Juice Wrld | Photo courtesy of ComplexCon

It only made sense for ComplexCon to bring its two-day hybrid music, pop culture and streetwear marketplace to Chicago. These days, Chicago is making its mark as a cultural leader in streetwear, music and entertainment. Everybody’s been wanting a whiff of our sauce since the height of drill, and the successes of hometown champions such as rappers Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper, and designer Joe Freshgoods only made Chicago’s star shine even brighter.

So the initial news about ComplexCon’s move to Chicago felt like a huge win. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to really strut our stuff. 

Then the big weekend came. On Saturday morning, hundreds of eager ComplexCon enthusiasts stormed the front doors of McCormick Place, sprinting through the halls and knocking over anyone or anything standing in their way. They wanted to be the first in line at the Japanese retailer Atmos booth for the exclusive, and quickly sold-out, Nike Air Max “Animal 3.0” release.

Within the first hour, though, some attendees left the convention highly disappointed. “ComplexCon weak as hell,” screamed a guy wearing a throwback Bulls jersey on his way out of the South Loop convention center. He cupped his hands around his mouth to make sure everyone in the vicinity heard his review. 

Turns out, he wasn’t alone in his sentiments.

“I attended ComplexCon for the last two years in Long Beach, [CA]. So I was thrilled, obviously, when I heard it was coming to Chicago and I just thought it was going to have the city stamp on it. That was my assumption,” said Janecia Minter, a 35-year-old South Side resident. 

Waiting in line outside the “Mama, We (Self) Made It” panel featuring West Side native and designer Joe Freshgoods and Chicago-based rapper Smino on Sunday afternoon, Minter’s enthusiasm was long gone. She didn’t feel like she was getting the Chicago experience that she’d hope for.

“As far as just feeling like it has a Chicago stamp on it, it doesn’t feel like that at all,” Minter said about her ComplexCon Chicago experience. “Even all the ComplexCon merch has the Cubs on it. Like, deadass. This is considered the South Side, and you ain’t got shit here for the White Sox. Not saying that it’s mandatory, but the shit just feels weird.”

Janecia Minter | Photo by Tiffany Walden [The TRiiBE]

After hours upon hours of milling about ComplexCon on Saturday and Sunday, and talking to attendees specifically looking for a distinct Chicago experience, we understood the reviews.

ComplexCon did the best it could to amplify Chicago influencers. On Saturday, a Chance the Rapper mascot meandered through the crowd donning the rapper’s signature 3 hat and tan overalls, the kind Chicago designer Sheila Rashid fashioned specifically for Chance’s winning night at the 2017 Grammy Awards.

ComplexCon organizers knew it wouldn’t be a true Chicago fefe without mild sauce. So they brought in Harold’s Chicken to set off the food feast just right — plus, the famous chicken chain pulled off a collaboration with LA-based streetwear brand, The Hundreds, specifically for the ComplexCon crowd. 

The real Chance was performing overseas, but his presence was felt | Photo by Arthur Haynes II [The TRiiBE]

The most notable win for Chicago, though, was seeing the names and faces behind some of the city’s most popular brands get the praise they deserve. In the marketplace, Rashid’s booth bustled with sales and activity. Visual artist Brandon Breaux smiled and posed for pictures at his life-size reimagining of a newsstand, equipped with free physical copies of The TRiiBE Guide 2019, South Side Weekly, the Chicago Reader and more. 

Fat Tiger Workshop creative, King Rello, stayed busy, selling sought-after pieces at his booth. Meanwhile, Classick Studios owner Chris Classick posed for photos in front of the Zero Fatigue booth after friend and rapper Smino’s sold out his satin hoodies collection.

At the “Mama, We Self (Made) It panel” on Sunday, alongside designer and entrepreneur Joe Freshgoods, rapper Smino talked about the challenges of wearing two hats: one as an artist and a self-taught entrepreneur.

“A lot of us never really had lessons on financial literacy, you dig? A lot of us will get money and not know what to do with it, and I didn’t,” he said.

After Smino blew the money he got from signing a small distribution deal, he said he had to figure out another way for him and his crew to make bread.

“I actually had fans, like, people who actually took to the music,” Smino said. “So, alright, let’s figure out how to make merch. Let’s figure out how we can make this cool little [merch] to where we can bring in extra money.”

Musically, ComplexCon did OK. The lineup included Chicago producer Smoko Ono, rappers Tobi Lou, Lucki and Taylor Bennett, Party Noire creative and DJ Rae Chardonnay and more. Rapper Juice Wrld was the event’s biggest local draw. However, it was weird not to see performances, or appearances, from those who helped define

Chicago’s current hip-hop sound: such as Chance the Rapper, G Herbo, Queen Key, Saba or anyone from Pivot Gang, CupcakKe, and newcomers Polo G and Calboy. Instead, singer Ella Mai, and rappers Rick Ross and Schoolboy Q headlined the event.

For some, ComplexCon tapped into a good amount of Chicago flavor. We spoke with Mike Sullivan, a 20-something dressed in an OVO hoodie, camo pants and a pair of Off Court shoes, who praised ComplexCon Chicago for featuring, “everything I love about the city.”

He was from Naperville.

At best, ComplexCon seemed to satisfy the average suburban hypebeast and tourists. At worst, ComplexCon Chicago felt like a thin veneer stretched over one gigantic marketing ploy. 

“I bought VIP, assuming that [ComplexCon] would honor a lot of things that they promised but it just kind of feels like it was a cash grab,” Minter explains. “Everything that they promised, legit, we didn’t get at all.”

Minter said the event didn’t do a good job at having separate lines prioritizing VIP for the exclusive sneaker drops. She spent $733, after taxes and shipping, she says, on her two-day VIP pass for ComplexCon Chicago.

“I was in line fighting for spots with the same people who had general admission or with people who didn’t have wristbands at all because they [officials] did not scan them,” Minter added.

Asked how ComplexCon could feel more “Chicago” next year, if it returns, Minter said the organizers need to include more local creatives in the planning stage.

“It don’t necessarily have to be celebrities, but it definitely needs to be people who live here and who lived the Chicago experience and who are very well involved in businesses and communities in the Chicago area,” Minter said. “They know what we want. It don’t have to be the most expensive, lavish shit, but it does need to be authentic.”