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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In Chicago, all-house raves caught on fast with kids who'd grown up listening to house on the radio. "The house DJs were the most popular DJs," says Dan Labovitch, who runs Rave Archive, a Web hub for his extensive collection of Chicago-centric paraphernalia, including scanned rave zines and MP3s of old DJ mix tapes. "Boo Williams, Paul Johnson, Justin Long—those guys would headline a party all day long and draw people."

Many American kids who'd embraced rave in the early 90s found blaring anthems such as T99's "Anasthasia" and Human Resource's "Dominator" exciting and rootless. But as the decade progressed, ravers began to revisit the music's beginnings. Like rock music looking back to blues and country in the late 60s, rave returning to root styles like Chicago house and Detroit techno was proof that you weren't just at the party looking for the next hit of E.

click to enlarge Paul Johnson
  • Paul Johnson

"We were hearing more and more: 'Chicago is where house was from,'" says electronic musician Kate Simko, who went to her first rave in 1995. "We realized [from] the magnitude of people that were playing [at events] how important Chicago was. 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."

As the parties grew, part of their allure was a general good-naturedness. "You've got to remember, Chicago to this day is the most segregated city in the country," says Labovitch. While raves were largely populated by white suburbanites, they were open to anyone. "The thing I loved about the rave scene was it was extremely diverse—black, white, Latino, Asian, whatever," says Jones. "By '95, that was pretty much the peak of the rave scene."

A subculture built on partying is bound to go overboard sometime, and that boiling point was the subject of Jones's greatest record, which he released not as Cajual but as Green Velvet, a nickname from a girlfriend's dad ("He knew I was Cajmere, so he would call me Green Velvet instead," Jones says with a laugh). It became his alias for stiffer, more stripped-down, "trackier" records on Relief, a Cajual sublabel, such as 1995's "Flash."

"It was really raw," says Jones. "It didn't have any structure to it. I did it live, totally improvising off the top of my head. I thought it had too many vocals for the techno heads and was too hard for the house heads. It turned out that both of them played it. When it was played in the raves, the kids just loved it."

They should have—it was about them. "Flash" takes place at "Club Bad," a party gleefully presented as a den of sin. Kids huff nitrous oxide from balloons as Jones chortles through menacing distortion, "Laughing gas—but this is no laughing matter." The crowning touch in the song's sick-joke structure is that Jones is narrating the entire thing to the kids' parents, who are presumably looking on, horrified.

"'Flash,'" says Jones, "was an accumulation of all the things that I was seeing and experiencing in the rave scene." In the beginning, he says, the scene was all about the music. But the pervasive drug use began to bother him. "You would see teenagers, young kids—some of them looked like they were 12, 13—doing very serious stuff," he says.

At first, the big rave drugs were MDMA and LSD—ecstasy and acid. "As 15-year-olds, acid was easier to get than weed," says Labovitch of the mid-90s. But the drugs grew harder—at the same time that the crowds grew younger. "By the fall of '97 there were 13-year-olds really cracked out on drugs at these parties, and me thinking, 'Wow, this has changed,'" says Simko. By the early 2000s, meth was all over the rave scene.

In 2001, Green Velvet released "La La Land," which refined the "Flash" template with a loopy—and cautionary—vocal hook: "Something 'bout those little pills the thrills they yield un-real un-til they kill a mill-ion brain cells." The year before, he'd signed to F-111, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, which released an anthology of singles. Jones wrote "La La Land" attempting to tailor something to a major label; when he was dropped in 2001, he wound up releasing the song himself on Relief.

Eventually, Jones had a Club Bad experience of his own at an afterparty, when someone slipped GHB—commonly called a date-rape drug—into his drink. "I knew something very, very wrong was going on," he says. He began breathing uneasily, and then to pray. It helped, and Jones vowed to God, "I will change and everybody will know it." It's a philosophy he maintains without proselytizing: "That was my personal experience. It had nothing to do with me trying to change everybody."

But the rave scene was changing, with or without Jones's help. "It had transformed from being about the music to being about the drugs," says Jones of the later rave years. Justin Long started working full-time for Smart Bar and bowed out of the rave scene entirely: "It wasn't a music-conscious society anymore. Once that element gets pulled out of the equation, what's the importance? Whatever it became, it wasn't for me."

click to enlarge DJ Funk and DJ Assault
  • DJ Funk and DJ Assault

June Nho-Ivers remembers a Halloween party in 2000 at the Armory, with DJ Funk and Detroit techno artist Kenny Larkin headlining. "The moment we started getting in there, kids were already getting pulled out on stretchers," she says. "Looking down from the DJ booth, I was like, 'God, this is terrible.' You just saw kids melting, and fights breaking out. Security was such an issue—there were so many issues all over the place."

It didn't take long for law enforcement to crack down. "[Local promoter] Vibe Alive had a party out in the suburbs, in a forest preserve," Oliphant recalls. "I was out there to play. It was a little late, but [suddenly] they had SWAT teams, militant motherfuckers in all black with helmets and machine guns, busting the party, landing down on the forest preserve. It was really, really bad."

Chambers watched as the cops nudged rave promoters toward insolvency by calling off their permits minutes before doors opened: "If promoters put up 20, 50 grand and get busted, they have to pay all the DJs off. They lose all their money."

Rave went to sleep for the better part of a decade—only to have come back to life in the past few years among a millennial generation of kids in thrall of Skrillex, Deadmau5, Swedish House Mafia, and Nero. For them, it's a new thrill. For older partiers, it can't help but sound familiar.

The same is true of juke or footwork—the latest iteration of Dance Mania-style ghetto-booty. "They've kind of changed it to juke a little bit, but it's still the same style," says Chambers. Now that electronic dance music has hit the 30-year mark, Chicago's second wave is poised to have a second coming. It hasn't been excavated by archival labels the way the 80s stuff has, but that's starting to change. Last year Anotherday, a reissue subsidiary of England's Ramp Recordings, reissued Boo Williams's Home Town Chicago, a 1996 album originally out on Cajual, and Amsterdam label Rush Hour, which put out last year's late-80s compilation Gene Hunt Presents Chicago Dance Tracks, is looking into collecting some of the city's early-90s house as well.

The artists from that period know its draw. This year is Cajual Records' 20th anniversary; the label hasn't announced plans to celebrate but hints that it will. Chambers has registered the URL dancemaniarecords.com and, he says, owns digitized copies of several hundred original Dance Mania tracks copied from a number of sources. "I'm trying to figure out exactly how I want to put them out," he says. "They've been in limbo for a while." So was Chambers himself. After the rave scene's early-00s collapse, DJ Funk had to slash his performance fee. "I was used to having doctor money, lawyer money," he says with a laugh. "I was down to regular work money."

But during his heyday, Chambers "was smart enough to get some real estate." Location: the west suburbs. "The house I bought is an old rock 'n' roll studio," he says proudly. "Remember that group, what's their name—Styx? 'Mr. Roboto'? I bought their studio: 1,000 square feet, big main room, big room for a band, singer room, drummer room. It took a while to get used to it, but at least I made an investment."

Sneak made a different kind of investment, albeit one that's also rooted in his musical past. Fabric 62 is a departure from his previous mix CD, 2009's two-disc Back in the Box, which concentrated on the late 90s and repped Chicago with songs by Paul Johnson and Cajmere, as well as (naturally) "You Can't Hide From Your Bud." It's telling that, for all his hometown pride, the only Chicago artist on Fabric 62 is DJ Sneak himself. Chicago gave house music to the world, but the world has been doing more with it than its hometown has for a few years now. The bulk of Sneak's selections come from European producers.

Musically, the main difference between Fabric 62 and Sneak's first official mix, Buggin' da Beats (Moonshine, 1997), is the difference between computer animation and hand-drawn cels—the narrative's basically the same, but the tools with which the story is illustrated are different. Sneak likes warm, enveloping, lightly psychedelic grooves in which a kick drum playing a solid four is never far away—and neither is percussion that tugs away at the dancer's outer limbs. The rhythms are warm even when they're minimalist, as on Yeshua Murlillo's "I'm Gonna Make You Mine (Joss Moog Remix)," which is the most arresting moment on the mix—just a couple of piano notes, some restrained sax, and a sonorous crooning of the title phrase are all the track needs to keep the ear tantalized. The rough kick drum does the rest.

If Sneak's still mining an updated version of the same sound he created two decades ago, it says something about how durable that music was—and remains. Even so, the DJ is mindful of the real-world economic reasons for adapting what he's always done while paying close attention to how house music has changed. "I'm 41 years old now," Sneak says. "The crowd I used to play for, they all have kids and don't really go clubbing. I'm targeting a younger crowd. You've got to go with the times."

DJ Sneak and Derrick Carter, Live at the End, London, 2001.

Hear mixes and live sets from Derrick Carter, DJ Funk, DJ Sneak, Justin Long, and Paul Johnson at the Rave Archive.

Corrections: This story has been amended to reflect the year Armando's "Downfall" was first released, as well as the label that released it. The story also has been changed to reflect the rave promoters with whom DJ Mystic Bill was affiliated.

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