The J-card for Sugar Ray Dinke's 1986 breakout single

No song from the early years of Chicago hip-hop occupies a place quite like Sugar Ray Dinke’s “Cabrini Green Rap.” It’s not the first Chicago rap record—depending on whose story you believe, that honor goes to Casper’s 1980 EP Casper’s Groovy Ghost Show (reputedly recorded by a New Yorker visiting Chicago) or Eye Beta Rock’s 1982 12-inch “Super Rock Body Shock.” Dinke’s single didn’t come out till 1986, but it can lay claim to another first: unlike the handful of local records that preceded it, “Cabrini Green Rap” combined Chicago-centric subject matter with modest success outside the city. For his debut recording, released on vinyl and cassette, Dinke strung together vivid anecdotes of the unpredictable violence and institutional neglect that afflicted Cabrini-Green’s public housing towers, rapping over thundering drum machine and a jagged, cut-up guitar melody. The year after the song’s release, Mute Records imprint Rhythm King included it on a 1987 dance and hip-hop compilation called Move . . . The Rhythm Kingdom.

Dinke, born Demetrice Cantrell, lived in Cabrini-Green at 1230 N. Burling—which would become the project’s the last tower standing, torn down in 2011. At that point he’d been living since 2002 in Columbus, Ohio; he never did release a second rap record, but he stayed active in music and now plays in an R&B band called Black Book. More than three decades after “Cabrini Green Rap” came out, Dinke will perform it at the Promontory on Tuesday, February 6, at the book-release party for Ben Austen’s book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. I called him up to talk about his contribution to Chicago hip-hop history.

Leor Galil: When did you start working on “Cabrini Green Rap”?

Sugar Ray Dinke: I’ve been doing “Cabrini Green Rap” since 1981, believe it or not. Back in the day we used to have little rap battles, and people used to talk about their projects—other guys from other sides of Chicago. We’ll battle, try to see who the king of Chicago is. Of course, I won. And I rapped about Cabrini-Green because that’s what was going on in the projects at the time.

Where were these battles?

We’d battle downtown in front of Marshall Field’s, stuff like that. Marshall Field’s was still a stomping ground, ways back, over there by the John Hancock Center, on Michigan. I used to have a little crew. People all over the city used to come battle us north-siders. It was a male-bonding thing. We was trying to be the kings of Chicago—of rap.

How did you find people to battle? How did this network start?

We used to go down to the el stations and stuff like that. People would hear about me a lot because I used to be everywhere. I used to go to the Coffee Club, I used to go to the Surf Lounge—all on their turf, rapping. I used to go into neighborhoods, looking for people to battle. My crew I had, we was the Mystery Crew. It consists of four people. It was Eddie Thomas, we had Walter Williams—he’s an awesome rapper—and Tyrone Taylor. We used to all get together, get in the car, and just ride to different hoods and just rap—brainstorm, improv rap about anything we see. They thought that was fascinating.

One day I was talking to a friend of mine, his name’s Curtis Crawford. He said, “Dinke, you should write a Cabrini-Green rap.” So I said, “You know what, that’s a good idea,” and I did just that. And when I wrote the “Cabrini Green Rap,” I taught it to my friends. It was long—like, a seven-minute rap. I recorded, like, five minutes of it. I needed help saying it, ’cause I always ran out of breath—so I had the other guys learn it with me, and it sounded real good. We’d go to contests and win $500 at different contests out south—111th Street, I forget the name of the club . . . the CopHerBox II [Editor’s note: The club was at 117th and Halsted].

We used to go out to the CopHerBox II; the Temptations would be out there, and different stars. We would always try to get in, so that we could try to get discovered. And then one day, it had a New York-versus-Chicago rap battle. It had Heavy D, some more guys out there from New York—they came to Chicago to battle us, not knowing how good we were. We won first place in that rap contest. But we didn’t go far—our name didn’t go far, as like a household name or nothing like that. We was local talent. We were local stars in the neighborhood.

When you wrote “Cabrini Green Rap,” what did you draw on for inspiration?

I stayed at 1230 N. Burling, that’s on Halsted and Division. I used to look out the window and just see stuff—like, I look at the blacktop, I said, “What could I say about that?” I wrote, “Walk across the blacktop, somebody gets shot / Bleeding to death and the cops won’t stop,” ’cause that’s what was happening at the time when I was looking out there. Somebody had got shot, and the police drove right past, and I wrote it down. I look at the Lincolns and the nice cars in the parking lot, I say, “Look at the Lincolns parked in the lot / You know they didn’t work for them, they got them selling pot.”

Just looking out the window or off the ramps, just looking at what’s going on in the neighborhood, and I put it into my rap. Every day I added another page.

How long did it take you to write it?

“Cabrini Green Rap” took me about a week. Took me a week to write and learn it. Every day I had to try to read my rap on paper and get it memorized. So I memorized it well, and I had it so good that when I did say it, it made a lot of sense to people—poignant and important things to other people.

Channel 2 news caught a hold of it, then it went off on there. Then Channel 7 and Channel 5—ABC, NBC. Oprah Winfrey’s show [then called A.M. Chicago] picked it up, and it started going crazy. When I went on the Oprah Winfrey show, these producers were looking at the show, and I was rapping it—just rapping it a cappella, no music. Some guy, Darryl Thompson was his name, he saw me on the Oprah Winfrey show. He automatically put music to the words I was saying, and got in touch with me by calling WGCI—they was saying, “Do you know this guy Demetrice Cantrell? Do you know Dinke? Have him come down to the station.” And I did that. I met Darryl Thompson. And that same night, I took Tyrone Taylor with me, from Mystery Crew—he’s a reverend now, Reverend Tyrone Taylor—and me and him, we went to a studio and we recorded it. For some reason we couldn’t find Walter that night. We did it on one take, the whole rap.

Take me back a little bit more—what got you interested in rapping in the first place?

My friend, Curtis Crawford, he had a group—the Near North magnet high school was just built, and they had a talent show over there. These guys was on the stage, doing this rap stuff. I didn’t really like rap at first. I didn’t know nothing about hip-hop.

But these guys, Curtis Crawford and his buddy named Drac—I forgot his name, we used to call him Drac, Dracula—they had a nice rap. “We gonna move, we gonna groove / Up. In. Here.” The audience went crazy over that, and I fell in love with rap right after that.

How’d you develop your craft from there?

Once I started rapping, they gave me the name “Sugar Ray Dinke,” so I have to hold that name down—anybody came around me, I had to try to smash them, I had to try to beat them rapping. And I did that—I was successful with that stuff. We took it to the Apollo Theater in New York, won first place there—Amateur Night. Never got a chance to really get a record deal, ’cause I guess the rap I was doing was too clean or whatever, ’cause everybody was cursing at the time—N.W.A and Ice-T and all those guys. In New York, they were doing they thing—they didn’t really sign Chicago rappers. I was real early with it. I tried my best to try to make it.

How did your artistic career develop after “Cabrini Green Rap” came out?

Once I got the “Cabrini Green Rap” out and everything, I had a little publicity, I had a little fame—neighborhood-star-type stuff. It didn’t go to my head. I started making raps for kids at [Sojourner] Truth school, to use it to stop gangs and teenage pregnancy. I just started making raps like that—I got all kinds of positive messages. I was a volunteer teacher there for ten years, from 1990 to 2000; I used to teach the kids how to do math and reading through rap. It was just something I did, ’cause my children were there. I’d just go to school with my kids every day, ’cause the neighborhood was going crazy at that time, with the shootings and the sniping and all that stuff.

I would walk my children to school, and I would stay with my kids most of the time. Being unemployed, I just volunteered at the school. Ms. [Pernecie] Pugh, the principal there, she liked what I was doing, got me a contract; I worked there for a while. They was paying me $2,000 a month to be a music consultant, and I took that and ran with it. I didn’t really care about the record contracts or nothing like that. I was getting older—I was kinda too old to be rapping.

What does it mean for you now to return to this song, to return to Chicago to play it?

It’s an honor, man. Just the thought of somebody still thinking about me is shocking. This is, like, in 1986, and I was 23 years old back then. I’m 55 now, and they’re still talking about “Cabrini Green Rap”? Wow.