Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which supports creatives and their organizations citywide with business expertise and training. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.
Another part of the campaign is this Chicago Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music who are serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. First up to discuss her own personal greatest moments in Chicago music history is Lori Branch, widely credited as the first woman DJ in Chicago’s legendary house-music scene. She’s been featured in several house-music documentaries and books and has held many DJ residencies. Branch cohosts the Vintage House show on WNUR 89.3 FM and serves on the board of the Modern Dance Music Research and Archiving Foundation. She’s also a longtime public-health advocate and LGBTQ+ activist–more information is available at lorabranch.com.
This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, host, and producer for WBEZ and Vocalo and writes for DownBeat magazine.
Ayana Contreras: What’s your favorite Chicago music moment?
Lori Branch: Aside from some personal moments, what comes to mind is Chaka Khan‘s performance in 2013 at the annual gala for the Center on Halsted. My favorite performance by one of my favorite artists.
It happened by chance. You know how at galas, people stay to hear the songs they know and then start to peel off? Well, after Chaka Khan finished her famous songs, the crowd of 800 to 900 guests started to thin, until there were about 150 of us. It became a very intimate concert. A native Chicagoan, Chaka Khan invited us to come up to the stage. She took a lot of requests, and it was a huge lovefest. My brother and my friends were there. We talk about it to this day.
For a more public performance, it’s definitely Billy Branch. He’s my cousin and a popular blues player, but I swear I’m not being biased. It was at a Chicago Blues Festival. The place was packed, the sun was setting–no better place to be in the world. Billy came onstage just as it got dark, and when the spotlight shined on him in this gorgeous blue suit, the crowd just erupted. I felt so proud of Chicago and our music legacy. The blues might not have started here, but it had its own kind of birthplace in Chicago.
What do you think makes Chicago such a hotbed for creating music genres?
There’s a steady flow of new kinds of music emanating from Chicago that go global. I have opinions about why, but if push came to shove, I’d say it’s because we have the silver lining of segregation here. It fosters a kind of backlash, an artistic explosion. That’s what you do when you’re forced into a corner. We’ve seen that in a lot of genres, like rock ‘n’ roll.
Take Sister Rosetta Tharpe, another Chicago legend. She’s the godmother of creating the sound that so many people emulate. Her sound had some country roots in the south, but it really grew up in Chicago. She brought along some of the greats in rock ‘n’ roll, like Little Richard. I love her story. She came from my family church, the Church of God in Christ on 40th Street on the south side.
Chicago’s been the birthplace of so many genres of music–including house music, which I’ve been doing for a long time. That’s a Chicago institution. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Its unique, stripped-down sound emanated from the south side. I still DJ, mostly for great festivals or local events that mean something to me–like last year’s Chosen Few event and now next year’s House Music Festival in Millennium Park. v