University of Minnesota Press
Like many other people, I’ve been interested in the Chicago drill scene since rapper Chief Keef deleted his cruel tweets mocking his murdered rival Lil Jojo. Lil Jojo was, like Chief Keef, a rapper from Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood who was antagonizing the ascending scene star and his associates back in the summer of 2012. Jojo had rapped that he’s ‘BDK’ (meaning 'Black Disciple killer' - Black Disciple was the gang Keef claimed affiliation to) over the beat from Keef’s early hit track, Everyday.
Within 24 hours of the above video appearing online, Jojo had been gunned down in the street. Chief Keef responded at first with mocking twitter messages, only to delete them a short time later, replacing them with claims that his account was hacked and messages of condolences to Jojo’s family. At this time Keef was a rising national hip-hop star and he must have had people working on managing his image to find that perfect balance of hood authenticity and mainstream acceptability that's so important to obtaining the desired mass audience of white suburban teenagers that make mainstream hip-hop commercially viable. What came across in those tweets, before they were deleted, was the essence of the more-death-than-death-metal, intensely anti-social, nihilism of the Chiraq drill music scene.
I was in the library looking for an entirely different book in the stacks when Chicago Hustle and Flow caught my attention. The title’s mention of Chicago and the book’s 2014 publication date gave me the idea that it might be about the drill scene in Chicago. Drill is characterized by its simplistic and repetitive \ lyrics of street violence, drug use, general anti-social attitudes and self-destruction, spat over beats that are closer to house/techno than hip-hop. The drillers are only mentioned in Chicago Hustle and Flow's Introduction and Conclusion (which were almost certainly the last completed sections of the book), the term ‘drill’ doesn’t appear in the text, and its only the Keef/Jojo rivalry that’s discussed in regards to this component of the Chicago scene. Author Harkness loves hiphop and whatnot but he's discussing pre-drill Chicago hip-hop and he therefore had the bad luck of researching a scene too early in time.
Chicago and the midwest has contributed a lot to music, especially underground music:
Chicago’s given the world house music while techno came from nearby Detroit,
And industrial rock comes from Chicago
elsewhere in the midwest a lot of the earliest and best punk and new wave bands come from that area as well.
More recently DJ Rashad (RIP) and the Teklife crew have been producing skittering footwork tracks out of Chicago.
But for all of the innovation that's come out of Chicago and its surrounding region, Chicago hasn’t really given hiphop any unique movement to speak of. Obviously Kanye West is from Chicago, but he’s an international superstar that’s successfully blended with the NY crowd, and there are some other rappers who come from Chicago but haven’t created any particular Chicago movement. Chicago, as a city, has in recent years given hip-hop something of its own with the repetitive, joyfully violent, explicitly gang-affiliated, drill music scene led by Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and their producer Young Chop.
Instead of discussing drill, Harkness investigates the tensions between street life and music performance/production among some pre-drill Chicago street rappers, noting their working class or lumpen origins, and the correlations between those origins and their street lifestyles and attitudes towards music. While Harkness is always clear that he’s conducting a sociological study of a ‘microscene’ of Chicago gangsta rappers, his conclusions are already known to anyone who's been paying attention to the things rappers have been saying for the past 30 years. You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that, for example, an unstable concept of authenticity is nearly essential to the success of a street rapper. These rapper's fans contest the authenticity of their favorite hood rappers on a daily basis via youtube comments and you can check any of these videos to confirm that statement. Books like this serve the function of making the things non-academic people already know knowable to sociologists. Thanks to Harkness, future scholars of hip-hop have a text to refer to if they need to explain what a mixtape is.