Too Underground for the Mainstream: What ‘House’ Really Means

 

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Gene Farris last year for a set in Madison, Wisconsin.

By Conrad Wight, Men’s Writer

I caught up with Derrick Carter at a biker bar on Chicago’s Near Northwest side. It was a Sunday night in February; we were having dinner before he played at Smartbar for his weekly Queen! Party (more on that later). I was frazzled: I’d had a gig the night before, been up late, and driven down from Madison that afternoon.

“I’ve just been DJing for forever,” he says, miffed that I would start with such a pedestrian question. “Since I was eight and a half.” Despite what I’m sure must have been the awestruck look on my face, he insists: “It’s normal. It’s not, you know, much of an origin story. There’s not much it […] I just did it, and it suited somehow.”

I believe that. If you’ve ever been on a packed dancefloor, listening to him mix tracks with simultaneously impeccable taste and carefree abandon, accompanied by the whoops of a Derrick-crazed crowd, you’d believe it too. That night at Smartbar, one track he played out got burned into my head—HNNY’s “Sneeze.”

“I sneezed on the beat / and the beat got sicker,” goes the repeating vocal, over a whomping bass line. Damn right it did, Derrick.

***

House music itself has a similarly mythical origin story—despite the face it got its name from the Warehouse, the club that Frankie Knuckles played at in the early 1980s. Even though Knuckles grew up in New York, and got his start as a disco DJ alongside the equally iconic Larry Levan (the two were lifelong friends), it was at that little South Loop hole-in-the-wall where he honed his sound.

But the Warehouse wasn’t a club for white yuppies driving in from the suburbs. Across the river and a couple miles south of ritzy River North, its patrons were largely Black and Latino; male and gay.

There’s a lyric from an old track Larry Levan produced which I think captures what this club, and others—like the spot where Levan played, the Paradise Garage in New York, the archetype of the modern discotheque, the rights to whose name are now owned by Gay Men’s Health Crisis—may have meant to their patrons: “The only chance we get to come alive / Is when we go out after our nine-to-five / And that’s the time when we feel alright / The days may not be ours but we own the night.”

The Warehouse doesn’t exist anymore, but the 200 block of South Jefferson Street in Chicago, where it once stood, is memorialized as “Honorary ‘The Godfather of House’ Frankie Knuckles Way.” And I kid you not: we’ve got Obama to thank for that one. He passed the bill when he was an Illinois State Senator.

 

“Our thing ended up being where you can be whoever you want at Queen! as long as you let everyone else have the same amount of space—as long as you are cool with them being whoever they want to be.” – Derrick Carter

 

A Chicago mainstay who has witnessed the ups and downs of the scene for decades, Derrick’s voice is one of the most credible when it comes to the music’s history, and especially as it relates to the city.

To him, electronic music as we know it unquestionably “was born from marginalized peoples. It was born in places that were safe for these members of society to go and experience a communion – a sense of ‘[there are] all these other things are wrong in this world, but this is right.’ To some degree, it has its birth in that; its origin story lies, in part, in that.

“But, I think that’s more a sense of the spaces that found the music; more so than the music itself, or the people who made the music […] the spaces that would play these songs were that. The songs themselves were like whatever […] But it was birthed […] in these places that had these ideas.”

He works to continue to make the dancefloors he plays a place for that self-expression, and to provide people with that space:

“Our thing ended up being where you can be whoever you want at Queen! as long as you let everyone else have the same amount of space—as long as you are cool with them being whoever they want to be. And, as long as that person you’re trying to be isn’t an aggressive homicidal maniac—the rest is fine.

“I think that’s a good overview for partying in general,” he reflects, “like what the fuck ever? You’re going out. You’re having a good time. Why are you trying to put rules on somebody else?”

 

“I sold my soul to dance music before I did to the devil.” – Kurt Eckes

 

What many wouldn’t expect, though, is that some of the most legendary, scene-defining parties of the Midwest weren’t staged in burnt-out urban warehouses in Chicago and Detroit, but way up in the woods in Wisconsin.

Kurt Eckes’ promotion outfit and record label, Drop Bass Network, (whom Resident Advisor aptly describes as “legendary”) operating out of Milwaukee in the 1990s, put that city and the state of Wisconsin on the map in the world of global electronic music culture with a series of yearly parties they called “Even Furthur”—named after Ken Kesey’s bus in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. The DBN label itself featured some of the first releases from techno legends DJ Hyperactive and Adam Bayer, among others.

To give an idea: Richie Hawtin headlined in both 1999 and 1998. Daft Punk, for their first US appearance, in 1996. In 1994, Aphex Twin. This list goes on and on—and, after going on hiatus in 2002 because of what Kurt describes as a shrinking market for the music—they are back as of EF16, their 20-year “family reunion” from EF96 this past summer, which I had the distinct pleasure of attending.

We spoke on the phone on a Friday afternoon in March. “First and foremost,” says Kurt, “I’m a raver – I was going to parties before I was doing them. I sold my soul to dance music before I did to the devil. I get what people are attracted to because I’m attracted to those same things.”

“There was a quote in a book,” says Eckes, “about what the Midwest was about: that we were pagans, that we worship walls of bass, doing drugs Friday through Sunday, and listening to really heavy music, and that was kind of the point of what we were doing…I’m not under the illusion that it was some grand plan, because it wasn’t. But […] a lot of people used that to get a lot of different things out of it. To each their own.”

 

“Genuine interest in that music has always been welcomed with open arms, in my opinion.” – Maryrose Moses

 

“So my very very very first show,” writes Maryrose Moses—we did the interview by e-mail, as she’s in Miami, gearing up for this year’s Miami Music Week “was in 2001 on a Thursday night at Redno5 for [Richie] Hawtin [and John] Acquaviva.”

 While in Chicago, Maryrose was an essential part of the notorious Paradigm Presents crew, and also a highly successful independent underground promoter as MiM. Now, she works for Miami’s preeminent underground club Do Not Sit On The Furniture—aptly named because if you’re sitting, you’re not dancing.

“I was 18 and clerking in cattle trading pits at the old CME [Chicago Mercantile Exchange]. I had no clue about the music yet, just was going because another clerk said he could get me.  Needless to say, I was hooked.  Stayed till the end, went straight to work and was an instant disappointment to my family.”

Yeah, I can relate to that one.

But on a deeper level, too: “All my social needs were meet, and all the music I didn’t know about made total sense.”

***

I spoke with Jessica Fenner in the bathroom at SmartBar in Chicago after she finished her opening set for Cassy, playing as a part of SmartBar’s Daphne series celebrating female-identifying artists in electronic music. DJing as Fortune, she heads A.part, who are currently Milwaukee’s only professional promotional outfit for underground house and techno.

“I went to my first rave when I was sixteen,” she said, “and it was the first time that I’d ever experienced being on an even playing field with everybody. No expectations, no class, no nothing – everyone would just look at each other and be like “this music is amazing” and that’s all anyone cared about; that’s all that mattered; everyone was just excited about the experience.”

That’s how I felt at Paradigm: Joseph Capriati playing a slamming minimal techno set in a warehouse in Chicago’s meatpacking district. The room was filled with smoke and sound; a vaguely humanoid sculpture hanging from the ceiling; massive abstract canvases adorning the walls; a crowd of friendly strangers losing their minds to amazing music.

There’s a reason for this, though: “the Chicago house [scene] is so easy to be accepted in,” writes Maryrose. “Genuine interest in that music has always been welcomed with open arms, in my opinion.  And when you’re passionate about the music, it’s easy to start a conversation with random strangers about it.”

Gene Farris, world-renowned DJ, record label founder, and global ambassador of Chicago’s house sound, would echo that sentiment: “I think the basic root of house music is self-expression. You’re allowed to be who you are in our industry.”

 

“To seek refuge in the weird & unknown landscape of the underground that I knew is gone […] the underground spirit and culture is at stake for the simple entertainment of the masses.” – Maryrose Moses

 

But to Maryrose, a lot of this has been lost along the way: “To seek refuge in the weird & unknown landscape of the underground that I knew is gone,” she writes. “With social media and overall awareness and interest in the electronic music scene, the underground spirit and culture is at stake for the simple entertainment of the masses.”

Kurt, though, would question if it was ever anything more than that: “It’s all just entertainment,” he says, “and at the end of the day, if that’s all that it is for people, that’s fine, because that’s been going on in music forever. People don’t have to be passionate about music and it doesn’t have to be a big cultural experience or whatever. Ultimately, that’s what makes music so cool, is that people can get any number of different things out of it.”

Despite what he views as an impressive resurgence of the business of rave-throwing, there’s still something lacking in today’s “bro-fests,” as he describes them, from the old recipe:

“The EDM parties that are going on now—they’re still big raves, but the crowd is different; the mindset, a lot of it’s different; the music is obviously different […] all of the elements are there, but it doesn’t feel like a movement like what we were doing in the 90s because it’s above-ground now. It’s not really counter-cultural when it’s the main thing that’s going on.” But, “it’s all got the same roots in stuff that was going on in the 90s, and even in before that in stuff that was going on in Chicago and New York.”

“It started as Black music, contrary to what people think,” writes Gene Farris. “It was all Black in the beginning […] But I believe life moves in cycles so you never know hopefully it will make a comeback. With the Chosen Few Festival in Chicago we already see that, they have 40,000 people, 90% Black, no violence, and all House Music.”

 

“I pray we never get so big that we lose the personal feeling that we have now. It’s the only genre where you can still meet your heroes and possibly have a conversation.” – Gene Farris

 

“Looking ahead at the musical landscape,” writes Maryrose, “I see promise. Socially as a scene, I see a sense of community being built. The social and economic climate of this country is pushing creatives, musicians & artists together.  My perception that the confidence [one needs to work in this business] that I mentioned before, has given very smart and educated young professionals that are involved with scene [the impetus] to work together to have a voice.”

Despite the fact that, to Gene, we have gotten away from the roots of a little bit with the “more commercial side of things as well as the ‘purists’” but still believes that, as an artist, he is allowed “creative freedom.” Looking forward, he would hope that “we keep the heart of House and continue to let it be a safe haven for us misfits, oddballs, and queers. I pray we never get so big that we lose the personal feeling that we have now. It’s the only genre where you can still meet your heroes and possibly have a conversation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And to Kurt, even the “bro-fests” that are mainstream music festivals show promise for the underground: “kids that are getting turned on to that music and who want to understand where it came from, they’ll find techno and house and drum ‘n’ bass and go on their on journey into this madness that a lot of other people have been doing for a long time[…]That’s the hope, anyway, for people like me, who do the flip-side of the big commercial coin, you know, and for people that are making underground music or DJs that are playing underground music.”

When I got the chance to ask him a couple questions on this topic at an afterparty for a show we’d played together up in Madison, Dantiez Saunderson, a prolific producer, touring DJ, and Label A&R—not to mention son of Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson, expressed a similar sentiment: looking forward, he’d hope that “As much as you can, just keep it about the music – not the drugs, the cellphones, or anything else – that’s all extra shit. Peace, love, and respect – you can’t argue with that.”

Special Thanks to Derrick Carter, Kurt Eckes, Maryrose Moses, Gene Farris, and Jessica Fenner.

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