Sound Check: Big Mel – Memories of Cabrini-Green

There is no place like home, no matter where home is.

Chicagopublic housing development Cabrini-Green was considered one of the most dangerous living environments in America. The 10-section complex famously known for housing gangs and organized crime was said to be home to more than 15,000 low-income residents. Singer/songwriter/producer Big Mel was one of those. In the spring of 2011 the last of Cabrini-Green was demolished, but the memories cannot be reduced to rumble.

While promoting his emotionally-charged single “What’s Going On Today”, the latest from his acclaimed Tate Music Group release That’s Luv, Big Mel rides SoulTrain.com back to his Cabrini-Green past.

Soul Train: What is the scariest thing you remember hearing or seeing growing up in Cabrini-Green?

Big Mel: One of the scariest things was the lockdowns – if the gangs were at war nobody could come in the building and nobody could go out.

Soul Train: That does sound scary.

Big Mel: I remember one time my momma was sending me to the store – we lived on the eleventh floor – I got on the elevator and went down, and the lobby seemed to be more crowded than normal. So I make my way to the front door. I was a shorty at the time, and now it’s me and some other people, grown people who had to go to work or pick some kids up! There’s guys standing outside saying, “The building’s on lockdown, we at war; can’t nobody go in and can’t nobody come out!” And if you tried to rebel against that…you would have kindly got a pumpkin deluxe.

Soul Train: A…pumpkin deluxe?!

Big Mel: Yeah, like a pumpkin head, but the deluxe! [Cracks up laughing] I’m serious, that’s what they used to call it in the Greens.

Soul Train: You’d be that swollen up, huh?

Big Mel: Yes, that swollen! They’d have your head looking like Martin Lawrence’s on the Martin show when Tommy Hearns put them thangs on him. That’s a pumpkin deluxe! [Laughs]

Soul Train: That’s funny, but that lockdown situation… I can only imagine how frightening that felt.

Big Mel: Yeah, that was a very scary time! Another time was the first time someone had actually gotten killed in the building and they was just sitting on the floor of the elevator – dead. There were two elevators in the building… [Pauses for a moment] That spooked me so bad I stopped taking the elevator all-together. I started taking the stairs up and down – and we lived 11 flights up.

Soul Train: Gang wars, a dead body, there had to be times when things weren’t so bad there.

Big Mel: Well…me and my man Tyrone Randolph and some of our other partners formed a group like The Jacksons. We were little kids and would put on talents shows in the house. We’d move all the furniture out the way, we’d have a strobe light, then we’d do theJackson’s whole live album. Other kids would pay a quarter to get in. One time I got the stuffings whooped out of me because I boiled up four packs of hotdogs, and gave hotdogs and chips to everybody in the audience.

Soul Train: You got in trouble for that?

Big Mel: I wasn’t supposed to do that. That was food for the family, and was pretty much all we had. But in my mind I was calculating; we’re making these quarters so I thought we could buy some more hotdogs. But that wasn’t my momma’s plan. Her plan was to keep all those hotdogs, the chips, and all those quarters to buy more stuff! [Laughs] But all kids from the building came up to watch our Jackson shows. And my cousin Red, who was a Jacksons fanatic, would really promote it around the building! And to this day, my cousin still talks about those little shows.

Soul Train: What did it feel like when you finally moved out of there?

Big Mel: This is the best way I can describe that feeling: A family reunion is so great, and you had so much fun, and you met so many people, and it was such a blast, and on the way home…you missed everybody already? That’s the feeling.

Soul Train: So there’s no need for me to ask if you miss it now.

Big Mel: I miss it. A couple weeks ago I had a dream about Cabrini-Green. It was a weird dream too: I was back there in that apartment again – as an adult. I had a recording studio in the back, and me and R. Kelly was recording back there! I don’t know what the hell that dream means. [Laughs] So I do miss it, I really do. I have so many memories of living there, and certain music takes me back there. Any Evelyn Champaign King song takes me right back; I can see the moment and can feel it! I can almost touch it. I can smell the hallway.

Soul Train: What is your most reoccurring memory?

Big Mel: My older cousin Dinky – they use to call him Sugar Ray Dink – he had a band, and for special events they used to always perform live downstairs in front of the building. Everybody from all the projects used to come and watch them perform. It looked like one big concert out there. And one of those times he gave me the microphone. They started playing “Shake Your Body” and he said, “My little cousin is about to get on the microphone for y’all!” That was my first big audience. When I started singing, and getting applause and love from the crowd… I can still see some of their faces. I can never forget that. That’s one of my favorite memories of living in Cabrini-Green.

Soul Train: Big Mel, do you think Cabrini-Green being torn down will diminish the history and the legend of that housing project?

Big Mel: No, I don’t think it will. It works like anything else: It seems to have more praise when it’s gone. Like, Michael Jackson is gone… That loss goes down in history. People acrossAmerica were like, “Whoa…are you kidding??! They tore down Cabrini-Green?! So I think anybody from there that has any memories of it, or any photos, it’s classic. Cabrini-Green is classic. It’s going to live on like Tupac. There will never ever be another Cabrini-Green. I don’t condone everything that took place in Cabrini-Green, but wherever your family is – that’s home. And I had a lot of family in there.

Mr. Joe Walker

Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker Also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com and TheUIMag.com.

One Comment

  1. Shannon Morris says:

    I think its a wonderful thing to understand where you’ve come from to know where your going. Very talented man you are. Keep up the good work.

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