Parker Lee Williams grew up in the 1970s on New York City’s Lower East Side, while the city’s grassroots hip-hop movement sprang to life. When he moved to Chicago as a 15-year-old in 1983, he brought along firsthand knowledge of the culture’s foundational elements. His skills with spray cans and pens helped spread his tagger’s name, P-Lee, around his north-side home, and his sets behind the decks as P-Lee Fresh—at parties or late at night on Northwestern’s radio station, WNUR—taught everyone in Chicago hip-hop his name.
Williams was also a producer, and in the late 80s he formed the duo Mental Giants with one of his best friends, a rapper called Akbar. In the early 1990s, Williams began collaborating with artists from his old hometown of NYC, first Boogie Down Productions affiliate Jamal-Ski and then Curtis Brown, better known as Grandmaster Caz.
To understand the importance of that affiliation, it helps to understand Caz’s importance. He emerged during hip-hop’s infancy to become one of the most revered rappers from the halcyon days of the late 1970s, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Cold Crush Brothers. Kool Moe Dee of the Treacherous Three, a contemporary of Caz’s, ranked him at number six in his 2003 book, There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs.
Kool Moe Dee suggested that Caz’s biggest weakness is his small recorded output, but Caz has a claim on one of the most important rap singles of all time: in the Sugarhill Gang’s hit 1979 debut, “Rapper’s Delight,” Big Bank Hank rapped lyrics that Caz originally wrote (he’s since set the record straight). Will Smith, who became one of hip-hop’s 1980s crossover successes as the Fresh Prince, also idolized Caz, as he discusses in his new memoir, Will. “In a way, Caz validated and unleashed a creative part of me that I never thought anybody would care about,” he writes. “He made it OK to be me.”
When Williams connected with Caz in the early 1990s, though, the hip-hop trailblazer’s glory days were far behind him. “People weren’t clamoring to sign Grandmaster Caz during that time,” Caz says. “It’s not like I turned down other deals and offers to work with Parker. That was fucking it—I was in the abyss. So that work that we did together means everything to me. It put me back on my feet.” Williams issued a few of his collaborations with Caz through his own label, Jazz Child Records, beginning in 1996 with a split 12-inch by the Cold Crush Brothers and Mental Giants.
“Parker was always working,” Caz says. “He had so many ideas—he used to overwhelm me with fucking music. I didn’t fully take advantage of all the things that we could have done at the time, because you think you have time with people.” Williams died of a heart attack on Wednesday, December 8, at age 54.
Williams remained a workhorse for his entire career, whether inside or outside the hip-hop world. In 1990, he started interning for Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Studios. “It was a paid internship, and he started working so much overtime that they put him on salary,” says blues guitarist Dave Herrero, Williams’s business partner. “They were like, ‘You’re costing us too much money working too much.’”
Williams ascended through the ranks and became Harpo’s music director in 2000; his work in that capacity for The Oprah Winfrey Show earned him Emmy nominations in ’06 and ’09. After Williams left Harpo in 2015, he and Herrero created Who’z the Boss, a music library that continues to license tracks to TV shows, films, and commercials. All the while, Williams kept a foot in the local hip-hop scene.
“From day one to the end, he always had that B-boy [spirit]—whether it was the art, with the graffiti, or later on with the music—that was always in him,” says DJ 3rd Rail, who’s hosted WNUR’s Dedicated hip-hop show for nearly three decades. “Him working for Oprah Winfrey, it doesn’t get any bigger, and he still took time out to put out independent hip-hop records. That speaks volumes on the love for the music and the love for the culture.”
Flora Koppel loved the arts from an early age. “I was a singer, I had studied acting at the Goodman Theatre,” she says. “So music was a very important part of my life.” In the early 1960s, she was working at a Wells Street nightclub, where she met a jazz drummer named Leroy Williams who was gigging at the club. They hit it off, and in 1967 they moved to New York together. Their son was born that November. “I named him after Charlie Parker—I liked the name Parker,” Koppel says. “It was Parker after Charlie Parker and Lee after his dad. He was destined, from that day, to be something great musically.”
As the elder Williams advanced in the world of jazz, young Parker Lee had a front-row seat. “He got to know all these famous musicians,” Koppel says. “Barry Harris was in his life from when he was a baby; Charles McPherson was in his life since he was a baby. And they were in my life too.” (Harris died at age 91 on Wednesday, December 8, the same day as Parker Lee Williams.)
DJ Kool Herc threw the first hip-hop party in August 1973, a few months shy of Williams’s sixth birthday. It’s not clear when Williams got into the culture, but the exact date might not matter. “I almost can’t remember when he didn’t love hip-hop,” Koppel says. He got his hands on some turntables, and as hip-hop’s musical branch grew, he came to have his own favorite MCs, including Busy Bee Starski and Grandmaster Caz.
Williams’s parents divorced when he was seven. Several years later, in 1983, Koppel’s father died, and because she wanted to be closer to her mother, she decided to leave the east coast for Illinois. “My mom didn’t want to move to New York, and I couldn’t move to where she was, which is Rock Island, which is a little bitty town,” Koppel says. “But we said we could move to Chicago, and I could work out of Chicago.” She and Williams moved here the same year. They bounced around between a few neighborhoods after they arrived—first Wicker Park, then Uptown—and eventually settled in Edgewater.
Williams had a little trouble adjusting to life in Chicago. When he began exploring Wicker Park, he had his first run-in with a gang. “He walked back in the house and said, ‘I’m going back to New York tonight.’ He was just totally devastated,” Koppel says. “But as he got better and better known for his graffiti and his hip-hop, the gangbangers left him alone.”
Hip-hop graffiti had started to trickle in from New York around the time Williams moved to Chicago—in 1983, for instance, Logan Square teens dabbling in graffiti had formed the crew ABC (best known as the Artistic Bombing Crew). But Williams knew the fundamentals firsthand, and he introduced Chicagoans to proper handstyles with every piece he created on the north side.
Williams found a compatriot in Akbar, a New York native who’d also lent his knowledge of hip-hop graffiti to Chicago when he moved here in 1982. “I was homesick before I met Parker,” Akbar says. “I was writing my name up around my neighborhood, just because I had nothing else to do.” In New York, Akbar had initially favored the tag “Blank 136,” after the number of the Harlem street where his family lived. His older brother, a member of the Zulu Nation, gave Akbar a new graffiti name before he moved to Chicago: Stane.
“A few times I almost got into some trouble with the gangs because I was writing ‘Stane,’ which was very close to ‘stone,’” Akbar says. If he tagged a block in the territory of a rival to the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation, it could cause real trouble for him. “I had a few close calls,” he says. “But as soon as hip-hop hit and blew up with breakdancing—with movies like Beat Street and Breakin’—I kind of got a pass on situations like that.”
Beat Street came out in summer 1984, around the time a buddy of Akbar’s who also wrote graffiti introduced him to Williams. The two of them became close quickly, and with their friend Kaos (who said he’d come from Queens) they formed a hip-hop crew called the Crowd Pleasers, named after a Lower East Side roller-skating crew. “We were on some exclusive New York shit—‘We’re gonna be the New Yorkers that kind of set the trends out here.’ We wanted to make Chicago look like New York,” says Akbar.
Later in the 80s, Williams launched XMEN, a Chicago version of the venerable New York graffiti crew. But he and Akbar initially envisioned TCP as involving all of hip-hop’s foundational elements. “Back then you didn’t just do one thing—we were a crew, but we did a little bit of everything,” Akbar says. “I would go over to his house, and we would make tapes; he had two turntables already and a little mixer. We would rap—we would practice and stuff. And then after, we would go out and bomb our neighborhood. We would go get on the train, and we would go writing. I was into breakdancing. Parker kind of had a few moves—he would pop-lock and stuff. We did everything. It wasn’t so compartmentalized back then.”
Akbar says other hip-hop heads wanted to join TCP, but he and Williams kept it exclusive—they wouldn’t even let in members of Akbar’s previous group, the Wild Rockers. “They kind of felt scorned,” Akbar says. “Looking back, we realized that actually created other crews. If we had let everybody into TCP and been all-inclusive, then there wouldn’t have been so many crews. It gave birth to a lot of other crews, and these crews just popped up overnight.” In 1986, TCP and several other crews, including ABC, formed a union called the Feds.
That year, Williams organized, promoted, and hosted what’s widely believed to be the first recurring hip-hop party in Chicago. It took place weekly at Stepps Entertainment & Dance Club, a short-lived nightspot at 6459 N. Sheridan, right by Loyola University in Rogers Park. On April 14, 1986, Chambers of Time Inc. ran a filing notice for an alcohol license in the Tribune, and shortly it began promoting the venue in print. The company was likely related to a poppy funk group called Chambers of Time, which had a Friday residency at the club, but Akbar can’t remember the name of the owner he and Williams won over.
“We had Sundays,” Akbar says. “We used that as a venue to bring all the different B-boys and B-girls from around the city to one place to party. We had an open mike and a rap battle every week. All the writers would come and have a writer’s bench. After the party, the writers that came would all go tagging.”
The open mikes attracted fierce MCs. Akbar says one of the Stepps parties was the first time he saw Ang13, who in the 1990s would become one of Chicago’s most respected rappers and a fixture at Elbo Room’s Blue Groove Lounge. “People from way on the south side of Chicago who would probably never even go to the north side came to our party,” Akbar recalls. “Because there was no other place to really party if you were into hip-hop.”
Future Blue Groove founder Jesse de la Peña, a veteran DJ and graffiti writer, was living on the southwest side in 1986 when he got wind of the daylong parties at Stepps. “Back then, seeing something that resembled a hip-hop movie—something you would see in Breakin’ or Beat Street—in person, it was definitely a thrill,” he says. “It was odd to see. I mean, where I was from, there would be dances and stuff. But it was never really a hip-hop thing.” De la Peña had never seen a hip-hop DJ mix with multiple records, and the sight of Williams playing with two copies of Joeski Love’s 1986 single “Pee Wee’s Dance” dazzled him. “And the fact that he was from New York and also a graffiti writer, that definitely had a lasting impression on me,” he says.
As much as de la Peña enjoyed his experience at Stepps, he only went one time. “Right after I got out of there, I got arrested,” de la Peña says. “There were a bunch of graffiti cops staked out at the Loyola stop, and I ended up going to jail.” A Tribune story from June 24, 1986, reported that on the previous Sunday the Chicago Police Department had arrested a dozen people for vandalism at the Loyola Red Line station, the nearest one to Stepps; this followed a round of arrests there the week before, and in both cases most of the arrestees were teenagers. In 1985, the CTA had spent $1 million to clean graffiti off trains.
“We got raided by the cops because of the amount of graffiti writers that would come and would destroy the Loyola station after the party,” Akbar says. “I guess the word got out to law enforcement that this is a place to go catch graffiti writers.”
As far as Akbar can remember, there were only three of these hip-hop parties at Stepps. To get into the club, you had to climb two flights of stairs; this meant that when cops entered the building, everyone at the party got a heads-up. “Everybody’s like, ‘Run!’ People were hiding markers, and people were in the bathroom trying to flush their markers down the toilet—it was crazy,” Akbar says. “After that, the owner decided, like, that’s it.” Despite the short lifespan of the parties, they were a crucial beginning for Chicago hip-hop—and frustratingly, also a beginning for CPD’s ongoing project to criminalize hip-hop events and fans.
If you wanted to know how to get to a Chicago hip-hop party in the 1980s, you tuned in to one of the few radio stations that played rap records, most of which were based on university campuses. WHPK in Hyde Park became synonymous with hip-hop locally, but WNUR also planted a flag. DJ Easy Lee, who spun for crucial early NYC hip-hop group the Treacherous Three (and later its breakout star, Kool Moe Dee), began playing rap on WNUR’s house-focused Streetbeat program in fall 1983. In the mid-80s, Williams hosted a Sunday-night Streetbeat slot.
During those years, Williams traveled back to New York City each summer to visit his dad. He frequently returned to Chicago with hip-hop records before anyone else here could get their hands on them, and he made sure to share them through his WNUR sets. “Parker had a ridiculous amount of records, bro,” Akbar says. “I don’t know how his mom put up with it, because his room got insane after a while. He had too many records.”
By the late 1980s, Williams and Akbar had turned more attention toward making and performing their own music. Akbar had honed his skills as a rapper in the 1980s by traveling to different parts of the city battling anyone he could find; Williams’s trove of records supplied him with material to make underground tracks. They planted the seeds for their duo in 1987. “I came up with the name Mental Giants to separate ourselves from the old TCP, which was more associated with being graffiti artists,” Akbar says.
“I would compare them to Gang Starr—DJ Premier and Guru,” DJ 3rd Rail says. “Parker was one of the earlier producers. He had that ear, he had that flavor. He was very anti-commercial. He was very underground.”
Williams already had his internship at Harpo Studios when his music won over Jamal-Ski in the early 90s. Jamal-Ski’s speedy rapping and singing, inflected with Jamaican patois, had by then earned him spots on two Boogie Down Productions albums. He loved hardcore punk and reggae, not just underground hip-hop, but his bond with Williams went deeper than musical taste: Jamal’s father was also a jazz musician, and his mother lived on the same block as Williams’s father.
“There were people out there [in the New York hip-hop industry] and established artists, and once I got my record deal that I had with Columbia, I could have gone to them, but with Parker I had an unconditional relationship before,” Jamal says. “He just had some crazy, underground jazzy beats. Not just jazzy—some of them were hard.”
When Williams went to NYC in 1990 to work on what became Jamal-Ski’s Columbia debut, the 1993 album Roughneck Reality, Akbar joined him for a while. The hip-hop industry began to flourish in the early 1990s, and Akbar was in the thick of it. In fall 1991, when Jamal’s A&R representative, Faith Newman, signed Nas, Akbar heard the news straight from her.
“I kind of shied away from trying to get signed at that time,” Akbar says. “And maybe to my own detriment, or maybe I should have been more aggressive. But I went with how I felt, and I was like, ‘Let me go back to Chicago.’” Before he left New York, Jamal got him in the booth to record the Roughneck Reality track “Akbar’s Groove.”
Williams shuttled back and forth between New York and Chicago for much of the 90s, maintaining his burgeoning career with Harpo while collaborating with longtime favorites such as Caz and Busy Bee. It’s not an overstatement to say that Williams’s enthusiasm and hustle changed Caz’s life.
“He reignited my love and my interest for the music—and for hip-hop, period,” Caz says. “I was not in the best place in my life when me and Parker met. I was regular as a guy can be, not even my whole self. Parker helped to bring that back out of me. He didn’t have to work for me, but he wanted to—and he was excited about it, and kind of put everything else to the side to do that. How do you ignore that kind of passion and that kind of interest? So I got caught up in it as well.”
Williams brought a lot to his recordings with Caz—including his mother. “I even sang with Caz on some of his recordings,” Koppel says. “Parker always tried to make sure I got my chance to sing, my chance to do music.”
When Williams became the musical director for The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2000, he decided to compose new music to replace the program’s tinny theme. “He was determined to give her a new sound, a hip sound,” Koppel says. “They didn’t really have hip-sounding music that reflected the emotions of the shows that they were doing, and he was very dedicated to that.”
Herrero tells the tale of that theme song’s debut. “Oprah heard that music, and she’s like, ‘What’s going on? The show sounds great, what’s happening here?’ They told her that Parker started as a music director,” he says. “She’s like, ‘Give him carte blanche, whatever he wants, let him do his thing.’”
Williams got the idea to build an in-house music library for Harpo after spending too much of the studio’s money on an outside library. He used tracks he made and others whose creation he supervised, and Harpo could charge to license them out. “He ended up making Oprah a million a year, year after year,” Herrero claims. “He created a moneymaker for her.”
Herrero met Williams in 2004, when Williams was recruiting local musicians to supply that Harpo music library. “It was work for hire, but we maintained our royalty streams,” Herrero recalls. “Oprah would get the publishing, because they gave us really good up-front money. At the beginning it was like $1,000 a composition.” The setup was a game changer for Herrero, a blues guitarist who’d previously relied exclusively on live shows for his income. “I generally do two tours of Europe a year,” he says. “All the money that I’ve ever made in music was just from playing gigs. Through the royalty streams that we got through the show, I ended up building my recording studio.”
Williams left Harpo in 2015. The next year, he reconnected with Herrero, who pitched him the idea of building their own music library. “I told Parker, ‘We’re gonna do this—we’re gonna do it artist friendly,’” Herrero says. “So we did it non-exclusively. We took half of the publishing—which is 25 percent of the pie—for our exploits, what we did to connect those dots. That was just the model we built in the last four years. We put together a music library that has over 15,000 compositions in it.”
Herrero and Williams talked every day while creating Who’z the Boss Music Library, in the process establishing a strong friendship. Herrero especially took to Williams’s sense of humor. Williams liked to give people nicknames—Herrero was “Dave the Doer,” and Herrero’s girlfriend Sasha, a pianist, was “Sasha Keys.” Once when Williams was hanging out with the couple as they were cooking, he came up with another nickname for Sasha. “He goes, ‘Oh, look at you, Chef Boyar-keys,’” Herrero says. “He was just really sharp, clever, witty, hilarious all the time.”
A few months ago, Who’z the Boss Music Library struck a deal to create 30 custom tracks for The View. “Things were just really right now starting to take off for us,” Herrero says. “And this was gonna be his legacy piece.”
Williams had been reaching out to old friends to let them know about his music library. Jamal-Ski recently found a message from him about Who’z the Boss. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to license some of your music and get it out there, as well as sell it,’” Jamal says. “I was looking at it—it’s a great idea. And then he turned around and passed. I don’t even know what day that message came in. But it had to be a day or two before.”
Williams and Akbar had a brief falling out in the early 2000s after Akbar took a solo record deal that resulted in his 2001 album, Big Bang Boogie—Williams was hurt that his friend had gone outside their close partnership. They patched things up within a few years, and in 2005 they recorded a handful of new Mental Giants tracks with the help of DJ 3rd Rail, who issued them on his label, Subway Hip Hop Records. But Williams remained busy with Harpo, and Akbar, who’d raised a family, moved back and forth between the midwest and New York. All those things made it hard to prioritize Mental Giants—but that changed after Akbar moved back to the Chicago area in 2016.
“It took both of us a while to get back on the same page, but eventually we did, and we started recording music,” Akbar says. They even performed a couple times as Mental Giants, including a headlining set as part of the Blue Groove Lounge 25th anniversary show at Metro just before the pandemic. They had plans to put out an album—their first. Akbar says they’ve got seven songs in the can, and he’ll do what he has to for that record to see the light of day. “I’ll make sure that he’s not forgotten,” Akbar says. “I’m on that—to make it my business to make sure people know about what we did for Chicago.”