This is the Woodstock of House Music
All around the perimeter of the idyllic Jackson Park, barbecues were sizzling under gazebos and pineapples were being carved into cocktail mugs. Sunday’s lightly populated and nicely loosened dance floor was strewn with deck chairs, coolers and Chicagoans young and old, all grooving in testament to the prodigal cultural contributions that seven DJs from the South Side made 40 years ago.
The Chosen Few Reunion Picnic is a 4th of July weekend institution in Chicago. For the last 27 years, it has been a chance for Wayne Williams, Jesse Saunders, Andre and Tony Hatchett, Alan King, Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn, aka The Chosen Few , to return to the community they sprung from four decades ago, and have a big cookout. Held in Jackson Park on the banks of Lake Michigan, the event has grown organically from being a few dozen friends and family listening to music, to being a 30,000-ish strong festival. But all along the way, in true Midwestern fashion, it’s maintained a deep, immovable sense of its own roots.
The Chosen Few are an understated but immeasurably influential detail on the tapestry of house. While fellow Chicago DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles are typically bestowed with the credit for the genre’s origins in the gay black clubs on Chi-Town’s South Side, the transference of underground disco out from that tiny niche and to a wider audience lies with Wayne Williams, the Chosen Few’s founder.
Williams started DJing in 1974 on a single turntable, but after seeing a disco DJ playing club music on two turntables, his mind was opened and he immediately sought to emulate that and bring it back to his neighborhood. “I was the only one in my community that was playing that kind of music, so I was gettin’ all the parties!” he told Everfest. “And so, after a while, I needed some help to DJ ‘cause that way I could make even more money. And so that gave me the idea to start the Chosen Few.”
Officially starting 1977, the original Chosen Few consisted of Williams, his step-brother Jesse Saunders, Alan King, Tony and Andre Hatchett, with local acts Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn joining in 2006 and 2012, respectively. The teenage crew were in high demand throughout the Hyde Park and South Shore in the late seventies and early eighties; “kinda like little celebrities in our community,” Williams recalls.
The group started to disperse in the mid-eighties, though arguably their biggest single contributions were the one-two of Jesse Saunders breakthrough track “On & On,” and “Undercover” by William’s alias Dr. Derelict. Saunders’ revolutionary combination of staccato 808 trills and disco loops is widely considered to be the first house track, while Williams’ adapted his step brother’s innovative home-spun production into a traditional song format. As well as being the first house DJ crew, and the initial conduit out of the gay subculture, that pair of tracks cemented their place in house history.
In 1991, they decided to have a picnic for friends and family after a successful party the previous December showed there was still a love for their sound. “The first [Chosen Few Reunion Picnic] probably only about 60 people there. Just friends and family, and we were playing music behind the museum. And people would bring their grills, and we would play football.”
The next year 150 people showed up. And then more again the following year. But while the crew was built around the DJs and their extended family, music was really a secondary focus to the grilling and reunion of familiar faces. As the event continued to grow throughout the 90s and early 00s, the music took the center stage, but it wasn’t until a torrential downpour threatened to mar the picnic in 2004 that things really changed.
A freak monsoon-like rainstorm tore through the park early that Saturday, but the music kept playing and people continued to show up. “It’d rained so much the grass had turned to mud. People were dancing in the mud. But they kept coming the entire day,” Williams recounts. “By about 8 o’clock there had to be maybe 3,000 people out there, you know? Everybody dancing in the rain. That was when we knew that this was becoming something big.”
But even as the event has grown and built its reputation internationally, it continues to be a family event in a community space that has played a vital role in passing on the legacy of house music’s roots in Chicago. I found myself adopted by a small crew of locals that had lost count of how many times they had been to the picnic. ”You can’t have these kind of parties or gatherings for hip-hop because the crowd is different. It’s sketchier. House music is really about love, and that’s why you never have any problems here,” explained Cee Cee, a local public school teacher in Chicago’s South Side, an area frequently cited as one of the most violent in America.
“We project love and inclusion,” states Williams. “Chicago, especially when I was living there, was a very segregated city. The one thing about disco music and house music is it brings everybody together – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Arab, jew, gay, straight. It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you wanna dance.”
“We’ve always been about love and inclusion and camaraderie. And that’s the one thing you’ll find that is magical about our event is that people just come to dance and have a great time. They don’t care who you are or what you look like or anything like that; it’s all about the music.”
At the center of that love is the undeniably inclusive and uplifting vibe of classic house – the kind of house music replete with acrobatic piano crescendos, insatiable groove and shrieks with elation. This is contemporary roots music, from which a world-dominating, multifaceted genre was created and influenced almost every corner of popular music. Joining the Chosen Few over the weekend were legends like Ron Trent, Sadar Bahar, the prolific Steve “Silk” Hurley, and live vocal sets from Donna McGhee and Monique Bingham, all crossing the spectrum of deep, soulful house music.
Chicagoans have an almost-aggrandizing level of pride in their hometown. The word “Chicago” is emblazoned across hats and jerseys, while "W" flags hang from windows and balconies across the North Side whenever the Cubs win. Alongside Michael Jordan and the Bulls and Muddy Waters and the Blues; Frankie, Ron, Wayne, Jesse and a sterling cast of proto-house DJs are a point of enormous civic pride for this city. While the dance music scene is still churning in Chicago, the Chosen Few Reunion Picnic is an opportunity for several generations of the city’s African-American community to come together in celebration of another greatly influential contribution to popular music.
“You know, it takes a village,” said Williams, reflecting on the impact his crew have had on popular music. “It took more than the Chosen Few. A lot of great DJs from this city played a role in shaping this sound and popularizing house music. It’s the greatness of the Chicago DJs, producers and artists that have brought this music to the world, and I think that it happens to be fortunate that the world loves it just like we do.”