Chicago Radio
Chicago Radio
Chicago Radio
Chicago Radio
Chicago Radio

Chicago Radio

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In 1981 a Black FM station in Chicago called WBMX began airing a new Saturday night mix show called Saturday Night Live Ain't No Jive. Its hugely popular DJs, known as the original Hot Mix 5, gave the city's burbling post-disco juice bar (underage + alcohol free bars) scene a more fully rounded sonic counterpart to its live DJ sets, codifying and changing the sound of what was being called Chicago House Music as it grew out of a DJ-oriented performance culture into one more influenced by original musical production.

Apart from the relatively small group of teens who took part in the straightened juice bar scene on the South Loop/Near South Side, and the even smaller group who managed to get into The Warehouse, most young people in Chicago got their first taste of what came to be called house music listening to the WBMX hot mixes on 102.7 FM.

Other smaller shows cropped up in the 1980s on college radio stations like WKKC and WNUR (both of which used the low-power 89.3 band on the FM dial), but the
Saturday Night Live Ain't No Jive show featuring the Hot Mix 5 DJs is the most frequently mentioned touchstone for the generation of house music listeners that came of age in the first half of the decade. 

In the 1960s the Chess Brothers created their WVON Good Guys program to cater to a generation that had moved to Chicago from various regions of the mostly rural South. Michaels envisioned that the Hot Mix 5 would be a group similarly attuned to regional distinctions of the post-industrial metropolis itself. In the spring of 1981 he held an open call for mix tapes, selecting five DJs who played sounds that he imagined would suit their particular geographically distinct audiences, but who also had the capacity to share sonic space with those from beyond their neighborhoods.

As he puts it, the original Hot Mix 5 covered the deep house and punk relevant to the South Side, the "taffy" pop favored by kids in the suburbs, amateur Chicago acid and beat tracks preferred by West Siders, and the Latin freestyle popular on the North Side. Michaels didn't rely on the Hot Mixers to carry all the cultural weight of sounding Chicago's sonic diversity, however. He also hired a team of Black and Latino on-air hosts whose voices helped sustain and add texture to the station. 

WBMX Hot Mixers remediated the genre-defiant sounds of Chicago's queer of color clubs and juice bars, reducing the sonic complexity of live DJ'd performances in some ways, embellishing them in others, and all the while helping to regularize what musicologist Mark Butler calls dance music's queerly "ambiguous structuring and divergent metrical paths." These adaptations were not merely artistic; they were, perhaps primarily, commercial. In abbreviating, contracting, and restraining what was coming to be called house mixing, the Hot Mix 5 were able to promote more songs in less time because they were truncating and compressing them, playing as many as fifteen tracks in thirty minutes. While queer of color progenitors of house culture, like DJ Mike Ezebulcwu and Frankie Knuckles, whipped their audiences into a frenzy by extending beloved musical moments for as long as possible.

The Hot Mix 5 was not only a radio phenomenon, it was also a promotional entity that performed around the City. According to Sal Amato, a popular promotion with the Hot Mix 5 at the 1985 Taste of Chicago festival in the Loop showed just how massive, and massively diverse, the station's audience had become: "you're mixing 3,000 Black kids with 4,000 white kids, and 5,000 Spanish kids, not one fight, not one problem, they're just all there to listen to the music. It was like the weirdest thing you've ever seen.', That the city's ethnically and racially diverse youth could come together without incident seems to suggest that the house sound itself, its very heterogeneity, allowed audiences to congregate peacefully across boundaries of race, class, and sexual orientation. Live bookings of the Hot Mix 5 DJs reinforced their sponsor station's dominance on the airwaves and confirmed the prominence of the abbreviated musical format that the hot mixers had cultivated. By spinning hour-long, and even half-hour DJ sets all around Chicagoland, hot mixers not only tested tracks and reinforced their show's brand identity, they also helped concretize audience expectations for a particular, radio-friendly style of live house music DJing.

As such, Saturday Night Live Ain't No Jive, and its DJs, at times struggled against the perception that they were dumbing dance music down, making it pop when it should have remained more challenging and underground. Frankie "Hollywood" Rodriguez recalls a time when he asked a DJ at the bar Neo about playing "Pump up the Volume," a song by UK artist M.A.R.R.S. that eventually crossed over to radio in 1987: "I said, 'wow, that's a jam! I'm going to play it on the radio,' and . . . he said, 'please don't . . . you fuckers start playing it and it's not cool for me to play because my new wave punk fans will hear it on BMX.'" 

Zinzi Powell, a house fan who grew up in Hyde Park listening to hot mixes, says that it was the second generation of WBMX hot mixers who marked the end of the show's influence on her age cohort: "we did kind of grow away from the BMX mix stage when maybe it got a little too commercial or something like that, around about maybe the time that Julian Perez was starting to get on board." In 1985 WBMX surged past WGCI, claiming a 14 percent share of Chicago's most coveted primetime radio market.' Yet, despite having achieved this mile-stone, the station still couldn't match WGCI in terms of attracting national advertisers. This can in part be explained by the fact that WGCI was backed by Gannett Company Inc., a highly diversified, national media conglomerate that owned newspapers, television stations, and even outdoor billboards. WBMX was one of a dwindling number of Black independent radio stations with no sister stations and a relatively hard-to-sell demographic in terms of its racial heterogeneity and age. It simply couldn't compete. 

In October of 1985, Lee Michaels left WBMX over a $5,000 salary discrepancy and was immediately hired by WGCI. On his way out the door, he wooed his original Hot Mix 5 DJs to the rival station as well. The original DJs, minus Scott "Smoking" Silz, who had jumped ship months earlier for personal reasons, and Farley, who had already left to join WGCI's imitative Jackmasters show, were still riding out their contracts, so the transition proved bumpy for both stations. WBMX ultimately replaced Farley with Julian "Jumpin" Perez after he won a city-wide DJ battle, and filled the fifth slot with a rotating group that included Steve "Silk" Hurley, Frankie Knuckles, and Frankie "Hollywood" Rodriguez.

It lost Ralphi "Rockin" Rosario, Kenny "Jammin" Jason, and Mickey "Mixin" Oliver to WGCI in July of 1986. WGCI ended the Jackmasters program in February of 1987, just a few months after poaching the Hot Mix 5 DJs from WBMX. By then BMX had rebuilt its hot mix programming with a new stable of DJs including Frankie "Hollywood" Rodriguez, Bad Boy Bill, and Mike "Hitman" Wilson, all rising stars on the local house music scene. Yet even with new DJs on board, the incendiary moment had passed and audience support for the station and the format was waning. According to Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, he returned to BMX and helped to pump up its ratings before Sonderling sold it off in 1988 to WGCI PD Barry Mayo, who had started his own media conglomerate called Broadcast Partners Incorporated (BPI). Mayo fired the entire WBMX staff and flipped the station to a Black adult contemporary format.  

One of the first Chicago house music labels was started by Mike Macharello, a white, gay DJ from the far west suburbs. Macharello, inspired by radio rock DJ Captain Whammo, began his DJ career at Hollywood Disco in Hanover Park. Soon he joined several record pools (organizations that distributed music to DJs), including Dogs of War, where he became a director. When that pool folded, Macharello founded Let’s Dance in 1981. The Let’s Dance record label and magazine helped establish Chicago’s dance music industry between 1983 and 1985, before becoming Play House Records.

Macharello’s pal, DJ Duane Thamm Jr., also from the suburbs, became the label’s main producer and one of house music’s most important studio engineers and producers. Mike and Duane went on to release a few legendary singles for Let’s Dance that are still to this day considered to be the earliest House music records coming from Chicago. Mike also became a hot mixer on WBMX and WXFM before moving to WGCI, where he created his own remixes.