On Wednesday nights the Red Dog in Wicker Park usually jumps with hip-hoppers and thumps with the 70s soul and the 80s-90s rap music that nurtures hip hop culture. But there's something extra happening this particular Wednesday night. The usual poverty-friendly $3 cover has been upped to $5, and the bouncers are wearing serious "this is a goin'-on party and maybe I'll think about lettin' you in" attitudes. Inside, a tangible air of expectation floats amid the booming bass lines.
It's quarter past midnight and a horde of hipsters are bobbing their heads to a mix of funk, hip hop, house, and soul. Local rappers, street promoters, zine publishers, and music-biz people are wending their way toward a large, bespectacled man clad in a black T-shirt decorated with hip hop skulls--skeleton heads wearing Kangol hats and gold chains. A cluster of people encircles this man, hugging him and clutching his fleshy shoulder yelling, "Happy birthday!" and "Is this really your last party?" He stands regally, grinning and nodding his head, beaming at another phat party he's brought together.
He's Duro Wicks, one of the godfathers of the Wicker Park hip hop scene, an MC (nobody says "rapper" anymore) and soon-to-be-retired party promoter. He knows hip hop inside and out, and tonight all the insiders have come out for his last party, also his birthday party. It's a reunion of sorts, teeming with rappers and revelers who have crammed Duro's open-mike shows and hip hop events over the last three years. "Duro has his pulse on hip hop all the time," says Lora Branch, who's DJ for his group, He Who Walks Three Ways. "He lives, drinks, eats hip hop."
Barry White's "Your Game Baby" is slinking out of the speakers as Duro (he pronounces it Da-ROE) slowly edges his way through the crowd. He clasps hands with Sean Haley, publisher of a new hip hop zine, Scribble, due out in December. He accepts a hug from Kendall Lloyd, owner of Literary Explosions, the black bookstore that serves as one of the cornerstones of the Wicker Park scene. He greets hip hop promoter Mary Datcher, who brings a couple of new east coast rappers, the Troubleneck Brothers, over to meet him.
Meanwhile the dance floor is starting to fill and a tall bald girl strapped into a tiny backpack is gliding back and forth with the music. Two baby-faced dudes in baggy jeans and backward-turned hats rock their heads together.
In a dark corner, the New York-based duo Black Sheep prepare to sign autographs. Duro stands over them, Dres and Lawng, watching protectively. "If it gets too much, let me know," he tells them. "We'll close it off and shit. But it ain't nothin' but a good crowd!" A line starts to form at the table and a dreadlocked woman leans over and asks Dres, in an incredulous voice, "They be havin' parties like this in New York?" He smiles sleepily.
The crowd stands in a tight circle as three rubber-legged break dancers take over the floor. They spin, jump, and jerk mechanically in a battle of flying limbs. One after the other they flop around like drunk rag dolls and the audience yelps its appreciation.
Now the guest of honor is on the mike, his deep voice thundering through the club's sound system. Standing next to him is the guy who got him his new job at Tower Records. "I want to thank everybody who came out for me because it's real like that! Thanks to Steve for getting me a job and making me a real educated negro! Awright Heather," he turns to the DJ: "Do yo thang girl!"
Heather slaps on Slick Rick and the roaring crowd slides back onto the floor. En masse they recite the lines of Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love," and when Heather shifts into Cypress Hill the baby-faced dudes stand in the middle of the floor mimicking every rhyme. Then comes the Stones' "Miss You"; on cue, the crowd yells in unison, "What's da matter wich you bwoy!"
Wicker Park didn't have much of a hip hop scene when Duro, a photography student at Columbia College, moved here from Chatham in 1988. He started the Sunday Night Open Mic Hip Hop Show at the Lizard Lounge in '91, a $1 all-ages show that attracted hip-hoppers from all over the city. Big Lip Productions, his promotion company, threw similar parties at the Rainbo Club, Estelle's, the Czar Bar, and HotHouse. They provided rare opportunities for kids to gather, check out the local talent, and listen to undiluted rap music unharassed and unpressured.
In the summer of '92 Duro started the legendary Hip Hop All Ages Show Sunday nights at the now defunct Lower Links. The shows ran for about seven months and established a tangible north-side hip hop scene.
"I was just in the right place at the right time and was able to get things done," Duro says, shrugging his shoulders. "Hundreds of kids would show up. They needed somewhere to go, there's a hunger for the music. Lower Links became an icon with hip hop kids."
At the same time he was organizing parties, Duro was performing all over the city with his group He Who Walks Three Ways (named for the riddle of the Sphinx). They opened for national acts like Arrested Development, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pharcyde. He also worked out an international licensing deal for "Who Got Big Lips?" T-shirts, sending the oversized hip hop shirts all the way to Asia.
In '93 Duro began hosting the Wednesday night "Baselines and Beats" show at the Red Dog, and that's when the Wicker Park hip hop scene began to attract permanent residents. MCs, graffiti artists, promoters, and publishers noted the area's low rents and open, bohemian vibe and started moving in.
Around the same time, Literary Explosions and Triple XXX, a hip hop clothing store, opened at the corner of North and Milwaukee, supplying an informal center for the hip hop crowd to meet and exchange ideas. Last summer it was common to see groups of hip-hoppers "freestyling" in front of Triple XXX, feverishly trying to outdo each other with improvised raps. In Literary Explosions, people would hang out discussing everything from the latest Common Sense album to black economic empowerment.
Some foresee the scene quickly dwindling, with gentrification bringing dress codes and rising prices in the clubs and a less tolerant attitude on the streets. Triple XXX's closing two months ago seemed to sound the death knell. At Duro's party, Mario, a poet who's watched the scene closely, voiced distress at the lack of a center for hip-hoppers.
"There are tons of hip hop artists and promoters in Wicker Park," he says. "You've got Rubber Room, Dos Pharaohs, Underground Soulution. But I think it could die if people don't pay attention. The flavor is still there but you have to have a center. If you're Jewish, you go to synagogue. If you're Muslim, you go to a mosque. Christians go to church. You gotta have a place to go. Wicker Park is the base but you have to have something tangible, a building to meet in."
Path the Addalesson, a Wicker Park MC, agreed. "It's been dope, but to remain the same and progress, we have to make changes. If we sit back and don't maintain what's ours, it'll be fucked up."
But Duro is not worried. Though his retirement from the party business seems to have been prompted in part by the disappointing response to his "Club WGBL," a series of 18-and-over hip hop parties held last summer at the Oak Theatre, he believes the scene will survive in one form or another.
"Wicker Park serves as a downtown for hip hop," he says. "It bridges the north, south, and west sides. A lot of kids meet up here.
"The future is up in the air," Duro admits. "Nothing lasts forever. Triple XXX served its purpose by opening up. Kids on the south side didn't know nothin' about Wicker Park. Kids on the north side didn't know nothin' about Wicker Park. But Triple XXX and Literary Explosions and Red Dog brought them over and they'll continue to come.
"I think there's two more years left before this turns into Lincoln Park," Duro says. Whether the scene stays or moves on will depend, he says, on the scene rather than the neighborhood. "If it continues to gain exposure it'll be a force to reckon with. If it remains an underground force, we'll be moved out."
Duro is betting on the former. In fact, he says, the local scene is about to explode. "'95 is the year for Chicago in hip hop. Common Sense just dropped what I consider a classic album. D.A. Smart has signed with RCA records. Blah Zae Blah are about to drop an album everybody's been waiting for. Judgemental won the New Music Seminar MC battle in New York, he's a shoo-in for a record deal.
"Everybody I bump into is finishing things in the studio. They have a better understanding of what the music industry wants. And their goal is not just to have them in shops but to put them out themselves. When record labels see you selling in your region, that's when they want to take you national."
Duro's own four-member group is working on a demo. Judging from the two tracks they have completed, they're doing a kind of sci-fi kung-fu cyber rap that reflects Duro's interest in Star Trek and John Woo movies. Over the slow, drowsy beat of "Doom" he raps: "I'm deep space nine / I keep and erase rhymes / in my mindfield / my rhymes kill like cyclons / let me use Krylon / to write your eulogy."
"Yeah mothafucka! Mothafucka!" At the Red Dog, Duro's taken the mike again. "If you in the house, let me hear some n-o-oise! I want to thank Mercury Records and Black Sheep, I want to thank my mothafuckin' self for bein' so mothafuckin' magnificent! Yeah! I got mad ego!" He pans over the crowd and spots a tall man in glasses. "Judgemental in the house! World Supremacy Battle champion!" The other MC nods his head and smiles. "Since this is my last party for eva' and eva', let's hear this! I'm 27 years old! I have reached the life expectancy for most black men! So, who got big lips?" He turns to the DJ. "Heather turn off the music." He turns back to the crowd. "Who got big lips?"
"We got big lips!" the crowd yells back.
"Who got big lips?"
"We got big lips!"
"Who got big lips?"
"We got big lips!"
"I am now mothafuckin' retired!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.