Although hip hop music may not be for everyone, there is no denying the relationship that the City of Chicago has with the impactful sound. This wonderful city has had many amazing individuals bless the world with their unique and influential sound. I believe that by giving greater context to this underappreciated artform, many people will fall in love with the genre like I and many others have. To do this, we will have to go far back to the beginning.
Though I may not be the biggest fan of old school rap, it is important to understand the influence it has on the culture today. The first instace of modern hip hop dates back to the late 1970s. Block parties became popular in New York City in massive African American communities, and DJs would use two turntables to mix two different songs to create unique, longer, beats. Skillful individuals challenged themselves to try to make their own lyrics over the mixture of two songs birthing the era of vocalists like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, DJ Kool Herc, and many other. The show "The Get Down" on Netflix showcases this era perfectly. This is considered the first era of hip hop, and most of the rapping was very basic and straight forward. Most of the style was dedicated to highlighting the good times about African American culture and appreciation of the things they had.
The next major change came in the middle of the '80s. This is known as the golden age of hip hop, because this is when a lot of the most influential rappers and groups came into play. Some of my favorites are N.W.A, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, and many other. Gangster rap became a subgenre and rap music slowly started to split into various paths at this time. While traditional hip hop was more about the good times, this gangster rap revolved around the ideas of struggling and the difficulties of living in the inner city as a black man. This genre was a lot more aggressive than their contemporaries, but the lyrics resonated with a larger audience. For example, all the members of N.W.A were arrested in Detroit in 1989 during their performance of the song "F--- tha Police." The movie "Straight Outta Compton" goes more in-depth with the history of the group and the birth of West Coast rap. This is just one of the few examples on how violent the genre was becoming.
In the late '90s, rap music started to explode in all directions. There were major tensions between the east and west coasts with rappers Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. constantly fighting with each other. The South started to pump out several different genres like Atlanta hip hop, neo soul, crunk, and alternative hip hop. During this time, people in Chicago started to get involved with the rap scene. However, the Midwest never developed a specific genre like the other parts of America. Because of this, many of the early rappers in Chicago had to come up with something that would make them stand out from the rest and put the city on the radar for rap. These rappers would be people like Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, and Twista. Many of these artists had incredibly fast flows, and they became some of the world's fastest rappers. Rappers with this fast flow ability became known as Choppers. However, not everyone in Chicago was pursuing this fast flow. Common, from Hyde Park, was another notable early Chicago rapper, and I believe he is the defining example to follow in looking at the direction rap music would take in the City of Chicago.
Image courtesy of MCA Records
Common’s birth name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn and he was born on March 13, 1972. His parents divorced when he was about 6 years old, leaving young Lynn to live with his mother. While attending Luther High School South, he created a rap trio called C.D.R. After high school, he went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University for two years and then returned to Chicago. Here, he coined his rap name Common Sense, but Lynn would later be sued, forcing him to change it to just Common. Now, I do not know much about Common's early work, but here are the most important aspects of his early career. He collaborated with Red Hot Organization for a project called "America Is Dying Slowly" (A.I.D.S). This project focused on spreading awareness in the African American community about the AIDS epidemic. Very few rappers were willing to cover that topic, but Common was more than happy to. Common's third studio album, "One Day It’ll All Make Sense," had major impacts on how rap music would form in Chicago. This album was one of the first rap albums that not only sounded different from mainstream gangster rap but talked directly against it. Common was a major believer that gangster rap wasn’t good for the culture and wanted to take rap back to its roots. A great example of his beliefs can be found on the song "Reminding Me (of Sef)" where he reminisces about his youth in the South Side. One line that sums up the general mood of the song is as follows, “Behind the beat, I took my first shot of Henny. It hit me in the chest like when them marks shot Benji.” Common talks about his first memory of drinking a popular liquor among African Americans and Ben Wilson, a number one high school basketball prospect in the country, that was shot to death outside his school. A more traditional rap song would have covered how cruel and unfair the world has been to Wilson, but Common talks about how lucky he is that he is able to live to the age of 25. This was an important milestone in African American life during the time, resulting from a 1980s survey which established the age of 25 as the average life expectancy for inner city males.
His next studio album would prove to be greater than his last. "Like Water for Chocolate," released in 2000, which explored some new themes not yet common in hip hop. For example, the song "The Light" was a love letter devoted to his girlfriend Erykah Badu. He talks about how much he cares for his girlfriend, which is vastly different from the misogynistic depiction that rap music would depict. "The Light" was nominated for a Grammy later that year. If you ask me, Common had a trend to make rap music that was very uncommon from his peers.
Common would go on to produce a greater body of work, but his early ground work will be important for upcoming discussions. Here are the key things to remember going forward. Hip hop usually talks about the good times while rap, more specifically, talks about the bad times. Chicago's early styles of the time were either rapping fast or rapping about things that weren't usually rapped about. And finally, listen to the song "The Light." It is so sweet and is one of the few songs I knew from Common before research. If you have any comments, suggestions, or want more music recommendations, please reach out to me via email. Next week, we shall cover the rap scene in the early 2000s, all the way up to the day gangster rap was murdered by no other than Kanye West.