Craig Loftis, Renaissance Man
My introduction to Craig Loftis as a DJ was a magical night at Green Dolphin Street a few years back. Loftis has been part of Chicago’s house music scene since its inception. He worked as a sound engineer for both the Power Plant and D.J. International. His original productions, most recently on his labels Loftwerk and Nu-Bang, are truly underground. He currently owns CSL Design, a company specializing in dance club sound, lighting, and furniture. I interviewed Loftis by phone over a year ago in preparation for my article on the Warehouse, but his story stands on its own, filling in many details about Chicago’s original house clubs.
Jacob: Where did you grow up?
Loftis: I grew up in the South Side of Chicago in a little area called Maple Park, out south in the hundreds.
So how did you get into music?
At fifteen I was real heavy into house music. It was actually disco and club music, stuff like that. Friends of mine, we used to sneak into the Warehouse. This was Robert Williams’ club and Frankie [Knuckles] was the DJ at the time. We were actually too young to get in there but we found our ways up in there, and we started throwing parties when I was in high school. We’re trying to imitate what we learned and saw at the Warehouse. We started a group called Vertigo and started throwing parties at a place called Sauer’s and [at] the Loft. Our parties were always so hot, everybody loved them. Little did they know—the kids—when the parties was over we would go to the Warehouse and this was where we were getting all of our inspiration from.
I remember watching Frankie DJ and seeing the response the crowd would have on him and everything, and I asked him would he teach me how to DJ and he told me no, he wouldn’t. It was so funny because that was my driving force for me to learn how to DJ on my own. I eventually ended up becoming partners with Frankie—became his chief engineer for seven years. He inspired me to go to Columbia. I got a degree in sound engineering and art and entertainment management at the same time I was managing his club, the Power Plant.
When you say manager, you mean the whole club?
Actually I started out as just the sound engineer. I came in—Frankie had an issue one time with his existing sound engineer, and they had a bad break-up. I was coming to see Frankie; I used to come down to the club to see him all the time before the club opened because at this particular time I was doing edits and things like that. I wasn’t making music yet, but I was editing, doing remix edits and stuff like that, and I would bring them down to the club early so Frankie could hear them before he played ’em that night. And his sound system wasn’t working, and he said, Oh my God, I’m so glad to see you, can you help me out?
At this particular time, this was the time I was in my last year at Columbia and I was about to graduate in engineering and I worked on his sound system, and about five minutes before it was time for the doors to open we got it cranking, and it sang, and then I looked at him and I said, “Do I get the job?” and he said, “Hell yeah.” And that’s how I became his sound engineer, and from that point—I was also doing art and entertainment management at the time, and as I was engineering for Frankie I started noticing certain things that could better the club and then he made me the manager. So I was manager slash engineer—all of that.
Lo and behold, because Frankie and I was working together we started working with Jamie Principle. Back in the day, man, people don’t realize—everybody here in Chicago are stuck on what they call classics and they want it like the old school, like it was, but what they fail to realize, everything back then was brand new. I mean you would have artists, Chip E., Steve “Silk” Hurley, Jamie Principle, they would literally bring us reel to reels down while the party was going on—stuff that had never ever been played before, never heard in existence. And if we liked it, we would mix it in our set right then and there. And then they’ll say all these songs now have become classics, which is, I would say, our curse here in Chicago, because there’s so much new music and good artists that are out here now that are trying to make a name, but because of the fact that we’re losing so much to people stuck in the past, it won’t allow the music to grow where the powers that be can either make some money off of it or see that it’s a viable market and maybe we can get some stuff on radio like it used to be.
Right after that I became chief engineer for D.J. International Records which was the number one independent label here in Chicago. At one point, anybody and everybody that had anything to do with house music in Chicago was signed to D.J. International. It was the hottest label in this city. At that particular time, house music and hip-hop was running neck and neck. We were getting just as much airplay as they were; we were doing videos, all of that, and for some reason the powers that be decided that they wanted to put more into the hip-hop market than the house market. But back then in the eighties, we were just as strong. It was unbelievable. So we actually had that chance, and then we lost that window of opportunity for house music to get as big as it was doing overseas.
Why do you think that didn’t work out? Homophobia?
I would probably say back then, yeah, it probably was, because it kind of tended the gay market was more into the house music and underground and trance and techno and all that kind of stuff, but [what’s] so ironic is if you walked into any black gay club now in Chicago, or period in the United States, there is no house music playing. They’re all hip-hop heads. They don’t even like house music [laughs]. It’s so funny.
What’s really funny, a lot of the DJs now don’t even know it. The only reason I know it is because I’ve been playing for the black gay market for so many years. I just recently stopped playing. I did Sizzle Miami which was one of the largest parties in Miami—it’s a whole weekend event. The majority of the black gay scene throughout the United States is all hip-hop now. But now I see a new generation coming in that’s trying to make that change—they want to hear more house music. And that’s a good thing because it’s an opportunity for us to really, really expand, and then I see a lot of the overseas market people trying to touch back to the roots of where the house music came from and the sound that was really created right here in Chicago.
People always want to say, Where was house music created? It was created here. And what is house music? More my definition... take a group of DJs who really can’t play but [who] can program the shit out of drum machines, and let them listen to a classic disco song, and their rendition of it is how house music was created.
We heard all these classic songs and classic strong disco that Frankie was playing at the Warehouse and at the Power Plant, Ron playing at the Muzic Box, and the younger people that were getting into the drum machines and drum programmers back then realized that, in the early eighties, it’s like, Hold on, I can’t play, but I can program a drum machine. So that’s why early house music, if you notice, had very, very strong drum tracks with very minimal keyboard work. But the keyboard chords were always the same chords that were in an old disco classic song. That’s how it developed its identity of being like a stripped-down version of disco.
I mean that’s where New Yorkers try to say that they created it. No, they were one of the catalysts because their sound, like [The] Sound of Philadelphia and all of that coming out of New York was what we were trying to imitate, but by us trying to imitate it, we actually created a whole new sound. And as time went on, more of the kids that were doing it actually learned how to play and became musicians. And as you start doing tracks, you wanted to hear more instrumentation. You wanted to hear vocals on it, and all of that. Because if you remember, back in the day, original house music the vocals were really crazy. Very minimal and just really stupid [laughs]. Don’t want to say stupid, but um, didn’t really make too much sense. But it was geared towards the dancefloor and that was all that mattered. Like I say with the invention of the 909 and the 808 where drum machines became real easy to program, we took it to a whole ’nother level. A whole ’nother level.
Back in the day, what were some of the clubs you used to go to besides the Power Plant?
Well for us, it started off at Sauers and the Loft. These were the king clubs. These were the clubs that all the high school kids were doing parties. The Playground, Sauers, the Loft, First Impressions. These are all names that are synonymous with original house music in Chicago for the high school students. And then back in that time I was still doing the gay clubs as well.
The first gay club that I went to at that time was the Warehouse—U.S. Studios, Robert Williams’ club, and then from there I experienced the Ritz. That’s where Craig Cannon was playing, and Craig was a very strong catalyst in my career. A lot of people think it’s Frankie. Frankie and I, yeah, became very, very close and very, very good friends, and he helped me move my career along, but Craig was the one who actually gave me my very first start as a DJ. He actually allowed me to play at the Ritz and a couple of other places that he was doing. Then he had Martin’s Den—I was doing an off set for Martin’s Den. The Power Plant, the Muzic Box. Yeah, that was pretty much it. La Mirage, which was the Clique where all those people got killed at. Yeah, that used to be a house club. Same owners too, by the way.
E2! That was the last name it was. It never changed ownership, it just changed management and direction of where they were going, but it started off as an underground house club.
What was Sauer’s like inside?
It was a big restaurant—it was just a giant restaurant. I was never eating there. ’Cause it was a concrete floor, it was just a giant big room with brick walls, concrete floor, a big tree in the middle of the floor, and after the restaurant closed they would move all of the tables and chairs to one side and then it would be the club. It was right around the corner from E2 on Michigan Ave. but they tore the building down. It was on 22nd and something. I forgot the address.
That’s why everybody who did underground house wanted to do a party in that area, ’cause you had the Muzic Box on 16th, you had La Mirage, which was E2, over there on Michigan, then you had all these other places. Craig [Thomson] and Butch had the Playground, which was on 16th and Michigan. The Loft, which was the number one club, was right across the street on 16th and Michigan—it was across the street from the Firehouse, that restaurant. This area was the mecca for house music and underground club music.
You did stuff at the Loft?
Yeah, I did all my stuff at the Loft across the street. And there was another little joint right next store—it was like every corner had a club. Right across the street from the Playground was a little club called First Impressions. And we used to do parties there too. So Vertigo was around, we were always around.
What was the Loft like inside? Was that a small place?
Yeah, it was like about 3000 square feet. It was real close to the Warehouse. ’Cause see the original Warehouse was 3000 square feet; it was just three floors. In the original Warehouse you walked in, you walked up the stairs, you had the lounge area. And you go downstairs to the club area where the dancefloor was and then you’d go down, keep going downstairs even further and that’s where the fruit juices and the fruit and all that stuff was set up at. And then each floor was like 3000 square feet.
And then, like I say, the Loft was made the same way, basically. It just was one floor. You’d go up the stairwell and then you had one open loft space which was like about 3000 square feet.
And a great sound system there too?
We used to rent sound systems. The Chosen Few was our DJs, and they used to rent sound systems and bring ’em in. We knew Frenchie. Frenchie was one of the big sound rental guys. Even at Sauer’s we used to rent sound systems. As I say, we all worked hand in hand. We had the promoter, then we had the DJs and the rental guys—Dewyane Woods and all those. So we all kind of fed off each other, and that’s how we all became really good friends.
The places like the Warehouse—now they had a hella fine sound system. That was a Richard Long sound system, and Richard Long was one of the premier sound designers in New York City. He was actually one of my sound mentors. I studied his work very well when I took over the Power Plant and re-did the system at the Power Plant—it was based on a Richard Long design.
What kind of gear did you put in there?
Altec Lansing Voice of the Theaters [giggles]. Had them hanging from the ceiling with JBL double scoops on the floor and three infinite-baffle bass speakers that were custom-made that had no air-holes, so basically they handled your sub- sub-frequencies. There was one in the DJ booth, one in front of the DJ booth, and one—and I’m talking about this box [that] was about four-feet high, eight-feet long, and it was an infinite-baffle bass speaker. There was one there. There was one across from the elevator. And it was tight. And I had four JBL double-scoops in the corners and Altec Voice of the Theaters hanging from the ceiling.
What kind of crowd was at the Power Plant?
It started out a gay club. It started out, but it made a very, very strong transition real quick. So did the Muzic Box. The Muzic Box started out as a gay club, and both of them made transitions so fast, because you had just such strong interest in house music. So they flipped the script.
So the Power Plant was Friday nights, and the Muzic Box was Saturday nights. Would the same people go to both nights?
Well, majority of them would, but then you got your loyal fans. Ron started to develop his own clique and then Frankie and I and our group started to develop our own clique. At one point people thought it was starting to be a rivalry, but it really wan’t. We were really good.
So you went to the Muzic Box too?
Yes, I actually installed the DJ booth…. The Muzic Box was first on 16th and Indiana. Unbelievable space. When Robert [Williams] lost that space, the guy who owned the Ritz, where Craig Cannon was, opened up an underground club. He wanted to get into the house market ’cause he saw how vital it was with the Power Plant and the Muzic Box. He saw all that money and how it was being made, so he wanted a piece of that. So he actually rented a space under lower Michigan Ave. The address was under Michigan Ave., but it was lower Wacker. Craig had tried to open up that club, and they called it R2 Underground meaning Ritz 2 Underground. It didn’t go over real big and Fred [Morris], decided to lease the space out. And he leased it to Robert and Robert brought Ronnie in and that’s when it was the Underground. That was the Muzic Box, but they called it the Underground.
At the particular point it was R2, that’s when I did the work for him. I designed the DJ booth. It was one of the first pendulum-hanging suspended turntable sets in the city. I was trying to figure out a way of preventing the vibrations, ’cause the floor was really, really rickety in there, so I hung the coffins from the ceiling, and it floated while everything else was stationary. Instead of floating the turntables themselves, I floated the whole coffin.
And that’s when I started getting into club design and things like that. And I actually took it to a whole ’nother level. Right now I own an interior design company called CSL Design. I specialize in sound and lighting, but right now I do mainly interior design. I actually build furniture for night clubs and restaurants. I’ve done Spy Bar, Buzz, Aldente, Glow. A lot of the clubs are closed now, but I did Reunion, Shadow Bar, Chromium—just to name a few of ’em here in the city. I had something of my furniture within just about every club in this city at one point—the hot clubs.
Are you still doing Loftwerk Productions too?
Yeah, I do still do Loftwerk Productions. That is the music side of my company. We run Loftwerk Records and Nu-Bang Records, which is part of my other organization, Nu Bang Clan. That’s where the name Grand High Priest comes from. I am Grand High Priest of the Nu-Bang Clan.
I was pleased when you reissued “Yes It’s Right.” I had been looking for that one.
Are you really serious? You know, it’s so crazy... somebody booted it, and they put it out overseas, and they thought it was a Ron Hardy track, and they were calling it the hidden Ron Hardy track, and then the guys from Discogs hit me up and found out that that was mine, and we kind of got that cleared up, and then that’s when I decided to go ahead. I had so many people asking me for that track, but I had lost the master, so I finally found a clean copy of it from Gene Hunt and tried to get it remastered. Then I actually took a loop out of it and did additional production and had a couple of other people do some stuff on it and then re-released it. I got a couple ideas about some stuff, because you know what’s really funny? It shows you how stuff is ahead of its time. If you listen to “Yes It’s Right” and then go listen to “[The] Red Room” by Dennis Ferrer.