If you've gone to a hip-hop show in the past two years, there's a good chance that Nigel Ridgeway (a.k.a. DJ Trew) had a hand in making it happen. The Baltimore native came to Chicago over a decade ago, and has turned his passion for music into one of the most lucrative party organizations in the city. Since coming to Chicago he's DJ'd at almost every hot spot in Wicker Park, started his own magazine, and organized top-notch shows featuring some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop artists to date. Centerstage had an opportunity to sit down with DJ Trew and rap about everything from solidifying the Chicago hip-hop scene to overcoming bone cancer.
Where were you born and how did the local music scene influence your taste?
I grew up in the Baltimore/DC area whose musical styles are Baltimore club and Go-Go respectively. Between Baltimore clubs and going to raves as a teenager, I gained an appreciation for house, techno, and drum & bass. The general open-mindedness of the rave culture got me into other genres that weren't 'dance' music like trip-hop, acid jazz and other forms of electronic music. Go-Go got me into more percussive/syncopated styles like funk, afrobeat, reggae and such. Getting into hip-hop though is a different story. As a genre, around the mid-'80s, it was being played more and more on the radio and MTV and was very much a youth-oriented musical style. I was raised on old soul music by my mother, and since hip-hop is essentially the next step from late-'70s soul/disco, getting into hip-hop wasn't that big of a leap for me. It was a natural progression.
When did you first know that being a DJ is what you wanted to do?
Well back in my middle school days, I was that kid who always had the new tapes the day they came out. I was that kid who carried a boombox with him from class to class in school, and whenever we had basement parties, kids looked to me to do the DJing. Back then I used two boomboxes to 'spin.' Plus I was a socially awkward kid, so being behind the scenes worked better for me. I could speak with my music selection instead of actually talking to people. I don't think anything I could've said with words would've had as much of an effect on people as the music I played. That was always satisfying to me - making people dance while having a good time. As I've grown older, I'm still somewhat socially awkward (laughs), but the enjoyment I get from rocking a party still hasn't changed one bit.
What made you come to Chicago?
I lived on the east coast all my life, and as much as I spent time in NYC, B'more and DC, I never really felt a connection with those cities. My best friend went to Northwestern and after visiting him a few times I began to realize that there was something about Chicago that hit me in my soul.
On a personal and professional level though, I had begun working at engineering and interior design firms right out of high school, thinking that that was the career path for me. Around mid '98, after being diagnosed with bone cancer, and subsequently beating the disease, I took stock of my life and realized that my career paths and location in the world weren't really doing it for me. So on a whim I moved to Chicago and haven't looked back since. I began DJing here as soon as my U-Haul crossed the city limits. I cashed in my 401k, bought my DJ rig, and started hitting up Gramaphone a few times a week, buying all the new local Chicago hip-hop 12s. My career from that point has followed a logical progression from DJ to event planner to booking/PR/management.
Tell me about Groundlift magazine.
Back in the late-'90s and early-'00s my partner (DJ Verb) and I created a website devoted to selling hip-hop 'breaks' in their vinyl form. This was right before eBay blew up and most websites that had product to sell used shopping-cart software. At first we only functioned as an e-store but as the site grew in popularity, we began adding journalistic content relevant to our product: interviews, album reviews, etc. Eventually our vintage vinyl sales moved to eBay and what was left, the journalistic content, evolved into GLmag.
We focused on underground and progressive-minded hip-hop, downtempo and rare groove. Basically, hip-hop and its roots in their purest, non-commercial forms. Not that there's anything wrong with commercial rap, but we chose to focus on hip-hop as we believe the forefathers envisioned it as culture/art, as opposed to record industry execs imagining it as a commodity.
You also mentioned that you throw events?
My first larger concert was the Budos Band. First large hip-hop event was with Ohmega Watts. Since then we've done shows with Blu, Exile, Mainframe, Pacific Division and Vast Aire. Then earlier this year I created the "I Love Haters" series of concerts which drew its lineup from various Chicago hip-hop scenes-backpacker, live band, progressive, hipster, and such. The idea behind those concerts was to try and bridge the gap between all the scenes. In theory it was brilliant, but I think Chicago hip-hop fans need a bit more time to accept all the different scenes as being relevant to the culture as a whole.
I was hoping you’d mention the different rap scenes. What do you think of the "hipster-rap" movement and the negative connotation attached to it?
Well anything that claims hip-hop as its inspiration has a place within the culture. Lately I've been trying to think back to past generations/decades of hip-hop and find parallels between current hipster rap now and party rap and hip-house then. The first hip-hop records were party records. And sometime around when Rakim and Big Daddy Kane dropped, the lyricism and flows changed from the typical disco-rap cadence to more complex rhyme schemes. Some artists, Big Daddy Kane being a good example, were able to walk the fine line between the two. But for the most part it is and was an 'if you're not with us, you're against us' mentality.
So what are your overall hopes for Chicago hip-hop right now?
Well my current goal is to [kill] the image of Chicago being "haterville." It's a lofty goal, but I believe it's attainable. It's going to take every hip-hop artist's time and effort though and we need to all be building together, not destroying each other.