Chicago bop music is a solvent antidote to the blues. As a rule, bop—the smiley, youthful subgenre of hip-hop conceived on city’s West Side in late 2012—is non-confrontational and easily digestible, a fiesta bowl of sunkissed synths, Caribbean steel drums, yodeled ad-libs and ginger, and Auto Tuned melodies. Bop MCs are creatures of the nightlife. Their implied objective is not to educate, but to keep the “fefe,” or party (short for “fiesta”), medicated with Patrón, Rémy Martin, and Xanax.
But strip away bop’s sparkly trimmings and you’re left with a DIY take on protest folk born out of abject circumstances. Earlier this decade, Chicago’s national image was compromised by a volcanic rash of gun deaths, the bulk of which were concentrated in resourceless, hypersegregated neighborhoods. Even as the rest of the city beautified, many West and South Side communities stayed stuck in a quagmire of entrenched poverty, social unhappiness and civic dishevelment.
What happened next turned Chicago hip-hop on its axis: the more ambitious outcasts of the city’s gentrification invented something called drill music. Drill–the local sound popularized by Chief Keef–became a depository for the violent grudges of young people orphaned by the local municipality. It was a scene of stark depravity; territorial, sniper-eyed teenagers chanting importunate threats, often trailed by spectral staccato synths and oppressive snares.
Bop is something else entirely. Interestingly, though, bop’s visibility owes an existential debt to drill celebrity King L, who recruited Lil Kemo (aka the Bop King of Chicago, formerly a star attraction on video streaming site Wala Cam) to shimmy in his “My N—gaz” clip almost two years ago. The “My N—gaz” break not only accelerated Kemo’s evolution from Web 2.0 meme to dance professional of wide repute, it also set in motion a desired domino effect. Bop artists how had the attention of a large, pre-established and intrigued audience.
It’s appropriate that the “Kemo Step” video was taped at Chicago’s Whitney High School, since bop is made and consumed primarily by millennials. Known collectively as Sicko Mobb, siblings Lil Trav and Lil Ceno are 18 and 20 years old. Kemo himself is 19, and DJ Nate was 20 when he recorded 2012’s “Gucci Goggles,” one of the earliest tracks to follow the bop blueprint (gentle, digitalized balladeering and foamy soundscapes) as we now define it. Whereas the music that accompanies a more stationary dance like stepping is palatable for all ages, bop incentivizes fleetness of limb and tends to attract a younger audience as a result. Bopping is, after all, torridly physical. The dance entails a great deal of crouching, squatting and elbow movement.
But bop is steadily outgrowing its origins as a vehicle for recursive, instructional dance songs like “Kemo Step” and DLow’s “DLow Shuffle,” where the titular MCs coach novice boppers (“Do the Charlie Brown, then make your legs flop! Bunny hop! Bunny hop! Bunny hop!”) in a charismatic growl similar to “Cha Cha Slide” mascot DJ Casper. Tracks of this sort are still central to bop’s identity—and “DLow Shuffle,” says Chicago Bulls music coordinator DJ Flipside, has become an intermission favorite at Bulls home games—but heavier fare isn’t unwelcome. Bop standout Stunt Taylor raps about gangland ills in an ashy baritone dripping with battle fatigue; on last year’s “When the Smoke Clears,” King Deazel played memoirist over the grieving pianos from Three 6 Mafia’s crunk classic “Late Nite Tip,” remembering happier times in his since-deteriorated K-Town neighborhood. A pollyanna he is not.
Credit goes to 107.5 radio personality DJ Moondawg for formally documenting this growth spurt: his We Invented the Bop mixtape series, which released its second installment this past June, has been pivotal in facilitating wider awareness of bop artists. In all, the two compilations total 30 tracks, any one of which could get a fiesta popping with the quickness. The songs are quintessentially current, but certain touches, like the Chicago House-style xylophones that animate Yemi Marie’s “Love Bop,” suggest a refined grasp on local history.
Still, much of the music on those tapes will inflame purist suspicions that bop is ditzy or lacking in depth. Few of the scene’s staples are conventionally lyrical (“I’m shittin’ on ’em like I need a potty,” raps Lil Chris on “What to Do”) and even fewer practice the big-picture introspection that has so endeared people to Chance the Rapper or Mick Jenkins, Chicago’s newest conscious rapper du jour. Some bop acts, like the ThotKingz, slur their rhymes in something like Chief Keef’s incapacitated, vertigo-stricken cadence. This has impelled a great many armchair critics to view bop with explicit antipathy.
Such antipathy is a hallmark of the e-chatter about Sicko Mobb, who in recent months have been othered to death. In a comment posted on the site Kollege Kidd last fall, one particularly adversarial observer of the bop scene likened Sicko Mobb’s “Bitches N Bikinis” to “I’m a Barbie Girl,” the helium-choked 1997 dance hit from Aqua. The amateur critic did not mean this nicely.
“People put too much emphasis on substance,” says Andrew Barber, curator of the authoritative Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive. “Did people fault C&C Music Factory or Tag Team or 95 South for lacking substance? No, they were making stuff for people to party and dance to—not socially conscious music.”
Signed to Polo Grounds (the same subsidiary of RCA Records that A$AP Rocky’s signed to), Trav and Ceno are possibly the most chipper men alive. Their every video telecasts a hopping weekend bash, with kids performing synchronized dance steps and scores of candy cane dreads flailing hither and yon. Street-accredited South Side MC Lil Durk guests on Super Saiyan Vol. 1, Sicko Mobb’s breakthrough mixtape, but the tape shares little in common with trigger-happy drill. Even the cherubically drawn, anime-style cover art is more Korea Town than K-Town.
“[Sicko Mobb] were signed for their bop sensibilities and are bop artists, but they can get down and do street rap if they feel like it,” says Barber. “It’s just not their bread and butter.”
Like other artists who fit their profile, these two are misdiagnosed as “commercial rappers” farcically often. They certainly don’t make music on Top 40 radio’s stringent terms: tourettic instability is a driving ingredient in the Sicko Mobb formula. Their most wigged-out songs travel at the speed of techno or footwork, threatening to spin out every which turn. “Hoes B Goin’” and “Round N Round” make a case for the duo as the daffiest manipulators of Auto-Tune on the market, their bumpy, convulsive vocals refracted through heavy digital static. “Fiesta,” with its sitar-like synth arpeggios and jonesing, syncopated handclaps, interpolates the sound of early-’00s Timbaland.
That’s bop in so many words: antic and experimental but catchy enough to electrify the most retired of disposition. Young rappers from elsewhere in Chicago have been praised for walking the same scarcely traversable tightrope. In fact, there seems to be enough shine for nearly everyone, from gangsta rap hyenas Dreezy and Lil Herb to mellow romantics Chance and Vic Mensa, in the mutating, fast-pluralizing milieu that is Chicago. When it comes to this particular nexus of teens and early twentysomethings, though, even complimentary reviewers often feel obliged to qualify their praise with accusations of ephemerality (“This stuff will disappear in a year or two,” opined one recent editorial).
But even if the critical establishment refuses to entertain them as such, bop MCs are legitimate agents of positive change, their music an iconoclastic subversion of the gangstafied norms that have come to govern youth culture in Chicago’s less desirable pockets. Bop’s influence has already started trickling down to the kids who could benefit from it most. On Enyce’s “Life Good (Soda Pop),” the 13-year-old K-Townie enthuses about carbonated refreshments over a transcendently sunny instrumental. Rather than pull triggers, Enyce pulls up a chair at the bop table and orders a lime Faygo off the fiesta-themed menu.
“I’m feelin’ good,” Enyce raps. “Won’t see a frown on me.” For much of the drill era, Chicago has been advertised as the Gotham of the Midwest. Now, thanks to the insurgent bop scene, it’s looking more and more like a cradle of positivity. Recognize. Then make your legs flop.