Chicago’s music scene history explored in NPR radio series

Host Raina Douris and her team spent time in Chicago last October gathering the soundbites and performances that make up much of the series.

Portrait of Raina Douris against mural
Raina Douris hosts NPR’s World Cafe “Sense of Place” music series. Joe del Tufo / Raina Douris
Portrait of Raina Douris against mural
Raina Douris hosts NPR’s World Cafe “Sense of Place” music series. Joe del Tufo / Raina Douris

Chicago’s music scene history explored in NPR radio series

Host Raina Douris and her team spent time in Chicago last October gathering the soundbites and performances that make up much of the series.

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Chicago’s storied music history, from the home of the blues to a modern-day hip-hop launching pad, and everything in between, is headed for the national spotlight in a new edition of NPR’s World Café “Sense of Place” series, debuting on Jan. 18. Listeners can tune in to “Sense of Place: Chicago” online at worldcafe.org.

Since 2011, the radio series (produced by the NPR affiliate WXPN out of Philadelphia) has set out to spotlight the music impact of cities across the world. Episodes include exclusive interviews, field recording and studio sessions with bit names and buzzy up-and-comers who have helped shape local music scenes.

“Chicago is a huge, major city but it has a very different flavor and vibe than New York or Los Angeles, and I think we were all interested in exploring that,” says World Café host Raina Douris. “Chicago has had this very strong underground punk and rock scene. It was a big part of blues and jazz, and house music. There’s all these deep roots in Chicago and it felt like we could go back 10 more times and still not get everything.”

Douris, contributing host (and Chicago native) Stephen Kallao, and a team of producers spent a week in the city last October gathering the soundbites and recorded performances that make up much of the 13-part series, which also features interviews pulled from WXPN’s archives.

Portrait of Steve Albini in his studio
Steve Albini guest stars on the Jan. 20 episode of NPR’s World Cafe “Sense of Place” series. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Each episode of the 13-part series centers on a specific music genre, from the Jan. 18 pop-music focus featuring an interview with Chicago (and a performance recorded last fall for the show), to the final episode on Feb. 3, which offers up the story of the birthplace of gospel music, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, and “quintessential Chicago albums” from “Sound Opinions” hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot.

“Chicago has had this very strong underground punk and rock scene. It was a big part of blues and jazz, and house music. There’s all these deep roots in Chicago and it felt like we could go back 10 more times and still not get everything.” — World Cafe host Raina Douris

In between will be episodes featuring ‘90s mainstays Liz Phair (Jan. 19) and Billy Corgan (Jan. 24), the influential producer and engineer Steve Albini (Jan. 20) and his Electrical Audio studios, gospel legend Mavis Staples (Jan. 26), indie pioneers Wilco (Jan. 31), blues icon Buddy Guy (Feb. 2), Latinx quintet Dos Santos (Jan. 23), new artists Kaina and Dehd (Jan. 25), DIY muse Eli Schmitt and hip-hop maven Pinqy Ring (Jan. 27) and visits to the Chicago Music Exchange (Jan. 30) and Martin Atkins’ Museum of Post Punk and Industrial Music (Jan. 20).

There was one thing that came up in all the interviews, says Douris, beyond the commonality of the location that ties all the artists together: it was a constant idea of giving back.

“Steve Albini is a great example. He stayed in Chicago, he stuck around and made this his place. He said many times in our piece, he’s a technician, he wants to help make records, and he’s there to give back to this community of musicians. That kept coming up over and over again with everybody that I talked to,” says Douris. “A lot of people said because it’s not L.A., because it’s not New York, the sense of cutthroat competition isn’t as strong [here] and it’s much more collaborative and the community is stronger.”

Rather than going after some of the more mainstream names in Chicago’s hip-hop scene, the “Sense of Place” team opted for Pinqy Ring, the indie artist behind works like “Little Hearts,” who was once a hip-hop cultural ambassador for the U.S. and a two-time recipient of Chicago’s Individual Artist Program grant.

Portrait of Chicago hip-hop artist Pinqy Ring in her home studio
Hip-hop artist Pinqy Ring is photographed in her Logan Square home studio in 2020. She talks about Chicago’s hip-hop scene on the Jan. 27 episode of ‘Sense of Place.’ Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

“One of our objectives is to talk to people that maybe aren’t already on the mainstream radar in the same way, that can give us a little more insight into what working and living is like in Chicago,” says Douris who recorded the session while going on a walk with the rapper and teacher in Humboldt Park and visiting her alma mater, Lane Tech.

With Latin-fused psych rock band Dos Santos, Douris says she also discovered how influential Chicago’s diversity can be to developing a distinct sound.

“They’re a group of guys from all over; some were born and raised in Chicago, some in Central or South America. One of them who was raised in Panama said that it wasn’t until Chicago that he started playing Latin music. [The] diversity in the city has influenced a lot of the sounds,” says Douris.

But it was her chat with 20-year-old Eli Schmitt that really stuck with her, Douris says. The Radio DePaul host, creator of the “New Now” YouTube series and indie concert booker (who often holds shows in his own apartment) is propelling the local Gen Z DIY scene.

“Where I felt like I was the luckiest to be in the room was in Eli’s apartment; it really feels like the beginning of a scene,” recalls Douris. “He said to me, ‘You can have all these friends on Instagram but it’s not real unless you see each other in real life,’ and I thought it was so powerful. I love that he’s nurturing this in-person DIY indie rock scene in Chicago and carries the spirit on. You can feel the through lines of all that music history and that it’s still very much alive.”

NOTE: Chicago NPR fans can tune in daily to “Sense of Place: Chicago” online at worldcafe.org on the dates listed above.

WBEZ-91.5FM airs “Conversations from the World Café” at 11 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays. On Jan. 20, 27 and Feb. 3, the broadcast is featuring episodes from “Sense of Place: Chicago.”