Blue Groove Moves

For most of the past four years, devoted Chicago hip-hop fans spent their Monday nights at the Blue Groove Lounge–not a physical space, but rather an environment created inside the confines of west Lincoln Park’s Elbo Room by veteran Chicago DJ and Liquid Soul cofounder Jesse de la Pe–a. Most times de la Pe–a and other local DJs spun a rousing mix of new and old-school hip-hop, jazz, funk, house, and dancehall. But on occasion some of hip-hop’s biggest names, including Cypress Hill’s B-Real, the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Twista, Common, Cut Chemist, and the Jungle Brothers, made special appearances. On the nights I attended last year the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic, but also remarkably relaxed and friendly. So why was the Blue Groove unceremoniously booted from Elbo Room in February?

According to club owner Brendan Witcher, it wasn’t what happened inside but what went on outside, once the bar was closed. “We would get done at two and everyone would leave and hang out on Lincoln just outside the club, just yelling and screaming, turning up the radios in their cars,” says Witcher. When four pricey new condo developments cut their ribbons within a block of the club toward the end of last year, he guessed the new neighbors might have a low tolerance for the noise, and tried to nip potential confrontation in the bud. He and de la Pe–a began making announcements, pleading with fans not to loiter, but to no avail.

Then, early this year, his worst fears were realized: the 19th District police station and 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski received about a dozen calls, most of them anonymous, complaining about the late-night hubbub and also about public drinking and urination. At the beginning of February, police neighborhood relations officer Susan Frost called Witcher to convey those concerns, and rather than enter a battle he couldn’t win–when it comes down to it, the residents have the power to vote the entire precinct dry–Witcher decided to cancel the Blue Groove Lounge immediately.

“Quite frankly, the neighbors were right,” says Witcher. “I knew that this would happen, and I warned people about it, but no one listened to me. It’s a shame. I loved the night and I loved the regulars.”

While de la Pe–a, who estimates that his audience was 70 percent black, agrees that his followers’ after-hours behavior was a problem, he’s not certain that it was the only problem the neighbors had. “If there were only white folks out there, I don’t know if this would have happened,” he says. “It seems kind of foul to me.”

De la Pe–a convinced Witcher to allow just one more night so he could let patrons know what was going on, and on February 16, at the final Blue Groove Lounge at Elbo Room, he announced that the party would permanently relocate to the Funky Buddha Lounge, at the corner of Grand and Halsted. In the end, the big loser may be Witcher: the act that replaced Blue Groove Lounge, a swing outfit called Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six, has been drawing only a quarter of the people. Meanwhile, de la Pe–a–whose other recent projects include remixes for Poi Dog Pondering and the Brand New Heavies–loves his new digs. He says the crowd is more racially diverse than at Elbo Room, and that more women show up. “I love hip-hop,” he says, “but just a whole room filled with guys break-dancing gets dull.”

Folkways’ Permanent Records

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the much-acclaimed custodian of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, has a lot of splashy things planned for its 50th anniversary year, including a giant Carnegie Hall concert this weekend with artists like Lucinda Williams, Ralph Stanley, Mickey Hart, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Pete Seeger; and the release of Making People’s Music, a biography of Folkways founder Moses Asch, next month. And then, in August, the label will reissue on CD one of the most asked-about recordings in its massive catalog: Sounds of North American Frogs.

See, though Folkways is best known for its uncompromising recordings of folk, jazz, and blues legends like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Mary Lou Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, and Dave Van Ronk, also among its more than 2,000 titles are spoken-word collections, language instruction recordings, and lots of other uncategorizable things–who could forget the 1964 classic Speech After the Removal of the Larynx? When Asch died in 1986, his estate sold Folkways to the Smithsonian Institution on the condition that it would keep every one of those titles in print. Anthony Seeger, Pete’s nephew, was hired as curator of the collection and director of the new Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a position he still holds today.

Though the label has since released or reissued 180 albums on CD in the usual commercial manner, keeping the entire catalog in print that way would be financially impossible. So Seeger developed a system in which any item could be ordered on a dubbed cassette. The program, which averages about 8,000 orders per year, began offering a recordable-CD option in 1997, and although the company is six months behind in processing new CD orders, Seeger predicts it will be caught up by the end of ’98. When enough orders roll in for a particular title, Seeger considers it for commercial release–though he says in-house judgments on cultural significance are equally influential. Right now, for instance, “it’s important to know what frogs sound like,” he says. “They’re pretty and ill and disappearing in some parts of the country.”

To browse the Folkways catalog on-line, go to To order a hard copy, call 202-287-3262 or write to Smithsonian Folkways, Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 955 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Suite 7300, MRC 953, Washington, D.C. 20560.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jesse de la Pena photo by Nathan Mandell.