The dance-music matriarch
In the 1970s, teenage Natalie Hill began spinning funk and R&B on Chicago’s south side, taking her DJ name, Chocolate Star, from Bootsy Collins’s “Munchies for Your Love.” She served as secretary for a record pool called NDJA and rubbed shoulders with heavies in the local scene, including steppers specialist Sam Chatman and house producer Lil Louis. She stopped DJing in the 80s, but she’s become matriarch to two generations of Chicago house producers. Her youngest son, Beatdown House founder DJ Clent, became a force in the late-90s ghetto-house scene, and he’s since helped shape footwork; in 2017, he told the Quietus that his mom’s record collection had provided many of his samples. Clent himself has a teenage son, DJ Corey, who’s become one of the city’s most promising young footwork producers.
Interview by Leor Galil
Photos by Carolina Sanchez
My cousin had a tavern on 45th and Cottage Grove. My mother used to help him out there—I was maybe 14, and I used to hang out there, but I wasn’t supposed to, being underage. My cousin told me, “Just stay in the DJ booth—stay out the way.”
There was a DJ named Lennon [Gardner]. I would watch him, and I couldn’t understand how he did what he did. And I asked him one day to show me—I was struck.
I would come in there early, mess around with the DJ equipment, and learn some of the things that he taught me how to do, before the tavern was open. I messed around with the equipment until I could figure out what it was he was trying to teach me. He taught me how to blend, and how to play to a crowd, and how to form your music; he taught me the basics.
I may have been 16. My grandmother loaned me $500 to go to MusiCraft on Rush Street. They had a whole DJ section of speakers and mixers. I couldn’t believe the stuff they had. That’s where I got my first taste of being a real DJ.
Lennon had told me about a record pool that was run by Don St. James—he used to have meetings every week, and I went there. They were astonished that I was a woman—also, I was so young. I ended up being the secretary of the record pool.
I couldn’t go much of anywhere because I was underage. So I couldn’t go to clubs or lounges, but I could go to Masonic halls and do parties, or I would go with Lennon and do wedding receptions. Then as I got older, I was able to go to age-appropriate places.
I don’t know if you remember ChicagoFest—this was before Taste of Chicago—but we actually did ChicagoFest. I think the big song back then was “I Just Want to Be” by Cameo. And I played that; I must’ve mixed it six, seven times. That’s when I was overwhelmed by everything. It was a big stage, lots of people—it was really something.
My youngest son, Clenton, I had him—and that’s when I pretty much gave it all up. I was a young mother, first of all, and I really didn’t need to be in the streets. I needed to be there for my children and take care of them. I wasn’t gonna try to saddle my mother with raising my children, and I needed to get some kind of structure within myself, ’cause all the while I was where I shouldn’t have been, you know? Just hanging out.
I had a closet in the front of the house, and that’s where I kept my equipment. My son Clent, DJ Clent now, used to go in there—sneak, turn on my equipment, and play with my equipment. He would leave things on, and I knew I had turned everything off. He was only three, four years old.
I used to find my doors off the hinges; he was always taking apart things and never put them back. He was fascinated with taking things apart and seeing how they worked. That’s when he started messing with the equipment. I wanted him to get an education. I wanted him to do something with himself. I wasn’t even concerned about DJing.
I never bought him equipment. I never helped him buy equipment. If he wanted to do it, he was gonna have to do it on his own. I did give him an allowance. He would save his money up, and he would buy whatever equipment he wanted.
He met a younger guy in the building next to us who taught him what he needed to know—DJ Greedy. He wasn’t of age either, but I would make Greedy take him to skating rinks or wherever they were having parties, and he was responsible for Clent. I trusted him; he was a decent guy. Clent idolized him and Slugo and DJ Deeon.
I was never infatuated with any of the lifestyle—it didn’t amount to much to me, because I didn’t want him out in the street. I didn’t want him rippin’ and runnin’ around, or gangbangin’, or doing things he shouldn’t do. But I did know that if he was around those guys, I always knew where he was.
His dad had gone to DeVry, so he has a gift for electronics. He’d met a lot of guys who were trying to become DJs. They would buy their equipment and come to my house and bring it to Clent, so Clent could teach them how to use their own equipment. They sat right in that closet, hours on end. I’d come home from work and I’d pitch a fit, ’cause it was just guys all in the house. But they were all respectful. They were teenagers back then; they’re in their 40s now.
Corey is pretty much another story like Clent. He did it all by himself—he had no equipment that anybody gave him. One year, Clent bought him a controller for Christmas—matter of fact, I think there’s a video, and Corey was maybe four or five years old, and it was like his whole world lit up. His whole life, he patterned himself as Clent’s son. ’Cause Clent’s kinda bigheaded. Corey is too, now. Even when Corey was in kindergarten, they had to call him “DJ Corey” at school. He wouldn’t answer to anything but “DJ Corey.”
I look at him and then I look at Clent, and I’m like, “Oh my God”—but I have to hand it to them. They took something that they honestly love, and it’s not to just try to make a buck—half the time they don’t get what they deserve out of it, but they love it so much. That’s what I like—the fact that they love it. It’s not like it’s work or trying to get a dollar. It’s something they genuinely love, so I respect them for that. I’m proud of both of them.
I don’t want any part of it. Clent, he wants to buy me equipment. I had a fire, years ago, and I lost all of my equipment. I lost about 5,000 records. Clent has spent his life trying to recoup what I had. But it’s OK. He buys me records all the time, and one of his friends has bought me a turntable that I used to have, and he wants me to have another one; they’re trying to find me another mixer that I had. Material things are just that—they come and go. I’m still here. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff.
I listen to music all the time, especially on Sundays. I sit on my deck—I’ve got a covered deck—and Clent decided he wanted me to have speakers on my deck. I’ve got a subwoofer up under the deck, and it sounds so good. That’s what gives me joy. I go out and I listen to my music—it’s just R&B, a little house, and slow jams, things like that. And it sounds so good. Plus the neighborhood likes it, because everybody’s around my age—that’s what they listen to. So we just go back on a fantastic voyage, if you want to call it that.
I see the art form that they’re doing. It’s gone all the way from Clent being two, three years old, and now Corey. You see little kids footworkin’; it goes further and further and further, and I’m so proud of all of them. It’s so many little DJs that I know, and now everybody calls me “Mama Hill.” I’m not too crazy about that. But I’ve known them pretty much most of their lives, and now they have kids—some of them have grandkids. And they tell me that a lot of times, going to the parties that Clent and all those other guys were at, it helped save their lives, and it kept them outta trouble and gave them places to go. I think that’s a good thing.