Celeste Alexander is the only female DJ ever to spin at Chicago’s iconic home of Ron Hardy, The Music Box. Having dropped out of the scene for some time, few people outside of Chicago’s tight knit DJ community have heard of Celeste. But after returning to play at the Chosen Few’s annual house picnic over ten years ago, she has been quietly stamping her presence on the city. Bill Brewster caught up with her.
Which neighbourhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in Hyde Park, South Side Chicago. Born and raised on the South Side, Chicago.
Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?
Oh definitely. There was always music around me, mainly jazz, I grew up with the children of Os-car Brown Jr. his daughter Maggie Brown, and his late son Oscar Brown Jr. III, (we called him Bobo). We all grew up from kindergarten all the way through together. Hyde Park was a hotbed of different music, but mainly jazz.
When did you start going out to parties?
In high school. I didn’t like a whole lot of disco at the time but I went to school at Kenwood which was a party school and I was in the same graduating class as Jesse Saunders. I went to junior college with Steve Silk Hurley. I had a real crush in him. We became friends and hot-mixing 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 said it was because they believed they can’t.
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. 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 Andre Hatchett and I struck a friendship that’s been more like brother and sister ever since. He taught me everything from A through Z. He took me to the Warehouse and introduced me to Frankie Knuckles. Once I met Frankie I connected a lot easier with the underground scene than the more commercial scene.
Is it true you dressed as a boy when you first started playing?
When I did the first parties as a DJ, I dressed in baggy clothes and a baseball cap so they didn’t know it was a girl playing. It was deliberate to let you see that it wasn’t gender specific. I started off in a cap, but didn’t end up in one. Once you draw them in, you can do whatever you want and that’s when the hat came off.
I know you’re the only female DJ to play the Music Box. How did that come about?
I was making a lot of noise as a DJ then and Ronnie [Hardy] and Andre were pretty close so I went to the Music Box all the time. Robert Williams owned the Music Box and I dated his younger brother, Rodney, for about three years. It was not far before Halloween and Ronnie came up to me and Andre and I thought he was talking’ to Andre and he says, “Look I got another party and we’ve got a big Halloween party, can you open up?” So I’m looking at Andre waiting for him to answer and Andre’s lookin’ at me saying, “He’s not talking’ to me he’s talking’ 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. Ronnie and I were pretty good friends.
I heard there was a funny story about you playing at the Music Box?
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 ex-tremely funny, and called me that EVERYTIME he wanted to pick at me. He said..."Bitch you just bought a pair of shoes"!
Tell me about Gucci Incorporated.
Gucci Incorporated was David Risque, They threw these really nice high school parties at a place called Sauer’s. It was a huge huge room, almost like a barn type of room. Dave had his exclusive DJs and I was one of them with Steve Hurley, Andre Hatchett and Keith Fobs. 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?
Park Avenue put together the female hot mix group that I was in. Park Avenue was Keith Ed-wards, Rick Lenoir and Stephen Doehrer they put together the Fantastic Four. We were supposed to be the female answer to the Hot Mix 5, although there were actually five of us, with Steve Hur-ley’s sister Angie the fifth one. 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 were Warehouse, COD’s, Music Box, Power Plant. Then there was the next level, a bit more commercial, like the parties at Sauer’s, Mendel, the high school par-ties.
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. Lil Louis was a promoter and DJ. Louis started this cult thing be-cause he was doing this stuff all by hisself. He had his West Side crew, and Louis’ mother owned a speakeasy over there, 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 3 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.
Can you tell me a little about Chicago’s basement scene?
They were house parties and there were a lot of them. I’m talking about two or three hundred kids in these basements. It was another version of an underground party but it was an underground party for heterosexual kids. They were kids who were in high school. We could drink. In neigh-bourhoods in South Shore and Pill Hill 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 3 or 4 o’clock.
Do you have any particular special memories of playing them?
There was a guy called Pink House who used to be on college radio, KKC, he was very influential. He had a lot of basement parties and I played at many of them. They used to be insane . Now I’m a parent and adult I think, “Wow we could’ve easily been shutdown by the fire marshall’s or the police”. This shouldn’t be happening! How is it that you got 250 kids packed in the basement of a three-bed bungalow?! They were 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 par-ty on. Those used to be fun, like really really fun.