The Chicago Defender’s Black Music Month Special Edition
Sam Chatman | Breaking Music and Creating Trends
As a teenager, Sam Chatman fell in love with music. He spent most of his adolescence in St. Louis, but moved to Chicago to attend high school. It was the ideal place to soak up the musical diversity of what a big city could offer.
Even though he wasn’t quite old enough, he would hang out in the nightclubs with friends, enjoying the parties. Later, Chatman gradually began to learn how to DJ, following in the footsteps of his Chicago radio DJ idols—promoting parties and spinning at various venues around town including the Burning Spear, Perv’s House, Chicago State University and the 50 Yard Line.
At 59, Chatman is highly regarded as one of the leading creators, still going strong. The popularity of Chicago’s homegrown signature style of dancing has grown outside of the Black nightclubs and neighborhood lounges to other major cities like Memphis, Los Angeles, Charlotte and Atlanta.
Before hip hop DJs began giving ‘shout-outs on the mic at the parties, Chatman was ahead of the curve, often bringing his personal microphone to his party sets. During a time when Black music reigned in the second largest city in the U.S., Chatman was helping to redefine how to party and break new music. One of few with the comforts of being on the radio, his style of spinning built a movement that became known as ‘Steppin’.
Over the years, he’s had his fingerprints on almost everything that had included the dancing phenomena. From the famous, V103 World’s Steppin’ Contest, to his annual Capricorn Ball, he has brought both young and old fans to their feet at last year’s Chosen Few House Music Festival, the African Festival and the Festival of Life. Whether he’s spinning The Chi-Lites or Drake, if he loves a song, he will most likely spin twice.
How did you start out as a DJ?
It’s the love of music. As a high school student, I used to have a lot of parties at home. When I graduated from high school, I attended a Junior College for one year so my friends were 21 and they would be hanging out at the nightclubs. I would go with them. Even though they were great events, I always felt there was something missing. I always felt I could do a better job playing records.
Soon, I was doing parties all over Chicago. I got a chance to mingle and be good friends with a lot of Chicago entertainers like Marshall from the Chi-Lites.
Did you have different performers play at your parties?
One day, I went to see Curtis Mayfield—once I started rolling and I had on my CTA uniform. I figured I had a good job, so he may want to work with me. For some reason, Curtis thought I wasn’t big enough so he sent me to Leroy Hudson. That was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I had Leroy perform at a couple of my events—they were beautiful events.
Then I went to see Jerry ‘Iceman’ Butler because I wanted to book him. Jerry probably thought the same thing as Curtis so he offered me his brother, Billy Butler, to perform. The best thing that could’ve happened to me. From there, the parties exploded.
Which DJs did you admire and were influential in your development as a DJ?
Definitely, Herb Kent, E. Rodney Jones and Pervis Spann—they were my idols. Even though he was a blues guy, I stole a little something from Big Bill Hill. Richard Pegue was on another level. So, I took something from all of these guys as I was coming up. I would listen to the radio and incorporate their styles with my individual twist.
Herb Kent came to one of my events and saw that I had a large following. He asked, ‘How do you get all of these people to these events and you’re not on the radio?’ I hung posters from Maywood to Argyle Gardens. Alderman John Stroger at the time, came to me and said, ‘You’re the first DJ that has his own law passed.’ I was confused and he went on to tell me the city council just passed the ‘Sam Chatman law’. Whereas, people could no longer hang posters on the street signs in the city of Chicago.’ Fortunately, it’s still working until this day. [he smiles]
When I talk to some of the familiar House DJs today, they give you much credit and respect on being one of their first mentors.
Most of them were kids in high school when they would spin for me. When I was in my twenties, I recruited some of the best talented DJs in the city and trained them. When the Hot Mix 5 started, there was a young man, Al McCormick, who put Farley Keith on parties. I would let him play a little bit. Some of the kids from local high schools would pass out the flyers at their schools in exchange for a chance to play at the parties for an hour. That gave them notoriety. I was there when House music started. Most of the DJs who started House, played at my parties. Although, I thought the name ‘House’ music was the stupidest, dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, look at House music today.