The Chicago Way

Chicago has long been the American big city with a heart of soul. It boasts a legendary gospel scene that spawned Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers. It’s also the home of Chess Records, a still-active free jazz scene that stretches back to the 1950s and even to “house music.”

The wise and inventive “consciousness” (read: positivity) of Chi-town rappers such as Common, Atmosphere and Kanye West (well, young Kanye anyway) always shows a solid respect for the town’s black musical tradition, especially of gospel and soul … and its message of peace and understanding through knowledge and transcendence.

Recently, however, some players on the Chicago scene have established a portal that leads directly from online social networks like Twitter and YouTube to the very violent streets of Chicago’s South Side.

Chicago rap phenom Chief Keef is a South Side teen who has become the major domo of this popular but wildly violent rap subgenre called “drill”( slang for retaliate and so called because of its aggressive “trap” percussion and violent lyrical content). Keef made a splash nationally after he spent a court-ordered house detention at his grandmother’s house uploading videos of himself and his crew flashing guns and taunting rival MCs and their sets. The videos got him noticed — and signed to a lucrative recording contract. Since then, Twitter wars have erupted among jealous rivals and several young people have died as a result of online threats instigating real-life violence.

Chance the Rapper also grew up on Chicago’s South Side, where, like Keef, he spent a 10-day high school suspension (for smoking weed) laying down beats for a debut mixtape “#10DAY” and making YouTube videos. Chance (real name: Chancelor Bennett), however, was booted from Downtown Chicago’s prestigious Jones College Prep High School, a nearly all-white institution that he attended on scholarship. During his hiatus, Chance set out to articulate being young and black in a white man’s world — a subject he knew intimately.

Instead of violence and retribution, Chance — like Kanye West and Common before him — uses smooth acid-jazz riffs and vintage soul samples while calling out the dreamy aspirations of black youth in a delicate singsong scat. Encouraged by the online response to “#10DAY,” Chance followed up with “Acidrap,”becoming even more seductive and articulate while looking at and beyond the violence and futility behind drill rap’s bloody message.

In addition to jazz and soul beats, Chance likes to sample old school “conscious” acts like Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village, even referencing Chicago’s soul poetry scene. (Remember “Love Jones”?) And when he deploys the overused auto-tune effect, it seems always to an intelligent purpose-deflating brag that is almost like a poignant nod to minstrelsy. But like all of Chicago’s best black music, there is a little bit of church in the chaos.

Chance the Rapper headlines the University of Missouri MSA/GPC’s annual Stop Day show on Dec. 5 at Jesse Auditorium. Congratulations to the concert committee on exhibiting such excellent, discriminating taste in Stop Day shows over the past few years.

One other can’t-miss show this month is Nikki Hill at The Blue Note on Dec. 28. If you caught Hill’s act at this year’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Stephens Lake Park, you already know the excitement that this young North Carolina native (now living in St. Louis) brings to the stage. Hill and company offer an old-fashioned, out-of-hand stage show of blues-rock originals peppered with Little Richard covers and the like. Do not miss this show.

By the way, Super Fan Matt Diehl informs me that Hill has just finished recording with local-hero-turned-superstar producer Deke Dickerson: a match made in the “half-forgotten” heaven that is Mark Twain’s Missouri.

Kevin Walsh considers himself a student of music’s effect on people. Since moving to Columbia in 1975, his professional ventures have included music retailer, radio show host and a brief stint as Truman the Tiger. He currently hosts “The (So Called) Good Life,” from 3 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday on KOPN 89.5 FM and streaming live at www.kopn.org.

chance the rapperChief KeefCurtis MayfieldmusicStaple Singers
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