by Yolanda Perdomo, CBS Digital Producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Family reunions usually include delicous food cooked outdoors, conversations with people you haven’t seen in a while, and music providing a fun backdrop to the event.
Back in 1990, the Hatchett family reunion brought together around 50 to 60 people to a spot behind at the Museum of Science and Industry. That simple picnic would eventually turn into an iconic Chicago music festival that, decades later, brings in more than 40,000 people for a day of celebrating a genre of music created in the city that is still being played and danced to today.
The Chosen Few festival and picnic, now in its 29th year, takes place this Saturday. That’s where seven acclaimed DJs will spin beloved hits and new music with remix twists; all while thousands dance, picnic, and enjoy what Chicago gave birth to – house music.
“The whole idea of this festival was to bring back a time, a time when we were younger and everybody was friends and we were in high school and dancing and all that kind of stuff. It’s really a memory,” said Chosen Few DJ Jesse Saunders. “It’s a piece of nostalgia that we can relive every year.”
The definition of house music goes something like this — it’s a fusion of styles that include everything from disco, soul, punk, new wave, gospel, jazz, and electronica. Setting it apart is its drum beat.
South Side Roots
Saunders and his brother Wayne Williams (the festival’s founder) grew up on Chicago’s South Side and were early house music innovators who incorporated a drum machine to music already being played in basement parties, loft parties, and in clubs. But before house, before disco, Williams would watch his sister’s boyfriend who used to DJ around town.
“That’s when everybody was playing R&B and funk records,” Williams recalled. “They would be slow dancing and I would be behind him, behind the turntable, back then there was one turntable. This was 1973.”
Williams was inspired.
“I would go and put on the next record, and when I saw people dancing to what I selected, that’s what gave me the bug to DJ,” said Williams, who remembered that during the early 1970s, it was Dennis Coffey, Earth Wind and Fire, the Commodores, among others. As a high schooler, he would DJ house parties until one day a friend took him to Den One, a gay club on the North Side where they played disco.
“This disco music was more urban-based, had a lot more soul to it. I knew listening to that music, that’s what I want to start playing on the South Side with my peers and who I DJed for,” he said.
What struck Williams was that the music kept going with no breaks. He wanted to know how that was done.
“I went upstairs to ask the DJ how does he keep the record going and he showed me two turntables and a mixer and I had never seen that before at that point,” Willams said. “I’m like ‘wow he can keep the music going like that.’ And I knew at that time that that’s what I wanted to do, to play disco music.”
Turns out, he didn’t have to go all the way to the North Side. It was being played not far from where he lived, at Jeffrey’s Pub in the South Shore neighborhood. He asked the DJs there to teach him and they were happy to pass on their turntable tricks of the trade. Once he learned about a new style, people didn’t know what to think.
“At first they ran off the dance floor. They weren’t used to it. I cleared many a dance floor but I was very persistent in wanting to play this music for that crowd. I just kept on,” Williams said. “Eventually they got into it and once that happened, I became the hot DJ in my peer group because no other DJ had that music or knew where to find it.”
Extending The Old To Make It New
Williams would go on to DJ at clubs around town, places like the Bitter End and Dingbats. His brother Jesse Saunders was into a different kind of sound.
“I grew up as a kid who loved classic rock more so than anything. One of my favorite stations that I hate to admit at this time was The Loop,” laughed Saunders. “Later on, it played a big part in the evolution of the history of house music. But that’s what I listened to.”
Saunders liked all kinds of music. But he thought songs were too short. So he extended them by adding breaks, making verses and choruses longer, using a cassette deck. And he’d play these new mixes on his boom box. His brother Wayne noticed and brought him along to his gigs, as Saunders would say, like “a novelty act.”
“He decided to do that was to bring me in and make these incredible different mixes that nobody had ever heard before,” Saunders said. “I was more of a creator, more of a producer or songwriter type of situation.”
One day, Saunders wanted one of Williams’ import records to extend. He borrowed (what he thinks may have been Mach’s “On and On”) and what Saunders ended up doing changed music: He added a drum machine, an 808, to the music, completely changing its syncopation, its rhythm, its sound. It was the creation of house music. Saunders would take the 808 to clubs and the sound he said “was amazing.”
“We were playing disco and it’s a softer sound. But when you play music from a drum machine, it’s a much harder sound and you can see how it impacted the kids on the dance floor,” Williams said. “They went nuts. We just knew that this is something great and this sound was going to amazing.”
The Godfather Of House Music
Any discussion of house music would be incomplete without including the late Frankie Knuckles. Originally from New York, Knuckles settled in Chicago’s West Loop area in the late 1970s. Williams said Robert Williams, the owner of a club called the Warehouse, wasn’t a very good DJ. But word got around that he brought in a new guy, Frankie Knuckes, who took the music to another level.
“Frankie had a great ear for music. He also did edits as well. He was very talented and very special. He was a very great amazing DJ,” said Williams, who added that as a person, Knuckles, who died in 2014, was very special.
“Super kind. Super giving. Would always end a conversation with ‘I love you.’ I am honored just to have known him from the personal side as well as the DJ side,” Williams said. “By the end of 1978-79 he had caught his thing. He was on fire and word started getting around that Frankie, that was the DJ you wanted to hear.”
It was during the early 1980s that Williams, Saunders, Knuckles and others in their DJ organization began to get older and move away. They’d get back to Chicago for the Christmas holidays, and people would ask when would they get together for music parties.
They’d rent lofts, but for Saunders it was too cold to come back for a gig. So the collective agreed to put together an event during the month of July.
The first one, as part of a family reunion, attracted several dozen people. But every year it would get larger, more space would be needed, and the demand to get tickets was huge.
Almost 30 years later, the Chosen Few DJs, including Saunders, Williams and others from that era – and new Chicago DJs – are the high priests of an outdoor music temple bringing in tens of thousands to celebrate house music.
Despite commemorations of the “Disco Demolition” debacle that took place in 1979, where disco records were blown up in the middle of Comiskey Park as part of a radio station promotional stunt, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the game and where thousands chanted “disco sucks!” the event didn’t kill disco. That genre gave birth and eventually evolved into house music which is still played today in clubs, festivals, and countless house parties.
“Hate will never kill love. One thing about our music, house music, disco music, it’s all about love and inspiration,” said Williams, who added that it’s also the legacy of the Chosen Few Festival and Picnic.
“It represents love, unity and music. Chicago has been getting a bad rap, as far as the city is concerned. It shows the good side of Chicago. It shows the great side of the people of Chicago. That’s what I think the majority of Chicago is anyway.”
The Chosen Few Picnic & Festival takes place Saturday July 6 at Jackson Park. Visit the event’s website and social media outlets for information on performers and tickets.