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Sharp Darts: Chicago Hip-Hop's Demilitarized Zone

Andrew Barber's Fake Shore Drive forum has room for every faction of the local scene.


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Like most hip-hop events, the party Mikkey Halsted threw on inauguration day to celebrate the launch of his new Web site was awash in networking—cards were exchanged, demos pressed into hands, phone numbers typed into Blackberries. The rappers and producers in attendance included quite a few with at least modest national profiles (GLC, No I.D., Naledge of Kidz in the Hall, Mic Terror), and together they formed a cross section of Chicago's diverse hip-hop scene, which makes room for commercially inclined gangsta types, conscious backpackers, and skinny-jeans-wearing so-called hipster-hoppers. And almost everybody there took a second to swing by and say what's up to the scruffy-looking white dude whose blog, Fake Shore Drive, has become a vital nerve center for that scene.

Andrew Barber, 28, grew up outside Indianapolis, and even though he's been in Chicago for almost five years his voice still has a bit of country twang. He's part of the first generation of heads to come of age after hip-hop culture had spread to the suburbs and small towns, on its way to becoming the dominant sound of pop. A fan since age eight, Barber describes himself as "very much a hip-hop nerd," though he never developed a talent for the music himself. "I never could rap, never could DJ, but I wanted to find a way into the culture," he says.

In October 2007 he started Fake Shore Drive, which has turned out to be that way in. There have almost certainly been other blogs dedicated solely to Chicago rap, but Barber's is the first to survive and find an audience.

"I've always been a big fan of Common and Twista," Barber says. Even before leaving Indiana, in 2004, he was following the Chicago scene as closely as he could, and as soon as he moved here he got into it up to his eyeballs. "I realized that there was so much talent that people weren't hearing. In bigger markets in LA and New York it's easier for underground artists to get heard because there's actually industry there.... There's so much talent here, but outside of Chicago people think the only rappers we have are Kanye, Common, Lupe, Twista, and the Cool Kids. My goal was just to showcase all the talent in town."

That's not as simple a task as it sounds. Once you're actually on the ground here, the Chicago scene turns out to be just as fragmented and multifarious as any city's. In fact it might even be more so, since our homegrown celebrities haven't established a single unified aesthetic for MCs and producers to rally around. And showcasing all the talent in town means reaching across not just stylistic boundaries but boundaries defined by long-standing neighborhood rivalries and, says Barber, even gang affiliations.

This nonsectarian approach "causes a lot of controversy on the site," Barber acknowledges. But his status as an outsider without any pre-existing affiliations has allowed Fake Shore Drive to function as a more or less neutral forum—people from feuding factions keep coming back to argue and talk trash in large part because they don't feel the site takes anybody's side.

When Barber moved here, he says, "I didn't have any connections in the industry in Chicago. I didn't really know all the artists in Chicago. I just started blogging and reaching out to any artist I could find, trying to get interviews, trying to get exclusives." The first rappers to help him out were the Cool Kids, who led him to Hollywood Holt, Million Dollar Mano, and other acts with fans in the predominantly white dance-club scene. But he also got a leg up from Bump J, whose gangsta swagger is a world away from the Cool Kids' bubbly party rap (he's currently awaiting trial on a bank robbery charge). He hooked Barber up with rappers like Mikkey Halsted and producers like Traxster and No I.D., all of whom balance street grit and commercial sheen.

Barber runs Fake Shore Drive all by himself, managing a dozen or so posts every day even while working a nine-to-five job selling ads for the FX network. Between his single-minded dedication and the absence of any real competition, his blog has become just the sort of ecumenical hip-hop community he'd hoped it would. And people are paying attention: he says he currently gets 60,000 to 70,000 unique visitors and 180,000 to 200,000 pages views per month.

Fake Shore Drive has also helped to bring a new spirit of unity to the city's hip-hop scene. "Everybody from Mikkey to Mick Luter to GLC, they say they've never seen Chicago unity like this before," says Barber. Novakane from Ivy League even mentioned it to me at Halsted's Web-site party. Barber isn't taking sole credit for the phenomenon, but he definitely deserves a share—it's not stretching the truth to say that before Fake Shore Drive the odds of seeing all the rappers and producers at Halsted's party in the same room together were beyond slim.

This citywide unity—as well as Barber's newfound pull in the scene—is evident in Fake Shore Drive's first mix tape, due for release as a free download sometime in early February. Assembled with the help of DJ Timbuck2 from WGCI (107.5 FM), The Chicagorilla Ape Tape Vol. 1 includes tracks from Kanye wingmen like GLC and Really Doe, radio-friendly street dudes like Twista and Gemstones, conscious-leaning MCs like Lupe and Pugs Atomz, and party starters like Hollywood Holt. Everything on it is previously unreleased, given to Fake Shore Drive as an exclusive, and so far only a few cuts have escaped onto the Internet—leaked by the artists, Barber figures. It's named after the Fake Shore Drive mascot—Barber thinks his is probably the only hip-hop blog to have one—which is basically a dude in a huge, disturbing gorilla suit.

The mix tape's quality and the "volume one" in its title both suggest Barber has a future as a rap anthologist, but for now keeping the blog fed and watered is still his top priority. "Somebody has to run the circus," he says.

Barber gets flooded with so much music, video, news, and gossip that he can't always keep it all straight. But everything that makes the cut goes up on the blog. He's gotten older unreleased stuff from Lupe and No I.D., and this summer somebody calling himself Prometheus used Fake Shore Drive to leak a few tracks from a still-unreleased Rhymefest album. Early in January he posted an addictive tune called "Whaddup," which I recognized immediately when D.O.E. Boy took the mike to perform it at Halsted's party. Barber pricked up his ears and asked, "Who is this?"

I guess he remembered later, because two days later there was another D.O.E. Boy song up on Fake Shore Drive.v

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