Jesse de la Pena is a local DJ who has spent almost his entire life around music. His roots run deep into the mid-1980s b-boy and graffiti culture, and further into Chicago's early hip-hop scene, where his contributions have left an indelible mark. As a DJ he's supported a number of legendary acts, including Tribe Called Quest, Common, Mos Def, Roy Ayers, WAR and Maceo Parker. His group, Liquid Soul — a Grammy nominated band that fuses together elements of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop — has stood the test of time as a truly authentic incarnation of "Acid Jazz." Needless to say, Jesse's resume runs deep, and there simply isn't enough time and space to cover it all, so Centerstage tracked him down to hear in his own words some of the highlights that have decorated his quarter century long career.
You've been DJing for over 25 years, who was the first DJ you saw that made you want to get behind the decks?
Like a lot of DJs, it was seeing music videos like Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" that inspired me to look further into it. Later I met a few friends in high school that were already doing parties like Hugo Mercado, Mark Medina and Andy Kudelka. From that point on I started going to parties watching what DJs were doing and eventually started spinning with a few buddies in my neighborhood, Tommie Boy Productions. I guess we were all inspired by the radio mix show DJs from stations like WHPK, WNUR, WKKC, WCRX, WCYC, WBMX and WGCI.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought, or perhaps the one that really got you geeked for the first time?
I bought "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow at a flea market and that started me collecting 12-inch records. Before that I had always bought 45s and albums as a kid. My mom had them around the house and she would play them for us. I guess that had a big influence on me and my two sisters. One is a DJ (Leeann) and the other became a VJ (Diane).
You helped lay down the foundation for Chicago hip-hop, what was the early scene like?
The early days were a lot of fun and we were young, things were very different back then in the mid '80s and early '90s. Hip-hop wasn't mainstream and as accessible as it is now. Just finding a space and/or bar that would allow you to do a party was a task. The stigma that came along with hip-hop was pretty negative and being here in Chicago, where it is known for being very divided, made things a bit more difficult. Fortunately, I met a couple club owners that gave me the opportunity to do a few nights around town like Joe Shannahan (Metro/Smartbar), Tommy Klein (The Vic) and John Litz (Elbo Room).
Out of all the residencies you've had over the years is there one that stands out as head-and-shoulders above the rest?
Probably my days at Smart Bar. That was my very first residency. I learned so much there about music and the music biz — from their library of music to their resident DJs like Jeff Pazen, who showed me the ropes when I first started spinning there. Also the Elbo Room here in Chicago, that's where one of my first hip-hop nights all came together, "the Blue Groove Lounge" back in 1994 plus my Sunday night "Acid Jazz" night with Liquid Soul. These two venues have played a major role in what I do today.
Tell me about how you met Tommy Klein.
We met through Joe Shannahan back in the early 90s. Joe wanted to put together a band incorporating a DJ and Tommy was the guitar player. He is a super talented musician that has seen a lot. He was very forward thinking when a lot of musicians were very anti when it came to working with DJs.
When you guys were in the early stages of Liquid Soul did you have a clear vision of the type of sound you were going for or did it just evolve naturally?
I was in another band before Liquid Soul and that's where a lot of experimenting took place. It was my first time every doing anything like this, a lot of trial and error when it came to figuring out the sound. The problem was that everyone in the band had a bit of a different idea of what that sound should be. Tommy and I were on the same page and we wanted to push things in a jazzier direction, fusing more raw hip-hop, reggae and dance elements and still pushing the boundaries.
In what ways did the city help inspire the musical dialogue?
Just being here in a big city influences your musical taste, all the stuff you are exposed to as a kid and what you hear on the radio. Then when you start going to parties all these thing seep in. I wasn't a kid who grew up playing the piano or taking lessons on music theory. These things became more interesting to me as an adult. There wasn't anyone in my family that played an instrument, so communicating what I had to say wasn't easy. Eventually I developed an ear and began to understand how things worked. I feel very fortunate growing up here in Chicago and for the time I have spent in New York when I was younger.
You've seen DJ culture evolve over the years, what's your take on Chicago's place in history?
Chicago is very rich in musical history — from the blues and R&B to good old rock 'n roll. There is so much talent that has come out of Chicago. It's unfortunate that it seems like you have to move to one of the coasts to make it. Chicago will always have its place in the history books, you will just have to dig deep to see a lot of what has happened here. If you rely on the magazines and the media to tell the story, you will just get the short version. There is so much more that never gets told.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m rethinking my role as a DJ at the moment. I want to get back in to producing for some artists. I have a new project called the JDL Sound Collective that incorporates multimedia and all my favorite aspects of a band and turntablism. Also piecing together a few different ideas for albums and mix CDs with a different twist.