It was a cloudy March day when I walked into Classick Studios to conduct my next interview for this series on Chicago artists impacting their communities. I was greeted by one of the purest forms of hip-hop: a bevy of rappers freestyling together, rhyming to the classic instrumentals of Mike Jones’s “Still Tippin’” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” For a moment I just sat back and soaked in the unadulterated joy of watching them trade intricate bars and perfectly pearled blunts. This type of camaraderie and community is the true beauty of hip-hop, and the rappers living it out that day were Chicago collective the Gr8 Thinkaz.
The Gr8 Thinkaz can be described as a local supergroup that includes more than ten members, including blossoming stars Mother Nature and Heavy Crownz, plus a litany of affiliates both within music making and outside it. The group was born in Champaign-Urbana in 2009, then spread to Chicago and even Houston. Together they embody the five elements of hip-hop culture: rapping, beat making, breaking, graffiti, and knowledge.
“The Gr8 Thinkaz was formed by our dear producer Rokmore,” says rapper Jeff K%nz. “He created the name, and from there he spread it and created a group out of it. Jay Moses is also one of the founders and CEOs of the group, and found MCs like himself. And it basically exploded into what it is now.”
The name “Gr8 Thinkaz” has a multitude of meanings.
“To be a Gr8 Thinka, you push yourself past your limits until you become limitless,” says rapper and graphic designer Gr8Sky. “You start to become a believer of yourself. Ain’t no obstacle you can’t push past, you just feel yourself elevate and then you continue to play off of the elevation. Taking notes from those that were great before us and bouncing off that, continuing that lineage. . . . Our mantra is, ‘God is in everything, so therefore everything is gr8.’”
The number eight itself also has spiritual meaning. It’s often associated with infinity due to its similarity to the infinity symbol. In Supreme Mathematics, a system of numerological principles developed by the Five-Percent Nation, it represents both building and destruction—in order to build something great, first you must destroy what’s blocking the realization of that potential, whether it be a negative mindset or an oppressive structure.
The Gr8 Thinkaz do more than just make music together. Many of the members have their own brands in the fields of holistic health and wellness, such as the FreshAssMonk healing-crystal jewelry that Klevah Knox of Mother Nature sells and Gr8Sky’s organic Gr8Juice. Mother Nature also run a nonprofit through which they offer the Miseducation of HipHop, a music-based curriculum that uses hip-hop culture to foster scholarship, self-acceptance, and entrepreneurship.
As a collective, the Gr8 Thinkaz host a community-based event they call the Gr8 Cypher every few months, inviting people to come and participate in the five elements. Cyphers happen at different venues around Chicago—and even elsewhere in the country, whenever members of the group tour—and they provide an opportunity as well as an audience for artists looking to hone their craft, whether it be rapping, dancing, or visual art.
“The Gr8 Cypher is a space in which people can exchange ideas, let go [of trauma], and pick up gems,” says Klevah Knox. “It’s brought out a lot of homies, a lot of people we never knew. Shorties come through, get connected, and it’s just an exchange of knowledge. I think that each person takes what they can from that, but with our culture being ‘Everything is gr8,’ I believe that work in the community really helps to elevate the minds of our entire community.”
The music of the Gr8 Thinkaz often draws comparisons to the Wu-Tang Clan, because they’re also a large group that incorporates higher knowledge into their lyrics. While the Gr8 Thinkaz definitely credit Wu-Tang’s influence as students of the game, they’ve formed their own distinctive sound and identity that can’t be put into a box.
The latest Gr8 Thinkaz album, Thinkaz Only: Vol. 2, came out two months ago.
In February the collective released the collaborative album Thinkaz Only: Vol. 2, where they flex their versatility from top to bottom. The opening track, “Texturez,” starts with a classic soul sample as Gr8Sky, Mother Nature, Jay Moses, and Jeff K%nz gracefully and intentionally articulate every heartfelt syllable to help it hit home. The vibe of the next track, “Risk Takerz,” is much more in-your-face and up-tempo, with members trading bars and spitting a thousand words per minute over a trap-style beat.
“This whole thing is divine,” says Heavy Crownz, one of the newer members of the squad. “With any other crew, people will say, ‘Q-Tip is the main one because he raps and produces.’ In this thing of ours, everyone is really amazing in their own way, hands down. It’s a unique sound, but there’s an energetic cohesion. . . . It’s definitely gonna be a Thinkaz Szn—apologies—a Thinkaz Decade. There’s about to be a lot blooming fasho.”
All photos by ThoughtPoet of Unsocial Aesthetics (UAES), a digital creative studio and resource collective designed to elevate community-driven storytelling and social activism in Chicago and beyond.