DJ Pumpin’ Pete and DJ Ca$h Era Talk Winter Block Party 2020
Written by Vocalo Radio on January 27, 2020
“An underground golden era Adidas commercial, a soulful unification of hip-hop loving people.”
That’s how DJ Pumpin Pete describes The Blue Groove Lounge, legendary hip-hop nights that started in the basement of the Elbo Room 25 years ago.
Hip hop connects people across generations, which is why this year, Vocalo, Young Chicago Authors (YCA) and WBEZ are celebrating Blue Groove Lounge’s 25th anniversary at our Winter Block Party on Feb. 8.
Blue Groove lounge’s open mic sessions and dance parties, thrown by our very own Jesse De La Peña, helped shape Chicago’s vibrant hip hop scene for a quarter century.
Vocalo’s Jill Hopkins sat down with DJ Pumpin Pete, one of Blue Groove’s originators, and YCA darling DJ Ca$h Era for an intergenerational exploration of the party’s significance to hip hop and DJing arts.
Jill Hopkins: We’re celebrating the legendary Chicago hip-hop party Blue Groove Lounge at the Winter Block Party. You were part of Blue Groove from the very beginning weren’t you? Tell us about the early days of DJing in Chicago for you …
Pumpin’ Pete: Yes. Some of the greatest days of my life, I was just having a conversation with Akhbar from Mental Giants a second ago about it. The Blue Groove Lounge was just a place I wanted to grab my records and go play hip-hop. When Jesse asked me to be a part of the party I had no idea like what we were doing, or the power that it would resonate to this day. Music usually brings a whole lot of people together, right? Hip-Hop is is no different. At that time it was a huge opportunity to play hip-hop in Chicago … because back then everybody was playing house and nobody wanted to hear hip-hop. So we had our own little thing, but we never ever thought we’d be having a conversation about it in 2020.
JH: Maybe no one starts off thinking that their little party is going to be legendary. but did it feel special as it was happening?
PP: Yes. Every Monday night it did. I’d be you know, playing a main source song and then down the stairs would come Common. An hour later it would be John Cusack. The next week it would be Kanye and Xzibit. The week after that would be Ludacris and Da Brat. When you saw people like that showing up on a Monday night in Lincoln Park … You knew that something special was happening.
JH: Ca$h Era, compare and contrast the scene that Pete has just described to what you’re experiencing in the clubs these days. Because you’re young and have been part of a totally different scene …
Ca$h Era: I’m jealous. I wish I would have been there. Um, yeah, I’m really mad that I missed that era of what the DJ world was. I feel like the scene today evolved from that vibe Pete is describing. I feel like you [Pete] laid the foundation of that. I have events where I DJ, it’ll be on a Monday, and not everybody thinks you’re going to party hard on Monday, but you’ll have these bigger name celebrities coming out to our events.
A difference is that now it feels like hearing hip-hop is the norm. People are surprised now when they hear house music during a set. So it’s almost like it’s partially going back, while still building on the foundation that was already laid. I feel like people now are starting to realize how important hip-hop is … how important house music is. Nowadays I feel like I can play a wide variety of genres in a set, and people will latch on to almost all of it. If they don’t, they’ll latch on to what they know. And then you can incorporate other genres or different things to make it sound different, but the audience can still find an aspect of it that they do enjoy.
JH: I wonder, Pete, if you can paint a picture of the Blue Groove Lounge. You walk in the door, what happens next?
PP: You walk in the front door of Elbo Room and you’re greeted by the doorman. You take two steps up, walk across the main bar in the front and then head downstairs. Walking down those stairs you can kind of feel the bass vibrate, your hair will shake a little bit on the way down … then you catch a little whiff of incense because Jesse De La Peña has always been big on engaging all the senses when partying.
I could best describe it as an underground golden era Adidas commercial, a dance party, unintentional, soulful unification of hip-hop loving people. As soon as you walk down there you’re part of that culture and that family. The vibe at Blue Groove Lounge wasn’t really created, it just manifested itself out of thin air almost. You know, we spent all this time asking … how can we make our own culture? Sometimes it just happens magically!
And again, I gotta go back to the fact that we had no idea what we were doing! You know what I mean? We just went down there and played these great records. It would take me 15 minutes to get to the stage sometimes because everyone’s hugging and you know, everyone wants to catch up and then you know, on the way out it takes you another 15 minutes to get to your car.
If I could describe it in one short sentence it’d be underground, Adidas commercial, raw, soulful, with a lot of love in the room.
JH: I feel as though the Blue Groove Lounge was the first in a line of dominoes that has woven itself through the Chicago’s music scene. Ca$h Era you’re continuing this legacy, what are some some lessons you have picked up from the Blue Groove Lounge?
CE: I like hearing that it was raw and authentic. I definitely feel that at the majority of my events. I feel like being in Chicago, it’s almost impossible not to feel the love here. And people outside of the city try to say there’s no love here, but there is love here and it’s impossible to miss it.
I think it’s beautiful to see that you still have people that when they see you in the crowd, they want to hug you they want to catch, that still happens today. Also this idea of a vibe that is manifested, not created. I think that’s very, very true today, and it will always remain true. Because you can go into a space, ready to play, whatever, but it’s about the people in the room and how they react to it. The energy that they bring will affect how you play and what you play. I hope that I can only continue to add to it for the next generation. So thank you Pete for what you’ve done to kick it off. I think it’s important to continue letting the energy manifest on its own and, as a DJ, adding to the energy that’s already in the room.
JH: As always we’ve partnered up with Young Chicago Authors to throw the Winter Block Party this year. Ca$h as a kind of an ambassador for YCA, what is it that they do that is so pivotal to Chicago’s hip-hop scene?
CE: Young Chicago Authors is my Family, I got my start DJing through YCA doing Louder Than a Bomb about six years ago. I think one of my primary goals is to continue to help the people that come through the program, you know, be they a poet or a rapper, aspiring DJs … any way that I can help them make it to their next level … I’m happy.
Yeah, it I love what I do. I don’t think I could see myself doing anything else now at this point, when it comes to working with the students, that’s one of the highlights of what I do. I’m able to use music and my experiences to connect with youth all throughout the city, and help them see things they may not see typically. I realized that I represent a lot of intersectionality folks may not always see in mainstream media. But they’re able to see someone like me and I’m tangible. They can talk to me, they can reach out to me whatever they need. And that’s a beautiful thing to me. I didn’t see anyone like me doing what I’m doing when I was younger. So to know that I’m an image for them as they’re getting older leaves me speechless. I can’t describe the feeling. But I’m very thankful and glad to be where I am right now.
JH: Pete, what are the elements that make for a good DJ?
PP: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s actually a spectacular question. Years ago you could answer it straightforward. Can you scratch? Can you beat juggle? What’s your music selection? From there, it would just be entertainment value! Now it’s a completely different game. As gatekeepers of this craft and curators of this music we love, it’s just different now.
A lot of DJs can scratch, a lot of DJs can beat juggle, everybody has the same library of music I have. It’s really that simple, right? We can kind of go online and we can do our digging when everything is readily available. Music enthusiasts that are not even DJs can have the same library of music that I have. I’m forced to kind of go out and remix the songs live as I play them, which I absolutely love now. From the minute I was able to drum using technology with Dicer (a little MIDI control pad that allows you to trigger key points) years ago, I’ve been using that technology in my performances.
I want to be entertained from start to finish. If you’re a DJ and you have turntables in front of you, I don’t want to hear you just blend two records together I want to see you do something with those turntables. Because that is carrying the torch of this element of hip-hop where it needs to go. I guess for me be you know, it can be a little bit of everything. A mixed bag. I’m not going to scratch for an hour during my set and I’m not going to beat-juggle for the full hour instead it’ll be a little bit of everything. Live remixes, acapellas, layering tracks and entertaining myself. When I’m entertained, the crowd is entertained!
JH: Would you agree with all of those things? Do you have anything to add Ca$h?
CE: Yeah, I definitely agree. If the crowd sees you enjoying yourself, they’re gonna start to enjoy themselves more. You will catch me singing and dancing to my own music because I get really into it. The gear you use is your choice. If you can use any of them effortlessly and go back and forth, that’s beautiful right?
As a DJ I just ask myself, what can I do that no one else would ever think to do? I like to leave the crowd befuddled, if you throw in a wild card it’s gonna make it even better. So I think different techniques are important, you know being able to do mashups live and beat juggle and scratch and everything … beautiful. And then if you can create the energy where you can add to the vibe already set then you’re you’re killing the game. You’re undeniable. It’s all about having fun. If you can make sure that everyone in the room is having fun then you’re doing your job.
JH: This year, our theme for Winter Block Party is “We The People” … How does “We The People” relate to your work as DJ Ca$h Era?
CE: We the People resonates with me and my work because I feel like my work encompasses a community vibe. I stand for community. Whenever I spin I always make sure that we as a collective are having fun, I’m not playing only what I want to hear. I’m not playing just the mainstream music that a certain majority of the room wants to hear. I’m trying to hit different songs, deep cuts, throwbacks you haven’t heard in a while that all can enjoy. Just to ensure that all the people are coming together for this amount of time.
I also feel like we the people have a lot of power. Through that I realized that I have a lot of power … power in what I can do when I’m DJing. One of my goals is to always to make you smile or dance. Because I know that if you’re doing that you’re forgetting whatever worries you had outside of the door. So if I can get you out of your head, even if it’s for .25 seconds, for that small amount of time you were out of your head and whatever worries you had left the building. Then you’re able to join the rest of us, now we as a people are enjoying ourselves and having fun.
That’s why I resonate with “We the People.” I feel like I am one of the people!
JH: Pete how would you say you relate to “We The People” when it comes to the work that you do?
PP: Parlaying off what you guys were just discussing, I feel like it is a unification of people. It gives us the opportunity to forget, to put aside how serious we act every day. We act so serious, everything is so heavy, we take words and we turn them around. Back in the day we used to walk around smiling at everybody. Now people kind of walk in guarded, they kind of got a look on their face.
Every day, honestly, when you walk around, people generally have a little bit of an aggravated look on their face right? I think it gives us the opportunity to forget how serious we are, how serious we are on a social media, how serious and how quick we are to jump into the fire with someone on a on a conversation on something whether it’s religion, or politics or food … we get all heated.
“We the People” resonates with me because I’m able to walk into Winter Block Party and I know from the minute I walk in until the minute I leave … it’s nothing but love. That’s what music does, that’s what hip-hop did way back, that’s what the four elements of hip-hop did … and it continues today with great torch carriers like Ca$h Era.
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Interview by Jill Hopkins
Edited for length and clarity by Seamus Doheny
Shot by Dennis Elliott
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