The Divine Creation of Chicago House

Pioneers Steve “Silk” Hurley and Marshall Jefferson reveal the humble origins that ignited a worldwide movement

Chicago house music is a soul force surging through every core of your being, commanding you to move. There’s a natural high that comes from listening to house music—it hits you in your soul, a possession of sorts. Back in the day, wallflower wasn’t even a viable concept or option. Sweating it out was mandatory. And because dancing was the main thing, it was safe for kids.

Like Motown in Detroit in the 1960s, house became the definitive sound for young black people in Chicago in the 1980s. Before many of us reached high school, we could go to parties at Mendel, the premiere all-boys Catholic school on the South Side, and see people like Steve “Silk” Hurley and Marshall Jefferson spin.

Steve “Silk” Hurley and Keith Nunnally of JM Silk | Photo by Paul Natkin

Two years ago, I was in the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe for the first time when a part-time model/EDM DJ from Paris who plays in various parts of the world informed me that house music originated in Europe. He could have just stabbed me in the heart and I would have felt less pain. This was such a blow to my Chicago-bred self, since the music I identify as house is a source of tremendous pride for my city. In the age of EDM, the significance of house music sometimes gets lost in the mix. With pioneers like Steve “Silk” Hurley and Marshall Jefferson alive and well and working, there is no excuse for that.

“Nobody can agree on who invented the blues or birthed rock & roll, but there is no question that house music came from Frankie Knuckles,” reported Rolling Stone after the New Yorker’s unexpected death last March. And for those outside of Chicago, Frankie Knuckles gets all the credit, case closed. But for those of us who came of age as house music was taking over our city, there’s a lot more to the story.

Frankie Knuckles

While there is no disputing what the New York-bred Frankie Knuckles (government name Francis Nicholls) contributed to the genre, the case is far from closed. The term “house” may derive from the music he used to spin at the Warehouse in Chicago, but he was not the only pioneer. Like Knuckles, Ron Hardy was a pivotal figure in shaping the Chicago house music sound. Hardy famously reigned as the DJ at the club Muzic Box, as well as the similarly named Music Box. Though he died 21 years before Knuckles in March 1992, his footprint on the music remains.

Those footprints can also be tracked to the Hot Mix 5, a collective of DJs founded by Farley “Funkin” Keith (later Farley “Jackmaster” Funk), Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Scott “Smokin” Silz, Ralphi Rosario and Kenny “Jammin” Jason, whose presence on Chicago radio encouraged and increased the music’s popularity. During the early 80s, these figures and many others sparked the growth and development of Chicago’s unique brand of soulful dance music. Steve “Silk” Hurley and Marshall Jefferson were among those who took the baton and moved the music further. Jefferson’s “Move Your Body” and Hurley’s “Jack Your Body,” both released in 1986, quickly became house music staples.

At just three years apart—Jefferson was born in 1959 and Hurley in 1962—the two men are very much contemporaries. Both were raised not so far from each other on the city’s South Side—Hurley on 89th and Blackstone, Jefferson at 91st and Union. While they didn’t overlap, Hurley and Jefferson even attended the same high school, Lindblom, although Jefferson also attended Central YMCA High School. Both also grew up in two-parent households with their fathers serving as key musical influences. Unaware of music as a career option, both stumbled into pioneering status after producing two of Chicago’s house music’s most seminal tunes. Jefferson also played instrumental roles with the group Ten City and the artist CeCe Rogers.

Today, Hurley, who is a four-time Grammy nominee, is most known for his mixes on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, but still lives and spins often in the Chicago metro area. For the last eight years, Manchester, England has been home to Jefferson, who has been prone to long hiatuses throughout his career. He performs regularly throughout Europe, embracing EDM culture while celebrating his roots.

In this revealing interview, Hurley and Jefferson offer insight into the early days of Chicago house, illuminating their journeys from music lovers to producers and performers.

Cuepoint: What is house music?

Steve “Silk” Hurley: Basically, what we call house music is what Frankie Knuckles used to play at the Warehouse back in the late 70s when I was still in high school. We were actually playing some of that old music, and we were playing other music that had that same kind of uplifting feel, which was like Philadelphia International music, Gamble and Huff-produced music. That style of music would be what I would call the origins of house music, the old house music, not Chicago house music… Chicago house music was spawned from our love of what we called house music.

Marshall Jefferson: A lot of people say some of the songs I’ve done are deep house, or whatever kind of house or acid house, but it’s all house to me. There are no subgenres. It’s all underground dance music. Nothing plays in my set just because it’s a certain genre. It plays because it’s a good record. That’s my definition of a house record. It’s the best underground dance music. It’s what Frankie Knuckles would’ve played; it’s what Ron Hardy would’ve played. That’s my definition of house music… Back in the day at a house club, at a house party, there’d be variety; it would be all kinds of stuff playing.

How did you get into DJing?

Marshall Jefferson: I started DJing after I started working at the post office, and I could afford all the records then and I was spending like $200 a week on records. Before that I was listening to rock music a lot like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, just a lot of rock music I was listening to. I was like a bedroom DJ. I had [DJ’d] a few parties, but really nothing on the scale of after my records started coming out. The records that I made were an [incentive] for me to go out and DJ. I wanted to be a DJ like Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles. But, before then, I didn’t go out and play at all because I was working late at nights, and I really couldn’t do the legwork because I was so wiped out from working the graveyard shift [at the post office]. It was a lot of energy. You sleep lots of odd hours. When I did wake up, I would go record shopping. It wasn’t an ideal atmosphere to go out and DJ.

Marshall Jefferson | photo by Paul Natkin

I was one of the youngest persons working there at the time. Me and Curtis McClain were the same age [Curtis McClain sang vocals on “Move Your Body.”] Me and Curtis would DJ at home, and we would make cassette tapes, and we would let each other hear our mixes. He was better than me at that time. I’m better than him now. He taught me a lot about DJing. He would call his mixes “ugly mixes.” We had our little crew. We would make tapes for each other, just basically mixtapes. So I probably had an audience about four people back then, but my heart was in the movement. I would listen to the Hot Mix 5 on the radio, the [radio station W]BMX mixes and then later [W]GCI and that kind of thing.

Steve “Silk” Hurley: I would be at a picnic and I would play music on my boombox. Anywhere I would go, I would try to take my boombox; I was Radio Raheem, I guess. For my first boombox, I was so excited just to save up my money and get that you know, and I was bugging my dad about letting me go do it. I had a paper route. I was saving up money from my paper route to do that so I always put my money into music even before I started DJing. When I discovered I was going to DJ at the [Lindblom] sock hop, that got me interested in actually becoming a DJ.

I found also you could DJ, and you could mix songs together which I heard on a station in Chicago called Disco DAI, which was in like ‘78, ‘79, when disco was kind of starting to fade out, but Donna Summer was real huge. When I heard that music being mixed continuously, it made me want to learn how to do that. But, unfortunately, I didn’t have the means to buy the equipment or anything like that so I started tinkering around with my brother’s stereo system. It was like one of those ones that had the record changer on it where the 45s drop, but I figured out how to play two things at once.

Steve Hurley with Kym Syms after winning remixer of the year at the Winter Music Conference

So that was my first experience with trying to mix things together, playing a turntable and a cassette, so I was doing anything I could do to learn how to mix. Eventually, I was working at Jewel Food Stores over on 87th and Stony, and I started saving my money from that to buy my first turntables, and then I got a mixer, and I built my own turntable case, and just practiced my skills until I was able to learn how to DJ well enough to think I could DJ for other people. I did a bunch of house parties—when I say house I mean house as far as in some people’s basements—DJing for free or $20, $25, whatever. I bought equipment, so I was able to take speakers over people’s houses so that was an asset.

When did you start to get serious?

Marshall Jefferson: The way I got into making music is, I drove a friend of mine to a music store. He needed a ride, so I took him there and the salesperson was telling us about this sequencer called the Yamaha QX1, and he said, “With this QX1, you can play keyboards like Stevie Wonder, even if you don’t know how to play,” and I believed him. I said “Oh wow, I’ll buy it,” and I said, “How much is it?” and he said, “It’s $3000,” and I said, “Well, I don’t have that much.’”

But I worked at the post office, which was at that time—before email came—a lifetime job, so they gave me a $10,000 credit line. So I was all happy I got the QX1 and he said, “Well, you don’t want to have the sequencer and not have a keyboard to play do you? And I said, “Aw yeah, you’re right,” so I bought a keyboard, and he said, “You don’t want to have this keyboard and the sequencer and not have a drum machine do you?” So I said, “Aw yeah, you’re right,” so I got a drum machine. He said, “You don’t want to have the sequencer and the keyboard and this drum machine and not have something to listen to it.” So I got a mixer, and I got a full track recorder and a TB-303 and all this equipment. I got about $9,000 worth on a $10,000 credit line.

So I took all the stuff home, and I’m all happy, and then my friends came over and, aw man, made me feel like an inch high for like five hours. What happened was I wrote my first song two days later. Curtis used to sing on the job and replace words and stuff. When I started making music and producing music, he was the only guy I knew that sang so he sang my first hit, “Move Your Body”. About a year after that, when “Move Your Body” came out, DJs started hiring keyboard players and telling them that they wanted keyboard on their records like Marshall Jefferson. So it worked out. I’ve been making records ever since.

Jesse Saunders is the one who made me really believe. There had been dance records up to that point but nobody thought that they could do music that good. Then, on top of that, you had the live instruments stuff coming out of Philadelphia [and] we were just DJs. When Jesse Saunders came out with that song “On and On,” it was just a drum machine, just a note here. Me, personally, I said, “I can do that.” That started the whole movement in my opinion. That song made the non-musician realize that he could make music. It certainly worked that way for me.

So when I went to the music store with my friend and the guy told me I could play like Stevie Wonder even if I didn’t know how to play, I was thinking about Jesse Saunders. I said “Oh wow this must be what Jesse Saunders uses,” and that’s what got me going. And that’s what got a lot of people going. So all of the sudden you had all these DJs in Chicago making music. Without that Jesse Saunders song, nobody would have done anything. Not out of Chicago. That was about ’83, I believe. It was equal parts Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence because Vince Lawrence’s dad had a record company [Mitchbal Records] and he talked Jesse into making a record, this is what I learned after the fact. So that’s what really got me started. I thought I could do better.

Steve “Silk” Hurley: Once I started DJing at Sauer’s, that was like the young high school crowd to college crowd, the age group was like high school to college mostly and people who had graduated from college. [Basically] when I started DJing in front of a crowd, I felt like I wanted to do something more than just play music that everybody else was playing. I wanted to have something different every time. So what originally started out as me just doing re-edits of music, which is making it sound a little bit different from, when I play it from when somebody else plays it. Like my own version, I started adding drumbeats to my stuff, and I started re-playing songs that we were looping. Like we would loop over disco records, one of which was Isaac Hayes’ “I Can’t Turn Around,” and then I ended up making my own version of that, a few different versions of that, by borrowing somebody’s drum machine and eventually I bought a keyboard.

Whenever I made any money doing anything, I always put it back into the music and equipment and things like that as opposed to spending it anywhere. Because I lived with my parents, I was able to do that if I worked a job. At some point, I did have to pay rent as I got older, but I always put my money back into my DJing and then that became putting money into my production, but I had no idea I was going to become a producer. I was just trying to make different versions of the music I was already playing and then I realized I could create my own music off the top of my head as opposed to just doing a different version of something that already existed.

Common and Steve Hurley

So I kind of evolved into a songwriter, producer, remixer, artist, and all that accidentally because I was just trying to do whatever it took to be the best DJ I could be. So there was no plan for me to be the next Quincy Jones or anything like that, even though I loved his music, and I paid attention to the label of who was producing different songs. It was really more from a DJ’s perspective of “oh wow, I like this person’s production.” I like that person’s production because I liked their records, and I knew what they did to a crowd that DJ’d for, so everything was pretty much spawning from my love of music and playing music for other people. So producing was like a natural progression. As I learned more and more about it, it happened pretty naturally.

The first time I went in the studio and I saw the big mixing board, I was kind of overwhelmed by it, but then I was talking to the engineer and asking how do you work this thing and he was like “It’s not really difficult.” He said, “I can show you how to work one channel of this board,” and he showed me where all the controls were on one channel where you would turn up the volume, you turn up the bass, you turn up the treble, you know the highs, the mids and then he showed me how the effects were on each channel. And then once I learned that he said, “If it’s 48 tracks, it’s just 48 of the same thing. So now you know the whole board.” He made it simple for me and made me understand that it wasn’t really as overwhelming as I thought it was. So from that point on, I was like I know how to work a 48-track board.

I kind of learned all of that stuff on the fly and, like I said, it all came from my love of music and the love of playing music for others and everytime I made a record it was for that purpose. It was all based on me making something to play. It was never about how much money can I make putting out a record. I had started working for the city , doing what was called an engineering technician, but all I was doing was going to quarries and getting rock samples and testing them. It was the most boring thing I ever did in my life. My first song I wrote I was in the bathroom of my job because I had some creative thoughts and I had to go somewhere to get them out and I wrote all the lyrics to “Music Is the Key” in the bathroom.

In 1985, I put out my first record, “Music is the Key,” and that was one of the demos that I had cut at home borrowing people’s drum machines. At that point I had my own keyboards. I was playing the demo version of it and people were going crazy at the parties, so I thought “I need to professionally record this before I actually put it out.” So I borrowed money from my dad, $1500, and invested with another guy named Rocky Jones to put out the first record on DJ International Records, which was “Music Is the Key.” So when I did that record, there was a guy named Keith Nunnally that was a singer that I knew. I was singing on the original demo. I wasn’t really a singer, so this was somebody that could really sing, really like a Luther Vandross. I knew about him just from him being on the house scene and I paid him to come in and sing it for me. The record went to number nine on the Billboard charts and that was the start of my music career as a producer.

When did house music become a viable career?

Steve “Silk” Hurley: Once the record [“Music Is the Key”] came out things started going well, and I started doing shows in New York, D.C., Baltimore, L.A., different places that were embracing Chicago house music. It was like the first house music to hit the Billboard dance charts in the Top 10, so it was a big deal and we actually had to rehearse shows. I was not a performer, but we put together back-up singers, dancers and the guy who was the lead singer, and I was pretty much trying to fit in even though I had never done that before. I was playing the keyboards and doing dance moves as a member of my own group called JM Silk, which was my DJ name at first.

Steve “Silk” Hurley performing in Chicago on October 9, 2008

JM Silk stood for Jackmaster Silk, only Farley Jackmaster Funk [one of the founding members of the Hot Mix 5] liked my idea and he decided to make that his name. We were roommates so there were a lot of things he did that were kind of underhanded. He was actually one of my better friends until all that stuff started happening. I guess that’s what happens in entertainment business. It was a crabs in the barrel type of thing. I guess people get worried about another person going further than them because they want to keep the edge, so that was how he was trying to keep the edge. He took my name, and he took “I Can’t Turn Around”; he got his version out before I could get mine out, which was “Love Can’t Turn Around.”

“Love Can’t Turn Around” did well overseas, but then I put out “Jack Your Body,” and it went number one in the U.K. for like two weeks. But my “Can’t Turn Around” looked like I was copying him, even though I had done mine like three or four years previously. Only people in Chicago knew about my version coming out first, so, to the rest of the world, it looked like I was taking his idea and doing something with it.

Marshall Jefferson performs at Tresor, during the club’s tenth birthday celebrations, circa 2001 in Berlin, Germany

Marshall Jefferson: Ron Hardy played [“Move Your Body”] six times in a row, when he first heard it and Frankie played it fifteen times in a night. When “Move Your Body” came out [1986 was its official release], I was performing a solid three years every weekend. One weekend, I had like nine gigs. But that wasn’t DJing; that was performing. Performances would be like between 15–30 minutes. I was performing mostly in New York and Europe, Hearthrob where Lil Louie Vega was spinning, 1018 where Roman Ricardo was playing, Roseland where my favorite DJ, Baby J [was spinning], the Paradise Garage obviously, Zanzibar with Tony Humphries, Red Parrot with Gail “Sky” King, just loads of clubs, Sensations in New Jersey. The first time I came over to London was for the first house music tour of Europe [around 1987], there was me and the “Move Your Body” guys, Curtis McClain and Rudy Forbes, there was Adonis, Larry Heard and Robert Owens who were Fingers Inc, there was Full House, which was Kevin Irving and Danny Wilson, and that was the very first house music tour of Europe. Steve’s song “Jack Your Body” triggered the whole thing because it went number one on the pop charts in England and that got us all out there on tour.

Frankie Knuckles in the DJ booth at Crobar in Miami during the opening night party in 2003

For those who long for the real, both Hurley and Jefferson remain active in the booth. For Jefferson, that has meant spinning it out all over Europe, even sharing a last New Year’s Eve gig with Knuckles in Manchester to bring in 2014, just months before Knuckles passed. Hurley is still a fixture in Chicago, bringing out vintage house heads that don’t fit today’s EDM profile but remember this music as the Motown of their youth. For while we can’t recapture the past, we can surely pay homage to those who created it.

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Top photo by Paul Natkin: Steve “Silk” Hurley and Marshall Jefferson

About Marshall Jefferson: http://bit.ly/1BpfkLu • Booking: http://bit.ly/1DEg2ni

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