Chicago’s great traditions in blues, jazz, gospel, and soul are celebrated on an ongoing basis, with dozens of city-sponsored festivals and ceremonies. But Chicago house–arguably the most significant musical movement the city has spawned in the past 30 years–has never received the same kind of official recognition. Brian Keigher wants to rectify that.
“It seems like it should’ve happened long ago,” says Keigher, a program coordinator for the Department of Cultural Affairs. “After all, Chicago house music is a huge staple of the city’s scene and history.”
The 32-year-old has only been programming for the city since 2003, but he’s been a DJ–and, by his own admission, a music nerd–for much longer. For six years in the 90s he worked as the electronica, dance, and world-music buyer at Tower Records on Clark, then moved on to jobs in Internet radio and music marketing. As DJ Warp he’s a fixture at local bars and clubs, from Danny’s to the Double Door, and his current monthly event at Sonotheque, “Bombay Beatbox,” was recently mentioned in Time magazine.
Keigher has already found one way to bring his longtime avocation to bear on his new vocation: thanks to his efforts the city is honoring house music with the upcoming “DJ Wednesdays” series, a first-time addition to the free SummerDance programs held each year at the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park. Cosponsored by the local dance-music store Gramaphone, the ten-week series kicks off Wednesday, June 23, with performances by Derrick Carter and DJ Diz, and closes with an August 25 set by Frankie Knuckles, the “godfather of house.” Knuckles ruled the roost at Chicago’s Warehouse nightclub–which gave the music its name–from 1977 to ’83. (On August 24 the city will designate a stretch of Jefferson near Adams, where the club was located, as Honorary Frankie Knuckles Way.)
The SummerDance series, now in its eighth season, has traditionally featured live dance bands or orchestras; the shows bring out three to five thousand people a week. Programmers have booked a DJ or two in the past, but Keigher wanted to dedicate a regular evening to electronic music. And though the city usually offers complimentary dance lessons before each concert–salsa, ballroom, tango–they’ve scrapped that part of the SummerDance formula for the DJ series.
“It was important that we establish a separate identity for the DJ night,” he says. “First, so it doesn’t scare all the SummerDance regulars away, but also to build up a whole new audience that could carry over into other nights and weekend events as well.”
Keigher has reason to be thinking about a larger audience. Five years ago Detroit launched a techno festival, now called Movement, and in 2003 total attendance for the three-day event was estimated at a million, even though city funds were no longer available to support it. “I thought, If Detroit can pull off an event celebrating techno, we should be able to pull off something similar in Chicago,” Keigher says. “Considering that Chicago house is kind of a precursor to Detroit techno, it made sense for that to be the focus for our initial year.”
The SummerDance roster includes celebrated old-schoolers like Knuckles, Bad Boy Bill, and Steve “Silk” Hurley, most of whom made their names in the 80s. (Half of the headliners are former Gramaphone employees.) And, Keigher says, “I had to go after some of the old Hot Mix 5 guys”–Ralphi Rosario, who’s spinning in Grant Park on June 30, was a founding member of the popular group of DJs on WBMX radio in 1981 (and still in high school at the time). “But then also Derrick Carter, Green Velvet, a lot of the important second-generation Chicago house people.
“We’ll have the headliner, but then they get to bring on one of their own guys, proteges, to be a part of the bill. Like Bad Boy Bill, who’s bringing DJ Steve Smooth, and ‘Silk’ Hurley, who’s bringing DJ Skip. So it’ll be a mix of old and new.”
The Department of Cultural Affairs is promoting electronic dance music in smaller ways too: the Cultural Center is hosting both a June 29 performance by the Lazy FM DJ crew, who’ll spin their own sound track to a blaxploitation film (a tie-in with the “Hair Stories” exhibit), and a July 1 benefit for Hit the Decks, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching underprivileged inner-city kids the art of DJing.
By and large local clubgoers and DJs seem to be behind the SummerDance series, rather than suspicious of it, and Keigher already has tentative plans to branch out into IDM, drum ‘n’ bass, and other subgenres next year. “The response has been great so far,” he says. “I think a lot of people have been feeling the same way as me for a long time, and they’re really excited…. They’re happy that they’ll be getting to see some big-time DJs in their own backyard.”
The New York visual arts company PictureBox has announced plans to release The Wilco Book, the end result of a two-year collaboration with the band. Billed as a “visual analog” to Wilco’s music, the 160-page volume will be published in October; it includes writings from front man Jeff Tweedy and contributions by photographer Michael Schmelling, artist Fred Tomaselli, and author Rick Moody, among others. PictureBox is also responsible for the packaging of Wilco’s forthcoming album, A Ghost Is Born (see Section One cover story), and the book will come with a CD of unreleased Wilco tracks–40 minutes of alternate mixes, demos, and sound experiments from the past three years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis, Timothy Saccenti, Mike Rosley.