Recalling the houses that "House" built

July 9, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

The devout come to Ismaili Center Chicago, a house of worship and community center at 6259 N. Broadway. You’d hardly guess that place was once a club called AKA’s where–in its 1980s heyday–DJs spun hypnotic house music tracks and folks jacked their bodies until deep into the night.

AKA’s wasn’t the only spot. There was The Warehouse (where the term “house music” was coined), which bounced around a few locations south and west of the Loop, including 116 S. Clinton and 205 S. Jefferson; DaVinci Manor, a former movie theater-turned-banquet-hall at North Avenue and Central;  Mendel High School at 111th and King Drive, where weekend house music sets were held–and on and on. In those pre-hip hop days, the old WBMX, 102.7 FM, would play house music tracks and mixes from late night Saturday night until early Sunday mornings, back then, featuring the Hot Mix 5 DJs, originally Farley “Funkin” Keith, who later became Farley “Jackmaster” Keith; Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, “Kenny “Jammin” Jason, Scott “Smokin” Silz, and Ralphi Rosario.

It is a music and culture that was born here in Chicago. DJs and artists uniquely mixed existing post-Disco songs and rhythm tracks, and created ones that became house music staples. Jamie Principle’s “Your Love.” Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body.” Marshall Jefferson’s house anthem, “Move Your Body.” Jesse Saunders’ “Funk You Up.” House record labels like Trax Records were born. And the music went international and pretty soon everybody was trying to get in on the act. Today’s trance and techno have roots that trace back at least partly to house.

“The room would be packed, jumpin’ and loud,” said Johnny Medley, a house music fan who runs the Dance Music Authority site. “Tracks like “Disco Circus,” “Jack Your Body” and “Bad Luck” reedits were standards. DJs also loved to use the a capella version of “You Ain’t Really Down” over their rhythm track of choice. You felt the music and couldn’t help but to respond as the DJ rhythmically “killed” and returned the bass.”

Chicago-born house music is still popular here, as tomorrow’s Chosen Few House DJs Music Picnic–a yearly event that draws thousands to 63rd and Hayes Drive–will show. And the DJs who once spun in the clubs and on WBMX are still celebrated. But like AKA’s, the old school places are largely gone now. A Walgreens store is on the site of DaVinci Manor.  The old Mendel high school is still there, but it is now Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a Chicago public school where’s house music sets are not hosted.

The city scrambles—and justifiably so–trying to preserve its increasingly tenuous hold its blues and jazz roots by landmarking, lifting up, protecting and marketing the venues where those vital musical forms were created and exist. Astoundingly, house music is almost never referenced in material marketing Chicago’s cultural and musical heritage. But house is here, too, strumming its fingers at 120 beats per minute, awaiting its turn.

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Let’s have a little fun. Check out this video of a UK broadcast of “Love Can’t Turn Around,” a collaboration between house singer Darryl Pandy and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk: