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The Evolution of Chicago Hip-Hop, Told by One of Its Founding Fathers

Chicago has long been heralded as one of the greatest music hubs in the world, a breeding ground for all genres. In the 1930s, the open-air market on Maxwell Street was an incubator for the city’s signature blues sound. Later, The Warehouse in the West Loop was commonly referred to as the “birthplace” of house music. Chicago has created and cultivated some of history’s greatest musicians – Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, and Buddy Guy, to name a few.

With a storied musical history, Chicago would continue to shift its sound, and in the late 80s, emerged as a hotspot for hip-hop. But throughout this “golden age of hip-hop,” the East and West coasts dominated the airwaves and garnered the most attention. The East, of course, was hip-hop’s gravitational center, while the West experienced its own success with the likes of N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and 2Pac. The South later emerged as hip-hop’s de facto “third coast,” but in broader conversations about hip-hop’s explosive influence and prominence, Chicago was often overlooked.

Today, Chicago’s sound is impossible to ignore, evident by artists like Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chief Keef and Lil Durk. But what unfolded on the streets of Chicago in the 1990s can only be described as a regional renaissance, one deserving of greater recognition and documentation.

Wanting to better understand the evolution of the Chicago music scene, Chicago Haze interviewed one of its most formative voices – the legendary Jeffery Robinson, otherwise known as Buk of Psychodrama.

Too Much for the Industry to Handle

It’s 7pm on a Friday and I’m walking to a park near Division & Western. In preparation for the interview, I made a playlist of what I consider to be Buk’s greatest verses and had been listening to it all week. The playlist’s songs span three decades – an exceptional feat that few rappers can rightfully claim.

I listen to classic cuts with Buk – Twista’s “Adrenaline Rush,” 8Ball’s “Drama In My Life” – until I finish with Lupe Fiasco’s “Chopper,” a staggering cut off his 2015 LP Tetsuo & Youth that included verses from “the realest people” Lupe knows. Coincidentally, “Chopper” was the first time I had ever heard a Buk verse, and it can only be described as a lyrical spectacle. The entire song was insane, and even though it was 9 minutes long and featured iconic verses from respected rappers, Buk’s verse stood out from all the rest:

You could be predisposed or be preconditioned
Or speak with the preacher, been preaching, be the person
To put some process in your progress or be the prevention
I just live my life and I don’t stop grindin’ until God tell me to
I get money, I ain’t gotta sell my soul, ho, who the hell is you?

“Chopper” ends, and I dial Buk, pacing with anticipation. After several rings, Buk’s deep, unmistakable voice fills the line. Throughout the interview, which spans nearly ninety minutes, Buk tells me about his beginnings as a rapper, the formation of Psychodrama, the evolution of the music industry, and much more.

Buk was born on the West side of Chicago at Mount Sinai Hospital, and he’s spent much of his life here in the city. Buk is more-or-less the de facto frontman of Psychodrama, an underground rap trio that came to be one of the most definitive groups in all of Chicago hip-hop, alongside other acts like Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, Triple Darkness, and Snypaz. Early on in his childhood, Buk became infatuated with hip-hop, idolizing artists like LL Cool J, KRS-1, Rakim, Scarface, 8Ball & MJG, E-40, and Ice Cube, and actually penned his first rap in elementary school.

“Man, I was nine years old,” Buk tells me about that time. “My first rap was about the Bears going to the Super Bowl. My teacher scheduled for a few of us to perform at a pep rally at our grade school, Lawndale Academy, and my brother helped me construct some lyrics.”

We both laugh when I ask Buk if he remembered any of the lines, thinking how crazy it’d be to read those verses, 35 years later. Over the span of those 35 years, Buk would not only demonstrate his dedication to the craft as an emcee, but continuously hone his innate ability as a lyricist.

“Yeah, you know what it was… I was a thinker. I was one of those kids that was in the spelling bee. And you know, I was a real reading kid. I didn’t mind reading the dictionary, encyclopedias, stuff like that. This is long before Google, so I had to do my research ‘cause I didn’t know it, so I grew up listening to everybody, man. And at some point, I just kind of threw my mind off a cliff and never came back.”

When Buk talks about his early years listening to rap and learning about its nuances, it’s clear that he took the time to master the fundamentals, drawing inspiration from LL Cool J one day, to N.W.A. the next. The words he chooses in his rhymes are carefully selected, often poured over, so that they’ll have the desired effect on the listener. Rapping wasn’t just a hobby to Buk, but a calling.

“Everything’s poetry – learning the style, just like the pros. You know, how to be grammatically correct and how to express it and enunciate it, all of that shit is counted in every verse I’ve ever written. It goes way deeper than what I’m saying.”

One thing that Buk has taken to heart over the years: “The main thing is to respect the microphone and the emcee. So every rap that came out, man, it was like ‘this is it.’ This was like Christmas.”

Throughout his teenage years, Buk would continue to refine his rapping ability, working alongside other Chicago artists and producers like DJ Funk, a famous house DJ known for pioneering the “ghetto house” sound as it was later called. Buk was even one of the founding members – presumably the youngest member at the time – of Do or Die, another celebrated Chicago hip-hop group from the 90s.

Chicago Legends Do Or Die Reflect On Their Influential Career - XXL

Eventually, Buk met Psyde FX and NewSense – friends, first and foremost – and would eventually later form the aforementioned Psychodrama. Buk met Psyde FX in 1990 at Crane High School on the West side of Chicago, and the two immediately hit it off. At a local youth center where they’d hang out, they met NewSense, and the three bonded over a mutual love of music. The three of them would drive around with NewSense’s cousins, smoking and drinking and listening to the newest CDs.

“The funny part is we weren’t even trying to be a group or anything. We had 100 fucking songs, you know, just riding around every day and rapping a cappella. Until one day a guy in the neighborhood was like, ‘y’all should record this.’ And we did.”

“The name Psychodrama actually came from an earlier relationship with my homeboy Sandman, who had written a rap a few years earlier. Sandman is one of my big brothers who I used to spar with lyrically back in the day, and he had this rap called Psychodrama, which is where we got our name.”

“God basically put this group together. From that point, we started to hone the style that we were starting to blossom. We started to kind of stick to our guns and formulate what an album would look like, what our project would look like, and so on.”

There wasn’t any vision for Psychodrama initially. Buk, Psyde FX, and NewSense just came together, bonded by mutual respect, admiration, and a love for music. They didn’t have a label or an agent dictating their direction or calling the shots – they were just rapping, and they were some of the best at it.

Psychodrama was so tenacious, gifted, and committed to their raps that they were almost viewed as outcasts. They were rightfully in a tier of their own. Buk described Psychodrama as being “too much for the industry to handle,” which would become Psychodrama’s official trademark and tagline.

“It means being more than the authorities can handle in any industry… it means being the best at whatever you do. But not only being the best, but going overboard at being the best. And that’s how we approach rap.”

Psychodrama achieved critical acclaim locally and built up a loyal following in Chicago. Today, Buk, Psyde FX, and NewSense are certified legends, despite the fact that Psychodrama rarely received widespread radio airplay. But that never really mattered to Psychodrama – they were always an underground rap group, with “underground” being a badge of honor, something Buk takes as a term of endearment. To them, it signified a certain authenticity in their sound and a proximity to the community that raised them.

It’s like a movie that I can’t explain to you

Later in the interview, Buk and I went into greater detail about the Chicago hip-hop scene in the 90s, which started with a conversation about the music industry. He reflects on how the music scene has shifted away from more traditional mediums like cassettes and CDs, and how streaming upheaved the entire industry.

“The intimacy of the music changed,” Buk reflects. “Looking at a CD, reading the inside cover, seeing who did the artwork, who designed it, who was the producer, who played that guitar on that track, all that.”

“We had things called ‘in-stores’ where artists would come by and sign autographs and the people would get to meet their favorite artists,” Buk explained. “Now you decide I just want to hit track seven and all that. It took so much from the music.”

Buk adds that nowadays, the hustle, integrity, and individuality of artists has been stifled. The industry eroded, and today’s songs get funneled through dozens of hands until they’re microwaved enough to appease ever-decreasing attention spans and to make record companies millions at the expense of the artist.

Back then (and even to this day), Psychodrama called the shots – Buk, Psyde Fx, and NewSense were their own creative directors, promoters, and distributors. If they wanted to eat, they needed to put in the work themselves.

“As independent artists, we’d press our own CDs. We would go and put our money together and go get some tapes pressed up. We’d take that box and literally be posted up on the block at the park, you know, we’d hit up the South side of Chicago, West side, Northside, out East by Indiana, all of that.”

Psychodrama would also drop off boxes at record stores, which were far more common in the 90s when physical mediums would fly off the shelves. Buk recalled a few places he would drop CDs off at: Barney’s Records, Dr Wax, Sam Goody, and the storied George’s Music Room on the West side of Chicago.

“We’d get our box of CDs and set a price for them, you know. We’d tell shops ‘I want $5 a tape or a CD,’ and in store, they’d sell it for $10 or whatever. And you’d go pick up your money, once or twice a month, you know what I’m saying? And yeah, we’d buy stickers and posters, then have a cousin go on this side of town and take pictures after they put the shit up on the pole somewhere that the police might take down or arrest us for. And it was serious man, like thousands of artists were doing this. This was normal for us in the 90s.”

The anticipation of hearing an album or project for the first time – when you might have only heard one single on the radio before – was an event. Buk tells me that for larger releases, everyone would gather round those that bought the album and just listen to it from beginning to end. No phones, no interruptions, no distractions. Everybody would shut up and just get lost in the music. When Psychodrama, Do or Die or Crucial Conflict would drop new tracks or projects, their music could be heard from car windows, echoing out club doors, or rapped along to by people on the street. The sound was infectious, pervasive across Chicago, and there was a genuine excitement to be listening to the newest, hottest tape.

When asked about live shows, Buk reflects fondly on Psychodrama’s years of performance. Any venue you can think of, it’s likely Psychodrama or Buk performed there – the Chicago Theater, the House of Blues, DaVinci Manor, you name it. Every weekend, you could find Psychodrama performing at a club or venue in front of hundreds of people.

“That time was… it’s like a movie that I can’t explain to you.”

I eventually broach on a topic that I’m curious to get Buk’s input on – that is, how Buk would characterize Chicago’s sound in the 1990s, and how it differed from other coasts. Stylistically speaking, the East, West, and South had their own distinct sounds that came to define those regions and their artists. But in my mind, Chicago never really had a singular style or clear identity.

Buk pauses for a moment before responding. “The sound of Chicago is poetry set to music,” Buk tells me. “That’s as simple as I can break it down.”

“We’ve been influenced by all coasts because we’re geographically in the middle of the United States. So being in the Midwest, yeah, we got a little bit of everything. We got the jazz influence, we have the gospel influence, a lot of rock influence; Chicago is a melting pot of some of the greatest musicians of all time. Before rapping, we just stuck with musicians.”

“That musicianship is where Chicago is different. When you hear Common spit, when you hear Lupe, Kanye or Crucial Conflict spit, it’s all different because we got influenced from everywhere. We’re in this fishbowl environment, so there’s no one sound in Chicago – we’ve each gone on to create something different, we’re each unique.”

The one differentiator about Chicago’s sound? “We follow no trends. We could give a fuck about a trend,” Buk adds with particular emphasis.

Buk’s right. Lupe and Kanye have long experimented with live instrumentation and orchestration in their music, something few rappers had ever done before. And newer artists like Chance the Rapper and Chief Keef pushed the boundaries of rap as we know it, defying expectations to find success outside the confines of the city. Like Buk said, Chicago’s hip-hop sound is difficult to pinpoint, because the city has consistently always gone against the grain.

Love what you’re doing, and don’t let nobody tell you shit

Today, Buk still raps, dropping guest verses and projects with regular consistency. Buk is even president of The Padded Room Recording Company, and stays busy in the studio. He is also a mentor to many up-and-coming artists in Chicago, giving them advice based on his decades of experience making music. When asked what advice he had for young artists, this is what Buk had to say.

“First, love your music. Get your intentions set on loving the music. And love all kinds of music. Don’t get stuck in one type of music. Don’t be scared to just listen to different types of shit.”

“Second, own your shit. Do everything you can to be protected. Learn copyright. Start an LLC in your name, start a label in your name, do everything a major label would do but do it yourself. You can look up how to do it right on your phone.”

“Third, create every day and be your own manager. Do things yourself and push yourself to create and do just that. Buy your own equipment, buy cameras, buy everything you need yourself and just create. 

And finally, “Don’t quit your fuckin’ day job,” Buk says. “Keep your job and take the money from that job and pay for the said camera or equipment or software. Do all that, and it’s gonna connect, and you’re gonna win.”

“Love what you’re doing. And don’t let nobody tell you shit. And definitely don’t sign no contracts with anybody unless it’s goddamn Jay-Z himself. And even then, call your lawyer first,” Buk adds before breaking out into laughter.

As it would turn out, Buk has a lot that he’s working on right now. Him and Chicago affiliate DaWreck (of Triple Darkness) are working on their follow up to 2019’s Scattered Bodies, Chapter 1, a collaborative project between the two (my personal favorite tracks are “Madison & Pulaski” and “Bodybag” – check them out here). Psychodrama also recently dropped a new single, “Heard Em Say,” back in August, and Buk, NewSense, and Psyde FX are working on a new Psychodrama album, which Buk anticipates will drop before the end of the year. Buk also tells me he’s involved with multiple solo albums and compilations, always thinking about the music.

There’s multiple stories and commentaries from Buk that I’m unable to put in this article due to length restrictions (including an anecdote from Buk about how he wrote his verse for “Adrenaline Rush” in less than 15 minutes). But as we near the end of our conversation, I think how honored I am to have had the chance to interview Buk. Three decades later, Buk is still one of the greatest rappers Chicago has ever heard, and the influence he’s had on underground hip-hop and music cannot be easily described, nor can it be overstated. Chicago Haze thanks Buk for his time and insights.

Over the course of a nearly 90-minute long interview, Buk acknowledged dozens of individuals who have supported him, collaborated with him, or otherwise inspired him over the years. While this list is not exhaustive, these individuals include: Sandman, Tec, The Legendary Traxster, Twista, Sweet Juices, Triple Darkness, Crucial Conflict, Do or Die, The Mercenaries, Big Nasty, Fatal Four, Dilemma, Color One, DJ Funk, AK, Snypaz, Slim Goody, T-Mix, Lisa Valdez, Shawwna and Teefa, Rawtvradio, Supremetrackz, King Sandman, DJ Qball, Shannon Clay, DJ VDub, Dave Hero, Mike Hero, Dottie Stacks, Deon Cole and more.

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