A year ago, Sicko Mobb hadn’t released a single track. Today, they have a major label deal, a publishing arrangement with pop alchemists Stargate, diehard fans at home in Chicago, and a growing audience abroad. And though the hooks and verses may come easy to brothers Lil Trav and Lil Ceno, their journey has been anything but.
Like many of their peers, Trav and Ceno (18 and 20 respectively) turned to music as an escape from the harsh realities of growing up on Chicago’s west side. “We couldn’t keep going through the same things, so we had to find something else to do,” explained Ceno over the phone. “Got tired of being in jail, doing all the bad stuff we was doing. We had to find something else to do with our lives that was positive.”
Choosing music as an outlet, they found a home in Chicago’s nascent bop scene. Like footwork, bop’s name comes from a style of dance easier YouTubed than explained. Sonically speaking, it’s bright, fluid rap music, all glossy synths and hip-deep bass. It’s convenient to frame it as a reaction to drill, the last microgenre to emerge from Chicago’s rap scene, and the comparison, though a little reductive, is helpful – while bop and drill share sounds and structures, they couldn’t be more different in tone.
Bop inverts drill’s brooding claustrophobia, whipping it into ebullient party music. At its best, it sounds almost weightless. Bop’s purpose, as Ceno put it, is simple: “Get people hyped up. Make ‘em move their bodies. Turn ‘em up. They down, they sad that day, then Sicko Mobb’ll hype ‘em up, make ‘em feel better.”
Lifting spirits – their audience’s and their own – has been Sicko Mobb’s m.o. from jump. “We started performing live real early. We started [making music] in February , then started performing like three months later, at little kids’ birthday parties, little things in the neighborhood.” They began releasing videos around the same time. The first, the Lil Cory-produced “Fiesta,” dropped almost exactly a year ago, and quickly became a local hit. They continued to release videos over the summer, steadily building buzz with just a handful of heavy-hitting tracks.
Those in the know suspected big things were coming Sicko’s way. “I knew Sicko Mobb was going to be big when behind-the-scenes managers and tastemakers in Chicago were calling me about them last summer,” said Andrew Barber, founder of influential Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive. “They’d only been featured on the blog a few times, but people were paying attention. We post a lot of artists on the site, but very few get that type of reaction that quickly. I was in New York a few weeks later in two different label offices and both were buzzing about them.”
That the industry would swoop in on the bop scene isn’t all that surprising. As far as regional styles go, bop is an easy sell, the bulk of it functionally similar to the type of Auto-Tune-heavy, mid-tempo rap that finds mainstream success. Why Sicko Mobb, though? What had labels chomping at the bit to sign them instead of their peers?
Simply put, it’s because Sicko Mobb have the kind of pop instincts you can’t teach. Trav and Ceno have been rapping for only a little over a year but approach beats like veterans, flipping smoothly between syncopated, drumroll bars and sticky, singsong melodies. Take early single “Young Heavy”: the instrumental is non-descript, little more than rolling sub-bass and claps, but Sicko’s lithe hook turns the track into a bona fide anthem.
Their first release, Super Saiyan Vol. 1, finally arrived late last December. It came with a surprise: Sicko Mobb revealed that they had signed a publishing deal with Stellar Songs/Water Music, the Sony/ATV imprint helmed by Stargate, the Norwegian production duo responsible for chart-busters by Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Wiz Khalifa.
Earlier this year, Sicko released a properly mastered version of the mixtape. Beyond a pair of bonus tracks, the rerelease featured a remix of “Fiesta” featuring A$AP Ferg. “[Ferg] heard the song, listened to it, and he reached out to us and wanted to get on. Not even for the money, he just thought he’d sound good on it.” No doubt that’s true, but it’s likely Ferg had a couple motives for hopping on the track – last week, Sicko Mobb announced that they’d inked a record deal with Polo Grounds/RCA, home to Ferg, A$AP Rocky, and the rest of the A$AP Mob.
Trav and Ceno are tight-lipped about their Polo Grounds debut (“That’s gotta be a secret for a minute”) – set to be released sometime after their second mixtape (Super Saiyan Vol. 2) – only saying that it will reflect the experiences they’ve had since they’ve started touring outside Chicago. They promise some minor tweaks to their sound, too: “The beats – they’re not too slow, but some of them are slower, so you can hear us better.”
“We was out imagining we was Lil Wayne. Now it’s like, we us, we ourselves now.”
With serious industry backing, Sicko Mobb is on the cusp of breaking through in a big way. That they’ve found a home on Polo Grounds is encouraging – Ferg’s 2013 full-length, Trap Lord, felt true to his vision and got a serious promotional push. Sicko Mobb’s sound is left of center, to be sure, but if there was ever a time for blissed-out, trancey rap music to make a splash in North America, it’s now. Who knows – maybe 2015 will see Sicko cruise through new label mate Pitbull’s dance-rap wake to a national hit. Stranger things have happened.
Whatever happens next, Trav and Ceno are set up to become bop’s de facto ambassadors and more. “That’s something that we always wanted, anyway, when we was little. We was out imagining we was Lil Wayne. Now it’s like, we us, we ourselves now. And we almost up. We got the spotlight.”