Pictured above: Ambiance rapping at the Mask Off Mondays open mic
Chicago is home to what seems like countless comedy open mics and almost as many music-focused open mics. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of open mics happening every week. If you look hard enough, you will find some gems that stand out from the rest. These open mics create community and bring together local business and artists in ways that help them both. I spoke with DJ Skoli and Ray of Light about the open mics that they host and learned that it was bigger than the music.
Tell me about who you are and what you have been up to as an artist?
DJ Skoli: As an artist I do a lot of different things. I make music, I create concepts and brands and throw events. I appreciate a good business plan.
When did you start throwing open mics?
DJ Skoli: I’ve been doing open mics for a while. I just started throwing my own recently. I used to get booked for random open mics like this one at a barbershop Hyde Park where I grew up. Then people asked me to help them at places like Elbo Room and Underground Wunderbar.
Was it people reaching out to you as a DJ?
DJ Skoli: Yeah but also as a promoter. If I’m doing an event people know I am going to put my all into it.
Was Mask Off the first open mic you set to build from the ground up yourself?
DJ Skoli: Let me tell you how this event started. Shout out to DJ MileHigh, I used to wear a Zulu mask when i dj’d and he told me: “yo Skoli its mask off, mask off.” Originally I wanted to do a radio show where I interviewed people but then I thought i could make it an event like an open mic where I can do interviews. So it was my first open mic, most of my events were showcases or dj parties. I did The Get Down with Tony Famous and Collective Genius with Me’Chelle Robinson where I was the DJ.
You are at the rate of twice a month for Open Mics, is that your goal?
DJ Skoli: I don’t know right now, I feel like I never want to over saturate a brand. I do feel there is a need in Chicago for good open mic events. Ideally I would like it to get to a point where I do less of them, like once a month for my sanity. I want it to be more beneficial to artists. To have a feature who co-curates a spotify playlist with me. Eventually bring the open mic stage to bigger venues like Shuba’s or Thalia Hall and have it be a curated experience.
What are some of your favorite Open Mics?
DJ Skoli: Like I said earlier Collective Genius and The Get Down are great but I am not sure when they are happening next. Subterranean has some great ones like the Boom Bap and Hello Hip Hop. We use to do one at Emo’s but I don’t know what’s happening with that.
Tell me about Ray of Light
Ray of Light: First of all I am one tenth of the Microphone Misfitz we are an all inclusive hip hop crew. I joined them in 2010 and we have been rocking ever since. We are on “Escape From Babylon 3” which is a comic book that comes with the album. We just came off the 8-bit hit tour with Mega Ran all through Canada, the East Coast, and the Midwest. I write music as Ray of Light. I go to different open mics. I host For The Artist Open Mic at the BopBiz Center on the South-side of Chicago. Whether with my group or by myself I just try and have fun.
How long have you been going to open mics in Chicago?
Ray of Light: Probably since 2003 when I moved to the city.
From where did you move?
Ray of Light: I was born and raised in Hazel Crest, Illinois and I spent a year in Texas before coming back to graduate. When I graduated I moved to the city and started going to DePaul. That’s when I started seeing hip hop everywhere and open mics or rap battles to get into. That was my introduction to the Chicago music scene.
Where there any open mics that were formative for you, ones you wanted to be like or not like?
Ray of Light: Honestly I never wanted to do Open Mics, this kinda accidentally happened. I was asked to do this at B.Gabs Goodies (a vegan sweets shop in Hyde Park) and I thought: “Why say no to an opportunity to have something regularly at a local business for local artists?”
As far as Open Mics I wanted to pattern myself after, I didn’t really have any format in mind. Streets and Soul was an Open Mic that I frequented that was put together by Mista Dent. He also does my fliers and will be on the October 6th, One Year Anniversary Show. I was always a fan of his music and his shows. He was doing them at Lilly’s in Lincoln Park for some years. His fliers were always dope. One of my band mates in the Microphone Misfitz, D-Nick was djing for him on some nights as well. I watched the way they did things and how i wanted to professionally do things. When I teamed up with my DJ, DJ Silky, he wanted to do things a certain professional way. I like to run a professional open mic where everything is on point and presentable to the people as something that’s gonna be dope.
With the format of having a feature at one of the two open mics a month have you noticed that helping to increase attendance?
Ray of Light: Originally that was the hope and it has worked but really the people I am asking to be features are people who I am a fan of. As well it is a way to highlight the people who have been supporting the open mic.
Tell me about the One Year Anniversary Show?
Ray of Light: October 6th at the Bop Biz Center on the south side of Chicago, where a lot of positive businesses and entrepreneurship and artistry are being cultivated, For The Artist Open Mic is celebrating one year of consistently doing this every first and third Tuesday. This is actually a showcase of people who have been supportive of the open mic as opposed to an open mic. I’m excited to present T-Rex, OZ Bangaz, Mista Dent, T-Star, and Zae Connie. Our feature of the night is going to be Shadow Master who hosts the longest running open mic in the world at Subterranean. It’s an honor and a privilege to have him come and rock a show for me. We’re gonna have Johnny Tacos as well as fashion and cosmetics vendors. It’s going to be a celebration. Bring a friend.
You get a lot of vendors at your events, how did that come about?
Ray of Light: Other than being an artist I am an entrepreneur as well. I’m a licensed massage therapist and so I’m always looking for vending opportunities. That put me in that network of entrepreneurs and other small businesses. I saw an opportunity to join those fronts with the music community. Particularly within the Black community so that we can keep our dollars within our community. We can build ourselves up from within. That’s the bottom line main goal of everything I do as far as activism and business. My music speaks to that and me being able to host a platform to achieve unity and cross pollinate ideas. We’re all creators, artists and entrepreneurs and oftentimes we are doing both. So often times vendors will come and perform as well.
Shoutout Johnny Tacos
Ray of Light: Yeah, *laughs* That’s a cool dynamic we have going. T-Star is a young performer who just started at Columbia. She is a part of their Hip Hop Minors program. She came and featured at my open mic in January and tore the place down. She is a part of the anniversary show and she also has her own clothing line.
These events happen at a million miles an hour. You put me on this event there and I put you on an event here and the connections build a family more than a business with artists supporting each other.
That idea started with a project called Rise and Shine. I did a whole summer festival with a gang of featured artists, fourteen vendors at the Hairpin Art Studios.
For The Artist One Year Anniversary is a part of a quarterly event connected to Dope Vibes Daily. The next quarterly event will be in January and it will be a song battle.
What other Open Mics do you recommend?
Ray of Light: 606 at SubT hosted by Shadow Master and Anyi Ahilation with DJ Boy Wonder. It has been running for twenty years and Shadow Master has been hosting it for fifteen. Streets and Soul was great but both happen on the North-side and I wanted to do something on the South-side.
These two open mics are excellent and definitely worth checking out.
DJ Skoli hosts Mask Off Mondays follow him on social media, https://www.facebook.com/djskoli/, for info on the next event. For the Artist Open Mic happens the first and third Tuesday of every month at the BopBiz Center 644 East 79th Street. The For The Artist One Year Celebration is also at the BopBiz Center on Saturday October 6th at 7:30pm. More information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/403566973510520/
MC Foucault (they/them/theirs) is a rapper, producer, musician, writer and activist located in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. They prioritize marginalized voices.