Lab in the House: A Tale of Two Genres
By Valerie M. Reynolds
This year celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip hop. At a party in the South Bronx of New York City in 1973, an 18-year-old DJ under the moniker DJ Kool Herc changed music history when he spun the same record on twin turntables, toggling between them to isolate and extend percussion breaks. Fifty years later, hip hop’s rhythmic beats and poetic verses continue to resonate across generations.
Today, hip hop has grown into one of the world’s most prominent musical genres and cultural influences. But while the genre was picking up steam in New York and on the East Coast in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Chicago was a bit slower to join the hip hop craze. That’s because another genre of music was taking hold in the city, and that genre was house music.
Lab’s Connection to the Birthplace of House Music
It is safe to say that house music, the musical genre that was created in Chicago, is seeing somewhat of a rebirth. With the release of and worldwide fanfare of Beyoncé’s most recent album, Renaissance, a brand new generation has been introduced to the genre of house music, as an older generation basks in the limelight as house once again takes center stage in pop culture.
Around the same time that hip hop was taking shape in the South Bronx, house music began to take shape when Frankie Knuckles moved from the Bronx to Chicago. As a teen, he attended discos in New York and soon began working as a DJ playing soul, disco, and R&B at two of New York’s most popular discos: The Continental Baths and The Gallery. Shortly thereafter, Knuckles arrived in Chicago, where he began DJing at a new club called the Warehouse. It was at the Warehouse where he innovated the genre of house music by blending disco, funk, and electronic pop. From the late ’70s to early ’80s, the Warehouse, which was a private club in the West Loop that one could only enter by invitation, became a mainstay for house dance parties hosted by Knuckles, who had by then become the club’s resident DJ.
When being interviewed by MusicRadar in 2012, Knuckles was asked if he considered himself the inventor of house music. “That’s what they tell me,” he responded. “I was driving past a shop in Chicago and I saw a sign that said, ‘We play house music.’ I said to my friend, ‘What the hell is house music?’ He said, ‘It’s the kind of music you play at the Warehouse.’” That’s when it began to crystalize that what he had created was larger than him; larger than the Warehouse.
Last June, the Chicago City Council approved a landmark designation for the Warehouse, officially marking its history as thebirthplace of house music. House grew in popularity and began to quickly spread beyond Chicago and to the nation. This was due in large part to a small group of pioneers: local Black DJs who played a pivotal role in helping to evolve disco into what became known as early house music. One of those pioneering DJs was Alan King ’81.
Today, King’s name is one of the most well-known names affiliated not only with house music but with house culture. He is a member of Chicago’s legendary DJ crew The Chosen Few, the collective that hosts one of the biggest house music festivals in the country on Chicago’s South Side each year. The Chosen Few, which includes Wayne Williams, Jesse Saunders, Terry Hunter, Mike Dunn, and brothers Andre and Tony Hatchett, are some of the original DJs who helped propel the genre into an international culture of dance, music, and soul, and they continue to contribute to the evolution of the house music phenomenon.
King began making a name for himself as a DJ after he DJed his own eighth-grade graduation party. “Once I went to the Warehouse, however, it changed my life. It was there that I learned what a party was supposed to look like, sound like, and feel like,” King shared in a 2019 interview for Switched on Music, a platform that celebrates house music. All this “in addition to the amazing sound and lighting, and the way Frankie would manipulate and enhance the records,” impacted King as a young DJ. “Plus it was the people. Different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc., all partying together in peace and harmony. I had never experienced anything quite like it before.”
As one of the world’s most sought-out DJs in house music, King lives somewhat of an alternate reality with dual careers. After graduating from Lab, King received a degree in political science from Augustana College and went on to receive a juris doctorate from the University of Illinois College of Law. So, in addition to being a house music icon the world over, he is also a partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila where he chairs the national labor and employment practice. He is a renowned labor and employment litigation attorney and has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America since 2012.
The Rise of Hip Hop in Chicago
As house music evolved from Chicago’s underground dance and club culture, its vibrant scene began to have a significant impact on many other genres of music. In 1990, Madonna’s house song “Vogue” topped the US and international charts. With Madonna and others, including CeCe Peniston and Paula Abdul, incorporating house into their music, house had been solidified as a cultural phenomenon that was here to stay. Given that Knuckles himself was from the same New York burrough where hip hop was created, it’s no surprise how the blending of electronic beats, danceable rhythms, and innovative production techniques from house began to find their way into many local Chicago hip hop tracks. But, because of the hold that house music had on Chicago’s urban, underground culture, Chicagoans were somewhat late adopters of hip hop. That is, until a young man by the name of Duro Wicks ’85 and his group, He Who Walks Three Ways, had their say.
CATALYST: The Story of Duro Wicks and Chicago Hip Hop is a soon-to-be released, independent documentary film about the early days of hip hop in Chicago. It examines how and why the uptake of hip hop music and culture evolved so much later in Chicago than it did in other urban American cities. The film shines a light on Duro “Shame Love Tempo” Wicks, an entrepreneur and performer who fell in love with hip hop culture and helped give it a home on the Chicago music scene of the early 1990s.
The documentary explores how WHPK, a tiny 100-watt radio station at the University of Chicago, became Chicago’s hip hop powerhouse and why it was so difficult for a young Black entrepreneur to promote hip hop events in the City of Chicago during that time.
As Wicks and his crew began to take the northwest side community of Wicker Park by storm, their notoriety began to spread throughout the city. The Chicago Reader once called Wicks “one of the godfathers of the Wicker Park hip hop scene,” and The Chicago Tribune called him “a large man with a charismatic presence…at the center of the kinetic circus.” When speaking to others of how Wicks cultivated a place or a generation of kids to show up and prove the hip hop culture was relevant and here to stay, many describe Wicks as “the catalyst.”
“Before I did my own thing, I had nowhere to go,” says Wicks. “So my whole thing was, let’s do our own shows,” he shares as he speaks about his love affair with hip hop.
CATALYST paints an honest picture of Duro’s wild, roller coaster ride of music, passion, culture, and Chicago’s political machine. The story is told by Wicks himself, along with the help of recollections from many others from Chicago’s early hip hop community with whom he partnered. Their stories are woven together with archival footage and still photographs that tell the vibrant history of the early days of hip hop in Chicago. The filmmaker behind the project is Wicks’ high school friend Dave Steck ’84, founder of Numeric Pictures.
Steck is an award-winning, twice Emmy-nominated member of the Producers Guild of America and a veteran of underground music scenes. When Wicks first told Steck about his journey as a hip hop pioneer in Chicago, he knew that it had to be captured and preserved as part of Chicago’s musical history. So they began to collaborate as co-producers to get this story told.
“As a filmmaker, I don’t always get to pick what the show is that I work on, and I’ve been very fortunate to get to do things where I’ve gone to travel around the world,” Steck said. “And oftentimes going into a situation where I’m in a culture very different from where I grew up, or in a place very different from where I grew up, I can see how some people who I work with may or may not adapt to that better than others.” Steck considers himself one of those who can adapt better than others and he attributes that to his time at Lab.
“One of the things I got out of the Lab—and I didn’t realize any of this at the time—was growing up in such a diverse environment,” said Steck. “You know, just meeting people and having friends whose lives were different from my own and, yet we had something in common: Lab.”
Chicago’s hip hop and house scenes have left indelible marks on the genres. They showcase a fusion of styles, address social issues, and nurture a worldwide sense of community and collaboration. The unique sound, diverse talent, and authenticity of this music have contributed to the lasting influence of both genres. The fact that these Lab grads contributed to these movements in music in such confounding ways should be of no surprise. It isn’t to Steck.
“I think that Lab made us curious; it made us patient. You know, we will take the time to learn. We don’t have to rush through it. And it made us, I guess, fearless.”
- Homepage Featured News
- Lab News