Black music not only defines the American canon but in one form or another it has dominated global popular music for the past 100 years. As Black Americans migrated north to escape the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, Chicago became a beneficiary of, and a global platform for immense Black creativity. The Chicago jazz, blues, and gospel designed by those refugees of southern racial terror laid the groundwork for what would become the century’s most recognizable U.S. global export: rock‘n’roll.
Artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley created sounds that were ingested and re-presented by “British Invasion” bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Ultimately, those white bands became rockstars, earning much more fame and fortune than the Black originators of the music ever did.
By the late ’70s, the music industry had largely divested from Chicago, but young Black DJs wove a soundtrack across the city’s underground clubs and house parties that would eventually become known as house music. Solidifying the sound on vinyl in the mid-’80s, artists like Jesse Saunders, Vince Lawrence, Marshal Jefferson, and Larry Heard built the foundations of a global dance music phenomenon. The acid-house creations of artists like Phuture would become the sound of the U.K. rave scene, and once again Black music born in Chicago was assimilated into British culture and then re-exported to the world by superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold who‘s success eclipsed that of the sonic originators.
Today, Chicago’s role as a hub of Black musical innovation continues. Over the past decade, Chicago footwork music infiltrated London to take over the dubstep sound systems, and more recently Chicago drill has morphed into UK drill, back to the US as Brooklyn drill, and continues to ricochet globally.
Meanwhile, the diverse sonic landscape being crafted by artists like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Jamila Woods, Mick Jenkins, Smino, and others defines a genre that remains nameless but is as alive and globally influential as those that have come before. This mix I made in 2017 called “The Go” attempts to capture a bit of that scene.
In 2020, as I worked with with the City of Chicago to highlight the Year of Chicago Music, and with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago on the ChiMusic35 Challenge to determine 35 great moments in Chicago music history, the legacy of Black music in Chicago came into greater focus for me.
On May 30th I recorded this live DJ set at a pandemically empty Navy Pier in an attempt to span the arch of Chicago’s Black music history. It winds from some of the earliest jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B, up through soul, house, footwork, and new hip-hop/R&B, with the objective of blending it all into a relatively seamless mix highlighting that legacy.
Live streaming physically distanced DJ sets from home, — which I’ve been doing most Saturdays since early April—has been a unique experience, but this gig was next-level as I performed on an outdoor stage with a sound-system for nobody but 3 helpful Navy Pier staff and a Facebook Live audience of 9,000. All the while, helicopters circled overhead documenting the first night of the Chicago protests over the murder of George Floyd. It was an eerily fitting backdrop given the legacy of white supremacy’s subjugation of the Black people who had, against the odds, made the music that represents this country on the global stage.
Rhythmically Recovering Country’s Black Heritage
Wayne Marshall uncovers a rhythm that is uniquely African American and illustrates the ways in which it came out of ragtime and wove itself through jazz and blues, into country, disco, hip-hop, and continues to thread through popular music today. Ragtime Country in the Journal of Popular Music Studies ->