The odds aren't great that you know the name "Lil Kemo." If you don't follow Chance the Rapper on Twitter, if you don't keep up with the newest music video from south-side director DGainz or the latest dance clip from Wala Cam, if you don't frequent mixtape site Datpiff or Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive, if you don't spend much time on the west or south sides—in that case you've probably never heard of him. But in the local hip-hop scene, Lil Kemo, aka 18-year-old Travon Biggs, is a bona fide celebrity—and what's made him famous is a dance called bopping.
I meet Biggs at a barbershop at 16th and Pulaski, and as we walk west along Cermak Road toward his place, he tells me that kids are constantly running up to him like he's Santa Claus or Barney the Dinosaur. Sure enough, within moments a child who barely comes up to my waist calls out "Lil Kemo!" and reaches for his hand. And it's not just kids—on this particular day in the K-Town section of North Lawndale, where we pass the streets Karlov, Keeler, Kildare, and Kostner, there aren't too many people outside, but almost all of them know Lil Kemo. Men call out his name, stick out their hands and say hello, or dap him as we walk by, and at one point a woman yells to Biggs from a car on the far side of Cermak. The phrase printed in gold on his black T-shirt doesn't seem quite as self-aggrandizing as it did when I first laid eyes on it: Bop King of Chicago.
Travon "Lil Kemo" Biggs in action
The self-proclaimed Bop King of Chicago has attracted a rabid following with his playful, athletic spin on bopping, and he appears frequently in videos by west-side rappers. Here he demonstrates his fast and fluid dancing on the streets of the K-Town section of North Lawndale.
Bop was born on the west side, and it's now blossoming on the south side and elsewhere in Chicago. At its core, bopping consists of a few simple movements: a smooth shimmy down into a crouch and back, arm and knee action that's somewhere between flapping and twisting, and occasionally a step or two. It's fluid and playful, with a built-in pulse—at its most fundamental level it's like bobbing your head to the beat, except using your whole body. Because the basics are relatively easy to figure out, it's more inviting than, say, footworking, which is not only complex, fast-paced, and intensely athletic but also tends to be competitive rather than communal. Bop dancing's user-friendliness invites people to experiment: "Everybody has their own way that they do it," says DGainz, aka Duan Gaines. "Your bopping is your bopping."
Biggs regularly collaborates with Daryon Simmons, an 18-year-old from Austin better known as Dlow, and they've attracted a rabid local fan base with their wildly eccentric twists on bopping. They posted their first video together, "Dlow and Kemo (Episode 1)," in May 2013, and it offers a glimpse at their idiosyncrasies. Biggs likes to crouch low, his knees butterflying and his arms jerking up or in; Simmons favors a more upright stance, and his moves suggest a well-oiled, less jerky version of the robot. Even a shaky YouTube video is enough to convey their infectious energy—it's easy to see why bopping has taken off with kids looking to cut loose and have fun, even if they can't dance like Biggs and Simmons. Musicians are getting into the act too—upstarts such as M.I.C and Sicko Mobb piggyback on bop culture to push their own tracks, and local superstars such as King Louie and Chance the Rapper give bop's popularity a boost every time they nod to it.
Bopping in its present form started to catch on in a big way last year, but Wala Williams, the talent scout and event promoter who runs Wala Cam, says it's far from new. He's been documenting the local dance scene for more than a decade (Wala Cam has been a public-access program on CAN TV19 since 2003 and a YouTube channel since 2006), and in his view some version of bopping has existed in Chicago since the early 70s. Williams began noticing the current incarnation four or five years ago. "At parties they'd do a couple of bopping moves," he says, "but it wasn't nothing that everybody did at the club."
Williams made his first bopping-focused Wala Cam video in July 2012—it's a sort of how-to video and a contest, encouraging viewers to make and upload their own bop clips using the Versatile cut "Boppin'," released earlier that month, as a soundtrack. The grand prize was $500, but Williams says not many people submitted videos because they didn't believe he had the money to give away. (Biggs ended up winning.) Around the same time, bopping caught Gaines's eye too; he was heading to a meeting with west-side rap collective M.I.C (aka Mikey Dollaz, I.L Will, and Lil Chris) when he saw people outside doing the dance. "I was amazed," he says. "I thought to myself, 'I gotta bring my camera out here.'" He met Biggs the same day.
Bopping spread through clubs and parties—a party geared toward bop is usually called a "fiesta"—and by the end of 2012 it was turning up regularly in local rap videos. "You knew it was something new because it wasn't footworking," says Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber. "I noticed it was popular—it really kind of started with some of the west-side artists."
West-side rapper and singer DJ Nate (aka Nathan Clark), previously known as a footwork producer, had already had a regional hit with "Gucci Gogglez," first released in August 2012, and its chorus goes "I jackball, I bop, I flex." The video shows people doing rudimentary bop moves, and the tune's melodic hook and Auto-Tuned vocals established a loose template for the kind of upbeat rap tracks made with bop in mind.
No video has given bop a bigger boost than King Louie's "My Niggaz," a DGainz production that features Biggs showing off his moves—it's racked up more than a million views since its release in January. The video has given Biggs a boost too. Though he's also an aspiring rapper and actor, he wants to make it big as a dancer; he says that since his family moved to K-Town from a nearby housing project that was closing down, he's been focusing on his career. "I came over here to help myself, and help my mama, and help people around me to get out of this neighborhood," he says. "People try to hurt you or try to make you join gangs and stuff like that. My best way of staying away from that was doing my own thing." Biggs might get paid $250 or $300 to appear in a music video, and lately he's been doing three to five a week. He also gets invited to dance onstage at nightclubs and make appearances at high school and college events, which he says pay as much as $200 an hour.
Biggs and Simmons sometimes dance together in videos, and though their sleek, agile, boisterous interactions look tightly choreographed, Simmons says they don't rehearse—early on they taught each other their moves, and that was it. "We almost got an instant bond," Simmons says. Shortly before he met Biggs in April of this year, Simmons formed a loose bopping collective called Team Fiesta, and he claims that at its peak more than 500 people identified themselves as part of it. The collective was short-lived—Simmons says he dissolved it a couple months ago, after a gang with colors similar to Team Fiesta's red, white, and blue bandannas began trying to recruit its members—but bop remains an extremely social pursuit. "Instead of everybody bopping separate, we can feed off each other—we can go to parties together and turn up," Simmons says. He sometimes still wears his bandanna, though few other dancers do, "Just to symbolize the unity."
When Simmons and Biggs talk about bopping, certain themes keep recurring—unity, positivity, "turning up." And its everybody's-welcome party vibes are rubbing off on the music that's evolving to soundtrack the dance. For the past year, bop-related lingo ("fiesta," "turn up") has been appearing in the titles of local rap songs, including KC Ultra's "Bop Then," Stunt Taylor's "Fe Fe on the Block" ("fe fe" is another way to say "fiesta"), and Lil Kemo's "Turn Up or Die." A handful of west-side MCs and producers with connections to the bop scene—among them Sicko Mobb, Lil Chris and I.L Will of M.I.C, Breezy Montana, Shawty Doo, S.B.E., LeekeLeek, and Cicero on da Beat—are making melodic tunes with sprightly, sunny synth melodies and Auto-Tuned vocals. Compared to the drill sound that Chief Keef helped make a national phenomenon—aggressive, numbingly minimal, and almost narcissistically violent—their aesthetic is practically effervescent. Williams calls it "happy rap music."
"We got tired of shit we was going through," says Lil Ceno, who raps in Sicko Mobb with his younger brother, Lil Trav. "We're trying to make it somewhere." Ceno says they started rapping six or seven months ago, and they've dropped a handful of infectious Auto-Tuned bop jams ("Fiesta," "Young Heavy") with oddball sharp-edged synths whose high-speed barrages of notes sound like a cross between chiptune and a koto. Lil Chris says he likes to make music about having fun, and on his recent Money Talks mixtape he courts the bop crowd with a particularly upbeat song called "Bop Like Me." Lil Chris and the rest of M.I.C make all sorts of rap, not just music with fiestas in mind, but Chris says he's become neighborhood-famous thanks to his interest in bop. "You could see on my old videos, people never really paid attention," he says. "Now I make bop songs."
Bopping's reach doesn't end at the edge of Chicago either. Chance the Rapper, who by now has an international audience, references the hook from "Gucci Gogglez" on his hugely popular Acid Rap mixtape, and Barber notes that Chance's self-styled "zan" dance bears the influence of bop. Jay Z's Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail includes a Rick Ross verse on "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit" where he says "I don't bop, I do the money dance." Gaines says he bopped in New York during an August performance at the Entertainers Basketball Classic in Harlem's Rucker Park, and Simmons says he's fielding requests to dance in Atlanta, California, and the UK. Williams expects major-label representatives to come to a Wala Cam talent showcase he's throwing on Sat 10/5 at the JLM Abundant Life Community Center (2622 W. Jackson). It will feature performances by M.I.C, Breezy Montana, Biggs, and Simmons, among others, plus a bop contest with a $100 prize. Bopping seems to be poised at the edge of a national spotlight, waiting for something to push it in—and that something could be the music.
"You can see it as a movement—eventually there has to be a song to make it cross over," Barber says. "With footworking the song that did that was 'Watch My Feet' by Dude 'N Nem. Bopping needs that record."