Fake Shore Drive: A tastemaker of Chicago rap

Andrew Barber started blogging without a single contact in rap music. Now he is the contact. But it's getting harder to be an unassuming fan as his influence spreads.

Andrew Barber

Andrew Barber is seen in Chicago in the office of Fake Shore Drive, his website that covers hip-hop music and culture. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / April 3, 2013)

Andrew Barber deals almost exclusively with young men who have come into money. Some are newly rich; some started poor and worked their way to comfortable; and others, arguably his bread and butter, are not wealthy yet but stand to make a chunk of change. Some, he finds, and some come to him.

Actually, the majority come to him — to the small loft that he rents in a renovated Pilsen warehouse. If you're a rapper or music producer and you're in Chicago, you want to know Andrew Barber.

Six years ago, he was a rap-obsessed 20-something from Indiana, selling advertising in Chicago for the FX network, hoping someday to work his way into a record company A&R job, developing established artists and looking for new sounds. But he had zero contacts in the music business, never mind in the cloistered world of hip-hop. Now, at 32, Barber is editor of Fake Shore Drive, the website he created in 2007 devoted to Chicago rap. Barber is the contact now — one of the most influential a Chicago rapper can make.

On a recent winter day, his friend, the celebrated painter Hebru Brantley, whose studio is on the same warehouse floor, gestured in the direction of Barber's office, which is marked with a large neon Fake Shore sign. “That sign,” Brantley said, cracking up, “Andrew and I joke, but it's no exaggeration: You come into this building sometimes, off hours, and no kidding, you'll find a rapper shooting a video in front of that sign, gesturing at it, making sure you know they paid respect. I can't even go near his office now, I just avoid it: Every hot new guy and Johnny-come-lately will be in there, looking to score points.”

Chicago producer Young Chop, one of those newly flush young men — whose hard, grimy sound, heard on Chief Keef's best-known records, is synonymous with contemporary Chicago rap — said: “First of all, if you're in Chicago and you're a new (rap) artist, you are looking at Fake Shore. You just have to be! I don't know why I should have to explain why, you know? People get their picture with Andrew's sign, then post it because (expletive) is important. It's how we get some ideas — this site! It's how labels get some ideas!”

At a glance, Fake Shore Drive is basically a music blog, a compendium of local rap news, a smidge of criticism and assorted music videos and lists (“The 30 Best Young Chop Beats of 2012”). But it's also the first place Chicago rappers go to leak new music, send mixtapes and test new beats. While the site has been locally popular for years — as a kind of rallying point for a fragmented scene — the past 12 months have been especially good to Barber: He became MTV's Midwest correspondent. He landed a spot on the regional board for the Grammy Awards. As news about Keef and the burgeoning Chicago rap scene went national — and the site landed more and more promotional events with national brands (Adidas, Mountain Dew, a Fake Shore/Red Bull-sponsored showcase of Chicago rap acts at last month's South by Southwest music festival in Texas) — Fake Shore's readership has steadily climbed, to roughly 500,000 visitors a month.

Then came Barber's list of “10 New Chicago Rappers to Watch Out For,” written for Complex magazine and posted to Fake Shore. It came out in February 2012; by December, nine of the 10 rappers were signed to major labels.

“Last year was this perfect storm in Chicago rap,” Barber said, “because before, periodically, you'd think, like with Kanye and Lupe (Fiasco), ‘Now's Chicago time,' then it would fizzle. Last year, all these guys — Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk, producers like Chop — guys mostly unheard of in 2011, they went huge. I would like to be able to say I was responsible but the truth is, most of them would have been signed without me.”

Still, John Monopoly, the Chicago-based manager of King Louie (and former manager of Kanye West), said: “Fake Shore is simply the most influential hip-hop website in the Midwest, and its importance should be kind of hard to downplay at this point.” Indeed, Nylo, a Chicago rapper who signed recently to Epic, said: “Because (Fake Shore) was one of the first places to get behind me, I know people found me through them.” She's been sampled by Kid Cudi and Mac Miller, both of whom discovered her on Fake Shore, she said. “The site's meant a lot because, simply, Andrew liked my stuff, he posted it without any vested interest, so people started to listen. They report what they like — I see them as the most pure form of rap journalism.”

She meant it as a compliment. But Barber doesn't love that word, “journalism.”

It carries expectations.

It never quite fits.

“I get asked if I'm a journalist a lot,” Barber said, “and I don't really have a solid answer, because what is journalism now? We cover news, we just do it differently.” Barber and Ty Howard, Fake Shore's only other employee — the majority of the site's posts come from them — said they see themselves primarily as unabashed fans and “rap nerds,” not journalists in the capital “J” sense. And certainly, their posts, even at their most critical, seem more boosterish than opinionated. “But still we hear from artists who assume we have all this journalistic power now,” Howard said, “who think we can make them stars, so they want to know why their music isn't on (Fake Shore). They feel entitled, and at the end of the day, we have to like their music.”

Naturally, haters abound.

Clark Nelson, who is the creative director for The Shrine concert venue on South Wabash Avenue, is not a hater but not exactly a cheerleader, either: “Fake Shore has got to be positive from an exposure standpoint, but I would ask Andrew, ‘Why the radical focus on drill music?' Why so focused on this subset where lyrics are about violence and sound like laundry lists, ‘These are the cars I drive, these are the guns I own'?”

Said Alex Fruchter, who, until recently, ran Ruby Hornet, a more alt-rap, Chicago-centric website: “Anyone who dismisses (Fake Shore) is not being honest about its influence, but there are people who despise it, who know people outside of Chicago look to that site and come away thinking Chicago rap is drill music, period.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “it's rappers and readers who gave this site its power. Andrew, he's a pretty unassuming guy. He — and myself, too — we never claimed to be kingmakers or wield any authority here.”

Success, however, changes things.

Barber got into this to be close to hip-hop, and he still seems clearly caught up in the music — in the presence of artists, his professional-casual air turns playful, complimentary, amiable. But Barber said if he's learned anything from hip-hop, it's that a businessman should understand the reach of his brand and its influence. Asked where the Fake Shore brand is headed, he said: “The goal is to transcend blogging, to do different things, work more with corporations like Converse and Red Bull and consult for different artists.”

Indeed, one of the ways Barber makes money now is consulting for artists and labels, listening to new tracks and albums and, for a fee, offering advice. Which sounds, of course, like a conflict of interest. Barber said the goal has always been to highlight what is new and popular and, basically, whatever Andrew Barber likes right now. He said his artist consulting has no influence on the content of Fake Shore (some of the artists are not based in Chicago and therefore are not covered by Fake Shore), though he admits that some people, particularly artists, do often regard Fake Shore Drive as promotional.

Certainly record labels aren't confused. Dart Parker, director of A&R for Eminem-founded Shady Records, said: “I definitely rely on Fake Shore Drive as part of my overall scouting network. I check it out a couple of times a week.” And Sickamore, director of A&R for Def Jam, said: “Andrew is super-credible, and a lot of people, a lot of journalists, can be bought off so cheaply now. But Andrew, he's only talking about what he cares about. Frankly, I'd rather it be (a fan). At least I know it's coming from the right place.”

On a late winter morning, Barber and Howard sat behind their desks, scrolling through their computers, waiting for Young Chop, who was coming in to shoot an MTV segment with Barber. The Fake Shore offices are comically spartan: a remarkable Brantley-painted, graffiti-inspired mural along one wall; a talking Master P doll; some rap posters; a plaque certifying Twista sold 500,000 ring tones; and, in a glass case, custom Fake Shore Adidas given to Barber by Adidas after he co-sponsored an event with Common and Derrick Rose. The rest is: Two glass desks with nothing on them but two Apple laptops, two phones and two speakers.

Howard, 23, was hired by Barber because Barber used to ask trivia questions for Fake Shore contests, and Howard, who briefly ran his own (admittedly minor) rap site, always replied first and with precision. “The funny thing is,” Howard said, “I got into rap by following Fake Shore. Before that, I was way more into pop.”

There was a knock.

“Chop!” Barber yelled.

Young Chop, a mountain of a 19-year-old with a baby face, walked in smiling, breathing lightly.

“Took the stairs?” Barber said.

“Yeah,” Chop said, slumping into a chair opposite Howard, who closed his laptop and shook hands.

“Last time we saw each other,” Barber said, thinking, “you were with 50 Cent, (Young) Jeezy … You still live here?”

“Everywhere.”

“Doesn't matter.”

“Nah, doesn't.”

They talk as if they've known each other for years, not just the past 12 months; they talk about label commitments, meeting on Facebook (“One day I'm messaging Chop, next he's on a plane to Los Angeles”), Chop's asking price ($1,000 a beat, on the low end), his Twitter account, Lil Wayne's house.

Chop mentioned having breakfast at Diddy's mansion. “Hey, I had breakfast at his house, too,” Barber said. “You at his house in New York or L.A.?”

“Miami,” Chop said.

“How crazy is his Miami place!” Barber said.

“Never know who's gonna be there,” Chop said.

“When I was there,” Barber said, “Fabolous was, like, wading in his pool in leather trunks.”

Barber grew up outside Indianapolis. Initially, he wanted to work in radio. But after graduating from Indiana University, he couldn't get hired in radio — couldn't get a reply from record labels, either. “It felt hopeless,” he said. So he went into ad sales and started Fake Shore partly to fill the gap in his career that was intended to be about music: “But with a day job, I couldn't post as much, couldn't go to as many shows as I liked,” he said. “The first four years (of Fake Shore), I was out really late at shows, getting up really early for meetings. It was a double life: Rap at night, setting up projectors for business clients during the day.”

David Drake, a staff writer at Complex, started the nationally focused rap blog We Eat So Many Shrimp a few years earlier than Barber started Fake Shore. “Back then it felt like there were just five of us (rap bloggers),” he said, “then Andrew arrives and smartly sees an opening: Chicago's so weirdly divided in many ways, and such a huge city without a media machine like New York. The rap scene needed some place to orient itself.”

At first, without any contacts, Barber simply attended every concert he could make it to and walked up to artists and managers and introduced himself. Steadily, thoughtfully, he ingratiated himself to the rap scene; two years ago, at the urging of his wife, Barber quit his advertising job and took on Fake Shore full time. “I wouldn't call Barber a rap nerd,” Monopoly said, “but I would call him a hip-hop historian. The guy knows his stuff.” Young Chop — who, again, met Barber on Facebook — said “I think of (Fake Shore) as promotion and journalism in one thing, not only one thing, but definitely promotional for me — it's got to be.”

Asked if he's become too close to the scene, Barber said: “You mean, would we call people out? Sometimes, but we're not fans of slander. Shock tactics about people get mean. That's not really our thing. If it's bad, we might say something, but remember we have personal relationships with a lot of the people we are writing about here. Keef? There's nothing you can say about Keef now everyone hasn't already heard.”

Tellingly, when a bitter online argument between music critics bubbled up at the end of 2012 accusing certain white critics of cultural tourism (and labeled positive reviews of Keef's often violent new album as irresponsible), Barber largely avoided the melee. Ruby Hornet's Fruchter, who teaches in the Columbia College media management program, said: “There was a sense that people were covering rap as a novelty, that sites like Pitchfork were too busy intellectualizing the music to seem authentic to the people who really care about rap. Andrew, you can't divorce him from his race or background, but can't accuse him of bandwagoning.

“What I want to know is, how much longer?”

Barber has thought about this.

He's married, steeped in a music that skews younger, says he misses the full-album experience, doesn't get out to as many shows as he used to. He doesn't rule out the idea of taking an A&R job for a record company, should one be offered. But at the moment, what's the point? Once, artists started at small labels and graduated to the majors; now, he says, artists see him as serving the same purpose as an indie — exposure.

After 20 minutes of shop talk with Chop, MTV arrived. The Fake Shore office quickly became crowded, like in a Marx Brothers movie. As Chop and Barber waited for the crew to set up, Chop looked around the office.

“Don't I get a poster?” he asked Barber.

“You never gave me one!” Barber said. “Do you even have promotional items, Chop?”

Chop thought.

“I don't know,” he said, and they shook with laughter. “But if I get some,” he added, “get me up there, OK?”

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli
CHICAGO

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