House-music culture developed in Chicago’s Black gay clubs in the 1970s, and it owes as much of its soul to the people who gathered to dance as it does to the DJs whose innovative mixes of disco, funk, R&B, and pop kept late-night partiers moving till long after sunrise. In the seven years or so between the emergence of key artists such as Frankie Knuckles, Michael Ezebukwu, and Ron Hardy and the arrival of what’s usually recognized as the first house record, Jesse Saunders’s 1984 cut “On and On,” thousands of house heads dedicated themselves to the culture. Since then, the vast influence of house has circled the globe several times over—techno, garage, deep house, juke, gabber, IDM, footwork, dubstep, and EDM have all sprung from the soulful seed of classic, four-on-the-floor house music, and it’s irrevocably transformed the landscape of pop. 

House is as much a part of Chicago’s cultural DNA as gospel, blues, and jazz. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events debuted the Chicago House Music Festival in 2018, after dabbling in large-scale house parties over Memorial Day weekend, and though it’s the youngest of DCASE’s big annual fests, it’s already established itself as one of the best showcases for dance music in the city. In the Chicago House Music Festival’s first two years, it became a friendly counterpart to the Chosen Few Picnic (“the Woodstock of House Music”), with lineups demonstrating house’s reach across generations. The second festival—the last one before the pandemic—booked juke pioneer Gant-Man, footwork dance collective the Era, and house veteran Gene Hunt, who issued his first 12-inch in 1989.

The Chicago in Tune house-music showcase in Millennium Park this September is just a few hours long, but even within those constraints, DCASE has built a lineup that speaks to the genre’s history and its creators’ ability to continue shaping the culture decades later. Darlene Jackson, better known as DJ Lady D, emerged as part of Chicago house’s second wave in the 1990s. She took up DJing in 1995, and in 1997 she teamed up with Colette, DJ Heather, and Dayhota to form Superjane, a collective that championed women in a scene that frequently marginalized them; they threw their first party at the defunct Funky Buddha Lounge. 

Chicago in Tune: House
Roy Davis Jr. headlines; DJ Lady D opens, and the Sanitize Your Soul gospel house choir with Mark Hubbard and DJ Terry Hunter performs second. Sat 9/11, 5:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages

In her recorded output, Lady D favors sharp, direct percussion that drives insistent grooves. On the 2015 single “All Night Long,” she lends her sparse vocals a velvety touch that teases out the thumping track’s tantalizing feel, which the late Paul Johnson further played up in his disco-fueled remix. Lady D’s influence in dance music extends beyond DJing and producing: after working in A&R for northwest suburban label Afterhours (where she brought on one of Chicago’s most successful dance producers of the past 20 years, Kaskade), she cofounded D’lectable Music in 2004. 

This concert also doubles as the debut of Sanitize Your Soul, a collaboration between gospel veteran Mark Hubbard and long-grinding DJ Terry Hunter. Hubbard formed the United Voices of Christ choir in 1985, and seven years later he released his debut album with the Voices, Trust in Jesus. Their fifth album together, 2004’s Blessin’ Waitin’ on Me, won a Stellar Award for Traditional Choir of the Year in 2006, and in 2017 he was elected president of the Chicago chapter of the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys. 

Hunter’s history in music is just as long. He picked up DJing in the early 1980s and broke out later in the decade spinning parties for promoter Marvin Terry. In 1990, he released his first 12-inch, Madness, a collection of slyly funky tracks for respected Chicago label Muzique Records. Hunter’s skills are so highly regarded in the house community that in 2006 he became the first DJ in nearly 30 years invited to join the Chosen Few collective. As a producer, he’s also a favorite of stars across the pop spectrum who want to put a new spin on their work, and he’s made remixes for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson. In 2018 his T’s Box label issued “Move of the Spirit,” a smooth gospel-house collaboration between Hunter and vocalists Jocelyn Brown and Inaya Day—a demonstration that he understands the spiritual and emotional energies that house and gospel have in common.

Closing out the evening is veteran producer Roy Davis Jr., who took his first steps in the world of house music as a teenager living in the south suburbs in the late 1980s. He befriended DJ Pierre of pioneering acid-house group Phuture and helped write “20 Below,” an R&B-inflected jam released under the name Pierre’s Phantasy Club on the sixth volume of the Jack Trax series. In the 1990s Davis replaced Pierre in Phuture for a spell, while simultaneously releasing his own records as part of a blossoming solo career. New York dance label Strictly Rhythm put out Davis’s debut 12-inch in 1992, Learn to Live (credited to the Roy Davis Project), and later recruited him to work in A&R. Davis has released plenty of music in the decades since, but he remains best known for a gospel-inflected 1996 collaboration with Peven Everett called “Gabriel” (a remix of his tune “Gabrielle”), which buoys its gently rippling groove with light hand drums and sparse, sultry horns. The following year XL Recordings reissued the 12-inch in Britain, where it became a chart hit and a touchstone for the budding UK garage movement. 

Chicago in Tune’s house programming extends beyond this Pritzker Pavilion concert. In July DCASE launched “House City,” a series of ten dance-music events in neighborhoods around the city’s south, west, and north sides. Four of the events fall within the span of Chicago in Tune, and the series closes in Bronzeville on September 19 with an afternoon show featuring DJs Mike Dunn of the Chosen Few, Daryll Mellowman, and JStar. Two of the ten events have been postponed as of publication time, and the exact location of the Bronzeville show has yet to be announced—so it’s best to check the DCASE House City page for updates.

Notable house-related events during Chicago in Tune

Louie Vega Fri 8/20, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $25, $20 in advance. 21+

Freestyle Forever: Mixtape Edition 3 Featuring Stevie B, DJ Funk, Samantha, D’zyre, Mark Milan, Lucy Love, Amazin’ Records, Pain. Sat 8/28, 9 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, $20-$60. 21+

Research & Development: Sassmouth, Miss Twink USA, Grey People, Patrixia, JS Alvarez, Makeen Sun 8/29, 6 PM, Sleeping Village, 3734 W. Belmont, free. 21+

Blacklizt, Eli & Fur Sat 9/4, 10 PM, Radius, 640 W. Cermak, $50. 18+ 

RP Boo, DJ Taye, Jana Rush, DJ Manny Fri 9/10, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $20, $15 in advance. 21+