This long running Chicago event, which counts President Obama as a fan, celebrates the formative period before house music. Jacob Arnold walked through the barbecue smoke to meet its founders.
The Chosen Few Picnic is unlike any other festival I've attended. Gates open at 7AM, and by 6AM attendees are already lining up outside Jackson Park with tents, grills and coolers. By the time I arrived at 10AM, there was already a sprawling tent city. Families lounged on lawn chairs in fenced-off plots of grass waiting for friends to arrive, as disco boomed from a large soundsystem and central stage. Banners for schools, fraternities and nightclubs dotted the thoroughfare. The crowd was predominantly African American and older—the generation that grew up shaping Chicago house music in the early '80s.
Last year, for The Chosen Few Picnic's 25th anniversary, the group was recognized by the City of Chicago with an honorary street name along a stretch of Hayes Drive: Chosen Few D.J.'s Way. In a video greeting played to delighted picnickers, President Obama declared, "Michelle and I are sorry we can't be home with all the house heads in Jackson Park today." This spring, The Chosen Few DJs visited the Obama family in the White House to discuss their new Beyond The Groove Foundation, which intends to introduce house music to a younger audience through education and community activities.
The Chosen Few's founder, Wayne Williams, currently Senior VP of A&R at RCA Records, was born and raised in Chicago. He started DJing in the early 1970s, at the age of 14. Williams accompanied his older sister to basement parties, where her boyfriend played records on a single record player. While everybody slow-danced, Williams was in charge. "That's what gave me the buzz," he says. "I saw people dancing to what I picked. I was like, 'That's pretty cool!' and I'd pick another one."
A few years later, Williams attended a party an older friend threw at Den One, the disco where Ron Hardy played. It was Williams' first time hearing continuously mixed music. He was impressed enough to approach the DJ booth to see how it was done. Williams didn't realize he was in a gay club. "I didn't care about that," he says. "All I cared about was the music." From then on, he dedicated himself to finding the underground disco records that were staples of Chicago's gay clubs but were rarely heard at high school parties, where DJs mainly spun funk by artists like George Clinton and James Brown. "I went to the gay clubs and heard the music, and went to the record stores and found it, and so I started playing it for my peers," Williams says. "At first I cleared a bunch of dance floors, but I was very persistent, and after a while I got my crowd."
Williams attended Mendel, a Catholic high school. He began spinning at school parties alongside Ewart Abner (his sister's boyfriend), Jamie Shelton and Batman (who built speakers). They called themselves The Chosen Few Disco Corporation. Abner graduated in 1977, leaving the group. Williams brought in his 15-year-old step-brother, Jesse Saunders, to help. "I just had so many parties," Williams explains. "I thought if I can get someone else to help me, I could do two parties on the same night."
Saunders, who attended Kenwood Academy, was already passionate about music. "That's all I ever did," Saunders recalls. "I'd be the first one at the record shop in the morning and buy whatever was new, and then I started making mix tapes. I had the big ghetto blasters, so I would play my music everywhere I went." Williams brought a pair of turntables to Saunders' house. "My mother was so mad!" Saunders laughs. "They were on the dining room table and I just practiced, practiced, practiced every day, how to do it."
Not satisfied with just DJing, Saunders made cassette edits of "One Nation Under A Groove" by Funkadelic, "Get Off" by Foxy and "Boogie Nights" by Heatwave. "I just got tired of hearing the same old three-minute songs," says Saunders. "There were parts in there that I thought should have been brought out and more prominent, so I just started making them myself."
At the time, high school dance groups held parties to raise money for their uniforms and events. One of these groups was The Doctors From Mendel. Saunders got his first big gig playing their party at The Burning Spear. "I dropped my pause button mixes, it was a hit, and from there is when we spread out and started doing everybody's parties," Saunders says.
"That just really took us to a whole 'nother level," Williams concurs. "And then I changed the name to The Chosen Few."
The Chosen Few began spinning events throughout the South Side, from private parties to high school dances to one-off events held by professional promoters at spots like First Impressions and the Tree Of Life. Alan King and Tony Hatchett joined The Chosen Few in 1980, but both had already been DJing for a few years. "I'd like to say Wayne was impressed with my talent, which I'm sure he was, but he was also impressed that I had a nice record collection and I had my own equipment," King laughs.
Tony Hatchett was originally in a dance group. "Dance groups were the big thing in high school," he says. Soon Hatchett got to know Williams and Saunders and chose playing records over dancing. (Farley "Jackmaster" Funk used to help Hatchett carry his records before becoming a DJ himself.) Hatchett's brother, Andre, was last to join the original Chosen Few, debuting in a DJ battle at the Loft. "The Loft was the legendary spot," Saunders explains. "House music as you know it today—the foundation of that grew from there."
Alan King agrees: "For a couple of years, in '80 and '81, the Loft at 14th and Michigan was, outside of the gay clubs, the mecca for the music."
Promoters, including a group called Vertigo, would rent the space almost every weekend and hire The Chosen Few to play from 10 PM until 5 or 6 the next morning. The DJs would haul their own soundsystem up to the second story where dancers bounced up and down on a wooden floor. Saunders built the group's turntable coffins, amplifier racks and speakers. "I turned my mother's living room into a speaker production facility," he laughs.
The Chosen Few's signature records at the time included "T.S.O.B. (The Sound of Brooklyn)" by Master Jay and Michael Dee and "Sing Sing Sing" by The Charlie Calello Orchestra & Singers. Gino Soccio's productions, including "Try It Out" and "Dancer," were also big hits.
As time went on, many of the group's members established their own side gigs. Hatchett began DJing for parties on the West Side. Saunders collaborated with promoter Craig Thompson, spinning at Sauers, then opening the Playground where Vince Lawrence became his light man. It was there that Saunders first experimented with drum machines, leading him to make the first commercial Chicago house record, "On And On."
Eventually The Chosen Few members went their separate ways. In 1985, Alan King gave up DJing to attend the University Of Illinois College Of Law, just as Chicago house music took off worldwide. "All of my friends and the guys I had been DJing with, they were putting out records and getting flown to Europe," King says. "I'm like, 'What the hell is going on?'"
Saunders signed a music contract with Geffen and moved to LA. Williams began doing A&R work for JIVE Records. Tony Hatchett eventually moved to Houston. The group rarely saw each other, until around Christmas in 1989, when they decided to reunite for a party. The event was a success, but it was such a brutally cold night, the group vowed to move their reunion to summer. The only other holiday everyone returned to Chicago for was Independence Day, when the Hatchett family threw their annual barbecue behind the Museum Of Science And Industry. "We would just hang out, our family," Hatchett says.
The Chosen Few held their first picnic in 1990. There were 50 to 75 people there just by word of mouth. "No one was even interested in DJing," Williams laughs. "We were interested in barbecuing, eating and playing football. The later it got, we would get on the turntables and play a little bit. The people, they would start to dance and reminisce. Throughout the year we were known for playing new music, so we said, we're coming to play the old school cuts that we played back in the day, the favorites."
The next year, so many people called asking if there was going to be another picnic that the group agreed to a reprise. According to Hatchett, about 150 people showed up, gathering under the shade of the park's trees with a bounce house, water guns and water balloons for the kids. There was no stage, just a folding table. Each year the picnic grew by word of mouth, and it became known as The Old School Reunion.
Kim Parham, a friend of The Chosen Few DJs since high school, and now the only non-DJ member of the group, attended every picnic. "First I was just one of the fans," she says, "but because I'd grown up with these guys, I started managing a lot of the logistics." This included camping out on a lawn chair at 4AM to reserve a spot (before permits were required) and doing all of the cooking and barbecue planning.
By the early 2000s, the City Of Chicago allowed event permits for the park on the 4th, but that didn't guarantee smooth sailing. "We didn't know how many people were going to show up, and so I would get the permit for 600, 700, maybe a 1000," Parham says. "And one year we were behind the museum, and there had to be at least 6000 people. The police came, and they wanted to see the permit, which I had and gave them, and they wanted my driver's license, and then they told me if I didn't shut this down that they were going to take me to jail!"
Several members of The Chosen Few, including Parham, funded the picnic out of their own pockets for its first 20 years. "I had a portable toilet bill on my Amex card," Parham says. "That's when we decided for the love of the picnic, in order to keep doing this, we were going to have to actually start charging."
The event grew exponentially in the late 2000s, outgrowing the space between the museum and the lagoon. In 2007, with picnic attendance around 10,000 people, The Chosen Few briefly moved to the Midway Plaisance. Now the picnic is held at the southern end of Jackson Park, and attendance is estimated to be over 40,000 people. A production company handles logistics and security, and about a 100 paid youths (volunteers in former years) assist.
Chicago has a serious crime problem—over 2000 people have been shot so far this year alone— yet the picnic has never had any trouble. "Our city obviously gets a bad rap because of the crime and shootings," says Williams. "But Chicago has some of the best people and the friendliest people in the world. Our event is a highlight of that, because every year we show off the humanity."
Saunders puts it another way: "All of the craziness that happens makes you hardened… but house music takes you to a place that's totally away from all that, and brings out what I think is your real personality, because it allows you as a human being to have sympathy and love for another person."
This year on the Saturday, all seven members of The Chosen Few performed one-hour sets of mainly deep disco sprinkled with vocal house. Guest DJs included Joe Claussell from New York and Bobbie & Steve from London. The crowd warmed to both. Josh Milan and Monique Bingham performed enthusiastic live sets, and a series of awards were presented to a wide range of artists, including local DJs Maurice Joshua, Ron Trent and K Alexi. Backstage was a who's who of Chicago house legends, from The Warehouse and Music Box owner Robert Williams to Jamie Principle and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk.
This year, for the first time, the picnic added a second day in hopes of becoming a festival. According to Williams, it was a natural evolution since they already had the park booked for the weekend, and some attendees travel in from out of town. "The main thing is just we spend so much money and we set up this entire infrastructure in the park, then we only use it one day and we tear it down," King says. "It makes no sense."
There were, however, some growing pains. Logistical issues with RFID wristbands led to long lines, and some attendees were granted free second day passes as an apology. Attendance on Sunday seemed sparse, especially since families weren't grilling (outside food and beverage was not allowed on the second day, though there was a food court with vendors).
Nevertheless, Sunday's experiment had its moments. Sam Chatman played a steppers set, with couples dancing gracefully on a wooden dance floor installed especially for the occasion. Cheryl Lynn sang Chicago favorites "Star Love" and "You Saved My Day," backed by a live band, giving it her all despite the smaller audience.
One Way, featuring Al Hudson, played live as well. Roy Ayers was originally scheduled to perform but he cancelled due to illness. "Sunday we wanted to broaden our audience, looking at it more under a soul music umbrella," King explains. Late in the afternoon, King's daughter led a group of young dancers in a performance set to "Purple Rain," then DJ Spinna played a Prince tribute set to an appreciative crowd.
Saturday morning, walking from a desolate train stop on 63rd Street, hearing distant beats by the lake, and receiving greetings from everyone I passed, I had a sense of how important this annual event is to the local community. The grassy area in front of the stage steadily filled until nightfall, when it was packed with dancers moving to disco classics and the occasional vocal house tune. Delicious barbecue smoke lingered in the air. Families began to pack up their grills and tents as the lake began to reflect a beautiful sunset.
It's easy to write about records in isolation, but house music is inseparable from its community and from Chicago. The original house heads, now approaching retirement age, made the music what it is today, and they still love to party.