For decades, house music has shaped pop worldwide—but many of the spaces that birthed it here disappeared so quickly they barely left a trace.
By Leor Galil
“It was a time when people didn’t put as much emphasis on the DJs or the performer per se, and really danced and enjoyed themselves.” —DJ and producer Chip E. ILLUSTRATION BY TAYLOR HAMMES
About nine years ago, Mario Luna got a call from his mother. She’d been doing some spring cleaning in her home in Pilsen—the same house where he’d grown up—and she’d found a shoebox that clearly belonged to him. It held a stack of “pluggers,” which is what people in the local house-music scene called show flyers during the culture’s infancy. She wanted to toss them. Luna thought better of it.
Luna, now 52, didn’t even remember saving the flyers. But as soon he retrieved that box, he could see that his instinct to hold onto them was correct. “I said, ‘Wow, these are cool. I’m gonna put them in plastic sheets—like baseball cards—in a three-ring binder, and just keep them for memories,'” he says. “People are going to look back at this time and say, ‘Man, those days were fun.’ DJs I know, my friends that were on these flyers, a lot of them don’t have them.”
Almighty & Insane Books, which is based in New York but focuses on Chicago, released a collection of Luna’s old pluggers in September 2018 called Beyond Heaven: Chicago House Party Flyers From 1983-1989. The first-edition run of 1,000 copies sold out before the end of the year, and the publisher printed a second edition of 1,000 in December. Almighty & Insane founder Brandon Johnson especially wanted to document the eclectic aesthetic choices that promoters made as house began to cross over throughout the city. Many flyers used printed blocks of color as backgrounds for text and images—sometimes solid pink or red or blue, sometimes spanning a gradient (red to yellow to green, pink to white to blue). They occasionally included small headshots of the performers, which often looked like they could’ve come from driver’s licenses or yearbooks—on one plugger promoting a battle of high school DJs, I’m almost certain they’re literally yearbook pictures. Many of the most important figures in house history are on these flyers, including Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley, and the original members of the Hot Mix 5.
As much as I liked seeing those familiar names on pluggers from before I was born, I found myself more drawn to the unfamiliar ones—not just the performers but also the venues. More than three dozen places are named in Beyond Heaven, and few of them are meaningfully documented anywhere—the main exceptions are the Muzic Box, which entrepreneur Robert Williams opened after he wound down the Warehouse and the Aragon Ballroom. The VFW halls, churches, high schools, hotels, juice bars, and clubs that appear in Beyond Heaven helped house expand beyond the mostly queer, mostly Black spaces that incubated the culture in the late 70s and early 80s. In late 1981, when WBMX hired the Hot Mix 5 to spin on the air, the potential audience for house music grew exponentially almost overnight, and for new fans who wanted to experience the music in the flesh—particularly those who were too young to get into gay dance clubs, or who didn’t know they existed—these lesser-known venues were vital.
- A crowd recording of Ron Hardy DJing at the Muzic Box in 1985
DJ and historian Duane Powell recognizes the need to celebrate these spaces. For the past four years, he’s been part of the team behind the Chicago Black Social Culture Map, which documents important venues and performance spaces from the early Great Migration era in the 1910s and ’20s till the end of the 20th century. And the rise of house provides a distinct challenge. “When house was king, it existed ev-ery-where,” Powell says. “I remember so many spaces that I was in that just wasn’t even around long.”
Powell knows that a venue’s life span doesn’t always reflect its importance. “Like, the nightclub the Reactor,” he says. “It was only open technically one summer—summer of 1990. It was open probably spring till fall. I think the owners still tried to do parties there, but the pinnacle of it was only that one summer. And you wouldn’t think just having a club just a summer would be as impactful. But it was the club that successfully handed the culture over to the next generation. It was the club that Ron Trent had his first residency, and DJ Rush. And these were the two main DJs that ushered in the house culture to the third or fourth generation of the house movement.”
On Thursday, May 23, Powell moderates a panel called “The Anatomy of a Groove: House in Borrowed Spaces” as part of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ Chicago House Music Conference and Festival. The five panelists include Silver Room owner Eric Williams and Warehouse and Muzic Box founder Robert Williams, and the talk will focus on how the physical landscape of the house scene changed after its 1980s boom. Beginning in the 90s, the number of spaces hosting the music declined sharply thanks to a series of restrictive City Council ordinances—including a 1991 measure that required all-ages juice bars to obtain zoning permits and close by midnight. And as Powell says, “It is spaces, still, where our culture thrives.”
Chicago House Music Conference
Featuring five overlapping panel discussions and workshops, including “The Anatomy of a Groove: House in Borrowed Spaces” with DJ Duane Powell, Silver Room owner Eric Williams, Warehouse and Muzic Box founder Robert Williams, and others. Thu 5/23, 6 PM-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, free, all ages
Chicago House Music Festival
Featuring one stage of music on Friday and five stages on Saturday, with performances and workshops by Gene Hunt, Mark Grusane, the Era Footwork Crew, Gant-Man, Moodymann, Mr. A.L.I. & Carla Prather, Rae Chardonnay, Boogie McClarin, and many more. Fri 5/24, 6:30 PM-9 PM, and Sat 5/25, 2 PM-9 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages
The Chicago House Music Conference and Festival is late to the party, given that house has been important not just in Chicago but around the world for more than 30 years. Though it does recognize the music as specifically Chicagoan, it leans hard on the boom years of the 80s—on Friday, May 24, for instance, DCASE presents pioneering 80s producer Chip E. with the Chicago House Music Award. Fortunately, many festival performers who started back then have never stopped producing new work, and the bill also includes several acts that have taken house in radically new directions since the 90s, such as juke producer Gant-Man and footwork crew the Era. The one part of the culture that’s inarguably doing worse now than it was in the golden age is its infrastructure—actual physical rooms devoted to live house music. Because house was everywhere in the 80s, I wanted to learn more about some of the lesser-known places that helped build it into the cultural juggernaut it remains today. With Beyond Heaven, I saw a chance.
Luna caught the bug listening to the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX in the early 80s, and he bought crates of dance 12-inches from Importes Etc. and Loop Records. Around 1986, he cofounded a Pilsen collective called the Ultimate Party Crew, and he took his DJ name, “Liv It Up,” from a 1981 track by Dutch synth-pop band the Time Bandits. The UPC threw its first show in 1988 in the common hall of Saints Peter and Paul Church at 3745 S. Paulina, where cofounding DJ Luis Aguilera worked after school. Luna held onto the flyer for that gig, as well as pluggers he’d pick up on weekly trips to Importes Etc.
Luna didn’t make it to all the shows advertised in Beyond Heaven—it’s doubtful any single human could have—but he did remember some of the venues. And in some cases, memories are all that remain: Grand Manor burned in 1994, and the Rainbo roller rink was torn down in 2003 to make room for condos. (Saints Peter and Paul Church still stands, and so do some of the other buildings—though they’ve changed hands and been put to other uses.) Because these shows happened at least 30 years ago, I didn’t want to rely on Luna’s memory exclusively in any case—I tracked down several other DJs and promoters who were active in the 80s to learn more about what made a few of these places special.
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