It was 25 years ago this July that someone got the idea of adding turntables to a family reunion and the Chosen Few Picnic was born.
From those humble beginnings in a field behind the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Chosen Few Picnic has grown to what’s got to be the largest Disco and Old School House Music event in the world. The party has even outgrown its Saturday slot (July 4th this year) and a series of preparties, afterparties and warm-ups at clubs throughout the city, from up north to down south, has turned Independence Day Weekend into Chosen Few Weekend for thousands of Chicagoans.
Forty thousand strong are estimated to make their way down to 63rd & Hayes every year. Anyone who has been there will tell you that the story of the festival is the story of the people – the very young and the young in spirit, the Disco refugees and Soul disciples who have made Jackson Park and the Chosen Few Picnic their spot to meet with old friends, make some new ones and groove to the greatest music in the world played by seven of the pioneers of House Music under the beautiful Chicago sky.
This year, on the 25th anniversary of the Chosen Few Picnic (as well as the 25th anniversary of their special guests, Masters at Work), I sat down with the Chosen Few’s Wayne Williams, Alan King and Terry Hunter to learn a little bit about the humble origins of the now legendary event, as well as some of the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep the party going.
Lead photo: Dawn Colquitt Anderson Photography.
If you’ve ever watched Chip E’s Chicago House documentary The Unusual Suspects, you’ll remember a short segment at the beginning introduced with the title “Before The Warehouse.” The main subject is Wayne Williams, and the story of the Chosen Few and the Chosen Few Picnic and quite a bit of Chicago House Music’s history begins here, with him.
Wayne began DJing in 1974, a career that predates House Music, Hip Hop, Italo and most of the records in your Disco collection too. Bringing the music to a straight and young audience on the Southside of Chicago, Wayne founded the Chosen Few as a DJ collective to handle all the opportunities to play that he couldn’t play himself. Of the current members, Jesse Saunders was recruited in 1977, Tony Hatchett in 1978, Alan King in 1980 and Andre Hatchett (Tony’s brother) around 1981. (Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn were invited to join in the last 9 years.)
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “You can’t wait for people to ask you to DJ. Sometimes you just have to do your own party.” —Wayne Williams[/quote]
“We played at parties all the time from 1977 to 1983 or 1984,” Wayne says. “And these were old school parties, so they started at like 11 and could go until 3 or so the next day. There was plenty of time for everyone to DJ at nights like those.
“I don’t think you understand how successful the Chosen Few were back in the day,” he adds. “We had thousands of kids at some of these parties – literally three to five thousand kids in a huge gymnasium or wherever the party was. And we did it from 1974 to 1984. That’s a lot of parties and a lot of kids coming to them over ten years.”
Photo: Eyes of Luv Photography.
THE OLD SCHOOL REUNION
By the late 1980s, however, the Chosen Few had been scattered across the country.
“I graduated from law school in 1988,” Alan King says. “I’d DJ’d through high school and college but except for the occasional party, I stopped when I entered law school in 1985. Andre of course has always been very busy. Actually, I think everyone was still DJing independently, but me less than the other guys.”
By 1990, Jesse had moved to Los Angeles, Tony was in Houston and Wayne had begun working for Jive Records. “We would come back to Chicago twice a year to visit our families for the 4th of July and Christmas, just like everyone else,” Wayne says. “When we were back in town, the first thing people would ask is, ‘Where y’all DJing at?’ People would ask us when we’d play together again and play some old school sets – the music that we were playing when it was brand new. We began to think that this might not be a bad idea…”
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “I don’t think you understand how successful the Chosen Few were back in the day. We had thousands of kids at some of these parties – literally three to five thousand kids in a huge gymnasium or wherever the party was.” —Wayne Williams [/quote]
The connection with the past wasn’t just represented by the same DJ crew, but also the entrepreneurial spirit they brought to it. “You can’t wait for people to ask you to DJ,” Wayne said to me in an interview we did back in 2007. “Sometimes you just have to do your own party.” Nobody thought in terms of waiting around for someone else to put it together, to wait for a promoter to show up with a bag of cash and someone else to handle the sound and so on. It’s that DIY self-motivation that set the Chosen Few apart, and which is still the best quality to be found in Chicago’s dance music scene today.
THE HATCHETT FAMILY AND OURS
Once the idea formed, throwing the first event was pretty simple. There was already a reunion being held by two members of the Chosen Few; they just made the “reunion” a little wider.
“What’s now known as the Chosen Few Picnic was originally the Hatchett Family Picnic,” Alan King says. “Tony and Andre would get everyone together for a barbecue behind the Museum of Science and Industry. Friends starting coming out and at some point the music became more and more the center of it.”
In the early days, the picnic attracted less than 100 people. “We’d play music but beyond that it was still about playing football or softball – back when there was still room to throw the ball around,” Alan says. “Music was sort of the backdrop to it.”
It was in the late 1990s that the Picnic became recognizable as the event it is today. “In the late 1990s it started to really take shape as a real music or DJ oriented event,” Alan says. “There were enough people to dance. And there was a major jump again in the early 2000s, both through word of mouth and when the Internet started to take off. There were more House Music sites and sites like the Deep House Page where a lot of us hung out online.”
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “In the African-American community, we’re big on ‘reunions’ and the word does have the connotation of ‘family.’ What it has grown into is the largest family reunion in the world – not just the people with us but people with each other.” —Alan King [/quote]
Wayne attributes the growth to the Chosen Few’s original fanbase. “Once the word got out, the people who used to come to our parties but were older began to come out,” he says. “We also had our own individual success and those people who were probably too young to see us back in the day would come out.
“So there are all these generations coming out to an amazing event with great music, it’s in a great spirit, it’s always fun, there’s no fighting or shooting, it’s family friendly… It was the culmination of all of it.”
“I think the nature of the Chosen Few and the talents of the people involved is part of it,” Alan says. “But also, the word “reunion” itself really sums up why it’s been a success to me. In the African-American community, we’re big on ‘reunions’ and the word does have the connotation of ‘family.’ What it has grown into is the largest family reunion in the world – not just the people with us but people with each other. You have actual family and old friends, people who went to high school together or fraternities or sororities making this a time and place they hold reunions. It’s, ‘Come into the park, bring your own food and drink, grill up and cook.’ And no other festival has that. It’s comfy, it’s safe, and you can do what you want. That’s House.”
HOW TO THROW A PARTY FOR 40,000 FRIENDS
The Chosen Few DJs don’t run the Chosen Few Picnic. The Chosen Few Picnic runs them.
“The party has been running us ever since we crossed the 5,000 people threshold,” Wayne says. “Since then the party’s been running us. Once we had enough people that we had to start passing buckets around because of different people charging us, for police and porta-potties and everything else – that’s when it started running us.”
“You know it was one of the difficult things to make people understand why we began charging [for admission],” Alan King says. “The city was actually pushing us to charge so it could be an event that they could ‘support.’ If we had money, we could afford permits and services and everything.”
Terry Hunter joined the Chosen Few in 2006 – the first new member since Andre Hatchett joined in the early 1980s – and immerses himself in the business of the Picnic every year.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “I’m proud of my city in 2015. For House Music in the city, we have the Move Your Body exhibit on the history, we have the Chosen Few dance party at Daley Plaza every month. And for the Chosen Few Picnic – I feel like they’ve gotten on board with what we’re doing.” —Terry Hunter[/quote]
“I don’t think we’re trying to ‘top’ the previous year as much as improving,” he says. “Making it better. What you have to understand is that we get one crack at this a year. That means we don’t get to try again next week or next month – we get one chance to correct something. If we don’t succeed, we have to wait a whole year to try again, and usually there’s a whole new set of corrections on top of it.
“I don’t think people know what we go through,” he adds, “and we don’t do it for ourselves. We do it for all of these people have a great experience. That’s how important it is to get it right.”
In the past, the Picnic wasn’t just a free event, but one that largely existed in the shadow of the other city festivals. All of that began to change several years ago.
“I think at the present, the city’s support has been great,” Alan says. “The picnic has been in the 5th Ward and Alderman Leslie Hairston has been a steadfast supporter and advocate.”
“Our relationship with the city has been very good,” Wayne says. “There’s the new mayor [Rahm Emanuel] and he’s been great. Now people might look at me funny when they read that – I know that might be controversial but he’s been great. He’s pro-House Music, pro-events and as far as the music goes, it’s been great.”
“You know I’m proud of my city in 2015,” Terry Hunter says. “This has been a great year for me personally, with the Grammy nomination and the NAACP award that Aretha Franklin won. For House Music in the city, we have the Move Your Body exhibit on the history, we have the Chosen Few dance party at Daley Plaza every month. And for the Chosen Few Picnic – I feel like they’ve gotten on board with what we’re doing.”
Photo by Dawn Colquitt Anderson Photography.
This year, the Chosen Few Picnic features its most ambitious line-up yet. Vocalists Stephanie Mills, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Cory Daye are joined by guest DJs Derrick Carter, Stan Zeff, Keith Fobs and Greg Gray. In addition, Louie Vega and Kenny Dope will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Chosen Few Picnic as well as Masters at Work’s own 25th anniversary.
And sometime between them all, on Saturday, July 4, the Chosen Few DJs will find a chance to play too.
“It’s been a challenge in recent years,” Alan says. “We’re up to seven DJs now that we’ve added Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn, which means seven hours of music.”
“We rotate our slots every year,” Terry adds “So one year I closed out, and the next year I’m starting at 12 or 1 o’clock. But the funny thing is that three years ago I played early and the dancefloor was already there. People were ready to party at 12 o’clock.
“I still get this combination of anxiety and excitement before I play the Picnic. I’ve played around the world for thousands of people at a time and I don’t think I’ve felt that at any other time. It’s hard to describe but it’s both of those feelings at the same time. Maybe it’s because it’s in my hometown.”
When the Chosen Few first began bringing guests in, it was mainly because none of them wanted to play really early in the late morning/early afternoon, when the crowd was more sparse. Gradually the line-up began including an array of international artists and DJs, but perhaps none more memorable than when our own Frankie Knuckles played.
“Now that was a beautiful experience,” Wayne says. “Frankie was like family to me and to Alan and to Andre – to all of us. We just loved him. The year we got him to play with us, I remember him feeling a bit of nervousness in the beginning, standing in front of all those people. But he did his thing and I remember seeing his joy on that stage – that was the ultimate for me. He was happy, we were happy – and he rocked the crowd!”
The Chosen Few Picnic is all for the people. “We’re like the people’s DJs,” Wayne once told me, and I think it’s accurate. These guys are from the era before that of the “superstar DJ,” after all. My own first experience at the Picnic was an example of this. It was the first time I met Frankie Knuckles – he just happened to be standing next to me, because back then there was no VIP, no wall between performer and participant at all. Years later, after the VIP was introduced, you could still run into Liz Torres under an umbrella, Jamie Principle leaning against a fence or Chip E. sitting under a tree. I don’t know if people can appreciate how amazing the experience is.
And yet it’s also gone far in getting some much-deserved national and international recognition for one of the city’s original DJ crews – the guys that bridged the Disco and House Music eras and are still going strong. “I’ve been doing my thing and going overseas to play for years,” Terry Hunter says. “Mike too, and Jesse. But seeing Alan and Wayne and Andre and Tony getting that recognition after this long is fantastic. I think that’s really because of the growth of the Picnic and the word spreading about who these guys are and what they meant to House Music. It’s a great platform for everybody, and it’s been one for me as well.”