Are You Collecting House?
My dissertation in process, tentatively titled “Do You Remember House? Mediation, Memory and the Development of Chicago House Music Culture,” examines the emergence and circulation of house, a rhythmically-focused, sample-driven electronic dance music played first in late 1970s Chicago, and the contemporary Chicago-based culture that has developed around it. I analyze the social, political, technological, and cultural facets of house as a local expression of Chicago’s black, Latino, and queer communities, and interrogate the ways that notions of community history and racial desire have played into its production, consumption, and cultural assimilation on local and trans-national scales.
“Do You Remember House?” shows how house audiences deliberately crossed barriers of race, sexuality, and class as they developed rooted, yet progressive, cultural traditions in dialogue with the music’s DJs and producers. It also interrogates the ways that the performance and entrepreneurial cultures of house and its parent cultures have evolved in tandem with the commercial cultures of Chicago’s record stores, independent music distributors, and radio stations. It expands upon an historical literature concerned not only with the political dimensions of cultural consumption, but also with those of cultural production, live performance, and media transmission.
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I first came to Chicago to conduct ethnographic fieldwork and archival research for my dissertation in the summer of 2012. Once in Chicago, I immediately oriented myself to the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, an institution I knew to be a venerable host of historical archives pertaining to Chicago and Afro-diasporan artists from across the globe. Beginning with the Center’s complete set of 5 Magazine, as well as its growing collection of house recordings, album liner notes, books, and miscellaneous journalistic resources, I began to see that what passes for an archive of house music culture is not much of an archive yet, and that the CBMR, with its nascent concern for collecting house, and roots as an outsider institution founded to foster scholarship on under-theorized black musical traditions, might be just the place to take on the challenge of growing an institutional archive devoted to Chicago house.
The existing resources available to Chicago house music scholars are, if not robust and easy-to-find, certainly useful. I would be lost if journalists like Czarina Mirani, Terry Matthew, Jacob Arnold, Greg Kot, and Michaelangelo Matos, hadn’t devoted real time and resources to documenting house culture and history. Additionally, the scholarly discourse on contemporary American dance music that has begun to take shape in a constellation of dissertations, conference papers, monographs, and articles by Sally Sommer, Alice Echols, Kai Fikentscher, Fiona Buckland, Brian Currid, Luis Mañuel Garcia, Tim Taylor, Bill Brewster, and Frank Broughton, has helped me frame my writing and given me valuable theoretical insights. And I can’t fail to mention that, for my purposes, Chicago’s queer and queer-of-color magazines and zines from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many of which are well indexed and archived at the Chicago History Museum and the Gerber-Hart Library and Archive, have helped me to connect the dots between well-trodden pre-war black, LGBTQ cultural history and my analysis of contemporary queer, and queer-of-color house music culture.
So while I did have a place to start, the bulk of my research until fall 2013 involved working fitfully on the margins of the institutional archives, and sifting through a treasure trove of ephemeral amateur histories. This ephemera lives and dies on facebook timelines, personal blogs, webzines, and message boards, so if you don’t capture it quickly, it can be gone in the blink of an eye. To keep up with it all, I developed a chronic case of archive fever, never knowing when I’d need to shake a screen grab or YouTube rip onto my hard drive to keep it from disappearing forever.
From what I could piece together, I knew there were countless stories that had yet to be documented and that I’d have to take on an expansive oral history project to learn what I needed to about the history of house music in and beyond queer-of-color clubbing communities. By the time I returned to Chicago in October 2013, I had a growing list of potential interviewees and had begun to discuss the possibility of working with the CBMR to archive the oral histories I hoped to collect in the city. We finalized our agreement by late October, and I was off to the races.
Many of house music’s earliest DJs, producers, studio engineers, and label owners still live in Chicagoland, whether they hit it big or not. Many of the culture’s foundational audience members, also critically important to the development of house music, continue to make the city home as well. This is to say that house music’s true historians are, with a little gumption and access to wheels or public transportation, accessible and are often amenable to sharing their stories. Working with them has truly transformed me and my project for the better.
Because they are often invoked but seldom heard from, I have prioritized interviewing women, queer people, and Latinos involved in house. I have also interviewed queer and queer-of-color Chicago music entrepreneurs who were too young to have resided in the city when house emerged as a force, but who have found their way to its cultural traditions nonetheless. Their stories surprise and astonish me, considering that they are often looking to connect to a generation of ancestors who are no longer here to tell their stories. According to one interviewee, eight out of ten dancers at The Warehouse, the seminal house music venue, passed away from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s eighty percent of the on-the-ground historians who are no longer here to share their stories.
I’m looking to read house history both with and against the grain of the existing narratives to better trace the presence, and disappearance, of queer people of color who formed the culture’s primary audience. I anticipate that the oral histories I have collected will be critical to my analysis and will allow me to better understand everyday house practices, rather than relying on the views and opinions of only the most popular and commercially successful house music entrepreneurs.
As my dissertation takes shape over the coming months, I will continue to seek out and interview house culture’s everyday people, those whose lives are organized around house music and its many affiliated styles, spaces, and aesthetics. I hope that the archive fever catches on and that The Chicago House Music Oral History Project I have seeded will continue to grow in the years to come, both with my own contributions and those collected by others interested in documenting Chicago’s house music cultures.
The CBMR, the Chicago History Museum, the Illinois Humanities Council, Honey Pot Performance, the Chosen Few DJs, the DJ International Hall of Fame, the Modern Dance Music Research & Archiving Foundation, and others are already producing public humanities initiatives related to house history and archiving. Their work is only the beginning.
This spring the wider Chicago house community lost a living legend in Frankie Knuckles, and a future legend in DJ Rashad. Knuckles and Rashad represented the best and brightest of the city’s past and future in house. We simply cannot wait to acknowledge and interpret the innovations of Chicago house artists any longer. Fortunately, the contributions of Knuckles and Rashad, and countless other fallen stars, can live forever with real support and resources for institutions like the CBMR.
Micah Salkind is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.