Chicago Spotlight: A Conversation with Duane Powell

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Duane Powell's love for music started an early age growing up in the 1970's being exposed to Chicago's rich soul music scene. His uncles were disc jockeys until the mid-80's and artists including Minnie Ripperton, The Emotions, Chaka Khan, Miki Howard, and The Staple Singers were their classmates and / or family friends. In 1985, Duane entered into the world of street promotions pounding the pavement promoting events for prominent DJs within Chicago's burgeoning house music scene starting with Lil Louis. In a five-year span, because of their Avante Garde style and presence, Duane and his crew became the go to individuals in marketing to get all of the "cool kids" to events. By 1990, Duane had done street promotions and served as marketing manager and consultant for many clubs and DJs including the historic Powerhouse. In 1998, he became an import buyer for Cargo Music Distribution and by the end of that year, an employer at one of Chicago's most legendary record stores, Dr. Wax Records. It was his 12 years there that the title of "tastemaker" really took shape by almost single-handedly breaking several artists in the market. This included Ledisi, Eric Roberson, Julie Dexter, Jill Scott, Raheem Devaughn, N'Dambi and many more.

As a promoter, he launched the SOUNDROTATION brand in 1999, further cultivating the underground soul scene in Chicago giving many of those acts their performance debuts in the market. Through this he became a fixture on the global soul scene and began speaking about his knowledge of the business on panels and workshops including The International Soul Summit (ATL), Urban Organic (Detroit), I Got Soul Conference (Dallas), Chicago Artist Resource and the Chicago Cultural Center.

As a DJ, he had a popular internet radio program on Swank Society. He has spun at and has residencies at many of the most popular venues around the city including the House of Blues, Virgin Hotel, The Promontory and Reggie's Music Club. In addition, he has opened for many heavyweights in soul music including opening for Frankie Beverly & Maze at The Taste Of Chicago and has shared the bill with many legendary DJ's and Grammy-winning producers in the dance music world including Joe Claussell, DJ Spinna, Steve "Silk" Hurley, Maurice Joshua, Josh Milan, Timmy Regisford, Ron Trent and more. Thousands of people are glued to his social media pages for his updates on music, as well as his knowledgeable tributes to the greats in music history. (Courtesy of duanepowell.com)

I had a chance to chat with Duane about his love of music and his appreciation of the culture of house music.

Black Widow:  What was your introduction to house music?

Duane Powell:   It’s weird because I came in the scene when it wasn’t called house music yet.  I knew the disco era because all of my uncles were DJs in the 70s but the moment I became active in the scene, dancing and joining dance groups, they were calling us Preppy.  This was around the time of the Hot Mix Five.  This was around 1982 or so.  You started hearing the word house music around 1985.  

Black Widow:  You mentioned having a lot of family members who were DJs. What was the music you grew up listening to? 

Duane Powell:  I had one uncle in particular who was a DJ. He loved funk music. So, every album cover they would have a big afro, or some big boots or some crazy costumes— he had it all. I remember seeing Led Zeppelin records and things of that nature. Of course, he was a huge Parliament Funkadelic fan but he also introduced me to the Grangers, Pleasure, the Whatnot’s and all kinds of underground groups. He was into it all.  My aunts were into the female soul singers and my grandparents loved the blues.   I grew up in a well-rounded musical atmosphere.  

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Black Widow:   You don’t just play music or create and promote events, you are a music historian.  Did your upbringing influence your deep love of music?

Duane Powell:  Majorly! It’s funny because when I started doing the music lecture series, it was birthed from the fact that I would always post information about artists and people would always love it.  I definitely dig into the history more than your average person. I’ve always read liner notes and things like that. That came from having family members who were DJs, collectors and music heads. Between my mom’s siblings (it’s 14 of them); there were some who went to school with Chaka Kahn, and Minnie Rippleton.  My mom was really good friends with The Emotions They used to have card parties all the time.  I was always around that.  I was quite young so I didn’t know who they were persay but I was just in that atmosphere.

Black Widow:   What was your first party experience?

Duane Powell:   My 1st time going out was to a party at Mendel. That was in ’83.  That’s when I got my first taste of hearing something on a big system and being amongst your peers and people who liked to dance. I was such a shy kid and dancing was my release. Dancing was a space where people didn’t think I was weird.  I did Mendel parties for a couple years.  It’s so funny because I would come home all exhausted, sweaty and happy and I thought I was really doing something but my sister would get us home then go out to the real party! LOL She was headed to the Box (The Music Box).  When I first went to the Music Box, I was like WOW!  This was a whole different animal. I was actually too young to get in, but because of my sister and other influences, I was able to get in at times.  I wasn’t really with my peer group because everyone was older.

Black Widow:   You were telling me previously, you were in a dance crew and promoting before DJing came into play.

Duane Powell:   Those were the days!!!   Generation 2000 wasn’t just a dance crew, we were a lifestyle crew.   Everyone in the crew couldn’t dance but we were a visual for the culture. We were those lifestyle cats.  My 1st Lil Louis party at the Ascot hotel was when I started feeling more at home because I was with my peer group.  I loved the experience at the Music Box but I wasn’t as social.   Lil Louis parties were my introduction to working in the industry.  They would have us go to different high schools and pass out his flyers and such.  Our payment was just getting into the parties for free.  We would be able to walk pass people standing in line. It was our little prestige or VIP for the moment being able to walk pass people waiting in line and just walking in. [laughter] After that, I started working  at The Reactor nightclub in the early 90s. In ’98 is when I started dealing with the business as an import music buyer at Cargo Distribution. At the end of that year, I started at Dr. Wax.

Black Widow:  Now when you say lifestyle are you talking fashion, hair…the entire house culture?

Duane Powell:  Totally! We were the freaks to the outside world but in this setting we were superstars.   We were men wearing kilts, harem pants, high top fades and all kinds of things.  It’s so funny because now a lot of the things we were wearing back then are now “on trend”.  

Black Widow:  You came into this scene as a dancer. How does it influence you now as a DJ?

Duane Powell:  My favorite DJs outside your usual favorites like Ron (Hardy), Frankie (Knuckles) are the ones who were dancers first.  After Generation 2000 dissolved, Ron Trent, DJ Rush, myself and a few others were in a crew called “Mental Problems”.  All of my favorite DJs are dancers. Dancers feel the music in a way that DJs don’t and unfortunately when I look at a lot of DJs now, they don’t get it.   At some point DJing became more about celebrity.  DJs started to play for other DJs instead of the dancers.   It was made worse when the house music scene crumbled under Mayor Daley and we stopped having dance floors and actual spaces. The dancers got lost in the shuffle of all of that.  There are DJs who don’t know how to spin for dancers because they’ve never played for a dancing audience.  They play for listeners not for an audience that’s hollering,screaming and dancing.  That definitely played a role in my DJing. I avoided DJing for a very long time.

Black Widow:  Really? Why?

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Duane Powell: I’ve been collecting music my entire life. I was the guy DJs would come to for music. I was a dancer and didn’t really want to DJ. I wanted to be on the dance floor. I definitely noticed how cutthroat the landscape of DJing was.  I didn’t want to be a part of that at all.  Ron Trent and Anthony Nicholson had a club called ESG on Broadway just south of Irving Park. They had this space in the late 90s. I met Anthony thru Ron Trent, they had me come down and DJ in the lounge room.  I was playing more acid jazz.  That was my first gig as a DJ.

Black Widow:  Did they have to talk you into it or convince you to do it?

Duane Powell:   Oh yea...they had to talk me into it.  A few friends of mine and I threw a day party in their space.  It was a Brazilian jazz themed party.  I was really into acid jazz and Brazilian rhythms at that time.   I met Anthony that night and we discovered we had similar musical tastes. He said I should come and play this music at his party. That was around 97.  The house scene then wasn’t prevalent at that time.  I had been on the scene at this point for so many years, I started to feel stagnant.  I felt out of touch and had forgotten what the feeling was.  Honestly, those who lived house culture never called themselves house. We were just music lovers, lovers of style and fashion. When people were calling us house initially it wasn’t an endearing word.  It was insinuating that you were gay or weird.   “Oh you one of those house MF’rs”.  It wasn’t a compliment. That wasn’t a title we embraced.  It put us in a box and we hated it. We didn’t listen to one style of music. That’s not what it was about. I really think, that’s what missing now. We forgot that what actually created house culture was a combination of so many different styles of music and genres.  It was Frankie’s disco era, The Chicago Soul music era, Herb Kent and our introduction to  alternative music, like The Police and Talking Heads, Italio music…it was all of those things and somehow we forgot about all of that.

Black Widow:    That’s so interesting. When I interviewed Terry Hunter, he spoke to me about how he hates the subcategorization of house music now.  What are your thoughts on the sub-genres of house music now?

Duane Powell:   Oh yea! It’s what’s keeping us lagging behind.  It’s keeping the world from really knowing what house culture is.  It allows other cities to stake claim to certain things and that’s not how this thing was formed.  Crystal waters was never considered a house artists, she was a dance artist.  Don’t get it twisted... House is a sound and a vibe. It wasn’t just a BPM.

Black Widow:  You speak about the culture quite a bit.  What is House Culture to you?

Duane Powell:    There are certain elements.   When we walked down the street, you knew who we were.  It was in our dress, our hair, it was a walk, a lingo and a language. We were ahead of the curve with style and fashion. It was a middle class invention that led poor people to middle class performance. We were wearing Willi Wear and things like that.  Your average person wasn’t wearing that.   We loved alternative groups and hanging out up north and going to Medusas. We had the motorcycle jackets, striped tights. We were the early club heads and it was very identifiable.   There were things that were unspoken too…like the way you walked into a space, the way you navigated the space, the way you honored the space. You knew how much space to give if dancers were in the circle.  It was an unspoken etiquette on the dance floor.  You could instantly tell the visitors or “house tourists” at your parties. Previous generations birthed the culture but my generation is the one that gave the culture its face.  Quite frankly, men took a lot of heat because of it too.   We were the targets of ridicule, a lot of homophobia and sometimes even violence. Some guys who weren’t part of this scene didn’t take to well to us.

Black Widow:  Interesting…How so?

Duane Powell:    It’s part of toxic hyper masculinity.  You know our culture was filled with beautiful, stylish women and men wanted to be with beautiful women. They garnered a lot of attention in their style and presentation.   So men would come to parties to holler at the ladies but may not have been lovers of the music.  The ladies weren’t there for that, they wanted to dance. That brought a lot of negativity towards men who were part of this scene. 

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When hip hop culture started to live in Chicago, the house kids became the butt of their jokes.  We were called all kinds of names and sometimes men were the ones who became the targets.   We had to go through certain bad neighborhoods and projects to get to the parties and guys would get jumped and robbed.  House was perceived as middle class so we were perceived as having some money.  We looked different and stood out and it went against the grain of what perceived masculinity was. 

Black Widow:  That’s such an interesting observation about the scene at that time.   What was your vision when you created SOUNDROTATION?

Duane Powell:     SOUNDROTATION was the name of a weekly event DJ/Producer Anthony Nicholson, club owner Joe Bryl and I threw at the Funky Buddha Lounge in the late 90’s until 2001 and it stuck with me. Being that I love so many genres of soulful music, it refers to rotation of those genres and the interweaving. Under this title I created a CD compilation series, then an internet radio show, a blog and it became my identity.

At this point, the scene was stagnant. There weren’t clubs with house culture. We wanted it to be about music. I felt like it was missing Chicago. In other places like London and Germany there was this new culture of dance music and culture happening and it wasn’t hitting our market. We created that night because we wanted to bring that here.  I would read this magazine called “Straight No Chaser” and it was my music culture bible. It would showcase all these other markets and the music they were playing.  Chicago didn’t have a voice in any of this and we created this party to create that.

I knew there was a culture of music that was progressive and killer and we should be on it, but house heads at this point were still trying to re-live what wasn’t here anymore or you had those who were moving up north because the nothing was happening south of Roosevelt. Mayor Daley shut down everything to make way for tourism.  No more partying downtown, no more parties at the Bismark…etc.  They had zoning laws and things like that to block us from having clubs on the south side.  It’s so weird because they would always block clubs on the Southside citing the fact that it was in residential areas but Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and other neighborhoods had clubs in residential areas.

I wanted my events to be progressive because that’s how my ear was trained. All my favorite DJs were progressive. Ron Hardy didn’t play disco all night; he played alternative, jazz funk just everything. He left no stone unturned.  People forget Ron Hardy was playing new music!  He incorporated it into his flavor. That was my goal.  I’ve been called eclectic as a DJ and I’m not sure what that means…

Black Widow:  Well I do. I definitely call you eclectic because you play everything.  You don’t stick with one musical style or genre.  There are some who just play all disco, or all soulful or all afro…

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Duane Powell:   OMG that is boring. I don’t like doing an event and hearing one tempo or one style all night. You can incorporate it all.  I know people who frown upon classics and I tell them don’t sleep on the power of a well-placed classic. Everything has its point in time and entry.  When you play for an audience, you have to remember the audience wants to feel like they are a part of it as well.   As much as you want to play what you want to, you can pull the crowd in with a dope classic. Then you have them, they trust you and you can now take them on the journey musically.  But if you exclude your audience…

Black Widow:   You lose them…sometimes permanently.

 Duane Powell:   Exactly.  Soundrotation is about the music, the evolution of music, and the give and take between where we are now vs where we were then.  That’s why there are so many things are associated with my brand. This culture has never been about one thing, you know?

Black Widow:  I definitely do.  What are your future plans and goals?

Duane Powell:  I haven’t figured out the travel thing just yet but I definitely want to travel more. I want to take my music lecture series to the next level. I’m excited about the buzz and attention it’s getting.  I believe that’s what’s going to stay with me thru old age. We have to keep our history alive.  We spend so much time bickering about our history instead of embracing our history.

Black Widow:  OMG! Yes…embracing, preserving, talking about it, documenting, writing it…I totally agree with you!

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Duane Powell:  We are so busy trying to exclude people from it and try to tell people about being there and not begin there.  That’s a narrative that needs to change.  Who was there and making “there” being these same 3 or 4 places. The truth is, “there” was everywhere. Your experience entering in the house scene in 95 vs someone who entered in 85 are just as valid.  People always say I was there when Jesse did this or when Ron played that or when Louis was doing this…that doesn’t mean your experience was less valid. Let’s be real, Frankie’s history didn’t end when the Powerplant closed, he continued on.  We’ve all taken this on thru the 21st century.  This thing is still living and breathing. We are still taking about it now so I can’t say someone’s experience is not as valid…it’s your experience and it’s all part of the culture. House became a thing that was lived everywhere.  When we partied at our sock hops, it’ wasn’t R&B being played it was house music. I remember Andre Hatchett and Boo Williams were DJing our parties in high school.  Those experiences were just as valid as those who partied somewhere else.  It’s all part of our history and culture.

Black Widow:  That’s a perfect place to end our interview. Thank you so much for speaking with me today!

Duane Powell:  It was my pleasure. Thank you so much!

You can find Duane Powell on the following:

https://www.duanepowell.com/

https://www.facebook.com/djduanepowell/

https://twitter.com/soundrotation?lang=en

2 Comments

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.