The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
“Can we go smoke a cigarette?” Vic Mensa asks.
We’re inside Hyde Park Records, on 53rd Street, one of the 24-year-old rapper’s favorite teenage hangouts, catching up with the Roc Nation signee before he packs up his hometown apartment and heads for Los Angeles to record—though he’s not sure when he’ll move. “I am in between right now,” he says. “I’m pretty much always in between.”
Fresh off the 4:44 Tour with Jay-Z, Mensa is back at his boyhood hang to do research for a new music project. He says he’s experimenting with African sounds, Radiohead-style chords, and Lil Wayne-esque flows. He’s scooped up an armload of obscure vinyl—including the 1984 spoken-word LP Our Time Has Come by Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.
Mensa grew up in Hyde Park—his family lived in Kenwood at 47th Street and Woodlawn. Chicagoans have been able to watch him become a star almost overnight.
In 2010, he nearly electrocuted himself on an elevated transformer trying to scale a fence to sneak into Lollapalooza. The next year he was onstage with rebellious indie band Kids These Days, and he’s appeared three times as a solo artist since then. Last year, Jay-Z tapped Mensa as his latest protege and took the south-side MC on a two-month arena tour.
Hyde Park has changed since a teenage Mensa went for gyros on 53rd Street—that strip is now a shopping district with gastropubs, a sushi joint, and a new skyscraper.
“A lot of the places I went to as a kid here on this street don’t exist anymore,” Mensa says. “Ribs ‘n’ Bibs [was] next door. Across the street was Hyde Park Gyros. The owner of Hyde Park Gyros always showed me a lot of love when I was a kid. It’s getting kind of gentrified here, you know? It’s like they want to make it into a Lincoln Park type of area.”
Hyde Park Records, though, remains. The indie shop took over the space in 2004 from a 2nd Hand Tunes that had been a neighborhood institution since the 70s, and it’s helped Mensa develop his diverse musical taste. On this visit the woman behind the counter, Angel Elmore, a Participatory Music Coalition member, is surprised to see him again so soon—he recently dropped in to buy a Christmas gift for Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, a key architect of modern Chicago rap and now an executive vice president at the Capitol Music Group. Mensa makes a beeline for the back of the store to listen to the albums he’s picked out—research for his new project.
“When did I start coming to Hyde Park Records?” Mensa asks himself. “Probably when I was like 11 years old. I would get high, get a gyro across the street, and then come sit in here and listen to records all day.”
His teenage bad-boy act eventually got Mensa banned from the store. “I was stealing records in my big fucking Timberland jacket. Then the weather thawed out and all I had on was a hoodie, and I tried to do the same thing,” he said. “[When] I came back, they was like, ‘So you gon’ bring that record back or what?’ They banned me. Now I gotta try to buy a lot of shit to even out my karma.”
It’s time for that smoke. When Mensa readies himself for a square, it’s like something from a movie—he looks like one of those cool-ass OGs lighting up outside the corner store just before enlightening the crowd with a legendary hood tale. But Mensa is way colder with it. He leans his head slightly forward, then back, to clear his long dreads from his face. He reaches into his trenchcoat pocket and throws on his shades. Cigarette in, lighter flicked, and voila: he eases into storyteller mode.
“I was a bad kid—tagging things, getting into fights, getting arrested,” Mensa says. He looks at a roof on the northeast side of the street, tagged with graffiti that reads “Free Eddie & Free Eddie,” referring to two neighborhood guys he grew up with. There used to be a Save Money stencil underneath it, which Mensa painted himself—he cofounded that rap crew in high school, and it includes other rising stars and friends such as Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Towkio, and Brian Fresco.
“When I was painting that roof, I was watching the police the whole time at Dunkin Donuts just being gluttonous,” Mensa says. “So much so that they didn’t even realize I was painting the roof across the street from them.”
As a kid, Mensa listened to a lot of rock music thanks to his mom, who’d gone to Woodstock and kept the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Who in rotation in their house. It was graffiti that introduced him to hip-hop. Mensa and his boys were regular taggers at the 50-foot “permission wall” in the alley behind 1300 E. 53rd Street. The wall was torn down in 2014 to make room for the Vue53 apartment complex.
“Took the 6 instead of the 28 to get home faster,” Mensa raps. The Jackson Park Express, that is, instead of the Stony Island route. It’s a line from Common’s “Nuthin’ to Do,” the seventh track off the 1994 classic Resurrection.
“That was my reality. I took the 6 bus every day,” Mensa says. In high school, he commuted to Whitney Young on the Near West Side. “I used to come to these record stores, and I would buy the records that were sampled in my favorite N.W.A and Common songs, and I would dive deeper into those samples and [get] introduced to a different world of music.”
Mensa hasn’t lived in Hyde Park for five years, but he says that the neighborhood—and Chicago—will forever be home.
“What’s special about Hyde Park is that Hyde Park is a very multicultural neighborhood,” Mensa said. “I want people to know that the south side is a place with culture and lifeblood, not just homicide and gangbanging.” v