Now in its 31st year, the Chosen Few Picnic & Festival has been one of the largest house-music events in the world for more than a decade, but it started as an informal Fourth of July barbecue. In the late 1980s, brothers Tony and Andre Hatchett would join their family at a holiday picnic behind the Museum of Science and Industry. Tony and Andre have belonged to pivotal house-music DJ collective the Chosen Few since 1978 and 1981, respectively, and in 1990, they invited the rest of their crew–at the time Wayne Williams, Jesse Saunders, and Alan King–to spin at the Hatchett family picnic. Somewhere between 30 and 40 guests showed up.
The Chosen Few, later joined by Terry Hunter and Mike Dunn, have reconvened to DJ every Fourth of July weekend since then, building their gathering into a beloved tradition that defines summertime for thousands of Chicago house heads and their families. In 2015, President Barack Obama sent a video congratulating the crew on their festival’s 25th anniversary.
In an ordinary year, around 40,000 people–the great majority of them Black–would gather in Jackson Park for the Chosen Few Picnic. But this is far from an ordinary year. On April 24, the Chosen Few canceled their 30th-anniversary festival due to the pandemic–in their public statement, they also announced that they’d host a free virtual version on Saturday, July 4, called the Chosen Few In-House Picnic & Festival.
Chosen Few In-House Picnic & Festival
Featuring DJ Deon Cole, Byron Stingily, Carla Prather, DJ Wayne Williams, DJ Jesse Saunders, DJ Tony Hatchett, DJ Alan King, DJ Andre Hatchett, DJ Terry Hunter, and DJ Mike Dunn.
Sat 7/4, noon-9 PM, livestream at chosenfewdjs.com/live, twitch.tv/chosenfewdjs, youtube.com/user/ChosenFewDJs, or mixcloud.com/chosenfewdjs, free, all ages
Unlike the architects of most big summertime music fests, the Chosen Few are well positioned to adapt to the constraints of a digital event. This is in large part because the bill at the Chosen Few Picnic doesn’t vary much from year to year–the attraction is the community it creates as much as the performers it showcases.
At a typical Chosen Few picnic, you can spend the entire day surrounded by loved ones, eating and relaxing to the sound of classic house cuts, without ever leaving your little patch of Jackson Park to catch a glimpse of the stage. The organizers have preserved the feel of an informal family reunion even as they’ve professionalized the event (they began charging an entry fee a decade ago), and a big part of the experience is still throwing your own cookout on-site. Families, fraternities, sororities, and neighborhood dance crews haul in tents the size of Brooklyn studio apartments and huge grills made from 55-gallon steel barrels. Even though large gatherings are still a very bad idea this summer, you can create a version of that same experience in your yard or on your porch–listening to the Chosen Few DJs through a computer that you aren’t really watching isn’t all that different from hearing them from a stage that’s too far away to see.
“We’re encouraging people to go out in their backyards, go on their deck, go on the rooftop, fire up the barbecue grill, and partake in the experience that way,” says Alan King. Because Chicago moved into phase four of the state’s reopening plan last Friday, public-health guidelines now permit gatherings of up to 50 people. Even if you’re only comfortable relaxing as far as phase-three guidelines, you can still host a group of ten–and if you stay outdoors, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower. Provided you’ve got a big enough yard and a solid speaker system, you can create something similar to the very first Chosen Few Picnic.
It’d be ill-advised to duplicate too much about that first picnic, though–back then, the DJs balanced their turntables on garbage cans and powered their gear with a finicky generator. Thankfully the setup for this year’s virtual celebration is much more professional. All seven members of the Chosen Few will livestream their sets from a stage at Uptown nightclub Le Nocturne Chicago, which will be closed to the public.
“We looked at some outdoor locations too,” King says. “But we felt like, as soon as people figured out where we were–if we were outdoors–next thing you know, there’d be five or ten thousand people showing up.” Even inside a shuttered club, the collective will be taking COVID-19 precautions: limiting the number of people in the space at once, practicing social distancing, wearing masks when not performing, and sanitizing equipment between sets.
Almost two months ago, Le Nocturne hosted another big digital house-music event: a daylong livestreamed fundraiser to buy a headstone for the Springfield grave of foundational Chicago house DJ Ron Hardy, who died in 1992. Chosen Few members Andre Hatchett, Mike Dunn, Terry Hunter, and Wayne Williams were among the DJs on Le Nocturne’s stage. The digital broadcast, viewable on the club’s YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook pages, used its automated “intelligent” lighting rig and three cameras, including one providing a bird’s-eye view of the stage. The Chosen Few partnered with the Frankie Knuckles Foundation on a GoFundMe campaign that’s so far raised $8,500, more than three times the $2,500 goal.
King helped plan and produce the Hardy fundraiser. Though he didn’t perform at it, he’s comfortable livestreaming: since the arrival of the pandemic, he’s been hosting his own weekly DJ sessions on Twitch. “I’ve been doing every Saturday night, starting at eight o’clock, and really been doing like six or seven hours of livestream,” he says. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to stretch out as a DJ. Especially when you’re an old guy like me and you’ve got, like, four or five decades of music swimming around in your head.”
The lone guest DJ at this year’s Chosen Few Picnic will be comedian, actor, and screenwriter Deon Cole, who plays Charlie Telphy on Black-ish. “During the shutdown he has actually been DJing for the first time–he has a Sunday-afternoon show on Instagram Live, and it’s really caught fire,” King says. “He will tell you that he’s not a DJ at all, but he actually is–he’s not a bad one, and he’s getting better and better. He’s also close with a lot of us in the Chosen Few, so we thought it would be really cool to have him join us this year.” The Chosen Few have also invited two guest singers: Carla Prather, who’s collaborated with Poi Dog Pondering and Mr. A.L.I., and Byron Stingily, lead vocalist of 80s and 90s deep-house group Ten City.
The Chosen Few Picnic hasn’t been a seat-of-the-pants operation for ages now, but this year, for the first time in its three-decade history, it’s getting an official boost from the City of Chicago. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events began promoting the festival last week, including it in a bundle of virtual Fourth of July events sponsored by the city.
“As so many things have changed this year, the City of Chicago wanted to support the city’s July Fourth traditions and provide new ways for Chicagoans to celebrate the holiday while prioritizing health and safety,” says DCASE commissioner Mark Kelly. “When DCASE heard that the Chosen Few DJs planned to continue their commitment to the community with free online programming, we quickly decided to highlight and support this important and meaningful celebration of Chicago music.”
The Chosen Few will host the livestream from noon till 9 PM on their website (chosenfewdjs.com) as well as on their Twitch, YouTube, and Mixcloud channels. The stream is free to watch, but King says the Chosen Few will ask for donations to cover production costs and to benefit a couple charities–they haven’t decided which charities yet, but they want to find one combating COVID-19 and another focused on racial justice and criminal-justice reform. The collective will be accepting money via PayPal (paypal.me/chosenfewdjs), Cash App ($chosenfewdjs), and Venmo (@chosenfewdjs).
In recent years, one of the pieces of leveled-up equipment the Chosen Few have paid to bring to Jackson Park has been a big mobile LED screen, which often displayed images and video of attendees dancing. King says the Chosen Few will edit footage from previous picnics into the livestream, to parallel the function of that screen. He hopes those old clips will make the virtual picnic seem a little more like the real thing. “We’re gonna have things that we’re showing that will enhance the feeling,” he says. “Like we’re almost together in Jackson Park.” v