The Blue Groove Lounge crowd at Elbo Room in the late 1990s. The woman at center right is poet and singer Tina Howell, currently of the band Bumpus (and a former Reader employee). Credit: "Big Larry" Mondragon

Launched in 1994, Blue Groove Lounge wasn’t early enough to be Chicago’s first hip-hop series. Before DJ Jesse de la Peña started Blue Groove on Monday nights at Elbo Room, rapper-producer Kingdom Rock was hosting parties at Blue Gargoyle in Hyde Park; DJ and producer P-Lee Fresh ran a north-side hip-hop club called Steps; and MC and promoter Duro Wicks hosted two crucial series, first at Lizard Lounge in Wicker Park and then at Lower Links in Lakeview. De la Peña had even spun hip-hop during his stint as a Smart Bar resident. But no series catalyzed Chicago’s emerging 90s hip-hop scene quite like Blue Groove Lounge.

A scene veteran as well as a DJ for acid-jazz troupe Liquid Soul, de la Peña wanted Blue Groove to be a home base for hip-hop, because precious few such spaces existed in the city. Elbo Room’s multilevel space held only about 200 people, but eventually anyone who wanted to make or hear hip-hop in Chicago ended up there. So did big national players, including Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, and Cypress Hill. Blue Groove got so popular that the line to get in would stretch down the block.

Unfortunately, dozens of Lakeview residents complained about after-hours noise outside Elbo Room, and in early 1998, the series got the boot. It moved briefly to Funky Buddha Lounge, then in August of that year to Double Door. Wicker Park was already a hub for the hip-hop scene and the like-minded poetry community—the neighborhood also played host to Afrocentric bookstore Lit-X, lifestyle boutique Triple X, and record store Beat Parlor—and Blue Groove’s draw ballooned to fill the bigger space. Its time at Double Door ended in 2000, and in 2003—after the series moved from venue to venue for a couple years, concluding with a short run at the Blue Note—de la Peña put it to rest.

Winter Block Party 2020: We the People

This daylong party features dance workshops and battles, DJ sets, face painting and live mural making, pop-up shops and galleries, and more. The bill for the evening concert, headliner first, is Mental Giants, Cash Era, Ang13, Brittney Carter, the Blue Groove Freestyle (with Alderman Andre Vasquez aka Prime, Anyi Ahlation, Semiratruth, Sam-I-Am, the Third, Meta Mo, Gq tha Teacha, and others), Pumpin’ Pete & DJ Nonstop, Add-2, Encyclopedia Brown, Jesse de la Peña, and hosts Dirty MF & Matt Muse. Sat 2/8, noon (concert at 6 PM), Metro, 3730 N. Clark, free, all-ages

Blue Groove Lounge 25-Year Reunion

Featuring DJ Jesse de la Peña, DJ Pumpin’ Pete, and Tone B. Nimble, hosted by Dirty MF. Mon 2/10, 9 PM, Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West, $12, $10 in advance, 21+

De la Peña has previously thrown one-off Blue Groove Lounge reunions to commemorate some of the series’s big anniversaries. This week he belatedly celebrates its 25th with two events. On Monday, February 10, former Blue Groove residents Pumpin’ Pete and Tone B. Nimble (cofounder of All Natural) will spin with de la Peña at Promontory; rapper Dirty MF (of Liquid Soul and hip-hop collective Elements of Nature, aka EONs) will host, as he did for most of Blue Groove’s run. And at Metro on Saturday, February 8, de la Peña turns the annual Winter Block Party held by Vocalo and Young Chicago Authors into a multigenerational celebration of Blue Groove Lounge, showcasing series veterans alongside rising artists.

“The equivalent of Blue Groove Lounge today is really the work that YCA does with young people,” says Vocalo managing director Silvia Rivera. “Creating a space for them to test out material and really come together around the elements of hip-hop culture.” YCA artistic director Kevin Coval was a Blue Groove regular, and in August he pitched Rivera and de la Peña on the Blue Groove anniversary Block Party.

To understand what made de la Peña’s series so vital to the development of Chicago hip-hop, I reached out to rappers, DJs, producers, and other scene figures who spent most if not all of their Monday nights at Blue Groove Lounge. Double Door closed in 2017; Elbo Room, which hasn’t been a significant center for hip-hop in decades, went up for sale last spring (according to a source at real estate broker Kamberos Associates, a deal is being negotiated). But while Blue Groove Lounge’s two longest-term homes aren’t what they once were, the community that it created in those spaces continues to reverberate throughout Chicago’s music scenes and beyond.

Cast of characters

Ang13 Rapper

Kevin Coval

Jesse de la Peña

Dirty MF

Juice Rapper and freestyler

David “Cap D” Kelly All Natural rapper, chief legal officer (business and basketball) for the Golden State Warriors

Iomos Marad Rapper-drummer, All Natural Inc. affiliate

DJ Nonstop Heavy Hitters collective member, DJ for DMX and 104.3 Jams

Gravity Rapper, EONs member, also goes by “Grav”

“Coolout Chris” Hawkins Rapper-producer for the group Spalaney’s, EONs member, cofounder of the organizations Chicago Hip-Hop Initiative and Urbanized Music, spouse of Amina Norman-Hawkins

“Big Larry” Mondragon Blue Groove Lounge door man, promoter

Amina Norman-Hawkins Cofounder of the organizations Chicago Hip-Hop Initiative and Urbanized Music, spouse of “Coolout Chris” Hawkins

Panik Producer, Molemen cofounder

Pumpin’ Pete

Rhymefest Rapper, actor, executive director for Art of Culture Inc.

Mario Smith Poet, educator, activist, Lumpen Radio personality

Duro Wicks

Jesse de la Peña Chicago was definitely a house-music city, and doing hip-hop wasn’t an easy task.

“Big Larry” Mondragon Jesse had a store called the Yard, and I used to run the store for him, ’cause he was DJing, doing other projects. I remember him kicking the idea: “I want to do this night, I want to do open mikes, have guys battle. We’ll have hip-hop DJs.” Clubs weren’t playing hip-hop.

Jesse de la Peña My buddy Tommy Kline, who’s one of the founding members of Liquid Soul, he had a friend that was managing Elbo Room. We went there and met with John Litz, the guy that was managing. They were closing the restaurant, and they were gonna do strictly music. We got in the door through doing the acid-jazz thing. Once that was a success, I was able to talk ’em into doing a Monday-night hip-hop party.

  • Blue Groove Lounge hosts SPO and Dirty MF rap on this 1996 Liquid Soul track.

Juice It took a lot of guts to convince these owners of these buildings that we belonged in there, doing this kind of music on a consistent basis.

Pumpin’ Pete I get the call from Jesse: “I’m doing this night on a Monday, it’s something completely different for the city of Chicago. It’s all hip-hop—it’s right up your alley.” We forged our friendship in the basement of the Elbo Room.

Jesse de la Peña Nobody was doing a party, especially a hip-hop party, on a Monday night—that’s the only time we could get the venue, ’cause it was a super-slow night.

Pumpin' Pete, DJ Nonstop, and Jesse de la Peña at Blue Groove in 2003, during its brief stint at the Blue Note
Pumpin’ Pete, DJ Nonstop, and Jesse de la Peña at Blue Groove in 2003, during its brief stint at the Blue NoteCredit: “Big Larry” Mondragon

Coolout Chris You go up the steps, and they have this little lounge area—you’re like, “This is cool, it’s like a neighborhood bar.” But then shit changes when you go downstairs, and it’s like an underworld—everything is dark. You can barely see anything. There’s these poles and stuff that are down there, so if you’re not paying attention, you will run into one.

Ang13 Going down the steps is what made it exciting, because you didn’t know who was gonna be at the bottom of those steps. And watching people come down the steps, it was like watching stars walk in.

Duro Wicks The basement atmosphere really took it back to the whole Lower Links thing, ’cause Lower Links was also in a basement club.

Ang13 A lot of the hip-hop parties back in the day used to be basement parties in someone’s house, but this was a basement party in a club.

Gravity If you want to have a drink upstairs, take a break, holla at somebody ’cause you can’t hear shit downstairs, then you can go back to your getaway world down in the basement, where it was fuckin’ jumpin’.

Juice It was quaint. It was demure. It was cozy. It had these blue lights all along the walls of it. It was like a cave, and on the sides of the cave, you had to duck. You can watch it from the couches, but if you want to be in the action, you weren’t any more than 50 to 60 feet away from the stage at any time.

Rhymefest Geometrically, the way that thing is shaped for the music part lets you know that you have come to see a live show. It really empowered the person on the stage to be able to be in the crowd. And then the crowd feels like they’re part of the performance as well.

Pumpin’ Pete Jesse had this scent aesthetic he had to set. Every Monday night, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see incense sticking out of walls, all over, in the basement. He’s trying to hit all the senses. He would have a projector that would be playing vintage graffiti or Beat Street, Krush Groove. Even on the bar, there’d be coasters that were hip-hop, lounge, jazz, or spoken-word related.

Jesse de la Peña It was mainly a gathering of artist friends, whether they’d be live performers, visual artists or spray-can artists, or dancers.

Amina Norman-Hawkins He had the vision for what hip-hop was intended for—building community, young people having their own space, the DJ being the anchor of this platform for artists. He did something at that time that I hadn’t seen anyone else doing.

Gravity I was coming from New York—from growing up in the middle of hip-hop, and watching it come to fruition, and then moving to Chicago when I did, you weren’t really sure what you were gonna run into. And then that place reassured me that the culture was strong.

Juice It was a hotbed for artistic expression. It was like Chicago’s Harlem.

Kevin Coval I remember, when I first went to it, feeling like it was home.

Ang13 (left) with PNS and Panik of the Molemen at Blue Groove Lounge in 1998
Ang13 (left) with PNS and Panik of the Molemen at Blue Groove Lounge in 1998Credit: Courtesy Jesse de la Peña

Amina Norman-Hawkins Elbo Room was official. It was in a legit establishment. It wasn’t in a neighborhood that we typically hung out in.

Jesse de la Peña We were on the north side, but we were seeing people from the west side, from the south side, from the suburbs.

Coolout Chris I was the dude out of the group that always had the car, so I was responsible for picking everybody up and dropping everybody off. For three months straight, I would always get lost on my way going home after leaving Elbo. I would make some weird turn, these guys, they’d be drunk, asleep in the back of the car. I’m stopping off at a gas station—like, “How do you get back to 94?”

Mario Smith Jesse’s the one who invited me to come to Blue Groove—I’m from the south side; I didn’t know where the Elbo Room was. I had just figured out where Milwaukee, North, and Damen was, and I had just started getting comfortable being in that environment.

Kevin Coval In a hypersegregated city, you could interact with people who came from different parts of the city, and build an all-city allegiance.

Jesse de la Peña SPO from the group Rubberoom was my first host. It was kind of word of mouth—reaching out to friends, other graffiti artists, other DJs.

The Elbo Room crowd, with Blue Groove host SPO at center
The Elbo Room crowd, with Blue Groove host SPO at centerCredit: Courtesy Jesse de la Peña

“Big Larry” Mondragon We would charge three bucks to get in.

Mario Smith I think Jesse let me in for free the first time, which never happened again, ha ha.

Jesse de la Peña The early hip-hop parties in Chicago were a bunch of dudes hanging out—somebody would be there with their girlfriend, but it was pretty much an all-guys party.

“Big Larry” Mondragon I was like, “Why don’t we just do ‘Ladies free all night?'” If the ladies come in for free, the guys are gonna come—and they’re gonna pay.

Jesse de la Peña Big Larry, Larry Mondragon, started working the door. He always had a good network of people he’d invite out. We started seeing a clientele that appreciated hip-hop, and we were starting to see ladies come out, and that was unheard of at hip-hop parties.

Dirty MF All of the sudden there were girls. That’s how we knew, “Oh, something’s happening here.”

Amina Norman-Hawkins I came from a whole different artistic part of the city, and through some friends found out that there was this, it felt like, secret place that all the heads went to hang out.

Coolout Chris Blue Groove—it was, “What time you gonna get up there?” It wasn’t, “Were you coming or not?” I’d seen people come up there with crutches.

Amina Norman-Hawkins It was the thing we all did on Mondays. It was like church.

Kevin Coval If you were a hip-hop kid, you were hungry to find other people—particularly in the city of house—that had a similar penchant for breaks, and wanted to see some of the emerging culture around it. The Elbo Room was the bat signal for a lot of us.

Gravity You had the breakdancers there, you had the rappers there, you had the producers there, you had cats that got down on graf there. It was a place to really soak up that energy and deal with it as you saw fit.

Dirty MF The main thing I remember is being in a room with a bunch of people that I didn’t know who loved the same thing.

Coolout Chris It opened up an oasis for a lot of people to really network.

“Big Larry” Mondragon A lot of people there would come—you have Rubberoom, you have Duro with his group, He Who Walks Three Ways.

Panik When I heard that there was a hip-hop function there, me, PNS, and some other Molemen, we’d go there to hang out.

Coolout Chris I actually met my wife there.

Amina Norman-Hawkins He was like, “I hear you do graphics, would you make me a J-card?” And I’m like, “Yeah, Chris, I got you, no problem.” I had no idea what a J-card was.

Jesse de la Peña SPO introduced me to Dirty, and he started cohosting—he was a really great freestyler.

Juice I was cool with Dirty MF—he asked me to come there and told me it was an open mike. From the time I went, I was stuck on it.

Pumpin’ Pete I met Crucial Conflict, I met members of Molemen. Ang13, Akbar, Mental Giants, D 2 tha S, East of the Rock. I could go on.

Akbar of Chicago hip-hop duo Mental Giants in the mid-90s. The Mental Giants frequently came to Blue Groove Lounge, and they headline this week’s Winter Block Party at Metro honoring the series’s 25th anniversary.
Akbar of Chicago hip-hop duo Mental Giants in the mid-90s. The Mental Giants frequently came to Blue Groove Lounge, and they headline this week’s Winter Block Party at Metro honoring the series’s 25th anniversary.Credit: Robert Benavides

Duro Wicks I remember seeing Infamous Syndicate at the Elbo Room and thinking Shawnna was one of the most real MCs I’ve ever seen.

Mario Smith Back then Ill State Assassins—super big crew—they were there all the time, so you got to meet those dudes. As menacing as they’d come off, they were some of the nicest men and women you’d ever meet.

Cap D You could be conscious, you could be gritty, you could be more on the commercial tip—whatever it was, it didn’t really matter, you could be at Blue Groove and hear something that you wanted to hear and fit in.

Amina Norman-Hawkins There were some familiar faces I knew from Wicker Park—that’s where kids came to make underground art.

Mario Smith People like Timbuck2 would fall through—Tim wasn’t old enough to be in that place.

Kevin Coval I was still too young to go to clubs. I got a fake ID to go to the Elbo Room—which is illegal, by the way.

Coolout Chris There was a little door on the side that people would sneak in.

Gravity I remember sneaking Kanye in for the first time.

Cap D When it was at the Elbo Room, it was so vital to what we were doing as All Natural—we had our release party there, either for our 12-inch or for our album.

Jesse de la Peña A year in, maybe not even that long, we started seeing some more regular clientele.

Panik During the golden era of Chicago hip-hop, that was the place to be. Imagine your favorite rappers from that time, your favorite artists, your favorite DJs, graffiti writers—they used to hang out there.

Gravity It was a surefire place to hang—it was like hip-hop Cheers on crack.

Gravity at Blue Groove Lounge at the Elbo Room
Gravity at Blue Groove Lounge at the Elbo RoomCredit: “Big Larry” Mondragon

Pumpin’ Pete I almost felt like it was me being accepted into that elite club of underground hip-hop enthusiasts, and it was being cosigned by all those people. To be able to play hip-hop for them and keep them in the room was an honor for me.

Juice Our culture primarily was predicated on east-coast lyricism, coordinated performances, dancing, chants in the background—all that. But I think having the Blue Groove allowed people to experience their own identity and individuality, and stop relying on New York’s history because we realized we were creating our own.

DJ Nonstop To get to a place, and there was girls with Afros and people were just dancing by themselves—that was everything I wanted and didn’t think I would find. It just so happened that two of my closest DJ friends were the ones that set the vibe.

Mario Smith To see Jesse spin, Pumpin’ Pete—it was the weirdest yet most beautiful thing. It was more of an extension, for me, of Lit-X—of the Another Level open mike at Literary Explosion—than I anticipated.

DJ Nonstop Being in that environment with Jesse and Pete, every week I was trying to get better, because they were so good and they were always getting better.

Coolout Chris Jesse had a reputation as a DJ who’s gonna play only the hot stuff.

Mario Smith He’s a really good DJ. He’s got a lot of dexterity, so he can cut really, really well. His blends were really good, and he knew all the music he was playing. He used to carry a lot of vinyl—a dumbass amount of vinyl.

Juice I never knew that Jesse encompassed multiple genres until I went to his house and saw his record collection, and I was like, “Oh, you really do this.” It’s even more of a noble deed that, through all the genres that he knew, he was focused on promoting real live hip-hop at this venue.

Rhymefest Jesse de la Peña could blend things together and awaken you to whole new genres of music by showing you the similarities in all music.

Dirty MF He was playing all this other music—at the end of the night, he would play a Björk remix, and people 25 years later still post that song on my page.

Blue Groove Lounge host Dirty MF at the 20th-anniversary party at Double Door in 2014
Blue Groove Lounge host Dirty MF at the 20th-anniversary party at Double Door in 2014Credit: Tony Martin

DJ Nonstop In the beginning, it was like, “Don’t pay me, I’m just coming here to DJ.” We didn’t work for the money, we worked for the vibe—Monday was like a weekend for me. It was a place where I could flex, it was a place where I could polish my skills, where I could do the things I’d been doing on the road and people would appreciate it. It set a different tone, and it catapulted my career. Had I not had that, maybe I wouldn’t have kept DJing.

Dirty MF Music came out differently back then. Jesse, Pumpin’ Pete, DJ Nonstop, 33 1/3, these DJs would break records back then. We would hear all the new stuff at that spot on that night, because it wasn’t on the radio.

Amina Norman-Hawkins Most of the songs that I was hearing at Blue Groove, quite possibly it was the first time I was ever hearing them, because it was underground—the only hip-hop that I’d really been exposed to was commercial. That was probably the biggest revelation for me.

Gravity The performance aspect was a big deal. All of us performed there at some point in time, whether we were freestyling or had scheduled performances.

Rhymefest They had rap battles. Every week you’re onstage, and do the open mike, and be a part of the MC battle, and you were safe. I can’t express enough: it was a safe space, for artists and for performers.

Ang13 Me and Dirty got into it on the mike, and it didn’t end very well for me. Good thing I had already made a name for myself before that incident happened! Somebody wanted me to rap, as opposed to Dirty, and I said, “Hey man, the people have spoken.” I should’ve never said that, because he took that as a challenge. I have been in plenty of battles in my life—plenty. That was the most embarrassing, because that was the only one I really lost.

Dirty MF She always says that! I cannot remember a night where Ang did not do well. That does not fly with me, so I cannot cosign that.

Ang13 Everybody was treated like a star. If you had skills, you were treated like you were already signed, you had millions of dollars—you were treated like royalty.

Jesse de la Peña We would get into the open mike early; if we didn’t have ten sign-ups, we wouldn’t do it. Everybody signed up, if you paid to get in—I think the winner got a hundred dollars. We did ten MCs, and it was crowd-judged. We had our security guy Bruno the Enforcer, who worked the open mike with Dirty, and if you weren’t cuttin’ it, he’s gonna take the mike from you.

Left: A late-90s shot of "Big Larry" Mondragon (right) with Freddy Rodriguez, a member of Children of Reality and EONs who's now best known as an actor. Right: Blue Groove Lounge security staffer Bruno the Enforcer.
Left: A late-90s shot of “Big Larry” Mondragon (right) with Freddy Rodriguez, a member of Children of Reality and EONs who’s now best known as an actor. Right: Blue Groove Lounge security staffer Bruno the Enforcer.Credit: Both photos courtesy Jesse de la Peña

Mario Smith Dirty is a showman and a bit of a magician too. He would rap with a drink in his hand, and you could smoke back then—he would have a drink in his hand, and he wouldn’t spill the drink, and he wouldn’t ash whatever he was smoking. He would do a whole set by himself, freestyling.

Dirty MF Even the open mike was a party, because they would play the right beats—people could still bop to it.

DJ Nonstop Doing open-mike nights, where I was playing instrumentals for MCs, is single-handedly why I got the job to work with DMX. When I was asked in 2003 to DJ for DMX ’cause he didn’t have a DJ with him, I did exactly what I used to do—he gave me a job the next day, and I’ve been with him for 16 years. Everybody asked me, “What’d you do?” I said, “I just did what I used to do at Double Door, at Elbo Room—how we used to make the MC shine.”

Cap D That was at a time when I thought I could kick a freestyle as dope as anybody, and there were some dope freestyle acts in Chicago. You had Juice, Rhymefest, Steady Serv. It was a place where you could see how dope you really were, get up there with the best people in the city who went on to be the best freestyle artists, period.

Coolout Chris It’s not easy to get up there onstage and do your thing. You’re doing your show, and there’s ten dudes sitting right in the front with their arms folded—they’re looking at you like you better come with it.

Mario Smith If you got onstage at Blue Groove and you sucked, that would probably be your last time onstage in Chicago, because everybody was there. It wasn’t just fans and artists—there were promoters.

“Big Larry” Mondragon I would tell guys, “If you feel like you want to get up there and rhyme and think you can, then go ahead, more power to you. But don’t get upset if somebody throws a water bottle at you and they start booing.”

Juice It established a pecking order in the city. Common would come there—everyone would come there and study what we did, what this freestyle thing was.

Juice performs at Blue Groove Lounge late in the Elbo Room days.
Juice performs at Blue Groove Lounge late in the Elbo Room days.Credit: Courtesy Jesse de la Peña

Pumpin’ Pete It was intimidating as can be, getting on that stage to spit lyrics, because those were our hip-hop gatekeepers. I just think it really did a lot to push forward the quality of hip-hop that was coming out of Chicago.

Rhymefest It prepared me for competitions like Scribble Jam, where I had to battle Eminem. It prepared me for being onstage, and when things don’t go right, how are you gonna freestyle your way out of it?

Juice That gave me the confidence to go anywhere. It also made me go, “I want a little more than this,” because when I saw that the rap stuff could make money—I never saw us like N.W.A or Tribe—it started to make me think we could actually be artists, and maybe I should make records.

Rhymefest Juice and I did a song called “How We Chill Pt. 2” that was the beginning of me releasing music—me and Juice just went crazy on that song, and it came out of us freestyling and getting reactions rapping together at the Elbo Room.

Juice Me and him, we forged a whole different relationship based on that—it was a friendly but bitter rivalry to be considered the best. It was extremely healthy, and it was volatile at times, but I don’t think at any time did he lose respect for me as a lyricist, and at no time did I lose respect for him as a lyricist or a person.

Coolout Chris I remember a show with Spalaney’s one time—we were doing a song called “Switchblade,” and Riff-Raff pulled out a sword onstage and started swinging it like he’s a samurai. We all look at him, like, “Dude, where did you get this from?”

Juice Blue Groove was what catapulted me, because for some reason they were able to pull in high-profile people to a small club.

Jesse de la Peña We had a relationship with some of the record promoters, like Ch’rewd Marketing and On the Street Promotions.

“Big Larry” Mondragon I started working for Ch’rewd Marketing—we were street teams for major record labels, like Bad Boy, Columbia, Priority. My job was retail and radio, so I would take artists to record-store signings—if I can get them to come on a Monday, I’d be like, “Hey, I do this hip-hop night, you guys should come by.”

Ang13 We prepared for the unexpected. We’re all inside the Elbo Room, all of the sudden, Fat Joe shows up.

Jesse de la Peña We were fortunate to have a venue to do shows with Common and the Beatnuts, and have Missy Elliott stop by, Da Brat, and Fat Joe, guys like that.

Coolout Chris Fat Joe actually bum-rushed the stage during Common’s release party for Caught in the Middle magazine, where Common had had his first cover—Fat Joe bum-rushed the stage, started throwing out all this fake money that had his face on it. People were heated.

Jesse de la Peña I met Cypress Hill around that time—B-Real would always stop by when he was in town.

Jesse de la Peña (second from left) at Blue Groove with members B-Real (far left) and Eric Bobo (far right) of Cypress Hill. Chicago DJ Uncle Milty is second from right. This was at Funky Buddha Lounge, probably in the early 2000s.
Jesse de la Peña (second from left) at Blue Groove with members B-Real (far left) and Eric Bobo (far right) of Cypress Hill. Chicago DJ Uncle Milty is second from right. This was at Funky Buddha Lounge, probably in the early 2000s.Credit: “Big Larry” Mondragon

Coolout Chris Elbo Room allowed us to connect with people like Tha Alkaholiks.

“Big Larry” Mondragon We had performances from the guys from Minneapolis, Atmosphere—that was through a friend of ours named Jay Bird. Whenever they came through, they always had a packed house.

Jesse de la Peña When the Lost Boyz were just coming out, they did some promotional shows.

“Big Larry” Mondragon I would say maybe halfway through the first song—it might’ve been toward the end of the song—they got booed off the stage, because they didn’t have their show together. It was terrible. A year later, they blew up and they became who they were.

Pumpin’ Pete Random people would just show up out of nowhere. John Cusack was a regular.

Dirty MF One night Missy, Wyclef, and Da Brat just walked in at the same time, and Wyclef ended up hosting the party with me.

Juice You would get Digable Planets—I would be able to rap onstage with these people, and I think it showed people that I belonged at that level. That’s when I started taking off.

Jesse de la Peña Even if we didn’t have a big artist, and even if we didn’t have a specific show planned, just the MCs hosting, Dirty and SPO, and Ang would get up, and Juice—that was a show in itself.

Amina Norman-Hawkins These were my people who I hung out with on a regular basis, but when we were here at Elbo they took the spotlight.

Kevin Coval For years, it was a really important part of my week, an important part of my cultural calendar, and the cultural fabric of the city.

Ang13 I had a regular job that I had to report to every day. What Jesse did with those Monday nights is he extended your weekend, for years—it never ended on Sunday. We were all up, we didn’t have a care in the world. I know I made it to work every single Tuesday on time.

Amina Norman-Hawkins I could come here and kick it and then, you know, go home, sleep for two hours, and then try to make it to work the next day by eight or nine o’clock. I felt like an adult.

Juice I had a job at the time and had to work at seven. I didn’t care. That shit was over at two o’clock. We stood out there another hour freestyling, cyphering. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t care. I made it home. I made it to work.

Jesse de la Peña All the condos went up; we knew our days were numbered. Ownership was new, and we didn’t have that relationship that we had with John Litz. We were on pins and needles—we were like, “We know this is only gonna last so long.”

Dirty MF Elbo Room was kinda compact. It started spilling out, people were hanging out outside—back then, that’s when you knew you were doing well.

Jesse de la Peña When it’s after two in the morning and you’re smoking, urinating, blasting music right in front of somebody’s million-dollar condo, it’s obvious that it’s not gonna play out well.

Once we moved to Double Door, after having to leave Elbo Room, that put us on another level. It was a bigger stage and we could hold more people.

“Big Larry” Mondragon Going to Wicker Park just gave it a bigger audience.

Ang13 People just kept following him, because they knew the type of crowd he brings in and knew the quality music he played.

Dirty MF People were driving from Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana.

DJ Nonstop We had Twilite Tone DJ. There was plenty of guest DJs that came through.

Iomos Marad (on drums) and Blue Groove host Dirty MF at Double Door
Iomos Marad (on drums) and Blue Groove host Dirty MF at Double DoorCredit: Courtesy Jesse de la Peña

Iomos Marad Tone B. Nimble was a resident DJ for Blue Groove Lounge, and he saw me perform, and then I ultimately got connected with them. That’s how I became a part of All Natural.

Duro Wicks They were upstairs and they had the basement, and the basement became a whole separate party from what was going on upstairs with the stage—I would come down every other Monday and spin dusties.

Pumpin’ Pete It wouldn’t be uncommon to have PNS of the Molemen playing hip-hop downstairs too, for a more loungy Elbo Room-type feel.

Jesse de la Peña I think we went from two or three bucks to five bucks, and then we went to seven, and that was kind of a big deal. But if you really wanted to come, you could come early and get in free.

Mario Smith The vibe didn’t change that much. The acts got even bigger; more famous people would show up.

Iomos Marad I remember opening up for a Rawkus artist—I think it was High & Mighty.

Jesse de la Peña We did a promotional show with 50 Cent. This is when he was on Columbia—before he signed with Dre. I forget what the tune was, but he did it twice: once with his shirt off and once with his shirt on.

“Big Larry” Mondragon We had Redman there, we had Shyne—that was one of my favorite performances.

Jesse de la Peña We did the Like Water for Chocolate record-release party with Common.

Iomos Marad Timbuck2 used to come there all the time. We used to open up the space, create this circle, and we’d all get to breakdancing.

Mario Smith Cap D was battling somebody—he literally killed this man onstage at Double Door.

Cap D [Laughs.] It may have happened, I don’t know.

Mario Smith Cap had on a polo and some khakis. He got up there and he looked like he never rapped a day in his life, and he eviscerated this person.

Jesse de la Peña Sometimes we came out on top, other times we ended up losing financially, and that was all throughout Blue Groove. Blue Groove was never a huge moneymaking opportunity.

Pumpin’ Petee A lot of people were getting married, having kids. They didn’t have a tremendous amount of time to come out and support Blue Groove Lounge.

Amina Norman-Hawkins We started a family and just didn’t have the liberty.

“Big Larry” Mondragon There was other nights popping up—it spreads your audience out. When you’re used to getting 200, 300 people, and now you’re down to 150 people or 50 people, is it worth doing it?

Duro Wicks Everything was collapsing. Lit-X was closing, Beat Parlor was closing. It seemed like everything closed on the same day, in my memory. Wicker Park—our Wicker Park—just died.

Pumpin’ Pete Michael Jordan knew when it was time to retire, and I think Jesse knew when it was time to retire Blue Groove Lounge. He did it with the utmost professionalism.

Jesse de la Peña It made sense to put it to bed. We had a nice little run.

New York rapper Roc Marciano performs at Blue Groove's 20th-anniversary reunion at Double Door in 2014.
New York rapper Roc Marciano performs at Blue Groove’s 20th-anniversary reunion at Double Door in 2014.Credit: Tony Martin

Dirty MF It crushed me. I had my own stuff going on—that might’ve been one of the highest points of my career—but it sucked, because Blue Groove was my everything. It was how I started, it’s how I found myself as an MC. I became a man through this whole thing.

Cap D We talk about hip-hop culture and all that kind of stuff—to have a culture, you first gotta have a community. Blue Groove was Chicago as hell, and it helped create the culture.

Jesse de la Peña When people think about Chicago and hip-hop and some of the newer artists, I don’t really think any of that would be possible without some of the early parties and nights and people who contributed.

Kevin Coval It’s part of the reason why we do WordPlay every Tuesday at Young Chicago Authors.

Amina Norman-Hawkins It was just vital to those early eras and early times of Chicago hip-hop, where we’re all finding our voice, developing our brands, and promoting our groups, and needing a place that would support us.

Juice I think it galvanized us. It made us know we are community, and we know our shit is dope.  v