The Mental Giants Talk Chicago Hip-Hop History with Jesse De La Pena
Written by Vocalo Radio on February 5, 2020
In advance of their appearance at Winter Block Party 2020, Jesse De La Pena sat down with Parker Lee and Akbar of legendary hip-hop group Mental Giants.
Mental Giants were a crucial part of the scene that Jesse and his friends built with The Blue Groove Lounge at Elbo Room twenty-five years ago. They returned to the stage at Metro/Smartbar on Feb. 8 at our annual Winter Block Party.
Lee and Akbar each moved to Chicago from New York in the early 1980s. Between Chicago’s gang culture of the time and the dominance of house music culture, there was little oxygen for hip-hop in Chicago in those early years, but they were committed to spreading the word through now iconic hip hop nights, breaking and even through graffiti. According to Jesse De La Pena, “For folks that may not have known [the group] and are fans of our city’s [current] vibrant hip-hop scene, [they] and a handful of other people are responsible for many things we take for granted. He championed the music and culture at a time when it wasn’t easy or safe to do.”
Jesse sat down with Akbar and Parker Lee to discuss the five elements of hip-hop, moving to Chicago from New York, early graffiti crews, navigating Chicago gangs, Jamalski, how hip-hop has changed over the years — plus the Winter Block Party and Blue Groove Reunion.
Jesse De La Pena: What is Mental Giants?
Akbar: Mental Giants is Parker Lee, the musical half, the DJing side, and Akbar. Before we were Mental Giants we were TCP “The Crowd Pleasers” we were B-Boys, breaking MCing and DJing. But eventually as the 90s came in, and we saw that hip hop was a movement, was a wave in Chicago. People were getting signed and we began to take it more seriously. Me being into science, esoteric knowledge and information as well as coming from the Nation of Islam … I always gravitated towards spirituality.
I was reading a book by Leonard Nimoy, Dr. Spock. In that book they had the Easter Island heads, right, those heads on Easter Island. Those always fascinated me those heads. So I just got the Epiphany that I wanted our group to be called The Mental Giants. I took those Easter Island heads and I kind of freaked it and drew those two heads to represent us as the Mental Giants, that’s really the birth of Mental Giants right there.
JDLP: How did you guys get into hip hop?
Parker Lee: I went to high school back ’82 and I would see flyers for the Cold Crush Brothers, Fearless Four, Fantastic Five and I could never get in cause I was little too young. That caught my interest man. I used to get tapes from those guys, there wasn’t broadcasting back then. They were cutting tapes.
JDLP: So this was in New York?
PL: Yes I’m from New York, and this was around ’81 or ’82.
JDLP: What was the gateway for you to start actually being a participant, to being a part of hip hop?
PL: Well, I started DJing actually, I learned from this kid in my class, his name was Ravi. He was a DJ, I just saw him go back and forth on “Good Times”. After that, I had to get some turntables. And that was my thing, man, I have just loved hip hop ever since. And then listening to Red Alert back in the days, they’re old mixes you know. I liked to tune into those mixes at night, I would have to break up a lot of girls cuz all I wanted to do is listen to mixes at night, man. I would tape them on tape. And basically, I fell in love with hip hop, man. I mean, just from day one, right when I first heard the Cold Crush Brothers.
A: Just like Parker I’m originally from New York. I grew up in the Bronx, and Harlem. Graffiti was my introduction to hip hop. I got into graffiti when I was a shorty … I was probably 13. My big brother was Zulu Nation. He was down with the Zulu. So I wanted to be like my big brother. He was already doing graffiti. He was already MCing and he was in a group called the house gang. His tag was “KG Rock”. I started tagging first, that was my introduction, after tagging I just progressed into dancing and, you know, boogying and breaking and then eventually I found my way to MCing.
You know, back then we didn’t really compartmentalize hip-hop … everything was everything. You know, we did it all. Whatever you felt that you would have best that was kind of what you gravitated towards most but we kind of did everything. The only thing I never really did was DJ. But yeah, it was graffiti, then it was breaking and dancing and then it was MCing.
JDLP: Tell us a little bit more about your influences in hip-hop …
A: As far as MCing goes, because that was really how I carved my niche in this culture … being an MC. You know, I do graffiti but like graffiti is a given for a B Boy, you gotta have a tag. But MCing was something that I really took to heart and I started in my grandmother’s basement, I was living in the Bronx, up on to 219th and White Plains, and I would hear the mixes at night. I would just write my little rhymes,
I didn’t really think that I would be good at it, but I knew that I had a knack for vocabulary. And so that’s what propelled me in MCing. Adventures of Super Rhymes by Jimmy Spicer was what really made me want to be an MC, that whole storyline … his storytelling abilities. His whole story structure and the way he put rhymes together made me want to MC, that was really the song that did it for me and made me say that I’m gonna be an MC.
JDLP: Tell us about the notion of the five elements of the hip-hop arts? How does that play in to the culture now? How has it changed from when you started out?
PL: The five elements of hip-hop. There was breakdancing, graffiti, MCing, DJing … and then actually beatboxing was one of them. You know, you used to have to know it all. like me. I used to do the moondance, I used to breakdance. I even thought I could rap [laughter] I wasn’t really a good rapper. But definitely graffiti, I was a vandal. DJing. When we were coming up we had to do it all.
But now it’s kind of like you pick one. Even when there’s rap, there’s no DJs in the records anymore. The graffiti artists would do your artwork for the album covers, used to have dancers at the shows. All the elements used to come together back in the days but now it’s more segmented and singled out … folks are just focusing on one aspect.
A: That’s a great question, Jesse. Back in those early days, it was a culture. When you’re in a culture, you’re fully immersed in that culture. So you just do everything that that culture offers. Now they still call it the culture right? This is the moniker that they gave it. But it’s a cash cow now … you know, hip hop, and the music is a cash cow. So you got people out here who want to push certain things to make a certain amount of money. Rappers, they want to make their money.
Then you have graffiti artists who now have finally received respect on a mainstream level. They are out making their money. Everybody’s kind of been compartmentalized. There are some artists who will incorporate breakdancers in their show, they’ll have an artist on the stage doing graffiti or live painting. So there are there are some who still understand the importance of keeping all those elements together. I think the overall change is because hip-hop has become a marketing tool. So you have to break it down into individual elements to sell it, to make your money, it’s all about the money.
JDLP: How has hip hop changed locally and globally since you guys started?
A: Hip-hop has definitely morphed into something else. The Times have changed. You know, it’s the internet age. Everybody has access to this music. I remember when you couldn’t find an MC. Somebody who was really an MC back in those days. DJs too, they were few and far between.
Now everybody raps, or at least thinks they can rap. And you got a lot of people now who think they can DJ. Because now you don’t need turntables you just go download Serato. And nowadays you don’t really have to be lyrical. If you got an image and you look good and you sound like everybody else, you kind of can fit in … then you get in where you fit in. But I still love a lot of the music! You have to really search for good music and the radio is also a machine that pumps a lot of garbage.
But luckily we have stations like Vocalo that give us a platform to still thrive…
NOTE: In December of 2021, we lost DJ P-Lee Fresh, born Parker Lee Williams. He was 54. He will be missed.
Interview by Jesse De La Pena
Edited for length and clarity by Seamus Doheny
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