The State of House Music in the Home of House
All photos by Petya Shalamanova

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The State of House Music in the Home of House

House music is now global music. But what is house music like in Chicago, the birthplace of house? I attended Queen!, a house club night in Chicago, to find out.
November 9, 2014, 3:32pm

While house music is now heard in clubs from Melbourne to Moscow to Milwaukee, there is no question that its roots are firmly planted in Chicago. After its Windy City birth in the 80s, thanks to the legendary Frankie Knuckles, house spread to cities across the world, sometimes breaking through to mainstream audiences in Europe and occasionally in the US.

Now, three decades after its inception, the impact of Chicago house is on radio (thanks to Disclosure and Duke Dumont) and on the charts (courtesy of Clean Bandit and Gorgon City), but what is house music like in the actual city of Chicago? I attended a house night in Chicago to find out.

Every Sunday, Smart Bar, an institution that plays host to a wide array of dance music, hosts Queen! for local house heads and members of the nightlife industry. Michael Serafini and Byrd Bardot created the night two years ago with resident DJs, including Garrett David, Derrick Carter, and Knuckles. (Nate Seider served as the talent booker.) The party begins at 10 PM, but, as Smart Bar general manager Lenny Lacson told me, "It doesn't really pop off until 2 AM."

Like many things in Chicago, the scene thrives on its seamless integration into one's regular life. House heads are everywhere and they are nowhere; for them, house music is what they've always known and loved. This year, at a public remembrance and celebration of Frankie Knuckles's life in Chicago's Millennium Park, I watched throngs of locals celebrate the legendary musician's life. The city underestimated how many people would attend, and the crowd spilled over to other areas of the park.

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Yet few venues feature a weekly dance party dedicated to house. More often, promoters create monthly or destination events—the sort of events that generate less of a risk than a weekly residency. Queen! stands out as one of the only house-oriented nights in the city.

"The party has been on its own island for years now," said Lacson. Minor competition has popped up here and there, but those nights quickly died and Queen! has kept on spinning its diverse tunes. "There's nothing hard about the night at all. It's your typical Chicago house music," he said. "It can be gay house, it can be soulful, some acid. The core part—definitely house."

Like the best club nights, Queen! attracts bros and freaks, queens and divas, beauties and aging goths, as well as normal boring regular folks.

Smart Bar shares its sub-neighborhood, Wrigleyville, with Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs) and sports bars filled with everything most hip house lovers loathe: excessive Big 10 culture, fratty men, and puddles of vomit. Wrigleyville, a part of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, is located on the city's North Side. Still, the club offers such weird and great music that people will move heaven and earth, or at least travel a couple of miles, to get to Queen!. When I went to the party in September, that trek meant a 45-minute bus ride and two trains.

You come to a thing like Queen! to be seen, of course, and many club-goers were decked out in slashed, pinned-together pants or elaborate wigs or glittery makeup. Like the most elegant Victorian gowns, the best outfits could stand out from hundreds of feet away.

One such vision was Jack Collier, a.k.a. Chemise Cagoule. "It's an old English term for a medieval dress that the Catholic Church put out and it only left available holes where it was necessary to procreate and not have pleasure during sex," Collier explained. Slinking across the room throughout the night, full of grace, Collier wore knee-high lace-up combat boots, black half-leather pants, and a silky, drip-patterned button-up. The club night attracts members of Chicago's art scene, so I wasn't surprised when Collier told me, "I just graduated with my degree in fashion and music and shit."

Collier told me he came out here for the hosts—Jojo Baby and Sissy Spastik, veterans of the scene—and his friends. "Jojo's my hero and a total idol of mine anyway. I would only aspire to get to that level," Collier said. "Here is just a really good concentration of what fashion could be and a really good representation of what's going on in Chicago. No one's doing what Jojo's doing in the world. No one's doing what Sissy's doing. It's another one of those events where I wish, when people thought of Chicago, they thought of this."

Not everyone here looked carved out of one of Lady Gaga's ribs. As I danced, two bros in their early 20s—genuine, real bros—slid up to me. The first, Justin, told me he came to the city from the suburb of Elmhurst. The second, Anthony, lived around the corner. They often attend parties like Queen! to find out about the after events that usually take place in lofts or desolate buildings in parts of the more industrial corridors of Chicago's West Side.

"I just came here to dance and party," said Justin, who wore a Chicago Bears hoodie and looked as blonde and corn-fed as most of the men who move to Chicago from Wisconsin and Indiana after college.

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So what is the house music scene in Chicago? Well it's nothing like how we imagine scenes anywhere else—but that is a compliment. Many club-goers—including Anthony, a 40-year-old Latino man—used the word nonjudgmental to describe the scene to me. Anthony's been a house head for all of his life and considers Queen! an important night.

"I've been here from the beginning," Anthony said. "That probably won't change."

"Do you come here every Sunday?" I asked.

"Not every Sunday."

"Oh, OK." I started to turn away.

"Well, actually," he leaned in. "Mostly, yes."

Anthony doesn't work in the music or nightlife industries, and he's too old to be properly called a club "kid"—but he was still here, and I could see him being here ten years from now. The biggest music fans I know (regardless of genre) have "normal" or "boring" lives in offices—they come home to their families and go to bed early—but the music meant something to them when they were younger, before they had adult responsibilities. If you love something deeply enough, the love never truly goes away.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly conflated house with other electronic genres of music, which developed separately from house.

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