The Segue from Blues to House

Black Cultural Social Map brings out 1980s history

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By Bonni McKeown

Blues is the soundtrack of the 20th century Great Migration. Millions of Black people moved to cities from the rural South, electrifying their country blues. Telling personal stories set to this healing music helped the community cope with racism and poverty. You sing the blues to drive the blues away. Chicago's West Side was a blues hotbed in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

 

But Chicago was also a leader in House-- heavy-beat DJ Black party music of the 80's and 90s, including styles of Footwork and Juke— partly thanks to West Side record stores and record labels such as George's Music Room, Barney's Music, and Dance Mania Records.

 

A history panel Sept. 7 at a history panel at the West Side Justice Center brought out the connections between blues and house. The program to put "nightlife and social spaces on Chicago's Westside" literally, on the map, was co-sponsored by the Chicago Black Social Culture Map, Honey Pot Performance, the Modern Dance Music Archiving Foundation and the Smithsonian/National Museum of African American History & Culture.

 

The Black Social Culture Map, an online public humanities project documents Black social culture from the Great Migration through the early 21st century--especially the emergence of house music and dance in the 1980s. The map features profiles for over 350 different Chicago venues, including basic information, first-person stories, and supplemental media, all collected through collaborative community research.  More about the blues portion of the Sept. 7 program in the Austin Weekly News writeup.  HERE

 

George Daniels, who served on a history panel that day, is a living bridge between the blues and house eras. He opened George's Music Room at 3915 W. Roosevelt, during a tough time, and the record store survived for years, situated close to a laundromat and grocery.  People were encouraged to shop while doing their laundry—a great boon for all three businesses.  Like many brick-and-mortar record stores, George's closed in the face of digital record selling.  But he said, "It's not gone. We're going to do something with all that vinyl."

 

In the early 1980s, DJ dance music was gaining a following on the heels of disco everywhere, including New York which was known for a warehouse with several floors of various styles of DJs spinning dance records. George's store kept slabs of cardboard for pre-teens and youth to dance on after school. "It was a safe space for kids," he recalled. "It gave them something to do."

 

Jarvis Mason, one of the young people of that day, worked at another West Side record store—Charlie and Marie Henderson's Out of the Past Records, which is still open at Madison and Kostner From the Hendersons' bins of "dusties, Mason picked up stacks of old R&B, pop, blues and soul records cheap, for DJ friends.

 

Panel moderator Duane Powell, music historian, said that the name "House" came from a Chicago artist, Jesse Saunders, who produced his own 12 inch records. Local artists and small labels pressed up and sold their own records, and distributed them with Barney's Music at One Stops.  But if Barney's ran out of Jesse's record, his labels had the address of his house.  "Go to Jesse's house and get the records," sellers were told.  All kinds of DJ-type music ended up getting called "House," Powell recalled.

 

The introduction of freebase cocaine and crack in the early 1980s sealed years of ruin for the West Side, he said. Packaged kits promoted the use of cocaine with ether. Drug dealers went after business people because they had money. And the gangsta-rap form of hiphop didn't help. Lyrics glamorizing drugs and violence, have "scrambled young children's brains" Daniels said. 

 

Duane agreed: "Early hiphop was balanced and diverse in its messages.  Now industry is not getting behind good music. While we listened to gospel, blues, R&B, rock and even country music, our children are growing up with just one beat in their head. A lot of talk in hiphop is about how to solve problems with violence."

 

The antidote, said break dancer Jarius King, a young father: more positive talk and demonstrating the music you love." I sing, I rap for my kids. I want them to normalize good music."

 

In the next panel, DJ entrepreneurs Jo De Presser, Kevin McSwain, Rick Lenoir and Vick Lavender, all in their 50s, agreed that their promotions of dance parties for youth could not be done the same way today as they did in the 1980s.  With everyone plugged into the internet and going their own way, it's hard to connect with groups of young people.

 

Kevin, as a young man, followed DJs around and helped with parties at Madison and Lockwood, the Hamlin House 13th floor at Madison and Hamlin, and the YMCA on Harrison and Leamington.  Rick followed DJ music on WDAI.  Preteen dance parties, including sock hops after basketball games were popular at Resurrection grammar school (now Christ the King prep).

Vick, as a Westinghouse High student, learned how to play from a neighborhood DJ, Rob Palomar. He read liner notes of the albums used for DJ mixes, learning the styles of the musicians. West Side DJs, he said, were not afraid to mix different kinds of music, where the South Side spinners more often stuck to categories. 

 

"Our music is self-taught. Most of us didn't go to school for sound engineering. But if you know how to count to 8 or 16 bars, you can make a record, said Vick.  "Nobody was playing what I really wanted to hear, so I bought drum machines and learned production. Always hustling for the dopest sound." Vick promoted a House show with up to 9 live instruments at the Green Dolphin each Thursday. Three hundred people packed the jazz and pop venue, each paying $15.

 

Green Dolphin Street is still a North Side music venue, but most of the sites of House parties were temporary. Promoters rented them. When the city decommissioned a series of small firehouses in the 1980s, some became House venues, including one at Chicago and Laramie in a building now occupied by the Mid-Austin Steering Committee.  The Tupelo disco, a former bowling alley at Madison near Cicero, not far from Out of the Past Records, became the Factory. A mysterious fire destroyed the building, the promoters recalled.

 

The Warehouse on Michigan Avenue, and the Music Box at 16th Indiana were big House venues attracting many South Siders. But the West Side deserves a lot of House props, Rick said. DJ International and Trax were not the only outlets for the records. Distributor Ray Barney threw House parties in back of his own warehouse on Ogden and Kedzie.

 

Before the internet, promoters depended on signs to spread the word about shows.  They punctured the heavy-duty posters, strung them with wire, and attached them to utility poles, often at night a day or two before a show. Competitors might snatch them down and put up their own. Rick's crew found a bunch of their new posters discarded in a dumpster behind the Factory. One printer on Lake Street promised to have everyone's posters ready by early evening, but sometimes didn't finish til wee hours. An alternative printer in Earl Park, Indiana, was cheap but the rural area's racist reputation unnerved Black customers.

 

Promoters overcame the obstacles and got the parties on, lasting sometimes until daylight. Despite hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, youth attending, there was little trouble—no liquor bottles or drug paraphernalia found at cleanup.

 

By 1989, Kevin noted, times had changed. Bad behavior among certain element of youth discouraged landlords from renting to promoters. Nevertheless, at age 27, with backing from Rick, friends and parents, he rode his motorcycle to the South Side to meet a woman who owned a building at Adams and Laramie. She believed in youth activities and agreed to support his venture. So did Alderman Sam Burrell. The young promoters bucked the times and succeeded with a popular dance club, the Flight Zone.

 

"We couldn't even think about doing that kind of thing now," said Rick. "Everyone would be looking at insurance and legalities.  He added, "When the city, under old man Daley, struck the cabaret license down, it killed all that." 

 

He added that House promoters til now have not reached out to younger generations. "We have to make the knowledge available.  We can't tell the younger generation how to do their music, we have to let them find their way."

 

Street violence, hype on social media, and competition for grades and tests have set today's youth on edge, the House promoters agreed. Most city schools don't even have homecoming dances for fear of violence, they said. 

 

Vick said, "Kids today have too much on their plate. Too much information coming in, and nowhere to hang out and relax. You have to go through too much red tape just to get a space, unless you own a building."

 

With youth needing safe spaces for recreation more than ever, Kevin said he is contacting schools and once again attempting to set up DJ programs and dances. 

 

To document your own musical memories, contact Lauren Lowery of Modern Dance Music Archiving Foundation: lauren@housemusicarchive.org.  Check out the Black Social Culture Map online at http://mappingartsproject.org/chicago/ .

 

 

 

 

 

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