Walking into Gramaphone Records and spying Justin Long digging through records at the back of the store, it’s apparent there is no better place in the city to meet him for an interview save the dance floor at Smart Bar. The two places are landmarks on the Chicago house scene, and Long has an intimate relationship with both. During his early twenties, he paid his dues as a sales clerk at the legendary record shop. And on Saturday 18, he marks ten years as a Smart Bar resident with the latest installment of his dotbleep party.
The diehard vinyl slinger’s love affair with Chicago’s dance-music legacy began early, listening to WBMX—now V103—and going to storied nightclub Medusa’s to hear Teri Bristol and Psycho-Bitch while still an eighth-grader from Rogers Park. “We made these fake IDs that said we were 17,” Long, now 36, says, laughing. At that time Medusa’s had all-ages nights, but proving you were 17 meant you could stay even later. “It was the only reason to make a fake ID that said you were 17.”
Though he’s currently one of Chicago house music’s loudest voices, he wasn’t all four-on-the-floor all the time. Long’s early years saw him involved in skateboarding and the punk scene, listening to Quiet Riot, Nitzer Ebb and the Sex Pistols, the latter courtesy of his mother. “Some parents might not want their fifth-grader listening to Black Sabbath,” he says. “She was cool with that.”
Still, house music ruled. A short stint studying graphic design at Columbia College in the ’90s was overshadowed by his budding DJ career. He landed his first Smart Bar gig at 20 and has scarcely looked back. “I always liked house music because there was this DIY-ness to it,” he says. “It was a drum machine, a sample, bass and an amateur singer. It had this punk aesthetic to it. That’s what attracted me.”
Long has lost none of this passion. The scruffy DJ’s primary pulpit is the booth at Smart Bar, where he throws his vinyl-only night. Long has strong feelings about the music, where it’s been and where it’s going. With his dotbleep party—and his label that shares the name—he filters this vision through his records, which span deep, jacking, fidget and, it being Chicago, acid. For his anniversary he welcomes British acid-house luminary A Guy Called Gerald as a special guest.
“I’m putting everything into dotbleep because it’s the only all-vinyl weekend night.” Wary of laptop DJs and the ease that digital deejaying provides, and concerned with selling out, Long adds, “There are so many DJs in Chicago, but how many of them are playing the indigenous sound? Instead of carrying on with that greatness, they’re looking for greatness elsewhere. Why?”
It’s natural that scenes change, and glory days will be looked upon fondly, with those who were there lamenting greener grass. But that doesn’t detract from Long’s mission to preserve a scene that was once much more about the music. “We need a place where the young minds can come and cultivate, like we all had,” he says. “I had a Medusa’s, I had all these lofts that I went to and got an education in this music.”
And, after all, his is not some drab history lesson. Long’s nights bump hard, and his energy level in the booth is a much-talked-about attraction. To Long, a party is an organic being. “I’m plugged into the headphones, the headphones are plugged into the mixer, I’m selecting the vinyl, the people are dancing, and we’re all together in this anarchy.”
Justin Long houses it out at Smart Bar on Saturday 18.