Andrew Barber and Tyrine Howard are Fake Shore Drive, Chicago’s premier rap-blog-turned-Midwest-hip-hop-empire. A transplant from Indianapolis, Barber launched the site in 2007. Since then, he and Howard have been working to take the Chicago sound from local to global. The Weekly caught up with them last week at their headquarters inside Pilsen’s Lacuna Artist Loft Studios.Â
How much of building your empire happened via the Internet, versus meeting people in real life?
AB: Something like this obviously couldn’t have existed ten years ago. The Internet is the easiest way to connect with people across the country, so when we go to New York or Los Angeles or Austin, people know who we are. But you do also have to [meet them in] real life. That’s super important, because a lot of people are creeps when you meet them in real life. They’re like the big bad wolf online. They have this crazy personality. They write hateful things. But when you meet them in real life, they’re super timid weirdoes. You have to get out there; you can’t just do the blog. If hip-hop has taught us anything throughout history, it’s be a CEO, grow your brand, because it can live and die online. A lot of rappers might be super popular on blogs. They might get a post on every single top blog, but they can’t sell out a show in their hometown. That’s problematic.
Does it ever feel like an obligation to just stick to Chicago rap? Especially as someone who moved to the city, do you feel like the scene is still rich enough and deep enough that you’ll always be able to just focus on that?
TH: Well, we were talking about expanding, covering more of the Midwest. For years, Chicago didn’t get that spotlight compared to the East Coast, West Coast. Even though Chicago’s getting that now, there’s cities like Indianapolis, St. Louis, plenty of other spots in the Midwest that still aren’t getting that spotlight. So to grow the site and make it not only the hub for Chicago hip-hop, but for Midwest hip-hop period, is one thing we would definitely do.
AB: That’s what we’re working on. We’ve been talking about it for a while. I think the Midwest as a whole is underserved, and always has been, in my opinion.
I feel like sometimes, when you see a quote about Chicago rap in a big national newspaper, it has to be dumbed down so much. You can’t catch everyone up on all the back-story. Are there things you wish you could say about the Chicago rap scene that you haven’t had a good forum for?
AB: I was so sick, last year, of everybody hitting me up about [Chief] Keef. Eventually I had to say, “Yo, if you want a quote about Keef, go get it from somebody else.” If you want to talk about something positive or cool that’s going on, I’m all for it.
Something I noticed about Fake Shore is that it is mostly pure music, with just a little commentary. It’s not World Star Hip Hop. It’s not a beef thing. It’s cool to see that you can sustain readership on just, good music, centralized into one area.Â
AB: That’s what we’re trying to do. So much negativity went on at the end of last year. We never play into the beef. We don’t put up beef videos. People want to look for somebody to blame. You could point the finger at the biggest site in Chicago, but it was the outside media, in my opinion, that really perpetuated the whole thing.
TH: The one thing that really got me is that when they brought up Chief Keef, they’d mention the violence in the city. It didn’t start when Keef popped on the scene. It looks like it’s just savages, and it’s murder, and this is the soundtrack to it. Does it play a part? I don’t know. But is it the catalyst for it? No. [Other publications] only reported on it because it got traffic. That’s not traffic we wanted. A lot of people’s lives are at stake here. People could get killed for this. We’re here [in Chicago]. These other places aren’t.
Do you feel like this kind of national press on the Chicago rap scene is preventing other Chicago rappers who are doing really different things–like Chance the Rapper, for example, or Treated–from getting national attention, because they don’t fit into the story?Â
TH: There was a whole narrative about Chief Keef. That’s one of the reasons he blew up so quick, because his story had everything there. He had the music. He had this crazy story…a sixteen-year-old kid on house arrest, pulling a gun on a cop, gets eighteen million views on a video from his grandmother’s living room. Kanye jumps on it. Those are the type of stories people buy into.
I look at it [like], any publicity that sheds light on the scene here is good. When the labels all came here, they grabbed other people. It wasn’t just the drill artists that got deals. [Labels were] poking around, like the great Chicago gold rush. Chance [the Rapper] is arguably the hottest rapper in the city right now. Arguably. Everybody wants to sign him. Kendrick Lamar wants him. He’s done it kind of the old fashioned way, by getting out hand-to-hand, being there, going to those high schools…you know, he’s doing all the things that need to be done. The music [in Chicago] is good. It just takes a while for the outside to catch up. If it’s good enough, eventually people will.
In terms of a map of the city, where do you see the central points of where Chicago rap is happening right now? Could you confine it to as small an area as, like, “all the good music is coming out of between X Street and Y Street”?
AB: Are you familiar with E.C. Illa? He’s an O.G. rapper from Chicago. White guy from the North Side. Him and Common and Twista were like the first three rappers to ever have a video on BET or MTV Rap City. He came to our Red Bull show. He was like, “Fifteen, twenty years ago, this would have never happened. You could never have this many people backstage, drinking, partying, having fun. From this neighborhood, from that neighborhood, from this gang. Those people wouldn’t have come together.” I feel like the Internet has kind of broken down the barriers of where you’re from.
What do you think is the best thing the Internet has done for the rap scene in Chicago, in general?Â
TH: Uniting the city. Back in the day, you wouldn’t see people from different gangs, different neighborhoods, working together. But now, especially with the younger crowd, that doesn’t happen. Everyone works with whoever.
Do you think that with these crews connecting, does it lose any of that regionalism? Like, if there isn’t a cohesive sound from the West Side or the South Side, does it dilute a style?
AB: It definitely does, but it’s killing everything. It’s not just Chicago. And it sucks. I don’t know if you guys were around to have the feeling of going to a record store on Tuesday and having to wait in line for a CD to come out…
We had it for like, two years, maybe.
AB: And you guys were super young at the time. [I remember] having to have my mom walk me in to get an Explicit Lyrics CD, because I was too young. Now that’s all dead. Going to indie mom and pop music stores, and the guy behind the counter was like, the coolest dude…He could tell you what album is good. You miss a lot of that. Every neighborhood had a sound back then. Common and Crucial Conflict, and Common and Twista, had completely different sounds, because they were from different sides of the city. I think the Internet has killed that.
I think one of the things that’s cool, though, is it has kind of given power back to the people, and taken away some of the power that the labels or the industry held. You had to actually go to a place, record off big reel-to-reel tapes, and then physically press CDs, get them shrink-wrapped, sell them. If you were in Chicago, you’d have to drive to Gary, or drive to Indianapolis. [The Internet] makes it a lot easier now. There’s no P&D [pressing and distribution]. You’re not spending any money really on overhead. But that also takes away a lot of the fun. Outkast CDs used to be super crazy. The CD would always have a naked girl on it, all these crazy Afrocentric designs, and there would be a comic book on the inside. Or the Master P CDs. You would open them up and there would be ads for CDs coming soon, and you would be like, “Oh man, I can’t wait until this comes out.” Just the joy of waiting to open up a CD and look at the credits and read who produced what. There weren’t track lists back then…you didn’t know what was going to be on an album. Maybe one or two songs might leak. Now, an album like the GOOD Music album [“Cruel Summer”], which people kind of didn’t like…it didn’t really get a great response, but that’s because you heard six of the best songs before the album came out.
Yeah, you kind of saw it getting made. You saw different versions of songs coming out as it went through.Â
AB: It wasn’t like you were listening to it for the first time. I mean, you guys were alive for [50 Cent’s] “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” right? Did you guys get that when it came out? I don’t know if you were even into rap back then…
Yeah, I remember “The Black Album,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” in 2003. Those were the first ones that I was really excited about.Â
AB: And that was the very end of that, where you could go and you didn’t know what was on it. You didn’t hear anything. It wasn’t like six songs would leak. A couple songs might leak, but they protected it a lot more. Now you hear half the album before it comes out. It’s a flawed experience of listening. Chief Keef’s album probably would’ve been better received if people hadn’t heard half of it before.
I never thought about that.
AB: People are quick to call albums classic now. Like, dude, the hour after Kendrick Lamar came out, people were like, “Oh my god, it’s classic!”
You can’t know what’s classic for a while, that’s what makes it classic.Â
AB: It takes years!
And people are like, “This isn’t an ‘Illmatic.’” It’s like, “Alright, it doesn’t have to be.”
AB: I was alive for the release of all–pretty much–of the classics. When “Illmatic” came out, nobody was talking about “Illmatic” then. They were like, “Oh, it’s cool,” but it was Nas, he wasn’t that popular. It took years and people had to go back. Same with Common’s “Resurrection,” known as a classic. When it came out, it only sold a few thousand copies. So I think it takes years. People are quick to call stuff classic now; you need time to digest it. And a lot of times people say these things are classic and then nobody’s talking about it a year later. Nobody. I know I’m rambling here.
It’s your interview.
AB: Back then, you had to pay money for stuff. You bought a CD, you were stuck with it. And you didn’t know what was on it, so you’re kind of rolling the dice. You could get home and it could suck. But you still had to listen to it until you were able to spend money on another one. And if you liked an Outkast tape or a Jay-Z album, you would listen to it for months.
Yeah, back in the day you had those CD packages. Maybe ten CDs or twenty CDs you could listen to. But now it’s like, “Oh, I have three new mixtapes to listen to in the next two days.”
AB: You can’t digest it! Because it’s like, “Oh shit, I want to listen to this new Gucci Mane but this dropped on the same day.” Stuff gets pushed under the rug. I love having access to all this music. I would’ve loved to have been a teenager and had everything. But it also takes away a little bit of the magic.
TH: Yeah, you can just stream whatever.
AB: But that’s the future. You can’t just sit there and go, “Aw I miss the good old days,” because that’s dead. You evolve or you dissolve…That’s a new one. I just made that up.
Do you listen to music all day long, when you guys are sitting in the office?Â
AB: Yeah, all day.
Do you ever feel like it’s hard–if it’s the twentieth song somebody submitted that day–to stay fresh? To give something a real chance?Â
AB: I think at this point, you know who you like. This is my life, and I never get sick of listening to rap. Most of my friends that listen to rap have outgrown it. They’re not bumping [Gucci Mane’s] “Trap God 2.” They have kids.
Did the two of you do all of the work on your collaboration with Red Bull? To make that show happen?
Was there anything in the process of bringing it to the fore that you didn’t expect? That was much more challenging than you thought it would be?Â
AB: Man, it’s tough. We’ve done rap concerts in the past, but not as hands-on. This is really the most hands-on booking–getting people in, and flights, and set lists, and running a show. But this went off without a hitch. It was great. I think when you have a budget things tend to go a lot better than when you’re asking people to do stuff for free, or for favors. When you have a budget and people are getting money, getting paid for it…
Everyone has a better time.
AB: Everyone has a better time. And you’re able to do more. You’re able to get this crazy lineup, and get [Chicago-based artist] Hebru Brantley to do the artwork, and all these people involved. The energy was great and, we sold it out on a night when there was a winter storm. So that was good.
So you’ll try to do more stuff like that in the future?
AB: Yeah we’re going to be doing them all year. The next one is South by Southwest, which is March 14. Our next one will probably be May or June, something like that.
How many nights a week are you out doing something related to Fake Shore versus coming home?
AB: It used to be a lot more. I’d say now we can kind of pick and choose what we go to. You know, we could pretty much go to any show that we want to.
AB: It’s cool.