Chicago hip-hop pioneer honored at first in-person ManiFresh event after death

By Olivia Cohen, Managing Editor

Kayla Macedo

Flora Koppel always knew her son, Parker Lee Williams, was wonderful, but she did not realize the legacy he left behind until recently. After his death nearly six months ago, Koppel started hearing stories of how amazing her son was and how much he meant to others.

Gentle. Kind. Creative. Funny.

Koppel said hearing her son described like this by people who knew him makes her cry.

“It is a bittersweet cry. … It’s a good thing, a wonderful thing that he was so loved,” Koppel said. “I talk to him every day and everything I do going forward is in his name.”

Williams, more commonly known as “DJ P-Lee Fresh,” died on Dec. 8, 2021, of complications from COVID-19 at age 54.

Williams was a key component of Chicago’s hip-hop and graffiti art scene, as he was the founder of the Chicago graffiti crew the “X-Men.” During his teenage years, Williams helped open the hip-hop club “STEPPS,” which operated during the mid-1980s, located at 6459 N. Sheridan Road.

Before his death, not only his humor but his artistry and musical talent were celebrated annually at Columbia’s Manifest festival, marking the end of the academic school year. The yearly event honoring Williams, dubbed, ManiFresh, is put on through the spring “Events Management: Practicum” course, honoring the history of hip-hop in Chicago.

Siena Moccia, a senior music business major, worked on the marketing team for the event. Despite this year being her first time working on the event, Moccia said her goal was to continue to honor Williams’ legacy and inspire the generations to come.

“[Since] Fresh recently passed in December 2021, this ManiFresh was really important in honoring his legacy,” Moccia said.

ManiFresh — part of the Manifest activities held on Friday, May 13 — was located in the parking lot on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Balbo Drive, next to Columbia’s 623 Wabash Ave. building and the Shop Columbia store.

This year the event included eight tents with different activities related to the culture of hip-hop, along with the main stage which was named after Williams, where eight artists performed. The event also included booths for various nonprofits advocating for mental health support in the music industry and networking opportunities for women.

The event also worked to raise money for the soon-to-be hip-hop scholarship, named the Parker Lee Williams Award for Hip-Hop Excellence, which will contribute to the hip-hop minor at Columbia.

Williams, who was originally a native of New York, graduated from Columbia in 1990 with a degree in cinema and television arts.

“[Columbia] was the best college for him,” Koppel said. “Practically from his day of birth he was a creative person.”

Olivia Policastro, a rising senior arts management major, who was also a part of the practicum course, said she believed when students at Manifest found out Williams was an alum of Columbia, they were drawn to learn more about him.

“When they found out he was a Columbia alumnus and that they had some, even the smallest connection with him, that it really changed the meaning of the name and donations and the scholarship,” Policastro said.

Prior to his death, Koppel did not attend the annual ManiFresh event, noting she was not sure if Williams ever attended the event himself.

“I hope they do it every year; it is worth it,” Koppel said, in regards to what it feels like having Williams’ alma mater hold an event in his honor. “Columbia was important to him and he should be important to Columbia.”