Love can’t turn around!
I remember the first summer I arrived in Chicago. I was living in Pilsen, and it seemed like just about every weekend there was a neighborhood block party. At the time, I was totally broke, so I was grateful for the constant merry-go-round of free events. Taco and churro stands spilled all the way down the street, leading up to the stage where the deejay was spinning classics. The crowd was packed–a mix of ages, races, sexualities. At these events, I experienced the surround sound joy of house music: teenagers sneaking beers, meanwhile their parents jacking down memory lane. Everybody moving, moving, making memories.
Can you feel it, can you feel it, can you feel it…
Every Sunday night that same summer, I decked out in high femme, getting ready for Queen!, a queer and trans-friendly party at Smartbar. Derrick Carter was spinning, more often than not. That summer was the first time I wore skirts in public, emboldened by my growing stash of bright lipstick. On the bus ride to the club, I wrote poems on my phone, documenting how nervous I still was, searching for ways to express my gender-nonconformity in the freedom of nightlife. At Smartbar, there was a great lounge room by the gender-neutral toilet where all the queens would gather to retouch makeup, gossip, and take glamorous photos. That room was where I lived at the club—when I wasn’t sweating on the dance floor.
On a global EDM stage, house music, as packaged and presented by straight, white DJs and producers, is separated from its queer of color undergrounds roots. House music is yoked from its history by money-eager producers. I witnessed the gross extent of this during a misbegotten summer internship at a music publication in Berlin, where a panel of all white male editors cluelessly insisted that electronic music was “European,” and could care less about the Black, queer, working class genealogies of house, techno, and disco.
Micah Salkind’s weighty history of house music, Do You Remember House?: Chicago’s Queer of Color Undergrounds, acts as a corrective. Spinning a counternarrative, Salkind traces the ways Chicago is deeply woven into house’s DNA, from 1980s Warehouse and Music Box parties to present day underground parties like Queen! and Chances Dances. The book splits fairly evenly in half in its focus on the early days of house music and present-day, though Salkind avoids playing up a contrast between Old School versus what’s new. Instead, Salkind finds compelling parallels and resonances between competing undergrounds getting people dancing through a balance of soulful nostalgia and electro-futurism.
As in a DJ set, there are many strands and genres pieced together in Salkind’s interdisciplinary project, which at various times, mixes oral histories, auto-ethnography, affect theory, critical race studies, queer theory, and performance theory. Such promiscuous genre work charts a complicated portrait of house music not as a monolithic genre, but as overlapping and fluctuating undergrounds, disrupting hackneyed stereotypes of house music as static, purist, or homogenous. “House music,” Salkind argues, “has evidenced a nearly boundless capacity to foster new cultural imaginaries in which axes of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability come to be crossed in unexpected and often surprising ways.”
Salient to this promising thesis is a review of house music’s Black queer roots. By centering the biomythographies of pivotal Black gay DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, and the parties they threw, Salkind reclaims house music’s Chicago queer of color genealogy and continued legacy. “Even as straighter, whiter folks continue to take ownership and reap material rewards from house music and culture,” Salkind contends, “house retains the indelible traces of the communities that birthed it.” Through what he calls “shared memory work,” Salkind stitches together archival research, oral histories, and close readings of recorded DJ mixes to convey a sense of its queer of color undergrounds. By retelling these stories, Salkind pushes back against whitewashed, homophobic, and other commodifiable revisionary histories of house music. Shutting down one such narrative, which pits house against hip hop, Salkind suggests that this binary “minimize[s] the fact that house music culture had classed and gendered dimensions in and of itself, and that hip hop sounds, and poor and working class people, were always a part of its wild mix.”
This is not a book that could be written by a “neutral” or “objective” outsider perspective, and Salkind’s immersion in house culture grounds the auto-ethnographic field-work on contemporary parties in a deep engagement with its history. Salkind’s seemingly-encyclopedic command of house music is on full display as he tunes in to the potential associative webs of meaning these mixes might activate for house heads through lyrics and samples. Analyzing an archived Ron Hardy mix, for instance, Salkind draws attention to how Hardy’s live remix of Knuckles’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” queered the original track’s linear narrative in favor of throwaway and spoken lines like “Honey, let me tell you something” and “I’ve got something for your mind, your body, and your soul”: “By vamping the song’s most empowering lyrics, rather than those that decry the unexpected departure of a still-cared-for lover, Hardy transforms it from a bittersweet lament into an ecstatic invocation for a never-ending dance party.”
At the same time, Salkind steps back and acknowledges “the ways queer people of color are always already theorizing, even before a scholar enters the club.” Emphasizing a sort of “people’s history” of house music, Salkind shifts attention away from the cult of the DJ. Instead, he highlights creative practices of participants in the house commons who “made ritual performances out of self-fashioning and ecstatic communion with their DJ, rooting the ethics and optics of the venue in what DJ Craig Cannon describes as mutual respect and a shared love of the musical experience.” This comes to the fore especially in a chapter on The Chosen Few Old School Reunion Picnic, an annual Fourth of July weekend tradition in Chicago’s Jackson Park. The barbecue and dancing is like a big, intergenerational “chosen family” reunion for house heads all over the world, but especially for South Side Chicagoans getting down to the classics. Salkind uses the term “crossover community” to describe the welcoming spirit of The Chosen Few Picnic, making space for outsiders and newcomers within its midst. Which is to say that if there is of ownership or possessiveness inherent to Chicago house music, it is not at odds with a midwestern inclusivity—”My house is your house.”
Read against the grain of Chicago’s strained racial histories, house music’s culture of love and inclusion for outsiders creates a brave space for community-building across lines of difference. With the help of some music and our bodies, house music makes space for storytelling and sharing feelings, layering our stories to make a new as yet unheard mix. Dancing together, I want to ask: Where have we come from? What might we become?
Do you remember house?
“Dancing in Chicago’s queer undergrounds has meant not only celebrating connection and freedom at these intersecting axes,” Salkind concludes, “but also bravely meeting and flowing with the conflicts that arise as well. It has meant stepping forward, but more often stepping back. It has meant yielding to the possibilities of the unknowable rather than assuming to know. It has meant getting a little bit starry eyed to get out of my head, for even just a minute, to get a glimpse of the world as it might one day be.”
Noa/h Fields is a nonbinary poet and teaching artist living in Chicago. Their chapbook WITH is out from Ghost City Press, and they are currently working on a book on the queer poetics of nightlife.