In search of the soul survivors
Chicago, Illinois, USA

My next port of call is to meet up with Steve Marton, who was a teenager at the time when House was ‘born’; I’ve been assured that he has some interesting stories for me. I walk the quarter of a mile to his apartment. It is in a magnificent Modernist tower block; his living room faces south and has stunning views of the lake and the iconic downtown skyline. It’s basically my dream home. Two thousand square feet and unpretentiously filled with modernist furniture and some wonderfully quirky art. A life-sized sculpture of Bambi stands with its arse pointing into the room, one eyebrow raised slightly, just enough to take it from being a cutesy, oversized child’s toy into something altogether more adult. It’s a subtle joke but one not lost on me.

Steve is an intense, wirey man, with bright eyes and a quick tongue. He’s positively brimming with memories he wants to share with me. So many that he occasionally loses himself as he recounts them. Starting one story, segueing into another, then another and then crossing back to the first. It’s a fairly surreal experience in trying to keep up with his train of thought. But, I’m thoroughly charmed and entertained in equal measure. Of the many stories he recounts over the next three hours, my favourite is of a post-Pride party that took part at some point in the mid-eighties.

“It had been pouring with rain the whole parade. As the parade ended and the crowds dispersed, my friends and I headed over to Belmont Rocks, at Lake Shore, just over there,” he points down towards the edge of the lake beneath his building. “As we had heard that Frankie Knuckles was booked to play at the annual post-Pride party, held there by the predominantly African-American and Latino community. Lots of Drag! As we arrived the sun broke through the clouds, you could see like rays of sunshine coming down. Everything was still covered with droplets of water which caught the sunlight, making everything sparkle in full glory. Frankie had just started spinning and it was like everybody just came together, dancing as one person. You actually felt the earth just levitate, you know, because there was so much energy and all that energy was focused on dancing. Frankie made us dance. You couldn’t not dance. You couldn’t not feel what he was doing with those turntables.

“Frankie was tweaking the crowd, manipulating us. Not in the crass in-your-face way they do at high energy parties now, he didn’t need to do that, he just kinda did something real low and just lifted you up from the bottom. It wasn’t about banging you over the head, it was about you barely even noticing that he was actually pushing you around. It was absolutely magnificent. And all the while the sun is going down, becoming darker, the atmosphere becoming deeper. It was one of the best evenings I remember. House music had a way of bringing people – the community – together; it was so inviting and warm and yet powerful. It wasn’t dangerous, it was just ‘soul’, you know, it was totally soul. I’ve heard a lot of good people spin, I’ve maybe heard better sets from other DJs, but when Frankie did it right, which was almost every time, it was like nothing else. And part of it was just that you were in the room with Frankie Knuckles, because we held him in such high esteem. We also felt that way for Mr Fingers, Maurice Joshua, Little Louie Vega –oh my god – and Jamie Principle. These people were, like, AMAZING!”

Steve’s story really resonates with me. When I’m on a dance floor I’m there as a willing participant in the moment. I’m open to being moved by the skills of the DJ, to be a passenger on the journey that they have planned for me. I think of them as modern-day shamans using their musical powers to heal and bring positivity to people; to create safe spaces and moments of exaltation and escapism, but also to draw us together into shared experiences. If music is the foundation of House then DJs are the cement that holds everything together.

House music was born out of Disco and shares a similar story. Both are sadly now tarnished by over-commercialism. Starting out as expressions of the underground, black ‘gay’ scenes, they were reappropriated by the mainstream. Disco gave rise to an enormous amount of crap 70s pop which still haunts wedding dance floors around the world today, and House led to the mind-numbing EDM and a million indistinguishable, monotonous commercial club fillers. But mainstream is what mainstream does. It consumes all it can find and regurgitates it into a watered-down mush for the masses.

But to see that as the whole picture is to completely miss the point. The effect that House has had upon culture has been immense. It spread from Chicago across the Atlantic to Manchester – another industrial city – where it found a home in the Factory. From there, it spread out across the country in illegal raves where gays and straights first really came together, changing the way we relate to one another. And then the world. Yes, the drugs played an important part too, but as Steve Marton says, it was the music that made the whole thing work.

Today, most of the original clubs where it was created and flourished are now long gone. However, there are a few reminders of Chicago’s legacy; various streets in the city bear the names of DJs, and there is now a permanent display of some of the archives of Frank Knuckles at the Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side. Sadly that was closed for work during my visit so I didn’t get to experience it first hand. But to be honest, as interesting as I’m sure that is, I’d rather immerse myself in what the scene has left behind. In the summer, market days are celebrated and open-air festivals pop up across the city. Some of the big names of the scene are still regularly spotted DJing at them. This year sees Hot Mix 5 founding member Ralphi Rosario playing at the Chosen Few DJs Festival in July. But of course every Sunday, you can catch Derrick Carter and Michael Serafini at Queen!

The Smart Bar, Chicago, January 2018

I’m on a dance floor in a crowded, sweaty basement. It’s hot; the mixed crowd is high on the uplifting tunes pulsing through the freshly-tuned sound system. Everyone is smiling, having a good time, there’s next to no attitude, but a lot of sass. We’re all here for the same reason. We are queer and we want to party. The government, like so many governments of the time, is against us, trying to turn the clock back to a time when we had no rights. But down here, people from all over the world, every skin tone, and all points on the gender spectrum are moving euphorically in unison to the beat. Those that are wearing clothes are dressed to the nines, but we’re all fabulous. We are here and queer, defiant, proud and dare I say it, united. The title of the night summed up our attitude. This is Queen! and it’s here where I’m rediscovering my love of House music. Mixed in with the familiar feeling of acceptance, the intoxicating sexual energy surrounds me in this space. I’m loving this Sunday night on the dance floor surrounded by my people; and I can’t stop smiling. / / /

Photography by Erik M. Kommer and Martin Perry