Cedric Neal enjoyed the ’Big Speaker‘
Interviewed by Frank in Chicago, February 1995
In the early-to-mid-eighties Cedric Neal was one of the Chicago clubbers drawn to the Music Box, and to Ron Hardy’s maniacal energy. In this vivid interview he tells us about the fashions, the sex, the drugs and above all, the music, that made it such a unique and influential place.
Tell me about the old days. When did you first go clubbing?
The first time I ran across dance parties was late ’82, and that was when I stumbled across the Music Box. We were just driving along and we were wondering why all these people were standing outside. One o’clock in the morning, and they kept talking about this guy Ron Hardy, and then we decided to stand in line with everybody else, and that was the point which more or less – quote unquote – changed my life. Because that was the first time I saw him spin. And it was… it was amazing.
I’d never been to a party where the DJ had a control over the people where they would dance and scream, and at some points cry, and depending on how high you were, they were passing out from pure excitement. It was, the energy that was there. I haven’t been to a party in probably five years that had the energy that Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles had over people.
Frankie Knuckles was more refined in his spinning. He was more orderly. Ron Hardy was more raw. he just had an energy over the people that made them the moment: people were living for the moment. that’s all that mattered, in that time and space, was the moment.
The house music scene here in the early ’80s was basically black. There was another club Medusa’s, on an upper North side, and blacks were kind of like… they let you in but the music wasn’t really for you. So after a while the black gays and the younger blacks had to have a music. And this was right around when rap started coming, but we had to have a soul culture.
The Music Box was basically the black gays, and the black kids that liked Medusa’s but wanted a place to call their own. And there’s a debate about that, but I know ’cos I was there. It was basically a 60/40 mix gays and straight, and if you couldn’t stand to be around gays you didn’t party in the city of Chicago back then. You either accepted this and this is how people were… You would get high with a person, you would get drunk with a person and you just didn’t care about that. The most important thing at that point in time was the music. And following the DJ of the time. For me it was Ron hardy, I was a loyal follower.
See they had nights. Frankie had Wednesdays and Fridays, and Ron Hardy had Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They divided the days, or when they had marathons, the lockouts, where the party would start Friday night and end Sunday morning, or Monday morning. And they were, I’ve seen Ron spin consistently probably ten hours.
What was the atmosphere?
And what were the styles of dress?
Basically what I’m wearing now. the jean cuts and the stuff. It hasn’t changed. There was cardigan sweaters, and turtlenecks: that was the preppie look. All the stuff that’s commercialised now, the Doc Martens and the Timberlands, and the combat boots. They’re big time fashions now but that was just what you wore. When Guess first came out it was the thing to get.
And what about the drugs driving the scene?
The drugs were the best part. There was a lot of PCP, a lot of acid, but it was very clean. When you came down you didn’t have a bad trip like kids are having today. With the crack you just have a negative vibe. Back in the day, if I had a happy stick – a joint dipped in PCP – everybody that was in reaching distance of me got high. I would smoke it and they would smoke it. It was everybody shared. Ecstasy, I really found out about ecstasy around ’84. It was really big among the gays. A lot of the straights stayed away from it. I had a bad trip and blamed it on the ecstasy. It didn’t really hit the straight clique that was part of the club. They had the happy sticks, they had the mint leaf, another PCP based drug, and it was just the ecstasy didn’t click with the straights. And the people who used to do acid.
And then with the onset of the different venereal diseases that’s when the party took on a different turn. Back in my day the worst thing we knew about was herpes. When AIDS first came out it was called GRIDS [gay related immune deficiency syndrome]. Back then it was still a gay disease. Straights didn’t worry about it. We worried about herpes. I still remember a guy, with his death the party started to take a turn. The health department kept coming down and we kept having raids. this would be around ’84, ’85.
Ron Hardy spinned a lot of Philly, a lot of disco, but back then that was new music. So that’s what we had. But that’s the beats, the drive to get to the party. The music itself was the drug. It was in ’85, ’86 that the beat tracks started coming in. Chip E and Jesse Saunders, they started coming onto the scene. The tracks were being accepted but people wanted the songs that had substance. ‘The Love I Lost’, or ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’ by Machine. Because these songs portrayed the feelings that people had back then. The way Ron Hardy spinned you could tell how he was feeling. The way he played records, the sequence he played them, how long he played them. You could tell if he was depressed, because him and his loverman had had a fight. You could know if he was up and happy or you could know if he was just high, out of his mind because of the drugs.
So you would get there, me and my best friend Cortez and another buddy called Mike. We would get there early ’cos we wanted to sit outside and get high and drink. And it was one night we got there and it was early before the party started, and the front opened up at a quarter to one. And Ron always start with ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’. This was ’84, it just came out, And he would play that for 20 minutes. And you just sit around and wait till the crowd just build. And it was a momentum. Just gradually, first you had the little snowball. And then come five o’clock in the morning you gain the momentum, and come six you’d pick up speed. People would come in there and just dance all night. I know young ladies that would dance probably two hours non-stop. There was a juice bar because it was illegal to serve liquor in underground clubs.
And the sex that you would have. In the club. It was what we called the big speaker. The big speaker was located all the way in the back of the club, so if you just could think of an 8,000 square foot space and the main speaker was probably ten feet tall, and you could crawl under the stage behind the main speaker. And we had girls back there. You could get a blow job, get you a quickie. It was amazing behind the big speaker. If you talk to anyone else about the Music Box ask them about the big speaker and they’ll know what you’re talking about. In the girls’ bathroom they had pillows, you know so, you go past there’d be guys in there, getting high, having sex. Maybe you’d see two lesbians in there. It was honestly the end of the sexual revolution.
It slowed down late ’86 early ’87, by that time rap had came on the scene, so a lot of people were torn between the two music types, those who were still loyal to dance music, this is our lives. House music which New York I have to give them credit for, they taken house music, that attitude and the lifestyle that we started. Because it was the way you did everything, it was the way you interacted with people. The way you interacted with your girlfriend, the way you interacted with your family. It was just your whole being.
The Music Box closed in ’88. There was about four years of hardcore partying. Then the crowd got younger, and you didn’t have the people dedicated to true dance. Like we had back in ’82, ’83 when I started. When Farley was at the Playground. The attitude just changed, ’cos you had all these hip hoppers coming down. And they would come down and start trouble. They would get into it with the gays. We never had that problem, early on, when Frankie, I guess he just got tired and couldn’t deal with it no more, after they passed the ruling that underground dance clubs were illegal in Chicago, he finally packed up and went to New York.
But Ron Hardy, he was like an idol. The first time I saw him spin it was his birthday, and just to see people literally crying because this man had them so hyper, seeing people pass out. I was like, ‘Hey! this is my type of party’. Towards the end he got worse with the drugs. He was pretty mellow, he got high like everyone else, but he started shooting up, I’m not sure the drug of choice that he was doing, and not to defame his name, because he was one of the best DJs in the world. But he got caught in that turmoil, and by the time he got down to the Powerhouse he hated spinning. I talked to him a couple of times and he was like, ‘I got to feed myself, I got to pay my bills’. And when he was at the party in the early ’80s when I used to talk to him, his attitude was this is what I live for: to spin.
The Warehouse was the first one from ’77-’82, the original Warehouse catered to the underground crowd for the gay blacks that had nowhere to go. The original Music Box opened late ’82, ’83. Frankie started spinning at CODs when the Powerplant wasn’t open. Ron did CODs a few times, but when the Music Box closed he went to the Powerhouse. That was when he really started to lose his appreciation. He started looking real bad. He started selling records, I mean real out-of-print stuff for two dollars just to get a fix or to eat. I seen him a couple of times and I wasn’t sure if I should speak to him or not.
And then Frankie, his parties were so clean, and his crowd, you could almost compare them to the voguers how precise they were, clean cut. That was the division. Ron Hardy was more raw, into his music. He didn’t care about blends, as long as he had the crowd rocking. Frankie Knuckles it was more or less of a science. He had it real clean. I was just that type of person: rough around the edges. I gravitated towards Ron’s music. People who went to the Powerplant had on their Guess and they’d be pressed with the creases, and you know maybe they have a Ralph Lauren shirt. That was the thing for them it was more of a fashion statement.
The best night over at the Music Box was 1985, Memorial day marathon. It was a Friday to Tuesday morning. Who didn’t spin? Everybody! Frankie came through, Ron Hardy came through, André Hatchett spun, Mike Wilson, but he had quite a few people helped him out. People brought changes of clothes, some people stayed down there for the whole duration. I went down there Saturdy night at midnight, I went to Great America Sunday, After I left Great America I went straight back to the party, partied most of Monday and then when they shut it down…
I mean, it’s really to see four guys dancing with one girl, and then she chooses one. I even had instances where girls asked me, you have a car? Lets go to your car. I’d have sex with them in my car and then we’d go back into the party and they’d disappear. This was before all of these things started happening. Like I say the drugs were cleaner. When you would get high with a person you didn’t have to worry about going on a bad trip. People weren’t there to hurt each other. We were there to help and that was the main goal.
‘Are you a child or are you a step-child?’ or ‘Do you belong to the family?” If you belonged to the family you were gay. If you were a step-child you were straight but we accept you. If you were a child you were just straight. But there was one time when it was fashionable to be bisexual. They went through a period where people would experiment with bisexuality to be in. Some of the gays tried to portray to the straight people they wanted to get into the sack that that was how you should be. I know people who did it, and they were ‘Well it wasn’t that bad.’ Just that period, the city and house music went through so many turns. With AIDS, with the drug scene, with peoples sexuality. I know a couple of people who looked like Rob, with a goatee and everything, and now they’re women. That attitude changed their lives so much, and now they went full tilt.
As for the parties themselves. That quality, that unity that we had it would be a long time before we see that again, ’cos we skipped a whole generation of dance music – because of the onset of rap and the onset of AIDS – it put a stigmatism on house music, ’cos the ignorant world, that didn’t know about the dance music scene, or what came of it automatically….
With those two main forces it was like a driving nail in the coffin. People associated being gay and AIDS with house music, so the generation that should have taken over from us said naw I don’t want to be stereotyped like them, so they started gravitating towards hip hop. It’s a generation that should have picked it up from us.
© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster 1995