Chicago Has No Signature Sound — Here’s Why That’s Awesome for Fans

Searching for the sound of Chicago is a bit like looking for that certain "thing" that makes Chicago Chicago — the thing Walker Percy called its "genie soul." It all depends on where you look. Celebrations of the Windy City in poetry and song are well known, but most of them paint a surprisingly vague landscape.

All that one learns from Sammy Cahn's famous Chicago song "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)," for example, is that people smile at you, and it contains not only all that jazz, but razzmatazz as well. Carl Sandburg's famous "Chicago" poem is full of stark, manly imagery, but the hog-butchering, tool-making and wheat-stacking industries that drove the city in Sandburg's day have long since fled the scene.

Contemporary odes aren't much help either — Billy Corgan's song of the city, "Tonight, Tonight," gets no more descriptive than "the city by the lake," and Kanye West's "Homecoming" mentions "fireworks at Lake Michigan," but nothing whatsoever describing the character of the city.

Billy Corgan / Kanye WestSource: Mic/Getty

"Does Chicago have one sound that defines it? No. Thank goodness," Mia Park, host of the legendary local TV music show Chic-a-Go-Go, said. Park has seen the Chicago music scene transform from the Wax Trax/Touch & Go era of bands, through the indie-pop '90s with acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Veruca Salt, to the post-music-industry grab bag it is today. "Chicago has always had a handful of styles of music that have consistently been created, performed and adored."

This is not a bad thing. The lack of a singular music legacy specific to the city is yet another indicator of its creative vibrancy; it doesn't have one because it never needed one. Or rather, it has so many in every direction that they all begin to blend into the background. In Chicago — "the city that works," in Mayor Richard Daley's (1955-76) famous estimation — musicians have always been too busy doing what they do to worry about how it all fits together.

This lack of a music scene epicenter allows Chicago musicians to operate free from any preconceived associations. The list of current and rising music stars from the Chicagoland area includes a range of artists with their own unique sound, including artists like Chance the Rapper, Twista, Twin Peaks, Kanye West, Fall Out Boy, the Lawrence Arms, White Mystery and R. Kelly.

Chance the RapperSource: Getty

"A Museum of Sounds." Part of the reason  is simple geography. Chicago, as it's been said, is a city of neighborhoods. In Chicago these aren't just geographical divisions — in fact, the location of their borders can vary among locals, mapmakers and real estate agents — they are individual communities, each with its own dining, shopping and nightlife options, many of which rival the best of what downtown Manhattan has to offer. Names like Austin, Humboldt Park, Lakeview, Pilsen and West Town are more than just fodder for boulevard banners — they're places where people live, work, raise children, hang out and make music.

Chicago's music scene is dispersed throughout the city's 228 square miles with no particular locus or identifiable center. Although the Second City is most frequently associated with blues, jazz and Yeezy, it's hard to think of a musical style that isn't represented; from Abba cover bands to Zydeco revivalists, Chicago's got you covered.

"It's like a museum of sounds," Chicago-based musician John Forbes, who records under the moniker Tijuana Hercules, said. "No matter what kind of music you like, there's someone in the city doing it."

If there's a Chicago style of music, it's every style. Although the genre-shaping done in Chicago by the likes of Junior Wells, Sun Ra, Curtis Mayfield and Frankie Knuckles have been well-documented, the pace of musical inventiveness has not slowed one bit in subsequent eras.

In addition to the whole-cloth creating of new musical forms (house in the '80s, footwork in the '10s), Chicago had a heavy hand in shaping the post-rock sound of the '90s (Tortoise, the Sea and Cake) and the fast-evolving hip hop of the '00s (Chance the Rapper, Kanye West).

DJ RashadSource: Timothy Misir/Flickr

Much like house music in the post-disco era, footwork, the dance-centered house/hip-hop/jungle amalgam perfected by the late great DJ Rashad, has become a significant force in club music. Based in the house tradition, but clearly influenced by the genre's many subsequent permutations, footwork's fractured, polyrhythmic high-speed pulse has leap-frogged from the local South Side clubs to the hipster havens of London, Berlin, and beyond. In its home city, however, footwork remains more or less a neighborhood phenomenon.

"Famous abroad, unknown at home" is something every house and techno scenester understands, if not aspires to. But even though footwork's lack of widespread hometown acceptance is likely the result of several complex, interwoven factors — socioeconomics, good old-fashioned genre prejudice — there is one explanation that, while much less nuanced, is equally true: in Chicago, at any given time, there's always something else going on.

New Labels. "The thing about Chicago, even now, is that in spite of all the things we see going on, there's a sense that there's all this stuff we're missing out on," Chris Gilbert, who runs a small reissue label, Alona's Dream, out of his Logan Square home, said. "It's like what we see is the tip of the iceberg, but the biggest part is going unseen."

So far, Alona's Dream has released a handful of local singles, a few Nuggets-caliber hardcore rarities and a handful of garage-psych one-offs that includes the sole recording by the Ravens, a Wheaton, Illinois three-piece that features a 16-year-old John Belushi on drums. But Gilbert plans to turn his label's attention almost exclusively to music recorded at the Golden Voice Recording Company, a small regional studio in Peoria, Illinois, that, like many regional studios in the post-Elvis rock boom, also had a record label.

Recording-studio-based labels have gone the way of the major-label record contract, but record-store based labels have risen to fill the gap. Unsurprisingly, Chicago, being the sound-obsessed city that it is, is replete with quality record stores.

Gramaphone Records, the main vein for Chicago's turntablists, DJs, and other beat purveyors ever since it transitioned from the folk, blues, and jazz store it opened as in 1969, launched its own label in 2012. 

Source: Getty

Permanent Records, a Ukrainian Village store catering to vinyl enthusiasts with decidedly non-mainstream tastes, opened in 2006. In almost no time the store, opened by a couple of Missouri transplants, became a mecca for local music heads. The store's eponymous label features, in addition to several choice punk, post-punk and hard rock reissues, a string of now-seminal records by the interrelated must-see Chicago bands headed by multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain.

Permanent Records is also indirectly responsible for three other Chicago-based labels, each founded by either a current or former Permanent employee, but each on its own decidedly different trip: the excellent fuzz-happy garage rock label Hozac (Chrome Cranks, England's Glory, pre-Big Star Alex Chilton/Chris Bell band Prix), the neo-pop-psych label Trouble-in-Mind (Doug Tuttle, Morgan Delt, Verma), and the eclectic electronic experimentalia label Moniker (Gel Set, Ono, Toupee).

In addition, Bloodshot Records (Ryan Adams, Robbie Fulks, Mekons) continues to feed the appetites of roots-based rock mavens, while Thrill Jockey (Circuit des Yeux, White Hills, Wooden Ships) and Drag City (Ty Segall, Cate Le Bon, Wand) continue to service the needs of the indie/experimental rock set.

Add to that enough quality small-to-midsize venues (Empty Bottle, the Hideout, Comfort Station, Thalia Hall, Metro, Double Door) to fill the Albert Hall, a smattering of excellent jazz and blues venues both new and old (Green Mill, Constellation, Hungry Brain, Rosa's, Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines), and no less than four massive music festivals (Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Riot Fest and North Coast Music Festival). Before long, what started as an earnest quest for the defining characteristic of Chicago-based music turns into a seemingly endless yet maddeningly incomplete list of musicians, bands, genres, clubs, labels and events — none of which bring you any closer to a clear understanding of what it is that makes Chicago sound like Chicago.

The City That Works. As Mark Twain once said about the Paris on the Prairie: "She is novelty." Maybe the sound of Chicago is the sound of change, the sound of a city not only adapting to the future but helping to shape it. Or maybe it's simply the sound of a city that works.

Having utterly failed to discover the sound of Chicago, let us rather consider a piece of music that, in some strange way, gets right to the heart of Chicago, even though — or perhaps precisely because — it's not about Chicago, wasn't recorded in Chicago and for all anyone knows it wasn't even written in Chicago.

It is, at least, by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It's a ridiculously earwormy funk jam called "Thème de Yoyo," with nonsensical lyrics belted out by St. Louis soul singer Fontella Bass, written by an avant-garde jazz ensemble for a never-released French film. It's a formula that, on paper, simply shouldn't work — too many disparate styles, too much highbrow mixing with lowbrow, too avant-garde to be catchy.

And yet, like Chicago itself, somehow it all works.