Lora Branch (aka DJ Lori Branch), is a Chicago native with over 34 years of experience as a local artist, DJ and public health advocate. Lori has been featured in the film, The Unusual Suspects: Once Upon a Time in House Music, and has the honor and distinction of being the first female DJ in Chicago’s historic Dance/House music scene.
Lora has held DJ residences in numerous Chicago venues and has co-produced music for several independent film and television projects. She is also the writer and creator of several public health training videos and public services announcements, the award winning series Kevin’s Room and the recently released documentary 40th: The History of Roberts Temple. Lora is also a co-host the Northwestern University (WNUR) radio program Street Beat in connection with the Chicago Dance Music Archive Project. In 2014 she was inducted into the Chosen Few’s House Music Hall of Fame named for the legendary Frankie Knuckles.
In 2019, Lora was selected as one of the guest DJs for this year’s Chosen Few Festival and Picnic. As part of my Chosen Few Festival Blog Series, I had a chance to chat with Lora about her career, her work as an advocate and playing this year’s festival.
Black Widow: What was your introduction to house music and what made you want to become a DJ?
Lori Branch: I attended Lindbloom High School and that was around the time Disco and Dance Music existed in places like the Warehouse and Paradise Garage. It was before we called it “House Music”. I was hanging around a bunch of closeted gay guys that encouraged me to come to the Warehouse to hear some music. They said this was where it happened! We went and it was magic just like people describe. It was just one of those places where you experienced something you’ve never felt before. It was all the right things at the right time. My friends and I formed a social club, called “Vertigo”. Vertigo was just one of the many social clubs/crews that were around at the time. There was the “Rude Boys”, “The Doctors”, “The Chosen Few”, etc. There were tons of them and they would throw parties for high schoolers, typically from certain high schools, like Lindbloom, Whitney Young, Hyde Park, Kenwood and a few Catholic Schools. Those were schools that drew similar crowds. Vertigo was part of that. In the summer of 1980, I joined the crew as a DJ. My friend, Craig Loftis and I actually learned how to DJ together. We learned from Jose (Louie) Gomez. He showed us the ropes. We bought equipment from the money we made from parties and it kind of just grew from there. I DJ’d with them and was starting to branch out on my own.
Black Widow: I assume you had to learn how to shop for music as well?
Lori Branch: Oh of course! You had to! There was no downloading, you had to get your own or borrow it. It was limited amounts of the music, so it was imperative that you spent quite a bit of time in the record stores looking for music. We would go to Imports, Gramaphone, The Wax Traxed and Used Record Store on the west side…we would go to different places looking for music. We wanted to collect what we heard at the Warehouse. There was a bridge between what was happening at the Warehouse and what was happening at the teen parties. DJs would go to the Warehouse, listen and then go find that music and bring it and play it at the teen parties.
Black Widow: What was it about the art of Dj'ing that drew you to the craft?
Lori Branch: I always had an interest in it. I would play “DJ” at home. I have a huge family and my brother is a musician and we would play “DJ” at home quite a bit. I have a deep affection for dance music. It just touches my spirit in a way that I hadn’t experienced before going to the Warehouse. I knew I wanted to do this. I was inspired by Eric Bradshaw who told me I should do this. He said you should be our DJ, there are no other girls doing this.
Black Widow: How do you feel when you hear the term “Lady DJ” or “Female DJ”?
Lori Branch: It’s a double edged sword. There are advantages and disadvantages. I don’t mind it and I don’t correct people when they say things like, “You’re my favorite Lady DJ or Female DJ”. I take it as a compliment but I do feel like it’s a characterization. It’s like calling you a “Black Writer” or a “Black Female Writer”… you’re a Writer, you know? It is as if you are at the kids table of DJs but thankfully it’s changed a lot over the years. I understand why some embrace and honestly, I think I had some advantages because of it.
Black Widow: Really? How So?
Lori Branch: Wayne Williams would always say to me, we got to get you out there. He was the first to say, let’s do a Female battle of the DJs. There were other guys who were so supportive of me as a DJ. Being a woman who was respected for her craft by some of the guys, helped me…
Black Widow: …it set you apart?
Lori Branch: Yes very much so. I still look at flyers now and see 10 DJs and not one of them is a woman and I’m like really? You can’t have one lady DJ? Especially now, we have so many amazing female DJs all over the world, there’s no reason to have 10 DJs on a party and not one is a woman. That makes no sense to me.
Black Widow: How does your work as a HIV/Aids Advocate intersect with your work as a DJ?
Lori Branch: My entire professional career has been focused on social justice and public health so to have that intersect with my DJ career is fantastic. I’ve always tried to figure out ways to be creative when delivering messages. I’m an artist so I’m always thinking of how I bring that to every element of my life. I’ve found that I can do that in many different ways. One of my other loves is visual production. I’ve done a lot of public service announcements, movies and documentaries and I collaborate and insert house music in those settings. It’s also a platform to cross pollinate. I can talk about how devastating HIV has been especially within the artistic community. When I’m DJ'ing, I try to find ways to intersect as well, like my radio show on WNUR. We talk about social justice and how illness impacts our communities. We talk about a lot of things.
Black Widow: Coming up in a time when not much was known about HIV/Aids had to be extremely impactful.
Lori Branch: We lost so many people. Honestly, I’ve lost almost all of my close friends from that period. Out of 10 guys that I was close with 8 of them are no longer here. These were the faces you would see if you were watching a house music documentary. There were so many young, beautiful people just gone. They were a central part of this culture. They are the reason we have this culture. It was a lot of loss but it empowered me and others to keep going and to keep fighting.
Black Widow: You have a documentary about a young gay man named “Kevin’s Room”. Can you tell me more about your motivation behind creating that?
Lori Branch: This was a series on WCIU and UPN. It was a film series that focused on a group of black gay men dealing with life. I wanted to give form to a community that had been flatly characterized for so long. That diminishing of their humanity helps contribute to so many conditions. If I feel invisible or diminished, If I don’t’ have a sense of who I am, if I don’t have anyone to affirm me and if I don’t see examples of that, then why would I think I’m worth anything? You have these huge rates of depression and suicide and one way to combat that is to create images and to have presence. That documentary and some of my other work is my attempt to do just that. It was a 1st during that time to see fully flushed out characters of black gay men living, loving and having families and such with the stereotypes. Most recently, I’ve completed a documentary on my family’s church where they had Emmett Till’s funeral.
Black Widow: Your career has spanned decades. What do you think are the keys to having success and longevity in this scene?
Lori Branch: You cannot take yourself too seriously! You have to be kind to people. That’s going to give you a lot of opportunities, sometimes more than you can handle. I get more opportunities than I’m able to fulfill and I’d like to think that is because of the relationships I’ve cultivated over my career. You should be generous, nonjudgmental and avoid burning bridges. We have to be thoughtful about how we embrace one another and that goes a long way. I also took a break for a while in the late 80s to finish college and that helped too. When I came back I had a new energy. It doesn’t hurt to take a break every now and then, to refocus and refresh.
Black Widow: I remember speaking with Jamie 3:26 and he said, “Just be cool”! [laughter]
Lori Branch: That’s really it. If you look on social media, the ones who are “just cool”, who are supportive and loving, they are very busy.
Black Widow: Too busy for the nonsense!
Lori Branch: Exactly! [Laughter]
Black Widow: So how do you feel about playing this year at the Chosen Few Festival and Picnic?
Lori Branch: I’m super excited! I was thrilled to get the invitation to play this year. I’ve done parties before around the picnic and I DJ’d the picnic 10 years ago but it’s so much bigger now. I always love the opportunity to be on a stage with all of the people I’ve come up with. It always feels like a homecoming or reunion. How can you not be excited about that? It’s a lot of fun!
Black Widow: I’m so looking forward to hearing your play at the Festival and look forward to seeing you!
Lori Branch: Thank you so much! See you at the Picnic!
Until Next Time, see you on a dance floor!
Definitely catch Lora’s set at this year’s Chosen Few Festival and Picnic on July 6th. You can catch Chosen Few Founder & President, Wayne Williams and House Legend, Robert Williams on Lora’s show, July 10th at 10pm on WNUR 89.5 and WNUR.org. Learn more about Lora and her upcoming projects at www.LoraBranch.com