Chicagoans don’t need an excuse to talk about house music, but when the biggest pop star in the world drops a record indebted to house, you can expect more than just a conversation. Beyoncé’s Renaissance has effectively evangelized for this Chicago-born sound since the album came out in July, not least because she shaped it with help from major players in the genre’s history. Pop critic, dance-music historian, and Reader contributor Michaelangelo Matos has noted in the New York Times that Renaissance track “Cozy” obliquely references Adonis’s 1986 Trax Records heater “No Way Back” with its sly bass line, and it also includes contributions from two Chicago natives who built careers during later waves of house: Honey Dijon and Curtis Alan Jones (aka Green Velvet, fka Cajmere).
“Cozy” got me thinking about the old house records I own—the ones from the early days of Chicago house, when the local scene was still putting down roots. When you buy house records in the city that birthed house, you’re often shopping in stores where the staff and customers include people who still shape that scene.
Lakeview institution Gramaphone, for example, is owned by Michael Serafini—one of the resident DJs for Smart Bar’s queer house and disco weekly, Queen!, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with a blowout at Ravinia on Saturday, September 17. For decades, Gramaphone has been a destination for house heads from around the world. In the foreword for the graphic novel The Song of the Machine, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo write about meeting Chicago ghetto-house producers DJ Deeon and DJ Milton in an alley behind Gramaphone in 1996—a year before Daft Punk released their debut album, Homework, whose track “Teachers” shouts out Deeon and Milton.
Digging through the stacks at Chicago shops, I’ve found records from Deeon and Milton, along with other vinyl released by Dance Mania, the label whose reputation those DJs helped boost onto the international stage. Original pressings of old Dance Mania 12-inches can sell for hundreds of dollars through Discogs, but I’ve picked up used copies without even needing to raid my grocery budget—if you’re willing to settle for a record that’s too beat up for collectors to care about, you can score some great deals. Several of the 12-inches I’ve bought were previously owned by local producers and DJs, which I know because they wrote their names on the hub labels.
The wear and tear on these dance DJs’ records—a colored circle sticker on one side, an entire hub label blacked out in Sharpie—devalues them on the resale market. But I like knowing that their previous owners cared about them enough to put a mark on them. These records were made to be played, and played for other people—and I love the idea that some of the vinyl I own could’ve been used in a local DJ’s set during the halcyon days of house, when neighborhood parties at churches and recreation centers were an integral part of the culture citywide.
This practice didn’t start with house music, of course. DJs were marking up records long before Frankie Knuckles made the Warehouse a hub for Black gay nightlife in the late 1970s. In the late 50s, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd held the upper hand for years in Kingston’s pre-reggae sound clashes with help from a defaced copy of “Later for the Gator,” a smoldering 1950 R&B single by Florida saxophonist Willis Jackson that became his number one selection. According to Lloyd Bradley’s book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, Dodd removed all trace of the song’s title and origin from its label, instead calling it “Coxsone Hop,” which gave him a monopoly on the popular tune—till someone in Coxsone’s camp spilled the beans to his archrival, Duke Reid, who tracked down his own copy.
In the 1970s, DJs in New York City shaped the sound of hip-hop by messing around with their favorite bits on the records they owned. Grandmaster Flash developed a method of writing directly on the grooves of a record that allowed him to find the break he wanted in no time at all. “I would mark the record with a grease pencil or a crayon, where the break lived, and all the intersecting points,” he told Vulture in 2014. “So when I wanted to repeat a break all I had to do is just watch how many times the intersecting line passed the tone arm.”
House DJs didn’t tend to build songs out of looped breaks, though—they’ve always been more likely to play a track through. None of the 12-inch house singles I’ve bought has marks on its grooves, just on its labels or sleeve. The 12-inch was de rigueur in dance by the time house music began being released on vinyl in 1984, and modest independent labels such as Trax and DJ International rode the homemade sound to outsize success. In May 1976, Salsoul had released the first commercial “giant single,” Double Exposure’s “Ten Per Cent,” which gave a single song nearly ten minutes to unwind across an entire side of an LP-size record. This format suited house music just fine, and it also allowed everyday record buyers easy access to versions of songs typically only heard in nightclubs.
Of the house records I’ve found that were marked up by DJs, most simply bear the names of their previous owners, though decoding them can be tricky. In 2008, in a 5 magazine oral-history project dedicated to producer and DJ Armando Gallop, house pioneer Farley “Jackmaster” Funk described one way such markings can be deceptive. He’d left some of his old vinyl in Gallop’s basement, and Gallop added his own stamp. “He’d color ’em up and tell me they’re not mine!” Funk said. “‘Look at this little spot right there—that’s my record! What are you doin’?’ . . . He didn’t have records from way back then! But I didn’t mind though.”
The marginalia on the used dance vinyl in my collection are frequently at least that hard to interpret. Did my copy of the sultry 1987 single “G.T.B.” by Pierre’s Pfantasy Club previously belong to Chosen Few member Mike Dunn, or did someone else Sharpie the name “DUNN” in capital letters on the record’s B side? Who was the person named Julien who got Julian “Jumpin” Perez of the Hot Mix 5 (who’s currently running for 26th Ward alderman) to sign the sleeve of a copy of Perez’s 1987 single “Jack Me Till I Scream”? Why did Phillip Jackson—or the person who rubber-stamped Jackson’s name on a copy of DJ Milton’s 1995 EP Trax-4-Daze—underline the title of the bubbly, bass-forward cut “Southside Beat Down” and draw four stars above it?
Some of the names scrawled on these 12-inches, such as “DJ Chris,” are so common that an online search brings up a uselessly huge pool of results. In other cases, I can’t tell what the letters on a hub label are supposed to mean; if you wrote “M M M” on a copy of Mr Lee’s poppy 1987 Trax single “Come to House,” please get in touch.
I did figure out which DJs had owned at least some of my used records, or I think I did. Unfortunately, almost none of them responded when I reached out. Aurora-based DJ Tito “Latino” actually replied—I’d asked him about a few records marked “DJ Mister Tito”—but he just told me I had the wrong guy. Tito “Latino” had previously spun under a different name, but it was “Tito Jumpin Jimenez.”
During my search I swung by Signal Records, the shop that Blake Karlson (former label head of Chicago Research) opened in Avondale this summer. I found a cache of used 12-inches with marked-up hub labels in the shop’s two-dollar bins, and eventually tracked down a DJ who’d previously owned a few of them: Jerry Lange Jr., aka Jackmaster Jay of the Chicago Cutting Crew.
In the mid-80s, Lange found his way to DJing through breaking. “I tried that and I sucked,” he says. “I saw that movie Beat Street in ’84, and they had everything in it. I’m like, ‘Oh, let me try the DJ part of it.’”
House music had already spread beyond nightclubs by that point, in part because the Hot Mix 5 had debuted on WBMX in 1981. Lange got familiar with the crew through the daily Hot Lunch show, and he found other kids in his neighborhood interested in dance music. When he started buying records, he originally sought out Italo disco. “The Italo records were more expensive, because they’re imported,” Lange says. “The Chicago ones, you could get for four bucks a copy, so I started buying more of that stuff.”
Lange was a teen who couldn’t drive and didn’t have much cash, but he still had record-shopping options in the 1980s. He grew up near a flea market on Cicero and Division where he found vinyl, and he took public transit to more conventional stores such as Disco City in Logan Square and Importes, Etc. in Printer’s Row, which was partly responsible for giving house music its name.
Lange had a turntable at home, and he found a couple friends who could supply the other necessary equipment to properly DJ a party—a mixer and a second turntable. He began building a reputation by spinning neighborhood house parties, and in 1987 he joined the Chicago Cutting Crew. The following year he won first place in a mobile DJ competition as part of the tenth annual Great Battle of the DJs at Navy Pier. “Right around that time frame, around 1988, I was doing parties all the time,” he says. On Facebook a friend of his has posted a scan of a flyer from a February 1989 blowout at the A.C. Club that also featured the Hot Mix 5’s Ralphi Rosario and Mickey Oliver.
I have three of Jackmaster Jay’s old records, all from that critical era in his DJ career. K Joy’s “My Phone” came out in 1986, and Denise Motto’s “Tell Jack (Jack the House)” and Fast Eddie’s collaboration with Tyree and Chic, “The Whop,” both landed in 1987.
“Just having a new track meant a lot to me at the time,” Lange says. He frequently spun sets with other DJs, so he wrote his name on his records for strictly practical reasons. “You don’t want no one stealing your copy,” he says. “Most of the times, when we had a partner, each had one copy of the same record, and some guys were not taking care of their records, so they just throw them around—whereas I marked mine, I took care of mine.” He’d mark his preferred side with a big “A,” then put a “B” on the flip side—which is why the A side of “The Whop” has two “Bs” in Sharpie.
Lange stopped DJing regularly in 1992. “I was getting older,” he says. “My parents were like, ‘Are you gonna stick with this as a profession, or are you gonna start working?’ I didn’t see myself going further with the DJ thing at that moment.” He’s kept collecting records, though, sometimes replacing 12-inches he already owns with better copies and selling or donating his originals. “Any records I buy now, I don’t mark them,” he says. “Because they’re staying at my house.”