PHUTURE's DJ Pierre on Racism and Chicago
"I remember feeling the adrenaline and I remember preparing myself for the worst outcome"
My name is DJ Pierre. Thirty years ago I began making music as PHUTURE with DJ Spank Spank and Herb Jackson, before eventually moving on solo as DJ Pierre. People know us as the creators of the genre of music called acid house, and while Spanky went on to tour as Phuture 303, the original group was non existent after my departure. Last year, Spanky and I reunited to revive PHUTURE live.
Chicago has historically been (and still is) one of the most racially-segregated cities in the U.S.A. Race riots shaped the surface and feel of the city as we know it now. We were a big, industrial city surrounded by the blatant segregated mentality you would have found in the South when segregation was legal. Unlike other big cities like New York where that mentality was underground and challenged, Chicago had it right up in your face. "This is the black area and this is the white area."
The city of Cicero was a prime example. If you were were black just a few decades back, you could not walk up in there. There were also tons of areas you couldn't move into. Some suburbs south of the city "opened up" to blacks being there (that's the only way I can put it) and my family moved eventually moved from Markham, a black suburb right outside the city of Chicago, to University Park, a largely white suburb, when I was 12 years old. (Spanky's family moved to the 'burbs when he was a bit older in high school.)
My first experience with racism was when I was 7. During that time even the youngest of kids walked to school on their own. I was still in Markham and the black kids in that neighborhood had to walk past a white Catholic school to get to our school. The white kids would wait for the black kids to walk by and they would call us "nigger," threaten to beat us up, and do other things I won't even get into. I remember feeling the adrenaline and I remember preparing myself for the worst outcome-either I had to fight some big white kid or I had to run. I just remember at 7 being prepared for anything, and that shaped my early opinion on white society. I had to challenge that opinion as I got older when I started traveling the world.
When I moved to University Park, a formerly white suburb, we were the first blacks in the area. In school it was just a handful of blacks, maybe 10 others. This was another level for me because the teachers had a difficult time adjusting to us being there. I would be told by a teacher to stand up against the wall and do nothing while this other child, who was white, hit me and threatened me.
Those situations were the most in-your-face, but we were also exposed to more indirect ones. In school I excelled in math and science, but was being encouraged (and instructed) to go into carpentry or auto mechanics instead of being a scientist or work electronics like I wanted to. My father, a marine drill instructor, made many trips up to the school.
The song that started it all. PHUTURE's "Acid Tracks" lead to the creation of acid house.
Spank and I were also part of a race riot back in high school when we attended Crete Monee. Chicago blacks were very militant because we came up seeing the black panthers and listening to James Brown so we didn't sit back and allow blatant racism to go unchallenged. "I'm black and I'm proud." Even on the high school level you found a bunch of black kids going up against a bunch of white kids. Fifty on fifty. We were a part of that.
Most of the advice that my parents offered me had to do with excelling in this world in spite of the racism we faced. Our parents knew what we were in for because they saw the tail end of brutal segregation. They told us to be focused, be twice as good, and work twice as hard in order to achieve that level of success reserved for white America. My dad was a marine and so he faced it on that level. My uncle Nat was a musician and he traveled the world playing with Duke Ellington, so I got to see possibilities beyond what my experiences were saying at that time. I knew there was another side to the story. They encouraged me to get into things creatively like music. I played in symphonic winds and did very well. They encouraged me to fight and stand up for myself as well. It was a balanced perspective and well needed at the time because it taught me to be confident and self aware amidst all that was happening.
The messages we wrote about in our songs actually came from the militant stand point we were exposed to growing up. One where we want to bring awareness to people. Growing up in Chicago shaped PHUTURE and the tone of our music. "Your Only Friend (Cocaine Track)" spoke to the death we saw in our community because of drugs. "Rise from Your Grave" says exactly that. It's saying yes, Black America and minorities are denied the opportunities that white people have; they're dying because of that. But we have the option to rise up, get an education, and be as good as we can, so that we have an opportunity to use our God given gifts, and we're were blessed with many, so rise up.
We were definitely conscious of the fact that our success as PHUTURE inspired an entire group of artists to make music differently. I do know that kids were receptive to the messages we put out there. We felt the energy. But to hear it directly from our black audience, what our impact was, we have yet to experience that. It would be amazing to know that those who endured the same hardships us got the message and rose up.
Our advice to those who still encounter racism is to never let it stop you from achieving what you want or put you in the mindset that you can't do what you want. You may have to work a little bit harder, but that's ok. You'll be more resilient and you'll be strong enough to stand tall. It's also important to remember that there is a large world outside of the U.S.A. Once you travel and have a different experience you will find that perceptions are different abroad, so never accept what your current environment is telling you because it's simply not the full story. Nor is it true. Always believe in yourself no matter what and continue to push your way to the top. In the end, we need to keep a positive attitude at all times and realize that not all white people are "racist." Many of them marched, fought, and also died so that we could get equal rights. I had to come to grips with that when I got exposed to the larger world beyond my experience in Chicago.
Racism will never go away. It's the way of the world. The world's people have lost a degree of humanity and love for each other in our generation. Specifically in the black community, we've lost a sense of self and identity. We don't know much about our history and about those who fought for us so guys like Spank and I could move into a white suburb.
There have always been prejudices in all societies, but there has never been a level of racism and prejudice aimed at one race of people from almost every corner of the world for such a prolonged period of time. Because of slavery we have lost our heritage, our culture and our language. We are really the only race of people who assimilate totally in someone else's culture. Other races and individuals have faced racism, but they maintained their cultures and identities. With that lack of history and a bit more coldness in the world, we can't have the race discussion properly. You can't speak fairly and accurately on the topic of race if you don't know your history, and you can't accept the grievances of a people if you are too self-absorbed, cold, and removed from that existence to listen. So, how can we have the discussion? Eradicating racism and hatred is possible, but It will take a spiritual revolution with the help of a higher power.
DJ Pierre is part of acid house originators PHUTURE along with DJ Spank Spank and Herb J.