The Punk Rocker Who Made Chicago House Happen
Screamin' Rachel Cain is a blonde rocker chick who ended up falling in with a strange crowd. At the dawn of the 1980s, she was singing in punk bands and throwing shows with Black Flag and Bauhaus shows at a Chicago warehouse known as the Space Place. A chance introduction to a pair of dance music producers led her into a whole other warehouse scene entirely—after doing vocals on Z-Factor & Jesse Saunders’ early acid house cut “Fantasy,” Rachel got sucked into the then-nascent Chicago house scene, where she’s stayed for the past 30 years.
Over the past three decades, Rachel has worked with Afrika Bambaataa and Marshall Jefferson, hung out with the Warriors, and partied Downtown with Jellybean and Madonna, but she’s most famous for steering pioneering house label Trax Records—the foundational Chicago house label that released anthems like Adonis’ “No Way Back” and Frankie Knuckles “Baby Wants to Ride”—through many choppy waters over the last few decades. And along the way, she’s made a lot of music of her own as well.
Her new album, Screamin’ Rachel: Queen of House, compiles a whopping 32 tracks featuring her kittenish narratives and diva drops over all manner of house music, from 303 acid squiggles to New York-style tribal. The tracks have names like “Fun With Bad Boys,” “Extacy,” “Princess in A Penthouse,” and “Bad Influence,” if that gives you an idea of what we’re dealing with here. There’s also a song called “Murder in Clubland,” about Limelight promoter Michael Alig’s murder of fellow club kid Angel Melendez, a topic on which Rachel speaks extensively on her YouTube channel, ScreamDiva. You can also check out her cameo in Vamp Bikers, a campy movie being shot by Apache Ramos.
Rachel and I talked for nearly an hour and a half, but 12,000 words is a lot to read, so here’s what she had to say about Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Marshall Jefferson, Ministry, and dedicating her life to house music.
THUMP: How old were you when you started going out?
Screamin' Rachel: Forget it—I mean, wayyyy fake IDs. I started going out at, like, 15.
What was going on before you found house music? You were going to see bands.
Well, I loved Black Flag, and I loved X, and I loved Bad Brains and Bauhaus. I loved stuff like the Ramones too, because they we’re so straight-ahead with what they did. At one point, I worked with Al Jourgensen of Ministry. I often felt that when Ministry made “Everyday is Halloween,” it was, in some ways, a bit of the roots of house.
Well, the influential industrial label Wax Trax label came out of Chicago, and I always hear that early house music was played in goth/industrial and New Wave clubs.
You’re right. A lot of people don’t really know that. This is the thing: People outside of Chicago who didn’t grow up with house music just assume that it started out as a totally African-American thing and that it was also a primarily gay thing. Both those things are cool with me, but that isn’t really what it was—it was a very mixed bag of people in the beginning, depending on which parties you went to.
So how did you find out about house music?
We used to hold illegal parties at the Space Place. It was fantastic. One night, Space Place got raided—I wasn’t taken to jail, but everybody that worked for me was, and I was screaming to the police, “Take me! Take me! It’s my party, it’s my fault!”
In the midst of all that, a kid came up to me and said, “You know, Frankie Knuckles is mixing your record down at the Warehouse.” So everyone else went to the police station and I went to the Warehouse, which was only a couple blocks away from Space Place, and it just changed my life. Right before that, I had unknowingly made my first house record, “Fantasy.” It became a huge record in Chicago—probably the first one that was actually played out at “legitimate” radio stations. I didn’t even realize it until one day I was having a photo session with a friend of mine who knew me from my punk music. He said, “Hey, there’s this great record you gotta hear—you really oughta think about [singing in] this style.” The record came on the radio and I was like, “Wait, that’s my record.” And he was like, “No, no, it doesn’t really sound like you.” And I’m like “Well, it is!”
You were singing in bands, but how did you link up with Jesse and Vince to make “Fantasy"?
We had an attorney, JB Ross, who’s known as the Rapping Lawyer. If you check the UK magazines back when house was really exploding, him and his partner had brought seven journalists from the UK to Chicago to check out house music. Anyway, J Ross was the conduit because he knew Vince’s father. Vince wanted to make this record and they needed a girl singer. I actually told Jesse Saunders, “Don’t put my name on the record.” For many years many people didn’t know that I actually sang it. Anyway, in those days, it was usually the DJs name on the record. So it took years before vocalists like Darrell Pandy or Jamie Priniciple got any credit.
So when did you get to New York?
I didn’t get to New York until probably ’87 or ‘88. I went to the Limelight, the Tunnel, USA, Shelter, and of course, the Paradise Garage, where I met people like Keith Haring and Larry Levan. It was Larry Levan’s birthday and I was in the booth and Keith Haring presented him with a beautiful leather vest. Moments like that—and hearing my song played amidst all this coolness—felt so good. Larry Levan championed Chicago house. At the time, nobody in New York really knew what house was. A lot of people did not like it, by the way, in the beginning. Then after a while they all wanted to be house.
My first apartment in New York was next door to a record pool where David Morales, Lil Louis Vega, and Kenny Dope were members. They used to drive me crazy because all they would play was Latin freestyle day and night. I was from Chicago and that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I like rawness and I hate disco, which is supposedly really controversial to say in house music. I don’t think it is—what Trax did was really a combination of punk and industrial with a really great 4x4 dance beat. Today they want to call it EDM, but Chicago house is the mother of them all. A lot of people don’t want to recognize—I think people in the UK do, but others don’t. Part of it is that Chicago was never an industry town, and New York always likes to claim they did it first.
Frankie Knuckles was from New York and he came to Chicago. But Chicago is where he really made his fame, and that’s what changed him. I was signed to Streetwise—one of the stars of The Warriors found me at the New Music Seminar and flew to Chicago to see me, and he experienced that whole house explosion that was going on. We used to sell those records out of the trunks of cars to little record stores all over town. Every kid wanted to make their own vinyl, It became a thing. Trax was getting popular and everybody was looking to us like, “Well they did it, we can do it,” which was cool. House music became a Chicago youth explosion. Radio was playing it. Every car that drove by was blasting it. All these house guys, like Farley [Jackmaster Funk] had their sports car with their name written on the side. Not in a violent way, but they thought they were house gangsters.
What would you say was the difference in personality between Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and the respective crowds that followed them?
Frankie was more like a guru because he was older, but I think Ron Hardy was a more amazing DJ. He never got the chance to leave the Music Box, so such a limited amount of people really got to hear him, but he’s still a legend.
With Ron Hardy, it was more of a mixed crowd. He was totally experimental. He was the kind of guy that, whether you had a tape or a reel-to-reel or a piece of vinyl, he was set to play any of that with his set up. When I did my song “Fun With Bad Boys,” he played it six times in a row. He would do that. He did that with “Move Your Body,” he did that with “No Way Back.” To me, he broke those records—if he liked a record, he’d burn it to the ground. People loved that about him. If he didn’t love your record, it didn’t matter if you were the president, he wouldn’t play it. He had his taste and that was it. Aside from that, he would play New Wave, he would play punk, and he definitely played things like “The Message” from Sugar Hill—and so did Larry Levan.
You would never ever hear Frankie play hip-house or hip-hop. He always stayed to the soulful vibe, which I think was cool. He didn’t play all the Trax records, a lot of it was too raw, but I love his early work and what he did with Jamie Principle.
Tell me about the first time you met Marshall Jefferson.
Wow, it was really cool. The first time we met was in Universal Studios in Chicago. We did “Children of the Night,” which I sang background on. Darrell Pandy was there and we worked on “Sensation.” Marshall was there. I had not met him in person before, but I had heard “Move Your Body.” I had to have that record, and I had stolen it out of Wacky’s warehouse at DJ International and took it home; I played it played it played it. When I first met Marshall, I said, “You just wrote your ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ People are going to remember you forever for this record.” And he said, “You think so Screamin’?” I said, “Yeah. I know it.” There’s only been two times where I’ve ever said that to somebody. The other time I said it to Run DMC about “Walk This Way.”
Richard Fairbanks was the engineer. He was the one who had taught everybody about sampling—he had one of the first samplers. These records were done really quickly, by the way. We would just flow. To this day, that’s one of the things I love about house music. I love the fact that it’s not calculated.
How did people react to you the first time meeting you back then. Were they like “Who is this punk rock white chick” or what?
I get a lot of that. It’s improved, because people have some respect for me now, but yeah. I remember when I sang some of these songs, like “Bad Boys.” Everyone thought I was African-American, so when I would go to do these shows… I did one for Tony Humphries at Zanzibar. The record was really big, but nobody had ever seen me. And when I got on that stage, the jaws dropped. It was a little bit frightening, but once I started singing, everybody was into it and singing along with me, and it was cool. But for that one split second, before the music started, their jaws were down and I was like, “Holy fuck. What’s gonna happen?” We didn’t have a lot of videos, so people really didn’t know what we looked like or who we were. On the business side, to this day it’s hard for me to get people to take me seriously. Sometimes, even my partners say, “Rachel, you’re a great singer, why don’t you stick to that and let us take care of everything.” But I don’t. I’m very strong, very opinionated on what I do.
When did you decide that your life was dedicated to house music?
Pretty much I decided it way back when, but when I met Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill—she produces, she was still singing until she died, which was last year—she was a great influence on me. The whole thing I thought about her was, “Someday I want to do this for house music. Someday I want to bring this music to the public in a way that people will appreciate it and know it.”
After everything went down with the club kids in New York and Angel Melendez’s murder, I was in Cannes walking down the street and a cab pulled up. It was Larry Sherman and Joe Smooth and they said, “Get in.” Larry said, “I want you to come back to Trax and make music.” I said, “I will come back, I will make music, but only if you make me president.” Begrudgingly, he did. That’s how I really dedicated my life to Trax. I had been partying in New York, where Trax was huge. People were loving it. I got back to the Trax warehouse in Chicago—all the vinyl distributors had closed right around that time and some of them owed Trax a lot of money—the electricity was off, the place was a wreck, the phones were off. I was like Cinderella pushing a broom in a dirty old warehouse. Everybody’s spirits were down. They were saying, “Nobody wants this music anymore. Nobody cares about this music,” but I had a different perspective because I had been in New York. I said, “One day I’m gonna prove you all wrong, and I’m gonna make this music, I’m gonna get Trax back on the map.” And little by little, I did.