Red Bull Music Festival has become a cultural measuring stick for the cities it looks to examine. Like few other corporate events, it actually seeks out to pinpoint the important cultural figures, events and movements, past, present and future. Having spent the past several weeks in Chicago, the festival wanted to look at the hip-hop, gospel and dance legacy of the city. We were in Chicago for three days from last Sunday to last Wednesday (17-20), getting a glimpse of how the festival looked to showcase the windy city.
The first night we came to Chicago, we took in the endless digging at Gramaphone Records and then celebrated 50 years in the business for the iconic record store later that night at SmartBar / Metro. But there was much more to the festival then just clubbing until 4am on a Sunday night.
We were brought down to the Stony Island Arts Bank to take in modern art from black artists. While the art was a powerful examination of the country’s racist past, consumerism and more, there was one fascinating section for the history of Chicago house and dance music in general. The museum is the current home for Frankie Knuckles entire vinyl collection. The museum has on display certain records like a white label test pressing of “The Whistle Song,” in addition to hand written notes by other stars and DJs to Frankie. The museum keeps the 5,000 records up amongst a collection of books and magazines from black authors.
Up on the second floor of a wood room, the books and records come together to create a homey feeling where music and literature live side-by-side. The 5,000 records are being digitized at the moment in a long process to get them online, while they are occasionally brought out for Friday events. There are white labels, test pressings, acetates, and rare cuts in the collection – a view into the early history of house music and DJing in Chicago. We have a few photos below for you to look at.
Later that evening, I was brought to the Garfield Conservatory – an indoor greenhouse with a most spectacular array of plants. An agave plant breaks through the roof and extends high into the night sky, while a blend of various cacti stand about human-height in the gravel around it. One can lost in the various rooms filled with tropical plants, massive ferns and other trees with leaves the size of your head.
I wasn’t just there to get lost in the plants – there was a show as well -- Black Monastic, a special two-part live musical performance curated by Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation. Red Bull drinks were flowing (obviously), so with a 9pm start time on a Tuesday night, you had to be careful not to imbibe too much or Tuesday would turn into Wednesday morning rather quickly. A crowd of several hundred filled into a large open area to the right of the lobby with rows of folding chairs looking towards a stage in the back of the room.
The night began with CatchPeter presents Praise Break by Peter CottonTale, best known as Chance The Rapper’s musical director, but also a talented artist in his own right. With a cast of singers, musicians, drummers and more like The JuJu Exchange, Ron Poindexter, Jay Arnold, it was a rousing performance that made even the most devout atheist feel a little spiritual. Praising God in a blend of gospel, R&B and soul, the crew fed off of CottonTale’s energy for a breathless and powerful 45 minutes celebrating Black Chicago music tradition.
After a brief intermission to go get a drink and explore the plant rooms, the show turned to a special iteration of the Black Monks, led by Theaster Gates. With a group of pioneering Chicago musicians Yaw Agyeman, Kiara Lanier, Ben LaMar Gay, Joshua Abrams, ADaD and others, the performance was a meditative and at times beautiful examination of Chicago’s black musical history. It fused past genres with a contemporary approach and presentation with spoken word, rap and singing. The lights remained low as the audience got drawn into the group’s hypnotic spell.
While there were other events with the likes of Tierra Whack, Lupe Fiasco, Saba and Jamila Woods, this brief look into the city of Chicago’s cultural history felt as good as one could get in just a few days.