On Jan. 30, the walls of the Chicago History Museum ( CHM ) will reverberate as it becomes "The House that Chicago Built." The event marks the eleventh season of the museum's "Out at CHM" series of programs addressing LGBT issues. It features legendary DJ Alan King, who will not only discuss the continuing evolution of house music, but will present a live set.
King was one of the earliest members of The Chosen Few, a group at the epicenter of the genre that was born in the gay clubs of Chicago in the early '80s but has since defined dance music worldwide. King's own influence in house music has been described as "major" by his peers and producers. He is also an accomplished lawyer, aspiring writer and friend to President Obama.
King took a few moments to talk to the WCT about his two extraordinary careers and the future, not only of house music but LGBT rights.
Windy City Times: What made you want to appear at Out at CHM?
Alan King: I was really excited to hear that an influential, mainstream entity like the Chicago History Museum was willing to put some attention and resources into looking at house music history. It says a lot about how influential and important this genre of music has become the world over, and it only makes sense to recognize it here in Chicago. I'm not one who says Chicago is solely responsible for house music, but no other city in the world has put its stamp on it like Chicago. I was honored to be asked to participate.
WCT: You started as a DJ at your eighth-grade graduation party?
Alan King: Well, I really just wanted to have a party and I didn't know any DJs at this point, so I said I better put the records on myself. At the time I wasn't "mixing" by any means, but I immediately fell in love with being able to move people and get reactions from the songs I was selecting for them to dance to.
WCT: What were the early days like as a part of Chosen Few?
Alan King: Probably the Chosen Few's biggest contribution to house music in the early days is that we were the DJs who were primarily responsible for going into these largely gay underground clubs and bars and introducing the music being played there to straight kids in Chicago. Wayne Williams, who started the Chosen Few DJs in 1975, should really get most of the credit for this because he was "brave" enough as a straight kid to go into spots like the Warehouse, the Den One and the Jeffery Pub to hear this music being played by DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Mike Ezebukwu.
I followed shortly thereafter, but not a lot of our fellow straight DJs were willing to go into those environments to see and hear what was going on. So we took this music and the vibe to basement parties, high school parties, and eventually spots that would be very important in the birth and development of what came to be known as house music like the Loft, the Tree of Life, Sauer's and First Impressions.
From there it spread like wildfire across the City and eventually the world. It was an amazing time, when exciting records we now know as "classics" were coming out every week! We couldn't wait to find them and play them for our crowd, and that passion for the hottest new music still drives me and the rest of the Chosen Few DJs today.
WCT: You were there at essentially the birth of house music in Chicago. What was it like watching it spread across the United States, Europe and beyond?
Alan King: I left for college in 1981 ( where I continued to DJ ) and law school in 1985, so to some degree I watched this spread around the world from a distance. And I was amazed that my friends like Jesse Saunders, Chip E, Steve Hurley and Farley Keith were getting opportunities to DJ and perform around the world. Looking back though, it was all really a natural progression, from underground gay clubs to straight parties to mainstream radio with the Hot Mix 5 and others. The sound was too good and fresh to be stopped or contained within Chicago.
WCT: House music has been one of the most extraordinarily evolving genres of music. Do you like some of the styles we are seeing today [Swedish progressive/Netherlands]? Have you had to evolve along with it?
Alan King: I think the mutations and subgenres have been both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful that house music, in one form or another, is reaching ever-wider audiences, but it also means that a lot of people think they know what house music is and sounds like, when they may be listening to something that doesn't reflect the best or the diversity the genre has to offer. Personally, I tend to prefer house music that has more of a soulful or melodic quality to it, but I also love some banging tracks.
I guess my personal evolution has been more about leaving the old school classics behind ( which I still love ) and growing to love and appreciate the house music coming out today. A lot of DJs and others in Chicago in particular have had a hard time with that evolution. I believe you can honor and respect the past, and I do that in my DJ sets, but you can't really live in it and expect to remain relevant in today's scene. Time marches on, and there are great new house music songs coming out every day.
WCT: You left to pursue law in the early '80s. Why did you decide to go to law school rather than pursuing work as a DJ?
Alan King: A couple of things, I guess. I came from a family and academic environment where formal education was highly valued and traditional careers were expected. Plus, the path for a successful career as a DJ/producer/remixer was not yet in focus and was hard to conceptualize at that time. Guys like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and Tee Scott hadn't yet charted that course. People who now make careers in this businessâˆ'and some make a lot of money doing itâˆ'owe these guys a lot. The great thing for me now is that I've come full circle and been able resume a music career as well as my legal career.
WCT: You essentially had two lives once you got back into the music scene. Was it a challenge for you?
Alan King: Once I got back into the music scene I was really concerned about how it would be viewed by my law partners, clients, etc., so I really did try to hide it for a while and separate my two lives. That was difficult, and I'm sure your readers can relate to that! However, once I came "out" musically everyone has been very supportive and they tend to think it's pretty cool. It still has its challenges and I have to do a lot of balancing, but it's working for me right now.
WCT: What was it like at the office when your secret was out?
Alan King: I really was nervous about it. Law is such a strait-laced business and law firms tend to be very conservative and traditional. What I discovered, however, is that many of my colleagues and fellow lawyers have passions that they pursue and are dedicated to outside of work. Honestly, you almost need it to practice law for 25 years like I have!
WCT: You have developed a friendship with the president. What do you think about his stand on LGBT rights?
Alan King: I do have some personal insight on this topic, but I probably shouldn't say too much. Suffice it to say that he really is a staunch supporter of the LGBT community and LGBT rights, and I've never known him to be anything else. It's not just political for him.
WCT: As a lawyer, where do you see LGBT rights heading in the future?
Alan King: I'm personally pleased with the progress as more and more states are recognizing LGBT rights. However, I think it will continue to be a state-by-state issue. Most states will get there in due time, but I honestly don't think some states will ever get therejust as some states will never vote for a Black president of the United States.
WCT: Do you see the same-sex marriage rulings in Utah and most recently Oklahoma spreading to other states with constitutional bans or do you think this will eventually boil down to the [U.S.] Supreme Court?
Alan King: Again, I think it's going to remain largely a state-by-state issue, but these rulings do give "cover" in a good way to other judges who may be taking on these issues. Still, I think the Supreme Court will continue to punt on these questions for the foreseeable future.
WCT: Can you tell me about some of the writing work you have done? Do you still actively pursue it?
Alan King: I really love writing, and it's probably the favorite part of my work as a lawyer. Recently, I've been asked to do some writing in the music world, which has been great. A year or so ago I was asked by Hidden Beach Records in L.A. to write the liner notes accompanying a new Jill Scott remix project, and more recently I wrote the liner notes accompanying a mixed CD release for my Chosen Few brother DJ Terry Hunter, which came out on BBE Records in the U.K. This is an area where my "two lives" have merged, and I'd love to do more music writing. Writing a book is also on my bucket list.
The "Out at CHM" event with DJ Alan King is Thursday, Jan. 30, at the museum, 1601 N. Clark St. There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m. and program at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $15 for members and $20 for non-members; see https://services.chicagohistory.org/auto_choose_ga.asp?area=129.