Windy City Sounds: the greatest music scenes born in Chicago, Illinois

In Partnership with Netflix 

Urban blues

Style: Mutated Delta Blues made for cabaret clubs, but born in the bayou
Heyday: 1920s and 30s

Sonny Boy Wilson (Getty)

What is it: When African Americans began to migrate en masse from the country to the city following Abolitionism and World War I, they took the blues with them. The music of dirt-poor people vocalising their suffering suddenly became a full-blown entertainment industry played out in clubs and cabaret bars alongside the jazz boom, often for a white audience. A scene that fostered big characters and female artists, this version of the blues was louder, faster and showier.

Key acts: Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson and, of course, Ma Rainey

Check out this track! Ma Rainey’s ‘See See Rider Blues’, in which the primordial germ of rock ‘n’ roll lives.

Chicago blues

Style: The stuff most of the biggest artists of the 20th Century stole
Heyday: 1950s and 1960s

Muddy Waters (Getty)

What is it: With US cities on the skids following the Great Depression, life was still tough. It’s no wonder the blues took a turn towards the dirt again. Unlike urban blues, this music was performed on the street and at so-called ‘rent parties’, where tenants would stage gigs to raise the money to pay their landlords. Though blossoming across the Midwest, the blues artists made Chicago the genre’s epicentre, and most of the most highfalutin’ names in US blues lived there. Their amplified, guitar-heavy vision of the blues set a template for popular music that’s still in action today.

Key acts: Scene kingpin Muddy Waters; Buddy Guy, the Louisiana-born bluesman who moved to Chicago in 1957 and eventually opened his own blues club there, just like Ma Rainey did in her native Columbus, Georgia; Mississippi-born blues legend Howlin’ Wolf; Bo Diddley, the artist whose upbeat blues was pinched wholesale by the incoming generation of – largely white – rock ‘n’ rollers.

Check out this track! ‘Rollin’ Stone’ by Muddy Waters, a song that inspired both the name of Mick ‘n’ Keef’s band and the long-running US music magazine.

Chicago-style jazz

Style: A swingin’ bastardisation of Dixieland
Heyday: 1920s, 1930s, 1940s

Louis Armstrong (Getty)

What is it: Another function of the push north from 1917 onwards, a new, diverse Chicago population brought New Orleans Dixieland jazz to the big city, where the music took on a life of its own. It was out with the tuba and banjo, in with string basses and guitars – all with a faster tempo that earned it the alternative name ‘hot jazz’. The shift to Chicago introduced jazz to a white audience hungry for the sounds of early proponents King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and keen to get involved in the lindy-hop craze. Played out in clubs frequented by Chicago crime syndicates – Armstrong himself was known to associate with Al Capone – this was a creation of a cultural melting pot like none seen before.

Jazz venue Green Mill (Getty)

Key acts: The Bucktown Five, who did lots of the heavy lifting bridging the gap between Dixieland and swing and had star cornet player Muggsy Spanier in their ranks; Louis Armstrong’s first group as bandleader, Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five (Later Hot Seven); Gene Krupa, the drummer famed for his energetic style and for changing the perception of drums as an instrument to be listened to in its own right. Yep, he invented the drum solo.

Check out this track! Here’s Gene Krupa doing his thing in the 1947 film Beat The Band

Soft soul

Style: Chicago’s easy-going answer to Detroit’s Motown hit factory and Memphis’s hard-edged soul
Heyday: 1960s, 1970s

The Chi-lites (Getty)

What is it: Where Chicago’s blues scene went hard, its soul scene was the equal and opposite reaction. Another Great Lakes city, Detroit, was producing globally successful groups almost as quickly as it did hulking great cars, while Memphis was seeing similar acclaim for its harder-edged sound incorporating more gospel. Chicago was the home of the sweet stuff: silky-smooth, harmony-laden balladeering and string-drenched pop-soul. Where Motown always worked best on 45RPM singles, Chicago’s sound worked in album form, and helped usher in the longform soul of the 1970s.

Key acts: Doo-wop group The Impressions, all-time-great singer Sam Cooke, dancefloor don Curtis Mayfield, schmaltz kings The Five Stairsteps, The Staple Singers, The Emotions, The Chi-lites and many more.

Check out this track! ‘Ooh Child’ by The Five Stairsteps is tooth-rottingly sweet, but utterly adorable in its gooey, string-laden message of hope. Here they are performing it on US TV show Soul Train.

Chicago Hardcore

Style: punk’s socially conscious cousin
Heyday: 1980s, 1990s, 2000s

Big Black’s Steve Albini (Getty)

What is it: Where the UK experienced punk’s ripple effect in the art-school-driven new wave scene, Chicago – like Boston, New York and LA – saw a wave of acts fusing fast beats and hardcore guitars with angrily righteous lyrics. Unlike the boozy first wave, hardcore was aligned with the strict discipline of straight-edge living – but the mosh pits were nonetheless vicious. More than the other scenes mentioned, Chicago’s hardcore, typically incorporating melodic vocals, is the one that bridged the gap to post-hardcore and emo.

Key acts: Pioneers The Effigies, Naked Raygun and Big Black, who counted sound engineer Steve Albini – producer of Nirvana’s In Utero – in their number; The Killing Tree, part of a heavier iteration of the hardcore sound; punk supergroup Rise Against; further towards the emo phase of its evolution, genre kings Fall Out Boy, whose members came from post-hardcore groups.

Check out this track! ‘He’s A Whore’ by Big Black, from their unlikely 1987 breakthrough album ‘Songs About Fucking’.

Chicago House

Style: Repetitive beats, samples, electronics – this was the birth of club music
Heyday: 1980s, 1990s, 2000s

Frankie Knuckles (Getty)

What is it: Globally-inspired music picking from disco, hip hop, electro, new wave, Italodisco, created to satisfy Chicago’s curious reticence to let go of the disco fad as it made its dying stack-heeled moves in most US cities. DJs began to circulate 12” remixes of songs to play out in nightclubs; pretty soon, producers were creating original works for the same purpose. Add a lively gay scene, a culturally mixed population and easy availability of club drugs and you’ve got yourself a party. Some 20 years after the beat groups pinched Chicago Blues, us Brits were at it again – as legend dictates, it was visits to Chicago that inspired New Order and Tony Wilson to open Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub, where Britain’s late 1980s acid house scene was born. While Detroit did a lot of the heavy lifting in the early days, it’s Chicago that gave the scene its name – house is a contraction of Warehouse, the city’s famed nightclub.

Key acts: Frankie Knuckles, whose synthesised sound is still futuristic; Phuture, DJ Derrick Carter, who’s still going strong today

Check out this track! ‘Your Love’ by Frankie Knuckles is the track sampled by The Source for their huge hit ‘You Got The Love’.

Chi-Town hip hop

Style: An askew Midwestern alternative to bi-coastal gangsta rap
Heyday: 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s

Chance The Rapper (Getty)

What is it: Switzerland to New York and LA’s east-coast/west-coast rap wars, Chicago’s hip hop scene was able to bubble up in calmer waters, producing some of hip hop’s best producers, lyricists and innovators. Not easy to pigeonhole, Chicago hip hop often takes influence from the sample-based hip hop of New York, adds a pinch of Chicago house and lyrics revealing headspace that’s perhaps not possible to find in hip hop’s bi-coastal centres.

Key acts: The genius who walks among us, Kanye West; Twista; Common; the indie rapper who changed the way the industry sees hip hop, Chance the RapperLupe Fiasco.

Check out this track! Chance The Rapper’s ultra-positive ‘Chain Smoker’, from his breakthrough ‘Acid Rap’ album

Drill

Style: hard-edged hip hop with a DIY attitude
Heyday: 2010s, 2020s

Chief Keef (Getty)

What is it: Don’t feel too bad if you thought drill was born in London – the whole MO of the outlaw, splintered-edge hip hop is to exist in spite of the establishment, who’d rather it stayed under the radar. Born into a city in the grip of a long and bloody epidemic of violence, drill expresses the feeling of being made to believe your life is worthless and your fate is inevitable. While it’s certainly not to be celebrated for its frequent scandals, it’s probably the most honest, expressive genre born in the last decade.

Key acts: Shady, one of a number of female artists who pioneered the genre; Chief Keef; deadpan doomsayers Lil Herb and Lil Bibby; crime-obsessed L’A Capone and RondoNumbaNine

Check out this track! Chief Keef’s debut single, ‘I Don’t Like’, marked the arrival of a firebrand outsider talent