Rod Sawyer’s Chicago political roots run deeper than those of any member of the current City Council. Before stepping in as the city’s second black mayor following the sudden death of Harold Washington in 1987, his late father, Eugene, was 6th Ward alderman for 16 years. It’s the same position Rod won in the April runoff against incumbent Freddrenna Lyle.
But Sawyer didn’t grow up dreaming to hold office like his dad. When he was a student at St. Ignatius College Prep in the late ’70s, the parties he was interested in weren’t political. They were roller-skating shindigs on the South Side where he first heard DJs blasting the funk music that would become his obsession: James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic, Cameo. “I wasn’t a big dancer, but I was fascinated by how these guys were manipulating and blending the music,” Sawyer recalled on a recent Wednesday morning while perusing the vinyl at Reckless Records on 26 East Madison Street, a few blocks from his City Hall office.
Sawyer wore a dark suit as he thumbed through, calling out song titles and singing snippets of lyrics. Much of the store’s selection, he noted, is in his collection of more than 2,000 records, which takes up one room in the basement of the Park Manor home he shares with his wife and two children. “Free your mind and your ass will follow!” he said, coming across Funkadelic’s seminal sophomore album from 1970. Spying the sleeve of the self-titled debut record from influential Ohio funksters Zapp, Sawyer exclaimed, “‘More Bounce to the Ounce!’ ”—track one on the LP.
“Funk moves you,” Sawyer says. “It’s guttural.” Back in the day, Sawyer ran live sound for his brother Shedrick’s R&B outfit. He also marvelled at his sister Sheryl’s songwriting collaboration with longtime family friend Daryl Cameron, who gained notoriety as the outlandish Captain Sky. Sheryl’s velvety voice can be heard on “Moon Child,” which leads off 1979’s Pop Goes the Captain.
It was in ’79 that Sawyer and a buddy took out a loan to buy turntables and began spinning their quickly growing record collection. Gigging out in the early ’80s, Sawyer became acquainted with the likes of Jesse Saunders, Wayne Williams and Tony Hatchett, who were pioneering a high-energy form of electronic music. “I was there at the very beginnings of house music,” Sawyer says. “Hot Rod,” as he became known, deejayed parties and clubs as an undergrad at DePaul University. The extra spending money fueled regular visits to spots like stalwart crate-digger haven Gramaphone Records (2843 N Clark St).
In ’86, Sawyer and a friend opened a nightclub called S’s on 71st Street just east of King Drive, where the pair hosted a popular party called Funk Fest. The annual blowouts were inspired by the legendary Funk Festival at Soldier Field in August 1978. Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Con Funk Shun and the Bar-Kays all took the stage in what was, for some, funk’s Woodstock. “The guitarist for Funkadelic played ‘Maggot Brain’ alone for, like, 20 minutes,” Sawyer says. “To this day, that’s the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.”
After he graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1990 and passed the bar exam, deejaying took a backseat to his legal practice. Sawyer and his business partner shuttered S’s in ’93. But the rookie alderman still blows off the dust from his Technics SL-1200 turntables to spin parties he hosts with his wife, Cheryll. The councilman says he’d love to marry his longtime passion for vinyl with his newfound political career and get behind the decks for a re-election campaign party. “I want to put the fun back in fund-raiser!”