t going nowhere
Welcome to DC
The song itself is an eclectic mix of regional sounds and borrows from many different musical genres. The song starts with a siren like loop from a synthesizer that reminds you of a screamer rock song in the early 2000’s. The siren is quickly joined from rhythmic beating of conga drums that the hallmark of Go-Go infused D.C. Hip Hop. Yet unlike the your standard Chuck Brown fare, Mambo Sauce stays true to his name and adds a log drum to give the beat a distinctive Cuban sound. As if the song wasn’t complex enough, Sauce adds some melodramatic guitar strumming like he slowed down a Crystal Method riff.
It is amazing that the track doesn’t collapse underneath its own sonic complexity but Sauce holds the track together with his fast paced rapping. As it stands, the track is analogous to the eclectic, fast paced nature of D.C.’s own culture. If you were to take a casual walk through D.C’s Eastern Market on a Sunday afternoon [like Logan Square with less hipsters and thrift stores], you would see young people from every region in America walking and mingling. Southern Belles in sundresses and matching hats walk down the street with girlfriends wearing New York’s signature Calvin Klein jeans tucked into boots look. Vendors are selling turquoise jewelry that is hard to find outside of the Southwest next to vendors selling Arabic prayer bowls and mats. It is an odd mix but the hustle and familiarity of the customers ties the event together.
Go-Go music and the D.C. rappers like Mambo Sauce, Asheru and Wale that it has influenced have become my D.C. swagger and stroll music. There is something compelling in the complex musical arrangements that seem to be a hallmark of Go-Go and its off-shoots. It has so much going on sonically that it seems to be bursting of youthful vigor in the same way that D.C. itself is. Washington is as old as America but according to the 2010 census nearly thirty percent of the population is between eighteen and thirty-five years old. Everywhere you go in D.C., you see confident and put-together young people running, jogging, biking or hustling to a local happy hour.
Asheru’s song, “B.M.I.G,” is a great example of this. It blends a chopped and screwed brass fan-fare sample and a guitar strumming as funky as anything Curtis Mayfield used. Blended in between these elements is some light track starching that serves to connect these two disparate parts. Combined with the MC’s bravado, it proves to be an unabashedly boisterous and confident song both in terms of audio aesthetics and in the lyrics:
Who you know for droppin’ singles when he feel like it?
Not givin’ a damn because only the real like it?
Who you for doing shows at the drop of the hat
Turn around, jump on the next hit and then jump back?
The vocals, brass and guitar coexist at the same level, none willing to give an inch and the song is better off for it. The three elements are not in competitions, merely flowing at the only speed they know how. The whole song speaks to loving where you are at and doing things however you feel like it. And just in case you didn’t think the song could get more complex, Asheru adds a sample from Erykah Badu to give the song a familiar feel. All told, the song is bold, proud, eclectic and complex like the city that birthed it.
Unlike Chicago Hip Hop, which always seemed so have its feet firmly planted in place, Asheru’s “B.M.I.G” seems to be on the move. It reminds me of walking down 14th street in Northwest D.C. There are young people going about their day in their unfailingly fashionable clothes and walking with a confidence that lacks pretention or arrogance. It’s not the high fashion hipness of the Magnificent Mile or even D.C’s own Georgetown. Their confidence is the unmistakable glow of alcohol, employment, youth and good company. Their swagger says “I’m different” as loudly as Asheru does on the track. My days spent half walking, half hand-dancing through the nation’s capital, complete with its fashionable and youthful citizenry, is giving me more and more song infused memories.
If I’m honest though, I must admit that while joyful, these memories lack gravitas. They lack the call to service and connection that my bittersweet memories of the Windy City do. Chicagoans understand place. They understand the history and pain that the dirt and asphalt contain. The young, transient D.C population lacks this connection to local history. Their boisterous regional flair is refreshing to be sure but seems hollow in comparison.
I recently attended a meeting on affordable housing at a library in Southeast D.C. I expected it to be similar to the “Art in Action” meeting in Chicago. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were perhaps two people who had been residents of Anacostia for more than 10 years. Most people in the room didn’t even live in D.C. and only came because they worked in the area. The rest, mostly recent transplants and homeowners, were more concerned with increasing their own property values than preserving history or improving the economic conditions of the ward’s low-income residents.
This experience, of going to community planning events that seem more like homeowner associations meetings, has happened frequently since I’ve been here. The more time I spend in D.C. the more I come to understand that this is what happens when a city loses its connection to the historic importance of place. It still has a vibrant culture and wonderful vibe but it lacks a city-wide awareness of how things have changed. The city’s “One City” development motto that is plastered on every other public surface only highlights this fact. The city is so fractured and lacking awareness that the city has to remind itself that it is, in fact, one city. In reality, the poor Black residents remember the “Chocolate City” of the pre-90’s “reinvestment” but their narratives are being drowned out by college educated transient transplants of all races. These millennial and generation X young professionals often seem to think that they are improving their new neighborhoods by advocating for art galleries and cafes. In reality they are replacing the vibrant oral history of their low income neighbors with the hip new sounds blasting from their iPods knowing they don’t plan to live in D.C long enough to care about affording their apartments in four years.
My time in D.C has made me rethink my connection to Chicago Hip Hop. While Chicago Hip Hop’s visceral connection to place is best experienced within Chicago, it is important for me keep listening to that Hip Hop, to remind me that history is important. Chicago Hip Hop reminds me that building a home requires struggle and investment. It may not fit in with long strolls though Capitol Hill but it helps to remind me of the importance of the narratives of my neighbors. It reminds me that my new block in ward eight has a history worth preserving that existed long before I moved here and will continue after I move on. It reminds me to put in the time; people watching on street corners, serving food at soup kitchens and advocating for the rights of all my neighbors to make this city my home. So, while Chuck Brown, Asheru, Mamba Sauce and Wale are dominating my playlists now, I remember to add some Common and Kanye if I feel I’ve been running in place too long to remember how I got here and who was here before me.