Commentary: Chicago’s Musical Influence & Tupac’s Impact
By: George Daniels | Owner of George’s Music Room
My parents were both from Louisiana and my mother could barely speak English until she was 20. They had a strong work ethic. They owned 10 restaurants in New York—five in Harlem and five in the Bronx during the 1950’s. When you’re exposed to that type of entrepreneurship—it’s part of your DNA. Just as being a young man around a Maurice White [Earth Wind and Fire] when he was Ramsey Lewis’ drummer, producer Charles Stepney, and artists Bo Diddley, Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass, Etta James, Little Walter –just from that one building had a similar impact. Throughout the 1960’s there was close to 40 record labels along South Michigan Ave. There was no city in America that had it going on like Chicago did during that time.
I go back to that era where I accidentally wounded up in the music business. To be able to look at it from the inside, but realizing also how much of the business had lasting effects on our lives.
My family relocated to Chicago where I graduated from Hirsch High School—I’m hanging out one day, I met a young lady. We started dating; a very nice girl who went to Hyde Park High School. She worked part-time at Chess Records located at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. She was a receptionist there and she sang background vocals. While we dated, she had one more year of school left at high school and I took her to prom while we dated. This sweet young woman was Minnie Riperton.
I wasn’t there during the period of what people knew her as an artist but what a talented young lady! Minnie grew up in the Woodlawn community and was my introduction into the music business. I went to Loop College while I began to work part-time at Chess Records.
Here in Chicago, we were fortunate to have the radio station WVON—before it was 1450 AM. Leonard and Phil Chess owned WVON in 1963. The original station was located at 34th and Kedzie—this is where the Good Guys made their names—including Herb Kent, Bill “Butterball” Crane, E. Rodney Jones, Joe Cobb, later Lucky Cordell and “Blues Man” Pervis Spann [later a co-owner]. At the time, it was only a 1000-watt station—the first Black radio station in the country devoted to playing soul music. I remember Berry Gordy used to come down from Detroit to take his records exclusively to the station, himself.
The Beginning of Rap Music’s Impact
Tupac had this ability to connect; you have to recognize it just doesn’t happen. It was a process. It’s like preparing gumbo. There are different things that make people special. We are products of our environment. There’s no way around it. You could be born to a drug addict but if you wind up being raised by a Harvard professor, you likely may end up doing something in that lane. Tupac’s mother being a Black Panther and the social arena that he was placed in as a child did influence him.
The media back then painted the Black Panthers as evil. They scared the hell out of the white system. When they showed up on the steps of California’s state capitol in Sacramento, rifles-in-hand which was legal to carry, we were coming of an age where there were demands that we, as Black Americans, expected from our government.
You have to look at the history of hip hop music. It wasn’t called ‘hip hop’ in the beginning—it was called rap music. It was Keith Clinkscales, former publisher of Vibe Magazine, who once told me, hip hop wasn’t just about music—it’s a lifestyle.
Years ago, R&B wasn’t called R&B—it was called ‘race’ music. It was segregated on pop radio so, you might have heard Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, but you didn’t hear our Soul music. It was Chuck Berry that started Rock and Roll at Chess Records, right here in Chicago. If you listen to Chicago’s music, The Chi Lites and other different groups from that era who were popular during the 1970’s you would see that they represented Soul music. Before there was original hip hop beats, there was sampling. The classic songs that were sampled existed when these rap artists were kids—they were familiar among us.
It’s so important for us to recognize that we’ve become the story tellers. Back then, rap music was fun music—it was about the emcees. When you recognize where its art form came from, it was raw and natural—the uniqueness of New York was rap. Motown Records has a unique sound in Detroit but Chicago has a signature sound as well. Within a 10-block radius of ‘record row’ on Michigan Ave., from 12th Street to 22nd Street, this is where all this wonderful music came from there.
As time went on, Miami had their sound with Luke and bass music. If you went down to New Orleans—they had Master P. which later, Cash Money Records became dominant, similar to the Houston base from Rap-A-Lot Records. Each label and each city had a different sound—not like today. Unfortunately, you don’t know who is who. The creativity is gone because we’ve allowed too much technology, and not enough original instrumentation.
Without genuine songwriting, we’re not telling the stories about what’s really going on. One of the most powerful videos ever made was Self-Destruction. If you go back and google that, you will see all of those young rap artists. It was one of the most positive videos on Jive Records. They took it off the market—it just disappeared. As retailers, we could no longer buy the record to sell. If you put that on today, it will describe what is currently going on in our society. It’s like listening to Marvin Gaye’s, What’s Going On.
The results of several socioeconomic and criminal injustices created an environment that allowed us to be self-destructive. It was all reflected in our music. Tupac came up in that era with his mom—seeing this and being exposed to the intellectual side of Black people. In Harlem, there was some incredibly well-educated African-Americans and the same in our Chicago community. Everyone intermingled because where else were you going to live, other than with other Black folks?
Controlling the Narrative
As Black people, we had revolutionary type-songs that described our pride back in the day. Even Motown Records, with all of those people in that house, never sounded alike. You come to Chicago and groups like the Impressions, The Chi-Lites, The Dells—nobody sounded alike because the radio wouldn’t play it.
One of the greatest stepper records, Love’s Gonna Last, released in 1978, was receiving airplay but they took it off the air because Jeffrey sounded too much like Marvin Gaye.
The music talked about it. When you come out with a Tupac, what were his influences? His first steps into the music business before he became a lyricist was a dancer. Other artists such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco have rattled the social conscious. As a young man myself when I started my first store, people asked, ‘Why are you calling it George’s Music Room?’. The question to ask ourselves is ‘Who are we?’. When Tupac came up, there was Biggie, NWA, Geto Boyz—everybody had their own style. He chose to go in the direction he did—he was similar to Roy Ayers or Curtis Mayfield.
Black music is the story of Black life.
Visit the new George’s Music Room pop-up store at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Follow George Daniels on Twitter.
Check out this feature in The Chicago Defender’s Black Music Month special edition issue on newsstands, June 21.