Chicago Spotlight: Craig Loftis-A Pioneer with A Purpose

This week it was my pleasure to interview, House Pioneer, Craig Loftis.  Craig is a jack of all trades; DJ, remixer, Designer, Sound Engineer and now a club owner. Having been part of the House Scene from inception, he carries a wealth of knowledge, history and memories.   I recently had a moment to speak with him about his career, his new venture as club owner, house music and its future.

Black Widow:  For those who may not know, can you share with me some of your history and career in this house scene. You’ve been around for quite a while. How did it all start for you?

Craig Loftis:   It all started about 36 years ago.  I met Frankie Knuckles when I was 15 years old. You know what? It actually started before then.   I was in a group, back in the Sauer days, I had a group called Vertigo which consisted of myself, Steve Moore and Eric Bradshaw. We used to throw parties at Sauer’s and the Loft and we hired the guys now known as The Chosen Few to do our parties.  At age 15, my friends and I would sneak out the house and go to the Warehouse.  (Laughing) I would tell my mom I was spending the night at Kevin’s house and he’d tell his mom he was spending the night at my house but in actuality we would be downtown at the Warehouse.  We used to have a crazy system where we would all get together; Me, Laurie, Kevin, and Kim and we would pay for one person to go in and then that person would come down and we’d trace the ink mark that they used to stamp on everyone’s hand and then mess your clothes up and run around the block and get all sweaty, then go up the stairs, like you had been inside already! (Laughter)

Black Widow: You guys had a system huh? (Laughter)

Craig Loftis:    LOL…yeah you know we did! Hearing Frankie Knuckles at 206 was just phenomenal. I thank God for the history that I do have.  It’s just unbelievable.  I remember the first night “Martin Circus” was ever played, the first night “Let’s Go Dancing”, Nancy Martin “Can’t Believe”. I remember the first time these songs were ever heard.

Black Widow:  This is so fascinating to me because I wasn’t part of any of that.  I was literally a child during this time so to hear it first hand from those who were there, paints a great picture for me. I’m not one of those people that say, “I was there”! {Collective Laughter}

Craig Loftis:    It was crazy. That’s the difference you know….here’s the problem…a lot of today’s DJs don’t really respect the old heads and they think the old heads don’t respect them. That’s not true. The old heads respect talent.  I can speak for myself, if you are gifted, I don’t care how old you are.  When I look for a DJ, I’m looking for someone who has a unique gift and can stand out.  I’ll give you a perfect example, if you gave Alan (King), Me, Wayne (Williams), and Andre (Hatchett) the same records, each one of us would deliver them differently.

Black Widow: Yes!

Craig Loftis:    See, that’s talent. We don’t have to copy each other to do what we do. With the advent of technology, it’s made it easier for anyone to say “I’m a DJ”...

Black Widow: ...Without studying the actual craft of DJ’ing?

Craig Loftis:    Exactly!  Without studying the craft at all or the records.  Half the DJs out here today, the ones who don’t know anything about vinyl, don’t even realize that, on a lot of the old disco classics, there were hidden messages scratched into the vinyl.   Many don’t even know that.  When I used to press my records up, I’d put little messages on them. They were actually scratched in the vinyl and that’s actually pressed into every record that went out. We used to actually collect vinyl just to see the little story within the record. It might be, “I love so and so” or whatever.  There are so many DJs out here today that don’t know anything or very little about that. You have to know your music and the records you are playing.

Black Widow:   Wow! 

FB_IMG_1505383304769.jpg

Craig Loftis:  Yeah.  You know it’s really about learning your craft.  You have to study your craft. You can’t let technology take the place of what you’re doing.   There’s nothing wrong with technology. It’s designed to enhance your craft but you have to have a craft to enhance first.

Black Widow: Exactly.

Craig Loftis:   Yeah,  but getting back to my history,   I was hanging out at age 15.   I think one of the reasons our parties were so successful back then was because we were trying to imitate and bring back to the high school students what we were experiencing at the Warehouse.  That’s what made it so different.  You know the DJs back then, the ones people are claiming won’t let go of the reigns, you know they earned it.   The house music scene was so big here; we would pack out places like the Armory and Navy Pier, back when it was a big event hall.  We were able to do things like that; have giant events and fill them up. It developed a culture.  House Music saved a lot of people’s lives.  There were a lot of young people going through that tough period of adolescence and they found a group of people that they could identify with and what brought us together was the music. It didn’t matter if you were gay, straight, black; white…whatever…it brought everyone together.

Black Widow:  A Community

Craig Loftis:    Yes, exactly.  You know there’s so much negativity floating around and the “who started this” and “who was the first” type of conversations….it doesn’t really matter.  We are all gifted in what we do so there’s no need lay claim to everything all the time. 

Black Widow: With your history and knowledge, I’m sure you could be boastful if you wanted.

Craig Loftis:    Yeah I guess I could but that’s not what I’m about. It’s just not who I am.  I’m a firm believer in letting my craft and my talent speak for itself.  People have told me I’m one of the unsung members of house because I’ve always been behind the scenes.   You know after going through the house scene and all of that, I went to school, Columbia College, and got my degree.  I have a degree in sound engineering and art and entertainment management.

Black Widow: I had no idea. 

Craig Loftis:    Yeah and it was really pushed by Frankie (Knuckles).  Frankie wanted to make sure I got my papers and when we became friends, I started working for him. I was his personal engineer for about 8 years, and then as soon as I graduated, I became chief engineer for DJ International Records, which at the time was the largest independent label in Chicago.   

Black Widow: That sounds like a dream job for someone right out of college in your field.

Craig Loftis:    It was! I got that job through my friend, Joe Smooth. That was right when House was at its peak.  You know back then it was a battle. Believe it or not, back then house was right up there with hip hop.   We had just as much radio time….everything. I don’t know what happened but something happened and things shifted towards hip hop.  At that time, we were doing a lot of “Hip House”, which was big then.  I also think “hip house” is gonna make a resurgence tho.

Black Widow: Well you can see it happening now in some hip hop, with certain artists sampling house music. 

Craig Loftis:    It’s crazy! I mean Kanye West just used “Mysteries of Love”.

Black Widow:  Right and Drake just had Black Coffee on his album

Craig Loftis:    Half of Drake’s album is 4-4! You can see it happening.   You know if we could just get rid of all the BS and when it comes to business, and actually just handle our business instead of the bickering and fighting; we would be doing it big right now.  We are so busy arguing and bickering back and forth while the rest of the world is laying claim to the music and genre we created.  It’s crazy.

Black Widow:  That’s a sad and unfortunate truth! 

Craig Loftis:    I’ve been blessed in this game.  I’ve been to every club in NYC in its heyday; I’ve met Larry Levan, hung out at the Paradise garage with Frankie and sat in the booth with Andy Warhol…

FB_IMG_1505383190089.jpg

Black Widow: Man…that time! I can’t imagine the stories and experiences. I’m fascinated with that era, with Andy Warhol and Basquiat…that’s so dope!

Craig Loftis:    I know! It’s crazy. My history goes far back.  I was managing the Powerplant at age 19. First I was the sound engineer for Frankie, I redid the sound system for the Powerplant right out of college, and then I became one of the floor managers, then a general manager.   Being around such creative people at such a young age was just….priceless.

Black Widow: When people talk about the history of house, what does it mean for you personally?

Craig Loftis:    Well this is just my opinion….just my story.  House Music was an offspring of disco which is what Frankie was playing, disco and Euro Classics, at the Warehouse.  You had Chicago DJs that were not musicians but could program the hell out of a drum machine.  So they would hear songs and try to imitate the songs they were listening to but it had minimal cords but had a hellafied drum track, thus the original sound of house music was born. Simple basslines, simple keys but driving drum tracks…BOOM…you got house music! Now over the years, it’s evolved into a full music genre with musicians and everything like that but it’s conception, to me was Chicago DJs trying to imitate they heard Frankie play at the warehouse.

Black Widow: I could talk to you all day about the history of House Music but I have to fast forward to the present.   Club EXP!  What made you decide to open a club and what was the intention behind it?

Craig Loftis:    Club EXP is not just an event hall. That’s not what it is and it’s not what it’s all about.  If you notice on the flyers, it always says “Backdoor Music Mentoring, Inc.”  What Club EXP is and what it’s going to be, is a mentoring program for at risk teens. We will be teaching them about music industry as well.  That’s what the other side of the club is for. The actual space we party in now is our fundraising hall.  Club EXP allows us to raise the funds for the mentoring program.

Black widow: That’s awesome! Parties with a purpose! I love it! 

Craig Loftis:    Yes, I’ve already done some things in community. As a matter of fact our first event at EXP was community based.  It was the Police “meeting the neighborhood”.   We had an event to bridge the communication between residents and police in the 3rd district.   I’ve been working with the commander and sergeants in this district. We have a few things lined up in t eh future that are going to be community based.  It’s not just a party place, it’s about community.  That’s what EXP is all about, it’s an experience! Hence the name! (Laughter). 

Black Widow: I noticed when I was there how beautiful the space is. It’s wonderfully decorated.  You seemed very intentional with how you chose to decorate the space. 

Craig Loftis:    Yes, each room is meant to be an experience.  My other company is CSL Designs. I design furniture for nightclubs.  I’ve designed furniture for half the nightclubs in this city.  I also had the teens that are part of this program who know how to design, work on the furniture.  I’ve been designing furniture for clubs for over 13 years.  Club EXP was a chance for me to showcase our skills and design in our own space.   What you see now is just a shell…I have so much more to come in the space. I wanted a transition at every room you go in at the venue.

Black Widow: It’s been a lot of talk, especially now, with so many clubs closing and so many of us losing treasured party places, the need for us to own our own spaces.

FB_IMG_1505383282834.jpg

Craig Loftis:    Exactly! EXP is something I felt was needed. House Music needs to be experienced not heard.  That’s why I was adamant about the sound system. It had to deliver in a way where people can experience a track.   People used to have an experience with the music that stuck with them. It creates those memories.   That's what I want to deliver at EXP…a complete musical experience.

Black Widow: How do you decide who you want to play at EXP?

Craig Loftis:   I’m very selective about who plays at EXP. I’m not saying that in a boastful way but I want people who really believe in what they do. I get a lot of people hitting me up asking me to play and when I can hook them up. It’s not that kind of club.  It’s not that kind of space. You have to earn the right to be there. 

Black Widow: So there’s no “pay to play” at EXP? (Laughter)

Craig Loftis:    Oh no…Definitely no. The way you pay is to put some time into your craft.

Black Widow:  What does the future hold for you?

Craig Loftis:   You know I have a lot of stuff planned right now. I’m all about unity and making this thing happen.  I’m always putting out records and remixing. Joe Smooth and I started a remixing company 6 years ago. Our very first client was Frankie Knuckles and when he came to us we were like, what do you need us for? You’re Frankie knuckles! LOL

Black Widow:  You’ve talked about your vision for the club and now after speaking with you, I realize your vision is multi-dimensional. It’s not just about partying. I love how you are tying in music and community. I love the name “Experience” because that’s really what we are chasing in this scene….those priceless experiences.

Craig Loftis:    Yes it really is about unity and community. That’s why I’m big on the membership right now.

FB_IMG_1505383401643.jpg

Black Widow: Yes, can you talk more about that and why you wanted a membership?

Craig Loftis:    The reason there is a membership, is because sooner or later, EXP may become a private club.  It’s also a means of communication as well. Like I said there is much more in store for EXP and I’ll just say this…MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES.

Black Widow: How can someone become a member?

Craig Loftis:    Right now, you can sign up when you come to the parties.  At this point membership is free but it won’t always be that way. We will start charging soon, that's why I want people to sign up now.   I really like the members so far because they bring the vibe I want in. 

Black Widow: What do you want a potential patron to know about EXP?

Craig Loftis:    I want them to know that EXP is the best looking, most comfortable club that they will experience on the south side of Chicago. We’ve covered every detail and I’m not even finished yet.

Black Widow:   EXP has a very underground feel to it while still being very chic and modern. How do you balance staying true to those underground roots while still staying on top of current trends?

Craig Loftis:   It’s not hard actually. My roots are so underground; it’s second nature to me.  Because I have a strong background and history, I’m able to repeat things from my history that may be brand new to some of my patrons. I want patrons to know they are part of this community and feel appreciated.

Black Widow:  I have to say when I saw the space, I was pleased. You really took time to think about all of it. It’s not just about the space, or the DJs that play or the bar, it’s all of it. It all matters and you can tell this is a space for dancers!  You have plenty of room for dancers to get out there and do their thing. How the club is set up is very intentional. 

Craig Loftis:    Right!    I’m not just taking your money, it’s not just a liquor bar;  here you are family.  It’s about having a total experience. It’s about all of it, every last bit of it down to how the person greets you when you first walk in the door. It’s about the members and who is coming into this space and the energy they bring.  It’s not a bunch of people saying, “Well I don’t want to hear this and I just want to hear that”; you are going to hear some of everything in my club,  and as a dancer, I need you to be receptive and open to that. 

Black Widow: I have no doubt!  I’m looking forward to coming on Saturday and will definitely be there early! Good Luck and continued success to you. Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Craig Loftis:  It was my pleasure! Looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Club EXP is located at 7313 S. Cottage Grove.  Click the flyer to find their Facebook page with additional information and definitely make time to come out to their next event, happening Saturday, September 16 featuring DJs, Ron Carroll, Craig Loftis and an Opening set by Elbert Phillips.

Until next time,

See you on a dance floor

Black Widow

1 Comment

Black Widow

D.Sanders, a Chicago native, is a devoted mother, blogger and writer who is passionate about her family, friends, women's rights, living authentically and telling her story.   She is also a spoken word recording artist under the name, Black Widow. She has been writing and blogging for over 15 years providing commentary and expressing thought on life, love and relationships. Her artistry can be heard on two house music singles, “Rough”, and “Gruv Me” released by Grammy Nominated Producer and CEO of T’s Box Records & T’s Crates, Terry Hunter under the production of Mike Dunn and Dee Jay Alicia. . Both singles reached #1 on Traxsource’s Afrohouse and charted top ten overall as well reaching the top ten in their year of release.  She splits her time blogging about the Chicago Dance Music Scene on www.blkwidowmusic.com and on her book’s website, www.thesumofmanythings.com.  She is excited about her debut book, The Sum of Many Things, scheduled for release in June 2017.   She wears many hats but refuses to be placed in a box.  She believes that women are "The Sum of Many Things".  Embracing all of her roles as a woman, she firmly believes in breaking free of preconceived notions of womanhood.   She believes it is her mission to define her own life experience, femininity and sexuality and not have it defined by society.  She openly shares her story with hopes that women understand their worth, power and place in this world.