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Sharp Darts: Where the Cool Kids Are

To hear the new sound of Chicago hip-hop, it helps to be on MySpace.

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WLUW's Weird Kids Night with DJ sets by the Cool Kids, Jake Austen, and others

WHEN Mon 7/9, 9 PM

WHERE Darkroom, 2210 W. Chicago

PRICE $7

INFO 773-276-1411

Over the past year and a half, a new crowd of omnivorous, beat-obsessive DJs and rappers--Flosstradamus, Kid Sister, Hollywood Holt, the Cool Kids, Mano--has done what nobody's managed to do in years: developed what you could conceivably call a Chicago hip-hop sound. Though a number of local rappers have broken big in Kanye's wake--Twista, GLC, Lupe Fiasco--none has really catalyzed a Chicago-specific style, much less one that could rival the sounds coming out of Houston, the Dirty South, or the Bay Area.

This new wave of Chicago hip-hop isn't within shouting distance of the Billboard charts yet and may never get there, but it's a recognizable thing. It takes cues from the indie-rock-influenced hipster dance scene, relying more on four-on-the-floor club rhythms from juke and house than the languid, syncopated beats common in mainstream hip-hop. And it borrows some of the most appealing elements from the other major regional styles: the screwed vocals of Houston hip-hop, the good-natured rowdiness of Dirty South crunk, and the playful, casual attitude of Bay Area hyphy, with its rhymes about hanging out, dressing up for the club, and gettin' retarded.

The Chicago sound hasn't reached a lot of people, but it's reached the right people. Local acts have thoroughly exploited hip-hop's embrace of MySpace over the past year or so, using the Web to market themselves to a nontraditional hip-hop crowd and get noticed by bloggers with genre-straddling audiences. Flosstradamus in particular have blown up like nobody else in the Chicago indie scene. Their mixes have rubbed off on DJs on several continents, and their preferences in club music--they like big, cheesy, high-energy sounds and privilege goofy fun over stylistic elegance--have proved just as contagious. They're tastemakers to the tastemakers, followed closely by DJs who gather to nerd out about music at influential Web sites like Philly's Fathertronix message board or Sweden's Discobelle, and like little Kanyes they've used their gravitational pull to slingshot other acts into orbit.

The Cool Kids are one of those acts. Mikey (aka Antoine Reed) is a 19-year-old from the south suburbs, and Chuck (aka Evan Ingersoll) is a 22-year-old import from suburban Detroit. They have yet to put out a CD, a 12-inch, or even a cassette--everything they've released so far has been posted to their MySpace page or distributed to blogs as an MP3--but in the past year they've gone from making beats for each other to dropping verses alongside the biggest rapper in the world.

It's June 28, and a crowd has gathered inside Empire Liquors in Wicker Park for a party celebrating the second anniversary of the nearby sneaker boutique Saint Alfred. The Cool Kids, who are scheduled to play, are outside, shivering in the unseasonable chill. Chuck's telling me about how the group got started and Mikey is scanning the incoming throngs for familiar faces. "He hooked up with me," says Chuck, indicating Mikey with a nod, "and wanted to get a beat off of me." This was mid-2005, and though both were mostly producers, Mikey was already doing some rapping. "One day we just met up--I came over to his house with some CDs, and that's all she wrote. We were both, like, searching for each other without searching for each other." They bonded over a shared aesthetic that borrowed heavily from hip-hop's golden age, when duos like EPMD and Eric B. & Rakim were setting a new standard for the genre. "It was just, we both knew what we wanted to do," Chuck says. "A lot of stuff that you hear first, like the 'I Rock' and '88' joints, that was just us figuring each other out."

Despite their obvious influences, the Cool Kids have never considered themselves merely revivalists. "I don't want to get, like, 'These guys are just some retro group,'" Chuck says, "like Jet was in '04. You know they didn't really stretch out to '07 so well." One of the things that sets the Kids apart, in fact, is that they know enough about a second-tier mainstream rock band to dis it: during a brief DJ set before our interview, Chuck's mix includes Maroon 5 and the Police. Their production style likewise draws on more than just hip-hop--they might use the minimalist synth lines of retro electro or the frenzied thump of new rave. "I haven't listened to really too much hip-hop lately," Chuck admits. "I've been checking out this band Hail Social, the Carps, the Klaxons. I've been into this late-2000s rock. It's dope." He pauses. "It's got this whole new vibe to it, instead of that pop-punk pussy mall shit," he says, in a tone most rappers reserve for rival cliques. "I will hate on that shit."

For every old-school cut like "88," the Cool Kids put out a track like "Black Mags," a moped love song that sounds like unrefined Dr. Dre, or "One Two," which pushes sampled cowbell up against grotty, sawtooth-wave sub-bass synth, like a Run-DMC tune hijacked by M.I.A. Their next-level beats have won over plenty of DJs, bloggers, and other tastemakers, from Pitchfork to Nick Catchdubs. But both Kids are serious rappers too; a forthcoming album from the hot-shit DJ Benzi includes a track called "Gettin It" that pits them against Lil Wayne, one of the most inventive, competitive, and successful MCs in the world. They hold their own, and even though they only get a few lines--Wayne's not good at sharing--they've got enough confidence that instead of pumping themselves up they spend one taking a subtle dig at Hurricane Chris's stupid-fun hit "A Bay Bay."

The people passing us on their way inside look pretty typical for a Cool Kids show, except maybe a little more dressed up. There are white kids with dookie chains thicker than your thumb rocking an updated take on Harlem circa '82, black kids in skinny jeans and hoodies, and vice versa. There's a pack of new-wavey punks and a couple guys in suit jackets and ties. This kind of mixed fan base is common to all the acts in the up-and-coming Chicago scene, and the Kids are proud of that. "That is probably the biggest accomplishment we could've done," Chuck says, "to take people that wouldn't necessarily have been at a hip-hop show and they'll enjoy it, not just watch." Mikey has only commented a couple times so far, mostly just adding a "yeah" to something Chuck's saying, but this gets him going: "That's how it should be," he says. "If it's good, it's good. That's all anybody should aim for. If you make good shit, people will listen. They can't deny something that sounds good."

And people are listening. After reviewing a couple Cool Kids tracks, Pitchfork gave the group a coveted spot at next weekend's Pitchfork Music Festival, where the main-stage talent includes GZA, De La Soul, and Clipse. The Kids have plans to put out a proper full-length CD--originally it was going to be an iTunes-only album, but they've changed their minds--and of course they're going to keep posting jams online so DJs from all over the world can work them into their sets.

Right now, though, what they've got to do is get back into the bar. It's getting colder by the minute, and if any more people show up, there's not going to be room left for them to perform.

The Worst Thing That Could Happen to Internet Radio? It's Happening.

A while back I did a column on webcasting and the egregious royalty rate that the RIAA's shills at SoundExchange pushed through the Copyright Royalty Board. In it, I quoted the webcasters at AccuRadio about how the rate hike might affect the industry. Daniel McSwain floated a theory that labels--specifically major labels, due to administrative complications that could effectively lock indies out of the process--might use a legal loophole to offer lower royalty rates to webcasters who agreed to play artists the labels were pushing. Excerpt: "This would allow the industry to 'dictate the look and sound of playlists,' according to McSwain. 'It takes away any autonomy from webcasters and puts it completely in the labels' hands.'"

At the time I was worried that this verged on the feverish hypothesizing of a conspiracy freak. But it turns out I was underestimating the majors. On June 27, SF Weekly broke the news that a new start-up webcaster called Slacker.com has "stated in the press that it made direct license deals with the majors that have saved it the hassle of paying higher royalties." Reporter David Downs is calling the setup "dark payola": the labels have indebted the company to their wishes with rate cuts rather than flat-out giving it money.

Major labels: making your most evil nightmares come true.

So, doesn't it sound like a good time to call your congressperson about the Internet Radio Equality Act?

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chuck and Mikey of the Cool Kids photo by Constance K..

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