Alejandro Ayala, 42, is a Chicago event organizer and record collector who DJs as King Hippo. He runs the biweekly show QC on Lumpen Radio, and he’s hosted or cohosted a series for Worldwide FM that focuses on Chicago R&B, jazz, soul, and more, beginning with the 2018 show Chicago Overground. He’s worked in various capacities for Sleeping Village and the Whistler as well as for the label International Anthem.
As told to Salem Collo-Julin
I posted to my social media: “If a person has lived in Chicago for the better part of 24 years, can they be considered an Honorary Chicagoan?” When I lived abroad, people would ask me where I was from, and I would always say “near Chicago,” because when I first moved I had been living in Cicero. I grew up in beautiful Arlington Heights, northwest of the city, and I moved to Chicago in 1997. One of my friends replied to my post that you can consider yourself a Chicagoan if you’ve lived here for ten winters.
When it first started snowing this winter, my girlfriend and I noticed that a neighbor of ours had shoveled out our car. And I thought, “Oh man, that’s really nice of them.” So the following day I went out to shovel, but I think my Virgo tendencies kicked in and I ended up clearing something like 15 parking spots—a quarter of the block. It was the only exercise I was getting, so I was out there maintaining it every day. Lining it up, making sure you see the curb right over by the fire hydrant, the yellow paint.
I would say I’m a DJ first, but my gut wants to say that I’m just a fan of music and the arts in general first, because I think that’s what kind of drives everything that I do. Primarily I’ve been a DJ for about 15 years now here in the city. But beyond that I’m a radio broadcaster, event producer, an instructor. I have my hands in digital marketing, and I was a talent buyer before the pandemic. I help produce records—well, you know, I guess a lot of different sorts of things. I was booking for the Whistler just before the pandemic. [Owner] Billy [Helmkamp] asked me to help him out starting in late 2019, and we were really getting things going by February of 2020. We had a lot of awesome stuff planned out for spring. And I was excited about the summer.
When the lockdown first started, I was in Mexico on vacation. I left Chicago and actually never really came back to the same world. As my vacation kept going, I was seeing an increasing amount of strange posts from America and seeing all these weird e-mails. And, you know, I was on vacation. I was trying not to read them, but a lot of them were like, “Cancellation! Cancellation! Cancellation!” I’m like, “What is going on over there?”
My bosses at the Whistler were having conversations with staff at this point, and they decided to close. Back then I guess everybody was looking to South Korea or China as the model for shutdown, and it looked like it was going to be a three-month thing, you know? But yeah, I mean, shit, we fucked that up.
When I got back from Mexico, my work was just tons of e-mails to people that were doing shows, to agencies, to everybody—I mean, it was a week and a half of nonstop e-mailing, either outright cancellations or rescheduling. But then, that was it. I think I may have put 45 minutes of work into the Whistler since then, just to help run some ads on Facebook, you know. So it’s almost like that’s completely disappeared from my life.
In the summer the city got creative, and I was at least able to do one event on my own and help out with a few others. In 2019, I got a grant through DCASE to do a two-night series called the Preservation of Fire, to be hosted specifically on the south and west sides of the city. And then in January 2020, I got another grant to do the same thing in the summer of 2020, which would have been connected to the Chicago Jazz Festival. But that was canceled, and at a certain point, DCASE reached out and said, you have the option of either holding the money until next summer and seeing what happens or using the money to produce a video for the Millennium Park at Home: Chicago Jazz series.
- King Hippo, Lumpen Radio, and International Anthem produced this video documenting the Royal Sessions for the series Millennium Park at Home: Chicago Jazz.
Angel Bat Dawid, Isaiah Collier, Julian Otis, Jeremy Warren, and Kennedy Banks had started doing a weekly outdoor jam series called the Royal Sessions in July, and that really saved me, really nourished my soul. Attending for the first time really helped balance me back out and made me realize just how much I missed live music and human interaction.
I remember thinking that the Royal Sessions felt exactly like what the Preservation of Fire events had been about. So I asked Angel and Isaiah if it was cool if I came by and documented everything to then present to the city. They were hosting weekly sessions at the Perennial Garden in Jackson Park, and the first few were pretty sparsely attended, but as the summer went on and into the fall it started to swell up. The garden is so wide and people that went were very careful, so their picnic blankets were really far apart from one another. And even if they weren’t on their blankets, it wasn’t like people had their masks off. Everyone always had their masks on. They would take a sip of their drink and then cover their face right back up.
When we did the Preservation of Fire sessions, we made sure to really drive that idea home—to respect and take care of the talent of the city, you know? They’re treasures for the city. We can’t jeopardize that just for the sake of having fun. And more importantly, those sessions, like I said, were nourishment. So we were really wanting to make sure people were respectful, because what the musicians were doing was invaluable.
I started teaching young people in a program for After School Matters called Event Planning and Production. I’m amazed how many students have said this is something that they’re so excited about and that they’ve always wanted to do. I’ve been really lucky to meet a lot of very enthusiastic young people, and surprisingly, a good amount of them have already had practical experience in one way or another.
- This King Hippo show from August, made for Worldwide FM, includes a field recording of a Royal Sessions jam.
I’m constantly surprised by the professionalism of the teenagers that I’m meeting. A lot of the students have done weddings and celebrations, things like that, and in some other cases they have organized fundraisers or protests.
I suppose what I like to help them focus on is the importance of community and the importance of gathering and what happens once you bring people together. It’s magical. In my experience, you bring people together and something will always happen. And I think that’s an incredible thing to experience. It’s the why, more than the how. The how is pretty easy, but the why is more important to me.
I’m currently working with Sura Dupart, who’s an elder here in the city. I’ve been working with him and his group for the last two years, creating events that the band can play at and recording them. I found Sura and his band because Joe Bryl and Angel were telling me about this group that I should check out, and I went with them to see them play at the Silver Room. I got to meet the band, and I fell in love with their sound.
I wouldn’t say it’s like entertainment or music per se, but I would say it’s more medicinal than anything else. When you sit down and you listen through their entire set, they pull your spirit and move it around. It’s almost like a chiropractor manipulating your spine or something like that, but with your spirit. I definitely physically feel less tension on my shoulders when I see them play. We’re going to release a CD sometime this year.
My girlfriend and I stayed at home for ten days a few times in the last two months. We didn’t go outside at all during those periods so we could go meet with our families without our masks on. And even then I was anxious about taking my mask off. So I don’t know how ready I’m going to be to gather with groups anytime soon. There’s a lot of things I wish, but at this point, with the way we are, I think everybody needs to chill out until next spring. v