David Weathersby is a filmmaker and founder of video production company City Vanguard, which focuses on documentaries about underrepresented communities of color. In 2018, he received a Black Excellence Award for The Color of Art from the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, and in 2019, his documentary Thee Debauchery Ball won the audience award for best feature film at the Black Harvest Film Festival and was named best film by the Chicago South Side Film Festival.
His latest film, It’s Different in Chicago, explores the local histories and cultural impacts of house music and hip-hop as well as the relationship between those two scenes. The documentary premiered at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival, and it will be streamable online via the Siskel Center website from November 24 through December 2. More info at siskelfilmcenter.org/its-different-chicago.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
I hear a lot of complaints that there’s no industry in Chicago. I don’t want to speak for musicians—I know they’d prefer to have industry—but I think that’s one of the benefits of living here. Usually when there’s industry, they kind of dictate things, even an independent scene. But in Chicago you have a lot of people who are just creating, not to impress a certain person or to necessarily get signed—they’re just creating.
In It’s Different in Chicago, one of the lines that really got to me was from one of the hip-hop artists [Phenom]. He says, “We weren’t trying to be famous; we were trying to be felt.” I find that just really sums up a lot of Chicago artists. There’s a lot of people who are just trying to be felt; they’re creating art to create art, and they’re not bogged down by certain arbitrary rules or expectations. There’s a lot of honesty and creativity in that, and it really needs to be documented. A lot of times, unfortunately, because there’s not a name connected to it that everyone knows, those artists get ignored. But I feel like their stories are just as or even more important because they’re from the grass roots. They’re the day-to-day engine of music and culture.
What’s still true about house music and hip-hop today is the commitment. Here in Chicago, they are very committed to the culture, and they’re very committed to the preservation of not just the music but the culture around the community. And that’s very important.
A lot of people might see that as insular and kind of tribal, but it’s also a defense. Both forums have been exploited in the past and kind of have been used. And the people who were the true pioneers didn’t get credit, because the music got commercialized and the narrative got changed along the way. I think that commitment to the culture is still there and is still necessary. There needs to be a balance between reaching out to a new audience and preserving why a new audience would want to come in and experience that music.
One thing that’s different now is that technology and access has really changed a lot of stuff. On the one hand, it’s removed a lot of quote-unquote gatekeepers, but on the other side it’s allowed people to remove the steps of the growth that were necessary, like paying-your-dues kind of stuff. Back then, they actually developed the artists.
Sometimes it’s not so much the best artists [who get famous], it’s the artist who fits a particular narrative. Some of the best musicians in Chicago that I know of don’t have record deals. That’s not a shot at anybody who does get signed; it’s just my experience. In the last few years I’ve found myself listening to more Soundcloud in my basement than to actual radio, because there’s that kind of purity and creativity that might not fit a narrative.
I moved to the Chicagoland area a little over 20 years ago from the Seattle area. In other places I’ve lived or experienced, it’s basically hip-hop and then everything else when it comes to parties and dance music. Techno, house, electronica, dubstep—they’ll call it “house,” but you noticed it’s kind of mislabeled.
I grew up on hip-hop, and that’s what I knew. So when I got to Chicago and I heard people talking about house music and I started listening to it, I’m like, “This is totally different.” I thought it was a unique story that in Chicago—especially in the Black community—house was the more dominant and the more prevalent of the two styles. House is everywhere. One of the biggest festivals right now, the Chosen Few, pulls in about 20,000 to 40,000 people a year for house music. In most places, that size crowd would be for a hip-hop thing. The Silver Room Block Party pulls in 10,000 people. All these different events where house is dominant—that’s so unique compared to other places in the country where house is secondary.
So I wanted to chronicle what makes Chicago different. What makes this one little oasis in the middle of the country where house is what everybody knows? That’s not to say that hip-hop doesn’t have its place here. I thought that was fascinating, and I thought it represented not just people who are fans of the music but a cultural thing. And it had a totally different narrative around it than hip-hop. To this day, there’s no drama or fights around it. The whole air is community. I found it kind of odd but not really surprising that house was basically ignored by mainstream media.
When a community creates something great and people want to be a part of it, it’s very important that the people who created it get the credit. If they’re not credited, they’re not the ones who benefit. If the credit is going somewhere else because of a mainstream media narrative, the people who actually worked and built this don’t get called for the tour, they’re not called for the concert. It’s more than being like, “Oh, we want to be credited.” These people who bled and sweat for this culture should be getting what they deserve. We’ve seen different people come in and say they’re the “pioneers of house.” That’s more than being offensive—it can economically affect the people who actually did it.
So the people who pioneered it should have their say in the narrative. If nothing else, then to time-stamp the moment. When an inaccurate narrative gets out there and you try to tell the truth, you now have to go through that bad narrative, and it’s very hard to break through. To me, it’s very important to document the people who were here and what really happened before memories get fuzzy.
I knew house and hip-hop were sometimes complementary and sometimes confrontational. But I was surprised to find a generational split, because both styles are roughly the same age. Early hip-hop was built on disco beats. I talked to a lot of youth rappers who were very positive about house, but it was always with the caveat “that’s what my mom listened to.” So exploring that generational split was very interesting.
The kids I talked to at the beginning of the film, they’re all in their teens or early 20s. Their whole life is hip-hop, and they don’t really see house as their music. They saw it as a different generation, even though hip-hop and house are the same age. And that’s because of the two different paths they went through. Hip-hop kept re-creating itself, and house—a lot of it due to what happened to it in the disco era, and how it was exploited and then thrown away—became very protected, and it created a much older crowd. But they’re the same age, and they have the same roots.
Another documentary I did on house, Thee Debauchery Ball, the founder of that [event, Khari B.,] said, “Funk and disco had two babies. One went to New York, one went to Chicago.” Basically saying that’s the difference between house and hip-hop. They’re basically siblings. And I think that’s the best way to describe the two musics.
I think a lot of what happened had to do with the impact the backlash toward disco (like the Disco Demolition) had on house. I think it also had to do with New York being a much bigger media market, so when something breaks, it’s right there. Plus, in my opinion, the house culture wasn’t too focused on [commercial success]. As one person in the film said, “We were too busy having a good time.”
Although that peacefulness is a godsend for the Black community, other people don’t see it as marketable. Black people being at peace with each other is not seen as marketable. It’s a shame, because it creates a lopsided narrative. If all you are showing is negative, people don’t get to create a balanced view of things. House has always been inclusive. It had to be—it was basically started by gay Black men in the South Shore who couldn’t really venture out for safety reasons. They had to create this kind of music and environment that was underground, and I think the heterosexual Black community said, “We need that kind of peace too.” And that’s why they gravitated toward it. Everyone needed that kind of peace and release.
Lopsided narratives can keep people away from the Black community because all they’ve seen is the negative. That’s not to sugarcoat any of the negativity, but the positive is just as real as the negative, and people have the right to see both before they make a decision. Not just what gets the most clicks.
I always use the example, “Think of any kind of sports team. Now what happens if they only broadcast at the games that they lost? What would be your view of that team?” And that’s what I feel like mainstream media is doing [to Chicago’s Black communities]—they’re only showing the losses, and people are creating their narrative through that. And it’s not fair.
With this documentary, I wanted to show the behind-the-scenes, show the music and the culture, and show all of these people in the park [at the Chosen Few], like, “Look at all these people in the park. Look at these young kids being completely peaceful at the cypher [at the Platform at Collaboraction Theatre Company], where they have these ceremonies of growth around hip-hop.” These people might live right next to you.
I want people to not just see the difference in the musics but also see the differences in culture. And see this isn’t just a story about different musical genres that complement each other and also bump heads, but what it’s like to be in two cultures and coexist. It’s a story of coexisting and respect. Without homogenizing, without appropriating. How do we just respect each other?
I wanted to look at how, although these two cultures are very different, they were similar in their desires. How passionate the house people were about their music. How passionate hip-hop people were about getting—as someone said, “We wanted a piece of that dance floor.” If you can’t relate to someone music-wise, you can relate to their passion.