South-side DJ collective the Chosen Few, which Wayne Williams founded as a high school student in 1977, played an instrumental role in popularizing disco and house music in Chicago during the late 70s and early 80s—at first, both styles were largely confined to gay clubs. Given the huge influence that house has had on pop’s subsequent development, its embryonic years have acquired a mythological glow that rubs off on any artist active in the field at the time—and the Chosen Few have found a way to share their slice of that glory. The crew’s annual picnic and concert has grown into one of house music’s biggest parties.
In 1977, after several DJs had already passed through the Chosen Few, Williams recruited his stepbrother, Jesse Saunders—who’d later become famous for releasing what’s widely regarded as the first house track, “On and On,” in 1984. Williams and his crew were already building a reputation playing house parties, lofts, and high school dances, but their classic five-man lineup took several more years to come together. Tony Hatchett joined in 1978, Alan King in ’80, and Tony’s younger brother, Andre, in ’81. From that point forward, the roster stayed stable till 2006, when the Chosen Few inducted Terry Hunter. Mike Dunn followed in 2012.
In the early 80s, members of the crew began leaving Chicago to attend college, and the Chosen Few’s most active period started to wind down. Since 1990, though, they’ve regrouped every July for the Chosen Few Picnic, which celebrates its 25th year on Saturday. (It’s also referred to as the Chosen Few Reunion Picnic or the Chosen Few Old-School Reunion Picnic, among other things.) The picnic started informally, with Chosen Few DJs spinning records at the Hatchett family Fourth of July barbecue, which had been going on for a few years behind the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s now in Jackson Park, where it’s become what its organizers claim is the largest single-day house festival in the world (they like to call it “the Woodstock of house music”), with a projected 2015 attendance of 45,000 people.
All seven Chosen Few DJs spin at the picnic, and for its silver anniversary the stellar guest lineup includes singers Stephanie Mills, Evelyn “Champagne” King, and Cory Daye; DJs Derrick Carter, Stan Zeff, Keith Fobs, and Greg Gray; and the duo Masters at Work, aka “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. The schedule also lists an unannounced special guest, which the Chosen Few members I talked to seemed very pleased about—they clearly feel like they’ve got a great surprise to spring on their fans.
The Chosen Few Picnic stands out among the glut of Chicago music festivals, and its deep roots in the south-side house community give it much of its appeal. Its relatively cheap tickets (it was free till 2010) and relaxed, convivial atmosphere definitely help too. The picnic is BYOB, and fans can bring lawn furniture, coolers, tents, and food; you can even do your own grilling if you want, though gas grills aren’t allowed. (No glass bottles either.) The picnic weekend, which begins on Thursday, also includes several smaller parties at more conventional venues; you can find details at chosenfewdjs.com.
For this oral history of the picnic, I spoke with three Chosen Few DJs: Terry Hunter, who makes a living as a DJ and producer; Alan King, who’s now a lawyer; and Wayne Williams, who lives in New York City and works as a vice president of A&R at RCA Records. (Andre Hatchett is still in Chicago, along with Hunter and King, but the other two members of the original five-man crew live elsewhere—Tony Hatchett in Houston, Jesse Saunders in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.) I talked to Kim Parham, event director for the Chosen Few Picnic; Linda Redd, who went to high school with Saunders and has been attending picnics since 1990; and Greg Gray, who’s DJed at 22 of the 24 Chosen Few picnics so far. Lehia Franklin Acox, another longtime attendee who’s served as the picnic’s first publicist since 2012, made some time for me too; so did Torin Edmond, who’s been a guest DJ at the picnic and helps maintain a long-running online forum called Deep House Page. I also interviewed Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, who’s been coming to the Chosen Few Picnic since the 90s (she was elected in ’99) and has helped the event’s organizers keep it legit and legal. Lastly, I spoke with the wonderful Marlene Hatchett, mother of Chosen Few DJs Tony and Andre Hatchett. I’ve edited together their testimony to form the account that follows.
Wayne Williams: Some of us had moved out of town. And the only two holidays we really all came back together was Christmas and Fourth of July. So we did a party on Christmas [in 1989]. And it was really cold, but it turned out to be a success. And we were like, “Man, people still want to hear us play together again.” So we said, “Well, you know what, when do we come—well, we don’t want to deal with this Christmas shit.”
Alan King: It was the Hatchett family picnic, is how it really started.
Wayne Williams: At the time, Andre and Tony’s family, they did a family reunion thing behind the museum. We said, “Why don’t we just do a party with them? We’ll set up and DJ with them on July Fourth.”
Marlene Hatchett: It started out with family, and it started out I would say maybe 20, 25 people. And then all of the sudden, Tony and Andre decided they wanted to play some music for the family.
Alan King: When we first started bringing equipment out there and playing music, 30 or 40 people [showed up], something like that. All this stuff would be goin’ on—the music is the background.
Wayne Williams: We’d play football, barbecues, play some softball, and get together. ‘Cause we like being around each other—we’re friends.
Marlene Hatchett: Some of the fondest memories is the beginning, when it just started out like family. We had the little kids, and this one tree, it seemed like it grew with us. The kids would play in this tree. I have pictures of the kids up in the tree, who are adults now—two of my grandkids.
Kim Parham: I would cook the food—Tony Hatchett and I would get together and go to Sam’s Club, and we’d rent tables. It started off with me doing all the logistic aspects of the picnic when it was small, and as it got bigger and bigger I started doing even more logistics. The picnic was how I became part of the Chosen Few, but I’m not a DJ.
Greg Gray: I was a sound engineer—that was my connection. I was renting sound equipment to Andre Hatchett, who’s one of the Chosen Few DJs, for other events. When this one came around [in 1990], he asked me would I be willing to provide sound for their event.
Linda Redd: The guys, they used to play on the garbage cans—the turntables would be on top of the garbage cans. There was no tents and all that stuff, and they used to put the turntables on top of the garbage cans and DJ.
Marlene Hatchett: They had the generator, which kept going out at times because the music was goin’. They would have to recharge the generator.
Wayne Williams: The crazy thing is, everybody wanted to play—play football and stuff, and softball. Don’t nobody want to DJ. Andre, we could always count on him, ’cause he wasn’t really an athlete. Most of us are athletes. So he would be [DJing] early.
Alan King: The funny thing is, I don’t think Jesse [Saunders] ever played at the picnic until there were about 10,000 people.
Wayne Williams: That’s the reason we started having guest DJs, ’cause none of us wanted to DJ early. We wanted to wait till the crowd built up and they was ready to dance.
Linda Redd: The most memorable parts that I do remember coming out there would be Frankie Knuckles—he didn’t DJ, but he would be out there. And I guess another one would be R. Kelly, but then that was later on, like ’97, ’98. And he would come around. Whatever.
Wayne Williams: By then we had attained our own individual success as DJs. “Ah man, Alan’s playing”—his people found out he was playing, and then my people found out I was playing. Andre’s people and Tony’s people found out they were playing. Jesse’s people found out he was playing there. And then word just spread.
Alan King: It sort of continued to grow, and grow organically, ’cause it was really all just word of mouth.
Wayne Williams: We never advertise. We never use radio. We never did flyers.
Linda Redd: Each year was more and more people coming, more and more people finding out about it, and it just got larger and larger.
Alan King: For a number of years music was sort of the backdrop of it, but at a certain point, people start dancing—and a lot of people start dancing. And it really becomes a music-oriented event. I want to say maybe even into the late 90s, but there was a definite shift where it became what you would consider a music event.
Kim Parham: We started getting so big that the police showed up. They were like, “You have too many people and we’re gonna shut you down.” They took my driver’s license—they told me they were gonna take me to jail! So we shut it down. And from then on, I think the formal permit process probably started in 2000—it’s ’99 or 2000 when that happened.
Alan King: We had one year, I think it was 2004, which we affectionately now call the monsoon year.
Wayne Williams: It was like all the rain from the previous years that didn’t happen came down.
Alan King: It rained like you had never seen. We’re like, “Can we even have the picnic?” We decide—we go out there, we’re gonna do it. The DJ set up and the speakers are covered in tarp and we got a tent over the DJ.
Lehia Franklin Acox: Being the nerdy former Girl Scout that I am, I made sure that my husband and I brought a tent out, and thank God. It was inadequate for the monsoon-level rain we had, ’cause it was, like, raining sideways, but at least we had some cover. What was so crazy is that those crazy nuts like us and other people, we refused to leave.
Linda Redd: I got out there maybe around four o’clock, ’cause I didn’t know if people were gonna still be out there. But people were out there and they were dancing.
Alan King: I remember a certain Chosen Few DJ named Wayne Williams taking off his shirt and running down and dancing with the crowd with his shirt off in the rain, which isn’t a pretty sight. But it was a little bit prettier than it would be today. [Laughter.]
Wayne Williams: It was muddy obviously ’cause it was raining so much. I went out there, took my shoes off, my shirt off, and just started dancing. “He’s playing my cut.” The love of music is a phenomenal thing. When you hear your joint—I just don’t give a fuck. And I went out there; I just started dancing in the rain. It was pouring down, and the next thing I know, people are joining me!
Alan King: That was the moment I think when we really looked at each other and realized we have something really special here. That was the moment, because people weren’t gonna leave, they wanted to be there so badly. And then the year after, everybody brought tents for the first time.
Kim Parham: There’s one other moment that really freaked me out—I believe this is before we charged, we were behind the museum. The event was in full force and a tour bus pulled up. I was like, “Well, what the heck is going on?” It was probably about 100 people from Germany. They had heard about the event, and I don’t know if it was part of their tour—they got off the bus.
Alan King: There was a website called Deep House Page, which still exists. A lot of house music people sort of hung out online on Deep House Page, and I think that had an impact in the growth of the picnic—at least with respect to people outside of Chicago. People would start posting pictures on Deep House Page of the picnic and all of that. I think that played a significant role in people starting to make it a destination.
Torin Edmond: It was probably the early to mid-2000s when [the picnic] really started picking up steam, as people around the world just started finding out about it. As we were friends on the message board, that was really an opportunity for folks to start meeting in person. It was always around that Fourth of July weekend, so it just facilitated an opportunity for folks who had never really met in person to start to get together.
Wayne Williams: We get people as far as Australia and Japan coming to this event.
Alan King: By 1981 there were five of us: Wayne, me, Jesse, Tony and Andre Hatchett. We went from probably ’81 to 2006 with just that five. Then we added DJ Terry Hunter. Then a few years later, Mike Dunn.
Terry Hunter: Wayne asked me to join the group. We had a good thing we were doing to welcome me into the group that year. [But] I had a gig overseas, and the Chosen Few, we wasn’t at that point to where we can pay fees. And this is what I do for a living, so I had to go take this gig overseas. They presented me with an award, and I had to have my wife show up to get that to welcome me in the group—I wasn’t even in town. So that was the last time. I said, “I’m not gonna miss another again.”
Kim Parham: We used to pass a bucket around to get money to help pay for the expenses, ’cause we all paid for this out of our pockets.
Alan King: I can think of a video in 2006 where I was playing . . . it’s on YouTube, and we’re passing the bucket. That’s where we started with people, and some people put a dollar in there. It wasn’t enough to really—I mean, it helped us.
Wayne Williams: It helped us from going broke.
Alan King: By that point it was super crowded. People were parking illegally, just stopping their cars on Lake Shore Drive and Cornell and just getting out—parking on the grass. It became very clear that we were getting too big for the site. The funny thing is, for one year we moved to a spot on the Midway [Plaisance]. At the time , when we looked at that Midway spot, it looked like all the space in the world. We were like, “Oh man, this is so much bigger. We’re gonna be fine.” One picnic there, it was clear—much too small.
Kim Parham: That year we had 8,000 people.
Alan King: I want to say it could’ve been 10,000 that year.
Linda Redd: It still wasn’t enough room. It wasn’t enough room, and traffic was even worse. It was just a mess. They only had it there that one year.
Torin Edmond: It’s like, “OK, we can’t do it over there anymore. Let’s move over to Jackson Park.”
Alan King: We definitely wanted to stay in the area. I think Hyde Park always had a significant role in house music—the parties that we did, a lot of the folks came from the schools there. We’d been very fortunate to have a great supporter in alderman Leslie Hairston of the Fifth Ward, who’s our staunchest ally.
Leslie Hairston: When I started this, I was not doing events that had 40,000 people. Over the years, while attendance was growing, we learned a lot more about the parks. We learned a lot more about people, we learned a lot more about crowds, we learned a lot more about making it a pleasant experience for everybody.
Alan King: We started to see serious incremental jumps in attendance, and then we moved to what’s now our current location in 2008. In 2007, 2008, 2009, it was going from five to ten to 15 to 20 [thousand]. And social media was starting to play a role.
Kim Parham: The last five years we had to finally start charging, just because the sheer logistics and operational fees and overhead became more than we could manage alone.
Wayne Williams: I tell people all the time—if you have a house party and you got food for 100 people, [and] 5,000 people show up, you gotta get more food. And that’s kind of what happened with us. We had to get more security—we had to get security—and then we had to get more bathrooms, more porta-potties. We had to get a bigger sound system so more people could hear. More garbage cans. I mean, a lot of different things. And then we had the fence so we could charge, and we had to pay for that.
Leslie Hairston: This is a huge event—you’re talking more than 40,000 people. The closest thing to that would be some of the half marathons that are run—the Nike event last year was a large one. But still I think this is the largest one-day event [in the Fifth Ward].
Alan King: It’s probably pretty much leveled off. I mean, it’s roughly the same since 2011. Frankie’s year was 2011.
Greg Gray: I used to work with Frankie. I was an intern at the Power Plant, which was his club back in ’84 and ’85. I’ve been connected with Frankie since the early, mid-80s. So just to see him out there, doing what he does, at home and in an environment that he’s comfortable in, playing in front of people that have followed him for decades, new people that are recently discovering [him], or some people just knew him by name but had never seen him—it was amazing. It was like seeing your mentor up there, doing his thing in front of all these people, and you’re in the crowd like a little kid.
Lehia Franklin Acox: In 2011, six weeks after giving birth, me, my husband, our baby, and the four-year-old were out there dancing at the Chosen Few Picnic. Looking back on that, it’s very insane, but I did it, because the thought of missing the Chosen Few Picnic is not even an option to me.
Linda Redd: I always bring my son. My son, he’s 19, and so he’s been coming to the Chosen Few Picnic ever since he was in my belly. He loves it. When he was little, I used to bring a little playpen so he could be in the playpen. And now I don’t even have to look for him—he finds me, ’cause he knows I’m always in the front dancing with the crowd.
Terry Hunter: I think that’s why the picnic has grown to the number that it’s grown to, because it’s a family-oriented event. People bring their tents out, they bring their grills out, they bring their drinks out, and everybody just knows each other. If you don’t know a person, your common ground is coming there for the music and just to see people that you haven’t seen.
Alan King: We’ve been [going] 25 years, and the last ten years or so with thousands of people in the park on the south side of Chicago, and not had a single security incident, a single act of violence.
Wayne Williams: I think this will be our biggest year, ’cause it’s our 25th anniversary.
Alan King: We have a couple of major surprises, one onstage and one off the stage.
Marlene Hatchett: [The Chosen Few Picnic] hasn’t been on the Fourth in a long time, and the family’s still having theirs on the Fourth. But they won’t be at the park—they’re gonna have it at one of the relatives’ houses. But I think everybody’s gonna be at the Chosen Few Picnic this time. v