King Louie – “Loud Pack,” from Dope & Shrimp, prod. by HearonTrackz, 2011
In September, 2007, King Louie released his first tape, Boss Shit. It’s a Chicago classic, a relentless record of exuberantly lyrical trap rap. It’s the kind of release that, a year from now, everyone will pretend they’d been down with from the beginning. It’s also the kind of record some folks will claim was the artist’s only classic release, the Reasonable Doubt treatment, as if anyone was fucking with Jay-Z outside the tri-state prior to “Hard Knock Life.” I slept on Boss Shit too; it was an easy record to miss if you weren’t tuned into Chicago street rap when it dropped.
I met Louie in Chicago’s South Loop at the apartment of one of his associates. In case the above video (or the similarly-themed “Kush Too Strong“) didn’t make it obvious, Louie is a heavy weed smoker, with prominent chipped front teeth and a calm demeanor. He appears in my memory, like a ganja-addict Pig-pen, surrounded by a cloud of kush smoke. We sat precariously on the black wire fire escape several stories above Plymouth Court while he discussed his career and creative process. He compared his philosophy on finances to, naturally, smoking. “It’s about what type of work ethic you have. If you smoke weed – motherfuckers say they don’t smoke Loud because it costs too much, they smoke Reggie. I smoke loud, I can afford it. If you can afford a good studio, a pay for that shit, do it. If you value your money, go in there and get the job done. Shit is easy, B! But I ain’t as good as I used to be. Since I got hit and shit. My memory be fucked up, I can’t remember shit like I used to.”
I ask what happened.
“I got hit by a car.”
What, were you in a car? I ask, implying that he was in a car accident.
“Nah, I got hit by a car. That’s the past, let’s not talk about that. We groovy.”
After Boss Shit and a quick follow-up, Cloud 9, his career was put on hold, for vague car incident-related reasons. In the last year, Louie has returned with a new approach, releasing a series of mixtapes available online. The incredible “Too Cool,” with its queasy, high-end/low-end production, just started getting regular radio play on WGCI in Chicago, and was reportedly spun at Magic City in Atlanta this past weekend; there are rumors 2 Chainz has a cameo on the remix. Louie’s biggest track on youtube is the combined video of “Kush Too Strong” and the “Man Up Band Up Remix.” The latter appears on this year’s More Boss Shit; it’s available in isolation below:
The track, courtesy longtime collaborator and Chicago beatmaker LoKey, is one of the year’s best rap songs. Its relaxed pace indicated a different direction from the frenetic aggressiveness of Boss Shit-era Louie. But more notable was how Louie’s flow had developed a more distinctive, identifiable character, particularly with the graceful internal rhymes of its second verse:
get money that’s what I be doin’, stupid loud what I be smokin’
cut it out we know you jokin’, think i’m jokin’ let folks smoke em
cash out, overdosin’, someone please go get the lotion
purple potion, cause slow motion, plus we chokin’ smokin’ potent
More Boss Shit also includes “Gucci Flow,” a track that more explicitly incorporates a bit of Gucci Mane’s style without sounding overly indebted to it. Louie’s philosophy towards music tends to recombination, rather than imitation. Or as he puts it, “Gumbo.” “A little of this, a little of that. I fuck with Gucci. I like the flow, but I put my swag on it. If you rap like that in Chicago, they say that’s the Louie flow, that you rap like King Louie. On my momma.” He tells a story about watching one kid accuse another of biting Louie’s flow. “Motherfuckers say that’s my style in Chicago. That’s the Gucci flow, though.”
“Too Cool” goes in a different direction; his rhyme patterns have the singular fingerprint of a rapper who is pushing himself in new directions, has transcended his influences to find his own path. When asked about his competition, the rapper behind “I’m Arrogant” claims otherwise: “I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything. I don’t want people to think, like, ‘he’s just a cocky bastard.’ But I don’t really think I had any competition [when I released Boss Shit]. My peers were my team, my brothers. Doe. Sno Boy, Bo$$ Woo, Young Deis[el]. Them guys I grew up with, I went to school with, and we all just taking it from the East Side… This shit is competition, it’s a competitive sport. So why wouldn’t you want to be the best. Who wants to be like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna settle for second.’ So shit, I’ll just say it — ‘Ain’t Nobody Fuckin’ With Me'” — he quotes the title of a track from his first mixtape — “I had that mindframe since I dropped my first tape. I’m the best.”
In a follow-up phone call I asked him again about his competition, but worded the request differently. What kinds of music would the people who like King Louie also listen to? He went straight to the top. “I rock with motherfuckers like Lil Wayne. Drake, Jadakiss. Jay-Z, Kanye, shit like that. Meek Mill, Rick Ross.” On his best tracks, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.
Louie started out on the West Side of Chicago and attended Corkery Elementary in K Town. His family moved around, and he attended Myra Bradwell Academy on Chicago’s East Side — an area far enough south that it starts to curve east along Lake Michigan. “My homie, Eric Atkins, we used to write all the time. That’s when I started memorizing my shit.” After graduating, he attended Hyde Park Academy, where his primary competition was a rapper who went by the name Impressive. “She used to spit like a nigga, you feel me! Like one of the guys. And they used to be spitting at lunch all the time, so I started rapping with her. I was just a freshman … That’s who really got me rapping, started taking that shit serious.”
Musically, like most street rappers in Chicago, he was influenced by southern artists. “Motherfuckers from Chicago be more on some south shit. The South was getting hot, but the East Side, we don’t really talk like motherfuckers on the East Coast. My people country, so we liked down south shit. I went that route.” At the time, they wanted to rap like artists off Cash Money; his first CD was a No Limit record by Silkk the Shocker that, he observes with a hint of self-awareness at the irony, he got from his Uncle in exchange for a good report card. “I used to listen to Master P and them at first. Ruff Ryders. Eminem, in fact, that’s when Eminem first came out. Jay-Z, that’s when “Hard Knock Life” was out. As I started to like music, I liked Tupac. When I was a shorty, I fucked with Biggie, but I liked Pac better back then. Now that I’m older I can understand what Biggie was talking about, but back then it was like No Limit, Ruff Ryders – DMX – Eminem.”
Louie’s influences are representative of popular rap in the mid to late 1990s in Chicago; New York’s center of gravity has long had a warping effect on perceptions of what rap audiences listened to. Chicago’s hip-hop scene, in particular, has had a polarized existence, divided between a New York-oriented boom bap influence, particularly on the North side, and the homegrown, southern- and street-oriented gangster tradition. Artists like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco often worked to bridge these gaps, not always successfully. Several years ago, a caller to a Chicago radio station complained that Lupe’s first hit, “Kick, Push,” didn’t feel real to her; you weren’t going to find anybody on a skateboard in her neighborhood on west Madison in Chicago. Of course, Lupe wasn’t trying to rap about that part of Chicago (at least, not that late in his career). But the city does seem to have a strong psychic desire for a successful rapper coming at the game from populist, street-oriented origins. Bump J seemed to be building to that a few years ago, but his career was cut short by his incarceration.
King Louie is the right artist at the right time, poised to become Chicago’s street rap savior. He has all the right elements in place; he’s young. His beats, the bulk of which come from Chicago producers, sound contemporary, fitting in with national trends without pandering to the pop charts. His flow is all his own, adapting outside influences without being indebted to them. When I spoke with Count, one half of the LEP Bogus Boys, he was supportive of all Chicago rappers. But when I mentioned Louie, he gave a ringing endorsement. There is a sense of energy behind Louie’s career in Chicago, a feeling that lots of folks are invested in his success.
Dope & Shrimp, his upcoming tape, should help him take a step towards national recognition. Although he’s always taken the “gumbo” approach to his music – one of the best songs on Boss Shit was the ragga-esque “Rude Boy” – his beat selection and conceptual approach have broadened considerably. There is no compromise in quality; his raps have the same rough street edge as on Boss Shit, but his flow has grown more musical. It’s also more readily identifiable as his own. He still had two tracks left to record when I heard it, but Dope & Shrimp shows greater versatility and the potential to appeal to a broader audience. Louie put it bluntly: “Females like the music now, instead of just grimy-ass dudes. Bad bitches like my music now, you feel me?” “Elevation” sounds like a cousin of Estelle and Rick Ross’ “Break My Heart” from earlier this year. “Stylin” has the feel of a Yo Gotti record, but with an unexpectedly thunderous bass line. “Goldie Wit Da Pimpin,” is a for-the-ladies lust track with a Smokey Robinson sample. But even then, the songs that earn the most replay are the most typical of the King Louie sound: highly percussive, bass-and-treble heavy tracks like “Band Nation,” or the “Top Billin’”-sampling car horn-blasting “We Like To Party.” The tape’s best track, though, is on a more reflective tip, in the style of Gucci & Wiz Khalifa’s “2 Timez.” Tragically, it lasts less than a minute. (“Ima leave it like that. That shit dope like that,” Louie messaged when I inquired about recording a longer version).
What makes King Louie different is that he could truly become a national figure with a distinct sound without abandoning the qualities that make him of his own era and region. Louie, alongside artists like DC’s Fat Trel, are proving that local street rap from strong personalities is as musically relevant as ever before. And although Louie might be arrogant about his abilities — whatever his protestations to the contrary — he remains humble about life outside of music. “I love my mother, I love my family, and I love my team. Rest in peace to all my homies. I’m all about support. I love my city.”