Surviving in any business for 50 years is a proud feat. When it comes to music, tastes shift, technology regularly upends the norm and consumers can be more fickle than a cat and their wet food. Gramaphone Records in Chicago is a music institution in the city that has lasted the test of time without any indication of faltering now. It has been there through the 70s disco revolution, house and techno’s rise in the 80’s, hip-hop’s dominance in the 90’s and all the way to today where genres seem as fluid as ever. Celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2019, the record label has been a model for consistency in the city and the wider vinyl marketplace. Heading to Chicago on Sunday, I was able to visit the store (and Chicago) for the first time to understand what makes the place so special.
A lot of new record stores feel catered to the new, fly-by-night vinyl fan that is into the craze, but probably won’t be around long. Gramaphone is there for everyone – the old heads looking to dig for some 70’s funk to the new techno heads that want the new Barker album. Spending an hour there on Sunday evening, I got to see just how expansive this catalog was. One could find a promo copy of an ABBA album, a whole section of Italo Disco or loads of records by classic artists like Madonna, Prince or The Beatles. One could spend days trying out various deep cuts from house, to disco, funk and more.
The record celebrated its 50 years in existence that same Sunday night as part of Red Bull Music Festival Chicago, heading to the iconic Smartbar / Metro for a full venue takeover with vital names in house music like Derrick Carter, Steve "Silk" Hurley, DJ Heather, Ron Trent, Colette and special guest Mark Farina. Since it was a Sunday, it was Queen night, Smartbar’s drag and queer night.
The partnership between the store, RBMF, venue (both Smartbar and Metro were in use) and party fit perfectly. People clad in fishnets mixed with industry types, former and current record store employees, fans and DJs of all races, genders and ethnicities throughout the venue for one common cause – celebrating house music. By the end of the night, half the men in Smartbar were shirtless, dancing in a frenzy to Derrick Carter.
Wandering around the venue, one could bump into a drunk and buoyant Michael Serafini, DJ and owner of Gramaphone, living the occasion to the fullest. Drag queens percolated throughout the venue to make sure the night felt as authentic Queen as it could. Since this was also a party for the city of Chicago, classics like Marshall Jefferson “Move Your Body” were heard several times throughout the night, on both floors.
As the night roared on, we were able to corral two of the DJs playing – Steve “Silk” Hurly and Colette -- to try and get their perspective on Chicago and house music. As two natives of the city, their stories are indicative of the genre and how it has transformed Chicago.
When asked about their first memories of hearing vinyl depended on how music was introduced to them. Colette grew up down the street from Gramaphone and her grammar school was a few blocks away where she would start walking by when she was 6. “I remember when I was 7 or 8, I had Michael Jackson Thriller on vinyl and would take it school.” For Steve, he remembers his family playing a lot of music like jazz, funk and soul in the house, but the one that sticks out to him was the Jackson 5 “ABC.”
Their connections to Gramaphone varied from the very close, to an occasional customer. Since Hurley grew up on the South Side of Chicago, he would shop down there, but when he got to the North Side, he would come to Gramaphone. Colette actually worked at the store, a position that many DJs positioned for since in-store employees would be able to get some of the rare vinyl first. One didn’t take home much money because it would go right back into the store. She started DJing in 1997 and was collecting records three or four years before since that was “the only way to own music at that time.”
The legacy of Chicago house is undeniable. One could see it over the course of the night and over the past 50 years. The genre gets its name from Warehouse in Chicago and the sound of men and women in the city who transformed disco into something even grittier and powerful for parties.
“It is the birth place of house music,” says Colette when looking at the city's legacy. “It has brought so many amazing records. Watching Chicago DJs play in Chicago is an amazing experience. Everyone is a DJ and it is a tough place to start DJing.”
For Steve “Silk” Hurley, it was more then just music – it was a way for financially less privileged people who were musical, but couldn’t afford lessons or instruments, to make music.
“We created something that gave an opportunity to people who that financially didn’t have the means to buy an instrument, pay for studio time, where we learned how to create from the best thing we could get. I didn’t have my drum machine or synthesizer. I got my first synthesizer after ‘Music Is The Key.’ I would see if somebody would let me use their drum machine for a day and I tried to make as many tracks as I could. That is what the culture really was. It was trying to find a way to make our music that we could play at parties that would make us stand out. House music gave an opportunity for people who had a musical ear and talent in them to get it out.”
House music links directly to disco and for Hurley, it was disco’s revenge after people burned disco records for a disco demolition night at a White Sox game on July 12, 1979.
“House music is disco’s revenge. When they blew up the records at Comisky Park in 1979, I thought it was a joke... We took over where disco left off. Using the machines and technology, we were able to create our genre by changing the sound of it, but with the same inspiration. It also allowed us to experiment and try other genres than disco and R&B.”
And what were their favorite Chicago house songs of all time? For Colette it is Cajmere with Dajae “Brighter Days” and Hurley, Marshall Jefferson “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem).” Considering how the night went, those felt like the most fitting answers for a celebration of a Chicago music institution.