Editor’s Note: If you’ve read anything at all on this blog, it should already be abundantly clear that I am a big ol’ geek. As such, one of my favorite things to do whenever I take a road trip is listen to music by artists from the cities I’m passing through. Now, as it happens, today I will be driving from my current home in Kansas City, Missouri to my parents’ house in Port Huron, Michigan; and next month, I’ll be taking a second trip from Port Huron to my future home in the Washington, DC area. So I figured, since I like making mixes, and since this blog is just a giant vanity project anyway, why not turn my music-geek road trip game into a recurring feature?
I’m calling the feature Dystopian Road Mix. Similar to the previously-introduced Dystopian Dance Mix, it will be a Spotify playlist accompanied by my trademark reams of text. There will be two differences, though (other than the obvious travelogue conceit): first, no 80-minute time limit; and second, instead of track-by-track commentary, I’ll be grouping the music selections together based on geography (don’t worry, though, I’ll still write a shit-ton–in fact, I’m pretty sure this may be my most verbose post yet). I’m honestly not sure how frequently this feature will recur. As mentioned above, there will definitely be another installment next month; after that, though, it’s up in the air. Maybe I’ll only make future installments when I’m actually traveling somewhere; maybe I’ll revisit trips I’ve taken in the past; maybe I’ll invent imaginary road trips. It all depends on how much time I have on my hands, basically. But in the meantime, please enjoy my guided musical tour through the Midwest; and, as I’m sure I left more than a few notable artists out, feel free to share whatever I’ve missed in the comments! – Z.H.
Kansas City is of course best known for its jazz music, and for good reason: it’s arguably second only to New Orleans in its importance to the early development of the genre (yeah, yeah, New York, we all know you invented bebop, fuck you). Thanks to a, shall we say, healthy civic disregard for Prohibition laws, as well as a vibrant and independent Black community–independent, it must be said, because segregationist real estate policies restricted African American businesses and residences to the area bounded by 12th Street to the north, 27th street to the south, Charlotte on the west, and Benton on the east–the area surrounding the legendary cross streets of 18th and Vine became a hotbed for jazz music in the 1920s and ’30s: the first neighborhood to produce a truly identifiable regional variation on jazz since its aforementioned birthplace in New Orleans’ Storyville.
In those days predating its musical gentrification, jazz was party music, or perhaps more accurately vice music: as likely to be played in a brothel or gambling den as in a “legitimate” nightclub or theater. These bawdy roots would live on in the songs of K.C. native Julia Lee, whose 1940s R&B hits “Snatch and Grab It” and “King Size Papa” are exactly as phallically-minded as they sound. The track selected for this playlist, 1929’s “Won’t You Come Over to My House,” isn’t quite as double entendre-laden as her more famous later material, but I think we can be reasonably certain that Julia isn’t inviting us over for tea and biscuits.
Lee would later sing (and, in fact, re-record “Come Over to My House”) for Jay McShann: a towering figure in the history of prewar jazz music, if not quite a household name. McShann, as both a pianist and a bandleader, was a master of the hard-swinging, deeply blues-influenced sound that was the hallmark of Kansas City Jazz. His piano solo “Vine Street Boogie” serves as a primer for the style, and as a tribute to the neighborhood where he played for the majority of his adult life; indeed, McShann’s influence on the district was such that for years, “Vine Street Boogie” was the name of the annual fundraiser for the American Jazz Museum located at 18th and Vine.
One of the better-known figures of Kansas City Jazz, as well as one of the genre’s most prominent non-vocalist women, is Mary Lou Williams, whose 1930s recordings with Andy Kirk’s K.C.-by-way-of-Oklahoma City orchestra the “Twelve Clouds of Joy” both helped to solidify and stretched the artistic boundaries of the style. Listen to her jubilant soloing on 1931’s “Night Life” and you can hear the virtuoso flourishes she adds to the down-and-dirty boogie played by pianists like McShann: at once capturing the excitement of peak-era Kansas City nightlife and pointing the way toward the heady future improvisations of K.C.K. native son Charlie Parker.
On the other side of the spectrum is Pete Johnson, whose tracks with longtime collaborator Big Joe Turner dig even further into the gutbucket than McShann, bridging the gap between K.C. Jazz and jump blues. The playlist’s muscular version of Turner’s and Johnson’s 1938 boogie-woogie number “Roll ‘Em Pete” actually stems from Turner’s 1956 album The Boss of the Blues; the fact that it still sounded so vital almost twenty years later was, and is, a testament to the timelessness of the Kansas City sound.
Finally, another notable pianist and frequent collaborator of Joe Turner’s was William James “Count” Basie, who like Williams and Kirk played in territory bands all over the Midwest, but made his most prominent mark in Kansas City. Basie was instrumental in establishing the big-band variation of the so-called “Kansas City stomp,” and his band played host to a number of legendary musicians in their own right: including Lester Young, whose 1939 composition “Lester Leaps In” has become one of the Basie band’s best-known recordings.
Young, of course, was a prominent mentor to K.C.’s most famous musical export, Charlie Parker, who probably spins in his grave every time he shows up in an article like this representing Kansas City (so, all the time). That grave, by the way, is in Lincoln Cemetary in Blue Summit, an unincorporated area located between Kansas City and Independence, Missouri; this, so the legend goes, was in order to technically fulfill his request “not to be buried in Kansas City.”
But while Parker clearly had a vexed relationship with his hometown, it remains an inextricable part of his musical as well as personal history: 18th and Vine was where he made his professional debut (in McShann’s orchestra), where he earned the nickname “Yardbird,” and where the highly improvisational local scene gave him the opportunity to plant the seeds for his future musical innovations before he left for New York in 1939. 1951’s “K.C. Blues” is a stirring acknowledgment of those roots, with Parker’s bluesy tone sounding just a bit like another Missourian sax player, Coleman Hawkins. And on trumpet, incidentally, is a guy born just a few hours away, in East St. Louis, Illinois: one Miles Davis.
It’s fitting to end our brief overview of K.C. Jazz with Parker, because in many ways his move to New York, and leading role in the development of bebop there, signposted the end of Kansas City’s primacy as a “jazz cradle.” This is not to say that jazz in Kansas City ceased to exist–on the contrary, the city to this day still boasts a jazz scene far more vibrant and active than its population size would suggest–but K.C. had ceased to be a predominant center of influence for the music. The last “household name” jazz artist to come out of Kansas City (actually suburban Lee’s Summit) was fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, who isn’t included on this playlist because he’s white Spotify only seems to have his more recent and (in my opinion) kinda dull albums, and I’m not interested in falling asleep at the wheel on this particular road trip.
In fact, for quite a while Metheny was the only metro Kansas Citian of note to break into the national music scene. Midwestern folk-rock duo Brewer & Shipley, of “One Toke Over the Line” fame (and pretty much only that), came to fame in the early ’70s playing venues in college towns around the area, including Kansas City’s own short-lived “counterculture” venue the Cowtown Ballroom. And in the mid-’80s, K.C.-based roots rockers The Rainmakers garnered some critical attention, made their way into a couple of Stephen King novels (no, seriously), and sold a lot of records in Scandinavia of all places. “Rockin’ at the T-Dance,” the opening track on their self-titled 1986 debut, sardonically immortalizes the fatal 1981 collapse of a skywalk during a tea dance at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City: an industrial disaster that had the dubious “honor” of being the deadliest structural collapse in the history of the United States, surpassed only by the destruction of the World Trade Center twenty years later.
These days, though, when it comes to musicians from Kansas City, the highest-profile by far is rapper Aaron Yates, better known as Tech N9ne (why, yes, I am ignoring Blue Springs native/American Idol winner David Cook). Tech makes frequent references to local landmarks in his verses, but probably his most sustained and compelling lyrical exploration of Kansas City is “The P.A.S.E.O. (The Poem Aaron Saw Extra Ordinary)” from 2007’s Misery Loves Kompany.
“The P.A.S.E.O.,” as the title suggests, is a kind of virtual tour of Kansas City’s Paseo Boulevard: a major parkway running north and south through the majority of the city, passing through much of its African American community–and many of its most blighted areas–along the way. Tech structures the song’s lyrics around the physical space of the Paseo, both to give listeners a glimpse of the more dangerous side of Kansas City’s street life and to literally map the events of his own life: starting at 85th, where he “wrote some of [his] latest hits,” proceeding north to 76th where his “first baby was conceived,” and moving on through the home of his former gang/rap crew the 57th Street Rogue Dog Villains, Gates Barbecue on 47th, 18th and Vine, the Wayne Miner Court public housing project, and finally Independence Ave. where he hears his “son Donny / Sayin’ that he hear gunshots every night on 5th.” “29 north to the bridge” is “end of the road”–which means it’s time for us to leave Kansas City behind, too.
And I sure hope you enjoyed the Kansas City part of the program, because the rest of Missouri (on this route, at least; we’re taking US-36/I-72, and thus missing St. Louis), and the vast majority of Illinois, are a whole lotta nothin’. In fact, there really isn’t any music of note until we reach metro Chicago, so you might as well listen to an audio book or something. But once we do get to Chicago, holy shit. Of course, I am aware that I-72 doesn’t actually pass through Chicago, but barely grazes it by way of Joliet…fuck it though, this playlist would be less than half its length without Chicago, so I’m talking about Chicago. In many ways, Chicago was to the blues what Kansas City was to jazz: a Midwestern city whose position as a major destination for Black Southerners during the first Great Migration made it an ideal breeding ground for new, urbanized forms of southern roots music.
The Chicago Blues took form primarily around the open-air Maxwell Street Market between Halsted and 16th Street, where African American musicians who had come north from the Mississippi Delta played blues for tips, and gradually introduced amplification as a means to reach more ears. One of the best-known musicians who rose to prominence in this environment was Big Bill Broonzy, whose classic 1940 version of “Key to the Highway”–while not electrified–amply demonstrates Chicago’s streamlined, modern approach to the Delta blues.
Arguably the name most synonymous with the Chicago Blues, however, is Willie Dixon: the most prolific and accomplished songwriter of the genre, and one of the most significant songwriters in American popular music, period. I could have easily done a whole playlist of just classic Dixon songs, but I chose just two highlights. With its stop-start introductory riff and self-aggrandizing lyrics, 1954’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” made famous by McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, is the song everyone channels when they parody the blues genre writ large; and “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” recorded by Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett in 1963, was part of Dixon’s pioneering mini-genre of “Sexy Fat Guy” songs, along with its B-side “Built for Comfort.”
Both of these songs, and indeed the bulk of Dixon’s greatest work, were released on the Chicago-based Chess Records, the label that has in many ways defined the sound of the Chicago Blues. But Chess wasn’t the only game in town: Delmark Records, a transplant from St. Louis, also put out a number of important albums, including Hoodoo Man Blues, the 1965 debut of both vocalist/harmonica player Junior Wells and guitaristBuddy Guy. That record’s opening track, “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” shows the further evolution of the Chicago Blues sound: a hard-driving, more dance-oriented incarnation embracing elements of R&B.
Though Chicago is obviously most associated with the blues, it also boasts its fair share of noteworthy jazz artists. During the 1920s, jazz musicians from New Orleans–including no less a personage than Louis Armstrong–traveled to Chicago to play and record, and the resulting, faster-paced variation on traditional jazz music was dubbed the “Chicago style.” Swing luminaries Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa also came from the Windy City. For the purposes of this playlist, though, we’ll highlight Herbie Hancock, whose classic 1962 song “Watermelon Man” was based on “the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago,” and drew heavily on the city’s blues traditions for its rhythm and melody.
Hancock’s driving, gospel-influenced piano style also evokes the parallel developments of soul music in Chicago, spearheaded by the gospel-turned-secular singer Sam Cooke and his Soul Stirrers. Cooke’s 1962 “Bring It On Home to Me” is a template for not only Chicago Soul in particular, but soul music in general: a perfect example of the passionate inflections and call-and-response vocals of African American gospel music turned to the carnal lyrical content of the blues.
Also exploring the intersections of gospel and soul were vocal group The Impressions, whose Curtis Mayfield-led 1965 single “People Get Ready” used spiritual language to lend support to the Civil Rights Movement, in the same vein as fellow Chicagoans the Staple Singers.
To me, though, the ultimate Chicago Soul song is probably Jackie Wilson’s 1967 “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Wilson was born in Detroit–his cousin, Levi Stubbs, was the leader of Motown hitmakers the Four Tops, and the musicians on “Higher and Higher” include four moonlighting members of Motown’s legendary session crew the Funk Brothers–but the song, produced by Chicago’s own Carl Davis, is clearly a product of the Windy City: not as gutbucket as a Stax record, not genteel enough for Motown, but carving out its own personality between the two, a perfect blend of Wilson’s gospel-style vocals and an ebullient, sweeping string arrangement. For Christ’s sake, even sentient pink slime can’t resist dancing to this song.
While Black music continued to evolve in the city limits, the suburbs were playing host to some of the most vicious American rock and roll recorded since the 1950s. To be honest, there’s not much uniquely “Chicago” about Mt. Prospect garage rockers the Shadows of Knight; they did cover and claim an affinity with Chicago Blues artists including Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, but like other mid-’60s garage bands, their interpretation was heavily filtered through the lens of British Invasion acts like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. That being said, I have a huge soft spot for mid-’60s garage bands, and as a Midwesterner I’ve always been proud that one of the better ones came out of Illinois. “Bad Little Woman” is one of the Shadows’ standout tracks, blending that classic cod-psychedelic Farfisa organ sound with a guitar tone that is positively nasty by 1966 standards.
Meanwhile, a decidedly less hard-rocking band from the city proper was The Chicago Transit Authority–later renamed to simply “Chicago,” because apparently the actual CTA didn’t appreciate is name being used by a bunch of hippie jazzbos. I’ve got to admit, I’m not much of a Chicago fan: even their music from before their infamous shift to light rock in the ’80s has always struck me as a less soulful version of Blood, Sweat & Tears. But “Someday (August 29, 1968),” from their self-titled 1969 debut, is at least historically significant as a musical chronicle of the infamous “police riot” at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention. The song opens with what sounds like an actual recording of the “whole world is watching” chant shouted by protesters as they were attacked by Chicago police, which then fades into an impressionistic retelling of the riot. The lyrics, at least for my taste, alternate being excessively pretentious (“Faces full of hate and fear, faces full of me”) and way too on-the-nose (“Feel the wind of something hard come whistling past your ear”–gosh, like a tear gas canister?); but hey, at least their hearts were in the right place.
Noteworthy acts continued to come out of Chicago throughout the ’70s. Another rock band, Styx, was founded by three neighbors from the South-Side Roseland area and graduates of the education program at Chicago State College (now Chicago State University); their 1973 progressive rock ballad “Lady” was a local hit and one of the most successful releases for Chicago-based label Wooden Nickel Records. On the other side of the musical spectrum, bands like Earth, Wind & Fire–whose leader Maurice White has previously been a session drummer for Chess–continued to develop the Chicago Soul tradition, blending jazz and funk on songs like 1975’s “Shining Star.”
R&B institution Chaka Khan, born Yvette Marie Stevens, was also born and raised in Chicago’s South-Side housing projects, where she was friends with Illinois Black Panther Party deputy chairman Fred Hampton before his 1969 assassination by the FBI. Khan’s early funk albums with Rufus remain her most lasting work, including the Stevie Wonder-written 1974 single “Tell Me Something Good.”
The next big musical juncture for Chicago, though, would come with the rise of house music in the early ’80s. A transplant from the Bronx, DJ Francis Nicholls (better known by the homonymic pseudonym Frankie Knuckles) was widely credited with pioneering the Chicago House style, frequently in collaboration with songwriter and producer Jamie Principle. Knuckles’ “Your Love,” written and sung by Principle with additional vocals by Adrienne Jett, is one of the defining examples of the genre.
Like most early house songs, “Your Love” was initially distributed to DJs only via reel-to-reel or acetate; when it did eventually see commercial release in 1987, however, it was on the legendary Chicago House label Trax Records. Trax was also the home of Phuture, whose dirtier, more dissonant approach to house spawned the entire subgenre known as acid house. “Slam,” from the 1988 12″ release “We Are Phuture,” is one of the more concise examples of the genre.
At the same time that Chicago DJs were revolutionizing dance music, the city also hosted a burgeoning underground rock scene. Steve Albini, later known for his stripped-down record productions for the likes of the Pixies, the Breeders, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana, formed post-hardcore band Big Black while a student at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston. Big Black shared guitarist Santiago Durango and lead singer Jeff Pezzati with Ruthless Records hardcore group Naked Raygun, whose 1983 “Swingo” includes some of the best use of saxophone in a punk song this side of the Stooges. Meanwhile, Ministry evolved from its inception as a synthpop band to pioneer what became known as industrial metal, melding electronic beats with heavy metal aggression on tracks like “Stigmata” from 1988’s charmingly-titled The Land of Rape and Honey, recorded at Chicago Trax Studios.
Chicago’s diverse alternative rock scene would continue to blossom into the ’90s, with bands like Urge Overkill coalescing around the hip Wicker Park neighborhood. Urge Overkill got college radio play and eventually mainstream success on the strength of guitar-heavy songs like 1990’s “Ticket to L.A.,” as well as opening slots on tours with likeminded Seattle acts Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They also indirectly inspired the ascendance of singer-songwriter Liz Phair, whose 1993 debut Exile in Guyville was written from her own perspective as an outsider looking in on the male-dominated local scene, borrowing its title from the 1992 Urge song “Goodbye to Guyville.” A song like “6’1″” still holds up as a trenchant critique of the kind of cliquey boys’-clubbiness that plagues even the nominally progressive indie-rock community to this day.
Arguably the biggest Chicago alt-rock band of the ’90s, however, was Smashing Pumpkins, whose 1993 “Cherub Rock” weds the heavy quasi-grunge of Urge Overkill with a barely-disguised admiration for 1970s arena rock. The lyrics, too, are another swipe at the increasingly commercialized “indie” scene from which the Pumpkins emerged: “Hipsters unite, come align for the big fight to rock for you,” frontman Billy Corgan sneers, before repeatedly pleading “Let me out.” The song’s parent album, Siamese Dream, would go on to sell over six million copies worldwide; so just remember, kids, if you want to be a big rock star, start by recording a catchy song expressing your contempt for rock stardom.
Also in the mid-’90s, Chicago’s soul tradition continued to be carried on by R. Kelly, whose 1994 solo debut 12 Play shifted the direction of contemporary R&B with its combination of old-school soul balladeering, hip-hop posturing, and a ribald streak that would make Prince blush. Kelly’s “Bump n’ Grind” is still a classic, even if the last decade’s revelations of just who it is he wants to be bumping and grinding with, and the predatory methods he employs, leave an undeniably bad taste in the mouth.
But let’s forget about R. Kelly. As far as I’m concerned, no list of Chicago artists would be complete without Wesley Willis: the sadly departed outsider musician extraordinaire who used the prerecorded backing tracks on his Technics KN keyboard as a therapeutic outlet for his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. There has been considerable debate over whether the commercial release of Willis’ music on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles record label was a form of exploitation, but I personally fall on the side of believing that Willis got a genuine sense of joy and accomplishment out of performing and sharing his struggles with others, and I think the world would be a much poorer place without songs like “I Wupped Batman’s Ass,” “I Whipped Spiderman’s Ass,” “Birdman Kicked My Ass” (Wesley clearly had some issues with superheroes), and of course, “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s.”
The best thing about “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s” is that it’s actually about a real place: the kitschy flagship McDonald’s restaurant near the Magnificent Mile that was once festooned with murals of rock musicians from the ’50s and ’60s, and now includes an actual Hard Rock Cafe-style display of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. Willis, for his part, seems a little conflicted about the place: he starts the song by endorsing it as “a good place to listen to the music,” then observes in the second verse that the Quarter Pounders it serves “will put pounds on you,” and finally concludes that “McDonald’s hamburgers are the worst.” Still, it’s a rare opportunity to hear one Chicago kitsch icon paying tribute to another; and of course, as ever, Willis ends the tune with a shoutout to his hometown: “Rock over London, rock on Chicago.”
I realize I’m glossing over a lot of significant artists here, but this is supposed to be a road trip through four states, not just “Chicago: The Playlist,” so it’s past time to wrap things up. First, though, it isn’t a list of artists from Chicago without mentioning Kanye West, who effectively put the city on the map for hip-hop with his rise to fame in the mid-2000s. “Touch the Sky,” from his 2005 album Late Registration, actually isn’t produced by West himself, but by Just Blaze, who hails from Paterson, New Jersey; but with its joyful horn sample from Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “Move On Up” and guest verse by fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, the song’s debt to West’s hometown is obvious.
Finally, Chicago electronic music has been gaining attention again of late with the crossover success of footwork and Chicago Juke, a frantically-paced offshoot of “ghetto house” music popularized by the recently and tragically deceased DJ Rashad. Though the similarity is probably not intentional, there’s actually a bit of Kanye’s musical imprint in the helium-pitched vocal sample on Rashad’s 2013 collaboration with fellow Teklife member DJ Spinn, “Show U How”–albeit chopped up, glitched, and reassembled to a degree that is nowhere near as radio-friendly, but way more thrillingly avant-garde. And with that, let’s move on to…oh. Gary, Indiana.
Let me just say that I speak as someone who adores Detroit when I call Gary, Indiana the most irredeemable shithole of a city I’ve ever set foot in. Luckily for the Gary Chamber of Commerce, however, it was also the birthplace of the Jackson family. I doubt that The Jackson 5 needs any introduction, so I’ll just cut to the chase and say that this playlist’s selection comes from their ABC concert special and soundtrack album Goin’ Back to Indiana, which as the name suggests was a document of their May 29, 1971 “homecoming” show in Gary. They start with a brief cover version of Isaac Hayes’ 1969 arrangement of Burt Bacharach’s and Hal David’s “Walk On By”–Public Enemy fans should recognize the sample of a screaming fan from their “By the Time I Get to Arizona”–and then move into a spirited performance of the Jacksons’ own 1970 Motown hit “The Love You Save.” It’s a fun show–hopefully fun enough to make the audience forget, even if only for a few minutes, that they lived in Gary.
From the post-industrial shithole that is Gary we move on to the redneck shithole of Jackson, Michigan, longtime home of statutory rapist/family values advocate “Terrible” Ted Nugent, so nicknamed because his political beliefs and album covers are both terrible. To be honest, though, I kid because I love: as a Michigan boy with an abiding taste for bluesy guitar-mangling, even my abhorrence for Ted Nugent the man can’t quite cancel out my affection for The Nuge, the Motor City Madman. So here’s “Homebound” off his scorching 1977 album Cat Scratch Fever: a melodic guitar solo that’s so good, even Biz Markie had to sing along.
There isn’t really any music of note from Port Huron, so we’re ending our musical road trip about an hour west, in Flint. Flint, like Gary, is a city that took the decline of American manufacturing industry harder than most. After General Motors, once the city’s largest employer, shut down numerous plants in the late 1980s, Flint became deeply economically depressed, with a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average. There was a time, though, when Flint had some genuine vitality. Garage band Terry Knight and the Pack recorded for the local Lucky Eleven record label and opened regional shows for the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, and the Yardbirds; “Numbers,” from 1966, is a vintage slice of fuzzed-out Michigan rock.
Knight would go on to manage and produce Grand Funk Railroad, a power trio featuring ex-Pack members Mark Farner and Don Brewer, plus Mel Schacher of Bay City garage band ? and the Mysterians, from 1969 to 1972. “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother,” the opening track from Grand Funk’s 1970 album Closer to Home, sounds like a natural extension of the Pack’s garage rock, transmuted into plodding proto-stoner metal.
The next big name out of Flint, Ready for the World, could have easily been mistaken for the next big name out of Minneapolis when they dropped their 1985 hit single “Oh Sheila”–which was probably the whole point. From its fluttering Linn drum machine beat to singer Melvin Riley’s breathy delivery, “Oh Sheila” is a dead ringer for the music being produced by Prince on the other side of the Midwest. But I have to say, as both a Michigander and a diehard fan of the Minneapolis Sound, I’m weirdly proud that my home state can lay claim to at least one (uncanny) Prince soundalike. After all, it’s like Melvin always said: what’s good for the goose is always good for the Michigander. (I’ll see myself out.)
And now, at long last, we reach the end of the trip with two Flint-based hip-hop acts. The Dayton Family, named after Flint’s infamous Dayton Avenue, have been around since the mid-’90s, chronicling an especially bleak form of street life befitting their especially bleak home city. “Flint Town,” from their 1995 debut album What’s on my Mind?, is one potent example, particularly the verse by Ira Dorsey, a.k.a. Bootleg: “Michael Jackson said it don’t matter black or white but it should / Because Flint, Michigan’s a long way from Hollywood / I tried to go to college but I found myself stuck in Flint / Besides, them college folks don’t want no po’ male Black resident / Flint, Michigan’s a prison and we all are locked up / The only good jobs are the jobs that could be rocked up.”
Fortunately, if Bootleg’s harsh dose of reality is too depressing for you, there’s a more recent success story to come out of Flint: Jon Kevin Freeman Jr., a.k.a. Jon Connor, grew up near Dayton Avenue and has produced a string of successful mixtapes (his Kanye West-sampling 2014 tape Best in the World: The Late Registration of a College Dropout Who Had a Dark Twisted Fantasy of 808s & Heartbreak, is incredible), as well as a critically acclaimed independent album, 2013’s Unconscious State; late last year, he was signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment. “Michigan Shit,” featuring Detroit’s Royce da 5’9″, is a fierce declaration of hometown pride from one of the most promising up-and-coming rappers of the moment. It’s nice to see something good come out of Flint, isn’t it?
And with that, it’s time for me to get ready for my real road trip. It’s a long ride to Michigan, but at least I have some good music to listen to on the way. Now I just need to figure out what to do for that barren stretch between K.C. and Chicago…