Wendell Tucker first heard hip-hop music growing up in Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes, former public housing projects on the city's South Side.
"In the projects, people just have the doors open and the music blasting out," says Tucker. "We would have cardboard boxes in the hallway, put corn oil on them and spin on our backs 'til there were stains on the backs of our shirts."
The infectious beat and socially-relevant lyrics hooked him then and continue to motivate him now. Tucker has written a stageplay about hip hop and hip-hop culture, "I Still Love H.E.R.," currently being performed at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts.
"You have the classics. You have stuff for children. But in between that, there was a void," says Tucker. "No one thought about doing this on our communities, to try and write theater for this generation."
The title of the show plays off the song "I Used to Love H.E.R.," by hip-hop artist Common. That song uses the image of a woman as a metaphor for hip hop and how money and fame influenced the direction of the music. Tucker's show works through these influences and dissects them, while referencing hip-hop classics through music and dynamic dancing.
"It's about a person who's forgotten and gotten lost in their culture. Their culture actually reaches out to them, embraces them," says Tucker. "It's about falling back in love with yourself."
But Tucker says he doesn't want the show to reach only his peers. He also designed the play to be an ambassador to people who don't know anything about hip hop or don't like it because of what they think it represents.
"People have such a negative, unfair view of hip hop," he says. "They think about violence. They think about drugs. They think about kids with their pants hanging off their butt."
Even though those negative influences have sometimes been a part of hip hop, Tucker says the essence of the music is about communicating the struggles and trials of a generation of young adults who often were told they wouldn't amount to anything.
"It kept me grounded. It kept me level," says Tucker. "Even if you had nothing, you could go out and take the mic. You have some turn tables behind you, and for that night, you're the man."
Jeremy Noah, the show's choreographer and partner in Tucker's company, Theori Productions, has the same strong connection to hip-hop music and culture. Even though he grew up in Cameroon, Africa, he can remember getting tapes from his aunt in Chicago of Yo! MTV Raps and being captivated by what he heard.
"I've always loved hip hop. It had a huge influence on me," says Noah.
Noah says the show's strength comes from its flexibility, the ability to change it as music, history and culture changes. The show has evolved several times since Tucker began writing it in 2005. Events like Hurricane Katrina or the election of President Barack Obama have influenced the show and shaped it for the better, he says.
"We want to make sure that it lasts, that it's not a show where you see it 10 years later, and it's no longer relevant," says Noah.
The two want to continue to create theater that uses urban settings and confronts urban issues. Tucker wrote the lyrics for "By A Black Hand," a play about African-American innovation and invention that toured nationally for three years.
Later this year, they'll debut several new plays on topics such as depression and suicide in black men and the hustler mentality that plagues today's young people.
Creating these new dramas hasn't been easy. Both Tucker and Noah say its been a difficult road, one that's kept them at times sleeping in their cars or wondering where their next meal is going to come from.
"We're not the silver spoon kids where our parents handed us $5,000 and said 'Go follow your dreams,'" says Tucker. "It's been difficult."
Even though it's been challenging, Tucker and Noah both believe that the audience is there for their work. Hip hop is a billion dollar industry, they say, and it's just about finding and cultivating an audience that connects with what they're doing.
"This is the next great revolution in urban art," says Tucker. "It's not something that you've ever seen before."
"I Still Love H.E.R." is playing at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings now through August.
Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.