Mark Grusane Credit: Tom Michas, with assistant Ben Legue and grooming by Sophia Porter

Chicago has produced plenty of influential electronic producers and DJs who’ve become legends in their communities but remain obscure outside them. Late-80s ghetto-house producer Steve Poindexter, for instance, perfected a raunchy sound on “Work That Mutha Fucker” that other producers would make famous, but he’s hardly a household name himself. And before footwork originator RP Boo released Legacy via Planet Mu in 2013, the people carrying his torch were mostly battle dancers on the south and west sides.

Even within the city’s ranks of underappreciated geniuses, though, producer and collector Mark Grusane is a special case. The 42-year-old Washington Heights native has been plugged into electronic music since the early 80s, amassing an astounding breadth of knowledge; he learned about house music before the genre had a name, and at the time he wasn’t even out of grade school. But as a DJ—the principal way he might share that knowledge with the public—he’s spent more time spinning in his record store or in his bedroom than he has playing high-profile gigs. For decades he’s been a behind-the-scenes connector, satisfying the curiosity of DJs hungry for obscure disco, house, funk, and boogie, and in 2004 he and fellow collector Mike Cole opened Mr. Peabody Records, creating a brick-and-mortar outlet for their skill at finding and selling vinyl. The Morgan Park shop, which closed in 2012, developed a fervent cult following, even shipping records to DJs living overseas who’d never set foot inside it—and some of them prized Mr. Peabody so highly they tried to keep it to themselves.

“We’d been shipping records overseas for a lot of these guys that do compilations—a lot of times the records end up on the compilations, but we wouldn’t get any credit,” Grusane says. “They’d be thanking people, but they wouldn’t thank us. They would say, like, ‘My guys in the States, you know who you are.’ We were always a secret for a long time.”

Since Mr. Peabody shut down, Grusane himself has become less of a secret. For the past few years he’s toured internationally, and last year alone he played dates in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Australia. Next weekend he’ll return to London for an in-store set at a pop-up shop run by the label Barely Breaking Even in a multimedia arts space called the Institute of Light. It’s a celebration for The Real Sound of Mark Grusane, a compilation of deep disco, elastic funk, and sensuous boogie that he’s rescued from record shops, warehouses, thrift stores, and the like over the decades. BBE has previously released disco compilations that Grusane assembled with Cole—2010’s The Real Sound of Chicago and 2011’s The Real Sound of Chicago & Beyond—and it’ll drop his solo collection on Friday, January 26.

Grusane was a precocious learner. In the early 80s, when he was just eight years old, his older brother, Durward, brought him to Importes Etc.—the defunct Printer’s Row record store, favored by Frankie Knuckles, that famously gave house music its name. Its staff christened the burgeoning genre by shortening the label “Warehouse Music” (used to denote records Frankie would play at that club) to just “House Music.” Grusane caught the bug and followed in his brother’s footsteps. “He was just a neighborhood DJ. It was just a hobby,” Grusane says. “He didn’t even have a pair of [Technics] 1200s—he had regular turntables with no pitchers on ’em. He would speed it up by dragging the platter with his finger, and he would blend that way too.”

Grusane was able to buy himself a pair of Technics turntables because of two other pursuits he’d gotten into young: acting and modeling. He began his career at age seven, appearing in Spiegel catalogs and in TV and print ads for the likes of Sears, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the time he started high school in the late 80s, though, that part of his life was over. “When I was modeling, if you were black, you had to have a really clean-cut look—you pretty much had to look like a Cosby kid,” he says. “I mean, all that was fun, but I wanted to be a normal kid.”

This Sears ad features a young Mark Grusane and future actor Chris O’Donnell, who played Robin in two 1990s Batman movies.
This Sears ad features a young Mark Grusane and future actor Chris O’Donnell, who played Robin in two 1990s Batman movies.

For Grusane, “normal” included DJing. He practiced blending and mixing in his bedroom, and as a high school student at Lindblom he played records at neighborhood parties with a couple crews of friends—Frantic Party Productions and Men of Action. The more Grusane spun, the more records he’d collect, and the more he’d collect, the more he wanted. He’d developed a fascination with what he calls “higher order disco,” and even though he was only DJing at small parties, he wanted to play material obscure enough to make him stand out. At age 16, he began contacting record stores across the country trying to track down unfamiliar music. “What I would do is go downtown to the main library and get phone books for different cities, and just call the stores at random until I could find somebody and gain a relationship with them,” he says. He’d order piles of records, keep his favorites, and sell the rest to other DJs.

After high school, Grusane earned an associate’s degree in engineering from Olive-Harvey College in 1996, the same year he first teamed up with Cole to sell records. He went on to study electrical engineering at Purdue, but left in 1999 to become a traffic engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. He’d briefly worked at Kennedy-King College’s WKKC in the late 80s, and he continued to DJ the occasional party with Cole, but for the most part he showed off his taste and his turntable technique out of the public eye, by sharing cassette recordings of his vinyl mixes.

Grusane’s record collection when he was 15 years old
Grusane’s record collection when he was 15 years oldCredit: Courtesy of Mark Grusane

Opening Mr. Peabody helped Grusane build his reputation. Though the shop occupied a strip-mall storefront, he and Cole designed it to be a hangout. “It was a record store, but it was very personal,” Grusane says. “We didn’t close at any particular time—if you were in there, we never kicked you out.” By working at Mr. Peabody, Grusane met international touring artists such as London DJ Frankie Valentine, who introduced the shop’s owners to BBE. It’s also where Grusane became close with Chicago house veteran Sadar Bahar, who introduced him to his manager, Ornella Cicchetti—and after Mr. Peabody closed, she took him on as a client.

Grusane tours more internationally these days, but he still spins locally—right now he’s working to set up a regular gig at Punch House in Pilsen. And his renown around town continues to grow, particularly in the thriving boogie scene: this fall, when I spoke with Tim Zawada of Star Creature Universal Vibrations, he said that Grusane had done as much to build an audience for that postdisco funk sound in Chicago as Dam-Funk had done in Los Angeles. And for years, Grusane says, he felt like he was keeping the flame lit all by himself: “I remember when people in Chicago didn’t even like boogie.”

The Real Sound of Mark Grusane contains 11 treasures this vinyl archaeologist holds dear. I called up the DJ with the golden ears to talk about the tracks he’d decided the rest of the world needs to hear. We ended up discussing five of the cuts that appear on the compilation, some of which he’s edited or remixed and some of which he included in their original form. Below are edited versions of his replies.

Mark Grusane in Mr. Peabody Records in 2004, the shop’s first year in business (left), and Grusane behind the counter in what he guesses was 2006 (upper right)
Mark Grusane in Mr. Peabody Records in 2004, the shop’s first year in business (left), and Grusane behind the counter in what he guesses was 2006 (upper right)Credit: All photos courtesy Mark Grusane

“Open Your Hearts” (1974)

“Open Your Hearts” was an edit I did when I was 21. It was a 45—it was a part one and part two, one on each side. It had a really short intro, and it’s a really nice beat and disco record—really soulful, up-tempo, energetic disco. It needed to be longer, so I extended it, edited it together.

Back then I had a friend I met in Canada, and he was a customer: Jason Lev. Our dream was to have our own edit record. Basically Jay was like, “I want to press a couple of your edits to vinyl.” He said, “I want to make it super limited, something like 100 copies.” This was before the store opened. I remember I gave him the edit, and we pressed it to record, with “Mucho Macho” on the flip side—that’s on the compilation also. And we did 100 copies. The store had opened by the time we got them, and I think I put, like, 25, 30 copies in the store. They just sat there for about six months. But we just sat it there as an experiment, just to see who would grab it.

One day my friend Sadar came through the store. I said, “Hey man, check this out.” I gave him a test pressing of the release, and he championed that record. Back then he started touring a little bit, and he was overseas playing it, blasting the shit out of that record, giving love back. That’s what got it really sought after. You look on Discogs right now, you’ve got 400 people looking for it. [Editor’s note: At publication, that number had grown to 1,056.] He got it to that point where people were really looking for it, and we couldn’t even get rid of copies of it. Slowly, the copies went through the store—people figured it out.

You’ve got so many people, globally, looking for it, it’s pretty much extinct. Most of the copies, people play off CD-Rs. So I figured that would be a good driving force for the comp, to put that on.

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Brief Encounter
“What About Love” (1976)

That’s an obscure Capitol 45. Brief Encounter, before they hit Capitol or around that time, they had a couple other private releases. This 45 was pretty hot on the market. They also had a funk track too, on the Capitol label. The 45 was only three minutes and two, maybe three minutes and five seconds; I basically tastefully extended certain parts. I didn’t want to make it too boring or whatever, but I got it to about five minutes.

If you listen to it, you really can’t tell it’s an edit. That’s how I like to do my edits. Like, it sounds like a longer version. Sometimes people edit records that don’t need editing. I think it’s like they just edited it just to say they edited it. But my purpose is to make it tastefully longer, where you have a longer experience with the song. Putting records out like that, especially when you’re messing with other peoples’ music—I try to still respect it. [Editor’s note: the embedded version is the original, not Grusane’s edit.]

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Yan Tregger
“Riff On” (1978)

He did a lot of library music—like, soundtrack library music. It’s really big on the collectors’ thing now, because people are going to all extents for music today. He’s a guy that did music that’s designed for soundtracks, commercials, stuff like that. Basically, it’s a nice down-­tempo track. I designed it to be a skating-style record; I chopped it a little bit. You wouldn’t know it unless you had the original. I just did a little overdub with some sexy voice, to try and make it sound a little sexier—I put a lady’s voice over it.

I was in a warehouse, and I found that when I was digging. I have a rule when I find records—I play everything. Literally, I’ll play every record I find. If I’m digging, I’ll drop a needle on every possible thing I put in my hands. I’ll try to play every single record, because I don’t want to miss anything. That’s just one of those records—it looked interesting. I just played it, and I said, “Oh shit, I like this one.” [Editor’s note: the embedded version is the original, not Grusane’s edit.]

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The Island Music Makers
“Calypso Medley” (1980)

That record is a Carnival Cruise ship record. I remember when I was younger, my mom took me on a cruise—on a cruise ship, you’ve got the steel bands or the calypso bands. They’re playing the live music on the ship. This was one of those groups that was on the cruise ship; back then, their records were their business cards. So what they would do is they would either give a record away, or sell a record if you wanted to support them while you’re on a cruise ship. That record I found in a collection of somebody that went on a Carnival Cruise.

Usually with those cruise-ship records, they have a lot of traditional island stuff—like where they’re from or whatever, ’cause they give you that island experience while you’re cruising. It never fails: on every record, there’s a cover that’s their style—like, Caribbean style or steel band—of an American record. That’s an American cover. I used to know what it was, but it’s a disco cover of an American jazz artist. It’s a really good, well-put-together record of disco-funk. What’s so odd about it is it has a steel-drum element in it that goes well. That one I didn’t even edit—I just put it on there as it was.

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“Do It” (1976)

Shabadoo was the break-dancer—I don’t know if it was Beat Street, Breakin’, or all of them, but he was the break-dancer back then. [Editor’s note: He appeared in Breakin’ and in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.] I think this record is his only work that he did, and there’s a part one and part two. I don’t know the whole production with it, but it’s on the Doré label. That’s a record I found two years ago, when I was in London and I was shopping in my friend’s record store. I’m always finding stuff. Some of these records I’ve had since the age of—like, before 21.

There’s a part one and part two, and basically the record’s so good, but no one’s ever did a 12-inch. When a record is playing, if part two’s on the other side, it’s like, “Who the hell wants to take it out and flip it over? Let it keep going!”  v