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BOOKS Queer scholar profiles Chicago house music
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-04-10

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When Micah E. Salkind was a teenager in Kansas, he found the music that would change his life.

"I went to raves and would hear Chicago house music," said the queer scholar, whose first book Do You Remember House? Chicago's Queer of Color Undergrounds is available from Oxford University Press. "I came through [the house music movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s] with a Chicago taste in my mouth, so I wanted to understand the relationship between Chicago and the way the music moves."

Do You Remember House? originated as Salkind's dissertation for his Ph.D. in American studies from Brown University, where he also earned undergraduate and master's degrees. The book, which Salkind described as an "academic monograph," chronicles the history of Chicago house music from its origin in the 1970s to the present, and examines the genre as a means of community for queer people of color and others who gravitate toward its sound.

"The book is … a deep dive into a musical culture's development and a close look at how people today look at the culture in incredibly different ways," Salkind said via phone from Providence, Rhode Island, where he works as an arts administrator.

Although Salkind is queer, he is also white—a fact he remained cognizant of while researching and writing.

"My approach has been [that] it's not my culture to claim or story to tell, but [I can] amplify people at the center of this culture," Salkind said.

"Through the process, I asked myself, 'Should I be doing this? Is it coming from a place to honor and uplift, or to colonize and take?'" he said. "From me, it was a process of uplifting. I still wrestle with it, but I often thought, if I don't take my privilege to write this book the way I can write it, it leaves room for someone to write about it in a way that's less ethical."

Salkind did the bulk of his research in Chicago from October 2013 to May 2014. "All I was doing was interviewing people and going out dancing," he said. Salkind conducted over 60 interviews with individuals who were pivotal to Chicago house music. "Some people can just paint a world for you. They know how to recall events in their lives and describe them in amazing detail," he said. "Other people are incredible legendary figures and to have the opportunity to interview them at all was such an honor."

He also "read about any journal article or book about dance music I could get my hands on," and utilized archival research. "Center for Black Research had about five magazines that were eventually published online, that became extremely helpful," Salkind said. "And Jacob Arnold has a blog called Gridspace. He's not a trained scholar, but Jacob is an incredible [house music] archivist and historian, and I used his resources a ton."

While living in Chicago, Salkind immersed himself in current house music culture. "I tried to go to as many places as I could, and people recommended to me," he said. "I ended up spending the most time at Queen! at Smartbar on Sunday nights, and at the Chances Dances roving parties at The Hideout, Danny's and Subterranean. I also went to Excursion and The Shrine when it was still open."

Throughout the process, Salkind gained a deeper reverence for Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy—contrasting pioneers of the genre.

"Frankie and Ron set a blueprint for the didactic nature of Chicago house music," Salkind said. "The experimental energetic thing Ron would do was a counterpart to the soulful fluidity of Frankie. You have the incredible importance of the parties Ron Hardy DJ'd, when straight people became a part of the culture and learned to live among the queer communities. Chicago has an incredibly forward-thinking sensibility as to how people party together, because [Hardy and later Knuckles] accepted everybody. Great music was the common denominator.

"Ron's life was cut so drastically short, and they both had to leave before their time," Salkind continued. ( Hardy struggled with heroin addiction and died in 1992 at age 33. Knuckles, who was openly gay, died in 2014 at age 59 from diabetes complications. ) "Imagine all the Black queer artists we would have today if they hadn't come to the plague. HIV/AIDS figures hugely into why we have that missing generation, and perhaps why [house music] hasn't been archived and celebrated as much as it should be."

While Salkind's research was funded by his graduate program, writing the book while working was a whole new challenge. "I had to sequester myself on weekends to get it done around my nine to five," he said. "My father was an academic, and I learned early that half the battle was just sitting down and putting something on the page. My dad always said, 'Don't let perfect be the enemy of done.'"

When asked why he'd chosen house music as his academic and literary focus, Salkind recalled the boy from Kansas he once was. "Everyone who does research, does 'me-search.' You're always doing work to repair something in yourself," Salkind said. "What I realized [was that] I was looking for queer ancestry in this music I related to so deeply as a teenager, when I wasn't out. Having these new connections with people who I share this music with, across generational and racial lines, was really impactful."

Salkind has thrown house parties and worked as a DJ in Providence since 2007. He's planning a New England book launch with some of the artists he interviewed, but hopes to eventually host an event in Chicago, where the subject of his studies began.

"Chicago house is part of a legacy of musical culture, a history of DIY Black entrepreneurship [and] experimentation, cross-class and interracial spaces, where all kinds of ideas could flourish," he said. "You can't have house music without Chicago."

For more about the author, visit micah-salkind.squarespace.com .


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