DJ Cymba is what many call a local legend. Carrying the lifelong philosophy that age should not hold you back in this city, the twenty-seven-year-old HUEY Gang and TheGr8Thinkaz member has broken into a new creative era, molded by his predecessors but stamped with his own unique style.
Like so many of Chicago’s other musical talents, Cymba got his start at YOUmedia, Chicago Public Library’s legendary program for teens interested in digital media, music, and production. As a teenager, he was in the throes of music, art, and culture, surrounded by talented friends and rising stars, and cultivating his craft.
Fueled by the raw talent of everyone around him (and his own experience as a former rapper), DJ Cymba entered a creative metamorphosis. He went from soundtracking for house parties and open mics, to curating his own events, going on tour with acts such as Mother Nature, and using hip-hop as a way to give back to Chicago’s youth—all while perfecting and elevating his own work as a DJ.
Cymba—or the “Lemon Pepper Legend,” as he’s sometimes called—may not know everything, but he knows enough to keep evolving, and to help the homies out along the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Let’s set the scene: the year is 2011 or 2012. Before you were known as DJ Cymba of HUEY Gang, you were an artist known as Cymba Bridges. How have you evolved over the past decade? What was it like DJing all those open mics and house parties?
DJ Cymba: I’m really big on experience. I feel like the only way I can evolve is through learning experiences. Going through certain things and realizing—either you’re an exception to the rule, or this is how life is. Being in multiple environments—and always being a student, trying to soak up some form of knowledge, or analyzing a situation to see what can I learn to make me better.
I think a decade ago, I wasn’t [doing that]. I was still always trying to learn, but I [had to learn to keep] an open mind and realize that you just don’t know everything, [you have to be] open-hearted in any and every situation. I don’t think I had an ego, I just wasn’t as open to different perspectives.
Was there a moment that made you shift your perspective?
During that time period, one of the main things was just being surrounded by a lot of talented, raw people. Wanting to change your perspective—like thinking that only one person can be famous, or only one person can have momentum. Going to those YouMedia open mics every day, you start realizing that it’s a whole community—a whole network—of people who think are raw.
What is the HUEY Gang collective? When did it start?
I’m not a founding member of HUEY Gang, but I was introduced to it around 2015. I believe it started around 2011 or 2012 with Stark of HUEY, TheLawofHUEY, and Leader Lockwood. The running joke is that it’s like over fifty members of HUEY Gang, and not everyone has met yet. But the [members I named] are the main ones. They all met in high school when they attended Urban Prep.
So what does this collective stand for? What are some of the values you hold?
The “HUEY” in HUEY Gang stands for “Headstrong Urban Educated Youth.” Though obviously, we’re beginning to get a lot older than we were in 2012. So now “Headstrong Urbanites Educating the Youth” has been the reformed version of that.
But some of those values are just in the name. For one thing, the name of the collective is partly in honor of Huey Newton, really standing behind the Black Panther ideology and learning from that era of Black militant leaders. Obviously, having somebody like Brother Mike as a mentor and brother, or the Phenom people, who come from a very radical, revolutionary, creative community, inspired us to become that or evolve in that direction. We hold a lot of other values, like educating the youth, so a lot of us have either delved into that field or are still a part of it. Many of us have been mentors or teachers for young adults or just kids in general.
It’s essentially a brotherhood, too. These are guys that I love and that I could call my brothers. We have built a family, even outside of music—like, the music is gonna come naturally just because all of these people are genuinely talented. But to have somebody that… when you’re like, “Man I’m really going through this,” and they’re like, “How can I help? How can I help you evolve?” Certain conversations that you wouldn’t have with just anybody, but this is a safe space for you to trust somebody with a certain amount of vulnerability that you’ve been growing with.
What type of impact do you think the collective is making? Not just in the music scene, but in your respective communities?
I think [a big part of] the impact has been keeping young adults from feeling like they’re too young to do anything. Finding the tenacity to realize that age really isn’t a thing.
There aren’t too many groups or collectives, per se, in Chicago that can say that they have longevity, that can say that they have that certain level of connection. And a certain level of understanding. Even if you never heard any more music coming out of HUEY Gang, there are two things you can always count on. One: We’re always gonna love each other, and two: we will always make sure the people around us are good. Whether that be out West, whether that be out South, or whether that’s just making sure that we keep tapping into certain things where we can pour back into the community.
Shifting gears a bit, when did you fall in love with the art of DJing?
I’ve got a best friend-slash-brother that I grew up with, and his dad is a House DJ. I remember the first couple of times that I stayed at his crib, his dad had the DJ equipment in the basement. I grew into a genuine curiosity—when he actually showed me how to make songs on my own, I was like, this is kind of cold. And then you know, you step away from it. Everybody around you [is] being a rapper, so you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna rap, too. Because I think I got it. I can. I can make words rhyme, or I can do double entendres”. But I think the thing with me not rapping anymore was that I just didn’t feel like it was genuine.
The reason I even started DJing was essentially when HUEY Gang was at YOUmedia, Brother Mike had just passed away, and he passed on the open mic to us to start running it. At the time, I was rapping, but we needed a DJ… I learned just by doing open mics at YOUmedia with Huey Gang.
You’re usually behind the scenes, but on December 16th, you kicked off your new series, Cymba Sessionz at SoHo House. What can people expect from this series?
The original Cymba Sessionz was a way for me to not have to wait to get booked. In my limited perspective at the time, I thought DJs were supposed to throw parties, drop mixes, and drop mixtapes. I wanted to DJ as often as I could and I just didn’t want to wait to get booked, so I would just throw parties at the crib. These house parties turned into something a little more elevated, where you would come in and the set was very intentional.
At the end of the day, I definitely want to create and build with other DJs. It went from that, to also wanting to create a safe space for DJs to play [in an] open format as much as we could. I also wanted to create a space for people to feel more comfortable listening to all different types of music, especially newer music—just as much as we listen to older music. If you love music, this is the space for you. If you love organic networking, this is the space for you.
Sounds dope. Talk Some Shit Show is your platform where you invite members of the creative community to engage in light-hearted convo and share their life philosophy. What is your life philosophy?
My life philosophy is essentially to create safe spaces for everybody. When people don’t feel safe, they start living off their trauma. We gotta start being a lot more considerate and nicer to each other.
Correction, January 14, 2023: This story was updated to include an artistic affiliation.
Kia Smith is a lover of words and digital storyteller. She previously wrote about artist Schenay Mosley for the Weekly. Keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram @KiaSmithWrites_