Celeste Alexander rocked the Music Box

Interviewed by Bill Brewster in London, 22.3.20

A rare female DJ on the early Chicago house scene, Celeste Alexander DJed at parties across the city and at The Music Box where she regularly warmed up for Ron Hardy. She learnt to DJ after asking Steve Hurley why there weren’t more women trying ‘hot mixing’. When he told her the general feeling was that women didn’t have the necessary co-ordination, she was off! As well as establishing herself solo, in answer to the city’s famous Hot Mix 5, Celeste was briefly part of an all-girl alternative. The Fantastic Four hot mix crew was Celeste, Chrissie Hutchison, Kenya Lenoir and Berlando Drake, or sometimes Steve Hurley’s sister Angie, who had to play first to be home by 8pm for her strict parents.

Which neighbourhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in Hyde Park, South Side Chicago. Born and raised on the South Side, Chicago. In the lovely campus town for the University of Chicago called Hyde Park. 

Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?
Oh definitely. My dad was a renaissance man, athlete, musician, all the way around. They’d do parties. I grew up where my dad and his friends threw what were called Charlie Parker sets, and John Coltrane sets. So there was always music around me, mainly jazz, I grew up with the children of Oscar Brown Jr. his daughter Maggie Brown, and his late son Oscar Brown Jr. III, (we called him Bobo), if you’ve heard of the pianist Willie Pickens, his daughter and I, Bethany Pickens, was a jazz musician and she was a wonderful musician in her own right. We all grew up from kindergarten all the way through together. Jimmy Ellis, the trumpeter, his son so there was a lot of music around me. Hyde Park was a hotbed of different music, but mainly jazz. 

What year were you born? 

Chicago also had a tradition for electric blues, was that something you came across?
I remember there being blues in Hyde Park, of course, but my dad and my mom were more geared towards jazz, soul, R&B, Motown sounds. I grew up with the Motown sound and the Philadelphia sound, so it was more R&B but the blues was definitely goin’ on. 

What was your first encounter with dance music?
I’d have to say 7th or 8th grade with disco crossover, so Johnny Taylor Disco Lady, Donna Summer, Natalie Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter. I remember meeting him on a couple of occasions because some of the musicians were around my father I was blessed enough to meet people like that. I’m a distant cousin of Curtis Mayfield. There was a lot of freedom music goin’ on too, with the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and things like that. 

So were you attending concerts quite early too if your parents were involved in music?
I used to go to festivals with my parents as a young child. They used to have a big jazz fest in Detroit and there were always jazz fests goin’ on in various neighbourhoods around Hyde Park, like the Brownsville area. But by the time I was 13 or 14 and going my own way I fell in love with George Clinton so I was real big Parliament, Funkadelic fan. Then as a child I was crazy about the Jackson 5 so i did a lot of J5 concerts when I could. Think I went to one when I was 9 and one at 11. 

“I asked him what hot mixing was and you how did you do it, and asked did girls do it?”

Celeste Alexander

Were you listening to the radio a lot?
Radio was all we had and we all had different tastes for different types of radio. My father was with jazz, there was a station WBEZ which was an all jazz platform. I geared towards a station called WVON and that’s where Herb Kent came from and that crowd of disc jockeys. When I was about 13 my mom had a friend who had a radio show on the campus radio station WHPK he did what they would called a Dusty Steppers. We have a dance form in Chicago called stepping, which is a slower R&B type of music that I was really into. Our parents called it bopping. We called it stepping. I started working at the station, volunteering on Sundays.

Was that the college station for Uni of Chicago? 
Yes.  It was only four blocks from my house. It was a guy who did a Sunday afternoon R&B show. Think his name was TJ The DJ. I became his record girl. I’d go there on a Sunday and I would pull the records from the library, do the logging, and load up his PSA announcements. I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. My third class FCC license because you had to have some sort of FCC license in order to work in the station. I was too young to get it but they managed to waive that and got one when I was 14 years old. 

What kind of music were they playing?
‘70s soul. Stevie Wonder, The Dells, Diana Ross, The Impressions, Loggins & Messina, James Brown, The JB’s. 

When did you start going out to parties?
In high school. I went to Kenwood; I graduated class of 1980. At the time my preference would’ve been for the slower R&B stepper music. I didn’t like a whole lot of disco but I went to school at Kenwood which was a party school and I was in the same graduating class as Jesse Saunders who, as you know, was from the Chosen Few. I went to the school sock hops, the school dances. Kenwood was a real moving forward, trend-setting party school. Hyde Park was a trend-setting type of neighbourhood to grow up in. It was very liberal, very advanced and non-segregated so HP was a very cultural melting pot to grow up in, so exposure to everything was readily available.

So what was the racial composition of the neighbourhood?
There was a whole lot of black, white and Jewish really in Hyde Park. It was an acceptable neighbourhood for mixed marriages. We were a lakefront district too so we had a promontory point which we just called the point. So there were a lot of hippies, free love, flower power, and my dad was a photographer as well, he was a medical photographer for North Western University which was unprecedented for a black man in the ‘60s. It gave him opportunity to move in different circles so I’ve got loads and loads of old B&W pictures from some of the events they used to have in Hyde Park back in the day. They used to have a Love In at the point. It was definite the opposite of what was going on in segregated areas of Chicago. 

Where was the first time you saw a DJ playing and it inspired or hit you that you wanted to do this? 
I think I got when I was 12 or 13 watching TJ and working in the Uni of Chicago. I don’t think it came full circle so I started learning the art of mixing or playing club music or dance music. That was much later on when I was in junior college. 

Celeste and Steve Hurley, about 1982
Celeste and Steve Hurley, about 1982

What age is junior college? 19?
Yeah about 19. I went to college with Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. I had a real crush on him. We became friends and mixing, or hot mixing as we called it back then, was all he really talked about. I asked him what it was and how did you do it and he explained it to me and I asked did girls do it? He had a younger sister named Angela, but she was much younger. I asked why other girls weren’t doing it and he said it was because they believed they can’t. The guys believed that it was a specific thing for them to have that hand, to eye, coordination in order to mix and blend. That got my attention immediately. 

I guess the problem is if you don’t have role models it’s hard for you to project yourself as being in that role. 
It was pretty hard. There was only one other female that I knew of at the time was Lori Branch. She was with a group called Vertigo. We had groups back then. 

“Andre took me to the Warehouse, introduced me to Frankie Knuckles. Once I met Frankie, I connected a lot easier with the underground scene than the more commercial scene.”

celeste alexander

Like Gucci Production?
Exactly. She was with Craig Loftis, that group, that was really younger queer kids and they did loft parties. I didn’t meet Lori until around six or seven months later when we got booked to play together or battle with each other. I started asking the guys in the neighbourhood, can you teach me how to do that and collectively they did. Then I was introduced to a guy named Andre Hatchett who was  one of the Chosen Few as well. Andre and I struck a friendship that’s been more like brother and sister ever since, and he was my original mentor. He taught me everything from A through Z. And it took off in the high school, straight crowd, because the music at that time was starting to catch fire. There were hot mix groups forming like the Hot Mix 5, but I was more in the underground scene because Andre took me to the Warehouse, introduced me to Frankie Knuckles. Once I met Frankie I connected a lot easier with the underground scene than the more commercial scene. Radio restricted what you could play and sometimes the stuff that you played was a little raunchy and there are all types of federal regulations about what you can and cannot say and play on the radio. It was hard. When I did the parties as a DJ I dressed in big baggy clothes and a baseball cap so they really didn’t know it was a girl playing. 

Was that a deliberate ploy by you to earn their trust? 
It was deliberate to let you see that it wasn’t gender specific. I started off in a baseball cap, but didn’t end up in one. Once you drawn them in, you can do whatever you want, and that’s when the hat came off. When I first started DJing I was also modelling and a lot of the brands I modelled for were gay kids from the underground and they would throw fashion shows during the parties, so I was known a little bit more for the modelling thing but i was still anatomically boy-ish and skinny, flat-chested. I crossed over into DJing at that time. I was 22 years old and doing both and I was getting ready to go to Europe to do fashion week and you used to have take a physical to get a passport and my physical came back that I was pregnant so I never made the crossover with the modelling because I decided to keep on DJing. 

Celeste with Liddell Townsell and his crew
Celeste with Lidell Townsell and his crew

You said you went to the Warehouse and I know you’re the only female DJ to play the Music Box. How did that come about? 
I was only able to experience the Warehouse maybe three or four times before it closed so I was there at the very end. I’d already met Frankie. I believe I had met Ronnie by then and I was making a lot of noise as a DJ then and Ronnie and Andre were pretty close and I went to the Music Box all the time so after the Warehouse. Robert Williams, who was the owner, opened up the Music Box at US Studios, the first one. Not the one underground at 326 Michigan. It was just before the Power Plant opened and I was at the MB every night. I dated Robert Williams’ younger brother. His name was Rodney, we dated for about three years. I was pretty close to all the MB staff. It was not far before Halloween and Ronnie came up to me and Andre and I thought he was talkin’ to Andre and he says, ‘Look I got another party and we’ve got a big Halloween party, can you open up the Halloween party?’ So I’m looking at Andre waiting for him to answer and Andre’s lookin’ at me saying, ’He’s not talkin’ to me he’s talkin’ to you!’ So I said, ’Who are you talkin’ to?’ He says, ‘I’m talkin’ to you!’ I didn’t even realise that Ronnie had even heard me play before but apparently he had done some backroom visitations. It was pretty cool. He’d have Andre play for him occasionally and I had the opportunity to play for him three times before they moved to the underground site on Michigan. Ronnie and I were pretty good friends. 

What was he like?
He was pretty much a hoot. Ronnie was a rebel. He was very open to try out things that nobody ever did and that’s probably where the inclination to ask me to play came from. I do remember him trying to to get Lori to play. I don’t remember her coming to the MB like I did. I was a staunch MB fan on Wednesday and Saturday. To the point where I became semi part of the staff and did other stuff around when I was needed. Ronnie was kind of a wildchild but he was really different when he was playing music to when he wasn’t. To sit around and chitchat and talk shit and laugh and joke Ronnie was one person. He was a little introverted and even a little by shy. But when he got behind the decks and was playing music and had that crowd in front of him and half control of the party he was very animalistic. It seemed like he liked stuff in a frenzy. He was the polar opposite of Frankie as a DJ. 

A lot of people have said this, he played frenetically; pitching up records. 
He definitely was a lot of energy, definitely played music very fast, he liked it in a frenzy. I’m gonna leave it at that, I know there are other parts of Ronnie but I don’t know if it’s okay for me to talk about those parts. The club scene back in the 80s, was full of free love, free will and a whole lot of drugs, substances, were going around and some people gravitated towards those substances and a lot of the party atmosphere was dictated by the substance you were on. 

Sauers flyer

Tell me about Gucci Promotions. 
There were two. There was a Gucci Incorporated which was David Risque, Then there was Gucci Promotions which was out of South Shore which was run by a guy named John Hunt. John now works with and for Terry Hunter. I DJed for Gucci Inc; they threw these really nice high school parties at a place called Sauers’. It was a huge huge room, almost like a barn type of room. I had a stage and a cobblestone floor. I was there every weekend for the parties. Dave had his exclusive DJs and I was one of them with Steve Hurley, Andre Hatchett and Keith Fobs, who was also from Hyde Park. Keith had equipment when nobody else did. I spent a lot of time with Keith and Andre learning the craft. 

What era was this?
‘82 – ‘85 possibly 86? It may have even been late 81. I remember going to those parties before I was actually DJing. Andre would not let me play out before I was ready to do so. 

What about Park Avenue?
Hmm. Park Avenue put together the female hot mix group that I was in. Park Avenue was Keith Edwards and Rick Lenoir and Stephen Doehrer. They put together the Fantastic Four, we were supposed to be the female answer to the Hot Mix 5, there were actually five of us, with Steve Hurley’s sister Angie they had very strict parents so she didn’t come out with us very often. That was myself, Chrissie Hutchison, She was in high school still, Kenya Lenoir, Kenya had a best friend Berlando Drake, We Called her Bryd. If Angie played with us she had to play first because she had to be home for 8pm. We got to play all over the city but our main club was La Mirage, which was owned by a guy named Calvin Hollands. Later someone set off fireworks in the club and a lot of people died, that was La Mirage under a different name. It was an old car dealership showroom building. 

What were the influential parties for you as house started to happen?
There were different levels of party and they were segregated with sexual orientation and gender and age. The underground parties, Warehouse, C.O.D., Music Box, Power Plant, those were the underground parties and more liberation. Then you’d have above ground sector, which was the next level a bit more commercial and those were parties at Sauers’, Mendel, the high school parties, it merged with a girls school and became co-ed. They brought Frankie to those parties eventually and it generated money to enable to keep the school open. They were very influential on the above ground scene. 

When I interviewed Jamie [3:26] he talked about the basement scene. 
House parties. There were a lot of house parties. I can’t remember the name of this guy for the life of me. I can think of at least two or three people who had houses on the South Side and they would have these basement parties. I’m talking about two or three hundred kids in these basement parties. It was another version of an underground party but it was a party for heterosexual kids. They were kids who were in high school, maybe in their senior year, or were just coming out of high school. We could drink. There were quite a few of them. In neighbourhoods in South Shore and Pill Hill, out south and in Englewood. They would be off the chain, 100 or 200 kids easily rockin’ house music like there wasn’t nobody’s business and partyin’ until three or four o’clock. It was very instrumental to that second generation or wave of kids. I’m older than Jamie. 

Who are the second generation? 
Kids that are turning 50 now. I snuck a lot of these people into parties. The Pharris Thomas’s and Steve Hurley you know. Steve and I were good friends, the same age but because Steve’s upbringing and his background with his parents he had a curfew at 15 years old. We used to sneak him in. So those basement parties were a bridge. OK we’re gonna create our own way of making parties and that second wave of kids, and Jamie would’ve fallen into that, and that would’ve been the late ‘80s thru to mid ‘90s. But I stopped playing in 1995 till 2006. Second generation kids like Jamie, Hugo Hutchison (married to Chrissie), Gene Hunt should been one of them but he was hanging out in places he shouldn’t have been when he was still very young. I didn’t know he was 14 or 15 years old! 

Another name that always seems to crop up in these conversations is Lil Louis’ parties in Medusa’s and the Bismarck. 
Hotel parties were pretty big. Well Lil’ Louis was a promoter and DJ. He was also from the West Side, he was the one that rose quicker than anyone from that sector of Chicago and they didn’t believe they had any places to party, so he would rent out the room at the Bismarck or the Hotel Intercontinental. There was also another guy Tony Bitoy and Tony was linked in with the radio station so the HM5 parties radio had bigger promotional power than the underground parties. Louis started this cult thing because he was doing this stuff all by hisself.  He had his West Side crew, and you could ask my husband cos he’s from the West Side and dated one of Louis’ sisters back in the day, but Louis’ mother owned a speakeasy on the West Side, she started playing in the speakeasies but he was able to earn and put money and his mom had absolutely no problem giving him the money or help him get the money to throw those parties and promotion was all by hand in those days so you print posters and you’re up at three in the morning in the cold put these posters up saturating the city. But you get to Saturday night and there were a thousand kids in the Bismarck, mainly high school kids and they were off the chain. There was another place too called The Playground (after that it was The Candy Store). That was another place that was also a building that was very close to where La Mirage was. The South Loop area had a bunch of failed car dealerships around there and Craig Thompson took one of these warehouses and started the Playground. This was a club specifically for high school kids to go and party at. 

Was this the place Jesse Saunders’ played? 
Jesse was one of the residents, as well as Farley. Jesse was also resident at a place called the Penthouse. In high school I was a little thugged out because I wanted to step and listen to the JB’s ‘Monorails’ but Jesse was the DJ at Kenwood so he’d play all this disco music and then we’d get tired of it and go up and say, ’Hey can you play some steppers’ music?’ I would sneak out to go these steppers parties on the South Side of Chicago and we got stuck in one one day because we came out and there was a snow storm and I had no way of getting home. The guy that was setting up the music for the Steppers’ set was Kirk Townsend, he was also responsible for the Mendel parties; he and I struck up some sort of friendship I guess you could call it a relationship, but he told me he could take me home because it was a Sunday night and I wasn’t even supposed to be out.  But I had to help him get his equipment packed up. So I started learning how to pack up equipment, wrapping up cords, then I started travelling round with Kirk helping him to set up those parties. I remember going to the Penthouse and it was already set up and we came back and Jesse was playin’ and immediately started yellin’ get outta here we’re not playin’ that damn steppers’ music in here, he went all off! 

Tell me about steppers music 
It was a slower R&B paced sound because it’s a couples dance. It’s a whole different culture in Chicago. There’s a culture in Detroit that’s very similar that they call walkers. But the music is your downtempo R&B, silky smooth dance music. 

Could you compile a top 20 Steppers tracks just so I can get my head around it?
Sure! Loggins & Messina ‘Pathway To Glory’. ‘Haunted House‘ by Lee Oskar. Different type of dancing, different mentality. Let’s say urban rather than ghetto. 

Andre Hatchett, Celeste Alexander, Frankie Knuckles
Andre Hatchett, Celeste Alexander, Frankie Knuckles

The basement parties sound to me like they were just an extension of what was already going on in the Music Box or Warehouse or Power Plant and spread its tentacles around the city. Is that a fair thing to say?
It was. They were held in someone’s house, a lot of these kids were younger and their parents didn’t want them going to the South Loop area of downtown Chicago. I can remember there being announcements in the middle of those parties: So and so you’re mum’s outside waiting for you! If you had a house party in your neighbourhood and say it’s in Jamie’s neighbourhood and Jamie’s mom is letting him throw a party in the basement and word gets around and you tell your mom you’re going to a party at Jamie’s house and he lives right down the street, three blocks around the corner. Your mom might say ok in that case you can come in at one rather than giving them a curfew and having to drive into downtown to get them. It was a bit easier and you could be more relaxed by letting your kids go to the neighbourhood parties. 

When did the steppers thing take off in Chicago.
It supersedes disco and and club music. It probably precedes our parents’ parents. They used to call it the bop. So I can remember my mom being a bopper when I was little and she was born in 1937. So this was a dance that probably started in the ‘50s or even ’40s, but progressively handed down the generations. It was what I gravitated to because it was what my mom did and her friends. Club music, dance music, disco music, that was 100% mine and ours. I evolved out of steppers into club music in my late teens and early 20s. In my younger days it was disco sucks and that was my mantra! I had no idea of the political implications of it, the gender and sexual fluidity that it represented in those days, or what the Disco Demolition represented. You know Chicago is one of the biggest cities that is still segregated and separated. 

“I think there are three things that are totally universal: Love, Hate and Music. Music has always had the ability to put the hate and pull in the love.”

celeste alexander

Do you think the music helped break down some of these barriers?
I think music has always been a way to break down barriers. That was the beauty of club music and dance music. I think there are three things in life that are totally universal, Love, Hate and Music would be the third. Music has always had the ability to pull out the hate and pull in the love. Music takes you some place different. It calms the savage beast. No matter what the genre is it can be a peacemaker. 

Do you have any particular special memories of playing in basement parties. 
There was a guy who used to be on college radio, KKC, they touched a lot of people and it was very influential. His name was Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse had a lot of basement parties and I played at many of them. They used to be innnn-sane [she laughs at the memory] Now I’m a parent and adult I think wow we could’ve easily been shut down by the fire marshalls or the police. This shouldn’t be happening! How is it that you got 250 kids packed in the basement of 3-bed bungalow?! Dancing, the music is pumping so hard that you can literally see the electricity in the house throb in the lights from the power being used. We were getting the party on and Pinkhouse used to have those parties. Those used to be fun, like really really fun.

I can remember for quite a minute when I first started DJing I went to a lot of parties that Andre used to do. Andre and his brother Tony, two of the Chosen Few. they would get booked to do a lot of house parties. A lot of these house parties were kids whose parents allowed them to have parties in they own houses. In the more affluent neighbourhoods such as Hyde Park, the ones that had those houses in Pill Hill, those kids that went to Kenwood, Hyde Park, Whitney Young, their parents had very nice houses. They were home owners, they were lawyers and doctors. They were allowed to throw those parties, for their birthday, for their graduation, sweet sixteen, and you’d easily have 150 kids inn these parties. Some houses got torn up. Some kids got very severely punished. Some parties they’d even have in the house while their parents were on vacation. I remember having in a party in my apartment. I literally paid my mother to get on airplane and see her sister in California and we had a party in there that had 300 kids in there.

Chicago has also always been segregated by gang affiliation. Venturing out to the Wild Hundreds as we called them, the houses in the 100s, as opposed to coming from 53rd Street, where there was one faction of gangs in the area I grew up in but going to a party one 109th and Michigan that could be a dangerous trek and sometimes things did happen. So there was a whole lot of things we had to contend with. A lot of DJs came up out of that scene, second wave DJs, came out of that scene, and because they were house parties and they weren’t regulated they could play the stuff that was being played in those underground club parties that you couldn’t play on the air or at The Playground. 

The Playground, Sauers’, The Gallery were more commercial. The Loft, The Penthouse, The Edge of the Looking Glass, were a little more undergroundish. Mendel could be considered a little of both. It was a high school gym, that picked up more underground flavor once Knuckles started playing there. The younger straight crowd were more commercial….we had a few names for them… ‘Woogies’ was one. Or ’Goodies!’ But pronounced Goo-DEEz.

When I interviewed Jesse Saunders, he named a bunch of clubs: The Loft, Burning Spear, Blue Gargoyle, Tree of Life, The Mansion in Hyde Park. Were these all South Side spaces?
Yes. All south side. The Burning spear was a showcase type of space, so they did everything there. From jazz, blues, steppers and disco. BB King did some big sets there. But he did have his own place on the South Side as well, On 43rd street, then it moved to Hyde Park.

OK. So I found an old interview with Wayne Williams, where he was talking about bringing the sound of the Music Box to the straight scene in South Side Chicago. He says he started DJing at Mendel High, after Kirk Townsend had been the DJ there. Is that true? And if so, what was Kirk playing at that time, more commercial stuff like Earth, Wind & Fire etc?
Yes Kirk was the house DJ at Mendel before the house/disco thing erupted in Chicago. Kirk played it all, I met him on the steppers scene, he was a sound man. It’s fair to say that Kirkland Townsend is the Godfather of Mendel. Pretty much responsible for its curation and growth. He saved that school from shutting down for many years with the money generated from those parties

Finally, Steve Poindexter mentioned a mobile sound system called Foxxplayers he used to play for in Mendel High and Burning Spear, for Kirk Townsend. Was Kirk the guy that ran Foxxplayers or was he just one of the DJs that took the rig out to play?
I think that’s what they use to call it…you may be better asking Kirk though….he is a wealth of information.

You know, Jamie said I ought to tell you the story of the time I played at the Music Box for Ronnie and how the night ended, which was not so well. So, I have always had a nervous stomach when it comes to playing in front of my mentors, like Frankie and Ronnie, they both knew it too. I guess Ronnie was in the club the last hour of my set, but never came to the booth, he just hung out in the crowd and listened. He came to the booth to relieve me, and gave me a hug, told me he was ready and said I played a very nice set. I was overjoyed! ‘But how did you know?’ ‘Oh I’ve been here over an hour in the back listening,’  he said… My stomach kicked in, and I… …threw up all over his shoes. He kicked me out the DJ booth for a month. I had to buy him a new pair of Converse All-Stars. Oddly enough I think Ronnie and I bonded after that. He teased me and called me Velma Vomit. I hated that name. He found it extremely funny, and called me that EVERY TIME he wanted to pick at me. He said, “Bitch you just bought a pair of shoes”!

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton