Smile Politely

What’s hurting local hip-hop

Champaign-Urbana, I love you. I was born here, I grew up in nearby Monticello, and I plan on staying around for the time being following graduation due in large part to the friendly nature of C-U. The thing I probably love most about here, however, is the music. It goes without saying that Champaign-Urbana’s music scene is one of the most vibrant in the country for a city its size. Nearly every night of the week there is a band playing somewhere in town. We have a plethora of venues both big and small, and the community here works very hard to foster the arts — something that is lacking in other places.

But in an area where music seems to flourish, a genre seems to be left out of the popular local lexicon: hip-hop. Rap music in Champaign is enigmatic. I first discovered this when I worked in a record store in high school, and my boss turned me on to then-local rapper Krukid.  I must have listened to that album in the store on every single shift, and have been keeping up with Champaign rap ever since. There are a few emcees in town, and those that are present here certainly put their all into performing as much as they can – but it still leaves much to be desired.

I’ll defend hip-hop in Champaign until my time on this earth is over (or until we’re hit by an asteroid or some shit), but as it stands, the scene is fairly weak. In my four years of undergrad here at U of I, I’ve learned that if an artist isn’t a massive touring act, a lively hip-hop crowd is rare. With a campus of nearly 40,000 undergraduates surrounded by two towns who love to support art, this really doesn’t make any sense.

Don’t get me mistaken; I don’t believe that the problem in Champaign is the quality of the emcees or a bias from those embedded in the Champaign music community. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many hip hop artists and promoters in town who have been extremely open-minded and committed to keeping hip-hop afloat here. Instead, the problem stems from a larger, societal issue with hip-hop in C-U. Quite simply put, many in Champaign-Urbana hold stereotyped and ignorant views of the genre as a whole. For evidence of this, look no further than the recent past.

Just last month, a shot was allegedly fired and fights broke out at the Canopy Club during Chicago rapper Lil Bibby’s concert. The police response following this incident was massive. 17 police cars surrounded The Canopy, closing down nearby streets and invading my bedroom window with blaring sirens.

Following the incident, I read things like this, which was taken from the comments section of Tom Pauly’s opinion piece regarding the incident at Canopy Club:

“I work right next door to the Canopy. We all know, both my black and white coworkers alike, that rap shows at the Canopy are ALWAYS attended by some sort of violence. Dude, everybody knows that.”

Comments like these echoed the police response, in which Urbana PD Sgt. Dan Morgan said in a News Gazette article:

“We just know whenever there’s a rap concert at the Canopy, we’re going to have problems after.”

… there aren’t enough faces and palms in the world.

When I see things like these comments — or how the police cruisers always seem to coincidentally line up on Goodwin Avenue whenever a hip-hop show is in town — I suddenly realize why Champaign’s hip-hop scene can’t seem to take off from the ground.

My guess is that the aforementioned commenter and police officer have never been to a rap show in their lives. If they had, they probably wouldn’t say what they said. I’ve been thrilled to throw a handful of hip-hop shows in town, and the police have not had to get involved with any of them. The same goes for every hip-hop show I’ve ever been to in Chicago. These guys couldn’t be more wrong, but what’s scary is that many people out there share this view, and that is precisely what is holding Champaign-Urbana’s scene back from widespread success.

Despite knowing that this attitude permeates C-U, all hope for Champaign’s hip-hop environment is far from lost. Anyone who has listened to T.R.U.T.H. spit a freestyle or observed the constant flow of music coming from TheGr8Thinkaz can attest to that. Just this year, The Canopy Club started hosting “The Culture,” an open mic night for hip-hop artists from all over to come and showcase their work. A couple of weeks ago, Canopy hosted “The Battle for the Block,” which allowed local emcees to compete for a spot to open for Big Sean at this weekend’s ILL Rock Block Party. These types of events are widely attended and safe atmospheres, showcasing primarily local talent. Champaign hip-hop needs events like these to sustain a formidable scene. 

Attitudes toward hip-hop that come from the commenter and officer cited above, and people in the community who hold the same stereotyped and blatantly incorrect view detract from what the burgeoning scene seeks to create. Hip-hop is not an inherently violent art form. Yes, some rap music is violent and vulgar, but that exists across genres. Rather than being the cause of problems, as the Urbana Police Department seems to believe, I see it as an effect — a form of art that has sprung from years of urban neglect  and systematic failures. Rap music does not inherently invite violent crowds. Instead, certain instances are plucked to create the notion that it does. This, in turn, creates a violently stereotyped and incorrect depiction of hip-hop which is blatantly inaccurate. If the community in C-U writes rap music off for these reasons, the scene in town inevitably suffers.

Please, music-lovers of Champaign-Urbana, at least give hip-hop a fair chance. Go out and see T.R.U.T.H., Klevah or Jay Moses. Get on FakeShoreDrive or Pigeons and Planes, find an artist you like, and actually go out and witness the performance. It can be a beautiful thing. Stereotyping rap music only hurts the people who are actively working to make Champaign-Urbana a thriving hip-hop environment, and everyone committed to the scene is going to keep working to make it one, with or without your help.

Photo of T.R.U.T.H. performing at The Culture courtesy of Tom Chandler.

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