December 5, 2011

Radio station that hosted hip hop superstars like Common and Kanye West is a training ground for students and community.

Main feature by Tomi Obaro, fourth-year in the College | Main photo by Jason Smith

It’s 11 p.m. on a Friday night in the WHPK studio. “Funky Soul Makossa” by Nairobi and the Awesome Foursome blasts from the speakers. Mario Gage, an energetic second-year, and 26-year-old Ronald Cabrera are rifling through Cabrera's crate of vinyl records.

“I’ve been meaning to get a copy of this album for years,” exclaims Gage, co-host of the station’s bi-weekly hip hop show, “The Essence.” Gage pulls out another record. “I have this album at home. This is from ’90 or ’91, right?” The conversation carries on, as Gage and Cabrera both wait for midnight, when Cabrera is slated to go on the air for the first time as a guest DJ with the moniker "DJ Ron Ron."

I’ve been listening to hip hop since the day I was born.
—Second-year Mario Gage

Their enthusiasm and diversity—Cabrera is a break-dancer from the North Side, while Gage grew up in Bronzeville and the South Loop—is a testament to the rich history between WHPK and rap music in Chicago. Providing a bridge between University students and the surrounding South Side community, WHPK has made an indelible mark on Chicago’s hip hop scene.

The first station to play hip hop in Chicago in the mid-1980s, WHPK played a pioneering role in the Chicago rap scene, drawing attention to the then-burgeoning genre. Aspiring artists—some future superstars—flocked to the third-floor Reynolds Club tower, waiting for hours to bring in their demo tapes or even perform on air.

In his 2011 memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, the artist Common describes how in the late 1980s, he and his rap trio C.D.R. camped outside on 57th Street, until their music was played.

“Looking back, it would be easy to say that this was a small moment—your song getting played on college radio,” he wrote. “But to me, it felt as good as or better than seeing my video on MTV or BET.”

Common, then going by the name Common Sense, later paid tribute to WHPK in his 1994 track “Nuthin to Do,” rapping, “Then ‘HPK was the only station to [expletive] with rap.” He and Kanye West also had a high-spirited WHPK rap battle on air in 1996, referencing “63rd Street and Stony Isle.” That exchange, available online, became something of a Chicago legend, capturing the two future hit-makers in a relaxed and joking style early in their careers.

A history lesson

It all began with Ken Wissoker, the first rap DJ at WHPK.

Wissoker came to the College in the fall of 1974 and stayed in Hyde Park, working at the Seminary Co-op and writing for the Grey City Journal before joining WHPK in 1983.

“I was already a kind of music person,” explains Wissoker. “I had lots of records—one of my friends who was on the station brought me up, and then I got a slot over the summer.”

At first, he played a lot of punk music. But while in New York visiting friends, he began listening to hip hop and started to bring back rap records—“a lot of the small label things you were only able to get in New York at the time,” Wissoker says. One of Wissoker’s fellow classmates did DJ gigs downtown and “together we realized we had a show’s worth of about three hours of rap that we could play.”

So in 1984, they launched WHPK’s first rap show. It was an immediate success.

“‘HPK was only 10 watts [at the time], so you were just playing for students and the kids at the Lab School and a few other Hyde Parkers. You really didn’t get that many requests,” Wissoker recalls. “But this first show when we played all rap music, the phones started lighting up.”

It was a welcome surprise on the UChicago campus, which at the time was dominated by house music. “If you were walking down the street and heard hip hop coming out of the car, it was like, ‘Wow, I know that person,’ says John Schauer, AB’86. “It was just a small group of people listening to it.”

Following that show’s success, the station added two more rap shows, including ‘The Essence,’ which until recently was hosted by Schauer (known as JP Chill). Over the years Wissoker and Schauer interviewed a myriad of now classic acts—KRS-One, Ice-T, Schoolly D, and Public Enemy.

Still, Wissoker’s fondest memories are reserved for the interactions he got to have with people from the surrounding South Side.

“There was a lot of, I think, racist fear of the rest of the South Side, so the ability to be hanging out with kids and talking about rap music was very important for me, in terms of my thinking about the South Side,” Wissoker says. “And then just to be in something that was changing so quickly, that’s really exciting and doesn’t happen very often.”

From the old to the new

For Gage, deejaying at WHPK is a continuation of that legacy. He specializes in old-school hip hop, the so-called ‘golden age of hip hop’ according to Wissoker, who left the station in 1988 to pursue a career in university publishing.

Deejaying at WHPK is a dream for the 19-year-old. “I’ve been listening to hip hop since the day I was born, pretty much, like I’m not even exaggerating,” says Gage, who grew up in a musical family. His father, a businessman, DJs on the side, and his mother used to rap in the ‘80s. In fact, she got her moniker, “The Lovely MC” from a DJ at WHPK.

Most of Gage’s early encounters with WHPK were lessons in extreme patience. Since his acceptance at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in 2006, Gage had been trying to get on the station. He submitted a sample playlist to JP Chill in person, but never heard back.

“There’s tons of people trying to get on his show because it’s so monumental and so historical and just such a big part of Chicago’s hip hop history, so the wait line is really long,” explains Gage.

Then in April this past year, Mario was at a surprise birthday party and ran into a DJ at the station. He accompanied him to the station and met Taigo, the current host of “The Essence.” “He asked me what type of music I play, and I told him ‘old-school hip hop.’ And then he started quizzing me to see if I knew my stuff and I passed the quiz. He told me to come back in two weeks.

“I came back two weeks later with a crate of wax, and then the rest is history.”