House Music Comes Home: How Chicago's Summer of Music Festivals Has Reinvigorated the City's Dance Spirit
As EDM grows nationwide, Chicago is cashing in on its history and looking to put its own spin on the culture.
Festivalgoers at Spring Awakening / Photos by Maurene Cooper
“I’m from Chicago. I’m mostly from the South Side but I’ve lived everywhere,” said Gregory Cooper, 27 on the dusty grounds of Chicago’s Soldier Field. Manic Focus, a local producer quickly gaining a national following, had just ended his set in front of what seemed like a few thousand fans at the Spring Awakening Music Festival.
I asked Cooper why he decided to attend the event, which was founded in 2012 as Chicago's first all-EDM festival. His main rationale? Chicago’s house music roots. “I wasn’t always a fan,” he said. “I started liking it about three years ago.”
“What changed?” I wondered.
“I don’t know. It just made sense, being from here. Being here now,” he said while motioning around the field of the stadium and possibly, the city as a whole.
There was something special about being here, now. The crowd, largely between the ages of 18 and 25 (but leaning more toward the 18 end), was surprisingly pleasant, even sweet. EDM culture carries a perception (not entirely unfounded) that only speaks to the worst: bad outfits, bad drugs, and bad attitudes. And although that first assumption was more or less true, the latter two were less so. Or, if those things were there, they could not overshadow most festivalgoers' true purpose in attending the festival: to be in this city and to hear that music.
I’d like to imagine that this is what separates Chicago house, techno, and EDM festivals from those springing up across the country. People actually cared, and to experience the music here, in the birthplace of house music with crisp and picturesque views of the awe-inspiring skyline glistening like the most beautiful sight in the world, was a feast for the senses.
As interest in EDM and other forms of dance music has risen stateside, so too has the marketing for Chicago as a home to electronic music. Before the rise of aggressive, attentive techno of Detroit or South London's ever-expanding dubstep, there was Chicago house. Emerging in the early 1980s, house music was a response to and evolution of the changing appreciation of disco.
Just a few years earlier, Chicago DJ Steve Dahl led the racist and homophobic “Disco Demolition Night,” a radio promotion that turned into a small-scale riot as rhythm-less fans watched Dahl blow up the records they had brought during a White Sox game at Comiskey Park. In many ways, the night became the symbolic end of the disco movement. But rather than cower, producers and musicians instead birthed something new and raw that would transform the music scene for decades to come.
Parties sprung up at venues like the genre's namesake, Warehouse, and DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Jesse Saunders—who released “On & On,” often considered the first house recording—gathered a following. House music’s creators came back with something stronger than the publicly dissolving genre of disco, and in 2014, the dance, house, techno, and EDM subgenres are still growing. Now, despite a new wave of backlash, Chicago promoters and fans are looking to the city to birth something new, sustainable, and indicative of a legacy that pushes back once pushed down.
Spring Awakening helped usher in a wave of electronic music-focused events in Chicago, which in recent years has welcomed Wavefront Music Festival, Riverwest Music Festival, and Third Rail Music Festival, as well as a local edition of Electric Daisy Carnival. This list doesn’t even include the more all-inclusive and local music festivals that devote a stage or two to various dance genres, such as the North Coast Music Festival or Lollapalooza. Even Pitchfork Music Festival, one of the city’s first and arguably its best music festival, has increased it’s electronic offerings within the past couple of years with performers such as Jon Hopkins and Andy Stott.
This wasn’t always the case. In his obituary of the late, great Frankie Knuckles, Chicago Tribune reporter Gret Kot said that, “Knuckles would often joke that he could walk down the middle of the street in Chicago and not be recognized, yet would be greeted by cheering fans when he would arrive at European airports for overseas DJ gigs.” And later, Kot quoted Knuckles as saying, “The people I meet all around the world look at Chicago and the house scene with a new romanticism. They recognize more than ever that Chicago is the core of where it all began."
As recently as 2010, Sonar, the international festival of progressive music and art based in Barcelona, attempted to export their respected brand to the city. The decision made sense on the surface. For many DJs and producers, performing in Chicago is a rite of passage, a symbolic return to the spiritual home of their livelihood. However, attendance and reception was poor, and the festival did not return.
Always ahead of the curve, Sonar’s programmers were merely a year or two away from the resurgence of dance music in the United States. If they were to return to the city in 2014, they would find a curious, hungry and sometimes even over-the-top enthusiasm for four-on-the-floor beats and a good bass drop. Chicago is finally embracing its history. This can be felt most noticeably in the underground, where a slew of eager promoters (Them Flavors, Tied, Paradigm Underground, and 1833) are crafting their own parties.
Chicago is a city that creates but doesn’t necessarily sustain things. With the arts and especially with music, this is an ongoing problem. We export our culture and others adapt or build on it.
EDM festivals are a way to sustain what has already been built here. Festivals inherently are events to look forward to, things to anticipate and cultivate. And a truly good festival establishes itself as part of the landscape in which it is taking place. Consider Coachella and the desert and the festival style that it inevitably spawned (hippie meets California meets wasteland nymph). Think about Glastonbury and England and the transformative power of digging deep into the mud. For Chicago, the question is whether it's possible to build and cultivate an identity that is true to the present, to treat dance music culture as contemporary instead of promoting a static image of the past.
At Spring Awakening, many young women decorated their bras with an assortment of decorations and rhinestones. Arms and mouths were covered with Perler beads made in DMT-like colors and ironed into super swirly patterns that began to make sense the longer you stood in the sun and the more alcohol and drugs were ingested. Everyone carried small nylon backpacks and beer cozies. None of it felt that elegantly crafted; rather, the aesthetic was DIY in much the same way as the city's current dance music scene, and it felt like another method of catch-up to the rest of the world.
Later in the day at Spring Awakening, I spoke with John McCarten, a.k.a. Manic Focus. Three years ago, he was merely making beats in St. Paul, Minnesota. He moved to Chicago and booked a gig on his first night in the city, and he has found increasing success ever since. We sat on the lawn outside of the festival and were frequently interrupted by fans eager to congratulate the producer on a solid set. Many were from the Chicagoland area and were enthused to see him in their home.
“You fucking killed it dude,” a fan jumped in to say at one point. Finally, during a settled moment, John turned to me.
“Chicago is the home of house,” he began. “It has a crazy, crazy DJ scene, and I’m not a DJ. I never considered myself a DJ. I’m a music producer. But I’m still embraced. Everybody has to pay dues, and Chicago couldn’t be a better place to do it.”
“I want to stay in Chicago. I love Chicago,” he said when I asked him if he wanted to stay here, if he could even stay here when so many artists decide to leave to fully pursue their careers. “As a base, it’s good because there’s more here now. Chicago’s been amazing to me and I’m so grateful,” he added.
Although organizers and fans see a connection to the city, not every Chicagoan has embraced this rising performance trend. The Wavefront Music Festival, which was a roaring (literally) success last year after a rocky first year in 2012, was shut down this past spring. Aimed at showcasing the diverse array of dance music styles, Wavefront 2013 included headlining sets from industry veterans like Fatboy Slim, specialty stages dedicated to labels such as DFA records, and a section called House Comes Home: The Chicago Heritage of House Stage, where the creators and influencers of Chicago house played. Yet while DJs such as Frankie Knuckles, Derrick Carter and Jamie Principle enthralled the crowds, neighbors complained about the rumbling bass that rattled condos lined along the picturesque Chicago lakefront path.
House music does not unify all of Chicago, at least not now. The city is too diverse, static, and often split culturally within each neighborhood. In my experience, many people who visit Chicago are surprised to realize the “house” scene is not as vibrant as they imagined. But the city is vast, and while its scene may not fit the expectations for a young person born after the peak of house, it's still there. Additionally, for outsiders and those looking to attract them, it's an important part of the city's cultural legacy.
A few weeks after Spring Awakening, the July 4 holiday weekend saw two very different dance music festivals. On 63rd and Hayes Drive, on the city’s South Side, old school house heads made their yearly trek to the Chosen Few Picnic Weekend, a gathering of classic house DJs such as Jesse Saunders and Andre Hatchett, international guest DJs, and their longtime and devoted fans.
Before house was even house, The Chosen Few was founded as the “Chosen Few Disco Corp.” in 1977 by Wayne Williams. Together, the group (also including Alan King, Tony Hatchett, Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn) helped popularize the style of house in basements, cafeterias and nightclubs on Chicago’s South Side. It is difficult to imagine the sustainability of such a scene, yet it still exists and thrives outside of largely white, largely mainstream ideas of contemporary house music. I have gone to the Picnic Weekend for two years, and, with each year, I feel welcomed and embraced, as if I'm coming home after a long journey away. It is not flashy, not pretentious, not anything other than what it has always been: a lively, lovely celebration of house in its home.
Chosen Few largely attracted the originals, those who were there way back when and never left. But this year (and noticeable last year too) there was a much more diverse crowd, particularly in age. Even the things that have always been here are changing as the crowds grow and as the city further establishes itself as something special.
Farther north, in the Goose Island neighborhood, a new event called the Riverwest Music Festival welcomed a selection of local and international acts, including the kooky yet musically charming DJ Koze and trio Apollonia. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that both festivals took place at the same time. If Riverwest Music Festival is looking to establish itself both within and outside of the city and establish itself as part of the Chicago legacy of house culture, this holiday weekend is a metaphorical flag in the sand. “Here we are,” they are effectively saying. Are you paying attention?
“This is a city we love and a style of music that is a bit under appreciated on the festival scene, especially in the city where it was founded,” said Joe Calderone, the marketing manager of the festival. “Now there’s all different—more modern perhaps—takes on “house music,” and we wanted to represent that to the fullest extent with Riverwest Music Festival. We believe the artists, the setting, the music and the overall experience will do our city justice.”
Organized by nightlife and festival veterans from across the Midwest and the globe for nearly a year, Riverwest Music Festival had a true DIY vibe. Unlike the ever-expanding and substantial Spring Awakening, Riverwest Music Festival felt quaint. I could view the entire festival from front to back, capturing a 360-degree view in the span of a Snapchat. This is sure to change next year, by word-of-mouth alone. The announcement for Riverwest Music Festival came only weeks before the opening day, perhaps in a mad scramble after the doomed Wavefront Music Festival of the previous two years.
Surprisingly, the festival felt like one of the most diverse music experiences I’ve ever experienced in the city. For me, an idealistic 26-year-old lifelong Chicagoan, it also felt like massive glimpses of what could be, in terms of music and community and most importantly, barriers. Chicago is not traditionally a place for togetherness, at least between classes and races. It is a city of neighborhoods and of people’s desires to be with “their kind.” The festival, then, felt like a chance to expand the limitations of one place into something else, another place that might even be better.
Calderone agreed, adding that the organizers prided themselves on creating, “a diverse lineup that has both the heavy hitting bass, but also the kind of house music that would make the Warehouse proud. It’s sort of a way to give back to where house music was founded.”
Earlier this year, the city and world mourned the death of Frankie Knuckles, and earlier this summer, different groups—the North Side and the South Side, the new house fans and the old—came together to celebrate his legacy in Millennium Park. The city-sanctioned gathering was overcrowded, and it spilled on to the lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion. For three hours, legends like Mike Winston, Knuckles’ original opening DJ at The Powerplant, took to the turntables.
“After Frankie Knuckles passed away, it really spiked an interest in the history of house music, and you see the larger name EDM acts giving props to the founders,” said Calderone.
I made it there about an hour after the show started and was surprised to find how truly peaceful the event felt. There were children and twentysomethings and fortysomethings and the elderly all crowded within the park. After a few days of unseasonable weather, the temperatures had settled nicely in the lower 70s and clear blue skies were evident for miles. Perhaps the organizers didn’t expect the true coming together of audiences, especially in a city as stereotypically divided as this one. It felt like there was a changing tide, both refreshing and spirited.
There is a phrase, “one nation under house,” and I could see its seeds take root at these tributes to dance music, both homegrown and over-the-top. During each of these events this summer and in years past, the bass was something universal, a constant 4/4 reminder of why we were there, a lighthouse home from any corner of the festival. At Millennium Park, the makeshift dance floors were packed with the slick bodies of the friends each person came with, as well as of the friends they would inevitably make. In minutes, I had added new contacts to my phone.
Trying to explain house or EDM or any type of dance music to outsiders can be futile in 2014. It is one of those genres that you either get or you don’t get. And there’s nothing wrong with that, not inherently. But I loathe the kneejerk reaction of disdain to dance music as a uniting force for young people like myself. What we hear about is the chaos, the tragedy, the flippant attitudes. But rarely do we hear about the community and love. Rarely do we hear about the history, the scope of the music's legacy, the influencers who have always been there and who are continuing to find new ways to define what this music means for Chicago.
A renewed interest in dance music and Chicago is not wrong. In Chicago especially, this interest is important and perhaps even critical for the city’s continued survival in the contemporary musical landscape. As music consumption becomes increasingly global, Chicago artists, promoters, and fans have found a means of taking a stand and declaring their home scene something worthy of praise, for its past and its future. More and more, it's also something capable of bringing together disparate parts of the city. As Chicago turns nostalgia for house music in a renewed source of creation and pride, things have come full circle, and we're building on the ones and twos of our musical forefathers.
Britt Julious will be dancing to even more music this weekend at Lollapalooza. She's on Twitter - @britticisms
Want more dance music? Check these out: