- Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader
- Darrell "Artistic" Roberts works on a mural at the Logan Square permission wall (2934 W. Medill, near Milwaukee and Fullerton) on the Saturday before Halloween.
Almost three decades ago, Darrell "Artistic" Roberts decided he needed to document the history of Chicago hip-hop. He'd started breakdancing in 1982, and soon took up hip-hop's other foundational elements: MCing, DJing, and graffiti writing. His love of graffiti blossomed in the mid- to late 80s, and at a citywide writers' meeting in 1987, he met his future collaborator in this ambitious project, a graffiti artist named Fere (pronounced "fear"). By 1992, they'd both been involved in the local scene for about a decade, which made them veterans in a still-emerging movement. That year they sketched out an idea for a Chicago hip-hop history book.
"We just started collecting photos, looking through there, like, 'Oh, this would be a good picture to put in,'" Roberts says. "We started connecting the dots, and it just got bigger and bigger. It was like, 'OK, it's gonna cost us to do this book.'"
To raise funds for their project, they launched a magazine called Chicago Rocks in 1993. It was a way for Roberts to document the community month by month, a little at a time, which proved more manageable than the task of writing a single authoritative volume. At the time Roberts subscribed to The Source, the most influential magazine in hip-hop, and its egregious blind spot with respect to the midwest helped motivate him. "They said if you can't beat them, join them, but in this case we didn't want to do neither one—we couldn't beat them and we didn't want to join them," he says. "We just decided, 'You know what, we gonna do our own thing.'"
Chicago Rocks was one of a handful of Chicago hip-hop publications to emerge in the 90s, including FlyPaper, Elevated, and Caught in the Middle. Chicago Rocks lasted till 1998, and when Roberts closed it down, he put the book on hold as well. He chose to build up his family instead and removed himself from the scene until 2015, when he began reconnecting with old friends on Facebook. That's when he got the idea to revisit the history project—though now he'd be going it alone. "I was like, 'Wow, so nobody still has done anything in regards to Chicago hip-hop, in terms of a book or anything,'" Roberts says.
Chi-ROCK Nation presents the Elements: A Celebration of Chicago Hip-Hop
With DJ Twelve Gage, DJ Pacman, DJ Vee 8, Murda Megz, DJ Pumpin Pete, DJ Jesse de la Peña, and more. Sat 11/2, 7 PM-2 AM, Community Art Center, 1213 W. 63rd, $15 requested donation, $10 in advance, all ages
Four years later, Roberts is about to publish the first book in a four-part series called The Real Deal. Each volume will focus on a different element of hip-hop culture, and the first documents Chicago DJs. He celebrates its release Saturday, November 2, as part of the Elements, a celebration of Chicago hip-hop hosted by the city's oldest hip-hop community group, Chi-ROCK Nation (Roberts has been its president since 2017). He says he's still trying to secure the rights to a few photos for the book, so he hasn't made any of it public in advance. Fortunately, because he's self-publishing through a print-on-demand service that sells through Amazon, the only deadline he has to worry about is the one he set for himself.
If everything goes according to plan, The Real Deal will be the first of a wave of similar projects. FlyPaper cofounder BboyB, who helped launch long-running graffiti collective the Artistic Bombing Crew in 1983, has been working on a Chicago history of graffiti and breaking with ABC member Flash, which they hope to publish next year. BboyB has also contributed research as an associate producer for a documentary in progress called Midway: The Story of Chicago Hip-Hop. Director Ryan Brockmeier hopes to have a rough cut done by July.
- The cover of Roberts's new book. The first volume in the Real Deal series focuses on DJing.
Brockmeier grew up around Rockford and got involved in Chicago hip-hop in the late 90s—he managed underground rapper Mike "Mic One" Malinowski for 15 years. (Longtime Malinowski collaborator DJ Risky Bizness is an executive producer on Midway.) Five years ago, when the Midway crew started tapping into their networks to find people to interview, they contacted Roberts.
"He and I met, and just talked," Brockmeier says. "We talked about him putting the book together and everything he still does with Chi-ROCK. Ever since then he's been a good resource-slash-consultant for us as well." Roberts and the Midway team have developed a mutually beneficial relationship: Roberts helps the documentary team recognize gaps in their research, and they let him watch interviews they've conducted.
Hip-hop historian Kevin Beacham welcomes all these new history-making projects. He wore multiple hats in Chicago's scene in the 90s: he ran street-team company Rage Promotions, worked as a manager for Caught in the Middle, and hosted WNUR hip-hop show Time Travel. He's working as a consultant on Midway, and he's seen a little of Roberts's research for The Real Deal—including lists of people involved in the scene during its 1980s salad days. "I'm really excited for his book, because he's filling in blanks of things that I have long been curious about," Beacham says. "I didn't get involved in this scene till the 90s; he was there in the 80s. So there's certain things I don't even know the questions to ask. What I'm seeing—like, the things he's doing with the lists—I'm like a kid and it's Christmas morning again. I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is so amazing to see this.'"
Roberts, 49, grew up in Roseland. In 1982 he cofounded a breakdance crew called the Egyptian Breakers. "I have no recollection of why we called ourselves the Egyptian Breakers, because none of us was from Egypt," he says. "We liked the name because it was unique and different—I don't even know how we came up with it." He went by "Awesome 'D'" till 1986, when he switched to "Artistic" as he got deep into graffiti.
In the mid- to late 80s, Roberts attended Dunbar Vocational High School. He'd ride the el to classes, taking in the rooftop graffiti he could see from the train. Soon he learned that some kids at his school were part of a graffiti collective called Insane Artist Crew. "At the time, I didn't even really understand how they all correlated together—like, graffiti and breakdancing," Roberts says. "I didn't understand that this was a whole culture at the time."
- Courtesy Darrell "Artistic" Roberts
- Roberts paints "We Must Save the Children" on a retaining wall near the Berwyn Red Line stop in 1995 as part of a citywide CTA project.
- Courtesy Darrell "Artistic" Roberts
- Roberts created this north-side permission-wall piece in 1998 for the crew BASF, which he helped lead.
In 1984, University of Chicago radio station WHPK had become the first in the midwest to launch a hip-hop show, and within a couple years it was the Chicago scene's megaphone. Roberts learned about the station from a neighbor who'd found WHPK while scanning the FM dial during a WBMX commercial break. "He said he heard some rap," Roberts says. "He said it was unusual—because he heard cursing on there."
WHPK helped Roberts get a grip on what hip-hop culture meant. It played underground national artists as well as demos from unsigned locals, which meant that the Egyptian Breakers, who'd started to rap under the name Curfew Boys in 1985, could bring their cassettes to the station and try to get them played on the air. WHPK also aired bulletins about hip-hop events, such as writers' meetings and small shows at the nearby Blue Gargoyle.
In 1987, Roberts joined the Chi-ROCK collective, formed in '85 by a handful of teens in Burnside to be a distinctively local hip-hop community organization. ("ROCK" originally stood for Respect Our Creative Kids, but the "K" now stands for "Kind" to reflect its multigenerational membership.) Chi-ROCK's perspective was both an homage to and a reaction against Afrika Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation, founded in 1973 and expanded into cities outside New York by the mid-80s. Bambaataa had a cousin in Chicago who rapped as Kool Rock Steady and represented Zulu, and Roberts says Chi-ROCK formed partly in response to his misguided recruitment strategy. Supposedly Kool Rock Steady had suggested that the only way to be a true hip-hop head would be to follow his lead—and Chicagoans didn't take kindly to the idea of falling in line behind an emissary of New York.
Under the Chi-ROCK banner, Roberts helped lead a couple smaller crews focused on graffiti, including BASF, where Fere was involved too. By the late 80s, Roberts had become a force in the scene. "The community was pretty tight-knit, and him and his partners were always trying to gather us and connect us all," says veteran DJ Jesse de la Peña. De la Peña lived on the southwest side at the time, and he remembers attending graffiti meetings that Roberts and his friends hosted outside the Museum of Science and Industry. "I met a lot of people at a lot of those meetings," de la Peña says. "Finding hip-hop parties and finding people back then was a little harder—this was an opportunity to find people through graffiti."
Even back then, Roberts showed a keen interest in documenting the scene. Rapper Deon "Mr. Club Banga" Coney, who used to record as JMD, remembers Roberts as constantly having a camera in hand. "He always felt it was important to cherish those things that involved the culture of hip-hop," Coney says. "He would document, he would take pictures. He knew something that a lot of folks didn't know—that eventually the day would come where we would have to have proof."
Roberts understood that he had to share his work with other people if he wanted it to legitimize the overlooked Chicago scene in the eyes of the world. That's why he and and Fere decided to launch Chicago Rocks in 1993. "We had no experience with publishing or anything like that," Roberts says. "But we realized there was a need to put something out there to highlight what we was doing here in Chicago—that was enough inspiration for us to pick up a piece of paper and a pen and just get to work."
- Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader
- Roberts and his new mural
Chicago Rocks didn't enter a void. BboyB had cofounded FlyPaper a couple years earlier as The Rap Sheet. "We got a letter from the Rap Sheet out of LA saying, 'You can't use that name, we're a hip-hop magazine,'" BboyB says. "We're like, 'Oh shit, this is a lawyer—we'll leave that alone. Let's come up with a new name.' I think we came up with a better name."
BboyB grew up in Logan Square. In the early 80s, he became one of the first people doing hip-hop graffiti in Chicago, and in 1983 he cofounded the Angel and Berto Crew (he's Berto), one of the city's longest-running graffiti squads (though "ABC" now stands for "Artistic Bombing Crew"). They hosted graffiti writers' meetings at the benches by the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square and went breaking at a nearby club called Jenals. As a student at Lane Tech in the late 80s, BboyB got exposed to more of the scene through his classmates, and he began to roam the city in search of hip-hop. He says he probably met Roberts at Steps, a far-north-side club run by hip-hop DJ and former New Yorker Parker Lee, aka P-Lee Fresh.
When he helped start The Rap Sheet in 1991, BboyB was studying at Columbia College, where he learned graphic design on the latest Mac computers. "Our saying was 'FlyPaper publishes whenever the hell we feel like publishing,'" he says. "We didn't have a set schedule. We didn't have a budget. We didn't have offices." BboyB had a friend who worked a night shift at Copy Max in Wicker Park, so he had free access to the shop's computers. "I met a lot of punk-rock kids at two in the morning at Copy Max doing the same thing for their culture," BboyB says. "This whole desktop publishing—making your own magazines and publishing your own stuff—was just in the air. Everybody was doing it."
FlyPaper started as a double-sided sheet and grew quickly before going on hiatus in 1995. (It had a second run in the 2000s.) The magazine printed work by William "Upski" Wimsatt before he founded Elevated and published his famous 1994 essay collection Bomb the Suburbs. It also gave Kevin Beacham his first byline, after he befriended the FlyPaper team through his Rage Promotions work—he'd give them promo copies of albums, and in '93 they invited him to contribute. "They asked me to write one review, and I thought, 'They're gonna hate it,' so I wrote three reviews, figuring that they'd feel guilty—like, 'He wrote three, we gotta pick one,'" Beacham says. "They loved them—they used all three. I was like, 'There's something to this.'" The following year, for the inaugural issue of Caught in the Middle, Beacham helped publish the first cover story on Common to appear anywhere.
"Elevated, Chicago Rocks—which Artistic had for a while—they were all very similar and very cross-pollinated," BboyB says. "But I like to say that the FlyPaper set the standard."
- Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader
- The finished piece
Chicago Rocks started as a bare-bones operation. After studying other magazines, Roberts and Fere laid out and assembled Chicago Rocks by hand—at first, they cut and pasted each page's contents together. "We're like, 'OK, now how we gonna keep these things together?'" Roberts remembers. "We would look at magazines like, 'Wait a minute, these got staples in them! How do you get them stapled?' So we started taking staples and literally putting the staples in by hand—putting them through all the sheets of paper. After that we'd fold it, turn it over, and then fold the other side of the staple inward so it can contain all the pages. We were doing it all by hand until we actually got a stapler."
Roberts and Fere took Chicago Rocks around to local shops to sell copies on consignment. Back then, Jesse de la Peña ran a hip-hop store in Brighton Park called the Yard, and he started selling Chicago Rocks alongside mainstream hip-hop magazines from the coasts. "It was great, because it felt like we had our own thing here in Chicago," he says. "The store we had, we used to advertise in the magazine. It was just another way of connecting to other people."
In the five years Roberts published Chicago Rocks, he says roughly 100 people pitched in—writing, taking photos, selling copies on the street. "We had a small team of staff people, but I was really the main engine behind making the magazine come out every month," he says. Before he wound down the operation, Roberts managed to get copies into Tower Records, sending a few hundred to the chain's Sacramento headquarters for distribution.
"We still really didn't have a strong financial arm behind us, so I was making a lot of sacrifices," Roberts says. "I was using my home as the office. We had an office from time to time, but nothing that was stable. The main place that we did most of the work, outside of utilizing other peoples' homes and areas that we could get our hands on, was my home. Even my phone number became the office number for the magazine." Roberts and his collaborators struggled to maintain a monthly publication schedule—only one issue of Chicago Rocks came out in 1996, and three the following year.
These days it's hard to find copies of Chicago Rocks from its original five-year run (it rebooted in 2012 without Roberts, and last published in 2015). I recently spotted a couple copies on eBay—a 1998 issue with scene mover E.C. Illa on the cover was selling for $39.99, nearly 20 times the original price. Fortunately, Roberts plans to detail the magazine's history in The Real Deal.
- Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader
- In Chicago, it's illegal to buy spray paint. But it's not illegal to own spray paint.
- Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader
- Roberts leaves his "Artistic" signature on the mural at the Logan Square permission wall.
When BboyB looks at the wealth of hip-hop history books that have come out in the past decade or so, he feels a little deja vu. "We started seeing these history books of hip-hop that didn't include Chicago," he says. "It's always like, 'Hey, how come we're not in this?' We have a rich history here."
When Roberts started reconnecting with old scene friends in 2015, he was also surfing the Web looking for books or documentaries on Chicago hip-hop's history. "Nothing was coming up—or it would be fragments of stuff, maybe an article here or an article there that was published in a newspaper," he says. "In terms of books, nothing was coming up." Among the top search results when you Google "Chicago hip-hop history" is a lengthy uncredited blog post from Giordano's pizza—but to be fair, it's pretty well done.
Roberts dug up the three-ring binder he'd used in the 90s to build the skeleton for his book, then set to work finishing The Real Deal. He watched YouTube videos and combed the Web, sourced photos from Facebook, and reached out to friends and acquaintances for formal interviews. About a year ago, he called up Deon Coney.
"It was early one morning, and I was a little discombobulated," Coney says. "But he documented it verbatim." In the mid-80s, Coney helped put together a collective of rappers called Purple Mansion at Englewood High School. Through a friend, he met DJ Quickhands, who had a show at WHPK and would bring the crew into the studio to perform. Coney had his biggest success when Chicago producer Tyree Cooper tapped him to rap on "Move Your Body" in 1989. "I made a hip-house record that did real well in the UK," he says, "and I went on tour in the UK."
The fourth episode of Netflix's new rap competition show, Rhythm + Flow, opens with celebrity judge Chance the Rapper walking through Chicago's streets, accompanied by his own voice-over about the city's hip-hop history—he names Twista, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Common. Before Chance and Chief Keef, those were the best-known artists to emerge from the city, and few mainstream books or articles have gone deeper. When Rolling Stone published a "Chicago hip-hop family tree" in 2017, scene veterans and fans alike were quick to point out its bizarre and conspicuous omissions. Legendary west-siders Crucial Conflict—whose breakout single, 1996's "Hay," was covered by the marching band backing Beyoncé at her 2018 Coachella set—didn't make the cut, and group member Cold Hard posted a video complaining about it. If an artist of Crucial Conflict's stature can get left out of a scene history by one of the biggest voices in music, then most of the rest of Chicago is definitely out of luck.
The Real Deal and Midway will expand this foreshortened narrative. Brockmeier and the Midway team have been building an expansive website for their documentary, since they can only fit so much into a feature-length film—they're working on detailed biographies of scene players throughout the years, and Roberts is helping. Roberts also has those three other books in the pipeline, and plans to release one each November till 2022.
Whatever happens next, Roberts is likely to stay in the thick of it. "He's one of those people that's always been around, always been documenting," Brockmeier says. "He's a man of the hip-hop people." No would-be historian could do right by Chicago hip-hop without him. v
Kim Kovacik for Chicago Reader