“Everything dope about America comes from Chicago.” That’s a favorite catchphrase of Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, who bills himself as “Chicago’s TikTok historian.” And it’s a saying that presumably includes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Center, where he’ll appear on May 6 with conductor Scott Speck to help narrate a musical tour through the city in a CSO for Kids program called “Downtown Sounds.” ’
A South Side native who still works full-time for ComEd, the 41-year-old Thomas — aka @6figga_dilla on social media — has garnered millions of views for his 60-second TikTok videos on Chicago history and is building a brand based on his burgeoning popularity. He’s been featured on “Today” and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and in the Washington Post. He’s writing and will appear in a streaming series with Thomas Lennon of “Reno 911!” fame. He lectures at corporate events and elsewhere, and he frequently leads bus tours through Chicago’s West and South Side neighborhoods. The most popular ones are go through Pullman and Bronzeville.
He hopes his appearance at Symphony Center, his first, will help persuade kids and adults in the audience to return. “I’m sometimes shocked I’m on kids’ radar,” Thomas says. “We’ve created a world where we get everything quicker than the generation before us. So I try to get straight to the point and use language that my kids use.”
“When I was a kid, my mom made us all read the newspaper every day. And it was something that stuck with me through adulthood.” — Shermann “Dilla” Thomas
He has seven children of his own, five of whom live at home, so he’s well-versed in how to communicate effectively (or at least try to) with young people. That’s a big part of his allure, and he’s doing everything he can to expand his reach. On the day Brandon Johnson was elected as Chicago’s next mayor, Thomas tweeted, “So how many days do I gotta wait before I start asking Mayor-elect Brandon to make me Chicago cultural historian (in-training, Tim S. is the MAN!!!)”
“Tim S.” is Tim Samuelson, who recently retired from the post and is the city’s cultural historian emeritus. It’s actually a great idea, as is a Dilla-branded local trivia night. The possibilities are many.
Thomas’ attraction to Chicago history grew over time, sparked not only by his familiarity with local neighborhoods and his father’s decades-long tenure as a Chicago police officer, but by newspapers — the Sun-Times, in particular. “When I was a kid, my mom made us all read the newspaper every day,” he says. “And it was something that stuck with me through adulthood. I remember her telling me that the newspaper is written at a sixth-grade level so that everybody can understand the news. So I try to make my TikToks fifth- or sixth-grade level. I think that’s also why it’s working.”
Even now, Thomas is a hard-copy kind of guy, stacking issues alongside other local artifacts he collects. Someday, he jokes, it will all be the bane of his kids’ existence when he becomes “that stereotypical 85-year-old historian man with boxes of stuff.”
Until then, he’s got plenty of time to help locals and visitors understand and appreciate Chicago in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. Whether at Symphony Center or wending his way through Bronzeville with a busload of tourists, he’s on a mission to prove that his town really is America’s dopest.