Off the Block

Courtesy of CUAS

When considering the innumerable gems to be found on the airwaves of WBEZ 91.5, Chicago’s public radio station, hip-hop culture does not immediately jump to mind. But on Saturday, January 15th, the station better known for “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” will host the third annual Winter Block Party for Chicago’s Hip-Hop Arts as part of its “Off-Air Events” series.

The party will include a visual art and graffiti gallery, breakdancing, an open mic for spoken word poetics, film screenings, workshops, haircuts, music by some of the most notable hip-hop and house DJs in the city, and in true public radio tradition, a fair amount of discussion about the culture’s “roots.”

Spoken word poet and Winter Block Party artistic director Kevin Coval believes hip-hop culture in Chicago has developed under unique circumstances. “One of the things that hip-hop did for this city early on is make us get out of our neighborhoods,” he said in a phone interview. He says that because of the city’s vast metro area, those who were first interested in the genre “had to learn how to navigate public transit and different neighborhoods.” As a result, the hip-hop arts became “something that is ‘all-city.’” With this in mind, the idea of a block party—-an event typically held during the summer months, when neighbors can sit out on the streets enjoying local goods and company—-begins to make more sense. On one level, Saturday will serve to draw people from the comfort of their homes for the sake of a collective celebration. As Coval put it, “Chicago is cold as fuck. [Hip-hop] can pull us out of hibernation.”

Coval admits that a lot of hip-hop culture is self-referential. He remembers being seventeen and acquiring a fake ID to see hip-hop DJ Jesse De La Pena spin a set. This weekend, De La Pena will be playing the event’s ticketed after-party. Even the visual art and graffiti gallery exhibition, which will include old school boombox and sneaker collections, represents the work of friends and professional collaborators, curated by artist and Chicago Urban Art Society co-founder Peter Kepha. “These are people that we know personally…comrades, colleagues, people whose work that we admire.”

But Saturday’s event is an exploration of hip-hop from inside and out: a tribute to the hip-hop arts’ past and present and a step towards the creation of a collaborative space for both established B-boys and B-girls and those not yet familiar with the evolving Chicago scene. Breeze Richardson, Executive Producer of the Off-Air Series for WBEZ, acknowledges the Winter Block Party’s dual role: “This is two events in one: an authentic hip-hop event as curated by Kevin and Peter and a ‘101’ opportunity for supportive others to come learn, explore and enjoy something new.”

For the first time, WBEZ’s hip-hop extravaganza will be located on the South Side, at the Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS) located at 22nd Place and Halsted. If hip-hop really has been an “all-city” project throughout the ages, as Coval suggests, the move is appropriate. Peter Kepha and Lauren M. Pacheco, a brother-sister duo, founded the 3,500 square foot multi-use CUAS space in Pilsen, in 2008. Though the two are relatively new kids on the block, so to speak, Kepha and Pacheco are no strangers to the Chicago art scene, previously owning and operating the gallery space 32nd&urban in Bridgeport. One week after the official closing of The Daley Show, the successful, and fortuitously timed art exhibition inspired by the mayor’s 22-year administration of the city, CUAS is at an all-time high in its political, cultural, and artistic relevance.

Saturday will remind longtime fans, and make clear to new listeners that, though the faces, spaces, sights and sounds have changed over time, hip-hop has long thrived on cross-generational and cross-cultural collaboration. “Any cultural force exists due to artists across various disciplines being in communication with one another,” says Coval.

He sees a growing interest in the hip-hop arts: “I think that young people in the city now are probably more hip to the idea that the barriers that the city planners maintain are false. In hip-hop and youth cultural practice, it’s about challenging and contesting those borders, about crossing those lines, about writing in space that’s supposedly ‘illegal.’”

Saturday’s event may be an incomplete record of the city’s notable musicians, dancers, and street artists, hosted by a series that offers introductions to various cultural phenomena, but it pays homage to the methods, means, and spirit of the hip-hop arts. WBEZ, the Chicago Urban Art Society, and the genre itself have created a space where Chicagoans can trade homegrown insights about art and music for a more collaborative, “all-city” one. As Coval says, “regardless of what you take away, there is still the desire to live, and to live beautifully.”

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