Something's Brewing In Milwaukee

Words by Brent Butcher & Eric Montanez // Photos by Rene MarbanJimmy Bui

It wasn’t that long ago that Chicago music was synonymous with blues, house, and even some indie rock. Aside from a short lived dynasty helmed by Common, Twista, Kanye and others in the late 90s and early 2000s, the city’s relevance in the world of hip-hop was drowned out by the always dominant coasts as well as an emerging southern scene. Before the manifestation of drill and Chief Keef in 2012, and names like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Mick Jenkins that soon followed, Chicago was just like any other fly over state that was filled with talent, but nowhere to put it. Now that the Windy City has spent some time grooming the scene and have hopefully established infrastructure to keep everything looking nice, Chicago residents and tastemakers have started to see people migrating to get in on the action, or better yet, to work on establishing a scene in their own city. 

Recently, the These Days team took a road trip up north to catch up with Chance The Rapper as he made a stop in Milwaukee, WI on his Family Matters Tour with Towkio, D.R.A.M., and Metro Boomin. Because we’re obsessed about this music thing, going somewhere to see a show just wouldn’t be good enough, so we set off early and planned a day to experience what Milwaukee had to offer hip-hop fans. We’ve followed closely over the internet and met some of the faces while they were visiting Chicago, but to really get a feel for what was happening on the buzzing Milwaukee hip-hop scene we knew we had to immerse ourselves in it.

It’s Friday, just after noon, and we link up with Chance and friends at The Rave as the team rolls out of their buses and begins the lengthy load-in process. Since that didn’t seem at all fun or interesting for a couple of writers, we decided to embark on the search for coffee, which quickly turned into a search for beer as we had to walk a couple more blocks than expected. We landed in a charming little bar/diner near the venue called Miss Katie’s, and it was here where we linked up with Nick, a young artist manager that is currently representing the local notable rapper WebsterX. 

Stop One: Nick's House With WebsterX

Nick brought us back to his place, where we met with WebsterX, Mic Kellogg, director Damien Klaven, and few others as they kicked back and played NHL ’11. Making sure to provide the disclaimer “We’re not really gamers." Though a few members of our staff knew him pretty well, I had only met Webster once before for a brief moment outside of East Room in Logan Square earlier this year. However, I wasn’t familiar with his music at the time, and I wasn’t the only one. Releasing his first (and only) project Desperate Youth just a year ago, Webster went from generating a few thousand spins per song, to tens of thousands in the matter of a few months. When asked what he attributed that jump to, Webster said "My recognition has skyrocketed because of the daily reflection I let myself fall into. I see things in a very forward light and not only that, but it’s because of my personality. Beyond this music stuff, beyond any artistic vision, I just want to be another light in someone’s life, a friend."

As a few additional members of New Age Narcissism crew filled in, the group headed to an upstairs office to discuss the shooting of Klaven’s short film, which we’re told would reflect the passions of each participant in the characters they would be playing. While the film-focused discussion wasn't quite what we came to observe, it showed us just how close the creative community is here. Everyone was very eager and enthusiastic to wake up at 5:00 a.m. on an upcoming Saturday to spend the entire day shooting their friend's vision. Webster elaborated on that idea for us, “Milwaukee as a music community even beyond hip hop is something clearly fruitful to the keen eye. However it’s still a major base of soil that can easily miss a day of watering. People are excited and so are the artists but in my opinion, it’s never sweet, we have to keep striving for more.” 

Stop Two: Mexican Restaurant with Ish Darr & Mag 

As we departed the first location to grab some dinner, I asked Nick about the Milwaukee scene and if it felt like a community. Just because there are a handful of artists all succeeding in one place doesn’t necessarily mean it’s teamwork that’s allowed them to reach that point. Nick went on to tell me that everyone is doing their own thing, but they’re all essentially after the same goal, and that is to have a self-sustaining music community in their city. Before dinner, we have to make a pit stop to pick up another rising talent, IshDARR, who is currently doing some shopping on the other side of town. Braving the traffic was necessary to link with this eccentric 18-year-old that has been making SoundCloud his loyal servant since releasing Old Soul, Young Spirit earlier this year. With a mouth half full of gold and wandering around an outdoor mall in Milwaukee, you wouldn’t peg this guy for having entertained major label meetings and signing with a prominent booking agent just a couple months ago.

We arrive at El Tucananzo, a small taqueria on Milwaukee’s south side that is owned by the family of IshDARR’s manager Mag. (Editor's note: quite possibly the best Mexican food we've ever had)

There we met up with Mag, Webster, and the rest of the crew were already there and were well into their meals as we showed up, but that didn’t stop us from further consuming the small amount of counter space while we talked amongst ourselves.

Stop Three: Loft with bliss & alice

Our last stop before the night’s show at The Rave was to meet with bliss & alice, another one of Milwaukee music's artist-to-know. After greeting outside, he walks us up to at a downtown loft which we find out was the first place coffee was brewed in Milwaukee. The beautifully designed space is currently being used as an office for a film project he's working on alongside our welcoming hosts - a filmmaker and playwright whom provide us with both great conversation and rum. Once again, the discussion strays away from music. This time delving into a few of sociopolitical issues plaguing their city as much as ours - gun violence, school closures and segregation. 

As our talk shifts back onto bliss's current musical pursuits, he tells us he's currently balancing creating new music with finishing up the final few classes before completing his college degree. When asked about the recent spark of interest in his local music scene he explains, "A handful of artists came together to lift each other up here. I don't think the beauty in the Milwaukee conversation comes from spontaneity; It stems from an understanding of adversity, and the brashness to say "fuck it, we'll believe in us." 

We wrapped the night by hitting the Rave with our new friends to watch Chicago’s Chance The Rapper perform in front of 4,000+ person crowd. Chance has arguably been the poster child of the DIY scene, and to go from observing a very grass roots hip-hop community in its infancy to one that has developed into the national spotlight is a very interesting spectrum to look at. 

Although, we didn’t have the opportunity to catch the Milwaukee scene in action during our initial visit, I made the trip back just a week later as WebsterX co-headlined a show at the Miramar Theatre with Chicago’s Hurt Everybody. From the moment we walked in the back door, with very little resistance from the venue’s security, it was apparent that we weren’t in Chicago anymore. Sitting at a capacity of about 350 people, the Miramar Theatre is a familiar space, one any fan of local music has had the pleasure of experiencing. Throughout the evening, the room filled in nicely as local acts Klassick, Lorde Fredd33, WebsterX, and others took the stage. In fact, there were very few stragglers popping in for the later sets. Milwaukee showed out early, formed a line prior to doors, and were ready to turn up beginning with the first act to hit the stage and lasting all the way until the end of the spectacle. Over the course of a week, the raw talent, creative collaborations between its artist community, and the support from an excited and growing fan base, Milwaukee presented to us a great deal of promise in their burgeoning hip-hop scene. Will Cream City go on to become a location known for its hip-hop product? I’m not sure just yet, but I can tell you that the artists Milwaukee is currently housing should not be glossed over. 

Keep up with the names we’ve mentioned here today and listen to more in the playlist we’ve created for you below. While you're at it, clear your schedule for next Thursday and come out to Chicago's Subterranean for the These Days hosted Orbit Series featuring Kweku Collins, Mally, and Milwaukee’s WebsterX. Check our events page for more details.