Attack of the Killer DJs

Over the next two weeks, two of the Belleville Three–Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, who along with Derrick May invented techno in suburban Detroit circa 1982–will DJ at Karma and Crobar. Chicago acid-house pioneer DJ Pierre will put in a rare appearance at Red Dog; two of England’s most popular and revered progressive house DJs, Paul Oakenfold and Sasha, will spin at Karma within two days of each other; and this Friday, Crobar hosts Florida breakbeat star DJ Icey. Gigs by Mark Farina, DJ Sneak, Little Louie Vega, and Kenny Larkin, which would be notable in a regular month, get lost in the shuffle by comparison.

What’s bringing the superstars of the dance underground to Chicago en masse? Cold hard capitalism, the music lovers who booked them will be the first to tell you–and they’re happy to take advantage of it. “The high-profile names are more about branding than making money,” says John Curley, talent buyer and resident DJ at Karma. A scene vet who spun at the opening of Shelter nine years ago and was still with the club when it closed last spring, he says nightclubbers tend to be drawn more toward a particular club than a particular DJ. But by consistently booking hot DJs, a club can develop the right reputation, making it worthwhile to lose money in the short run. And lose money they may: Curley says that when Sasha spins with partner John Digweed (who isn’t part of the Karma gig), the duo commands a nightly fee of $10,000.

Recently, Curley says, his competitor Wade Elliott, who books Friday nights at Crobar, has raised the stakes for clubs in Chicago. “Make no mistake–what Wade has done at Crobar has put a match under everybody’s ass,” he says. “It’s an absolute coincidence that I’m having Paul Oakenfold and Sasha in the same weekend. But I don’t think that there’s any coincidence that you’re seeing all this stuff happening. When you’ve got more than one club booking aggressively then you’re going to start unearthing stuff. I think this is just the beginning. I think every major name is going to start coming through town regardless of cost.”

Elliott, a product of the rave scene, started booking after-hours parties in 1992, and by 1996 he had worked up to a weekly series called “Juice” with popular local DJ Terry Mullan at the now-defunct Gotham. Together they brought in big acts like Josh Wink and Laurent Garnier. When that club closed he took the series to House of Blues, and began organizing events at Mad Bar, Metro, the Dragon Room, and the Dome Room. In the summer of 1997 he helped promote the Chicago stop of the BF Goodrich-sponsored Electric Highway tour, a sort of Lollapalooza for electronica.

In February, Elliott got a job programming special events for KBA, the marketing company that, among other things, promotes Camel cigarettes through a network of participating clubs that includes Mad Bar, Crobar, and Karma. A month later he began buying talent for Big Time, the company that operates Crobar. Before he initiated his “Bang” series there, the club pulled in between 500 and 800 people on Friday nights; since March 16 the figure hasn’t dropped below 1,200.

Elliott attributes his success in part to increased media coverage of dance music. “If you tried to stick a DJ in a place like House of Blues in 1993 you could almost never sell a thousand tickets like you can now,” he says. “I’ve been trying to push this stuff into the clubs since 1996. I was getting older and the rave scene had become childish, more about drugs than music. In clubs it’s all about the music, and it’s for grown-ups.” But Elliott hasn’t completely written off after-hours parties–he and Mullan are promoting a big one next weekend that features Green Velvet, DJ Q-Bert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and British jump-up junglists True Playaz, among others; call 773-509-4974 for information.

Lost Voice

Thomas McBride, the cyclist killed in a confrontation with an SUV driver on Monday, April 26, was one of a number of young bike messengers involved in the local music scene. He played percussion in the Wicker Park band Disarray and had recently contributed a song to The Mysterious Hub Tour, a collection of music by couriers on the Void Ware label, under the name Aperture. He was supposed to perform at a release party for the record on June 4 at Hopcats, according to Void Ware head Rod Richardson, a sometime bike messenger himself.

McBride, 26, had been a messenger for six years and was riding in to work that morning from his home in Oak Park. On the 5300 block of West Washington, in front of witnesses, he was cut off by 28-year-old Carnell Fitzpatrick, who was driving a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. After McBride hit the truck with his hand, Fitzpatrick slowed, apparently to let him pass, then bumped him several times. After McBride fell, police say, Fitzpatrick ran over him and drove away. McBride was pronounced dead on arrival at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Police found Fitzpatrick’s license plate under McBride’s body; once Fitzpatrick realized the tag was gone, he turned himself in and has been charged with first-degree murder. At press time he was still being held, but bond had been set at $200,000. A preliminary hearing is slated for May 19.


A last-minute booking brings Cuban lute player Barbarito Torres to HotHouse this Saturday for a midnight performance. A veteran of groups like Orquesta Reve and Sierra Maestra, Torres recently issued his U.S. solo debut, Havana Cafe (Havana Caliente/Atlantic)–a zesty collection of traditional son, boleros, and cha-chas fueled by the leader’s piquant plucking and strumming. The array of guest vocalists includes Ibrahim Ferrer, recently heard on Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club project; Ferrer’s own solo debut is due shortly from Nonesuch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.