Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, open since 1907, is unofficially the oldest jazz club in America and can be found in Uptown, Chicago.
Where is the Midwest? Are the Dakotas part of it? What about Kansas?
These questions might belie another, broader question: how do we decide what is or is not “Midwestern?” Ever since Muddy Waters’ trek north to Chicago marked the birth of rock and roll out of Mississippi Delta blues, musicians from Mavis Staples to the White Stripes have been spreading those rhythms across the region as their map to offer answers to that question. And in recent decades, since the rise of hip-hop, a new generation of veritable rock stars have been chiming in with deeply personal responses of their own.
For instance, the leading lights of Chicago’s hip-hop scene have been behind some of the city’s most adoring, meticulous portraits. Indeed, Kanye West’s second-best-publicized romantic affair is arguably with “Chi City” itself, which he famously compares to a lover on the forlorn 2007 piano-sprinkled track “Homecoming.” Through memorable puns like “She said, ‘it felt like they walked and drove on me,’” West cheekily recalls his youth on the storied pavements. West’s work in the early aughts documenting a living, breathing Chicago is so breathtaking in part because of the sheer diversity of urban life that he portrays. On The College Dropout’s “Spaceship,” West vents about the managerial abuse and racist accusations of theft that he faced on the job at the GAP, rapping, “They take me to the back and pat me / askin’ me about some khakis,” over looping, crooning vocals that seem to mimic shopping mall muzak; and “Breathe In, Breathe Out” unspins classic rap braggadocio using social commentary on materialism, platinum name-dropping, and metallic production heavy on horns. It is telling that West’s detailed vignettes make repeated reference to “minimum wage” jobs and “graveshifts,” as if striving for justice is one of many central strands within the region’s DNA.
Windy City native Chance the Rapper and Detroit son Danny Brown both shade the urban Midwest’s corners and margins with the same blooming colors that Kanye exudes, but sometimes substitute a cacophonous, bleak monochrome in their place. Seasons tend to be central for Midwestern artists, and Chance’s Coloring Book and Acid Rap are no exception; on “Summer Friends,” sweltering West Chatham’s 79th street – close knit, full of innocent “socks on concrete, Jolly Rancher kids” – fades behind the “plague” of gun violence. Here the metaphorical childhood of summer is juxtaposed with the real rise in shootings during the season. “I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks,” says Chance, marrying the minor inconveniences of Lake Michigan with traumatic remembered gunshots. And with tracks like “Fields” and “30” on XXX, Danny Brown reveals the view from the other side of the Great Lakes, laying bare rural, wintry despair alongside industrial blight. As Brown recounts, outside of Detroit, “The TV in the window drew the line of what was rich and poor” and inhabitants were “sleeping wearing scarves.” For the hip-hop community, the Midwest is a crucible, a world away from the coasts, a state of being that Chance calls “trapped in the middle of the map.” But it is a crucible with a distinct musical heritage and a cadre of dedicated artists still telling its stories.
Part-postcards, part-advertisements, Sufjan Stevens’ twin Wisconsin and (Come On Feel the) Illinois(e) albums acknowledge that the Black Hawk War against indigenous Americans and Stevens’ own summer camp memories are as important to the symbolic weight of the region as the Sears Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mary Todd Lincoln. Interestingly, both Stevens and Conor Oberst, the Omaha-born bard of the band Bright Eyes, leap to make poetic references to the Middle West’s perennial World’s Fairs during the 1890s in their work — an odd, outdated lyrical ploy at first glance. Oberst holds up a brochure-worthy image: “They turned on the electric lights / and the crowd cried out / Everyone looks so amazed”; Sufjan prophesizes, “Oh, God of Progress, have you degraded or forgot us?” In fact, these scientific expositions of another era actually deftly capture all of the key values espoused by Midwesterners: discovery, sincerity, pragmatism, fierce independence, and optimism. The cultural artifacts each of these artists generate become part of our collective idea of what does or does not constitute “Midwestern,” just as the present milieu informs their riffs in turn. As Bright Eyes’ fourth LP councils, “The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.”
Barrett is a Government and Economics Senior and Indy Suggests Editor.
PC: Shawn Van Brunt