Deep within the Romanesque fortress of Annie May Swift Hall, down a flight of stairs and through a set of heavy doors, Tim Harris got on the mic to introduce his mix. It was 1985, and his voice carried over the quiet suburbs and past the skyscrapers of the Loop. “Alright, again, new music on WNUR 89.3 with your own T. Chablis ‘till 3… actually past 3.”
A few record scratches preceded an explosion of bass, cowbells and synth, followed by a grainy sample of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The crisp snares of the Simmons Digital Clap Trap machine were layered over clave rhythms and congas, building to a swinging tempo which peaked just before Harris mixed in a dance remix of Isaac Hayes’ soulful single, “I Can’t Turn Around."
Cramped in a basement studio, sandwiched between racks of vinyl and a set of silver Technics 1200 turntables, Harris and a handful of other DJs on WNUR’s Streetbeat introduced much of the North Shore and parts of Chicago to the infectious, soulful stylings of house music. They harnessed the autonomy of the station and their connections from around the city to innovate over the airwaves and catalyze the growth of an entire genre.
WNUR launched the Soul Show in the 1970s. The show, a forerunner of Streetbeat, explored aspects of Black music from African polyrhythms to electric blues. The Soul Show was renamed Streetbeat in 1983 to refect new developments in dance music. The following year, Jesse Saunders released “On and On,” the first pressed house record, which used the Roland 808 drum machine to take groovy disco samples into unchartered territory.
Lauren Lowery, who joined Streetbeat as a Northwestern student in 1985, says these parallel timelines allowed Streetbeat to become a key incubator for house music.
“Given that there were not that many stations for DJs to play their records, we were the go-to place,” says Lowery. “If they couldn’t get themselves on WBMX, the larger station, then people came to WNUR.”
Lowery is now the co-founder and chief archivist of Chicago’s Modern Dance Music Research & Archiving Foundation, where she works to preserve and document the history of house music. Streetbeat, she says, played host to the genre’s pioneers. Jesse Saunders and Frankie Knuckles, two of the first DJs to produce Chicago house records, were interviewed on the show.
For hip-hop heads, it would be like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa or The Notorious B.I.G. strolling into the studio. Considering the musical feedback between New York and Chicago, it isn’t too much of a stretch. Frankie Knuckles, widely considered the “Godfather of House Music,” came to Chicago in 1977 from New York, where he was steeped in the disco scene emanating from Manhattan clubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage. It was here where DJ Larry Levan drew crowds with his unique sound, blending the lush instrumentals of Philadelphia Soul with the crisp, synth-laden tracks coming out of Italy and Germany.
Taking up a residency at a Near West Side club called The Warehouse, Knuckles captivated crowds with a new kind of disco. Spare and hard-edged, it was less about melody and more about a relentless thump, a steady four-on-the-floor rhythm that practically demanded that club-goers “jack,” or move their bodies into a sweaty stupor.
Chicagoans began looking in record stores for the music they played at The Warehouse, asking around for “Warehouse Music.” Eventually, the term was shortened to “house music,” now coopted by artists whose shows fill stadiums and festival grounds from Amsterdam to Ibiza.
The genre’s development in and around Chicago was not serendipitous. According to David Stovall, a professor of African American studies and educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, house music, like the disco music that preceded it, began in spaces created by and for Black and queer communities. Chicago’s social geography and political climate during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was fertile ground for the musical ingenuity that spawned house.
“It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the things that deeply influenced its spread and grounding was the hypersegregation of Chicago,” Stovall says. “It brought folks from different places – Latino folks, white folks – into these spaces that were claimed largely by Black queer folks.” House music, Stovall says, was about making space for self-affirmation.
WNUR became such a space in 1976, when the station increased its signal from 1,040 watts to 7,200 watts. The signal boost extended WNUR’s reach as far north as Glencoe and, if the wind blew right, as far south as Hyde Park. With this sweeping reach, DJs at Streetbeat could disseminate the music coming out of marginalized communities to listeners across the city. In 1979, the station instituted a policy requiring DJs to play at least 50 percent new music, establishing itself as a destination for ultra-progressive sound.
In 1983, Progressive Media Magazine named WNUR the best noncommercial radio station in the country. Three years later, Steve Nidetz, a media columnist for the Chicago Tribune called it “radio’s cutting edge.” Nidetz wrote, “the most progressive radio station in Chicago is WNUR-FM (89.3), an oasis of jazz, new-wave rock and black-oriented rap and hip-hop music that makes the rest of the local broadcast band sound stodgy.”
Streetbeat emerged out of this alternative programming boom, boasting a new “hotmixing format,” which the WNUR programming guide describes as a “strictly Chicago craze” involving a DJ who “mixes a record into another record every one and a half to two minutes.” The most popular hotmix format was on WBMX, a Chicago station specializing in soul and dance music, where a team of DJs called the Hot Mix 5 played high-energy dance mixes on Friday and Saturday nights.
House music started in a Chicago club called The Warehouse where DJ Frankie Knuckles mixed old disco hits with 4/4 tempo drum tracks and European electropop, extending and reworking the rhythm to keep the crowd dancing. Club goers began asking record stores for the music they heard at The Warehouse, so the stores started labeling crates of these new dance tracks “Warehouse Music.” This was eventually shortened to “house music.”
Tim Harris started at Northwestern in the fall of 1981, the same year the Hot Mix 5 hit the airwaves. He first heard live hotmixing at The Warehouse. By then, Frankie Knuckles had left and the venue, which had been renamed the Music Box, and hired a new DJ, Ron Hardy. Hardy played “pure, straight in-your-face house music,” Harris says, “this guy would take beat tracks and then pull the bass out, ride it up high on the treble and then bring the bass back in. These speakers were floor to ceiling; the walls would be sweating.”
Hardy took the blueprint of house and subverted it, creating a space that was darker, louder and more rebellious. He mixed punk with disco and jazz with psychedelic rock – the bass was so heavy you could hear it down the block.
As one of the first on-air personalities for Streetbeat, Harris tried to recreate this experience back in the WNUR studio, taking advantage of the station’s unique freeform format to make his mixes more eclectic. “I’d pull some James Brown from the 1960's and mix it in with some import from Italy,” Harris says. “You would never hear that on WBMX.”
Harris grew up surrounded by turntables. His father was a blues and jazz DJ, and even manned the decks at Harris’ graduation party. As a teenager, Harris attended parties at his high school where he heard Jesse Saunders’ cousin, DJ Kirk Townsend, spin an intoxicating mix of punk and funky electro. People came from all over the city to hear Townsend’s mixes reverberate between the basement and gymnasium of Roseland’s Mendel Catholic Prep High School. Harris says these formative experiences on the South Side immersed him in the same milieu that inspired Frankie Knuckles and countless other DJs and producers.
In the fall of 1983, Harris got his first show on Streetbeat with his friend Lee Cross, who spun under the name DJ Easy Lee. Harris played mostly house music, while Cross, who was from New York, brought the hip-hop sound to the studio. Harris dedicated their first show to his father. “I called my dad and told him to tune in to 89.3 and he started tearing up,” Harris says.
Cross, who eventually became a Streetbeat producer, saw his first set of turntables with his cousin’s friend out on Long Island in 1979, the same year hip-hop broke into the mainstream with the Sugarhill Gang’s illustrious hit “Rapper’s Delight.”
Cross grew up in Queens, where the early hip-hop boom was particularly resonant. There were frequently block parties in his neighborhood, where groups like the Disco Twins and Infinity Machine would set up folding tables and Cerwin-Vega “earthquake” speakers to blast hits like Chic’s “Good Times.”
In high school, Cross managed to get a bootleg tape of Grandmaster Flash from a show he did at a club called Fantasia, which was just six blocks from Cross’s house. He played it nearly a hundred times, teaching himself the mechanics of scratching and mixing.
When Cross came to Northwestern, he brought the East Coast hip-hop sound with him. In Chicago, Cross says, they didn’t even know what scratching was. Cross, who got his first show spring of his freshman year and teamed up for a show with Harris the next fall, was the first to play mixes on air. “We were definitely the architects of the format,” he says.
Cross and Harris tried to create spaces in and around campus where students could experience the sound of the electronic underground, incorporating the same fugitive tactics disco and early house DJs had used when they weren’t welcome in the clubs. In Norris’ Louis Room, they mixed music for a crowd of students until they were kicked out, usually around 1:30 in the morning. Then, they lugged all of their equipment back to the basement of the Foster-Walker Complex, where they set up 16-inch Cerwin-Vega speakers and strobe lights. Harris spun beat tracks, applying reverb to the TR-808 drum kicks and crisp snares, until the basement was empty.
Meredith “Sweet MD” Johnson joined Streetbeat in 1984, tapping into his South Side roots to bring an industrial sound to the studio. Johnson went to James E. McDade Classical Elementary School in Chatham with Chip E., an early house producer who introduced funky basslines and distorted vocals on tracks like “Time to Jack” and “It’s Dub.”
Johnson and Harris often went down to Importes, Etc., a West Loop record store where Chip E. worked the counter. The store was the first to create a section for records played in The Warehouse club, and it was Chip E. who shortened the term to “house.” Johnson worked out a deal with the owner to get discounted exclusives hot off the press, and when he and Harris walked into the store, with its white brick walls, carpeted floors and wooden vinyl shelves, they were treated with respect. “DJs were the best way for them to get their stuff out,” Harris says. “They knew we would basically put them on the map.”
Harris and Johnson leveraged their connections from around the city to keep WNUR on the scene’s pulse. Johnson was able to get a gig at a club called C.O.D. on the North Side, where he ran into Frankie Knuckles. A few weeks later, Johnson interviewed Knuckles on his show. “He didn’t have the same status that he has now, but he defnitely was seen as a pioneer,” Johnson says. “It was kind of surreal.”
One Saturday, Harris left in the middle of his Streetbeat set and drove down Lake Shore Drive to pick up Jesse Saunders from his home on 72nd and King Drive, for an interview back in WNUR’s Evanston studio. Harris left his friend Vinny Devine in charge of the mixer and the mic and managed to get back to the studio with an hour left of his show. Playing one of Saunders’ B-side tracks in the background, Harris asked about Saunders’ foray into the music industry and how he started his own label. Listeners called in to ask their own questions, engaging directly with one of the trailblazers of house music.
The expansive network and autonomy of WNUR also made it easier for Streetbeat DJs to introduce new music. “Usually DJs would have to pay for music subscriptions, but because of our connections and using the leverage of the station, we were able to get the records really at no cost,” Johnson says.
Streetbeat continues to be a destination for listeners looking for something truly left of the dial. From the ‘80s until today, the show has been a platform for amplifying the music of the marginalized. In the 1990s, Streetbeat expanded its infuence as a wellspring of underrepresented electronic music. The Strictly Jungle Show, hosted by DJ Snuggles, was the first weekly drum ‘n’ bass show in the country, and DJs Mark Farina and Derrick Carter, both Chicago community DJs at WNUR, gained international acclaim for their eclectic mixes, which fused the minimalist basslines of house with the improvised polyrhythms of funk and jazz. Streetbeat also hosted musician and producer DJ Rashad, a pioneer of Chicago footwork, a genre designed for dance battles with its hyperspeed halftime rhythms and warped samples.
John Williams, a McCormick junior and Streetbeat’s current producer, tries to keep the show rooted in this artistic environment by bringing in guests for mixes and building a strong roster of DJs from Chicago. He recently hosted Jana Rush, a local footwork producer hailed by the Chicago Tribune as a “one-of-a-kind” musician for her dynamic, meticulous style of production. Williams also facilitated The Rosebud Show on Streetbeat, hosted by Ariel Zetina, a Northwestern alum who regularly spins and curates events at renowned Chicago venues like Smart Bar and Berlin Nightclub. Zetina, Williams says, is a ringleader of sorts for a burgeoning music scene largely led by transgender people and people of color. “I think someone with that kind of influence and network is a great fit for the station,” he says.
Rachel Williams, a former Streetbeat producer and 2017 Northwestern graduate, also describes Streetbeat as a home for unconventional music and people. “When I got to WNUR, there were a lot of unique people like me,” she says. “It translates in the music as well. People who are from marginalized backgrounds feel different, and that comes through in their art.”
Rachel continues to DJ at Streetbeat, and last year, started a music label with a few of her friends from WNUR after taking classes in the music technology program. The label, Retox Records, is now getting submissions from abroad, including a release from an Argentinian techno producer and an upcoming record from a house musician based in Berlin.
Rolling up the sleeves of her Streetbeat jacket, Rachel recalled her first Streetbeat meeting, when Lauren Lowery came to speak to the group about the history of Chicago house. “It’s music that comes from marginalized groups,” Rachel says. “I’m a Black woman, and WNUR showcases that music. It’s something near and dear to my heart."