That Old Boom Bap: The Prop Shop's DJ Chill Will has been spinning bangers on WCBN for 35 years


A fan looks on as Chill Will deejays in a club.

Photo courtesy of DJ Chill Will.

Toward the end of the 2004 smash “Time’s Up” by Jadakiss, a voice came on the radio as a familiar new beat was blended in:

“World-famous Prop Shop. DJ Chill Will in full effect. That’s how it goes down. Saturday nights, 9 to 12 o’clock Eastern Standard Time right here on WCBN-FM Ann Arbor. You can also check us out live on the world wide web at WCBN dot o-r-g and radio dot net backslash WCBN. It’s Saturday night, y’all. We got about an hour and a half left in the show. Sit back and relax, you know we got the classics coming. Prop Shop. Chill Will. Let’s get it.”

I was tuned into 88.3, the University of Michigan radio station, while driving down a darkened stretch of Island Lake Road outside of Dexter. It was a little past 10:30 pm on September 9, and as the DJ concluded his talk-up, I got goosebumps when the bassline thumped.

It was EPMD’s 1988 jam “You’re a Customer,” which has that “Fly Like an Eagle” sample from the Steve Miller Band, but the head-nodding beat is built off a drum sample and bass riff from ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses”—and it’s deep.

I leaned over and turned up the volume, feeling the vibration rattle my windows. The temp was hovering around 60 degrees, and with nobody else on the road, I opened the sunroof and rolled down the windows so the song could fly from my car and fill the late-summer air.

The Prop Shop has been rattling glass since 1988, and “Chill” Will Higgs has been at the helm for almost the entire time. 

It’s also one of the oldest continually running hip-hop radio shows in the world.

The nearly 55-year-old Higgs mostly plays slappers from the late ‘80s through the mid-2010s, with occasional splashes of dancehall reggae—and virtually nothing from the post-trap world of hip-hop and its cymbal-driven songs with light snares. To quote A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 song “We Can Get Down,” The Prop Shop is all about artists who “with a kick, snare, kicks and high hat / [are] skilled in the trade of that old boom bap.”

For the commercial mixes Higgs sends out to radio clients such as KRYC and KPAT in California and WJZE in Toledo, Ohio, he does play contemporary rap.

But for The Prop Shop, it’s strictly classic hip-hop for the heads from the eras Higgs loves. Other artists I heard that night include Smif-N-Wessun, Run the Jewels, Jay-Z, The Diplomats, Baby Cham, Dr. Dre, Paul Wall, 50 Cent, and Jeru the Damaja.

The true window shakers. The essence of hip-hop. The real boom-bap.

DJ Chill Will with orange vinyl on his turntables.

Photo courtesy of DJ Chill Will.

Will Higgs has been interested in DJing since 1978 when he was 10 years old.

It was also around that time he got the nickname Chill Will from DJ Robby Rob, aka Rob Millett, a cousin who taught Higgs his mixing skills.

“I would get so hyped that my cousin would say, “Chill, Will!” Higgs laughs.

He was hooked on the wheels of steel.

“Other than sports and school, I was DJing,” says Higgs, an Ann Arbor native who grew up just off Ellsworth Road in the southeast part of town. “I wasn’t the typical kid who wanted, back in the day, that GI Joe with the kung-fu grip. I wanted a turntable and a mixer.”

His parents supported his newfound passion, Higgs says: “My father went out and bought me two turntables and a mixer, and I did what I needed to do and learned and practiced every day.”

Li’l unchilled Will also looked up to an uncle, Walter Harris, who hung at WCBN in the 1970s. But it was DJ Robby Rob who showed Higgs how to pop a party.

As a teenager, Higgs would help Rob at his gigs in Washtenaw County, watching his every move.

“I would carry stuff, help him set up,” Higgs says. “I would watch him and he would show me what to do.”

It wasn’t long before Higgs started DJing shows on his own while a student at Huron High School.

“I used to do all kinds of parties at the rec centers, neighborhood places, community centers,” he says. “I used to do parties at the Michigan Union, Eastern Michigan, and just all around town and then also all the way down toward Detroit. I eventually got into Saint Andrew’s Hall. I was DJing all over.”

If Higgs ever needed any extra gear for his gigs, he would borrow it from family, friends, and neighbors, including the late bassist Larry Austin who played in the Ypsi-Arbor funk band The 24-Carat Black, whose cult 1973 Stax Records album, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, has been sampled by Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Eric B. & Rakim, and many others. “We used to borrow his speakers,” Higgs says. “Larry was a good dude.”

DJ Chill Will behind his turntables and wearing a T-shirt that says The High Children.

Photo courtesy of DJ Chill Will.

By Higgs’ teen years in the mid-1980s, hip-hop was an established cultural force. But in his DJ sets, Higgs would play any kind of music, from electro and funk to reggae and techno. It was an approach favored by one of Higgs’ heroes, The Electrifying Mojo, a genre-defying legend of Detroit radio and beyond.

But unlike Mojo, DJ Chill Will wasn’t one for rhapsodic soliloquies between (or over) songs.

“That was something I never got, Higgs says. “I can talk on the mic and do the stuff I need to do, but I never was the type of DJ that talks to the crowd. That never was really my thing. I wanted to speak with my hands.”

Higgs still lets the music do the talking on The Prop Shop. While he does artist interviews sometimes, and local MCs have graced his show’s airwaves for many performances and premieres, Higgs sounds most comfortable at his most minimal: beat juggling between bangers, with just an occasional on-mic hype-up.

Another local legend who was known more for his scratching and beat mixing than his on-mic chatting was The Wizard, aka Jeff Mills, co-founder of the seminal techno collective Underground Resistance who in addition to being on Detroit radio in the ‘80s had a DJ residency at a local storied venue.

“He was tearing up everything,” Higgs says. “He used to do a club in Ann Arbor, which was Nectarine Ballroom [now Necto]. I was too young to get in, but I would try and carry crates [of records] in [with my cousin] so I could watch a little while.”

After high school, Higgs attended Washtenaw Community College and continued to play parties throughout Southeast Michigan. It was in 1988 that Higgs joined his friends on a brand new show, The Prop Shop, after a brief stint on U-M’s long-gone WJJX-AM 650, which was broadcast only in the campus dormitories. 

“[The Prop Shop] got started by a girl named Lady D [Diane Cook], Durwan Chow, and my boy Big Rich [Perkins], and they were stuck,” he says. “I think Diane did the show by herself at first. Then she brought Durwan in, and Durwan wanted to be a DJ, so Big Rich asked me to show him. I was showing them how to be a DJ, and what he needed to do. And then Durwan ended up not doing the show. He went back to New York to NYU [New York University]. And so I became the DJ on the show with Big Rich and Lady D [as hosts]. And then eventually down the road, they both left. ... I've been doing the show ever since.”

Higgs has had other temporary partners—Big Rich would come and go for many years, and DJ Ell (Elliott Sabbagh) starting working on The Prop Shop as a teen in 2008—but DJ Chill Will has been the primary person holding it down every Saturday for more than 30 years.

That’s a lot of nights with your weekend locked up, volunteering at a student-led radio station for most of your adult life, but Higgs wouldn’t have it any other way. If he had a live DJ gig or was otherwise unavailable on Saturday, Chill Will would still do a mix and send it in. (Nobody is gonna Wally Pip him.)

Even after suffering serious health setbacks the past few years, Higgs hasn’t missed a show aside from when COVID forced the entire station to go into reruns for quite a while.

Higgs has been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) since 2015, which saw him donning leg braces but managing the disease well enough to continue playing DJ gigs in clubs and parties, in addition to going into WCBN every Saturday night.

But in January 2020, Higgs was diagnosed with cancer and he was hospitalized in March, just as the world was turned upside down by COVID. 

“I was functioning normal scale with [MS],” Higgs says, “I’ve been lucky with it. When I got cancer, the cancer made the MS mad that I had it, and that’s what messed me up.”

He ended up spending four months in the hospital: “It was like being in prison. No visitors.”

Once Higgs finally left the medical confines, his legs were weakened to the point where it was hard for him to stand behind his mixer. He finally retired from his longtime job at Ford in 2021 but not from The Prop Shop. Because even if his legs are giving him problems, Higgs’ hands can still talk on the ones and twos.

During COVID, the radio station eventually started having DJs broadcast or upload their shows from home, so Higgs set up his gear in his den and continued to crank out mixes for The Prop Shop and his other radio clients. It’s a process he continues to this day, and he’s never wavered in his love of doing the show.

“I grew up on music and DJing, so I love what I do,” Higgs says. “And that music itself keeps me [happy]. I get to play stuff that I love that a lot of other people love, too. It's the classics, you know what I mean? The essence. The boom-bap.”

Long may Chill Will and The Prop Shop continue to rattle windows with the essence of boom-bap.

Christopher Porter is the editor of Pulp.

Duke Newcomb’s long-running concert series The Dojo celebrates DJ Chill Will and “The Prop Shop” with a special edition at The Blind Pig, 208 South First Street, Ann Arbor, on Saturday, November 25 with with headliner Kool Keith and local talents Jamal Bufford, MC Kadence, Tru Klassick, Isaac Castor, and DJ Graffiti.

You can listen to "The Prop Shop" every Saturday night, 9 pm to midnight, on WCBN-FM, 89.3, or streaming on The prior two weeks of all WCBN shows can also be listened to here.