Chosen Few House Picnic occurred this past 4th of July weekend, as it has every year for the past 27. A celebration in the city House music was born in, you won’t find a better vibe around. Warm beats and warmer weather each time, Chosen Few House Picnic offers an an amazing moment in community and music annually, without fail.
Wayne Williams is the founder of the Chosen Few DJs, and the Chosen Few House Picnic. For 27 years now the show has gone on. Williams founded the Chosen Few DJs as a teenager in 1975, consisting of him and 4 other Chicago DJs: Alan King, Jesse Saunders, Andre Hatchett, Tony Hatchett. Years later, Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn became official new members as well, making 7. The Picnic debuted in 1990.
It's this crew that Chosen Few House Picnic is named after, and it's who you'll find on the stage tearing up Jackson Park year in and year out. For Wayne Williams, his start was unique - the first straight DJ to spin the genre, right as it was being created. One of the guiding principles, and something you'll frequently hear Williams extol, is the unifying power of the genre.
“When I was 15, my classmate gave a party at a north side club. I heard disco music and the music was amazing, and I remember asking the DJ ‘where do you find this? Where do you get this music?’ He was a DJ, a gay DJ named Ron Hardy. And he told me, he said ‘you have to go to the gay clubs.’ I talked to the DJs, and that’s what I did. They told me what record stores to hit and I got it, bought it, brought it back to my peers, and the rest is history.”
From that point on, House quickly exploded in popularity. It's how Wayne brought together the Chosen Few.
"It wasn’t the commercial music of the day but it caught on like wildfire, so I had to get some more DJs to help me because I had all these gigs...that was my idea or premise behind starting the Chosen Few DJs.”
From those origins House has done the city proud, a home-woven tapestry of sound. The creators of that sound, now arguably the biggest genre in the world besides hip-hop, were largely gay, black men. Whether held in vacant buildings, warehouses, clubs, etc (the name "House" comes specifically from "The Warehouse" where Frankie Knuckles DJd), the genre offered a safe space decades before the term was popularized. This philosophy of inclusion was part and parcel to the operation. "Unity" is one of the top 5 words you'll hear at the festival, because that's the tradition it come from - one of love and survival. Says Williams,
“House music is inspirational, through that inspiration, it encourages love. Love encourages unity, to love everybody – black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Arab, Jew, whatever...gay, straight, it doesn’t matter! To love everybody, because at the end of the day we’re all one race. That’s what our group, the Chosen Few DJs, have always professed and got out there with our music…we believe in the human race and we believe in love.”
It's a sentiment Wayne feels deeply. For him, House is more than just dance music, it's way for people to communicate, express and feel. The House Picnic is a boiling point of that mentality, one stage and thousands of people all moving to local legends. Zero exclusion. Given the history, the philosophy and the success, Williams knows there's more to the Picnic than the average festival. He beams with light when asked what sets its apart.
“I’m a spiritual person, I believe in God, I’m a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ, and it never fails that every year we have beautiful weather. If you know anything about Chicago, you know that’s hard to do. Me personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence...but 27 years, and every year they says ‘it’s gonna rain’, and it never does. So yeah, I definitely feel like we have a spiritual connection with our maker when it comes to this event..”
The event has gone farther than ever expected. Its title is literal - the event began in 1990 as a family get-together, with the Chosen Few DJ's taking turns DJing at the Hatchett's (Tony & Andre) annual 4th of July family gathering. It's why, when you go to Chosen Few, you'll see one stage, but a sea of tents as far as the eye can see - families enjoying the music. sunshine and serious BBQ. Now, they estimate 45,000 per weekend. Williams isn't surprised that it gets bigger and better every year.
“House is the cousin of disco, first of all, alright?... People will never stop dancing, long as they have legs. So there’s a lot of energy in house music, people love to dance and it’s never going anywhere. There’s so many different kinds of people that are born everyday, and that’ll keep the genre going forever. I think once you experience house music, and you’re turned on by it, you’ll never leave it.”
And that's the serious truth. I missed one year since my first exposure to Chosen Few, and it won't be happening again. Being there, it's hard not to get swept up in the action, with generations of Chicagoans holding down the fort. If you had to pick out one X-factor that made the festival what it was, community would be the safe bet. Wayne Williams recognizes this, and knows that what we have here can't be found anywhere else.
“I wanna shout out all my DJ’s! Tony Hatchett, Andre Hatchett, Jesse Saunders, Mike Dunn, Terry Hunter, Allan King, Kim Parham (event director) even though she doesn’t DJ. The Chicago DJ’s as a whole, I feel like are the best DJ’s in the world. There are many talented Chicago DJ’s on all sides of town, North, South and West. They’re all greatness. That’s part of coming to this event, and that’s why we have guest DJ’s, to show off the talented, great Chicago DJ’s we have.”
That, and to dance. Why do people keep coming? BYOB, affordable? Sure. But it's simple. “The message, the energy, it’s fun, all that.”