Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Between Motown and a Hard Place : Recession Era Hip Hop from the Midwest

It’s all over the news, we hear it on almost all channels of communication: This is the worst economic period since the great depression. Once lucrative business are laying off hard working stiffs left and right, the auto industry is seeking bailout money, and unemployment numbers continue to grow. Living in Chicago, there are numerous signs of a downward economic spiral. It doesn’t take a sociologist to notice there are more rust covered cars on the road, young kids in dusty coats, stores boarded up, and more forlorn faces on the cold Chicago streets. This recession has affected Chicago in a very unique way. Chicago was experiencing a boom at the millennium. The culturally rich city was experiencing unprecedented real-estate growth and business development, and for better or worse, gentrification was awkwardly revitalizing parts of the Midwestern metropolis. Over the last eight years, Chicago has not been protected from the credit crises and the all encompassing national recession. Chicago, like many a Midwestern city, has succumb to a national gloom.

Detroit is a city familiar with depression. A city built on the dreams of auto manufacturing and industrial prowess. A modern city filled with progressive ideals and cursed by corruption. The recession has turned most Midwestern cities into a collection of micro- and macro- versions of Detroit. That being said, Detroit is one of the few cities that has built a cottage industry on struggling and surviving. Detroit’s music exemplifies the very middle class ideals of work, struggle and redemption. In the 1960s, the Motown label produced music born out of the civil rights struggle and the materialistic opulence of an auto industry at peak performance. The music on the Motown label was at once soulful, spiritual, and elegantly acceptable to a mass audience. Somewhere between Motown and Reaganomics Detroit city lost its zeal for elegance and began embracing its more bare-knuckled aesthetics. The global economic transitions of the 1970s and 80s proved to be fatal for the city built on the singular dream of dominating global auto manufacturing. After Motown, Detroit gave birth to burgeoning hardcore punk, techno, and garage rock music scenes. The music coming from the motorized city in the 70s and 80s was anything but polished. It was raw, masculine, and industrial. Whether the pounding drums from punk bands like the Meatmen or the unforgiving motor beats of producers like Juan Adkins, in the years following Reaganomics, Detroit music was trying like the devil to break free. Through music, Detroit was crushing its economic failures, while celebrating its hard fought work ethic and creative soul.

Detroit has been living the death of the American dream for decades, beginning with the race riots in 1967, up to its induction as the “murder capital of America” at the dawn of the 21st century. This story of boom and blight is a story being repeated throughout America’s Midwestern cities. It’s a tale being told in the back alleys of Chicago, and the streets of Minneapolis. Detroit has suddenly set the tone for the entire Midwest, and its music speaks loudly to an audience with active, open ears.

In 2009, it’s not New York, LA or the dirty south that is setting the musical backdrop for the blighted economy and the hopeful optimism of a new president- it’s the Midwest. The raw, soulful sounds born out of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit seem to be pushing forth a generation of beat makers and lyricists not concerned with stylistic convention or ashamed of hard times. Artists such as J-Dee Yancey and Black Milk in Detroit, as well as Brother Ali in Minneapolis, and Qwel in Chicago, continue to make music with a very Midwestern aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic that resonates over the sound of closed factories and foreclosed homes. These Midwestern music makers owe a thing or two to Detroit, a city that has been making art in the face of hard times for decades. The duality of art and struggle echoes loudly in the music of revered producer J-Dee Yancey. The producer, who worked with everyone from Common, Erika Badu, and Tribe Called Quest, gave his beats a rough hewn, collage feel. In a J-Dilla beat, it is as if each track had been compiled from rusted Motown studios, discarded Cadillac grills, and shoes wrapped around telephone lines. His music was not only sonically well crafted; it was music that was directly taken from the Midwestern streets on which he was raised. It could be argued that J-Dilla made music that described his city better than a thousand news broadcasts or documentaries. His legacy of local appreciation, home grown soul and acknowledgment of the daily grind is being continued by Detroit artists like Black Milk and Invincible.

This Detroit Aesthetic isn’t just held within Michigan state lines. In 2008, Washington bred producer Jake One collaborated with a host of divergent MCs for his eponymous debut LP entitled White Van Music. The LP featured numerous Midwest MCs and had an overt nod to blue collar roots and the raw, unvarnished style so loved in the bread basket of the free world. Midwest MCs Brother Ali and Freeway provided the album’s introductory single “The Truth.” The track, while overtly earnest and completely ‘un-hip’ lets both MCs showcase their Midwest values and speak to the problems that face middle America at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. What is so striking about this track, found on an underground hip hop record, is how unselfconscious the track sounds. On “The Truth” Brother Ali breaks into a sing-song verse more reminiscent of a Baptist sermon than the flow of an underground MC. On this track, Ali is blowing not in a palace, but a studio apartment in a Midwestern city, eating ramen noodles with a pregnant wife, and he’s letting the struggle pour out through every lyric. This aesthetic isn’t atypical in the Midwest. A few hundred miles underneath Minneapolis is the Chicago, home of Qwel. Like Brother Ali, Qwel has a flow partially borrowed from the African American Blues and Gospel spoken word traditions. On his 2005 LP, If It Aint Been In A Pawn Shop, Then It Cant Play The Blues, the MC fully embraces the role of a world weary sage speaking about blue collar hard times and survival within the maze of the city. On this recording, Qwel becomes something of a hip hop Nelson Algren and uses his mic to weave intricate stories about blue collar survival.

There is a workman like quality to Midwestern hip hop, and whether born out of Detroit or just influenced by its plight, hip hop in the middle of America is more relevant now that it has ever been. It’s the sound of factory fathers, bus riders, and tarnished silver chains. It’s the sound of aspirations, realized or not. It’s the wail of tarnished hope, untapped potential, and without a doubt, it’s a sound that deserves our attention.

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