Chicago Hip-Hop Pioneers: The Q&A

Q&A with Chicago rapper Ang13 Zone and producer Risky Bizness, moderated by rapper/educator Amina Norman Hawkins, after a screening of Big Fun in the Big Town at Columbia College Chicago on December 1, 2016.

Amina Norman Hawkins (ANH): If you guys could just give us your feedback from watching this film.

Risky Bizness (RB): So, obviously, it’s, you know, relevant to what we talk about today, I felt. Like, we kind of discussed a lot of the things kind of go in circles, where they talk about, right now, we’re in a state where, I think, a lot of people aren’t kind of saying things that are relevant. Like, he was talking from the Last Poets where people aren’t really speaking on what’s going on and they’re just kind of rapping about a bunch of nonsense. And I think everything kind of goes in circles and we’re back there again. There are people that are, you know, saying stuff, but I think it’s few and far between. So I thought that was kind of cool, you know, how things kind of just go in cycles and we’re here again.

ANH: I want to ask about that in a second. Ang, for you?

Ang13 Zone (AZ): I think that it showed tremendously how we become our parents. I remember my dad saying, “That’s not going to go nowhere. You should just go ahead and sing.” I was, like, “Dad, come on! This is something new I like to do.” And he was, like, “Sing! I want you to sing! That ain’t going to do nothing for you.” So, when he did finally come to a concert that I did at the Vic—sold out crowd—he came—I go off-stage and, like, “What do you think?” He was, like, “I still want you to sing.” All right, Dad…

So, it just amazes me because now I talk to my nephew, my younger nephew, in regards to things they say in rap, and he’s, like, “Auntie, that’s the old way of doing things.” I’m, like, “You realize what you’re saying to me now you’re going to be saying to your kids in about 20 years. So I’m going to let you do your thing; you’re going to see what I’m talking about after a while.” But it just amazed me how we become our parents when we listen to music.

ANH: Speaking of that same topic, and because this is a hip-hop history class and I’m always talking about these cycles and things, you know, phasing out and coming back in and that whole talk about, you know, “What you guys are doing with the music, you’re killing the heart of the music.” And that was a really good exchange between father and son because son was, like, “Yeah, my dad’s [?], but my music is turn up music.” And it’s the same exact conversation that we are having right now. What should are students, like, how should they process this and understanding that they’re not alone and we feel their pain, but also to empower them to move forward and not let that halt them, in a way?

AZ: You have to be able to, in my opinion—If I would have stopped rapping and just did what my father wanted me to do, I would have never known who I was. You have to find out who you are in this whole process of life. And I found out what the key to life is. Do you guys want to hear it? The key to life is to help other people live their life along the way of living your own. That doesn’t mean you live their life—you let them live their life—but be that voice that they possibly need to hear at any given point that would help them move along. And it may be a voice that says, You can’t do it. A lot of nos make people want to say, Yes I can.

RB: One thing I was going to say too with the—Everything, you know—just like she says about how we turn into our parents, I promise you you guys are going to go through the culture and the music you like and, then, in 20 years, new things are going to adapt and change. It will never not happen, and you guys are going to hate what’s coming out. You’ve got to remember, though, try to just understand. Like, don’t hate anything. Like, I don’t hate the new music that’s coming out; it’s just not for me. It has to be—you have to… And then there are some stuff that I love that’s new, but, again, especially with hip-hop, it’s a youth-based—at the heart of it, it’s youth-based. So, as you grow older, you start to pull away from how you’re going to relate to it. But, that being said, I think there are moments where, if you are a part of this culture and you give everything for and you are living for it—Now some of you guys are here to study it and learn and you may not really be a part of it but you’re interested and you kind of are taking things from kind of a social aspect.

Some people are actually a part of the culture, and this is kind of more for them, but if you are a part of the culture, not everything, just because it’s new, you can’t give the excuse, “Well, it’s just new and you don’t understand it.” No, some stuff is whack and they let whack stuff out. And sometimes you also kind of have to be a gatekeeper. You know, you have to be—And it doesn’t hurt to tell people they’re whack to make them get better. I mean, that’s our city.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. (MP): What was going on in Chicago at this time that the film was made? We saw one—the Mystery Crew.

AZ: Man, it felt… Just sitting back there, it felt like Steps back in the day, because what was being shown in the party scene was exactly what was happening at Steps. And Grandmaster Flash made a good point—

ANH: Can you remind us what Steps is?

AZ: In 1986, there was a place called the Granada Hotel, right by Loyola, and it was a big tall building. At the bottom part of it, they had a lot of little businesses, and one of the  businesses there was Steps. And it was this club that, I’m pretty sure, at night older people went to, but during the day—like, from two o’clock to nine o’clock, they opened it up to kids to come in and throw parties, and that was one of the first hip-hop parties that they threw in Chicago was at Steps. And the feel that—

RB: Probably the first organized party.

AZ: Yeah, probably one of the first. And that scene in the movie reminded me of being back at Steps, where a lot of people were there. And there wasn’t a lot of dancing unless you were a breaker, but there were a lot of people nodding their heads and just taking everything in, because there was a lot to take in at one time. You’re taking in fashion, you’re taking in art, you’re taking in this new music this DJ is playing—what is this cutting he’s doing?—you’re taking in everything at once and it’s overwhelming. But you see how many people were there. Everyone at the time, I think, felt the same way. We’re going through the same struggles, have the same feeling and have the same emotion, and this was what was popping at the time.

And it wasn’t just in New York. I think it was going on everywhere—everywhere—and it’s amazing how you’ll have cousins from the east coast that they’re bringing cassettes to you. You were like, “This is the new music that’s going on!” And, you know, if that cassette gets dubbed 1,001 times and it makes it all over the United States and that feeling is what birthed a lot of the communities of hip-hop all over.

RB: You would see—Yeah, the cassettes would come in and they would be, basically, imports—mostly, obviously, from New York, because everything kind of stemmed from there at that time. And they would be mixes of WBLS mostly, because that’s where, like, you would have the Mr. Magic Show or you would have Red Alert Show a little bit later. And people would—that’s where they would get their rap because records—even out of New York, records weren’t super-prevalent. You had a few groups, like your Run DMCs and LL, and then you have little kind-of one-offs and some small labels, like B Boy Records, which was KRS-One…

AZ: But the radio stations rarely played rap. You would be very lucky to catch one rap record in a month in Chicago. Now you can’t go to any station without hearing it. Imagine not hearing any rap on the radio. None. What do you think about it? If you heard no rap—there’s no rap in a break, meaning the singers did the [sings]—I mean, no, you didn’t get none of that. Imagine hearing no rap. What do you think your music life would be like right now?

RB: Put it this way. How many of you guys—I know not everybody’s from here, but how many of you know what WGCI is? Right? And you guys have listened to GCI, right? And how much rap do you think that you hear on GCI? Would you say what percentage? Do you think it’s about 80, 90 percent rap? Well, there was a time not long ago when their motto was “Absolutely no rap, just R&B.” And it was, like, pop R&B. They were, like, rap is crap. They were, like, absolutely against it. I mean, that’s how much of a force hip-hop became because it forced a whole major commercial station to absolutely—they had no choice. I mean, whether they like it or not, they’re going to rap.

AZ: And it became commercially, largely, viable for people. Because “if the young kids like it, they’re willing to buy anything, we got to bend to what they say to get this money.”  That’s what it all broke down to. That’s what it all broke down to.

RB: I was going to say, some of the records that were out at that point—you had Dr. Groove with Eye Beta Rock had put a 12-inch out, and that was one of the big ones. That’s considered one of the very first ones, along with another kind of novelty record called “Casper’s Groovy Ghost Show,” which came out in 1982. But I think 1984 or ’85 was Eye Beta Rock with Dr. Groove and then, 1986 saw a few more records, stuff like Chicago By Night. It saw—probably the most famous one from that era is a record about growing up in Cabrini Green called “The Cabrini-Green Rap” by a rapper named Sugar Ray Dinke. I mean, Cabrini’s gone now. Does anybody know what Cabrini Green is? You know, Cabrini is at one point considered the most—probably the most notorious projects in the United States of America. I know it was a pretty serious place to live, if you had to live there or grow up there.

ANH: And where was it located?

RB: And where it was located is where there is now a Target, on Division. And I literally drove by Division the other day, on the phone, and I go, “Every time I drive by the frigging Target, I’m like… this is absolutely unreal to me.” Like, because my whole life, you drove by Cabrini, and if you drove by it, you were just—Like me, I’m from Chicago, so if I went by a project and I’m not from there, I handled myself—or if I was walking by or anything, you handle yourself accordingly. You respect it and you go through whatever you need to do. Now it’s just, like… Division. It’s just weird.

ANH: And if you knew better, you did not go down Division.

RB: Yeah, for sure. And I mean, it’s funny because people will—you’ll hear exaggerated stories about how people are afraid to drive by, and you’re, like, “Well, you’re driving by a building. What’s going to happen?” Well, it actually wasn’t—not even about 10, 15 years ago before they tore it down, when that bus was going from Midway and stray bullets went through the bus and a bunch of people from Texas got shot just driving by on Division, just through the charter bus.

ANH: And if you’ve ever seen an episode of Good Times, it was supposed to be based in Cabrini. There are shots of Cabrini Green in the intro.

RB: And the movie Candyman. [Laughter]

ANH: I’m going to ask you another question, then I’m going to open it up and solicit some questions. But one thing that really stood out to me was this notion that, early on, there was an outspoken concern against drugs, and now there seems to be an outspoken movement for doing drugs. When did that—can you speak to that and also speak to the connection between street gang culture and hip-hop culture and drug culture and hip-hop culture and if there’s any intersection and how those two may or may not be connected?

AZ: How do you think we know about it? How do you think we know about the drugs and the street and the rap and the gangs?

ANH: Just because you’re enlightened.

AZ: She’s absolutely right. We do know. We do. In the household I grew up, all of that was going on: gang banging, drugs, prostitution, music. My only escape was music. So, when I’m living in Englewood, seeing my uncle throwing up—actually not throwing up, but wearing a six-point star around his neck, not knowing that this was the meaning of this dude was bout it-bout it and he’s taking me to the store to get some ice cream and we could get it at any particular moment… As a shorty, you don’t think about that. As an adult, as you get older, you do. And I think that dance was his way out of gangs. And whether we like it or not, Chicago is a big gang city. We have street ties, and in those streets are drugs, and in those streets are gangs. And a lot of us wanted to get away from it and that escape was through hip-hop. Be it the music, be it the dance, be it the art, be it the DJ-ing, it was the escape that people needed because we knew what that road was going to—how it was going to end. We’d seen that movie over and over again happening in our families.

And how drugs became the norm right now is because, I think, that a lot of people that are, that are adults right now are crack babies. And so now their kids are mollywops. Tell me if I’m wrong. When I say mollywop, I mean that they’re doing every drug under the sun.

RB: I thought that was, like, specifically for molly.

AZ: No, no, no, no. It’s just they’re doing every drug under the sun. So I don’t know how it became fresh to be all high and not being able to speak and you’re throwing up on your friends and you’re sipping cough syrup as fun?  That shit tastes horrible! When did that become cool? Is it grape-flavored or something? I don’t know. I don’t know. [Laughter] Y’all are going to tell me: why is it fresh?

Audience Member #1: Rappers.

AZ: Rappers make it fresh?

Audience Member #1: Yeah, well, personally, I think, like… mainstream-wise, it was really rappers. I feel like Wayne—like Lil Wayne specifically—made cough syrup really popular.

AZ: No! Lil Wayne didn’t make cough syrup—Robitussin did!

Audience Member #1: He made it popular because he got it from juice and, you know, they always have been doing, like, the sipping syrup thing. And when Wayne was the biggest rapper, like, in the world, he was everywhere. He was [?].

AZ: So you all was convinced that doing drugs was the thing to do.

Audience Member #1: I was convinced of shit. [Laughter]

AZ: You just said rappers, you know you did. And we said that the music on the radio was rap music, so rappers did that.

RB: It’s a generational thing, though, I think. And let me just jump back real quick. First of all, about the gang thing: This city is a gang-orientated city. If you grow up in this city, you have gang affiliation if you grow up here. I never gang banged a day in my life, but you’ve got cousins, you’ve got… My mom was kicked out of Calumet High School for gang banging in 1951.

AZ: Your momma was the first rapper?! Dang! [Laughter]

RB: That’s exactly what she was in. She was a [?] in the ‘50s and she ended up having to go to Bogan, which was an alternative school and all that. I mean, both my dad and my mom were both, like, they were Chicago kids, and I was a Chicago kid. But because my brother was so heavily involved, I stayed out of it. And actually, I got into—and which we talk about in the film that I’m making, we talk about how hip-hop was an outlet for us to avoid the streets and gang banging. In fact, the misconception is parents are, like, “You’re going to hang out with those rappers; you’re going to get into trouble.” No, the rappers in Chicago were mostly, like, the good kids trying to stay out of trouble. We were looking to—because there is a serious divide between—sometimes you have people that are involved in gangs that are associated with hip-hop, but for the most part it’s a serious divide. Like, when you are involved in hip-hop, you’re doing hip-hop; the gang banging’s out the door. Other way around. If you’re gang banging, that’s what you are doing. It doesn’t work both ways typically.

But I wanted to talk about the drug thing. And in the film, you’ve got Schooly D. Now Schooly D is relevant. You’ll see him. He is technically, before NWA, what anybody believes is what would be called gangsta rap. Schooly D was the first gangsta rapper. And you saw exactly in ’86, which predates any of the west coast stuff, what he said. He’s like, “I have my own label. I’m going to say what the streets are saying.” And he’s going to talk about drugs and all these different things where everybody was pretty clean, right? Schooly D, without a doubt, is the first, I think, documented rapper that I would consider a gangsta rapper.

MP: Dre was still wearing sequins at that point.

RB: Yes, Dre was still wearing sequins at that point with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. But… You know, now it’s, like, it’s just a trendy thing, and I think—Lil Wayne—and this is how I think it gets out of control, and you hit it on the head. NWA would rap about drugs and all these things, but when you listen to the gangsta rap movement, it was more stories and wasn’t a glorification as much as street stories. At a certain point, things changed into more of a glorification and a badge of doing it. And Wayne, because the whole southern movement—the UGK and all the lean that was coming out of Houston and all that—Wayne adapted that, and he just was basically a stoner. I mean, I don’t remember him really—he was just rapping about what was going on; he was rapping about being a stoner.

Then, everybody else grabs onto it and then it just becomes this trendy movement. And now you have people—that’s what I was talking about being a gatekeeper. I am not trying to hate, and there’s plenty of rap that I respect that I don’t like. But, man, I see some of these kids—like the Yachtys and the Birds and stuff—and I’m, like, it is the absolute devolution of everything we tried to do. And they’re trying to put down anything before them because they can’t even compete with shit 20 years ago. They are so ultra-basic, it’s—

AZ: To your face! [Laughter]

RB: It’s just flat-out fucking terrible. And people—and I get the melodies and all that; that’s a whole other thing. But whatever you’re doing, good for you, make your money, and I’m not going to hate on you. But don’t fucking call it hip-hop. Like, straight-up, it ain’t. Like, I’ll tell you to your face. You ain’t hip-hop, you ain’t doing hip-hop. If you call it that, if people accept it, it can be its own thing. Fucking do lean rap, whatever the fuck you want to call it. It ain’t hip-hop.

Audience Member #2: And then, on top of that, don’t dis the shit before you just because you can’t do it.

RB: Yeah, now it’s funny, because now on the blogs, they’re back-talking because they realize it’s actually now affecting their pockets, because now people are starting to come back into them, so now they’re side-talking out of their mouths. They’re dumb kids. Go get a fucking manager to tell you when to shut up.

ANH: Let’s take some questions from the back.

Audience Member #3: So, in the film, LL is, like, “I don’t talk about the streets. I’d rather tell these fantasies, because that’s what kids want to hear.” I personally disagree. I think particularly with hip-hop, a huge part of the culture of the music is coming out of these terrible situations. I think, at the same time, that kind of braggadocio and that self-referential lyricism was also kind of important to hip-hop, to you establish yourself; it’s about self-expression. So, where do you think that line is between self-expression and responsibility to your community?

AZ: I think that you really—When you’re a public speaker, people tend to hold on to every single word you say. Every single word you say. So if they’re holding onto every single word you say, do you want to give them some bullshit? Because they’re going to hold that bullshit over your head for the rest of your life. You have to think: Is that how you want people to see you for the rest of your life? Or do you want somebody to see you as someone respectable, someone who says something that can change your life, change someone else’s life? You have to take a step back a lot of times, because once it’s recorded and it flies, you can never pull it back. It’s like the Internet. So all of you who done did a selfie of some nasty picture, threw it on somebody’s phone, thinking you was all safe because they was your homie, no. It’s that same responsibility.

It’s important that you do tell the truth, because a lot of times, art is supposed to reflect the time. Hip-hop is the now movement, and it’s what’s going on now, no matter what generation, no matter what year; it’s what’s happening at the time. So I think a lot of times, when people listen to the younger generation and say, “I don’t like that, I can’t even understand,” you may really want to understand, because a lot of times, what they’re telling you is there is a problem. And we’re so quick to say, “Oh, it’s the new music, they ain’t talking about nothing, all they’re talking about is drugs.” Dude! If they’re only talking about drugs, what do you think the issue is? [Laughter] Everybody’s high. They’re getting high and drunk for a reason, because they can’t deal with what’s going on. They’re trying to mask the pain. And there’s a lot of people in pain, and hurt people hurt people. I know you heard that before. They do.

And you have to—there’s a big responsibility that every artist has to society to either break it down or build it up. Because not only are you breaking down or building up society, these kids, whether you like it or not, are listening to the radio when they get out of school to the time—till the time for them to go to sleep. So it’s our responsibility to be the right things to them. If you ever listen to GCI and then compare it to another station, think about what GCI is saying to your kids compared to what another station is saying to your kids.

RB: One example I was going to say with what you were talking about, the responsibility, is you have rappers that, I think, have the ability to tell a story or represent the streets and do it in a responsible way. I was never a big Pac fan, but—

AZ: Dude! Did I tell you the story about me and Pac getting ready to get in a street fight? Yes, me and Tupac was about to get into blows on the street! It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life! But it’s the truest story. I’m not going to say anything more about it right now…

Audience Member #4: Tell it!

RB: She can tell it.

AZ: People hold Pac—and this is my personal opinion; it’s my personal opinion because I’ve dealt with dudes in a real, real whack manner. Let me tell you the story. In 1993—

ANH: Before you start the story, we’ve got, like, three minutes, so your story is going to close us out. So we want to hear it, but after that, because there’s another class meeting in here, we can continue our conversation out in the lobby. But end us off with the Tupac story.

AZ: It won’t take three minutes; it may be quick. So in 1993, I was invited to go down to the New Music Seminar. The New Music Seminar was one of the biggest seminars in music. They had it in New York every single year, and it was a massive amount of people. Every record company was there, every executive was there, every A&R, every manager, everybody was there! And I got invited off of one demo tape. So I’m walking down the street, I’m, like, getting [?], and here comes Tupac! We’re crossing each other like this—he’s passing this way, I’m going this way—and as I’m passing him, I’m, like, “Pac, I love your music, man.” He stops and says, “Yo baby, I’m not here trying to chill. I don’t need you critiquing my lyrics.”

“Oh I’m sorry. I said I loved your music; I didn’t say shit about them whack-ass lyrics.” Gangsta! [Laughter] He steps up to me and says, “What?” I step up in there and it’s, like, “What?” And his security was right there. He was, like, “Man, come on…” I was, like, “Yeah. Cuz your boy will get it too.” And they both walked off. That was a terrible, terrible encounter. I’m telling you I love what you do and you’re telling me not to critique you? Homie, what did you do the music for? For me to critique you, right? Absolutely. So you’ve got to take the good and the bad, but if I’m saying something good in regards to what you do, you know, what he could have just said was thank you or not say anything at all, like he didn’t see me. You don’t stop and be, like, “Hey baby.”

And when I’ve told this story to other people, you know the first thing they ask me? “Well, what were you wearing?” [Audience oohs.] Right. The fuck? What do you mean what was I wearing? No matter what I was wearing, no matter what I was looking like, I was giving you a compliment. I don’t like Tupac. I don’t like artists like that.

Because my encounter with Biggie was much different. So I’m going to the Riviera; we got free tickets to go see Biggie. It was the most incredible show, we got backstage. And I’m, like, “Man, I want to go say something to him, but the whole Tupac thing got me thrown off.” He heard me say that and was, like, “Hey baby girl, come over here and take this picture with us.” Okay! I don’t know who took the picture. He was so hospitable. He was so nice. I didn’t want to say anything about his music. I was, like, “Great show.” He was, like, “What do you think I could do to make it better?” Dude! Those are the kinds of artists that you want to present to your grandma. You know? I couldn’t present Tupac to my grandma because he would probably say some sly shit about her potato pie. [Laughter] You have a responsibility as an artist at all times, and I mean at all times, to put your best foot forward for everyone, no matter what they’re wearing, no matter if you’re feeling like you’re in the mood or not. This is the job you took. And you’re going to either be a jerk—because I see him forever as a jerk—or you’re going to be an angel. Because I see Biggie forever as an angel.

Believe it or not, my opinion before I met both of them was opposite. I didn’t like Biggie that much; I loved Pac. Till I met them. Boink!

RB: For the record, the New Music Seminar that year was won by a Chicago rapper.

AZ: Yes it was. No, it wasn’t. I went the year when Supernatural won. It was another year that Judgmental—

RB: A Chicago rapper won that. And Tone B. Nimble was one of the finalists in the battle for world supremacy DJs.

ANH: Fantastic. Thank you guys so much. [Applause]