WOODLAWN — Call it “invasion of the house heads.”
Tens of thousands of fans of Chicago’s own house music genre are expected to descend on Jackson Park Saturday for their annual “Woodstock,” better known as The Chosen Few DJs Old School Reunion Picnic.
What started off as “a picnic behind the museum,” with “a few grills and barbecues” as Saunders described it, has turned into a premier South Side music event.
“After about three, four years, we had about 500, 600 people coming,” Saunders said. “And then by 2000, we had over a thousand people coming. And by 2004, 2005, there were tens of thousands of people coming.”
Saunders, credited with putting the first house beat to vinyl in 1984, got together with his Chosen Few brethren in 1977 when he was still a student at Kenwood Academy, and the bilevel parties at Mendel Catholic high school were all the rage. Back in the day, teens danced away both in the gym and basement of what is now Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep.
But while dance crews such as The Doctors and Ebony Gents battled and dazzled party crowds with their footwork, The Chosen Few were all about moving the crowd through music.
“When I came in, that’s when we became a real working DJ crew,” said Saunders, who grew up in the Park Manor neighborhood and attended nearby St. Columbanus grammar school. “We really got out and started making things happen.”
Wayne Williams, also known as R. Kelly’s DJ and now senior VP of A&R for RCA records, founded the crew, but two of the founding members dropped out, Saunders said.
“Tony Hatchett, I think joined us in ’78 or ‘79, and Alan [King] joined in ’79, ’80, and Andre [Hatchett] joined in, I think it was ‘81,” said Saunders.
"Terry [Hunter] joined the crew six or seven years ago, and Mike Dunn was brought in last year," Saunders said, rounding out the current Chosen lineup.
These days, Saunders said, about half of the crew have day jobs and only DJ occasionally, while he, Hunter and Dunn travel worldwide, spreading the gospel of house.
And while the picnic started as a reunion of the Chosen, who live in cities across the country (for now, Saunders is based in Las Vegas), it’s clear from crowds that now the picnic is everybody’s reunion.
Frats and sororities, Chicago high school alumni, house heads from the old after-hours Warehouse club (known as the birthplace of house) and lovers of the music from around the city mark their calendars in anticipation of its biggest house party.
But with the party’s growth have come complaints, specifically a $20 admission for what used to be a free event.
What many of those partygoing complainers don’t know, Saunders said, was that what was “free” to them back when the reunion started, “We paid for out of our own pockets.”
“We actually almost didn’t do it about four or five years ago because the city decided it wanted to charge us ridiculous amounts of money for permits,” Saunders said. “When they hit us with a bill that was like 10 times more than what we were accustomed to paying, we were like, ‘How are we gonna do that?' "
Of the admission fee, Saunders said: “If you have an inkling of what it takes to put something of this magnitude on, $20 is nothing.”
Judging from the “sold-out” status of the ticket packages that top out at $1,000-plus, many house music fans agree.
But for all the work involved, it’s clear the picnic is a labor of love for Saunders that he isn’t abandoning anytime soon.
Asked what keeps him coming back every Fourth of July weekend, he replied simply: “It’s something that we created.”
It’s obvious from talking to Saunders, an innovator who helped spark a musical genre by putting a twist on disco, that consistency is just as important as the ability to shake things up.
He gives props to artists who come up with something new. Justin Bieber and Rihanna he said “are out there taking chances” whereas a lot of artists and producers “are trying to be safe.” But he dismisses those one-hit wonders who don’t innovate consistently.
It’s that consistency, he said, that the house music picnic celebrates.
“There are very few styles of music that are constant, and house is one of them. When you hear house you know it's house. No matter what twists you put on it, or where you take it, it’s still house," he said.
"Traditional house as we know it, not disco, as a lot of people in Chicago want to think of it as, I mean real traditional house music, has always been the foundation for everything else,” including the current electronic dance music explosion, Saunders said.
He calls the Jackson Park house party “a celebration of the origins, and the fact that 30-something-odd years later, we’re still doing it.”