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Drumming for dollars as a Chicago bucket boy

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(Editor's note: The promo photograph for this story was selected from a set profile pictures produced by lindsaybayley.) 

If you work or visit Chicago's Loop or use the exits along the South Side’s Dan Ryan Expressway, there's a good chance you've experienced a fixture of the city known as the bucket boys. And if you haven't seen them directly, maybe you’ve heard them from afar, mostly young men drumming on buckets and asking for a donation in return.

That was how Annie Dieleman became curious about the bucket boys. It started with her morning commute from Bridgeport to Englewood, where she was working. As a social worker at Thresholds, a large social service agency in Chicago, Annie, 28, was always seeing and hearing bucket boys on her drive. Plus, social work is a stressful job, and seeing the smile on the faces of the guys performing next to her window helped make her day that much better.

“It was always nice to be around happy, pleasant people who are super positive and charming,” Annie says.

So she asked Curious City to find out more:

My Curious City question was about the bucket boys and I was curious how they get into the job of being a bucket boy. How they train, if they have territories. Just ... what the deal is.

Turns out, bucket boys treat their gig like any other job: They put in the hours, save up the cash and take care of their customers. What’s more, for many of the young men out there, beating buckets is not just a way to make a living; it’s a way to avoid gangs and make their mark in a positive way.

Our guides

For this question, we enlisted the help of Jerome and Jarrell Lucas, 29-year-old twin brothers who grew up in the Roseland neighborhood. A couple of years ago they started filming the bucket boys. Their interest grew and soon they embarked on a documentary film project titled “Bucket.”

These guys have been steeped in the world of Chicago bucket boys, and they know it better than most outsiders. And for that reason, it was sort of a no-brainer to provide you with the twins’ birds-eye view, as well as an audio story where you can hear directly from one of Chicago’s bucket boys.

Take a listen to the audio story

How did the bucket boys start?
Jerome Lucas: It started in the mid-90s in the Robert Taylor buildings. And they innovated a way to find a way to make money. They grabbed a 5-gallon bucket and drumsticks and took it to the streets and seen if it worked. I am assuming that they saw the other street performers and they were like, “Well, we could do something, too. And they make music, we make music.”

Why the Dan Ryan Expressway?

Jerome: I think they choose the expressway because it’s more convenient — you know, traffic moving fast. They look at it as a quicker way to monetize playing the bucket. They can get you in and get you out. It’s kind of like a fast food restaurant. I think that is why they choose the expressway over the average corner. I think they would like to choose the CTA, but the reason why they don’t choose the CTA is because [of] that sound; it echoes. And that would bring, like, the police, and bring so much attention that way. ... They have to choose their spots wisely of where they’re going to be at.

Jarrell Lucas: They get to perform for about, 5, 6, 7 seconds. And then if you want to donate you can donate, and if you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to.

What do they sound like?

Above: A Bucket Boy performance on Michigan Ave., across from Millennium Park in Chicago. (YouTube/JUSTCURI0US)

Jarrell: A lot of drumming — different rhythms, different sounds. Different types of sounds, textures and beats. If you hear them you’ll be downtown and you’ll hear them from another whole block. So if you’re on State [Street], you’ll hear it on Randolph or another block, because it’s so loud. A lot of people actually hate the sound.

Jerome: How you can tell the more advanced bucket boys from the average bucket boys is because they got a song with it. They say something with it like, “Hey pretty lady.” And they are the only ones that have it. Certain groups have certain songs and certain chants they use. And some are beginners, so they just trying to catch the rhythm. They are all trying to get a rhythm together so they can make money.

Above: Bucket boy Charles Chapman drums off the Dan Ryan on 55th Street. (WBEZ/Meribah Knight)

How does one become a bucket boy?

Jerome: It’s like an initiation thing. Somebody usually brings you in, but if nobody brings you in you got to start from the bottom. You got to go to Home Depot, buy your bucket, buy your drumsticks and get out on the corner. Usually they everybody who is, like, real amateurs — they send them to 55th [Street]. And they be the only ones out there. By themselves, beating and drumming and that build confidence. You get good. If you stank, you go home and you continue to work on it. And after a minute you done built so much confidence and made so much money on your own they like, “Who is that over there on 55th, making all that noise?”  It’s kind of like the music business. It’s like, “Who is that guy we’ve been hearing about? We need him with us.”

How old are most bucket boys?

Jarrell: Between the ages of 16 and 24. That would be the ages of a bucket boy. I don’t know about 25. I haven’t met that person yet. But around the ages 16 to 24, they all beat buckets around that age.

How much money can a bucket boy make?

Jerome: [If you’re experienced] $300 to $400 a day. But if you’re a rookie you’re going to make probably $30, $60, $40, and that’s it for your day.

Jarrell: My personal opinion: They actually use the money for what they want. They use their art to get to where they want to go in life.

Jerome: I had no idea they was getting cars. … And I heard $300, but I was like, “I don’t think kids be that responsible with the money. They take it and go blow it.” But it was like, naw, they actually like, “We going to get a car. We thinking about getting an apartment.”

Are there territories?

Jerome: They usually on 87th, 79th, 63rd and downtown — but not downtown for long. They get in and out of downtown. Because that’s where the most money can be made really, downtown Chicago. But they have to move in and out because they have to have permits or they could be moved. For some reason they never want to get a permit.

Jerome: It’s like a first come, first serve basis. Whoever gets to that corner first. I think it’s a respectful thing to not just be, like, all on one corner. They all know each other but they each got a set they work with.

Above: Chicago’s bucket boys drum at various locations around the city, depending on the season and time of day. Here’s a map of common spots, provided by Jerome and Jarrell Lucas as well as other sources.

What is the trick to success?

Jerome: They have to be humble and they have to be confident to do that. ... If you’re too confident,you come off as arrogant. And if you’re too, how can I say ... If you have the charm turned on, people think, “You just trying to hustle me. You’re a panhandler.” So I think you need a little bit of all to get a perfect bucket boy.

Jerome: They travel to stadiums. Because they know Chicago can be like, they done got used to seeing them. But other states are amazed by [the bucket boys]. They like, “Out of a bucket?” So I guess they capitalize off it. They go to other states and make lots of money at stadiums and arenas. ... They do to music concerts. ... They set up outside in the parking lot exits and entries to the stadiums.

Jerome: When they really want some money from somebody, they’ll go to your window, they’ll put it between their legs and they’ll beat it. And when they do that it’s like ... I guess it makes a person feel like they are performing just for them.

Is beating a bucket a good option for some of the bucket boys?

Jerome: It’s hard to find a job on the South Side of Chicago. And at the end of the day I think people want to be creative and be paid to be creative at what the do. So, I think this is more like their first option ... to avoid being involved in gang violence and other things of that nature. It’s like, if you’re not beating a bucket then you’re involved in some type of gang violence, or you’re becoming a victim of gang violence. So like I said, they choose wisely. I think they are good decision-makers, very good decision makers.

You’ve spent two years making this film, what is something you learned that surprised you?

Jerome: How they get different sounds from the bucket? I didn’t know that hitting the side of the bucket make a different sound than the top. And different, like ... How can I say? Different corners on the bucket give out different sounds. So when they are trying to come up with their little symphony together, some will hit the sides. Some will hit the top. Some hit the bottom. Some hit the top. You never knew a bucket could make so many sounds. But if you listen to bucket boys you’ll find out they can make a bucket make so many sounds that you wouldn’t even thought was possible.

Reporter Meribah Knight, left, and question-asker Annie Dieleman. (WBEZ/Jesse Dukes)
Our question asker

Annie Dieleman is a social worker in Chicago residing in Bridgeport. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, she moved to Chicago a decade ago for college.

She says she first started wondering about who the bucket boys were when she was commuting to her social work job in Englewood. She would see them on the Dan Ryan exit ramps.

She particularly admired one young man who was always drumming as she exited the Dan Ryan at 63rd street. Finally, instead of giving him her usual wave, she rolled down her window and asked:

‘You’re really talented.How did you get into this?”

His answer struck a chord with Annie: It was a positive way to make money and stay out of trouble. He was building something for himself in a neighborhood that offered few job options.

“He seemed like he had a really positive message,” Annie says. “It made me curious about everyone.”

Meribah Knight is a freelance journalist in Chicago and reports for WBEZ’s Curious City. Follow her at and on Twitter at @meribah.

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