Contributor Jay B McCauley headed to the Chosen Few DJs Picnic in Chicago for a dose of the most authentic house music party on the planet.
Many others lay claim to it. Many countries have cities and cultures that have adopted it. But only one city can say with absolute certainty that they are house music. The unwanted child of pop-infused disco and the parent of countless other genres was born in Chicago and nowhere else.
Specifically, it rose from the very tough and urban streets of Chicago’s South Side. To this day the South Side has a reputation that underpins its social fabric, which means it’s usually omitted from most tourist guidebooks or the handbooks of festival attendees. And yet every 4th of July weekend, an event is held that belies all the South Side’s violence and celebrates house music in its entirety. Welcome to the Chosen Few DJs Picnic—an event so special and important that President Obama gave it a shout out.
Firstly, The Picnic lauds the innovative heroes that built this genre from literally nothing; the same heroes who continue to breathe life into the music today. And secondly—make no mistake—it reminds the world that house music is still alive and well in Chicago, while organically soothing a community requiring some much-needed care and attention. By celebrating the music and the legacy it created, The Picnic reunites the South Side and injects more than just a little love into its beating heart.
This unity is spread by dedicated DJs who never let the dream sleep away, and as a result, The Chosen Few are spoken about with reverence by the people of the South Side: Wayne Williams, Alan King, Andre and Tony Hatchett, Terry Hunter, Mike Dunn and the man responsible for what is considered the first house record, Jesse Saunders.
They use analogue mixers and have been doing so since the beginning. This is not a passing fad for them. It is their life. Years ago they began creating loops from spliced-together reel-to-reel tapes—no laptop to help them—just audio reels, a splicing block, a razor blade and some sticky tape. This is where the late, great Frankie Knuckles built his legend, where Ron Hardy worked those decks, where Marshall Jefferson first commanded you to "Move Your Body", where Farley produced "Love Can't Turn Around", where Mr Fingers asked "Can you Feel it?", and where Joe Smooth wrote about "The Promised Land". As Jesse said, the list goes on and on.
The picnic is not designed as a headlong rush into drug-fuelled excess for the buffed and tanned, and this is not about pyrotechnics or heart-shaped hand gestures. This is about feeling the groove, or as they say in Chicago when a tune floats on the breeze, "Alright, alright, alright!"
From 7AM onwards the audience arrives with their BBQ grills in tow, ready to eat, to dance and to be merry without a care in the world. From the very old and ungainly to the just born and the unborn, everyone is comfortable in the skin they are in, and everyone dances like no one is watching. Cuban cigars are everywhere. All genders suck the life out of their stogies and there is no drug-induced gurning or lockjaw in sight, just the smiles of an adoring public grateful to hear the music they love. The police presence is invisible. In fact, the Chief of Police was off-duty in a tent, soaking up the vibes and taking in the tunes.
You can't bluff these people, you can't con them, and you can't hide behind a tissue of pre-Internet myths. You can't claim to be anything you are not, and if you want to talk house, you can"t allude to some vague story. These people lived the life. They know quality when they see it and they expect nothing less. Your legacy is your legitimacy, and to be considered special by the South Side, you have to be very special indeed.
The festival venue, Jackson Park, is not far from Lake Michigan and accommodates 40,000 die hard fans of Chicago house relatively well. It is much better catered for than most festivals and the crowd is respectful and peaceful. The day started off casually enough with soulful beats by Ms Nicky DVine, moving effortless into sets by the more-than-capable Greg Winfield and Greg Gray. As the Jumbo Jenga towers were stacked higher and higher, so did the beats. And what started off as a gathering of 50 people 28 years ago had now become a city-wide event.
As the grills start to heat up, the first of the Chosen Few hits the stage. Born and raised in Chicago, Andre Hatchett grew up in a household where all types of music was played. Like many he was sharing the stage with that day, he began experimenting with pause-button edits on a cassette tape recorder in the ‘70s. Andre played on that tape recorder until older brother Tony (also a Chosen member) introduced him to a mixer and two turntables, and the rest is house music history. As the diminutive giant left the stage, he was replaced by his brother Tony, and the legends kept coming and going until The Basement Boys delivered an awe-inspiring set.
The Basement Boys are Teddy Douglas, DJ Karizma and DJ Spen, natives of Baltimore, but no one holds it against them. This is about the house music family. The festival hosts had been warned that they were about to get taught a lesson and the boys certainly delivered. The three DJs played back-to-back, chopping, mixing and looping over the top of each other with not a laptop in sight. They held the crowd in their palms, working the equipment like no other DJ that day.
Teddy Douglas slammed down a version of “Gypsy Woman” that will be forever remembered and the crowd went delirious. They echoed the chorus, waved their hands and danced like people possessed, infinitely happy as the boys toyed with them and fed their adoration. When the trio chopped up Karizma"s "Work it Out", if there had been a roof on the joint, they would have ripped it off and the fire department would have been called in.
As DJ Spen said afterwards: “It's always amazing to come together with Teddy and Karizma. We go many years back and have been through a lot together, so we have a deep connection that speaks through the way we play together. The energy at the Picnic is unreal. For me, and for Teddy and Karizma as well, most of our work is overseas and we get lots of love and support for the music there. But to be asked to do what we love right at home in the US is tremendous. The energy of the crowd is just phenomenal and it's really humbling to see people who come from all over just to enjoy the music.”
There is no way that the Basement Boys could be followed by another performer, so the organisers sensibly pushed the reset button and gave out awards for long serving icons of the Chicago community. This is another example of how the festival honours those that have contributed to Chicago's legacy. This year Stacy Kidd from House 4 Life Records and the irrepressible Ron Carroll were among the notable inductees into the Frankie Knuckles DJ Hall of Fame.
After the plaudits had died down, the wildly talented vocalist Sheree Hicks gave a live performance of her own. Her sublime lyrics have graced many turntables around the globe over the years, and like many of the artists who took to the stage that day, she’s extremely humble and abundantly aware of Chicago’s place in dance music history.
“The day of the Chosen Few Picnic for me is surreal,” Hicks said. “It's a moment that artists like me dream of. It afforded me an opportunity of a lifetime that I won't soon forget.”
Her rendition of "Keeping My Composure" wowed the crowd, but when she sang her own version of disco classic “The Boss” by Diana Ross, people really took notice. “(It) was appreciated by the crowd because it paid homage to a legend that came before me, which personally, is an imperative. I need to show respect to the ones who paved the way for artists like me and who now choose to keep the soulful house music flowing.”
Although the Picnic is traditionally about the Chosen Few, radio also played a major part in the development of house music in the early days, in particular the Hot Mix 5. Farley “Jackmaster” Funk was one famous member of that group, but the next DJ on the roster also played a significant role; Ralphi Rosario.
As CFDJ founding member Alan King points out, “Ralphi is a legend in Chicago, having joined the Hot Mix 5 when he was just a teenager. But he is so humble and was so excited about the opportunity to play the Picnic. Watching him deliver like the pro he is and take full advantage of the Picnic experience was definitely one of my highlights of the day. He settled into an amazing set and watching the crowd open up and receive him in the way they did was a massive highlight.”
Following Ralphi, the heavyweights of the CFDJs come out to play. First up was Wayne Williams, Chairman of the Board aka Doctor Derelict, the man who started DJing in 1974 before disco had actually died. Under his guidance, the Picnic became the unstoppable party it’s known as today, He contributed to this year by delivering a set of ineffable quality, nuanced with everything you would expect from a man who has been DJing for nearly half a century.
Internationally renowned DJs Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn followed Williams. While they’re both newer recruits to the Chosen Few line up, like the Basement Boys, Hunter and Dunn ply their trade to vast audiences overseas, with Dunn playing Croatia shortly after this appearance and Hunter playing 51st State in London.
Despite their ‘rookie’ status at the Picnic, however, both understood the brand and the audience, and are prolific and exceptional producers in their own right—Dunn’s remix of Childish Gambino"s “This is America” was without question the song of the weekend. Even though it is Dunn’s song, however, he strangely chose not to drop it. Instead, he concentrated on minimal disco and nodded to the old school with "Love is The Message" by MFSB. The crowd certainly kept pace with him as he handed over the reins to Terry Hunter.
At this point, Terry was backed by biggest on-stage entourage in living memory, including the iconic shaman David Risqué. Terry’s set dripped with classics and current remixes. There was not a space to be had when he dropped Talking Heads’ "Letting the Days Go By,” building his set like a master craftsman from there. Teddy Pendergrass’ "You Can't Hide from Yourself" also amazed, as did the acapella for “Mind, Body and Soul.”
When he dropped Dunn’s aforementioned Gambino remix the crowd duly responded. Although not an event usurped by political agendas, "This is America" truly resonates with the South Side. The crowd went to a different place. Speaking to Hunter off-stage, he said he understands the way the crowd reacts and what this event means to them. This is their playground. This is their America.
And then came one of the many highlights on a day filled with irreplaceable memories. Alan King, friend of presidents and a renowned Chicago DJ threw down a heavenly set of disco-infused house music. King is not just a headline DJ; he also runs the Picnic and is supported by family, friends and colleagues—no doubt a huge undertaking.
“Like every year, I wear multiple hats during the Picnic, including festival manager and DJ,” King said. “It’s actually not as easy as people might think to spend the day engrossed in production issues and then have to play in prime time for a crowd of 40,000! I do my best to rise to the occasion, and I actually felt like this year’s event was one of the best ever in terms of the feelings of community, joy and love in the park.”
King seems to somehow manages the whole day with relative ease, and when you see the crowd reaction to Daddy’s Favourite remix of Patrice Rushen’s "I Feel Good Things For You," you understand what an unheralded master this man is at reading his audience. He then provided the backing track to a personal appearance by an artist who has defined house music for over 30 years—Chuck "The Voice" Roberts, the man who recorded "My House" with Rhythm Control in 1987. Still unclear? I will give you the opening bars….
"In the beginning there was Jack… "
It’s a line that has launched a thousand records, as eternal and boundless as house music itself. Seeing this giant stride the stage and deliver his sermon whilst being serenaded by soulful queen Monique Bingham was a once in a lifetime experience. Everyone knew their part. Everyone understood the rare treat that they were seeing.
Wayne Williams sees the vocal as "arguably the most important recording in house music history next to Marshall Jefferson’s "Move Your Body", and Chuck is forever humble as he states that he is "astounded that people all over the world have accepted me all over again!" To see this man get the respect he deserves as he takes the applause is worth every cent of the airfare.
And as the sun departed the horizon, the man who recorded the world’s first house music track closed out the show. The crowd gathered its second wind as Jesse Saunders began his journey, littered with classics and new but timeless tracks. Proving this was more than just another gig, Jesse started his set after standing on stage all day in support of his fellow brothers, absorbing their atmosphere and drawing on the music’s energy.
“Playing in front of a sea of people as far as the eye can see is the most amazing feeling any DJ could ever experience!” Jesse said. “It's a love fest and that defines house music… It's like having church. Most of the people that attend are from generations and generations of the Chicago bloodline that dates back to Den One & The Music Box with Ron Hardy, the Warehouse and Power Plant with Frankie.”
As the final tracks bid farewell to the audience, my only reflection is that for a house head, there is no better experience than the Chosen Few DJs Picnic. The effect it has on its community, the history it supports and the achievements it celebrate—these are triumphs that need to be proclaimed.
People will argue that events in Ibiza, Amsterdam, Croatia and Miami may have a more star-studded line up or more glitz and glamour. But if its authenticity you are after, if the love of house is your game, if you want to feel part of a house music family, then there is nothing finer than Chicago in July.
As we stroll through the park in a departing sea of humanity, I can only be reminded of Chuck’s immortal words:
You may be black
You may be white
You may be Jew or Gentile.
It don't make a difference in our house
And this is fresh
Images supplied by author; header image by Marc Monaghan