The Chosen Few Picnic has evolved from the informal gathering that birthed the event in the summer of 1990, but a handful of constants remain: barbecue, family, dancing, and house music.
These days there’s just more of all of the above, as I witnessed last weekend in Jackson Park. More families than just the Hatchetts, who’d hang out behind the Museum of Science and Industry every Fourth of July weekend until brothers Tony and Andre invited the rest of their friends in the Chosen Few, the south-side DJ collective that helped create house music beginning in the late 70s, to spin records at the gathering 27 years ago.
More family means more barbecuing, too. A sizable portion of the tens of thousands of people who now attend the Chosen Few Picnic every year arrive toting large grills and plastic bins filled with chicken, ribs, sausages, and plenty of other meats that sizzle throughout the day.
Many attendees make their way in front of the gigantic grassy area in front of the sole stage to dance, and now there’s more opportunity to do so; last year, after 25 years as a single-day event, the party expanded to a two-day gathering, now called the Chosen Few Picnic & Festival.
Of all the Chicago festivals that draw large crowds, the Chosen Few Picnic remains refreshingly distinct. Tickets are inexpensive, the relaxed atmosphere makes the event resemble a neighborhood block party rather than a festival, and the few corporate sponsors don’t overwhelm the stage with their logos; the largest banners hanging onstage last weekend were for Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston and the Chosen Few DJs.
The collective ropes in other house heroes to play the festivities—on Saturday that included producer Steve “Silk” Hurley and vocalists CeCe Peniston (performer of the 1991 dance sensation “Finally”) and Dajae (who collaborated with Chicago producer Cajmere on some of his early-90s hits). But year in and year out, each of the seven members of the Chosen Few hold spin for roughly an hour. The guys behind the decks may be the reason people show up, but the DJs also appreciate that the Picnic would be nothing without an energetic audience. While standing onstage Saturday afternoon, Chosen Few founder Wayne Williams redirected a network news cameraman to instead capture the crowd: “What are you doing pointing the camera at me? You should point it at them!”
The Chosen Few Picnic reflects some great tenants of dance music—it’s inclusive and participatory, and gets better the more that attendees respond to what’s happening onstage. And because so much of what makes the event unique happens in the crowd, I teamed up with videographer Morgan Elise Johnson to get a better sense of what it feels like to be in the crowd. We headed to Jackson Park on July 1 to hang out among the dancers and grillers, and talk to a handful of attendees about their history with the Chosen Few Picnic.