How churches, community organizations created safe spaces for South Side teenagers via hip-hop
Nacrobats MC Pugs Atomz: ‘You were desperate to find hip-hop at that time. The flier culture was so big back then. It was a competition who had the best fliers for their events.’
When John Monopoly was 13, he’d throw parties and other events, lying about his age so he could line up South Side venues such as Hyde Park’s Blue Gargoyle Youth Services, a space founded by University of Chicago divinity students.
Monopoly, who later became the manager of Chicago hip-hop legend Kanye West and Chicago fashion designers Don C and Virgil Abloh, told the venue operators he was working on a class project.
“I would always make up some kind of fictitious organization,” Monopoly says. “It was always a finesse. I’d say: ‘I gotta do this thing for school — blah, blah, blah.’ And by the time it came over that some child had conned them, it was too late.”
The Blue Gargoyle, which closed in 2009, was one of the handful of spaces hosting teenagers who were aficionados of hip-hop — breakdancing, graffiti writing, MCing and DJing. Others included Longwood Manor’s St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, the South Shore Cultural Center, Hyde Park’s Promontory Point Field House and the United Church of Hyde Park.
“I think it was oftentimes easier for people to get access to facilities via their parents because it gave kids something ‘constructive’ to do,” says Jua Mitchell, a finance and accounting adviser for entertainment, e-commerce and cannabis companies. “Parties back in those days, we were breakdancing and DJing — those were actual activities. It wasn’t a ‘party’ per se.”
Promoters weren’t the only ones hosting these South Side hip-hop parties. Euphonics, Nacrobats, 3993, and Ill Nature, were among the crews, cliques and nations — including the Chicago chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. — that also did.
“Me and my mom would talk to people to convince their parents that it’d be cool — because they’re dropping their kids off to Englewood,“ says Nacrobats MC Pugs Atomz, who says his first party was at Englewood’s Boulevard Arts Center. “You were desperate to find hip-hop at that time. The flier culture was so big back then. It was a competition who had the best fliers for their events.”
During the rise of Chicago’s hip-hop underground party scene, many teenagers thought they had to choose from among hip-hop — a scene some viewed as homophobic —house music and gang culture.
“House was gay-friendly — hip-hop wasn’t,” Mitchell says. “The house scene was very inclusive, whereas hip-hop is the exact opposite way — very crew-based and competitive.”
Duane Powell, a house music DJ who grew up in Roseland, saw the clashes play out.
“It was definitely a thing,” Powell says. “A lot of people don’t realize house culture — and its inception — was actually a revolutionary act that happened among the Black queer community because Chicago segregation kept them out of spaces.”
The South Side rapper who goes by Ang13 grew up in Rogers Park and attended parties all over the city.
“It was important for young Black kids to have those spaces because everyone didn’t like house — or gangs,” Ang13 says. The parties “kept us out of gangs. It gave us a pass from gang-bangers, who would say: ‘Oh, he/she on that rap s- - - — they cool. Let him/her through.’ ”
South Side native Andre Zachery, now artistic director of New York’s Renegade Performance Group, says those parties offered Black ownership of comfortable spaces.
“I don’t think people realize how liberatory that space was for us to have that experience,” Zachery says. “For those elders and parents to agree, they were saying: ‘We know that this is a necessary part of their development.’ ”
So why did the parties stop?
Euphonics member “The Architect” DJ Phonz saw a change in what partygoers wanted in music in the era after the supposed East Coast-West Coast “beef” that’s been blamed in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
“I saw a shift when people were coming back from college, getting jobs and wanting to show off what they have,” Phonz says. “This new era forced DJs to play new music in order to get booked for shows.”
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) says he felt a sense of belonging when he attended South Side parties as a young North Side battle rapper.
“The reason why I am the vice chairman of the reparations subcommittee and the reason why I find such an alliance to the Black Caucus and other groups stems from my experience,” says Vasquez, known back then as “Prime.” “A lot of the people I met are the same kids that were kicked out of Navy Pier and Grant Park when we’re trying to sell our mixtapes.”