Chicago house music is undergoing a renaissance in London and Berlin, where fiftysomething Windy City DJs are headliners. So why isn't it a big deal here?
By Brent DiCrescenzo|
Just west of downtown Chicago in the shadow of the skyscraper formerly known as the Sears Tower sits a white and green brick building, a nondescript three-story box squeezed behind an Al’s Italian Beef. Walk in the door and you’ll find a law office specializing in defending the police. Crepe paper, tinsel and a disco ball are no longer dangling from the ceiling beams. Thirty eight years ago, there would have been. Thirty eight years ago, there would have been a bar serving fruit juice, not booze, so kids could hang out all night. Thirty eight years ago, there was no air conditioning, and dancers would crack open the windows to feel the breeze as they worked up their boogie sweats to throbbing disco tunes. Thirty eight years ago, this dance club dubbed US Studio first opened its doors at 206 South Jefferson Street. There was no sign on building, and the patrons took to calling the joint “the Warehouse,” later just “the House.” This is where house music was born.
“There should be a plaque there! People should be taken there,” says Terry Farley in his charming Cockney accent. “Fuckin’ hell, it’s something to be proud of!” Farley has a point. Chicago pays poor tribute to its house heritage.
Farley is a key player in the dissemination and survival of Chicago house music, one of the handful responsible for the rise of acid house in the U.K. In the late '80s, the Slough native published the house-centric Boy’s Own fanzine with his mate Andrew Weatherall, spun house records at Paul Oakenfold’s Future night in London's Heaven night club, threw outdoor parties with bouncy castles in the countryside, remixed Happy Mondays, and spun off the record label Junior Boy’s Own, which pressed breakthrough hits for Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. House music has been a part of British pop culture to some extent for more than a quarter century, but it is peaking again. Last month, the 55-year-old released Acid Thunder, a collection of essential old-school house cuts. Track one, disc one is a classic Chicago house track, E.S.P.’s “It’s You,” crafted in 1985 on eight track by South Side DJ Tommy “Thumbs” Adams. Farley was recently sitting at home watching television when he heard the song in an unlikely place—a television ad for Tesco, the United Kingdom's analog to Walmart.
“I’m watching some show and ‘It’s You’ started playing with a girl dancing around to that record,” Farley recalls with bemusement. Technically, the model twirling about was grooving to a cover of the song by Belgian duo FCL, whose limited 150-copy pressing of “It’s You” in 2013 started fetching £500 on discogs.com before London label Defected issued the track digitally earlier this year. “It’s that ingrained in British culture,” Farley says. “Music from 30 years ago is selling clothes to 18-year-old kids.”
On a sunny day in late September in London’s Finsbury Park, there are several thousand of those kids filling up circus tents to hear this three-, four-decades old music from the Windy City. Empty nitrous oxide canisters and shriveled pink balloons litter the grass outside. The inaugural Ceremony Festival has booked several pioneers of house music. Forty- and fifty-something musicians Robert Owens, Roy Davis Jr., DJ Sneak, Kevin Saunderson and Lil Louis—all from the American Midwest—are sharing the stage with young British house acts like Route 94 and Kidnap Kid, who at 20 and 24 years old, respectively, are young enough to call them Dad.
The audience is even more diverse in race, gender, age and attire. This is not the case here in the States, where electronic music festival demographics skew towards college kids in tank tops. (Just take a look at the Spring Awakening crowd.) But in most other regards, a British festival is quite similar to those in America. At both you will find throwback NBA jerseys, an overcrowded VIP section with Ps who do not seem very I, pizza and french fries, abundant bored security, carnival attractions, watery lager, and that one girl wearing a spandex cheetah-print jumpsuit blowing bubbles in your face. That being said, a Chicagoan would be stunned to see the turnout for Lil Louis’ evening set on the main stage.
Lil Louis has played his hometown just twice in the last two years, once at a community arts center on the South Side and once at a small upscale salsa club with bottle service and a dress code (no gym shoes, all clothes must be well fitted). “I intentionally play once in a blue moon,” Louis explains. “I enjoy being missed.” In Chicago, the old school disc jockeys of his ilk are relegated to playing festival side stages, street fairs and niche dance clubs. Local house legend Derrick Carter holds down a weekly Sunday party, Queen!, in the 400-capacity Smart Bar, but the dance music scene is largely dominated by the bass drops and builds of commercial trance and EDM. “Most people have to die before they’re recognized,” Louis laments. Chicago house is cult in Chicago. It is the mainstream in Europe.
“If I were a twentysomething DJ living in Chicago, I’d move to Berlin!” Farley says. “People would be giving you gigs based on the fact you’re from Chicago.” The German capital is undeniably a global hotbed for house music with body jackin’ DJs flooding cool clubs like Panorama Bar (a former power plant), Tresor (a former bunker) and Stattbad (a former swimming pool). There’s a similar vibe at the Dance Tunnel in Dalston, London, a narrow space of exposed brick, steel and concrete with a slightly sloping floor tucked underneath a pizza parlor. A resident DJ at the Tunnel, Jason Spinks runs a tiny and smartly curated dance record shop, Kristina Records, just up the street. Vinyl releases from seminal Chicago house labels like Traxx, DJ International and Dance Mania mix with bleeding edge wax from London imprints such as Lobster Theremin and the Trilogy Tapes in the particle-board bins.
“I would say about four years ago the recent Chicago house resurgence started,” Spinks tells me. “I recall not that many years ago classic Dance Mania 12-inches were possible to get for a few pounds. Now you don’t see them around. Now there are labels dedicated to digging out lost music from that time. People are hungry for this music again.”
Indeed, the Ceremony tent is packed with hungry Lil Louis fans. Two kids wearing Chicago White Sox caps push against the stage barrier. Smoke cannons blast them. The crowd roars and waves its arms. Behind his CD decks, Lil Louis bobs and weaves, shakes his hips with a merengue rhythm, and strips off his form-fitting white t-shirt. Part of house music’s eternal youth might have to do Lil Louis Dorian-Gray-does-pilates physique. He began playing parties almost 40 years ago to the day, and the man hardly looks 35. A dog tag dangles between his chiseled pecs. An uncommon sense of civic pride washes over me as Louis plays a hot and hard disco number that repeats a sample of his own voice: “House music is from Chicago!” A girl with blue hair named Daisy leans in and tells me over the din, “This is timeless!”
Afterward, I ask Louis how this set compares to what I would have seen 30, 40 years ago. “Back then in Chicago, there was the same oneness you saw at Ceremony,” he says. He is quick to talk up his forthcoming album and documentary, The House That Chicago Built, and tell me of the young woman he brought to the festival, her first house gig. “By the third song, she was screaming like she was on fire.”
How did this happen? How is it that middle-aged men from Illinois, now obscure in their birthplace, are dancefloor gold in London? I pose the question to Freya Van Lessen, one of Ceremony’s promoters. “It started around 2012,” she explains. “Minimal house had just been a phase, and I think people wanted something more soulful.” Sure enough, the next morning I wake up in my hotel room and turn on the TV to find Duke Dumont’s U.K. number-one hit “I Got U,” a pitch-perfect homage to Chicago house, playing on the 4Music channel.
I ring up Dumont, the 32-year-old Londoner born Adam Dymant, as he waits in an airport after a gig in Ibiza, and he echoes that sentiment. “I love soul music. When you get dance music with that soulful vocal, I’m drawn to that,” Dumont says. “Chicago house has more of that than other dance music genres. Chicago house music was a way I could do soul music in a nightclub capacity.”
“There’s an absolute soul to the essence of Chicago house music, and it is the essence of Chicago,” Lil Louis says. “There’s an edge. Back in the blues days, there was an edge. There’s a culture in Chicago, and that culture pushes the edge.”
He doesn’t outright say it at first, but refers to the city’s segregation. In 1979, Bill Veeck, the peg-legged owner of the Chicago White Sox, ran the infamous Disco Demolition Night promotion during a game with the Detroit Tigers, wherein fans built a bonfire of disco records in the middle of the Comiskey Park field, an event that carried a distinct undertone of homophobia and racism. “We [Chicago house producers] definitely have this political uniqueness. There’s a lot of adversity to the city and a lot of challenges, especially when we were writing back in the day. We were pushing through things. That resistance is what creates that edge. That edge creates that soul.”
Detroit has long been capitalizing on its claim as the birthplace of techno. Since 2000, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, now called the Movement Electronic Music Festival, has lured millions of tourists and their dollars into the city. "I know heads that go to Detroit," Farley says. "I’m sure it brings in bucks that the city needs. They come back and are complimentary about Detroit. I'm not quite sure why Chicago doesn’t exploit that. It seems a bit strange, considering the American view on money. There’s big money to be made!"
Chicago turned blues music into a tourist industry. How many flock to our city to visit Buddy Guy's Legends or Blues Fest? Why do we not have Frankie Knuckle's Legends or a House Fest run by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events? Blues musicians, and perhaps blues fans, are a dying breed. Meanwhile, there is a teen in Germany crafting his first house track on a laptop.
Farley asks me when the next wave of Chicago house artists is coming. I hate to break it to him, but I tell him it's not. Lil Louis chalks this up to economics. "If I’m a brand new producer on the South Side of Chicago, and I’m looking at hip-hop and what it does, and EDM and what it does, versus house and what it does? I’m making hip-hop or EMD," he says. "Why am I going to follow the school teacher? The school teacher doesn’t make money. That’s why people follow the drug dealer. The drug dealer has better cars."