There are some great DJs on the scene today and many are considered just as relevant as a musician on various levels. If you had the pleasure of partying before 1982 in Chicago in the infancy stage of house music but the decline of the disco era, you would have heard of DJ Lora Branch.
An alumni of Lindbloom High School, a South Side educational institution that graduated some of the city’s most prominent leaders today, Branch is considered among the first recognizable Black female DJs on the scene in the early 1980’s. When talking about the history of house music and who was popping on the party circuit during that time, Branch’s name comes up in various circles. As a trailblazer, Branch’s talents as a DJ was in the same lane with some familiar names on the Chicago dance circuit—Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley also a Lindbloom graduate, Alan King, Craig Loftis and Frankie Knuckles to name a few.
What continues to set Branch apart from being just another good looking woman DJ with skills — is her heart. Almost every DJ or promoter who has worked with Branch has witnessed the best signature skill of them all – her love of sharing and mentoring.
CD: How did you get started as a DJ?
LB: I was part of a group called Vertigo. This was one of the many punk dance music social groups in the early ’80s. They threw parties for kids, big events and typically had 200-500 people that would show up on the weekends. The group wanted to have its own DJ. I also collected music, toying with it in high school. They decided they would make me the DJ. There weren’t many DJs on the scene back then. The Chosen Few were starting out and many of us were learning how to spin records as well as be club DJs.
A couple of people who influenced me were Craig Loftis and Eric Bradshaw who really were creators of Vertigo. They bought me some turntables and told me to learn how to spin music. I worked with Jose Lopez who taught me the craft in our basement. So, I started doing the clubs and parties. Although, I was exclusively the group DJ, afterwards I did some stuff with the Chosen Few and kind of broke out on my own after the Vertigo dissolved.
CD: It’s a very male dominated field. What made you stand out among the guys? How did you build that respect?
LB: There weren’t a lot of women that were doing this at the time. If a woman was entering a male dominated field, a woman would have to compete with them. I would have to prove my worth, so I had to enter battles. I had to be as good if not better than my peers. It was a great deal of practice and dedication. At the time, I was in and out of college and I was a club kid, going out every single night so I knew all of the DJs and the places to go.
CD: How does this command respect?
LB: You know what you’re doing. You’re not galloping horses out there; you’re blending, you’re moving the crowd but you’re also introducing new elements. The things that make it work.
CD: You just mentioned blending. Do you feel that this is what separates Chicago DJs from DJs in other markets? Is that the signature skill that you must have to be considered a skilled DJ especially in Chicago circles?
LB: I would say yes. That was the main thing that people focused on in the beginning. It was a quiet skill and not many people could do it. Mainly because music was constructed before the digital age. You had to be able to understand ‘phrasing’ and what blends would work and what wouldn’t work, the tempo and manipulating by using your fingers. You just couldn’t press a button and sync that ‘122’ and that ‘122’ together. There was more to it in matching a sound and creating an evening. Earlier on, Chicago DJs had the room for the night so you were able to create a mood.
Also, what was the signature sound of that DJ? You could tell the difference between Frankie and Andre or myself and Celeste. You could tell who was spinning just listening to how they spin and blend.
CD: What has created a level of balance for you between your personal and professional lives?
LB: I have always tried to maintain a balanced life. I did not go into music as a profession. I went to Columbia College and got a degree. I wanted to be in the industry working part-time trying to support myself, working in recording studios and being a DJ. I did a couple of projects with Frankie Knuckles when I realized I couldn’t do it full-time. The balance was knowing this is my art. It helped to sustain me spiritually. It’s a place where I meditate, it’s a place where I feel that I’m nourished by the music. By keeping it in that perspective, it helped me not to get caught up. There were times where I depended on that as my living. When it became a full-time job for me, it was not as pleasurable. You’re depending on the whim of producers, club owners and promoters to make your life. Unless you’re playing all of those roles, you don’t control your career as much.
I actually raised my niece when I working playing hip hop in the early 90’s, playing house music and trying to raise a teenager. Something had to give so for me, I pick places where I want to work. I pick the people that I want to play to. I don’t accept a lot of work that is offered to me. I’m fortunate in this way because I still get offered a lot of work. I decided that I would not go into it as a producer because I didn’t have the time. I was interested in other things. I wanted to hold it in a sacred place where I enjoyed it. That’s how I create balance.
CD: We know the love and passion for the music as a DJ is there but you also have another meaningful mission.
LB: I’ve been working in HIV AIDS work for the last 20 years. I worked for the City of Chicago managing all of the programs within the HIV AIDS division for a long time. Now, I work for Gilead Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company. I manage Chicago and Detroit in our HIV portfolio as it relates to linkage to care programs.
That’s been my life because of the music. I lost a lot of friends to AIDS when I was a DJ. People that I loved who were friends and mentors are no longer here. Also, people that I mentored as well. It really pushed me into that career. It’s been a great way to keep all of the elements of my life in one place.
CD: What’s some of the advice that you can share with other female DJs?
LB: There are a lot more people in the field now. I got work because I was unique and stood out everywhere. People knew me and I made friends with people who are now leaders in the field. My advice is that you have to be good to everybody. Everyone who is coming up behind you needs that same level of support that I received. I love that there are women who can be mentors now. I didn’t have that. I don’t remember one single woman who I said, ‘I want to be like her.’ They were all men.
The cool thing now is that I can look to 100 different females and help. Be kind and give people a leg up. I’ve always felt I want to share everything that I have. I remember with DJ Heather when she was working at the Avalon and I was working under the name DJ Rapture, I felt whatever I had was yours. I think we have to do that for each other as women.
CD: Any future projects that you’re working on?
LB: I’ve produced a few independent films where I’ve done soundtracks. I’m working on a documentary. It’s very far removed and trying to integrate different musical styles. It’s about the Black church and specifically about the history of one on the South Side, working on gospel and soul music for the project.
I also work with ‘By Women, For Women’ at the Center on Halsted. They do more stuff within the LGBT community. I’m organizing a female battle of the DJs. We did one earlier last year, we’re doing one coming up in June where we promote young DJs. We give them an opportunity to battle. I’m all about the battle. It’s great if you’re trying to make a name for yourself. It makes you vulnerable, but it makes you strong.