Smile Politely

What’s helping local hip-hop

One of my first articles on SP was called “What’s hurting local hip-hop,” and focused on the lack of a solidified and organized rap scene in Champaign-Urbana. Though there is always room for improvement, the past year of C-U’s rap scene has started to show signs of life, and local music fans are better because of it.

I’ve been a fairly large critic of the Champaign-Urbana hip-hop scene for as long as I knew Champaign-Urbana even had a hip-hop scene. Just comparing it to Chicago, C-U just couldn’t hold a candle to it – and with the former so accessible, it became a much more attractive option for entertainment. With rappers like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa consistently packing out Reggie’s, Chicago had something really exciting going when I started college, and C-U didn’t.

I guess that’s to be expected, given that C-U is a smaller town, but the lack of a scene here seemed like a problem that could be fixed. With a campus full of students who consume hip-hop, and no shortage of talent in town, it just didn’t make sense why there was no scene forming around them.

Last Friday, however, I’m happy to say that I was proven wrong. For the first time in quite a while, C-U packed into The Accord (an over-400 capacity venue) downtown to hear a show with a local hip-hop headliner, Mother Nature. For the first time in a long time, local emcees, from the very first openers to the headliners, captivated and maintained the interest of an audience for an entire evening – the type of thing that only happens in town once in a very rare while. The way that T.R.U.T.H entered the stage from the crowd was exhilarating, and the set seemed to present a new local precedent from that moment forward. Two fun rappers with chemistry and a live backing band – what’s not to love? This is what a live hip-hop show should be, and it was happening in our own little town.

Mother Nature may be the most prolific figure in the local scene, but other rappers in the area have stepped up to the plate lately, as well, including Chase Baby and Truth a.k.a. Trouble, a pair of Champaign-based rappers who have been included on Summer Camp Music Festival’s lineup for the first time this Summer, following their victory in a rap cypher hosted by The Canopy Club. Couple this with the increased online presence, consistency of new releases and ever-refined content, and you suddenly have the beginning of a stable hip-hop scene in Champaign-Urbana, and a promotional mechanism that recruits new fans, of which there are many possibilities in C-U, where the student population is enormous.

I don’t purport to be an expert on Champaign-Urbana music, nor C-U hip-hop, but the way that the scene has embraced these emcees over the past year – or even the past six months – is unlike anything I’ve encountered in my short five-year history going to shows in town. The ideas in C-U that support a stigma against hip-hop are slowly being eroded and replaced with open-mindedness (at least it appears) and the willingness of people to embrace something more alternative than they’re used to.

Sure, there could always be more heads in the venue at any hip-hop show, more Retweets, and more Facebook shares; there’s always room. What’s clear, however, is that it’s certainly improving thanks in part to these rappers being involved, being supportive and being consistent with new content and performances, and also in part to the Champaign-Urbana music scene (and population as a whole) for becoming more interested in fostering hip-hop.

No, we’re probably not going to become the next hotbed of national talent next year, and every artist in C-U probably won’t get signed to a label in the next year, but when the scene gains notoriety, the future looks exponentially brighter. Who knows, maybe a Champaign rapper will come along and get discovered soon – anything could happen – but the more that the scene improves, the more likely it is that C-U can become a place that builds emcees’ careers, not mire them in stagnation.

I’m excited where this can go, and if you care about local music, you probably should be, too.

(All photos by Tyler Courtney for Smile Politely)

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