Clubbing in Chicago
RA takes a closer look at a scene steeped in history.When I started talking to people about clubbing in Chicago, everyone had strong opinions—but also some ambivalence: Chicago has a vibrant dance scene, although the crowds aren't very big and it can feel rather fragmented. We went through a rough patch after the financial crash of 2008, but things are getting better. There's been a resurgence of warehouse parties and intimate after-parties; they're hard to find, however, without the right connections. Chicago has a rich history as the birthplace of house music, but a lot of the original venues and promoters have disappeared. This history still shapes and supports a cadre of emerging local artists, and yet it also risks suffocating new talent. The international respect the city nonetheless receives helps bring top-tier performers to Chicago, even though sometimes local partygoers don't seem to appreciate it.
And so it is. Chicagoans are justifiably proud of what their city has done in the past and what it is doing now, but there is also a sense that things could be better, should be better and will get better, dammit. "At this point, it's gotten actually pretty fucking magnificent," says Nate Seider, resident DJ and booking agent for Chicago's foremost and longest-running dance music nightclub, Smart Bar, "It's really healthy; I mean, there are so many different promoters and clubs that are doing things right now."Indeed, there's been a noticeable upswing in the number of events going on every week in Chicago over the past year or so, but are more people coming out, too? Is the selection of events any richer? Is the vibe as warm and friendly as it used to be? While most local scenesters are generally optimistic about where Chicago is going, there's substantial disagreement about where it is now and why. Most people can agree, however, that Chicago went through a rough patch starting about four or five years ago, after the financial crisis of 2008. Some venerable Chicago institutions didn't survive: "Crobar closed down, Sonotheque closed down," says Seider, "There really wasn't that much going on. That's really when a lot of the scene and a lot of the parties went underground for a while." There were also generational factors, too; most of the "raver" generation were hitting their thirties, finishing school, getting married, having babies, and moving away.
Smart Bar is one of Chicago's finest venues.
Those venues that have survived without abandoning their programming, such as Smart Bar and Spy Bar, get a lot of respect from locals for not giving up on the scene during those low-tide years. Since many promoters also went dormant during those years of low turn-out (and intensifying police interference), there's also respect and a sense of gratitude for those underground promoters who kept at it, like Nadia Podolsky of Volatl.
"Nadia has been around for so long," says Maryrose Moses (AKA MiM), a relatively new promoter but longtime Chicago partygoer, "She is the one that really kept the underground scene in Chicago vibrant when most people couldn't. It takes a lot of financial reliability; for a small-time person, you take one big hit at a party and you're wiped out." Moses considers herself one of those "small-time" promoters that emerged out of those lean years in Chicago, adapting to shrinking attendance by holding her events in smaller licensed venues like wine bars, lounges and cafés.But even now, attendance continues to be a source of anxiety and frustration for event organizers. Although people seem to be going out more, the patterns of attendance can be baffling. "There's an interest in Chicago becoming a destination city for international talent," says Moses, "but the scene has not caught up with that interest yet. We tried to do Sónar, we tried to do Mutek and there was poor attendance—but then you bring in a party name that will probably be irrelevant in two years, and those parties are packed. You see these really respected names coming through town and there is hardly anyone at their shows, and that is disheartening." Indeed, there's a sense among organizers and performers that Chicagoans won't reliably turn up for prominent artists like they used to. Seider also admits to having been mystified at times by the turnout for events at Smart Bar, but he suggests some of these fluctuations may have more to do with economic factors: "There are people on budgets. It's not cheap to go out. Sometimes, even if you're going to go out to see an average DJ at a club, you're going to pay anywhere between $10-20 cover. Chances are that they're not running any drink specials, so if you want to get drunk and dance around, it's going to cost you even more." Also, most Chicago partygoers have regular jobs with regular, nine-to-five hours, which means that time and energy are also very limited resources. For smaller promoters like Moses, this means keeping party-exhaustion in mind when planning events. "If someone is doing something really big Friday night, you know they'll be burnt out Saturday night."
Regardless of its causes, that dry spell of a few years ago prompted a lot of Chicago promoters to adopt a sort of market-segmentation strategy; they organized smaller, narrowly-marketed sub- and sub-sub-genre parties that accelerated the process of fragmentation, which had already been in motion since the Chicago rave scene began moving into nightclubs at the turn of the century. Promoters associated themselves with one or two particular styles: VOLATL with Detroit-oriented techno, Oktave. with more experimental and minimal techno, MiM with downtempo deep house and disco edits, and so on. Indeed, the electronic music scene here can seem thoroughly fragmented. Andrew Schook (AKA Antiphase), a longtime Chicago resident and techno DJ, gives an example from last summer: "I went to Smart Bar on Friday to see Guillaume and the Coutu-Dumonts and then on Saturday for Marcel Dettmann, and there was almost no overlap between the crowds."
All of this fragmentation poses a challenge for nightclubs, for whom small-scale niche events just won't pay the bills. Many of the larger (and, therefore more expensive to run) clubs, like Sound Bar and the Excalibur/Vision mega-club, focus their programming almost entirely on musical styles that can still guarantee big crowds, such as progressive house, trance and even top 40 dance pop. "There is no shortage of clubs in Chicago," remarks Elly Rifkin (AKA Kiddo), a native Chicagoan, longtime raver and techno DJ, "They are all over the place: big, medium, small, whatever. But it's the programming. Most of it is a financial concern: they can't take the risk of not having more mainstream music."For Smart Bar, a medium-sized club dedicated to underground dance music, the strategy has involved targeting different style-specific crowds on different nights. Seider points out that Smart Bar isn't just a weekend club, "it's 100% underground music five days a week; there are no top 40 nights," which is no small feat. Thursday nights are dedicated to drum & bass and dubstep, Fridays feature house or indie dance, Saturdays focus on techno and big-ticket international acts, Sundays are disco/nu-disco and Wednesdays are curated by a rotating cast of local DJs that focus on Chicago-based artists and genres. The big exception to all of this niche-programming is dubstep. At a time when other scenes have been striving to fill a room with more than 200 people, dubstep acts have been filling concert halls—like the 4,500-capacity Congress Theater. "Dubstep has taken off so much," observes Seider. "It's bringing a ton of awareness. Right now, there are so many kids that are getting into electronic music, and that's really awesome. It's great to see." Dubstep has gained popularity among listeners who are not otherwise involved in electronic dance music, and so some promoters see this as an opportunity to bring new blood into the scene.
"It's not just about the music being good anymore. You've got to
have something more." -- Elly RifkinSmart Bar, for example, takes advantage of its location underneath its sister concert hall, Metro, to engage in a bit of cross-promotion. "One night," recounts Seider, "we had Rusko up in Metro and Jeff Mills down in Smart Bar. We opened the side doors, and the kids could go down after the show was over if they were over 21. There were a lot of people there that maybe wouldn't have come out otherwise." But Seider also admits that there are some demographic limitations to cross-promotion: "It's such a young thing. We have so many people that say, 'I really wish I was 21 [the legal drinking age in Illinois], so I could go out and see this act!' And usually they're talking about a dubstep act." Dubstep certainly is making a lot of money for large concert halls, but it'll be a few more years before that fan base graduates into liquor-licensed venues and after-hours parties. Outside of nightclubs and other conventional nightlife venues, there's a relatively healthy independent and underground party scene. Mostly organized by local promoters, these parties are usually held legally in smaller licensed venues (like bars, cafés, restaurants) or somewhat illicitly in industrial or private spaces (like warehouses, lofts, art galleries). The latter are run on very small budgets, so it's nearly impossible to bring in international talent. "Of course I would love to bring in some of the most respected names," says Moses of MiM, "but at the same time, if it's going to cost me my rent, I can't bring them in."
Virgo Four are among the local acts reissued recently.But these tighter budgets also mean that underground promoters focus more on domestic and local talent, which is good news if you're visiting Chicago from overseas. In any case, one of the biggest financial risks for underground parties isn't securing talent, but securing a venue, paying for it, maintaining it, staffing it with bartenders and security, cleaning it afterwards and—most of all—not getting shut down by the police. This is why MiM started off by throwing parties in licensed venues, where the legalities and logistics of the venue are taken care of. More recently, though, Moses has been moving towards underground events: "I really enjoy [throwing] underground events," she notes, "because you control the whole vibe and the feel of the space." Despite their smaller costs and greater agility in comparison to nightclubs, there were some hard lessons to be learned for underground promoters in Chicago. Ever since the dry spell hit a few years ago, it's become increasingly clear that strong music programming alone isn't enough to draw a crowd. "It's not just about the music being good anymore," says Rifkin, "You've got to have something more; you've got to have that network of people that support what you do." Schook adds, "You have to build the community first, and then start doing parties…you have to have the network already in place, and very few promoters have been successful at that." Moses's MiM events are a more recent example of this sort of socially-driven event planning, using a combination of Facebook and word-of-mouth to build up a socially-entwined audience. "At a lot of my parties, you could look around and know everyone there," says Moses, "We can party with these people on the weekend, and during the week we're hanging out and barbecuing and swapping music." Everyone is on a budget these days, and if you can only go to one party this weekend, it'll probably be the party where all your friends will be; this is why the sort of social labor in which Moses and other smaller promoters engage is so crucial to their survival.
Notably, the combination of genre-fragmentation and smaller-scale events has pushed a lot of Chicago parties out of licensed, above-ground venues and into private residences, artist's studios, art galleries, office spaces, small industrial spaces, and lofts. In other words, much of the Chicago scene has not only gone underground, but also gone private. For about eight months between 2009 and 2010, for example, there was an after-party nearly every weekend in an industrial loft shared by three guys in deepest West Chicago; the party would start sometime on Friday or Saturday and then keep going until Sunday night or later—for which this private residence later earned the unofficial name, "Club Regret." Even earlier in the 2000s, the NaughtyBadFunCollective threw good old fashioned raves in the unfinished basement of DJ Sassmouth's apartment building in Humboldt Park, which came to be known as the "Rave Cave."
These domestic-space events are usually advertised by word-of-mouth and Facebook invitations, making them very hard to find if you're a visitor or a newcomer to Chicago. If you don't already have connections in Chicago, the only way to find out about these parties is to go to above-ground venues and be relentlessly social. Moses notes that, "the underground scene is actually pretty hidden in Chicago…you need to find someone that can bring you in." On the one hand, all of this makes for warm, intimate, and safe parties that can provide some of the best fun in town; on the other hand, this has turned the Chicago after-hours/underground scene into a sparse archipelago of social islands. "It can be so cliquish," remarks Steve Mizek, chief editor of Little White Earbuds and native Chicagoan, "I feel like you have to enter the right way. If you go in through the front door, you're going to seem like an intruder."The fragmentation of Chicago's dance music scene also goes deeper; like almost everything else in Chicago, the social and spatial geography of nightlife is shaped by a long and still very present history of racial hypersegregation. Back when the rave scene was attracting droves of mostly middle-class white kids in the 1990s, there was still a vibrant black (and primarily gay) house music scene having their own
parties, regular clubs, "drag balls" (drag queen pageants) and supporting their own DJs. This racial-social gap still persists today, where the cluster of primarily white dance music scenes on the North Side remain out of touch with what's happening in Chicago's black South Side. As a result, it can be difficult to get involved in the South Side's house music scene if you're not from the South Side yourself. The Boom Boom Room: One of the longest running house nights in the world. There are a few exceptions, where the north and south of Chicago meet on the dance floor. There's the Boom Boom Room, which has worked to stay true to the vibe and music of the early Chicago house era. "It's the longest running house night in the world  and it can be a bit of a wax museum," opines Mizek, "but at the same time if you want that spirit, there is no other place quite like [it]." There's also the Annual Chosen Few House Music Picnic (every 4th of July weekend), which is one of the few occasions when North-Side partygoers find their way down to the South Side to party. Mizek points out that, "There are a lot of Chicago DJs that won't play the North side at all. They have their audience—I don't blame them at all—but there is not much exchange between the two sides. It stifles a lot of the community, I think, because there is not a lot of affection back and forth between the North Side and the South Side." When asked for an example, Mizek mentions Mike Dunn, who hasn't played north of downtown for years, "Maybe the furthest north he gets is Grand Avenue…but at the same time, a lot of [North-Side] clubs don't make any overtures to book these DJs, either." But these processes of fragmentation are increasingly turning into processes of consolidation, as the push into niche events has encouraged the formation of tight-knit groups of people with similar tastes. Take, for example, the recent experiences of Chicago DJs and producers Samone Roberts and Nathan Drew Larsen, who found their way into a group of fellow disco-lovers. Both Chicago natives, affiliated with Fresh Meat Records, raised in disco-loving households, and involved in the Chicago house scene since the early '90s, Roberts and Larsen have a deep affinity for disco, post-disco "dance tracks" of the 80s, early Chicago house, nu-disco and disco edits. During the era when minimal techno reigned supreme in Chicago, they both felt like musical loners. But in recent years, through like-minded friends such as Smart Bar resident Justin Long and fellow label-mate Mazi Namvar, they've been discovering that there is a whole community of kindred spirits like Lono Brazil, Specter, Tevo Howard and Traxx, as well as circuit of disco loft parties (Disco Unusual Social Club). "It's an extremely interesting and exciting time for Chicago," remarks Roberts, "There have been these disconnected diasporas of people quietly doing their thing. And now, we're all starting to find each other again, and there are interesting parties again, and there are good house music bookings in Chicago." Adds Larsen: "We all sort of feel like some sort of renaissance is happening. People are returning—in a way—to their roots."
Tevo Howard is among the newest Chicago house music producers to find international acclaim.Indeed, even non-Chicagoans seem to want to return to the city's roots these days. Every promoter I spoke to reported that, when they picked up the big international headliner DJ from the airport, s/he was always excited to be playing in Chicago, home of house music. When Seider brings in out-of-town performers for Smart Bar, some of them rearrange their bookings so that they have an extra day in the city for record shopping and sightseeing. "It's still very revered around the world," observes Seider, "as this very magical, mystical place. And there aren't really that many remnants of it left in Chicago: the Warehouse isn't around anymore, Shelter isn't around anymore…" The history of Smart Bar itself is enough to attract many international performers. "It opened up the same year as the Haçienda (in Manchester, UK)," notes Seider, "and so many legendary Chicago DJs were residents there for a long time." For many now-prominent producers, DJs and partygoers of Chicago, Detroit and the rest of the Midwest, Smart Bar has been an enduring site of musical pilgrimage. "There are so many people that still come up to me talking about when they used to come here back in the mid-'80s, and there was sawdust all over the floor and it was just some dude in the corner playing records." But with this venerable history comes a heavy sense of responsibility: "I think we understand that there aren't a lot of clubs left like this in the US. There just aren't. There are very few clubs that have a full-time talent buyer. There are very few clubs that really try to maintain an underground format. So I think, in that respect, we definitely want to try to live up to that."
Chicago Cheat Sheet
Finding the Party
Considering that so much of the scene has fragmented and gone underground, it can be tough to find a good party, especially if you want to hit Chicago's excellent after-hours parties. The short answer is: personal contacts, word of mouth, social media networks, online forums, record shop conversations, flyers—in that order. If you're coming into town and won't have the time to slowly work your way into the scene, here is what to do. Before arriving, do your homework: get in touch with any Chicagoans that you know and ask what's going on; if you're interested in particular clubs or promoters or artists, check their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds; check out the event listings here on Resident Advisor as well as on a few forums like NBFC and Deep House Page. When you get to town: try to hit Gramaphone or another record shop, pick up the flyers, and chat up the employees there; look for local magazines with event listings like 5 Magazine, UR Chicago, and the Chicago Reader; listen to dance music radio shows like Streetbeat on WNUR (89.3 FM) or Abstract Science on WLUW (88.7 FM). Finding the afterparty: go to one of the events you picked out during your careful research; party, have fun, make new friends; when the bar announces the last call for alcohol, start asking around about an afterparty; when the lights come on at the end of the night, there are always a few kids loitering about, looking to keep the party going.
When international DJs come to Chicago, the first thing any of them want to do is go record-shopping. Most of the best record shops have been in business since before house music was even around, and their collections are treasure-troves for rare grooves. Lately, it seems that some of the DJs and house-heads from the 80s and early 90s have been selling their collections, which means that you're increasingly likely to stumble across impossible-to-find classic tracks. But bring your wallet: Chicago record dealers know very well how much these tracks are worth. The must-visit record shop is Gramaphone Records (2843 N. Clark Street), which has been in business since 1969 and was the main point of contact between the burgeoning Chicago house music scene and the rest of the world. But you should also hop in a taxi and head out into the Ukranian Village to KSTARKE Records (1109 N. Western Ave), where you can dig through the crates for hours or allow owner Kevin Starke to pull exactly the right record for you every time; Starke offers a wide selection of genres, but deep house cuts and rare disco is where you'll find the real gems here. You can also head deep into the South Side to Mr. Peabody Records (11832 S. Western Ave), where you can go bankrupt buying old soul, disco, and house records; there are a lot of priceless records in private record collections in the South Side, and most of them find their way here in the end. Another local record-shopping institution was Dr. Wax in Hyde Park (along with three other locations), but, alas, the store shut down in 2010.
The list of nightlife venues dedicated primarily to underground electronic dance music is pretty short: Smart Bar (3730 N. Clark St), and Spybar (646 N. Franklin St.), and more recently The MID (306 N. Halsted St.). There are also a few more commercial mega-clubs that may be of interest—depending on your tolerance of VIP lounges, bottle service, AXE Body Spray, fake tans, and popped collars—such as Vision/Excalibur (632 N. Dearborn St.) and Sound-Bar (226 W. Ontario St.). A lot of events in Chicago take place in non-club venues, such as wine bars, cafés, art galleries, industrial spaces, storage spaces, and private residences. Although there are certain "favourite" underground venues that are used repeatedly for events, they fall in and out of favor rather quickly, so you'll just have to read those event listings closely and keep your ear to the ground.The weight of history also seems to affect out-of-town DJs when they play in Chicago, often adding classic house, disco and soul tracks to their sets. It's not surprising coming from disco- or jazz-influenced house producers like Todd Terje, but everyone was a bit surprised when Ben Klock started dropping old Relief records last year at Smart Bar. And, sure enough, the crowd eats it up and these DJs seem to be genuinely thrilled to play classic tracks that might not be recognized or appreciated elsewhere. But not everyone is thrilled that their favourite techno DJ has chosen their visit to Chicago to dust off her/his collection of classic Chicago tracks. "I came here for what you do," protests Rifkin, "and for what I know you do well! I want to hear the music you're known for. And so, to hear somebody come here and play jackin' Chicago house because they feel like they have to, it's very disappointing."
For Rifkin, this trend stems from visiting DJs assuming that Chicago audiences will only respond to classic house music. As she points out, this assumption has some basis in fact, in that "there is a crowd of people who are really into it, are purist about their house music, and they don't want to hear anything else." But for DJs and fans like Rifkin, whose musical affinities are not primarily with house music, it can be exasperating when their favourite techno/trance/minimal/breaks/whatever act comes to town and starts pulling out old house jams.
Help or hindrance, there's no denying the importance of Chicago's music history both at home and abroad. Take, for example, last year's re-release of Virgo Four's debut album (originally from 1989) on Dutch label Rush Hour. Its success prompted Rush Hour to release a box-set (Resurrection, 2011) of never-before-heard demos from the Chicago duo. And, last spring, Rush Hour announced that Gene Hunt would be curating, Chicago Dance Tracks, a collection of previously unreleased Chicago tracks by Lil Louis, Ron Hardy, Steve Poindexter, Larry Heard and many more. Stories like this bring good press for Chicago while also showing the intense fascination the global dance music market has with Chicago.
But for Steve Mizek, all of this history comes at a cost to what is happening right now in Chicago, especially for artists who aren't producing classic-sounding house. "Chicago's kind of in a weird state of flux," he remarks, "There is some really interesting talent here, but I feel like Chicago is held down by its history in some regards." As founder and chief editor of the internationally-read Little White Earbuds, Mizek maintains an outward, international perspective from his home in Chicago.For him, Chicago's house history tends to eclipse the city's current musical activities, making it hard for local non-house artists to be taken seriously internationally while also reducing the opportunities for musical innovation at home. "A lot of people revere the city and want to come play here, but I feel like the actual club culture and the appetite for new things has tapered off. There are fewer and fewer venues that want to try anything new or take a chance on talent." He acknowledges that Chicagoans have good reason to value their house music history: "It's very understandable. You want to preserve what you have; but it hasn't lent itself to making room for new talent, and it hasn't allowed a lot of new people to emerge from the scene."
So, this is Chicago. There's no single story you can tell about the city. When I talk to Samone Roberts and Nathan Drew Larsen, I get an optimistic and enthusiastic story about the return to early house/disco, the rise of new-but-classic-sounding house production, and the return to "machine music" (i.e., less software, more hardware). When I ask Steve Mizek, I get a story about a city too high on its own history to pay attention to what's happening around the world and in its own backyard. When I ask Maryrose Moses/MiM, I get a story about the opportunities and risks of throwing small, intimate parties in a city with a limited pool of partygoers. When I ask Elly Rifkin and Andrew Schook, I get a story about the frustrations of being techno DJs (and techno-lovers) in a house music town. And when I ask Nate Seider of Smart Bar, I get a story about a longstanding Chicago institution adapting to changing times, playing the role of cultural ambassador between Chicago and the world. But despite these very different narratives of the same city, they all seem to agree this: that things have been tough, but they're getting better. "I'm really an optimist," says Schook, "so I'm extremely happy with what we have here. But it could always be better."