Smile Politely

A year in C-U hip-hop

The music of Champaign-Urbana is all over the place—geographically and figuratively. We’ve learned that by now. Artists have come and gone, and made their marks or disappeared into nothing. It happens, and it is how the lifespan of a band, artist, or project works. That’s just the reality of music in any capacity. Things come and go, and things are forgotten. In addition, being all over the place means the type of music we’ll find here. From metal to folk to classical to hip-hop, you’ll find it.

Certain things are memorable, which is what makes music great, especially in C-U. It’s no secret that the music scene here is something to make some noise about, and those passionate enough to voice those thoughts have probably come up across your newsfeed on Facebook or on a message board somewhere. It’s there, and there’s appreciation for it. Coming from a place that basically has no music scene whatsoever, I’ve found an appreciation for it.

Believe me, I’m not from here originally. Where I grew up, there was no music scene. Seriously. None.

We’re lucky here in Champaign-Urbana.

Although there many others that could speak to the history of the music scene here better than I, I’ll speak to something (just one part, mind you) that has stuck out over the past year. A recap focused on a portion of music in C-U in 2013.

We’re just now starting to think about the year in music here at Smile Politely HQ, as our year-end lists are being prepped at the moment. It’s a process, no doubt, to make those happen. A collective effort of readers and our staff. Some releases stand out and some fizzle, which is OK. It happens, but thinking of full-length albums and EPs that have been release this year really got me thinking about what kind of year we’ve had.

This year has been a bit of a different situation, perhaps just in my mind, where hip-hop has totally stood out. Well, maybe that’s not the right way to put it. Saying that it snuck up on me is probably a better way of putting it.

When I think of what music around here has to offer, traditionally, I think of the mainstay sound that has been ever-present throughout the past few years around these parts. Indie rock, shoegaze, post-rock, punk, hardcore, folk, Americana—those type of genres that are subsidiaries of rock music. Just the basics, really. The Dirty Feathers, Common Loon, Hank., Withershins, Grandkids, Elsinore, Take Care, Enta, etc. etc.—those bands. Certainly, there are exceptions, but whether you’re thinking about shows at Mike ‘N Molly’s or in someone’s basement or Error Records, that’s the music I think of in the present.

2013 has been a little different. Hip-hop snuck up on me. I’m glad it did.

Where to start? I don’t want to spend this time and space simply glorifying what has come through this year in C-U hip-hop, but I will take the time to acknowledge some of the music that has captivated my ears over the past eleven months or so. We could start with the C-U staples, like Jay Moses or Curb Service for example (I’ll get to them later), but I want to start with The Struggle.

Isaac Arms (guitar), Kevin Miller (aka DJ Belly, turntable), and Jesse Greenlee (drums), a portion of the Struggle.

The Struggle is the instrumental outfit made up of a collective of musicians here in town that have backed several emcees. Comprised of members of Withershins, The Dirty Feathers, and a few others, their infusion of rock-tactics into a crew like this has been a very cool development to see. An interesting concept that has honestly been unfamiliar to me, but has emerged as something that is pretty awesome overall. Certainly, their performances are few and far between, but performances at the Green Street Summer Stage, plenty of times around Downtown Champaign, and Pygmalion Music Festival are a few to mention.

Moving on: Swords.

Swords and the Struggle

Swords really knocked it out of the park this year. With his first release since 2007’s Jameson Dreams, 2013 treated Shannon Swords & co. very well. Depth is one of the most, if not the most, intriguing and interesting releases I’ve seen over the past couple of years here in our fair cities. Hell, it hasn’t even been out for a month, either. The live band feel and overall instrumentation mixed with the storytelling and lyricism—this is something to behold. Guitars, horns, drums—the works. It doesn’t stop there. David pretty much knocked it out of the park with a stellar review not too long ago when it was released. Depth is fresh and ferocious.

There are more emcees where that came from. Heirship Records is having a good year, but I think those involved with that would agree that it is due to the budding talent here in the 217, if you will. Although we’re very much anticipating the release of the full-length effort from Jay Moses, we’re still waiting for it to land on our doorstep. #TheGenius was released, not to mention Moses’ collaboration with Young Blu, and it provided some context for the upcoming full-length release. In addition to that, this duo of emcees was also featured on Klevah’s debut mixtape, The W8. The entire G8Thinkaz outfit has been something to be revered in 2013. No doubt about it.


Outside of that collaboration, Young Blu‘s recent release of his first full-length has been worth discussing as well. The C-U emcee had a point in the year where he was in talks with Epic Records (and actually signed a promotional deal with them), which is not an everyday occurance around here. Not to mention his new album Small Town Smaller World was released recently. There are plenty that should be mentioned that might get overlooked, whether it’s JEFFdaMC and his recent release of a new mixtape, [adult swim]or Jarrel Young’s mixtape from a handful of month’s ago, and other releases and artists to emerge. There have been plenty in 2013.

We’re not done yet. I haven’t even mentioned Curb Service, who threw down a great album (his first release in seven years), top to bottom, with Romeo Jiveearlier this year. It’s an album that probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, because Larry Gates has delivered an album with an almost Beck-like momentum and grooves throughout. You’ll see—just listen for yourself. Another hip-hop release that features a ton of instruments to sync up with the lyrical delivery of Gates. You might not find a lot of club-show-stoppers on this one, but a more blissed-out songwriting process and production that is subtle but redeeming. Tell me that main guitar riff on “Wait for It” doesn’t make you want to look at your shoes a bit. Solid.

Curb Service

No matter which way you look at things: 2013 was a year that hip-hop threw down here in C-U. Certainly, I haven’t exhausted everything throughout the course of this piece, but part of me thinks that you’ll find more without even trying.

It’s been that type of year.

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