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Credit: Jordan Landwehr

Chicago’s ARC Music Festival brings the global house scene home

Chicago’s ARC Music Festival brings international acts from throughout the various evolutions of house music to the city that gave the genre its name, booking them side by side with rising and veteran local talent. Ben Hindle heads to the Windy City to see how the music and culture survives and thrives, and samples the best DJs, venues, sound systems and sandwiches Chicago has to offer

At 206 South Jefferson Street, a quiet road just outside Downtown Chicago’s main hub, stands an unassuming three storey building with a pretty green and yellow façade. Housing a law firm, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, and obscured by street-side foliage, to the untrained eye there’s nothing particularly special about it. But this is the place where house music got its name: the former address of legendary club The Warehouse, where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles held court to a crowd of mostly Black and Latino gay men, and helped set in motion a movement that would become a global phenomenon. 

A short subway ride west lies Union Park, the setting of ARC Music Festival. One of the city’s most recent musical additions, it aims to spotlight the roots and evolution of house music, while — we suppose — becoming part of the genre’s legacy itself, and a new destination festival for North America. 

“The big mission for us is telling the story of house music’s significance and importance globally, but how that was started in Chicago. It went across the world and now we want to bring that story back home. That is what is very important to us, and being able to give back to the community and the culture that started it all, and protect that,” says ARC co-founder Stuart Hackley. Also the founder of events company Loud Crowd, in 2020 he joined forces with John Curley, head of Chicago-based promoters Paradigm Presents, and Nick Karounos, who owns multiple venues in the city, including the gargantuan Radius, to launch Auris Presents, the company behind ARC. They watched house music take hold of the States like never before during the pandemic, and saw an opportunity to fill a hole in the Chicago scene.   

That’s not to say ARC is the first dance music festival in Chicago — in fact, the city’s Chosen Few Picnic has been taking place since 1990. However, the scale of ARC’s production and bookings — which expands beyond Union Park to take over numerous venues via the After Dark programme — puts it on another level.  

“It’s bringing life back to the city,” says Chicago original Mike Dunn, who himself is part of the Chosen Few DJs crew. “And when I say that, that’s no diss to nothing anybody else is doing. I’m just saying on a festival vibe, on a big scale like this, nobody’s really been able to pull that off... you have to feel good about it if you’re from Chicago.” 

Mike Dunn
DJ Heather

With Detroit not far away, comparisons between ARC and the Motor City’s long-running Movement festival are also impossible to avoid. ARC’s founders are understandably keen to stress that their event is its own thing, but many of the artists we speak to see the connection as a positive sign of where ARC is headed. Windy City stalwart, Gene Farris, points to the way Movement has kept eyes on — and artists and fans coming to — Detroit in a way nothing else has, ensuring everyone knows it’s the birthplace of techno; ARC could well do the same for Chicago and house music.  

“It’s something that we’ve been overdue for,” agrees DJ Heather, another long-term staple of the scene. “It’s nice to have something that’s in our backyard that we can also just pop over to and feel like it’s legit… it’s definitely a destination festival. I can tell that there’s an influx of people from all over the world who’ve come to this one, and in terms of general interest overall from locals as well as people coming in, it’s really fantastic.” 

The first thing DJ Mag notices when exploring the stages on a sweltering Friday afternoon is the sound. ARC is loud. An extremely compact site, travel between each area takes no more than a couple of minutes and in most cases much less. Only one is covered by a tent, yet apart from during the odd quiet moment in between sets, there’s little to no bleed between stages. Each zone’s stacks easily drown out everything else, including crowd chatter, while the basslines rumble through our chest in a way most UK city festivals could only dream of.  “We pride ourselves on just nailing the basics of a festival, and it all starts with sound, right — it’s music,” says Hackley. But what about noise restrictions?  

“The city has been very welcoming to the event and to its mission... we’ve worked closely with the local community, we did community meetings ahead of time, and spoke with the local authorities and residents to inform them of what the event is and what is going to take place. And this particular part of the neighbourhood [has] a little bit more of a younger age demographic. We have a lot of them out here.” 

DJ Minx and Hiroko Yamamura

“Chicago at its best, the Chosen Few Picnic and things like that — and I don’t even just mean this metaphorically, I mean it absolutely, seriously — those are sacred spaces, and places where my life has been changed; smartbar also. I’m not from here either; I’m like every other kid in the Midwest, who drove here five hours. This is the closest big city to my small town… so I know what it means to be invited in. And I’m very glad to see that happening. Because this is not just a legacy market. The very best things are happening here right now.” 

Case in point, our Saturday night is spent in the bowels of smartbar as two of Chicago’s most promising new stars, Ariel Zetina and Madeline, go head to head, unleashing big techno and trance riffs, swinging Latin rhythms, East Coast club, and even a brief dose of grime (Mumdance & Novelist’s ‘Take Time’), which sends our very small, very British corner of the club unashamedly loopy. Seamlessly transitioning — stopping to clap doesn’t seem to be a thing in these parts — into The Blessed Madonna B2B Jaq Attaque, who bring more traditional stomping house and disco fare, peppered with curveballs like Afrika Bambaataa’s electro staple ‘Planet Rock’, the whole night epitomises the blend of free-wheeling selections and ultra-tight mixing that has kept smartbar at the peak of Chicago’s underground for the past four decades. 

Alongside this basement institution and its upstairs music hall Metro, ARC’s After Dark programme gives us the opportunity to take in the intimate, classy locale of Spybar — where we catch Cassy and DJ Minx bringing deep and upbeat vibes, respectively —  and the colossal warehouses of Radius. The Chicago equivalent of London’s Printworks, the venue features an immense overhead screen in the main room — ideal for Sunday headliners Tale Of Us — while its second space, Cermak Hall, packs out to the punishing techno of Texan DJ Sara Landry, whose set wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rotterdam squat rave. 

Photo of a crowd taken from an outdoor stage at Chicago's Arc festival
Credit: Jordan Landwehr

The citywide events solidify ARC’s mission statement and allow the festival to comfortably remain in its 20,000-per-day Union Park digs. “I think the expansion of ARC goes beyond what you consider just a festival,” says co-founder John Curley when asked if a move to a bigger site would ever be on the cards. “It’s a flag that you put in this weekend every year; it happens here, takes over the whole city. We’re talking about different ways that we can engage the city and the culture and the people that don’t necessarily live right here on site. So it’s like an evolution, it’s a process.” 

From the sun-baked festival fields to the sweat-drenched club nights, ARC certainly leaves us feeling engaged with Chicago and its thriving electronic music culture — we even manage to sneak in a quick trip to renowned record store Gramaphone and sample some of the incredible Chi-town cuisine (Jibaritos Y Mas and The Wieners Circle are a must).  

As we slowly cook ourselves backstage in the Saturday afternoon heat, Mike Dunn contemplates what such a coming together of the culture can achieve. “This is such a beautiful thing, it really is,” he begins. “I mean, I got kind of teared up. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, man, this is so so nice’, and it really is, that it’s in our backyard. We don’t have to travel abroad to get that same feeling and get that same energy. And what I love about it is, when you look out, ARC Festival is very diverse. You got all walks of life, you know? Everybody’s under one umbrella, and that’s the beauty of house music. That’s what house music does. It brings everybody together. Nobody’s looking at, you’re white, you’re Black, you’re straight, you’re gay... everybody’s just come to party and have a great time.”

Ben Hindle is DJ Mag's deputy editor. You can follow him on Twitter @the_z_word