Connecting Chicago’s hip-hop heroes, learn how the Cruel Summer cut added exposure to drill music and influenced the globe.
Kanye West dominated headlines last week by ending his relationship with Gap, speaking on CNBC, and discussing Donda Academy on the Alo Podcast. But less talked about in his array of appearances was the 10-year anniversary of his lone compilation album, Cruel Summer.
It was released on Sep. 14, 2012, less than a year after Watch the Throne, as Ye aimed to promote his retooled roster at G.O.O.D. Music with the same structure seen by Rick Ross on Maybach Music analects and Ryde or Die analects.
Relying on Virgil Abloh art direction, Pusha-T punchlines, and the bubbling Big Sean, Kanye’s camp encompassed range and grandeur all at once. By adding 2 Chainz to the fold and an up-and-coming producer named Travis Scott, Cruel Summer was to serve as an exhibition of high-priced posse cuts capable of crushing both The Tunnel and The Louvre.
Despite smash singles like “Clique” and “Mercy,” many considered the compilation as Ye’s first miss both critically and commercially. Cruel Summer was less focused than previous projects, with skyscraper swings all upended by one Windy City vent session:
The remix to Chief Keef’s colossal “I Don’t Like.”
With Pusha-T batting lead-off on the bombing beat from Young Chop, Keef catapulted from underground unknown to the city’s new Sosa. Building off the Kanye co-sign and anticipated album placement, Chicago’s drill sound stretched beyond borders, traveling to New York through a Jadakiss feature and abroad through Def Jam distribution.
More importantly, the song shook Chicago like an earthquake the second it touched down.
“That was a crazy moment,” Fake Shore Drive owner/creator Andrew Barber told Boardroom. “Nobody really knew who Keef was until January of 2012. By the end of April? He already had a record with Kanye West.”
At only 16 years old, the artist born Keith Farrelle Cozart was rapping alongside Billboard’s best, setting up a major label bidding war between Young Jeezy and Jimmy Iovine.
Master of Marketing
In 2012, Kanye West was on top of the hip-hop mountain.
After reaching his pop pinnacle with Graduation in 2007, personal loss and public exile influenced West in ways that still show today. Sad, mad, and unafraid, the artist who never saw boundaries broke even more ground in regard to sound, song structure, and album rollout.
This came to life on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a masterpiece defined by 10-minute tracks, raw raps, and ballet performances.
Recording sessions in Hawaii made for more than one album’s worth of work, birthing 2011’s Watch the Throne with Jay-Z — an opulent exercise in arena rap, whose topics ranged from politics to Parisian parties.
“2012 Kanye is the most famous musician on the earth,” Barber said.
“This is right after Watch the Throne. He’s the most revered rapper with the magic touch. A feature from him or co-sign was something that could totally change your life because he wasn’t just doing songs with anybody back then. It was a moment if he jumped on something. He really was the zeitgeist — not to say that he’s not now — but people would follow his every move.”
Heading into 2012, Ye looked to keep that same energy by bolstering his growing G.O.O.D. Music roster that had reached its V2 phase.
Touting Teyana Taylor, Mr. Hudson, CyHi the Prince, Pusha-T, and Big Sean, West traded in his soul-sampling sound for futuristic hybrid tracks produced by the likes of Hudson Mohawke, Hit-Boy, and Travis Scott.
From a continuity standpoint, the new lineup provided great highlights but an erratic listening experience. Moreover, the shiny super-team wasn’t homegrown like the early editions of G.O.O.D. Music that was once built off the backs of Chi-Town talents Common, GLC, and Really Doe.
To take the cobbled compilation over the top, West needed something viral and vicious. Angry at high fashion and mass media, Kanye funneled his fury into darker topics and tones expressed in “Cold” and “New God Flow.”
But he still had plenty more to say.
At the tender age of 15, Lolita Carter gave birth to her first son, Keith. Named after her deceased uncle, Big Keef, the boy born into Chicago’s South Side grew up without the guidance of his father, left to his grandmother as a guardian and the Black Disciples as a family.
By the time Keith turned 15, he’d also become a parent and dropped out of school. In his adolescence, Keith’s O-BLOCK neighborhood had the most shootings of any area in Chicago. Internalizing the terror of his hometown and expressing it through sound, the teenage talent now known as Chief Keef was beginning to build a buzz.
“I knew Keef was going to be huge because he was so divisive,” Barber said. “He was polarizing in that people loved him or people hated him.”
Using YouTube as his platform, Keef channeled all the anger around him and within him during a period of house arrest to craft a sonic aesthetic that’s now known as drill music.
Existing online in regard to traction but very much outside in relation to the harsh realities of South Side violence, Keef bypassed the longstanding ladder climbed by Common and Kanye to become the biggest new artist in Chicago.
“There was a whole generation of, ‘this guy’s bad, he came up too fast, he didn’t pay dues,’ because he didn’t do the traditional open mic thing,” Barber said. “He figured out the internet and blew up fast.”
Just how fast?
“Within four or five months he had a song with Kanye West,” Barber said. “With Keef, it didn’t slow down. It just got bigger and bigger.”
That song, the remix to his sinister single, “I Don’t Like” with Lil Reese, hammered home the chaos of Keef’s Chicago by benefitting from West’s platform. Not only did it cut through, it aligned divisive Chicagoans while blowing in contract offers from the industry’s biggest power players.
“Once the ‘I Don’t Like’ single comes out? The hysteria got even crazier,” Barber said. “Within a month and a half, he signs the $6M deal with Interscope.”
Inciting a bidding war between Jimmy Iovine and Young Jeezy, the rapper-producer-pioneer took his talents to the West Coast through a contract similar to the one A$AP Rocky secured a year earlier with RCA. Not only would Keef get multiple millions for himself, he secured a $400K advance to build out Glory Boyz Entertainment, better known as GBE.
It was all built off a song born from pain, remixed and resurrected by Kanye.
Suddenly, Chicago and drill music had the spotlight. But first, the song had to release.
At the apex of the Watch the Throne Tour, Kanye performed with Jay-Z at London’s 02 Arena in front of over 77,000 fans. While everything after Graduation had been ‘stadium status’ in intent and scale, Kanye brought it all back home for the release of the “I Don’t Like (Remix).”
Buzzing back in Chicago while gaining momentum online, Barber was in the middle of the two worlds encapsulated by Keef.
“Fake Shore Drive knew it was coming, we had people that were in the studio working on it,” he recalled. “Keef re-recorded his verse, people were keeping us updated. We were super tuned in with Keef and his management at the time and they were going through us to tease stuff or give exclusives.”
Running a site spotlighting Chicago’s massive but often overlooked hip hop scene, Barber kept close with Keef’s uncle as well as his manager, Peeda Pan, to track both the artist and the highly anticipated song. For his work and relationship, Fake Shore Drive was granted the exclusive to premiere the song online.
However, Kanye kept tinkering with the track.
“It was supposed to come out on the actual Good Friday,” Barber said. “But something happened and it got pushed back. We kept getting warnings, but it would never come. I think we understand how Ye works: If he wants to mix something 7,000 times he’s going to mix it 7,000 times, or if he’s waiting on a feature he’s going to wait.”
When working on Cruel Summer, Kanye was notorious for asking artists to submit as much material as possible, refining each track to the highest level of potency.
Even Pusha-T, a showcased MC on the album well regarded for his pen, wrote and recorded over 20 verses for the compilation with only five making the final cut.
“I had heard that there were other people who rapped on it who didn’t make the final version,” Barber said. “I’d heard Busta Rhymes has a verse to it that never came out. But we were told, ‘Be ready, it’s coming this week.'”
After a slew of false starts, West completed the track, giving the keys to the city to the trendsetters within Chicago.
“Ye gave it to DJ Pharris to play on Power 92 first,” Barber said. “I was sitting in my kitchen on my computer with the radio on. It was pretty cool that they brought it to Chicago to premiere it because, at the time, the standard for premiering records was to take it to New York and give it to Funk Flex — no matter where they were from. But Chicago was having this moment, so they gave it to Pharris.
“Pharris spun the song for like an hour. I was just waiting for him to say, ‘That’s it!’ and start playing something else. When I posted it? The website crashed immediately.”
Across Chicago and around the world, fans flocked to Barber’s blog to download the Cruel Summer single months before the album arrived.
“Fake Shore Drive crashed in seconds,” he said. “We were the only people online with it at that moment and the site was down. The site has only crashed twice in history: the day Acid Rap leaked and the day the ‘I Don’t Like (Remix)’ dropped.”
Releasing on radio and uploaded online, the remix revamped by West, Pusha-T, Big Sean, and Jadakiss served up a spicy appetizer for the long-delayed Kanye compilation. While the remix ripped through the city and caught traction across the country, the album itself still evaded fans for months following the spring single.
“I remember seeing Don C at the gas station and being like, ‘Man, what’s the hold up on Cruel Summer? It’s about to be Fall,'” Barber recalled. “He’s like, ‘Dude, it’s coming we just had to wait on one more feature. We’ve got Ma$e on the album.'”
A quick convo at the Citgo covered everything from a mutual love for another local up-and-comer, Lil Durk, to a tease of the online arrival of the album’s next posse cut, “Clique.”
“Sure enough, Cruel Summer was out the next week.”
A Tale of Two Cities
When Cruel Summer was finally released on Sep. 14, 2012, Chicago was having a moment.
On the South Side, Keef had made millions in months, providing the runway not only for his rise but also for fellow drill purveyors like Lil Reese, Fredo Santana, and other Glo Gang artists.
Across town over in Wicker Park, Don C and Virgil Abloh’s fashion fortress, RSVP Gallery, was aligning local energy with international insights.
“Those guys were the purveyors of taste,” Barber said of Don and Virgil. “They’re the flyest dudes everywhere and at that moment they were spending a lot more time locally. You could see them around town, fresh back from being on the road with Ye going to Japan and Europe. They’d come back and have stuff that nobody could get locally and then they’d start carrying it at RSVP Gallery.”
“Everything just happened at once from fashion to music. Even sports with Derrick Rose. All of that stuff was happening at the same time. It was a fun time to be in Chicago, seeing the new wave and old wave of artists. Everyone was wearing the Just Don hats, Virgil’s starting to blow up on his own as a designer, it was just a very special moment for Chicago. You had a veteran like Kanye reaching back to people like King Louie and Chief Keef.”
In the crosshairs of it all was the Cruel Summer capper.
“The record ended up being so big,” Barber said. “I mean, the original version was huge and a lot of people locally in Chicago will tell you they still like the original version better. But the remix took it to a whole other level. Any time Pusha T performs? He’s going to perform that song. Any time Kanye performs? He’s going to perform that song.”
In the city, the stars aligned while the world watched.
“Kanye performed it at the Yeezus Tour the next year at the United Center. It felt like the whole place was going to collapse. It was such a moment. There are some people that listen to Kanye that might just assume it’s his song. But for people in the scene locally that had seen Kanye rise and then see Keef rise? It was a super big deal just to see the torch passed.”
For Keef, the track catapulted him to new heights and opened major doors. His debut album, Finally Rich, was released in Dec. 2012, complete with features from 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, and more. Commercially, it failed to move the numbers Interscope idealized. While Keef was a star on YouTube, music metrics at the time took to physical album sales more than the streaming standard seen today.
Because of this, many major distributors buried their drill signees in fear that the sound was merely a trend and one that wouldn’t track.
“People were declaring drill dead within the next year,” Barber said. “When Finally Rich came out in December 2012 they used it as a litmus test of how drill was going to sell. It didn’t do huge numbers so people thought it was a fad, but it did a lot better once the metrics were there. ‘Love Sosa’ went 4x platinum earlier this week.”
In fact, it wasn’t until Jan. 10, 2022, that the revered remix from Cruel Summer was certified platinum.
At the time of release, “I Don’t Like (Remix)” was available for free download off blogs like Fake Shore Drive, whereas singles such as “Mercy” and “Clique” called for a more corporate push off services like Apple Music.
While the other records on Cruel Summer claimed commercial impact upon release, neither played a part in birthing a new genre nor shifting the sound of hip-hop as a whole.
“If we had the metrics we had now that song would be diamond,” Barber said. “I can only measure it culturally by seeing how people reacted to it. It felt like the new generation of Chicago had finally arrived and Kanye was the ultimate stamp.”
Today, drill music has become hip-hop’s most marketed DIY genre across continents.
“Here we are 10 years later and they’re making drill in other countries around the world. It’s still a very popular and dominant sub-genre in music.”
From Brooklyn’s take popularized by Fivio Foreign and Pop Smoke to European ideations and everything in between, it’s still traced back to the Chicago teenager born into poverty and bored on house arrest.
“There are a lot of people that have come around to Chief Keef now that recognize him as an innovator and a game changer,” Barber said. “But at the time, there were a lot of people that thought he was the antichrist and was bad for music. I don’t think everybody understood what he was doing at the time or how influential he would become.”
Today, Chief Keef claims 1.75M followers on YouTube alone, blazing a trail for a sound that started in Chicago but now knocks in New York, Italy, and beyond.
What’s not to like about that?