Friend of the family Emma Warren recently jetted off to see friends in Chicago and then head on to Detroit. She has a show on Giles Peterson’s Worldwide FM which is always good so she knows her stuff (a lot of it Jazz orientated right now). Anyway, we asked her to take some notes…
Sometimes you just fall into a musical slipsteam. So it was on a recent trip to Chicago and Detroit: lands of my musical childhood. I grew up in suburban south east London and the house and techno made in those two cities allowed me to find a version of myself I liked – and really early in life. Music can open up doors that your life circumstance would otherwise close off, and that’s how it was for me.
Anyway, fast forward a lifetime. Friendships forged at the Chicago x London event at the Total Refreshment Centre last autumn led me to book a flight to Chi Town. Relatively speaking Detroit’s just down the road (or five hours on an Amtrak train). How could I not spend a couple of days in the place where Motown and techno were born?
My mostly-accidental itinerary, built via great hospitality from friends Scottie from the brilliant label International Anthem and musician Angel Bat Dawid doubles up as a highly partisan and entirely incomplete map of where Chicago has been, and where it’s going. Enjoy.
Fresh Roasted at Whistler
I arrived at this monthly night fresh off the plane. It’s run by Alejandro ‘King Hippo’ Ayala and the idea is that two record collectors give three beat makers the same raw sample material and they make a beat in 90 minutes. John Simmons, Artie Do Good and Kenny Keys are sitting front of stage, headphones on, finishing up their tracks. Three new songs were birthed that evening, with Kenny Keys generating the most decibels in the Crowd Decides beat battle.
This is what happened when they ran a Fresh Roasted at the TRC, which generated the raw material for International Anthem’s awesome ChicagoxLondon mixtape.
My pal Angel Bat Dawid is a talented musician whose day job involves running things at Hyde Park Records over on the Southside. She’s heavily involved in the modern iteration of Chi-town’s spiritual jazz and invited me along to an afternoon performance in Chase Park, North Chicago. She joined some elders for Continuum: ‘A Celebration of The Black Arts Movement presented by Classic Black’ which brought 1960s and ‘70s Chicago to life through music, storytelling and poetry. Guitarist and sitar-player Shanta Nurullah’s septugenerian mom and friends sat in the shade and murmured approval.
Back Alley Jazz
Sundays in 1960s Southside Chicago meant music. Specifically a bunch of DJs who’d meet in Arthur ‘Pops’ Simpson’s garage near 50th and South Champlain. Word spread, musicians and dancers started to join the jams and Jazz In The Alley was born.
Original Jazz In The Alley from 1976
The people behind the Hyde Park Jazz festival ran a modernist taster under the name Back Alley Jazz. I’d met the super talented Ben Lamar Gay when he was over for Chicago x London and again when he played TRC last April so was extra happy to hear him playing in the Lomax family’s beautiful back yard. Each yard performance had an angle: Ben was playing with drummer/artist Mikel Patrick Avery in a collaboration with DJ Rae Chardonnay and some dancers (including some very cute young ones).
Half an hour later, across the road in another spacious back garden sax player Greg Ward, poet Preston Jackson and tap dancer Jumaane took the stage. It sunk in: the relationship between the DJ and the dancer, between the musician and the movement is percussive. Jumaane was literally adding beats, tapping into, around and over the music the band were playing.
At the same time, a very American parallel universe was unfolding just a few blocks away from this picture of harmony, where the police shot a man dead. There were protests. People were beaten. These two things happened at the exact same time.
63rd Street Drummers
Every night during the summer months drummers meet on the grass between the highway and the beach at 63rd Street. They’ve been doing this for decades. An elder drummer tried to show a young one, perhaps a music student at the University of Chicago, how to hit the edge of the drum correctly. He drew his hand out from the centre of the drum, pulled his hand up into a right angle and struck. The student copied, incorrectly. The elder repeated the move. The student copied, incorrectly. They continued for a while, until a dancer took the space in the middle and stayed for an hour, maybe more. The drummers have been there for years and it looks like they’ll continue to be there for years.
The exotically Detroit-yness of Detroit begins half way between Detroit and Chicago at Kalamazoo. It’s techno famous for birthing Jay Denham and making explicit the connections between house and techno.
Next stop: Battle Creek. Stop or two after that: Dearborne. Techno is everywhere you look. My friend Amy was driving me past the old Ford HQ when I had to ask her to stop – the building looked just like the disused mills in Ancoats which we walked or drove past every day in the mid ‘90s when we were doing Jockey Slut and when Paul Benney and John Burgess were doing Bugged Out! every week.
When Jeff Mills had played he’d remarked on how at home he felt, how similar it looked to Detroit, and now I knew exactly why. I stood outside Underground Resistance’s Submerge (I’d left it too late to make an appointment; no-one was around), I stood outside Moodyman’s Prince memorial house and I stood outside the Motown Museum because I missed the last tour. Maybe you don’t need to go into those buildings to feel the raw effort and staying power that went into making something of life in this city when almost everything had fallen apart.
This is how it goes when the planets are aligned. I knew I wanted to see some footwork in Chicago not least because I’m a big fan of DJ Taye, but hadn’t actively done anything about it.
Then Scottie messaged saying that there was a big Teklife event happening that night. Turns out it was an RBMA event, put together by the very excellent Vivian Host and featuring all the Teklife DJs playing back to back as well as a live performance from their dancers, The Era.
It struck me when I saw the Teklife DJs playing in Montréal a few years ago that they must sometimes have mixed feelings about their success. On one hand, they’re booked worldwide, they’re the primo influences on international crews like Polish Juke and show up in tracks like Hello Skinny’s ‘Rashad’]. On the other, they came up in tandem some of the most creative and technically skilled dancers on the planet – and it must be a bit gutting to only find yourself frequently playing to paler people whose interpretations of the style’s lightening-fast swipes and shuffles can be spasmodic, to put it kindly.
That’s not the case tonight. It’s Southside Chicago and the dancers are out in force: at one point there were enough for two circles. Tempo from Creative Collective is easy to recognise as he has his name down the back of his T-shirt, fusing ultra-fast toe kicks and knee grinds with the smoothest movement around the circle, like a double-speed jazz dance hologram on rollerskates. More and more dancers flow into The Promentary: two guys are wearing half-red half-black Air Jordans; another particularly stylish young gentleman is wearing a white shirt, a Panama hat and dinner shoes; and another is dressed all white like a Southside sangoma gone judo. The dancers are uniformly relentless, battling from doors open til doors close and it’s mesmerising: these are athletes of the highest order. Obviously, the music was dope (dope, dope do do ddddddddddd dope) too.
Ben Lamar Gay at The Art Institute
Take any chance you have to see Ben Lamar Gay play. He’s very Chicago. He’s one of those perfectionist artists who hoarded away hundreds of pieces of music like a Southside Aphex Twin – until International Anthem released a selection on ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ earlier this year. Ears open for the drop later in 2018 when they’ll release seven of his albums in one go.
Silver Room Block Party and Afterparty
The annual Silver Room Block Party is what Lewisham People’s Day would look like if it was transplanted to Southside Chicago. It’s a more localised Notting Hill Carnival with added neighbourhood vendors and community health stalls, across three stages on two streets. It’s locally famous, with thousands of people attending each year to hear big names like Large Professor or Georgia Anne Muldrow alongside up and coming and established Chicago names.
Ron Trent and Joe Clausell headline one of the stages and run the official after party at Promentary, playing back to back. The queue is a good indicator of what’s to come: Robert Williams who brought Frankie Knuckles to Chicago to start the Warehouse is standing right behind me in a flat cap until he’s noticed by the guy on the door. “Hey, Godfather! Come on through”.
There’s great sound, solid dancers, and a mix of ages: a liquid drunk twenty-something sliding down the back of a chair attracts comedy blank side-eyes from the young women he’s with; a man in red velvet slip-ons with a gold embroidery detail drops his shoulders in the circle; two women in their fifties happily grind on each other like they don’t even live in a mostly homophobic country. There’s not a sense of nostalgia here, more just a living lineage of the music. I see close to zero people with their phones out.
Young Chicago Authors
This Chicago youth programme has thrown out a tonne of talent including Chance the Rapper and my personal favourite, Noname.
I was hoping to visit Young Chicago Authors whilst in town, not least because I spent six years working on a youth-run publication and know first hand how powerful and funny those places are. But time passed and it didn’t happen and then on my final afternoon in Chicago, at Pitchfork Festival, just before heading over to the airport … and there they are. Three of their young poets and their DJ squeezed in the author’s tent. The DJ dropped air horns to indicate a particularly strong line. It was, as they say, lit.
And finally, here’s the most Chicago record I could find. Thank you Hyde Park, thank you Chicago.