Although not everyone has heard of it, the two-decades-old nickname “Chilltown” brings immediate recognition for a number of longtime Jersey City residents. A local dance drill group is called the Jersey City Chilltown Steppers, rap dictionaries say “Chilltown” is a moniker of New Jersey’s second largest city, and a press release mailed to newspapers in February touting a new restaurant called Melt on Jersey Avenue boasted, “Melt is just what Chilltown’s been looking for.”
But why are they calling it Chilltown? Why is Jersey City so “chill” (meaning cool) anyway? Where did the name originate and when?
This reporter took off on foot to find out.
411 on the Hill was ill, not chill
The search for the information (known on the streets as the 411) started at the Extra Supermarket on Martin Luther King Drive on a recent Saturday afternoon.
There, Earl Williams, a security guard who has lived in Jersey City for 25 years, said that he heard “Chilltown” going back to when he was in elementary school in the early 1980s.
“Man, Chilltown, I used to hear that when I growing up,” said Williams. “It started right up here on the Hill.” “The Hill” Williams was referring to is a section of the city where the land rises, which one notices when traveling from downtown Jersey City into the Bergen-Lafayette section.
Williams called over a friend who was hanging around the supermarket, who goes by the name of Trues. “That name Chilltown, they call Jersey City that because you come to JC and you could chill out.” said Trues. “When I grew up here, there was a different mentality.”
However, Trues couldn’t elaborate because he had to run off and “make some money.”
Then it was off to a local music store to find other people for their take on how the Chilltown legend developed. But that’s when things started becoming “ill” (meaning negative or just plain obnoxious). One employee did not want to give his name and simply said he’d heard the term “all his life.” An associate of his said that the answer could be found on Ocean and Wegman, where some “old-timers” hang out. Sounded like a brush-off, very ill indeed.
To Ocean and Wegman this reporter went. It turns out that Bell’s Barbershop is located near where those two roads intersect. Where else can one find old-timers gathered in one place? But barber Robert Mitchell and his associates said they’d never heard the term applied to Jersey City. Time to move on.
Answers at the record store
Stan’s Square Records on Bergen Avenue, run by proprietor Stan Krause, has been an institution in Jersey City for over 40 years. Running a store where the selections run the gamut from Motown to Kool Moe Dee, Stan has seen all kinds of music lovers come through his establishment.
Maybe a customer or two has uttered the immortal “Chilltown.” Stan might even know who coined the term. “I may have heard it about 18, 20 years ago, hear kids use the word Chilltown to refer to Jersey City,” he said. “But where it came from, can’t say for sure.”
But rap dictionaries have heard of it. One of them says that it rhymes with “Illtown,” which is the nickname of East Orange, where rapper Lauryn Hill once lived. Jersey City has been home to famous rappers as well – Queen Latifah has a studio there, Eminem’s manager has an office there, and an on-line rap dictionary declares that “the best known Chilltown rapper is Pumpitup Joe Budden.”
When Jersey City really was Chilltown
Then a customer walked into the store and Krause asked him if he could provide some assistance in this endeavor. The customer agreed.
Dwayne “Baritone” Francis broke it down. He thought back to 1980, hen he was a freshman at Hudson Catholic High School.
“I first heard it around that time, when rap was becoming popular in Jersey City,” said Francis, who is now the president/founder of the recently opened Whatz So Funny? Comedy Club, located on Martin Luther King Drive. “Back then, MCs and DJs from Manhattan or Newark would come through Jersey City and they would be welcomed at block parties without any problems.” Francis mentioned old-school rappers such as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, and Grandmaster Flash coming through Jersey City in the early 1980s.
“That’s why Jersey City was known as Chilltown, a place where people can chill without any problems. It was like a fraternity, with a group of your peers all trying to make the music and the culture better. Like a ghetto Mayberry.”
Chilltown was also a place where Francis witnessed a burgeoning rap music scene developing amongst the city’s young citizens, where MCs would “move the crowd” with their raps over the music that DJs provided.
At the music store, Francis was then joined by his best friend and colleague at the comedy club, “The Legendary DJ Wimpy-Bee,” also known as Edmund Bryant.
Bryant was an 11-year-old Jersey City kid who went to parties to study DJs, who would spin the records rather than dance to the music. He said he knew exactly when Jersey City became known as Chilltown.
“In 1980. Remember the record ‘Rap-tivity?’ [It said] ‘Warning, the surgeon general of Chilltown, New York,’ ” said Bryant. “When that record came out we just flipped the term, so instead of Chilltown, New York, it was Chilltown, Jersey City.”
“Rap-tivity” was a record done in 1980 by rapper Ronnie Gee. The song starts off: The Surgeon General of Chilltown, New York / has determined that the sounds you’re about to hear / can be devastating to your ear…
Bryant soon recited the names of Jersey City rap crews, or groups that dotted the landscape in the early 1980s and imbued Chilltown with a reputation that it still holds amongst an older generation of rap music fans.
“There was already a subculture here, already bubbling,” he said. “You had DJs like Disco-King, Count Basil, Sugar Crisp, Grand Wizard Capone.”
Bryant said Chilltown was an apt description of a time when one could enjoy the music and go to many parties without stressing over where a host lived or had certain friends.
“I’m telling you on a Friday night in 1981, you could start walking from Monticello Avenue and you could walk all the way up to as far as Curries Woods, and you could go to nine different house parties,” said Bryant. Curries Woods is a housing complex located near the Jersey City/Bayonne border.
But Bryant lamented the change of the culture that revolved around the birth of hip-hop in Jersey City, as he observed what happened to those parties that once existed.
“You could walk the streets and people used to go, ‘Where’s the party?’ and I could hit them. Go to Virginia, go to the Candy Factory, go to Sacred Heart, Snyder, Lincoln,” said Bryant. “Now, many places that would rent out for parties are renting out to the kids now. It’s getting too dangerous out there.”
Bryant said that when he was growing up, there was a “code” that people lived by. If there were disagreements, they would be settled by talking it out or by fistfight – not the wanton violence that exists today.
For Bryant, the changing times are epitomized by how young people are trying to change the moniker.
“You have folks now who want to change Chilltown to Killtown since it sounds tough,” said Bryant. “But Jersey City will always be Chilltown to me.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com