How Chicago house got its groove back 

Chicago house music is the sound of global pop today. In the 90s, though, it was on life support—until a new wave of producers, including Cajmere and DJ Sneak, got the city doing the Percolator.

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"The second-wave kids had already heard, and were reading in magazines, about how house music was making an impact," says Sneak. "They knew that that door was already open, that the groundwork was already laid by all the pioneers. Between 1990 and '94, a lot of Chicago producers actually moved out of Chicago, went to Europe, went to New York, all these places, and were already spreading the word even harder. So in '93, '94, '95, all these younger producers were like, 'Now is the time.'"

Their sound—really a conglomerate of sounds, many quite distinct—was especially popular in the midwest, where road-trip culture encouraged the intermingling of local rave scenes from Minneapolis to Cleveland, Kansas City to Louisville. Chicago, in every way, was right in the middle.

House music was as ubiquitous in late-80s Chicago as it is worldwide today. Local labels like Trax, DJ International, and Dance Mania were churning out 12-inches that detonated in local clubs as well as overseas. The now-defunct WBMX's Hot Mix 5, a group of DJ all-stars, launched the still-thriving careers of Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, Ralphi Rosario, and Bad Boy Bill, among others. A party with any of those DJs—not to mention Frankie Knuckles (who arrived in 1977 from New York to spin full-time at the Warehouse, the club that gave house music its name and the place where his combination of disco classicism and drum-machine enhancements molded the music's style) and Ron Hardy of the Music Box (dead of misadventure in 1992, and a fiercer, more expressionistic DJ than Knuckles)—could attract as many as 5,000 people.

click to enlarge Frankie Knuckles
  • Frankie Knuckles

"They played all this different house music on the radio," Chicago house vet Derrick Carter told the Reader's Miles Raymer in 2011. "WBMX or WGCI or Disco Dai [WDAI] or WVON or WJPC would do a morning drive-time mix, a 'hot lunch' mix, and an 'after work at six' mix. Then on Fridays and Saturdays they would do 9 [PM] to 4 or 5 [AM]—right along club time, but on the radio. I would stay up and listen, or rig up the VCR to the radio. I could record six hours, so I didn't even have to be up. Later I would listen and transfer it all back to cassette. I would edit it and take out the stupid songs—reduce to the good stuff, in my eyes."

Curtis A. Jones did much the same thing. He grew up listening to a full range of music, but fell hardest for house, taping "Jackmaster" Funk DJ sets off the radio. "I still have my tapes of those shows from back in the 80s," he says. He began writing songs while studying chemical engineering as an undergrad at Urbana-Champaign. "My original intention was just to be a producer," he says. "Back then I was a shy person, so I wanted to do something more behind-the-scenes."

"We definitely had a sense that history was being made. I couldn't believe that this shit was going on, that we're going to a roller rink and it's full of 1,500 or 2,000 kids and it's going all night long until six in the morning." —Electronic musician Kate Simko

Jones found himself dismayed when Chicago house music's popularity dwindled in its hometown. "House was the most popular form of music for a lot of the black urban scene here," he says. That changed in the 90s: "The original house audience left and went to hip-hop."

"Back in the day, blacks and Latins were all [into] house—the gangsters, too," Gene Farris—one of Jones's early signings—wrote me in an e-mail. "When hip-hop hit Chicago, it separated those worlds really fast."

One place Chicago house migrated was into the city's lofts and warehouse spaces, where no more than a few hundred true believers would gather at a time for secretive parties advertised with simple photocopied flyers. "It would just be text," says Justin Long, a longtime resident DJ at Lakeview's upscale dance den Smart Bar, who came of age playing the lofts and, later, raves. "Party, name, address, DJs, that's it—very to the point, minimalistic.

Long grew up on Chicago's north side and fell for house music in fifth grade, after hearing Thompson & Lenoir's "Can't Stop the House" (1987) on the car radio. He hooked into the music's alien quality—stark electronic beats, swaying keyboard bass, and engagingly off-key singing from Kenya Lenoir and Brenda Parker, who delivered emphatic lyrics such as "I pledge allegiance to the house sound." In 1992, at age 14, Long bought his first pair of turntables. Soon, he was playing at parties downtown and along Milwaukee Avenue, at venues referred to only by door number: 1355, 1471, 156. "Drugs weren't a factor," says Long of the early loft parties. "People really just came to dance and hang out. It would be two DJs doing their thing for hours, telling a story."

Though it was hard to see at the time, a larger audience was beckoning the city's DJs, and Jones would be instrumental in finding it. In 1991 he began releasing 12-inches on a local label, Clubhouse, sometimes with his friend Karen Gordon, aka Dajae, a veteran session singer for whom he'd begun writing songs. One of their early ones was "Keep Movin'." (On the 12-inch, she's billed as Nané.) The single included the "Straight Up Drugs Remix," featuring a weird, wet, rubbery percussion noise. It passed without notice, but Jones heard potential. He kept messing with it, eventually releasing two additional tracks on Clubhouse that tweaked the same effect.

When Jones started Cajual Records in 1992, he made its first release the fourth and final variation on that sound. This time the track was called "The Percolator." It was pure simplicity—a militant snare, Jones nonchalantly chanting "It's time for the percolator," and an elongated version of that noise, now revealed as a pitch-bent synth note. The track went nova in Chicago.

click to enlarge Justin Long, who went on to become a resident DJ at Smart Bar, came of age playing the secretive loft parties where Chicago house migrated in the 90s. - BEN MACRI
  • Justin Long, who went on to become a resident DJ at Smart Bar, came of age playing the secretive loft parties where Chicago house migrated in the 90s.
  • Ben Macri

"When 'The Percolator' came out, it was like a tidal wave," remembers Long. "Around Chicago during that time, there was definitely a Percolator dance. When a dance is made after your song, you know it's something special—like the Electric Slide."

"It was a track that everybody could play," says DJ Sneak. "Not just the ghetto south-side kids, not just Bad Boy Bill on the radio—everybody came for that record."

It was a remarkable kickoff for Jones's new label. "The Percolator" and its follow-up, Dajae's winsome "Brighter Days" (which peaked at number two on the Billboard dance chart), both remain Chicago house standards. They also were the records that announced the city's next wave of talent. "Cajual, Relief, and Prescription Records created a whole new scene," says Melvin Oliphant III, aka veteran Chicago DJ Traxx, referring to Jones's two main labels as well as one he distributed. "And with him, that brought [out] a lot of south-side players [like] Glenn Underground."

The south side was fertile ground for other house-music entrepreneurs as well. Dance Mania Records had been established in 1985 by Jesse Saunders, whose "On and On," issued on Jes' Say in 1984, is widely acknowledged as the first house record. Dance Mania issued a number of key late-80s house classics by prime movers such as Marshall Jefferson (Hercules' "7 Ways to Jack") and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk (House Master Boyz' "House Nation"). By the mid-90s, Saunders had moved to Los Angeles, and Dance Mania was in the hands of Raymond Barney, owner of west-side distributor Barney's Records. Around the time of "The Percolator," Barney began signing new south-side talent as well—most notably, Paul Johnson and DJ Funk.

The wheelchair-bound Johnson (he'd accidentally been shot by a friend in 1987) created a sound both raw and versatile, like genre exercises by a good low-budget filmmaker—from an airy disco cut-up like "Welcome to the Warehouse" to the dirty-mouthed, dirty-drums ghetto house of "Feel My MF Bass" (both 1994). His most famous record is 2001's "Get Get Down," with a piano part that amounts to a distillation of every piano riff from every house hit ever.

Born Charles Chambers, DJ Funk was raised by his grandmother, moving around Chicago neighborhoods, mainly on the west side; he spent some of his adolescence in Detroit as well. Chambers began breakdancing as a teenager, paying attention to the differences in the two cities' DJ styles. In Detroit, he noticed, DJs cut faster, but in Chicago they rocked the party better. He vowed to do the latter.

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