Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Notorious Cabrini Green

Remember the movie Candyman? Remember how the horror of a killer ghost with a hook for a hand and bees in his mouth was amplified by the scary, urban location: "a notorious housing project" (that's how they refer to it on the box)? Well, interestingly, they didn't just make up a generic "ghetto" set in some LA back-lot... They filmed in the very real Cabrini Green, and referred to the place by its real name throughout the film. Even the plot-point that the medicine cabinets led directly into peoples' neighbors' apartments was real, which led to a real series of murders.

Well, almost a decade before Clive Barker and co. turned Cabrini Green into a horror landmark, Chicago rapper Sugar Ray Dinke did his part to put the place on the map with his only 12" single on I Am Records. Produced and co-written by Darryl Thompson, "Cabrini Green Rap" dropped in 1986 and, while it naturally sounds dated, it doesn't sound as dated as you'd expect for an otherwise unknown local rap single from 1986. It's certainly got all the 80's trappings: big beatbox drums, electro sounds, metalish guitars in the vein of the trends Run DMC and Statesasonic were setting (though not so extreme or "rockish" as those), and a boatload of hand-claps. Oh, and the MC's vocals are echoed to make it sound like there's two rappers saying everything in unison. But it all holds up surprisingly well, a testament to the talents of Mr. Thompson evidently.

Lyrically, it might start out a bit corny - before the music kicks in, the listener is warned that walking through Cabrini Green "you might get hit with an egg or a jar." Personally, I'd've been a lot more concerned about the infamous sniper-fire from their rooftops or the rampant gangs that dubbed the area "Death Corner" than any unsecured eggs being bandied about, but that's just me.

But as it goes on, the lyrics get more serious and compelling. He doesn't quite reach the song-writing heights of Melle Mel's "The Message;" his skills are a bit more rudimentary. But he winds up covering a lot of ground, from the origins of Cabrini Green as a peaceful, optimistic development to some very personal parts where he details his own experiences and names names:

"One of my best friends got shot in the back
While trying to get out of Cabrini Green shack.
Sang lead vocals for Electric Force Band;
He never gang banged; he only grabbed mic stands.
And danced around, sometimes act the fool,
But the man had a job and he finished High School.
I never will forget my man Larry Potts
Or the terrifying night that he got shot."

It's unfortunate that Sugar Ray Dinke never followed this up with another record. But I suspect, even if he released several, this is the one that would go down as his quintessential masterpiece anyway. It's certainly an important piece of Chicago's cultural history. And meanwhile, the actual housing development of Cabrini Green remained notorious, being used as the everything from the establishing shots of the projects in the hit series Good Times to the backdrop of He Got Game. Remained, that is, until it was all demolished and gentrified in the early 2000's. I read on the Candyman forums that only two of the original buildings still stand, surrounded by empty lots and Starbucks. I guess that's why Candyman moved to New Orleans for their dopey sequels. But when you want to remember the real shit, play this record.

Update 12/1/10 - MSN reports that the last remaining building of Cabrini Green is now coming down.


  1. cabrini green was also a notable for its influence on soul music, having spawnned much of the early okeh records stable including curtis mayfield, jerry butler and major lance.