How a small reunion for 40 friends turned into one of the biggest house music events in the world.
Every summer, thousands of house music lovers gather for a distinctly Chicagoan tradition: a giant celebration of house music and culture in the South Side's Jackson Park, powered by Chicago's very own DJs. This year's marks the 25th anniversary of the Chosen Few Old School Reunion Picnic, but the story goes deeper than the birth of the event. The history of the Chosen Few DJs, the collective behind the event, is closely intertwined with the birth of house music itself.
Today the group's official roster reads Wayne Williams, Jesse Saunders, Alan King, brothers Tony Hatchett and Andre Hatchett, Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn. Step-brothers Saunders and Williams are the originals, with DJ careers dating back to the 70s. Many consider Saunders' 1984 single "On & On" the first house record commercially released. While Wayne Williams, currently the senior VP of A&R at RCA Records, is more well-known outside of house music circles for signing R. Kelly, he is indeed a house music pioneer.
Few disagree that the Chosen Few DJs are house music, even if there is robust debate on what house music actually is or exactly when it came to be. "The first time I heard the word 'house' attached to this music was in reference to the music Frankie Knuckles was playing at the Warehouse in Chicago," King says. "[But that is] totally ridiculous because Frankie never played house music. It just wasn't made at that time. Frankie played disco music just like every other gay DJ was doing at that time."
"You can always debate what house music is," says King, who is also a lawyer by trade. "You can talk to a hundred people and get a hundred different definitions of house music, when it started, or how it started."
Williams is clear on how the music differs: "Disco music is made with live instrumentation, live drums, usually live strings and live horns, whereas house music is made with drum machines, so 808s, 909s. So that's the main difference between house music and disco music."
Regardless of what it was labeled, this new sound was making its rounds in Chicago, and early pioneers like Williams, Saunders and King helped spread the music beyond the gay clubs to straight partygoers. Actually, their DJ careers started with them rocking parties for their underage peers. "We were high school kids and we were DJing in venues for other high school kids that were open all night long," King says, specifically citing weekend parties at The Loft in downtown Chicago that would end at 8 or 10 in the morning.
Soon, some of the DJs began creating their own records, including seminal releases like Saunders' "On and On" (1984) and Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body" (1986), which sparked many others to start making their own records. As they continued making records, Chicago house began to take shape and, as both King and Williams note, that music was drum machine driven.
Over time, the Chosen Few DJs began to migrate away from Chicago and into other careers. So, as folks came home for the holidays, Williams said that Saunders suggested doing a party. When a Christmas party attracted a decent crowd despite the freezing cold, Williams suggested moving it to the summer, when they could play old-school music and BBQ at the same time. Kim Parham, the Chosen Few's only official female and non-DJ member, suggested inviting friends from Chicago's house music past. That first picnic in 1990, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, attracted 30 or 40 people, according to King, who explains that "it was just sort of a family reunion thing."
"It literally just grew and grew," King says of the free gathering over the years. Word-of-mouth along with Internet communities like Deep House Page fueled that growth. At first, the expanding crowd was manageable, but by 2005 or 2006, it was clear that the picnic "was bigger than us," says King.
One of the turning points occurred around 2004. Although the event has generally been rain-free, that year, "it was like a monsoon," recalls Williams. "The skies opened up and the weirdest thing was people, I thought they would leave, but they started taking their shirts off and dancing in the rain. Then people got calls from [others] saying, 'You've got to see this.' It had to be maybe 3000 people out. It was the craziest thing, the mud and the rain, and people just dancing." Williams estimates that attendance quadrupled the next year. "That's when we said, 'whoa, this is something else.'"
Today the event held at Jackson Park is a must for house music lovers. For the 25th anniversary, powerhouse vocalists Stephanie Mills, Evelyn Champagne King and Cory Daye are on the bill, with Stan Zeff, Derrick Carter, Keith Fobs, Greg Gray, and Masters at Work powered by "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez—who incidentally are also celebrating their 25th anniversary.
"We never set out to create an event with 30 and 40,000 people with an admission charge or any of that," King reflects. "Folks just kept coming and coming and coming and coming and coming. So all we could do is react to that and find a way to keep it going."
"It's become so important for so many people," he concludes. "It's a music festival. It's a family reunion. It's the sorority reunion. It's the high school reunion. It's so many things. At this point, we kind of feel like we have no choice but to keep it going because people rely on it and depend on it so much."
For tickets to this year's event and more information about the Chosen Few DJs, head here
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of 'African American History For Dummies.' Follow her on Twitter