VERB on The Music Box
Stacey Collins, aka VERB, started working security at The Music Box in 1983. She was friends with Robert Williams, who brought Frankie Knuckles to Chicago, and with Ron Hardy, who famously made The Music Box his own. Her brother Lee DJed on WHPK, and for a time Stacey, Lee, and Andre Hatchett promoted parties as Move of Life. VERB is currently program director for the online radio show SpicyPimps. She was kind enough to share her stories and her love for music via phone last week.
Jacob: You were friends with Ron Hardy?
VERB: We were friends. I used to work down at The Music Box. I used to just be a party-goer for a while, but I was there so often. My best friend Avery worked there, he was like you might as well work, ’cause you’re here all the time, so I was like yeah, I might as well get paid for it.
What did you do?
Security. Checking IDs. Had to check women’s purses and things like that.
When did you start going out to clubs?
I was in high school, so I want to say ’83. Parties like Sauer’s on 23rd St. Then there was The Playground on S. Michigan Ave, and The Music Box was first on 16th and Indiana. I went once, and I didn’t go in. I remember being outside, some friends of mine, we were in high school, and we went down there ’cause we heard about this place. And so I ended up going. I didn’t go [in] there until they moved to 326, lower level, on Michigan Ave. And that’s when I started going there, and I loved it. You know, I’d been used to some of that stuff that had been going on at the parties I’d been going to, at The Playground and Sauer’s and stuff like that, but it was just amped up, it was on a whole other level. It was completely different, it was far more underground, and it was just a different scene. I don’t know how else to explain it.
The drugs were a lot more prevalent, I will definitely say that. Those were good days for drugs. We were doing Ecstasy back then… we used to call it MDA. Yeah, the acid and the drugs, all that stuff was really out there. You’ll probably hear a rumor that there was acid in the water. There was no acid in the water, so I want to make that clear right now. ’Cause you’ll probably hear that and that’s not true. But there were definitely lots of drugs down there, that’s for sure.
My partying days under Ron Hardy started at 326, and that’s when they took over the old R2 Underground. Craig Cannon and Andre Hatchett used to DJ there. That’s what it was before Robert Williams came in.... He owned The Warehouse and The Music Box, and then they came in and they took over R2 Underground. Right about that time Frankie had already got The Power Plant up and running.
So how late did those parties go?
Well The Music Box, their hours were from midnight until whenever Ron got tired. And that would usually be about eight, nine. Sometimes he would be in a good mood and go to ten. Those were really good times.
It was a juice bar officially?
Yeah, that’s what it was listed as, as a juice bar. But I mean it’s not like they served anything other than water and fruit. That’s really all they gave you. But you didn’t care. That was the thing, nobody cared. It was very bare-bones, but nobody cared because everybody was really just there for the music.... It ran as a juice bar so it could operate those late hours, back then, that’s when you could do all that. That’s when the city was fun.
There were boosters that would cause mischief?
Yeah, that was one of the problems that I think led to the shut-down of this whole juice bar situation in Chicago. At that time Medusa’s was open and a lot of the neighborhood people were complaining they were tired of people with blue hair pissing on their lawn and stuff like that. So that was a problem on the North Side. And downtown you had some of the boosters, they would knock out the windows, you know at Marshall Field’s and the stores downtown on State St. They’d knock out the windows and steal stuff. And it got to the point where they had to have these non-breakable windows. I do remember being with this guy by the name of Reese, and he picked up a garbage can and he went to throw it at a window, and it bounced back. So that was kind of wild to me. ’Cause I was like, wow they’re tired of you guys breaking their shit out like that, so they went and got some special glass! But there were definitely lots of boosters that would come down there. They were there to party.
I remember one guy, a friend of mine, he wanted to get in the party. He didn’t have any money, so he gave me a pair of designer glasses, a jar of Grey Poupon mustard, and some champagne. I don’t know how he got these random items, but that’s all he had! I was like, okay, I’ll go with it. I don’t need the champagne. I’ll take the Grey Poupon and the glasses.
Ron wasn’t really into too much of that, he was busy in his booth. Ron was quite the eclectic dresser. Those high fashions really weren’t his thing. He was a very odd dresser. He put the strangest combinations together, like once I saw him with these Espadrilles with some sweat socks. I mean the tube socks with the colors, the rings around the top. I was like okay, who wears tube socks and Espadrilles.
Did people hang out with him in the booth?
If he liked you.... He didn’t have a whole lot of people in there. It was pretty small, ’cause you got all his records in there, so yeah that took up a lot of space. But outside of the booth on the dancefloor right in front there, you’d always see a bunch of people standing around watching him spin, trying to see what he was playing.
Would other DJs come and check him out?
Yeah, I do remember Gene Hunt coming down there. My brother used to have a radio show on HPK called “Disco Madness.” Lee would definitely be down there ’cause we were down there partying all the time. In fact he was going out way before I was.
So how loud was it?
Oh my God! Let me tell you, one time, this was after I started working there, I guess right up stairs there was a health food store. He had played so loud one night, there was a guy from the health food store, he came down and he talked to Robert, the owner, and he told Robert, look you will have to turn the music down because when I came in this morning there were vitamins all over the floor....
Ron played very loud, and I think that’s probably why I have ringing in my ears sometimes still to this day. These people I know from the party, they will tell you they still have some ringing, every once in a while. So I guess it would have helped if we didn’t stand by the speaker, that would have been a little smarter, but when you’re partying, you’re not thinking about that.
Were there lights?
It was relatively dark, but they used eggshell strobes.
Did Ron control those?
Yeah, he did. He handled all of that. He just took care of the party, that’s exactly what he did. He took care of the dancefloor that he owned.
What would you say was unique about him?
Definitely his edits. Some of his edits were a little sloppy, in my opinion they could have been better, but we were partying so hard and it was so loud most people didn’t even catch it. But I liked music a whole lot so I would catch little things that most people wouldn’t know. Some of ’em were really good. I think his “Jungle D.J.” was a little sloppy to me. “Let No Man Put Asunder” was excellent. That’s probably his trademark right there.
When he first heard “It’s House,” he thought that song was so fuckin’ stupid, he thought it was ridiculous. And it was interesting, ’cause that was on a Friday and then on Saturday night I remember when he played it I was surprised that he was playin’ it. I was like, I thought he hated this song! So I was just standing there off on the side on the dancefloor just watching the party and then all of a sudden that’s when I hear it coming in backwards and I’m like, oh shit, what did he do? And I thought that was just the coldest thing ever. He was good for that, playin’ a record backwards. He did that one time with “When You Touch Me” by Taana Gardner. I remember that was my birthday. He played the record forward and then he played the entire record backwards. And it sounded just as good backwards as it did forward.
So he would flip the stylus upside down?
No, he didn’t do all that. He used the reel. He was too high for all that anyway. To be flipping the stylus around, that would have been way too much.
His eclecticism was out of this world. That’s the one thing that attracted me to Ron’s music the most. Because I love all genres, I mean from Pagliacci to The Mothership Connection I listen to just about everything. I love that about Ron. At a Ron Hardy party you did not know what you were going to hear. I mean at the touristy time when you had a lot of kids coming down, I’d say between opening ’til about maybe four, five, he’d play a lot of that stuff like “Let No Man Put Asunder,” “Love Is the Message,” “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” but after that is when he started really digging into the crates, and pulling out stuff. You didn’t know what you would hear. I mean you could hear The Clash, James White & The Blacks, The B-52’s “Mesopotamia,” just everything. He would play anything from punk to disco to you name it. “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow.... He played “Grazing in the Grass” by The Fifth Dimension. He played everything. It was his uncanny ability to be able to read the crowd, he knew when he could play certain things, and then after a while it didn’t matter ’cause it was Ron and whatever he played, he was God, so if he played it then it was okay.
One night he played “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman. I remember ’cause it was Halloween, I was high as hell, and I was standing in the back of the club and I was thinking what the hell? I’m watching these people dance and they were so into this. I’m watching them dance to this song that was done in the ’30s, I’m like wow, look, he can make people dance to some shit that was done in the ’30s. And so at the break that’s when he brought in Charlie Calello’s version with those big drums and stuff and it was awesome. Everybody went crazy.
What were some of your favorites?
There was the music he would play during the hours when you had a lot of the younger crowd there, and then once the bars closed and the older gay crowd came in, that’s when he really let loose. My favorites from the first part of the night would be “Love Is the Message”—it’s a perfectly orchestrated song, “I’m a Big Freak” by Phreek, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Inner Life. For the later part of the night it would be “Candidate for Love” by T.S. Monk. Nobody could beat that song like Ron. It sounded so good in The Music Box! What else.... “Over Like a Fat Rat,” Fonda Rae, that’s another one of my favorites. “The Jezebel Spirit” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, that was a hot song. “Anger” by Rinder & Lewis, that was hot. But those were really two uptempo songs.
Did he play more downtempo towards the end of the night?
Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t. You just never knew. ’cause I remember what would irritate some people, a friend of mine got mad, one night he ended the party on “Beat the Street.” Which was really rude, especially if you’re high and you’re really enjoying the party! Because you know how it ends, you know, “Beat it!” People were like, whoa, whoa, you can’t let me down like that, you gotta bring me down a little better. You just can’t send me into the world like that! But sometimes he would.
Who were your other favorite DJs?
I loved Andre Hatchett. Back then Andre was so daring, I loved it. He was a lot like Ron in that sense. He just played good music.... And Lee Collins, my brother. He was king of the edits. I don’t think there’s anybody that can edit a song better than Lee. He was very precise.... Unfortunately he lost the case with all his tapes, so he doesn’t have the edits anymore.
I’m trying to locate a tape now, I cannot find it for the life of me, and it’s really bugging me, but it’s a tape I had with some edits that Ron did and I don’t know what I did with it. It had a beat track, I don’t remember what track it was, but it had all the a capellas in it. I had an edit on there, one edit that was special to me because it was an edit he did of “The Walk” by The Time. One night the club had gotten raided, and the police came in. And so Ron was still spinning records, even while the police worked. They had ’em turn up the lights, and so they’re going, checking people, searching ’em for drugs, checking IDs. So Ron’s still playing music, but he’s got it down real low. Not so low that you can’t hear it, you know what they’re playing, but you could still talk freely ’cause the cops were there questioning people. So he puts on “The Walk” by The Time. In that song there’s this part where Morris Day says, “We don’t like police men.” What he did is he looped it, so that’s all you kept hearing is, “We don’t like police men.” So they weren’t really happy with that, so the sergeant made him turn it off.
You said Mayor Daley shut everything down?
Yeah, the juice bar thing ended. Juice bars had to follow the same laws as regular bars, so they had to close at 3 during the week and 4 on the weekends.
So that’s when COD’s opened, when it got shut down for good?
Yeah, that was New Year’s Eve, 1987. It was a marathon party and we ended up finishing out that marathon at COD’s. And then Robert decided he was going to do Saturday night parties, but then they were going to resume them on Sunday afternoon and go until 3:00 or whenever they had to close. And that didn’t go off as well as Robert anticipated. So they really did hurt the scene, that change in the laws with the juice bars.
Somebody I forgot to mention, Ron Braswell, he was the manager at the club. He died in ’86. Robert is more like a visionary, he has an idea, and he can bring it to life. He knows what a good party is. Ron Braswell ran the party to make sure everything went smoothly because Robert doesn’t focus long enough to do that. Things started looking a little bleak after Ron Braswell died, and then after we got shut down Jan 1, ’87. Then I knew this was pretty much the beginning of the end. And it was.
COD’s was just for a couple of months?
Yeah, it was just a couple months. After that we went to 650 W. Lake St. It had potential. The negative was it didn’t have a wood floor like The Music Box did which was always so beneficial to a party. They had concrete floors and it wasn’t good ventilation. It just didn’t really work out well. After that he went to 22nd Street, yeah 2210, the old Powerhouse. Where Frankie had started spinning when he came back to Chicago.
So was it Frankie versus Ron? Was there rivalry?
Friendly rivalry, I guess you’d say. Frankie definitely had his crowd, and Ronnie definitely had his crowd. Ron’s crowd was a little more on the wild side. Frankie was a lot more tame, a little more laid back and bourgeois so to speak. Ron was more gutter.
If you wanted Ron to really, really play well that night, you’d piss him off. That would do it. If you made him mad, he would play wonderfully. And I do remember one of the regulars at The Music Box, his name was “Mayor Byrne,” that was his nickname, he came down, and this was right after Frankie came back from New York and he was spinning at The Powerhouse. Mayor Byrne came into the booth and he was like, Bitch, you’d better watch out, somebody gonna take your job. Frankie’s back bitch, Frankie’s back! And that made Ron really mad, ’cause he was like, Fuck Frankie! So that night he played like never before. He gave us an awesome party that night. But after that Mayor Byrne was barred from the DJ booth for a while ’cause Ron was mad at him. But he got the party going really really hot that night, so I was thankful for that.
Frankie’s parties and Ron’s parties, they were very different. You could go to a Frankie party and be dressed very well, and then you’d leave dressed very well. But if you went to one of Ron’s parties you weren’t going to leave dressed so well. It was just a harder atmosphere, it was more raw, a little more rugged. When you left there your clothes were all sweated out, you just looked a mess. You really didn’t want to wear anything too too nice. You know, you had some people who liked to dress that way, but most of the hardcore party people, they were coming down there in some jeans and T-shirts. They were just trying to hang out and have a good time. And that was another thing, the crowd was very diverse. You had a few white people there, black people, Latinos, gay, straight, you had gang-bangers, you had non-gang-bangers. Everybody was there just for one thing, and that was just to hear Ron. And he was awesome. Damn, he was awesome.