Chicago Hip Hop Museum Is Like a Visit to Grandma’s — If She Was B-Girl

GRAND BOULEVARD — Fifty years ago, a house party in the Bronx birthed one of the world’s most influential musical genres.

Hip hop’s reach is undeniable — from its B–boys popping and locking in Seoul to the graffiti artists tagging subway walls in Los Angeles. And while some of the most prolific artists in the game cut their teeth in Chicago, the larger hip hop community has been slow to give them their flowers.

If history is truly written by the victors, then the gifted emcees, B-boys and DJs from Chicago’s South, West, North and East sides deserve to be part of the narrative, said Darrell “Artistic” Roberts, Carrico “Kingdom Rock” Sanders and Brian Gorman, founders of the Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Museum.

The two-year-old museum at 4505 S. Indiana Ave. on a Grand Boulevard street is where an emcee, a DJ and a graffiti artist came together to ensure Chicago’s contributions not only are recognized, but celebrated.

And as celebrations of hip hop’s 50th journey around the sun continue, the museum’s founders want hometown heroes to see themselves reflected on the walls.

“When people come here, they’re kind of puzzled when they see what they see. We’ve had a lot of them come in here and say, ‘I didn’t know that Chicago even had this much history!’ It’s because you don’t see this,” said Roberts, whose history with Sanders dates back to Dunbar High circa 1984.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Every wall inside of the Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Museum is covered with photos and memorabilia spanning decades.

Having a space like the Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Museum also serves to help those who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of hip hop legends, like the visitor who asked if Snoop Dogg was from Chicago, Roberts said.

Building The Collection

The origin story of the museum is as organic as the camaraderie of the trio, who see themselves as curators and standard-bearers of the culture that shaped them.

Admittedly, they never saw themselves doing this kind of thing; it just happened. A few years earlier, when East Coast hip hop heads who were opening a museum of their own reached out in the spirit of “inclusion,” the trio quickly learned their definition of the word was markedly different than what the East Coasters had in mind.

“It kinda upsets me to this day that New York named their museum the ‘Universal Hip Hop Museum’ because when you get in there? It’s more New York than anything. They say they’re exploring other regions but when you see what you see, that shows you different,” Gorman said.

When the talks soured, the three thought it best to do their own thing to honor Chicago’s hip hop community and began plans to build a temporary exhibit. For them, the slight from New York was almost as disrespectful as the hip hop exhibit the Museum of Science and Industry once displayed, which Roberts described as “85 percent New York, 50 percent Chicago.”

“It was an exhibit with all the graffiti writers tags on it, real graffiti writers from Chicago but somebody else wrote the names. You can’t do that. How I write my name is my style. And then there were people who loaned their stuff to the museum and never got it back,” Roberts said.

While Gorman, Roberts and Sanders had more than enough memorabilia for the project, they still wanted to reach out to locals for donations. Soon they had a treasure trove of artifacts, from house party fliers and cypher photos to records, tapes and CDs — all in mint condition or close to it.

“People were bringing all types of stuff. Like, ‘Yo, I have these jackets from our old crew I can send! Just send it back when you’re done,’” said Sanders, who is the vice-president of Chi-Rock Nation.

The trio began slapping pictures and flyers on the wall with no real organization until Gorman’s wife suggested they make the displays more presentable by framing them instead, which she noted would also help preserve the integrity of the art, Gorman said.

“We’re men. We didn’t know how to present stuff,” Roberts said.

International And Local Talent

Entering the threshold of the house museum itself feels like a visit to grandma’s house — if grandma was a former B-girl who meticulously catalogued every underground party, open mic event and 8-by-10 glossy promotional photo of every Chicago group who had a brush with fame, however brief.

Every inch of the walls in the two-story home are covered, from a poster honoring the DJs and artists who graced WHPK-FM’s airwaves to a framed 2003 resolution from former Mayor Richard M. Daley declaring July “Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Month.”

If you look closely, you’ll see familiar faces on the walls: Common, Lupe Fiasco, G-Herbo and the artist formerly known as Kanye West, captured either before their meteoric rise to the top or in transit.

Look a little closer and you’ll see more of them, like Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) a.k.a. Prime — a battle rapper who once competed on BET’s “106 & Park” in the early aughts — and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose “Changed Man” CD can be found, shrink-wrapped, in the museum’s archives.

Though the trio don’t consider themselves fans of Drill music, they’ve endeavored to hold space for those artists as well, recognizing the impact the sub-genre has had on younger generations.

“There was a dude who came in here and saw Katie Got Bandz’s picture on the wall. He calls her and asks, ‘Did you know you were in the Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Museum?’ She’d never been here. She told the guy she was nearby and she just came through,” said Roberts. “She was so excited.”

The founders estimate they have over 10,000 pieces in their collection, though they only have enough space to display 1,500. They rotate items out every few months, said Sanders, adding that they know they’ve run out of space.

Though the modest Bronzeville home has served them well, the trio hope to have a standalone building that can serve as a community hub and a museum, a one-stop cultural experience.

For them, it isn’t about recapturing past glory. It’s about using hip hop as a tool to educate and inspire, Sanders. said

“A local female rapper, Angie 13, told me how proud of us she was. ‘A lot of people talk about what they’re going to do, but very few people do it,’ she said. That meant a lot,” Roberts said.

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