Does a DJ have a responsibility to play the material he pioneered and honor the scene he came from? Or is their responsibility simply to please a crowd? If it’s the latter, is the obligation only to provide what the crowd, venue, and promoters want to hear? And what happens when all of this goes unchallenged for an entire evening?
Green Velvet, born Curtis Alan Jones, has been releasing a unique blend of house and techno since the early nineties. His earliest tracks, which he released as Cajmere, channeled the drum machine-heavy techno and acid house of eighties rave circles through Chicago house. His work as Green Velvet, on the other hand, was filtered through the Berlin sound: both mechanical and groovy, intellectual and obvious, thoroughly weird and frequently funny.
After years of heavy drinking (and a bad trip) Jones reached a turning point in the early 2000s, when he turned from party-starting hedonism to Christian themes and anti-drug anthems. In the years since, he seems to have reconciled facets of his career that often appeared to be at direct odds. But neither extreme showed up when Jones was behind the decks at Sound-Bar. We instead saw a new side: the pleasantly marketable Green Velvet determined to fill up any given club.
I arrived at Sound-Bar in late April looking forward to Green Velvet’s set, but emerged from the catalogue-decorated caricature of an Upscale Nightclub with more questions than answers. Even if you wanted a parable about how corporate influence co-opts and sterilizes underground culture, you might have thought the evening was a little on-the-nose. Still, if all you wanted was a good time, you might have had one—if you didn’t mind watching a largely white crowd listen to one of the foremost innovators in Chicago’s dance music history as he spun soulless, electro-addled house grooves.
Before I even got in the doors, I noticed a group of women—all of them dressed way better than anyone else I’d see for the rest of the night, all of them Black—get turned down by the door staff for unspecified dress code violations. It felt like an omen for the night. The bouncers barely glanced at my beyond-basic, all-black outfit, and waved me through. I paid ten dollars for a gin and tonic.
Steve Gerard’s opening set was as functional and exciting as an IKEA catalogue. Tracks went into one another so smoothly that they became indistinguishable. The crowd started to fill up, and I paid ten dollars for another gin and tonic.
When Green Velvet appeared right after midnight, there was actual excitement. One of the pits of tables set aside for bottle service had vodka brought out; there was a sparkler taped to its neck. People cheered.
The technique was there, sure, and Jones seemed both casual and capable while maneuvering between different pieces of equipment. I heard a few nifty tricks and saw some complex gestures over an equalizer. And at times, Jones pushed the sound system’s range and dynamics into high gear. His way of meandering between tracks and circling back to motifs we’d heard previously was incredible.
But something was missing. There was no old-school house, no nods to Green Velvet’s vinyl output or work as Cajmere. It was high-energy, sure, but produced to sound as perfect as possible––like a 3D-rendered map, translated into sound. The crowd was excited, but I didn’t have the heart to poll them and find out which percentage of them knew who Green Velvet was. I bought another ten-dollar gin and tonic.
The ecosystem of dance music has an extremely complicated relationship with commerce; where the money goes appears to be dictated by the whims of the ticketholders, clubs, promoters, and festivals. These are the same entities that dictate access––whether you’re let into a club, whether your music gets airplay, and ultimately, whether you have a career.
But to be clear, the evening wasn’t compromised by money; the context compromised the artist well before he got to the decks. This is a club that needs to sell a certain amount of alcohol and book enough tables to keep the phalanx of house employees paid. Green Velvet has been doing this long enough that he could play a pre-recorded mix and grin. Amidst a half-interested North Side crowd that wouldn’t know Frankie Knuckles from Skrillex, Green Velvet kept the energy up (and probably helped sell a lot of drinks). I hope he got paid handsomely.
In the midst of a dance music scene that isn’t restricted to fringe spaces and warehouses, at a time where the internet affords us a more complete history of the music Chicagoans made to bring people together, a legend taking a headlining set—and doing everything he can to be as anonymous as possible—felt like a golden opportunity wasted.
Peter McCracken is a music obsessive and newly minted Chicago resident direct from Milwaukee. He enjoys scouring the city for good food when he’s not writing. This is his first piece for the Weekly.