Chicago ‘traps’ rap stigmas

By Trevor Ballanger

When hypnotic beats are entangled with the menacing ebb and flow of murderous lyrics, popular music can become a danger to society. One might even call this kind of music a trap.

Rap music has been plagued by stigmas since its start in the ’70s, later gaining momentum and becoming one of the most influential genres in popular music.

According to Michael Kolar, owner of SoundScape Studios, a Chicago-based recording company, rap has evolved into a platform for young artists to share their stories and expose inequalities among classes, as exemplified in a new subgenre called “trap rap.”

Kolar said that though gangster rap and trap rap are similar because both genres’ lyrics typically focus on illegal drug-related activity, traditional gangster rap has a softer tone while trap rap is more sinister and graphic.

Alexander Fruchter, an adjunct faculty member in the Arts, Entertainment & Media Management Department and creator of, a website dedicated to urban culture, said this subgenre of rap is characterized by stories of harsh, oppressive urban lifestyles exemplified by some of the city’s most neglected low-income neighborhoods.

“A lot of people in Chicago, from residents to city officials and everyone in between, sometimes pretend [these neighborhoods] don’t exist,” Fruchter said. “That’s what’s messed up. The music is being looked at as a joke. What these artists are talking about is very serious and [involves] real problems.”

Duan “DGainz” Gaines, a local music producer and videographer who directed the video for rapper Chief Keef’s song “I Don’t Like,” said that though the music of past gangster rap artists like Tupac focused on similar themes, it contained less profane and

violent lyrics.

He said trap rap is becoming popular because it is now easier for music to gain notoriety via the Internet. Keef’s performance at Lollapalooza this year also sparked interest in the genre, Gaines said, but the rapper, who was recently suspected of being involved in a murder, is currently in Los Angeles making an effort to downplay the violent themes in his music because of the heavy criticism it has received.

“It’s going to be hard because a lot of Keef’s fan base is kids,” Gaines said, adding that the negative themes trap rap glorifies are perpetuated through social media by fans with little understanding of them. “Adults can pinpoint it, and they know when to draw the line. It’s a whole new generation.”

Keef heads the newest group of trap rap artists, Chicago-based OTF/GBE, which stands for “Only The Family, Glory Boyz Entertainment.” Fruchter said the violent nature of the group’s music isn’t surprising because it tells the stories of members’ lives.

Both Kevin Hall, executive vice president at Rondor Music Publishing, a division of Universal Music Group, and Jason “Jroc” Evans, urban music editor at Chicago Music Magazine, agreed that trap rap artists shouldn’t be criticized for their music because it is an accurate reflection of the society in which

they live.

Evans said that while he doesn’t approve of trap rap’s message, it is understandable that a teenager growing up in a dangerous environment would feel it necessary to carry a gun and join a gang. However, he added that the music industry is responsible for producing negative material, citing 13-year-old Chicago rapper Lil Mouse, who he said has been exploited by music producers to perform profane songs about drugs and murder. In the song “Get Smoked” by Lil Wayne featuring Lil Mouse, he raps “I’m a gangsta, n—a, and I could do this s–t by my f—ing self/ Pistol hit his melon/ It ain’t gone be nothing left.”

According to Evans, music industry executives are usually white men who use performers to make money. He said they know people will listen to artists regardless of how their music is interpreted or whether it inspires listeners to emulate the same behavior.

Suzanne Merlis, a California-based clinical psychologist, said violent behavior is often caused by the need to feel dominant and respected, especially in deprived neighborhoods in which violence is used as a survival tool to achieve status.

“When someone grows up in this kind of environment … you sort of become myopic in a way, and you don’t believe there are other alternatives,” Merlis said. “Possibly, if they were to realize they have a choice, [it may] feel like a much greater uphill battle.”

She said violence might be a form of release for people lacking the necessary skills to control and express their anger in a healthier and more controlled way. There is little opportunity to think otherwise when living in harsh environments where this behavior is the norm, she said.

Merlis said people in underprivileged environments who fail to find legal employment often feel that selling drugs or joining a gang is their only option for financial security.

Hall said he finds it unlikely that Keef and his fellow performers would actually murder someone, but he understands that the artists believe violence is the best form of protection on the streets because no one is telling them otherwise.

He said label executives should feel ashamed for promoting teens as trap rappers.

“They’re kids, [and] they’re just misled,” Hall said. “If we’re talking shame and embarrassment, I do not feel that for those kids. I feel that for every a–hole who’s involved in [their career] situation.”

Fruchter said he doubts Keef’s involvement in the Sept. 4 murder of up-and-coming rapper Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman, who was shot on the South Side after allegedly feuding with rival gang members, although Keef was embroiled in the rivalry. Fruchter said if authorities felt there was a basis to proceed with murder charges, Keef would have received harsher punishment than house arrest for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer and would have lost his record deal.

Kolar said negative backlash is a byproduct of pop culture regardless of the kind of music or artist involved. On Oct. 25, OTF/GBE member Lil Reese became a target of criticism in the media for a leaked video that shows him physically assaulting a woman. Kolar said the video made him reconsider working with the rapper, but he changed his mind when Lil Reese alleged that the video was 2 years old, and he was making attempts

to change.

“People are quick to blame the music for this stuff,” Kolar said. “Unfortunately, Reese grew up in one of the worst public school systems in the country [and] one of the most uninspiring neighborhoods in America.”

Evans said he believes that people should only listen to trap rap as a learning tool to understand it is only the façade of a better lifestyle.

“What’s the difference between Jay-Z’s story and Chief Keef’s story?” Evans said. “They both started out the same. It’s the same outline being put in front of [people] time and time again, until [they] realize they’re going to put [on] this façade and fake ass image every time because [people] continuously buy it.”

But Gaines said there are creative differences between trap rappers like OTF/GBE and artists like Jay-Z. According to him, Jay-Z’s music tells the rapper’s life’s story as an example of making positive change. In contrast, trap rap perpetuates feelings of anger.

Hall said celebrity artists like Kanye West often ignore the need for help in their own impoverished hometowns and are self-serving. He said if the role models for younger generations aren’t willing to help them thrive, someone else needs to be a positive influence in their lives.

“It’s a horrible thing,” Hall said. “Where do you grow? In our community, it’s to the point where you have to be self-aware. You have to see it as wrong and teach your own kids that this is wrong. If you don’t, then they’re another victim to the streets whether they want to be or not.”