David Weathersby is a filmmaker and founder of the video production company City Vanguard, which focuses on documentaries about underrepresented color communities. In 2018, he received a Black Excellence Award for The color of art from the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, and in 2019 his documentary You excess ball won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the Black Harvest Film Festival and was named Best Film by the Chicago South Side Film Festival.
His latest film, It’s different in Chicago, explores the local stories and cultural influences of house music and hip hop as well as the relationship between these two scenes. The documentary premiered at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 as part of Black Harvest Film Festival, and it will be able to stream online via Siskel Center’s website from November 24 to December 2. More info at siskelfilmcenter.org/its-different-chicago.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
I hear many complaints that there is no industry in Chicago. I do not want to speak for musicians – I know they prefer to have industry – but I think that is one of the benefits of living here. Usually, when there is industry, they dictate something, even an independent scene. But in Chicago, you have a lot of people who just create, not to impress a certain person or to necessarily be signed – they just create.
IN It’s different in Chicago, one of the lines that really came to me was from one of the hip hop artists [Phenom]. He says, “We were not trying to be famous; we were trying to be felt.” I think that sums up a lot of Chicago artists. There are a lot of people who are just trying to get branded; they create art to create art, and they are not bound down by certain arbitrary rules or expectations. There is a lot of honesty and creativity in that, and it really needs to be documented. Many times, unfortunately, because there is no name associated with what everyone knows, these artists are ignored. But I feel like their stories are just as or even more important because they are from the grassroots. They are the daily engine of music and culture.
What is still true about house music and hip hop today is the commitment. Here in Chicago, they are very committed to the culture, and they are very committed to preserving not only the music, but also the culture around the community. And that is very important.
Many people might see it as an island and a kind of tribe, but it is also a defense. Both forums have been exploited in the past and have been used. And the people who were the true pioneers did not get credit because the music was commercialized and the narrative changed along the way. I believe that the commitment to culture is still there and still necessary. There must be a balance between reaching out to a new audience and preserving why a new audience wants to come in and experience that music.
One thing that is different now is that technology and access have really changed a lot of things. On the one hand, it has removed a lot of quote-unquote gatekeepers, but on the other hand, it has allowed people to remove the necessary steps in growth, such as. to pay-your-tax. Back then, they actually developed the artists.
Sometimes it’s not so much the best artists [who get famous], it is the artist who fits a particular narrative. Some of the best musicians in Chicago that I know do not have record contracts. It is not a shot at anyone being signed; it’s just my experience. For the past few years, I have found myself listening to more Soundcloud in my basement than to actual radio because there is that kind of purity and creativity that might not fit a narrative.
I moved to the Chicagoland area a little over 20 years ago from the Seattle area. Elsewhere I have lived or experienced, it is basically hip hop and then everything else when it comes to parties and dance music. Techno, house, electronica, dubstep – they will call it “house”, but you have noticed that it is a bit incorrectly labeled.
I grew up with hip hop, and I knew it. So when I came to Chicago and I heard people talking about house music and I started listening to it, I thought, ‘This is completely different.’ I thought it was a unique story that in Chicago – especially in the black community – the house was the most dominant and the most widespread of the two styles. The house is everywhere. One of the biggest festivals right now, The Chosen Few, attracts about 20,000 to 40,000 people a year to house music. In most places, that size audience would be for a hip hop thing. The Silver Room Block Party draws in 10,000 people. All these different events where the house is dominant – it is so unique compared to other places in the country where the house is secondary.
So I wanted to talk about what makes Chicago different. What does this one little oasis in the middle of the country do where the house is what everyone knows? That is not to say that hip-hop has no place here. I thought it was fascinating and I thought it represented not only people who are fans of the music, but a cultural thing. And it had a completely different narrative around it than hip hop. To this day, there is no drama or fight around it. The whole air is community. I found it a little strange, but not really surprising, that the house was basically ignored by mainstream media.
When a community creates something amazing and people want to be a part of it, it is very important that the people who have created it get the credit. If they are not credited, it is not they who benefit. If the honor goes somewhere else because of a mainstream media narrative, the people who actually worked and built this will not be called to the tour, they will not be called to the concert. It’s more than saying, “Oh, we want credit.” These people who bled and sweat for this culture should get what they deserve. We have seen different people come in and say that they are “the pioneers of the house”. It’s more than being offensive – it can financially affect the people who actually did it.
So the people who were pioneering for it should have their say in the narrative. If nothing else, then to time-stamp the moment. When an inaccurate narrative emerges and you try to tell the truth, you now have to go through the bad narrative, and it is very difficult to break through. For me, it is very important to document the people who were here and what really happened before the memories become blurred.
I knew that house and hip hop were sometimes complementary and sometimes confrontational. But I was surprised to find a generational distribution, for both styles are roughly equal in age. Early hip hop was built on disco beats. I talked to a lot of young rappers who were very positive about the house, but it was always with the proviso “that was what my mother listened to.” So it was very interesting to explore that generational distribution.
The kids I talked to at the beginning of the movie are all in their teens or early 20s. Their whole lives are hip hop and they do not really see house as their music. They saw it as a different generation, even though hip hop and house are the same age. And it’s because of the two different paths they went through. Hip hop kept recreating itself, and house – much of it because of what happened to it in the disco era, and how it was exploited and then thrown away – became very protected, and it created a much older crowd . But they are the same age and they have the same roots.
Another documentary I made about the house, You excess ball, the founder of it [event, Khari B.,] said: “Funk and disco had two babies. One train to New York, one train to Chicago.” Basically saying that is the difference between house and hip-hop. They are basically siblings. And I think that’s the best way to describe the two music.
I think a lot of what happened had to do with the impact that the backlash against the disco (like the Disco demolition) had on the house. I also think it has to do with the fact that New York is a much bigger media market, so when something breaks, it’s right there. Plus, in my opinion, the house culture was not so focused on [commercial success]. As one person in the movie said, “We were too busy feeling good.”
Although peace is a gift from the black society, other people do not see it as salable. Black people who are at peace with each other are not seen as salable. It’s a shame, because it creates a skewed narrative. If everything you show is negative, people will not create a balanced view of things. House has always been inclusive. It had to be – it was basically started by gay black men in the South Shore, who for security reasons could not really venture out. They had to create this kind of music and environment that was underground, and I think the heterosexual black community said, “We need that kind of peace, too.” And that was why they attracted it. Everyone needed that kind of peace and liberation.
Skewed narratives can keep people away from the black society because the only thing they have seen is the negative. It’s not to overshadow any of the negativity, but the positive is as real as the negative, and people have a right to see both before making a decision. Not just the one that gets the most clicks.
I always use the example: “Think of any kind of sports team. What happens now if they only send to the matches they lost? What would you look like on that team?” And that’s what I feel the mainstream media does [to Chicago’s Black communities]- they only show the losses and people create their narrative through it. And that’s not fair.
With this documentary I wanted to show behind the scenes, show the music and the culture and show all these people in the park [at the Chosen Few], like, “Look at all these people in the park. Look at these young kids who are completely peaceful by the cypress [at the Platform at Collaboraction Theatre Company], where they have these growth ceremonies around hip hop. “These people may live right next to you.
I want people to not only see the difference in music, but also see the differences in culture. And look, this is not just a story about different musical genres that complement each other and also bump heads, but what it’s like to be in two cultures and coexist. It’s a story of coexistence and respect. Without homogenizing, without acquiring. How do we just respect each other?
I wanted to look at how they, even though these two cultures are very different, were similar in their desires. How passionate the house people were about their music. How passionate hip-hop people were getting – as someone said, “We wanted a piece of that dance floor.” If you can not relate to anyone musically, you can relate to their passion.
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