No More Heroes are building the future of Chicago rap | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Feature

No More Heroes are building the future of Chicago rap

Azeez Alaka and Brandon Holmes run a music and video production company with a pipeline to the majors and a headquarters shaping up in Little Village.

By

comment
Azeez “Laka” Alaka and Brandon Holmes in their future office at No More Heroes headquarters in Little Village - TARIYAWN KNIGHTEN FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Tariyawn Knighten for Chicago Reader
  • Azeez “Laka” Alaka and Brandon Holmes in their future office at No More Heroes headquarters in Little Village

Azeez "Laka" Alaka and Brandon Holmes have a clear vision for their production company, No More Heroes, even if their headquarters is still under construction. In November 2020 the friends and business partners bought a vacant commercial building on 19th near Douglass Park, and on an overcast May afternoon they lead a tour of it, explaining over the sound of power tools how everything will eventually be laid out. They point out the eventual locations of recording studios, common spaces, a grassy backyard for cookouts, and sets being built to resemble jails, hospitals, and courtrooms—which, they joke, will get you far in the world of rap videos.

The founders of No More Heroes searched for three years to find a spot that could accommodate the late hours, loud noises, and various forms of smoking that often go hand-in-hand with recording studios. Alaka and Holmes had competed for the building on 19th with nearby film and television studio Cinespace, but they closed the sale—the first step in creating a home base suited to their rising prominence in hip-hop. "It's gonna be a place where people gon' come, even if they don't wanna record here," Alaka says. "They might just wanna bump into us."

Alaka and Holmes began working together in 2018, when the former was still operating as Laka Films, and officially adopted the name No More Heroes in April 2020. During those three years they've created videos for some of the biggest names in major-label rap, including Lil Durk, G Herbo, and Polo G, as well as upcoming talents such as Pronto Spazzout, Lil Eazzyy, and DCG Brothers. Their work is full of striking moments that feel engineered to resonate as looping excerpts on social media.

  • No More Heroes released the video for G Herbo's "Drip" in May 2020.

In the video for DCG's "Mmhmm," the rappers lip-synch while messing around on a golf course—dancing, humping the ground, flipping golf carts. Its playful, memorable contrasts—between the bourgeois setting and their goofball antics, and between the silly tone of the video and DCG's street-rap lyrics about selling drugs and scaring rivals—earned accolades from Pitchfork and Stereogum (as well as from the Reader). "Everyone think all these hood artists aren't that creative, but they are—you just gotta put them in that environment," Alaka says. "And if you make them think it's cool, you're just building a bigger fan base."

  • DCG's video for "Mmhmm" dropped last August.

Connor Wiles of Chicago video-directing duo New Trash calls Alaka a legend. "Any version of the city's rap history without him is incomplete," he says via Instagram message. "Even with the amount of videos [No More Heroes] do, they still always have these super unique visuals and somehow never repeat themselves, which is like the hardest thing to do. I'm always looking forward to what they're gonna drop next."

Holmes and Alaka's for-hire video business is thriving already, and they have plans to expand in several directions. Their YouTube channel features an in-studio performance series called Red Light Freestyles, which has posted four installments since it debuted with a G Herbo verse in April 2020. They're also active in artist development—most notably, they worked with DCG to grow their following and in the process helped land the group an Atlantic Records deal. And No More Heroes have taken an active role in creating some of the music that comes out of their shop, earning credits (and thus royalties) when Holmes and Alaka choose beats, hire rappers for verses, or offer other artistic input. Despite their work with major labels, they've maintained their independence—which leaves them free to take any job they want. "Why can't we have a poppin' YouTube and still go shoot $100K, $200K videos for labels? We just try stuff. Shit, we bought a building," Alaka says, laughing.

No More Heroes' closest cousin in Chicago is Lyrical Lemonade, an operation that began as a hip-hop blog in 2013 and has since evolved to include artist management, event production (most notably for the Summer Smash festival), a clothing line, and music videos directed by founder Cole Bennett. The main difference so far is that Alaka and Holmes also act as producers à la DJ Khaled.

Alaka grew up on the south side and began his career in 2014, when he launched the Laka Films YouTube channel. His personal social-media handles still bear that name. "I just dropped out of school, pretended to be younger, went to YouMedia, learned a couple skills on YouTube, then went to the streets of Chicago and clicked 'record.' And figured it out!" he says. Alaka filmed bop and drill artists at a time of renewed national interest in Chicago's rap scene, earning millions of views and a sizable following. "I was getting YouTube checks, feeling like the man," he recalls with a grin. Alaka later met a director who goes by Daps, who taught him how to write industry-standard treatments and expand from his early single-camera shoots to more elaborate productions.

Holmes grew up in southwest-suburban Yorkville and started shooting videos in 2015 using a friend's grandmother's camera. After making more than $200 in a week, he quit his day job. "We just hustled," he says. "Moved to Chicago, ordered a bunch of camera gear on credit cards and Amazon accounts, paid it off, kept going, and made it to where we are now." He launched his own YouTube channel in 2016, and though he gradually abandoned it as his partnership with Alaka took off, it's still hosting the videos he made a few years back for hot locals such as Taco and CupcakKe.

Viral successes such as DGainz's 2012 video for Chief Keef's "I Don't Like" had become essential to turning independent street rappers into stars, and both No More Heroes directors learned that lesson from seeing it happen. "That's what makes us the rawest A&Rs—we watch music videos from upcoming cameramen," Alaka says. "No one has ever got on in our city without shooting a video with an upcoming cameraman. It's impossible." Because they leapt into the music industry DIY style, without wasting time with gatekeeping institutions, they've amassed far more experience in the biz than you might expect of two 26-year-olds—just like many of the independent rappers they've worked with.

  • Calboy released the "Where Were You" video with No More Heroes last Christmas.

Alaka and Holmes were introduced by a mutual Tinder match in late 2017 and met in person while working on the set of a TrenchMobb video. Alaka first hired Holmes as a camera operator in 2018, and they soon became friends and trusted collaborators who speak every day, though they're not often in the same city at the same time.

In person, the two men couldn't come across more different. Holmes's voice rarely rises above a calm murmur, while Alaka's speech picks up speed and volume rapidly as he dishes about the industry. He dismisses amateur rappers who want to "make it" without putting in the work to consistently release music, and he's just as scornful of major-label artists who go into debt to their labels or waste their advances on lean and other indulgences.

Their disparate personalities give them more tools to manage dozens of people on a marathon video shoot, which they typically finish in one 14- to 18-hour day. And their growing reputation is attracting a range of artists, even those who might be rivals musically or otherwise. "I just don't get involved in personal matters," Alaka says. "If I don't come there gangsta, I'm not shaking up any gang signs, I'm not trying to be what I'm not, people just respect it."

"We just stay out the way and give everybody a chance to tell their story, creatively," Holmes adds.

Alaka and Holmes began thinking about rebranding in late 2019, after noticing waning interest in the Laka Films channel. They spent four months considering new names for the enterprise. "Laka Films" put all the emphasis on Alaka as an individual, and he wasn't comfortable with that anymore—one of his biggest regrets is trying to be too independent when he was just starting out. "Black people in general have trust issues, and trying to do everything by themselves," he says. His partnership with Holmes changed all that. "As soon as we teamed up, G, everything went times three, times four, times five."

The new name came to the team right at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns. "The first day, we had our meeting, we went to go grab our whiteboard, and we made our name," Alaka says. "All we had to do was sit down!" COVID-19 gave them an opportunity to slow down and consider their next steps, though they continued traveling to film, albeit sparingly (and with slimmed-down crews following COVID protocols). This let them take advantage of the fact that so many people were stuck inside with plenty of time to watch videos.

Holmes and Alaka settled on "No More Heroes" because of what they'd experienced traveling with Chicago singer-rapper Juice WRLD on his last tour before his death in 2019. Each night they saw more than 200 people working together to put on the show, and the two of them wanted to emphasize a similar spirit of teamwork in their own company. "We are the furthest thing from a one-man show," Holmes says. They commissioned a logo from Los Angeles-based illustrator Jake Larsen that taps into the superhero-saturated zeitgeist, combining elements of Spider-Man's mask, a comic-book word balloon, and the universal "no" symbol. The first Red Light Freestyle—the G Herbo episode on April 20, 2020—was also the debut of the new brand.

Chris Zielinski, a content director and longtime friend of Alaka's who's been working with him since 2016, explains one of the benefits of the change. "Laka Films, I'll wear a T-shirt because that's one of my best friends. But no one else is really gonna wanna rock a Laka Films shirt, because they don't necessarily want to be underneath you," he says. "But if you have a brand that makes you feel like a part of something—'No More Heroes' sounds cool and sounds like something I could get behind." That said, the production company still maintains something of a hierarchy, even though Holmes and Alaka enjoy developing talent behind the camera and are quick to credit their collaborators. They each have a flashy chain with an iced-out No More Heroes logo—and only those two exist.

Brandon Holmes and Azeez Alaka outside the building they bought last November to house No More Heroes - TARIYAWN KNIGHTEN FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Tariyawn Knighten for Chicago Reader
  • Brandon Holmes and Azeez Alaka outside the building they bought last November to house No More Heroes

Even before No More Heroes embarked on their ongoing rebranding and expansion, they'd begun developing a relationship with DCG. The west-side rap group, consisting of teen brothers Bsavv and Shun, had reached out to Alaka to film a video for their 2019 track "Dangerous," encouraged by his work with King Von, Famous Dex, and G Herbo. Bsavv remembers thinking, "I need Laka, he's one of the most turnt persons in our city."

No More Heroes were impressed with the young performers' charisma, even in unscripted settings. Zielinski set up a tripod for an impromptu interview with DCG. "They were just talking and making jokes with each other, and Laka and I were looking at each other, knowing these kids have the greatest chemistry," he says.

No More Heroes soon struck a deal to overhaul DCG's image for a wider audience. Their changes included eliminating guns from ensuing videos and turning "DCG" from an inside reference into an aspirational backronym—it now stands for "Dreams Conquer Goals." The group also moved to Los Angeles last year at No More Heroes' suggestion, to better focus on music full-time. The changes are an interesting example of what's acceptable in the larger music industry, even in street rap, decades into the subgenre's existence. DCG's songs still talk about drugs and violence, but in the right tone and with the right euphemisms to take off beyond Chicago. "Talk that gangster shit, but don't name names, don't be smoking your opps, stuff like that," Alaka says.

  • The No More Heroes video for DCG's "Not a Diss" may remind you of a certain 1995 comedy starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker.

The group's plans (and No More Heroes' plans for the group) were complicated in early 2020, when Shun was incarcerated on gun charges, but he was released in May after three months. DCG had already worked with Laka Films, and they put out their first collaboration with No More Heroes in June—the video for the remix of "Okay" dropped just a few weeks after Shun returned home. The song, with a feature from fellow Chicago duo Heavy Steppers, "helped take DCG out of the basement," Zielinski says.

DCG say that the greatest thing they gained from No More Heroes was an understanding of their own potential to use hip-hop as a ticket out of bad circumstances, like countless rappers before them. "He got our heads on the right track and opened our eyes to life, to see how young we is and how much success we've got ahead of us," Shun says. As they modified their image, the most important advice they received from Alaka and Holmes was to be themselves. "If you really know where you come from and what your past is like, you're gon' bring all that to your business," Bsavv says.

Alaka had gone through this development process before with Chicago artist Famous Dex, and Dex's videos are still some of the most viewed on the NMH YouTube page. But in 2016, when the rapper signed with Rich the Kid's Atlantic imprint, Rich Forever, Alaka got no share of the deal. "You live and you learn—you mess up once," Zielinski says. "The next time, before you go through the process of building an artist with you, talk to them and see if they want to have a partnership on it. You're both contributing to the bigger image."

Those lessons paid off for No More Heroes when DCG signed to Atlantic—the deal, announced in early June, was something of a joint venture, establishing a channel by which No More Heroes could bring more artists to Atlantic without tying them exclusively to the label. DCG commemorated the announcement with the release of "House Party," a new song produced by buzzy collective Internet Money with a video from Cole Bennett of Lyrical Lemonade. Speaking by phone a few weeks after the announcement, Alaka and Holmes explain that they expect their connections at Atlantic to lead to more directing gigs for the label's artists: "Being at the forefront of their minds, they're willing to reach out to us first to offer projects that are reasonably in their realm," Holmes says.

Holmes and Alaka want to keep developing No More Heroes as a musical entity, curating beats and pairing them with vocalists—that way they'll earn a share of their work's revenue in perpetuity, rather than receiving only a flat fee as is typical for a video. "Buying a song is real estate," Alaka says. "You get points, you get money."

The first musical release to credit No More Heroes was a February collaboration between DCG and Chicago rapper Lil Zay Osama, and when we spoke in May, Holmes and Alaka were already months into work on a collab with G Herbo and rising Memphis star Pooh Shiesty. The pairing's appeal is simple: "Herb is a great artist on features, Shiesty makes some good hooks: you put it together and you make magic," Alaka says. They created the song in several studio sessions, doing "surgery" on one long freestyled performance from Shiesty to create verses and hooks, then adding Herbo's contribution. ("Freestyles don't go viral," Alaka explains.) Hype for the two rappers' first collaboration built among fans as the track was leaked and teased across social media.

  • No More Heroes collaborated with Lil Zay Osama and DCG on the February 2021 track "4Nem Grave."

With the song complete, No More Heroes filmed a video for it with Herbo and Shiesty. The rappers' labels haven't released it yet, but Alaka is happy to describe it. "The 'Switch It Up' video is raw," he says. "It is stupid. Shiesty switching into so many different things—we've got Shiesty and Herb switching they chains while they rapping, Herb jumping out a window skydiving, holding the Thor thunder. It's stuff you ain't seen in a video! I don't think people ready for it."

But when the song "Switch It Up" was officially released in late May, as the first track on the deluxe edition of Shiesty Season, it used a different beat—the rappers and their labels had been unable to clear the original. "The producer had a loop that was a sample, and we couldn't find the sample, and they looked for weeks and tried their hardest, and that project had to drop," Alaka says. Some fans who'd been excited by the leak were disappointed by the final version, with a few even sending harassment and death threats to No More Heroes.

Disgruntled cranks notwithstanding, "Switch It Up" has been streamed millions of times on Spotify alone, and No More Heroes hope the video will reignite the hype around the song when the labels decide to release it. "So much time was spent on it, and we were looking forward to it doing so much for us, and shit just did not happen," Holmes says.

The delays and disappointments surrounding the "Switch It Up" video release haven't slowed down No More Heroes' plans or dimmed the founders' enthusiasm. They're at work on a full-length No More Heroes project, and DCG (who are also recording their own album debut) have already contributed verses. The company has also begun to push its second artist, Chicago rap-crooner FlyNari, with the release of "ChromeHearted" in mid-May. "It's real easy once you do it once," Zielinski says. "You build the connections to take the next artist through the process."

  • Azeez Alaka is the executive producer of the video for "ChromeHearted," directed by Josh Jones.

No More Heroes want to be a dominant force not just in Chicago rap but in rap, period. "We want to be like the next QC in Chicago," Alaka says, referring to Atlanta label Quality Control Music, whose roster includes stars Migos, Lil Baby, and City Girls. "Just imagine if one person had Durk, Herb, Polo, and Juice all at once." And though each project could take years to come to fruition, they have toyed with the idea of launching a comic-book series, a festival, or even a school.

As an independent Black-owned start-up, No More Heroes also want to nurture the communities the company's founders come from. They run internship programs where local high school students interested in the music business can earn class credits by shadowing NMH folks on their jobs, learning how to operate cameras, and receiving lessons in editing, networking, and building a portfolio. After protests and riots last June led to widespread property damage on the south and west sides, No More Heroes partnered with the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce and Project Forward to organize a community clean-up day near 47th and King Drive. Holmes estimates 100 people showed up to clean (they were fed for free by local food vendors), and a simultaneous GoFundMe raised around $17,000 that the team distributed to 17 different businesses.

"We try to put as many people on as possible, as many Black people on as possible, and try to do so much for our community," Alaka says.

"Chicago violence is just so bad, it's hard to tell people to stay," he admits. "But I think Atlanta violence is bad too, and somehow they figure it out." He points out that hip-hop's current capital city has a robust infrastructure of songwriters and studios, and says that he and Holmes hope their new headquarters will contribute to the growth of something similar in Chicago. "People come here, and they're gonna record, and you're gonna have all these so-called killers in sessions all night long," Alaka says.

Holmes and Alaka emphasize that for all their lofty ambitions, they're still building a business from a blueprint they're drawing and redrawing as they go, trying to stay ahead of the ever-shifting music industry. Not every No More Heroes project has been a success, but they're proud of what they've achieved so far. "Everything is growth. You always get excited when you do something, I don't care what nobody say," Alaka says. "Even if it flops! Even if no one comes to the studio, we put that shit there! I will rap!"  v

Get our free weekly Early Warnings newsletter 💌

It’s Chicago’s essential months-ahead music calendar straight to your inbox.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →