Last week, the FBI released its Uniform Crime Report for 2012, showing that Chicago saw 500 homicides last year, more than any other city in the nation. While many have rushed to declare Chicago the new “murder capital” of America, it’s worth noting that such distinctions don’t take into account the size or population of an area—murder rates per capita is a more revealing statistic. As the Chicago Tribune and New York Times have reported, Chicago’s murder rate has actually dropped in 2013. As is often the case, the reality of the situation is far more complicated than the headline.

"We just kept it real,” explains Young Chop. “Everything we put out was real.”

The same could be said for Chicago’s hotly debated rap scene, which has been intrinsically linked to the city’s murder rates, gang affiliations and history of segregation. After a turbulent 2012, which saw Kanye West remix Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and the release of Keef’s major label debut Finally Rich amid a slew of negative headlines and arrests for some of the scene's leading lights, the city’s hip-hop world has had a slightly calmer but no less bountiful 2013. For some, the ascendance of the more accessible Chance The Rapper and Keef’s recent legal troubles signal that the drill scene has stymied, but that’s a simplistic reading of a shifting landscape. What’s really changed?

“Ain't nothing really changed,” says Young Chop, the producer behind many of the drill scene’s most iconic beats, on a recent conference call with XXL. “I'm still living the same way I was before. Just the money. That's the only thing that changed.”

Young Chop is one of three central figures in the drill scene to release a project this month. His guest-filled Precious album dropped on September 10, while Lil Reese released his second mixtape, Supa Savage, on September 2 after a year marked by legal setbacks, including a misdemeanor theft charge. Lil Durk was scheduled to release his latest tape, Signed To The Streets, earlier this month but the tape has since been delayed for promo reasons, though he promises it'll be out soon.

Each of these artists is signed to a major label—Young Chop to Warner Bros., Lil Durk and Lil Reese to Def Jam—but they’ve each continued to work with and around the people they came up with. That’s not to say there hasn’t been the occasional high-profile collaboration, video or remix. Young Chop has a track with Juicy J on Precious, Lil Durk can be seen hanging with French Montana in the video for “L’s Anthem” and Lil Reese got remixed by Drake and Rick Ross. As Chop, Keef and King Louie’s appearances on Yeezus shows, Chicago rappers have become a useful source of youthful energy for older artists seeking to harness a little bit of the rap zeitgeist. When it comes to why the drill scene exploded on a national level when it did, all three agree that they simply had something different and vital at a time when hip-hop was lacking. “We just kept it real,” explains Young Chop. “Everything we put out was real.”

That emphasis on the real—hyperlocal references, coded language, blood-stained lyrics—is a big part of drill music’s appeal. Young Chop, Lil Durk and Lil Reese document their lives through their music, while at the same time leaving behind a trail of crumbs for fans on social media through YouTube videos, Vines, Tweets and Instagram posts. As they’ve each found financial success in the past year, there’s been more to document.

“I can buy anything I want now,” says Durk. “It hasn't changed me personally. It just changed what I can do for myself and my family. That's all.”

And yet, the music emerging from within the city’s ever-expanding world of rap is changing, with new artists continuing to push the boundaries of the genre’s rumbling, disarmingly simple sound. Rappers like Fredo Santana, RondoNumbaNine and Johnny May Cash continue to build on the Atlanta-influenced, hollowed-out aesthetic that Chop describes as “regular good music,” while producers like LeekELeek have taken the more playful aspects of drill to even stranger, tuneful places.

Do your own shit: that’s the credo. Even within the confines of a major label system, there’s still a need to keep generating material.

The experimental squelches and squawks of Auto-Tune still weave in and out of the city’s sound, with songs like Chief Keef’s "Citgo" and Lil Durk’s “Dis Ain’t What U Want” sounding like drug-soaked psychedelic lullabies. There’s also been room for performers like Katie Got Bandz and Sasha Go Hard to coexist, providing a female perspective to the scene. “Let these girls shine too,” says Young Chop. “There's light for everybody. There's money for everybody. Trust me, I know.”

If there’s a recurring theme to the conversation it’s that the trappings of fame—the money, the high profile deals, the big name collaborators—don’t really impress the three that much, or at least they don’t want to seem overly impressed by any of it. More than anything, they want to stay focused on making music and creating more opportunities for themselves on a day to day basis. “I met Jay Z,” says Lil Durk at one point. “I don't really care about all that though. It helped me out but...”

“That shit ain't nothing, bro,” interjects Young Chop. “I already worked with Kanye and that shit ain't really nothing. All these big just gotta do your own shit.”

Do your own shit: that’s the credo. Even within the confines of a major label system, there’s still a need to keep generating material, to bring more music to fans who have grown accustomed to a steady stream of new songs that document their daily life. Even with the murder rate going down, the city is still a dangerous place to be, making it all the more important for young artists to plan their next step. “I don't know right now,” says Lil Reese when asked about his next move. “I really don't know. I'm just gonna work.” —Dan Jackson

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