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Sharp Darts: Unburied Treasure

Plenty of great Chicago hip-hop is hidden in plain sight.

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People outside Chicago tend to have two misconceptions about our city and its rap music. One is that the only good Chicago hip-hop comes out of New York. Though Lupe and Rhymefest are still in the neighborhood, Kanye and Common--our chief representatives as far as the mainstream market's concerned--are Chicagoans on disc alone. The other is that hip-hop in Chicago is all about conscious lyrics, the five elements, and floppy knit hats. It's nice that people think of us as rap's smartest city, but that doesn't mean we don't know how to party--this isn't librarian school or something.

The sad part is that lots of Chicagoans get the same things wrong. This is one of the country's most expertly segregated cities, and the local music scene is often divided along the same lines that separate the west and south sides from the north. A lot of white Chicago hip-hop fans--myself included--still depend on Power 92 and WGCI to tell them what's up, and those stations can only make room for so many locals amid the chart toppers who get the bills paid. For a long time I figured I was covered because I had the Lupe and Psalm One CDs, using the faulty logic that if there were anything else good out there, I would've heard about it. Luckily a few CDs wound up in my hands to show me how little I really knew.

Of course, I did already know about the molemen: you can't even say the words rap music within the city limits without at least one of these guys showing up. They run a record label, do DJ gigs, promote events, and provide beats for a long list of rappers--including Chicago MCs Juice, Vakill, and Ang13. Their new comp, Killing Fields, is one big flex for cornerstone members PNS, Panik, and Memo. Their beats veer between scratchy retro boom-bap and mix-tape-style street joints--they even use MIDI gun-cocking sounds, hip-hop's equivalent of cheesy guitar wanking--and the guest MCs cover a similar range, from indie to almost gangsta. Juice is effortless on the dense, Kanye-worthy "The Come Up," which blends 70s soul, stuttering kick drum, and a Jay-Z sample. Brooklyn mix-tape star Saigon raps over orchestral stabs and a loopy flute on "2 Hour Banger," a track as hard and shiny as anything coming out of Rap City's basement. Killing Fields is a smart, well-played production that's as tough as all those mix tapes with Lil Wayne disses and bad Photoshop covers.

On the subject of strong hustle and Photoshop skills: for The Hard Candy Mixtape: Volume 1 NIKKI LYNETTE handled almost everything herself, right down to the cover art. She assembled an impressive guest list and even got Lupe Fiasco to host. Her sweet, underdeveloped voice reminds me of a young Mary J. Blige, but I've heard Mary rap, and she can't spit Twista fast over a Three 6 Mafia track like Lynette does. "Even in my D-cups I'm the envy of men," she boasts, and I believe her--there are probably a ton of rappers who wish they could flip styles the way she does. Her skills are still a long way from matching her ambition, but even an MC at the top of his game would have a tough time living up to expectations like hers.

Ivy League-educated duo KIDZ IN THE HALL met at Penn, but front man Naledge moved back here after school and spits stories that're all the way Chicago: "Go Ill" is pure south-side street nostalgia, and in "Dumbass Tales" a drug dealer starts slinging in Evanston to "Trust-fund babies / Who sniff glue until they start hallucinating crazy / Rock Abercrombie and listen to Slim Shady." Their latest, School Was My Hustle (Rawkus), is the kind of smart but bumpable jam that makes hip-hop message boards buzz till they rattle. Producer Double-0 has a melodic, horn-heavy style that owes a lot to the group's biggest supporter, studio superstar Just Blaze--a debt he's repaid in part by holding his tongue when Blaze used the same Shaft in Africa sample the Kidz bit for "Don't Stop" in Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got." Double-0 has a crate digger's ear for source material, and his primo tracks sometimes outshine his partner's rapping. Naledge pops off quick bursts of syncopation as well as anyone else trying to do Nas, but for all the sweet lyrical tricks he pulls off ("Rock for the backpack niggas holdin' they fists up / Spit it for the ignorant niggas sippin' from pimp cups") he can also deliver total duds ("The Henny does wonders on the sex drive / She remind you of your Jeep on a test drive"). School Was My Hustle sounds like it's still a hook or two away from making the leap from Internet nuts to just nuts.

SERENGETI's Dennehy (Bonafyde) is nuts in a whole other way. "Critters" opens the record with a dizzy, squealing synth lead and a meditation on (I think) mental instability, getting wasted, and the cheap-ass 80s monster movie of the same name. Serengeti isn't the most lucid lyricist, preferring to work in the abstract with strings of non sequiturs. Some are confusing ("Thoughts all fucked-up like life was a shit smear") and others are stunningly blunt--if nothing else, a line like "I wanna fuck this chick with my whole hand" will stick with you for a minute. On character-sketch songs like "Dennehy" and "iPod"--the first an average Chicagah guy chanting a litany of attributes like "Favorite actor: Dennehy / Favorite drink: O'Doul's," the second an emo kid with a fake British accent obsessing over a lost iPod--Serengeti's nonlinear verbal diarrhea makes for some of the least subtle, most actually funny rap in forever. The album's potent, hazy vibe is probably too strong for most listeners, but the stoner set now has a cure for Dangerdoom burnout.

The Chicago rapper with the greatest crossover potential right now has got to be GLC. Earlier this year his verse on Kanye's "Drive Slow" got him into heavy rotation on Top 40 stations all over, and he's obviously not gonna let that heat go to waste. Proximity to Kanye has already made a few rappers' careers, and GLC takes every opportunity to exploit it on his Drive Slow mix tape--he not only reprises the title track but also brings back "Spaceship" from The College Dropout, in case you'd forgotten he was on that too. And A-Trak, Kanye's tour DJ--an underground phenom in his own right who's also working with Chicago rapper Kid Sister--gives GLC a whole jungle gym of sonic textures to play on. GLC is a big dude, and he sounds like one--that is, he's not the most nimble-tongued MC out there. But his laconic, self-assured flow can add a truckload of rhythmic force to a track--he doesn't ride the beat so much as settle into it. Stylistically he's like the horde of hard, slow rappers coming out of the south to raid the pop charts, which is another boon to his commercial potential: he's right at home with Tennessee's Three 6 Mafia on "Clap Your Hands," which will also appear on his upcoming GOOD Music debut, Welcome to Haterville. Even though he says "I'm from that south side / Eighty-seventh / Brand-new Chevys / Feel my presence," he sounds like he might be more at home in the Dirty South--or on 106 & Park.

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): photo/Rhonda Turnbough.

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