How Barry Cole captured the sound of a city on Showtime’s ‘The Chi’
When music supervisor Barry Cole signed on for Lena Waithe’s show “The Chi,” about the intersecting lives of black Chicagoans on the city’s South Side, he had two distinct jobs.
One, he had to authentically showcase a huge range of music from the city’s history and present. That could mean sounds ranging from Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods’ incandescent, faith-fused hip-hop and soul, to any number of genre offshoots associated with the city — tricky, double-time electronic music like juke, brutal hip-hop like Drill and vintage R&B sounds like Steppin’.
The other, perhaps more important task, was to figure out how all this music deepened the understanding of “The Chi’s” characters. The show was conceived by Waithe to be revelatory in depicting the emotional intricacies of black urban life in a neighborhood often stereotyped as a place of violent despair.
Sometimes, those missions collided — a lot of great local music got left on the cutting-room floor. But to Cole, the result is a show that looks, feels and sounds true to South Side life, but especially the lives of these characters.
“There was just so much music to represent,” Cole said. “But then when you’re actually in the cutting room, you have to ask, ‘What did it sound like when Kevin first looked at his crush in junior high’?”
The show is the most personal yet grandest project from Waithe, whose breakout role writing on “Master of None” won her an Emmy. “The Chi” tracks the entangled lives of a core trio of characters (ranging from elementary-school age to adulthood), and the web of family, friends and antagonists that fill out their corner of the city.
It’s a lot of ground to cover. But the aesthetic decisions made by Waithe, executive producer and Chicago rapper and actor Common, pilot-episode director Rick Famuyiwa and Cole make it inviting even as the narrative kicks off with some unsettling crimes. The colors are warm and vibrant, and the urban grid is familiar and resilient.
Reflecting that in sound meant keeping an expansive definition of Chicago music — acts from there and ones that felt like they were.
“It captures the world of Chicago, and I learned about so much new Chicago music,” Cole said. “It’s really important to make it authentic, but that goes beyond genre or region.”
He cited one upcoming episode in particular as a high-wire act for music supervision — an almost DJ-minded long scene that clandestinely serves as a master class on Chicago music.
“There’s an episode with a block party where all the members of the community come to let go of their troubles,” Cole said. “There’s Steppin music, new and old music. It’s a sequence of five or six songs together, and it’s a great example of how to work music within a scene.”
For Cole — who began his career working for rock promoter Bill Graham and battle-DJ’ed before signing on to films like “Belly,” “Brown Sugar,” and “American Psycho” — the Chicago scene he tried to document was a revelation in community-building, most notably in the ways the city’s artists rebuilt their own record industry and promotional machinery.
“There’s no shortage of powerful music coming from the city, but imagine if in Seattle in the ’90s, nobody had signed to labels and they all decided to do it themselves?” He said. “These artists made the decision to manage their own affairs, and you can actually talk to the person that wrote the song.”
“The Chi” debuted to solid ratings Sunday with 533,000 viewers, putting it well past Showtime’s other recent freshman series like “I’m Dying Up Here” and “White Famous.” If the show finds traction, it could join HBO’s “Insecure” as a pivotal launchpad for new black music.
It’s a role Cole takes especially seriously, as a meaningful placement could make a career for a young South Side artist.
“We made it authentic with what we had the budget for, but there so many unbelievable songs that we want to get to in a Season 2, hopefully.”
Now that, as of 2017, music supervisors are officially acknowledged with their own Emmy category, networks and the TV industry are seeing how songs are driving the culture and conversation around new, youth-leaning prestige shows.
“It’s an amazing time of convergence,” Cole said. “Everyone should be noticed, but music is taking the lead on so many of these projects. Before ‘Entourage’ you didn’t have a dozen songs in a show. Now that’s what’s expected.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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