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To Live & Die in Chiraq
  • March 31, 2014 : 18:03
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Keef’s success opened doors. Lil Reese signed to Def Jam. Lil Durk signed to French Montana’s Coke Boys label. Smoked-out Chicago MC Chance the Rapper released Acid Rap, a brilliant mixtape that drew from gospel, Chi-town soul and the nasal twerpiness of fellow Midwesterner and eventual tour mate Eminem. Chance’s mixtape went on to make best-of lists in Spin and Rolling Stone and on NPR, spawned a collaboration with Bieber and reached Billboard’s top R&B and hip-hop albums charts.

When Kanye drafted Keef for the queasy single “Hold My Liquor” on his Yeezus album and performed Keef’s “I Don’t Like” at a hometown show with 20,000 fans screaming along to every word, it stood as proof positive of the scene’s status as trickle-up tastemakers.

As Barber tells me, “Keef, Durk and Glory Boyz made the world come to them.”

It’s the sort of cold December day when the temperature struggles to break into the teens and the sky freezes into an impenetrable gray. Merk Murphy, Wahid’s longtime business partner and operations manager of Chicago recording studio Complex 2010, has barely settled into a black leather office chair when a frantic, staccato burst of buzzes rings from the intercom. Murphy, an affable 33-year-old dressed in a Day-Glo orange North Face sweatshirt, camouflage pants and a black knit cap, scratches his beard, cocks one eyebrow knowingly and ambles toward the intercom. Because Complex 2010, a basement studio situated at 2010 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, is the nexus of the city’s triumphantly ascendant hip-hop scene, Murphy has grown accustomed to a constant stream of wannabe stars. “Complex,” Murphy says.

“Is Carmen there?” crackles the voice of a male no older than 18.

“No,” Murphy replies. Silence. “Nope,” he repeats.

“Is this Complex?” the man asks.

“Yes, sir,” Murphy tells him.

“We’re recording for the Chicago Cyphers,” the man continues, referring to group freestyling sessions.

“Who did you confirm that with?” asks Murphy, growing interested.

Caught without business at Complex, the man pretends he didn’t hear Murphy’s question: “Uh, say that again?”

Murphy sighs, knowing this won’t be resolved over an intercom, and says he’ll come up.

Minutes later he slumps back into his chair with a weary smile. “Crazy shit,” he says, shaking his head. “So many people use this address, man. Little cats trying to get their buzz up. I said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you talking about. I don’t know Carmen. I don’t know none of that shit.’ I wish I had something for him. It’s cold and his crew was ready to spit. He gave me a couple of bars on the spot. Someone named Carmen told him to record his verses. And they were.…” he trails. “I don’t want to judge. He’s hungry.”

Considering the short but storied history of Complex, it’s no surprise aspiring MCs would attempt to bluff their way into the studio. The building and its surroundings are steeped in decades of Chicago musical history. Seminal Chicago hip-hop outfit Crucial Conflict recorded here in the 1990s, and legendary blues label Chess Records operated nearby, at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. The Rolling Stones’ 1964 paean to the place, simply titled “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” got a nod from Chance the Rapper, who recently rhymed, “We invented rock before the Stones got through.”

None of this is lost on Murphy. “That was the idea behind the location,” he says. “That and trying to create a new way for the younger cats. Muddy Waters and Record Row were decades ago. There was no place for the kids.” Today’s gate-crashers care less about the past than the present. A flatscreen in the lobby cycles through heavyweights who have recorded here: Keef, Twista, Trinidad James, Durk and Reese.

The rise of Complex, which was founded by Murphy along with partner and producer Cayex Illah in 2010, mirrors the ascent of Chicago hip-hop, which has come with the speed and ferocity of a lightning strike. It was only two years ago, after all, that Murphy and Wahid discovered Keef. “I was looking at different Chicago artists on YouTube,” Wahid says. “I saw Keef’s video for ‘Bang.’ The second I saw it I told Merk we had to find out who this is.”

“Bang” is easy to be blown away by. The minimalist masterpiece combines wobbling synths and gunshot snares as a dreadlocked Keef, just 16 at the time, dominates the camera, cocking his hand like a pistol and rapping, “I don’t give a fuck why we going to hell/I’m gonna let this hammer blow like bang.”

“Traffic was 100,000 at the time,” Wahid continues. “Today that’s nothing, but then.… I told Merk to get a number. Nothing happened. Then Dro [Rovan “Dro” Manuel, co-manager of Glory Boyz Entertainment] called me. He said, ‘I’m managing an artist now. Guess who.’ I said, ‘Chief Keef.’ He was like, ‘How the fuck did you know that?’ I said, ‘It had to be.’”

Keef had long called his crew from the South Side near 64th and Halsted streets the Glory Boyz. Under Dro and Wahid, it became Glory Boyz Entertainment, and Keef’s views on YouTube skyrocketed from 100,000 to nearly 1?million in the subsequent months. Today “Bang” has more than 7.5 million views. “We saw Keef at his grandma’s house one day,” recalls Murphy. “Eight or nine months later he’s a millionaire.”

The beefs, gang-driven murders and headlines about Chicago’s homicide epidemic create an ominous atmosphere around Keef, Reese and Durk, like the hunted-down Biggie and Tupac before their deaths. It’s a schizoid existence, lived between Instagram and Twitter, mixtape releases and the real Chicago streets. Glory Boyz member SD insists on parking between cars when he stops for chicken wings near the South Loop one night, so he can eat unseen. When I run into Lil Durk on a frigid December night, he darts behind the counter at Exclusive773, where owner Steve Wazwaz moves everything from Pelle Pelle jackets to rolling papers to the new Nike Air Jordan Gammas—a one-stop shop for the hip-hop scene.

After Durk relaxes and comes out to peruse the shop, Wazwaz holds court behind an elevated counter; it’s more like a stage than a corner store. He’s a hip-hop merchandising maestro, boasting of moving $15,000 in clothing and $4,000 in electronics each week. Dozens of music videos have been shot here. Even the security guard, a formerly homeless man named Charles “Lincoln” Stevens, has his own hashtag, #LincolnBeLike, on the store’s Vine, which has 137,000 followers.

But Wazwaz can’t help lamenting the estrangement of Chicago hip-hop from its hometown. “The majority of these rappers are in different gangs, BDs, GDs,” Wazwaz says, using acronyms for Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples. “That limits them. The clubs don’t want these shows. Six cop cars and a fire truck showed up to my Lil Herb show. I was fined $20,000 after a shooting on my block when Yo Gotti made an appearance.” However, Wazwaz couldn’t care less about police heat. What arouses his anger is the perceived wholesale abandonment of the South Side as a lawless war zone. “They won’t even come to the store,” Wazwaz says. “We make our police reports over the phone.”

A beefy customer haggles with Wazwaz over a pair of Gammas as we talk, and he lets them go for $100 less than the retail price. It’s one of many reasons Wazwaz is a beloved figure on the South Side. By the time I turn around, Durk is long gone, having retreated to Complex 2010.

That night he sits beside Murphy’s desk, fidgeting with his phone, in white jeans, white Nikes and a Pelle Pelle jacket. “It wasn’t that bad at first,” Durk says of his South Side neighborhood, known as O’Block. “Then the murder rate got real, real bad. Gangs got kids involved now. Now you can’t even come to them to solve beefs. Everybody wants to be known. When we came up there were rap beefs and murders, and they now try and blame it on rap. But that’s just politics to me.

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read more: entertainment, magazine, music, issue april 2014

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