In October of last year, I was contacted by people that were working on a music series for Channel 4 in the UK on the legacy of dance music and heritage in Chicago. I connected with an LA-based producer Alex Needles and New York-based director Jake Sumner (who directed “Fantastic Man” and “The Plastic Age”) and gave them some introductions and other articles of reference for their research into the project.
In February of 2017, I got to meet Jake, Alex and the small crew they had with them to film the Chicago segments. I watched them in action as they shot Robert Williams (founder of the Warehouse) at my place and subsequently Robert taking them to the law offices where the club used to be housed. They were quick, efficient and very thorough. Over lunch, we talked about the trials and tribulations producers have to go through when navigating the personalities of various subjects. Obviously, we all know that some subjects were a breeze, and some weren’t. Some didn’t even make it to the documentary.
Marshall Jefferson, Jesse Saunders, Steve Silk Hurley, Chip E, DJ Pierre, Nicky Siano and Nile Rodgers took a lot of the narrative in this piece, and it’s interesting to see even some of the questionable characters in House music’s history give their take on how things happened. The finished 2 part piece is well done, and I was truly impressed on they were able to put together such a slick looking piece in the short amount of time they were given. I circled back to Jake the director and asked him post-production about the process:
I understand that Channel 4 initially approached you about doing a documentary about House Music, specifically its Chicago roots. What happened from there? Also how long were you given to complete it?
Channel 4 has a streaming service in the UK called All 4 and it’s similar to a British version of Hulu or something like that. We were commissioned to create a pilot for a music series called “I WAS THERE WHEN…” about the roots and pioneers of certain global dance music genres. The pilot looks at Chicago House Music. We started working on it back in September of last year and it came out a couple of weeks ago.
Can you tell me about your background, Jake? I understand that you have quite an amazing body of work when it comes to music docs?
I’ve done all kinds of things including a music doc that came out a few years ago called Fantastic Man about William Onyeabor, who was a Nigerian artist who made some very trippy electronic music back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, some of it is actually kind of proto House-y. He was one of the first people to use synthesizers on a Nigerian record before this technology was accessible.
I know you had a relatively short period of time to get it all together. What kind of research did you do? How many people did you initially contact and was it hard?
Luckily with stuff like this, it’s relatively easy to get in touch with people via things like Facebook. And people that we couldn’t directly contact we used those we knew to help us locate and reach out to. It’s tricky as obviously there’s a lot of amazing artists and people involved in the formation of House who no longer lives in Chicago and might live on the other side of the country. Sometimes people’s schedules make it tough too. There’s a lot of people we wish were included but the reality of making something like this with a limited budget can make it tough. We were lucky to spend some time with some amazing people and hear their stories.
IT’S AMAZING HOW YOUNG SOME OF THESE ARTISTS WERE AT THE TIME AND HOW ENTREPRENEURIAL THEY WERE GIVEN THE LIMITED RESOURCES FOR MAKING MUSIC AND ACTUAL RECORDS AT THE TIME IN CHICAGO.
What was your concept in getting this piece together? Did it change as the project went on?
I think with anything like this you should expect the project to evolve as you go and hopefully you end up with something you didn’t see coming and you learn a lot. That’s one of my favorite things about docs.
A technical question: how did you get those amazing overhead from the sky shots?
It’s called a drone! 🙂
Any interesting information that you learned that you didn’t expect?
At one point we shot a meeting between Jesse Saunders, Chip E and Steve Hurley at the White Palace Grill, which I guess was one of Jesse’s favorite spots to eat after DJ’ing at the Playground. It was kind of amazing to be there for this. Actually included in the film is Chip E telling Jesse that Vince Lawrence lent him his 808 to record the whole Jack Trax record and Jesse didn’t know that it was his 808 on that record this until that very moment. Records like that, it’s fair to say, changed the course of dance music so it’s amazing to hear these kind of details about how they were made.
So after all of the interviews you conducted, what are your impressions of the Chicago House Music scene as compared with other music scenes you’ve studied?
There’s obviously so much I could say here but I would just say it’s amazing how young some of these artists were at the time and how entrepreneurial they were given the limited resources for making music and actual records at the time in Chicago. I don’t know how that compares necessarily to other music scenes but I think it’s pretty cool.
It was interesting to me that you hovered but didn’t really go into detail about how Trax may or may not have taken the publishing from so many unknowing artists. Was this because some of your subjects in the documentary were involved and it would have been sticky to do so?
Honestly, there’s not much time to work with on short-form documentary so getting into details like this would probably be something we could afford to get into if we were making a long-form feature documentary. With a short doc, you find there’s only so much you can cover and someone is always going to question what isn’t included. That’s just part of it. I kind of wish I was making a feature doc about Chicago House now.
When interviewing subjects for any documentary, there are always those whose perception of how things happened can be more skewed or self-centered than others. What is your approach as a director when this happens? Do you let them just roll with it or do you use carefully guided questions to offset this?
With anything like this, you’re obviously dealing with lots of different people who might see things very differently. I think it’s hard to find two people that remember the same story in exactly the same way. I think you just do your best and try and talk to as many people as possible.
And finally, how is the documentary being aired right now and where exactly can people see it? Any chance that people in the US and other parts will eventually be able to see it?
It’s available on All 4. Unfortunately, it’s only streaming in the UK for now. Obviously, we want this to be seen by as many people as possible, so this is difficult for us as filmmakers but sadly it’s not up to us.
I Was There When: House Took Over The World is a two-part series for All 4.
For more of Jake Sumner’s work, see alldayeveryday.com.
First published in issue 149 of 5 Magazine featuring Pomo, Joey Negro, Paul Oakenfold, Adam Warped and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music for only $2 per month.