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Hot Times: remembering the house-music underground

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A few weeks ago Rhonda Craven found herself laughing at a TV report on a new dance craze, house music. "It was one of those 'info-tainment' syndicated shows," she says. "They were showing scenes from clubs in New York, but nowhere--nowhere at all--did they talk about house music's real roots."

Those roots are buried deep in now-defunct Chicago clubs such as the Warehouse, the Glass House, and 178 (also known as Harriet's). Large-scale dance palaces packing in as many as 3,000 revelers on any given night, these were loud, steamy clubs frequented by black youths, many of them gay, in the late 70s and early 80s.

"Back then, there was a lot of discrimination at some of the north-side gay bars," says Anthony Thomas, who wrote a recent cover story on house music for Outlook, a national lesbian and gay quarterly. "Even if you could get in the bars, sometimes having to go through all that heavy carding and hassle at the door--well, it'd just put you in a bad mood. I think that was one of the main things that contributed to the immediate popularity of a lot of these underground after-hours clubs."

The large dance clubs didn't serve alcohol, and they were sometimes open only one day a week--but that day was a round-the-clock dance marathon.

"The Warehouse was in an industrial area [west of the Loop]. The streets were desolate," Thomas says. "You had to walk up a flight of stairs, then down through a trapdoor to get to the dance floor. And you were immediately hit by the heat. It was this moist heat, and it was otherworldly--netherworldly, really. And the music didn't stop."

"The first time I went [to 178], my friend and I were the only thing that looked remotely white in the place," says Linda Rodgers, who now owns Paris Dance, an upscale women's club in Uptown. "It was hot, it was loud, and it was wild."

At 178--which was also west of the Loop and which alternated between all-male dances on Fridays and all-female dances on Saturdays--the music officially started at 8, but no one would show up until after midnight. Leather and lace parties were popular there. At the Warehouse, it wasn't unusual for dancers to shed nearly all their clothing as the hours wore on.

"You'd go out dancing at night, and you wouldn't get home until noon the next day," says Tony Harris, who used to frequent the "houses" and is now a DJ at Club La Ray, one of the few black gay bars on the north side. "And basically, it was the music that kept you there."

The music was characterized by a new approach pioneered by Frankie Knuckles, a DJ at the Warehouse. "House music is basically three things--a drum machine, a bass guitar, and a keyboard," Harris explains. "But it's the mix that does it, because it's not like there are 'new' songs. Rather, you take existing songs, and you make 'em yours by dubbing, redubbing, slowing 'em down, or speeding 'em up, or just putting more and more rhythm tracks on them. The house DJ makes the difference, gives it personality. That's why they call it house music." The beat was often pumped to a startling 120 per minute. And the music never stopped--songs melted into each other in one marathon play.

"Of course, there's a sexual overtone to how you dance it," says Randy Duncan, who's now the artistic director of the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, and who remembers some of the smaller old clubs on 63rd Street, Stony Island, Lower Wacker, and other out-of-the-way places. "Dancing to house is called 'jacking,' or 'jack the body.' It means to make it better, to pump it up. Of course, nobody can dance to 120 beats a minute, so you make things up to find a beat--you got loose and very creative."

Although the clubs were popular, they virtually disappeared in the mid-80s. Some say it's because they were drug havens, and the police cracked down on them. Others say that they were never supposed to be permanent, that they were a reflection of the times, that people moved into the mainstream. House music stayed alive in small clubs and bars that dotted the south and west sides, and eventually, it came north.

"It's only natural that there would be a new music in these clubs and a new way of dancing, too. It's also pretty much in keeping with things that it would take ten years before it'd cross over," says Duncan.

"Some people say house is crossing, but I think it's already there--especially in Chicago," says Thomas. "Hell, all the locally produced commercials use house music, whether they know it or not. Madonna's latest hits have house beats--although, of course, her roots, like Grace Jones's, are in the gay scene. But the 15-year-old girls at the mall don't know that. Like a lot of other musical forms, by the time it crosses over--whether it's intentional or not--the black-gay roots are gone."

That's precisely what bothered Craven about the TV report. "We started it, and we kept it going. But now it's like we're squashed right out of the picture," she says.

Rodgers promises that won't be the case when Paris hosts an evening of house music on Wednesday. "It'll be lesbian house music," she said. "It won't be 100 percent south side, but it'll be the real thing." The music starts at 9 PM at 1122 W. Montrose. There's no cover, and everyone is welcome. Call 769-0602.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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