Chicago’s DJ Slugo Talks His Experiences with Police Racism and Brutality, and Meeting George Floyd
The gruesome May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has set off a wave of protests in the US and around the world. In Tehran, Iranian citizens held a candle-light vigil in honor of 46-year-old Floyd. In Berlin, huge crowds were seen chanting “black lives matter” in front of the US embassy this weekend. And in London, where riots broke out in 2011 following the shooting death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, demonstrators showed solidarity to Floyd while protesting a dynamic between police and people of color in the UK that looks dangerously similar to America’s.
That dynamic has now reached a flashpoint in the US, where protests and riots have erupted in almost every major city, causing widespread property damage. Videos of police stealing water from protesters, violently knocking over an eldery man, aggressively driving through crowds, shooting at and even blinding journalists with rubber bullets, and callusly pepper-spraying almost anyone in their vicinity — including a US Congresswoman — have repeatedly gone viral across social media. While some in uniform, like Atlanta Chief of Police Erika Shields, have shown public support for the protesters, their message is undercut by the volatile and ongoing reality of police brutality in America. It’s a reality that ghetto house and juke pioneer DJ Slugo, aka Thomas Kendricks, understands personally.
Coincidentally, Kendricks met George Floyd in the months before his death. But his own experiences with the Minneapolis PD show openly hostile and racist forces at work. “I’m walking to the store, and I see the police watching me, but you know, I don’t think nothin’ of it,” Kendricks says. He’d recently moved to Minnesota from Chicago to escape the violence in his home city. As he was leaving the store, a cop called him over to his car. When Kendricks refused and asked the officer to talk in a more public location, the officer called for backup. Two more cars arrived. Surrounded by five officers, Kendricks was finally told why he’d been stopped — jaywalking. “I didn’t know what jaywalking was until this incident,” Kendricks says. The cops explained he needed to use the crosswalk and only cross the street when the lights allowed. “And y’all got three cars and five officers for that?” Kendricks asked with astonishment. “Come on, bro.” He moved home soon after.
Born and raised in Chicago’s South Side, Kendricks began DJing and releasing music as DJ Slugo in the early ‘90s. Since then, he’s released at least 10 albums and around 30 singles and EPs, the bulk of which came via labels like his own Subterranean Playhouse LLC, and Dance Mania, the seminal juke and ghetto house label founded by Ray Barney. Though his lyrics are sometimes considered to be controversial, even misogynistic, his work has inspired acts like Daft Punk — who namecheck DJ Slugo on 1997’s “Teachers” alongside fellow greats like George Clinton, Robert Hood, and DJ Pierre — as well as Nina Kraviz, who Kendricks considers a friend.
“With everything that’s going on, she DMed me to say, you know, ‘I’m really concerned, I’m so sorry you’re going through that,” Kendricks says. Kendricks remixed Kraviz twice this year, and credits the Russian techno DJ with helping reintroduce him to younger, international audiences when she played his 1995 hit “Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Hoe Too” to festival crowds across Europe in 2015. “She loves our sound and really pushes it,” he says. He also worked with Nicolas Jaar on 2015’s “Ghetto,” a slow and powerful track that sees Kendrick lyrically preaching about his life growing up with gang violence and systemic poverty over Jaar’s deep and soulful melodies.
“He called me one morning and was like, ‘Hey, man, I got a beat, and I want you to put something to it.’ But it was so slow that I was like, ‘This ain’t my type of beat. I don’t know what you want me to do with it.’ And he was like, ‘Just hold on to it. Listen to it for a day or two and see what you come up with.’ But when I was listening, I was like, I should just start talking about my life, what I’ve experienced.” Kendricks had recently returned from a European tour, where he met people who had no idea what life was like for poor, inner city African Americans. “They don’t know. They don’t know unless we tell them.” In between riffs about drug addicts, senseless murder and overcrowded, low-income housing (Kendricks grew up in Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise built for 11,000 inhabitants yet housed up to 27,000), Kendricks laments “police brutality as being normal.”
Horrifically, normal is how Kendricks describes his reaction to seeing the video of George Floyd being killed. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, former officer Derek Chauvin holds his knee to Floyd’s neck, suffocating him as Floyd pleads for his life and calls for his mother. “I was like, man, this is crazy. But the sad part is, I’m used to seeing that with the police. That’s just normal.”
Kendricks grew up under the specter of police brutality. Robert Taylor Homes were policed “extremely heavily,” and his parents taught him that the cops were dangerous from an early age. “No kid should have to go through that,” he says. By the time he was a teenager, he’d seen the Chicago PD harass nearly every member of his family. Then it was his turn. “The police were chasing somebody, and we didn’t run,” he says.
“It was a known fact that if the police are coming towards you, run, even if you ain’t did nothing,” he says. Kendricks stayed put, and they asked his name. “I’m like, I’m not the person you’re chasing. This guy slapped me so hard and said, ‘you should have run.’” Kendricks stood up to defend himself and was overpowered by five officers before he was sent home. After his mother filed an official complaint, the harassment continued. “Every time they came around they were like, ‘Oh, so you want to go tell on people. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen. You’ll get your ass whooped and that’ll be the end of it.’” He was 13 years old.
Kendricks describes Chicago’s police department as the city’s “largest gang.” He’s been shaken down for lunch money under threat of arrest. “We should put these bags [of crack cocaine] on y’all unless y’all bring us lunch,” they told him. And if he didn’t feel like playing along, the cops would take him against his will to the predominantly white neighborhood of Bridgeport (Chicago is notoriously segregated) where it was dangerous for him to be after dark. “Literally it was a known fact for any African American that you might have a problem there.” Like a twisted game, the cops would leave him on his own — but not before making sure neighborhood PD knew Kendricks was somewhere he was not supposed to be so they could chase him. “They tell us, ‘Whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to get away with it,’” he says. He’d run dozens of blocks back home.
It’s hard not to see similarities between the brazen, violent actions by police at US protests and the behavior Kendricks recalls. As he watches the wanton destruction of his hometown on the news, however, he understands why sometimes, force by the police is necessary. But his ultimate sympathies are with the protesters — even some of those who use violence.
“You gotta understand, if I’m about to lose my house, I’m about to lose my car, my stimulus check ain’t came, unemployment is bullshitting with me, I’m locked in the house [because of coronavirus] and I’m frustrated. And then I watch you kill a black brother on national TV for no fucking reason. I’m watching you put your knee on a person’s neck for nine minutes. And then I look up and say, ‘Man, that could have been me. Fuck this shit. I’m sick of this shit.’ And you’ve been watching this shit all your life. After a while you just gonna be like, ‘you know what, I’m going to go outside and I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to go tear some shit up.”
In an incredible twist of fate, Kendricks met George Floyd just before coronavirus lockdowns began. Floyd worked as a bouncer at El Nuevo Rodeo club on Lake Street in Minneapolis, and Kendricks was booked for a gig there. Knowing who Kendricks was, Floyd showed him around and wished him a good set. While Kendricks didn’t immediately recognize Floyd from the video of his death, once friends reminded him they’d met, it clicked. “I remember him talking to me because I remember him being the only African American at the door,” Kendricks says.
As to whether anything will change in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Kendricks says things already have changed, pointing to the prevalence of white people on the front lines of protests. “To see that many Caucasian people on the front line, it charges African Americans up even more. Like, ‘Oh shit, we got a lot of ’em ridin’ with us!”
For those who can’t make it to the front lines but want to help, Kendricks asks that you donate. “If you can’t be on the front line, make sure that you put the finances up to support the people that’s on the front line — make sure they got water, make sure they got food, make sure they got the offices and stuff to strategize and get out and do the political things that they need to do,” he says. For his part, Kendricks raised $5,000 for the Minnesota Freedom Fund through a livestream charity event with Move NYC.
Otherwise, Kendricks says, “Get on your social media and denounce this chaos that’s going on: It’s wrong to kill people. It’s wrong to put your knee on somebody’s neck for nine minutes. This man needs to go to jail for the rest of his life. I’m against police brutality. Just speak out!”
DJ Slugo’s “Juking For Live (I.C.T.W)” is out now. Buy it here.