If you were to ask folks on either coast to describe the Midwest, they’d likely tell you that it consists exclusively of sleepy farm towns and insignificant flyover markets devoid of excitement or character. While to some extent this might be true, major metro areas such as Chicago are a thriving cultural hotbed rich with history, pride, and a desire to share its artistic vision with the rest of the world. With Chicago’s musical past deeply rooted in jazz and the blues, the Windy City Sound evolved significantly throughout much of the 20th Century to include elements of soul, rock, and punk that are all still very prevalent in the music scene today. Thanks to major artists like Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Twista, and others, the hip-hop movement over the past 10+ years has been massive for the city, helping solidify Chicago’s importance as one of the most influential music centers in the country.
After the success and appreciation for our 12 European Artists You Should Know About feature, we’ve decided to bring things stateside and highlight a city we feel has a lot to offer the music community. With Midas and myself both penning from Chitown area codes, Chicago felt like a logical place to start. Now for the disclaimer; this list won’t contain a Kanye, the band Chicago, Jennifer Hudson, or any other major music star that your parents either discovered or are already hip to. This is a roster of artists that are either just kicking off, building up significant steam in their respective space, or are at the tipping point of breaking it big time. Perhaps some you’ve heard of, hopefully some you haven’t, but either way this is our inaugural list of Chicago Artists You Should Know.
“I’m impressed with the people from Chicago. Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work.”
– Michael Douglas
By Monster, Midas and Constant Gardner
Click “next” or hit shift + right for the rest of the list…
Dance Academy: Gemini Club
Gemini Club is a three-piece indie-electronica band on the rise. With a number of well received remixes under their belt, and opening stints for the likes of Chromeo, A-Trak, Two Door Cinema Club and others, this is an exciting group to keep an ear out for. They’ve been touring extensively over the past two years, thrilling audiences with their unique style of live performance that is anything but conventional. The group uses a specially designed rig that allows for live-remixing completely on the fly and makes for a one-of-a-kind experience each time they take the stage. Their new EP Here We Sit is set to drop April 17th, you can pre-order it here. See below for the lead single and my personal favorite, “By Surprise”.
Soul Assassin: JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound
Defined as a post-punk soul outfit, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound may just well be the most connected band you’ve never heard. Jeff Tweedy threw his support behind the group after discovering their reconstruction of the Wilco hit “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. He even took to the stage to perform it with them live at a local Chicago show and later invited the group to appear at Wilco’s Solid Sound festival. The Uptown Sound have jammed alongside numerous notable acts including legends Robert Plant and Buddy Guy, and more recent indie players Peter Bjorn & John and Fitz & The Tantrums. Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has contributed to the buzz by personally inviting them to play his inauguration concert. Soul music is a cool man’s game, and these cats fit the bill to a T.
Calculated Creativity: Maps & Atlases
While Maps & Atlases are far from a “new” group, forming back in 2004, they are still largely slept on by outsiders to the midwest. The foursome found a niche in the Chicago music scene by specializing in the math rock genre, which is known as a rhythmically complex guitar-based style of experimental rock. Now math rock might sound nerdy and uninteresting to the simpleminded individual or one of the jock variety, but I assure you it’s not. With a couple of albums already on the shelves, the band is preparing for the release of their new LP Beware and Be Grateful, which will hit on April 17th. The album’s lead single “Winter” is sitting below and politely begging for your attention.
Maps & Atlases – Winter
Youth Rock Revival: Smith Westerns
Smith Westerns are a young trio whose self-titled debut album was recorded and released in 2010 while they were still teenagers fueled by love, lust and the carefree fun of being young. Although the band members are now out of their teens, and working on their third LP, they’ve still managed to keep that garage and surf-rock indebted edge of their earlier work. Combine that with more polished production, soaring harmonies and catchy hooks-on-hooks-on-hooks and you have their current sound profile. While we await the new album, their previous effort Dye It Blonde is still streaming in full on their website. See a video for the album opener “Weekend” below.
From The Heart: Blah Blah Blah
When we listen to music, it affects our attitude and demeanor whether we realize it or not. Music is a mood enhancer. We use it to raise our motivation and heart rate at the gym. No party or proper social function would be complete without an upbeat playlist. Blah Blah Blah lead singer and guitarist Solomon David recognizes this unassuming power and uses it to promote the health and wellbeing of his band’s fan base. The full quartet adheres to this approach and collectively they’ve developed a unique style of alternative ballroom rock that is both pleasing to the ears and the soul. To further distinguish their sound, the group chose to record their Thank You Thank You EP on analog tape rather than use digital equipment. A nontraditional approach these days, but one that helped develop the project into something more full and dynamic.
Band Without Borders: Kids These Days
If we learned one thing from researching the Chicago music scene, it’s that Jeff Tweedy is like the Don Corleone of this bitch. A cosign from the Wilco front man ensures that credibility and heightened interest in your next project are sure to follow. While the members of Kids These Days undoubtedly appreciate the Tweedy seal of approval, they certainly haven’t coasted by on it. Just last week the seven-piece jazz/hip-hop outfit made their SXSW debut in Austin, TX as part of one of many stops on a recent tour docket that has had them opening for the likes of Theophilus London, Dom Kennedy and others. As if travel and live performances weren’t enough, the Kids have been killing countless hours in the studio as they work towards the release of their debut LP Traphouse Rock. Oh, and Jeff Tweedy is producing the album. Surprise!
Kids These Days – “Be (A Night In Tunisia)”
Crank It Up: Flosstradamus
Have a look at this résumé: line-up slots at both Coachella and Lollapalooza, a performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and shout outs from the likes of Diplo and A-Trak. With only two EP releases to their name, this DJ and production duo seem destined for the big time. The two halves of Flosstradamus, J2K and Autobot, are both influenced by the Chicago Juke and Footwork scenes, but tend to incorporate production elements of the “trap and euro shit” they love to play while DJing into their music. Just listen to their most recent EP release Total Recall (free download) on Mad Decent imprint The Jeffrees, and you’ll understand what they mean – it’s a triumphantly aggressive mix of trance and hip-hop styles that just begs to be played extremely loud.
Urban Rockstar: Rockie Fresh
Up-and-coming emcee Rockie Fresh has covered a significant amount of ground in a very short time. He’s released three mixtapes in just over 24 months, performed at countless shows and festivals and been featured in Complex, Vibe, and most recently XXL as a nominee for their 2012 Freshman Class. His sound has been described as having “deep urban undertones and an alternative rocker mentality,” but this is really just a polite way of saying that although he raps, he’s already got the attitude of a rockstar. At a mere 20 years of age, Fresh is just getting started. His most recent mixtape Driving 88 is available for free download at his website.
All In The Family: Wild Belle
With only two songs released (“Keep You” backed with “Take Me Away”) duo Natalie and Elliot Bergman have already managed to earn themselves supporting slots with Chairlift and a fair bit of buzz from the blogs. It’s difficult to categorize their overall sound, as “Keep You” is some sort of reggae/synth-pop combo, whilst their live sets “range from funk and reggae to blues and old-school R&B,” but whatever style they choose to pursue this brother-sister combo have the talent, looks, and panache to pull it off. They’ll be touring alongside minimalist pop trio Tennis this spring, try to catch them if you can.
Trap or Die: King Louie
Between Kanye West, Common and Lupe Fiasco alone, Chicago is well-represented on the national stage of hip-hop. However, even though all of these rappers rep the city at every opportunity, they’re not really in Chicago. They’ve “made it,” and it’s left a void in the Windy City rap scene. King Louie has spent the last few years grinding the underground rap circuit, and that is what’s going to ultimately position him as a potential successor to a vacant throne.
At first glance, Louie’s taking an amalgamation Southern trap rap to the Midwest, but what slips under the radar is how good of a rapper he is. He’s starting to receive critical attention his for dexterous flows and sharp wordplay, and he doesn’t seem to ever sacrifice the “fun” factor, with a few underground hits (see below) and his collaborations with other up-and-comers such as 2 Chainz, Rockie Fresh, and Chief Keef knocking out of speakers daily. He’s already got a sizable catalog of pseudo-classic mixtapes to his name (I recommend More Boss Shit, Chiraq Drillinois and Man Up Band Up), but the real event is going to be his album, Dope & Shrimp, which is due out this October.
Sunshine In A Bottle: Gold Motel
Someone once quipped to me, “If you don’t like the weather in Chicago, wait five minutes.” Midwest seasonal patterns can be shitty and often times unpredictable, but don’t tell that to the fine folks of Gold Motel. Their left coast inspired brand of poppy, sunshiny music can make any day seem brighter, and their debut album Summer House is just cheery enough to chase away the grumpiest of rain clouds, figuratively of course. What started as a solo project for lead vocalist Greta Morgan eventually evolved into the five-member ensemble Gold Motel is today. The group is currently putting the finishing touches on their self-titled sophomore LP due out late this month/early April. Check out the lead single “Leave You In Love” below.
Maximum Intensity: Willy Joy
Say one day you’re in need a serious pick-me-up. The Keurig is busted, your coke dealer’s on spring break, and nothing is providing that heart palpitating jolt of energy you’re used to starting your Tuesdays with. Might I suggest tunes from Windy City DJ/producer Willy Joy as a safe and affective alternative? His music is like an aggressive scissoring of the rave, hip-hip, techno and bass genres blasted in your face all at once. It’s great music for sweat-fests, casually raging and studying for exams. This approach to party starting has earned him past Lollapalooza performance slots, an invitation to be Kid Sister’s tour DJ and support from fellow electroheads Diplo and Drop The Lime. If Diplodocus thumbs up your work, you must be doing something right.
Thick as Thieves: Treated Crew
In music, the term “crew” is used almost exclusively in the rap community. Think about it, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Steve Miller Band. It’s not The Dave Matthews Crew. Now Wu-Tang is a clan, but they’re certainly no band. Crew and clan are technically synonyms, soooo… whatever, you get the point. Chicago’s newest crew is the Treated Crew, and it consists of members Million $ Mano (Kanye West’s tour DJ), Hollywood Holt, Mic Terror, Sulaiman, Gzus Piece, Jon James, Lee Majorz and producers Nez & Rio (Schoolboy Q) and Thelonious Martin (Action Bronson). With a full mixtape in the works, the collective has been releasing new material at the pace of a single per week over the past three weeks via a distribution method they like to refer to as “Treated Tuesdays.” In case you’re wondering, treated is Chicago speak for getting disrespected. Feel free to start using that lingo around the home front and see where it gets you.
Off The Beaten Path: Willis Earl Beal
If you read Pigeons & Planes, you will know that we are big fans Willis Earl Beal and his one of a kind brand of lo-fi folk. Fortunately for music lovers, the man with the incredible backstory and interesting advertising tactics has been picked up by XL Recordings, and is in the process of recording his second album, which is set to have a “junkyard industrial sound.” With his soulful, world-weary voice now being recorded professionally, rather than on pawn-shop equipment, Willis’ creativity and personality are sure to shine, and his aura of laid-back cool certainly won’t be harmed by interviews like this.
Vintage Class: The Right Now
The Right Now picked their name, I’m sure, as a trap for the lazy music writer with a terrible sense of humor. The ploy is working, as it’s a desperate struggle not to bust out a terrible pun about how their name is The Right Now but the sound is pure, vintage soul. Their 2010 album, Carry Me Home, was a the rare throwback that doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick, instead it was a charismatic (albeit complicated) look at love with the powerful backing of a band that really knows its stuff and loves the music they’re making. The seven-piece is headed by singer Stefanie Berecz and have become something of a Chicago mainstay, selling out venues and performing live on local radio. Their second album, Gets Over You, sounds like it’s going to find the band honing their sound further and should be something to get excited for.
The Right Now – “Nobody” (Live)