The House That Lil' Louis Built

Being at the vanguard of house music from its inception was much less pleasure than pain, as DJ, producer, writer and now filmmaker Lil' Louis launches the world's first house music exhibition

Feature by Ray Philp | 03 Oct 2012

Self-indulgence is a tough cheque to cash in most circumstances, and in pages such as these, is afforded the sort of welcome reserved for the South East Asian leg of a Gary Glitter comeback tour. Where Louis Burns is concerned, though, it's a quality that electronic music has good reason to be eternally grateful for.

Lil' Louis, as the DJ, producer, writer and filmmaker is better known, began DJing at the ridiculously precocious age of twelve as a result of what the Chicago house legend calls "fated accident." 

"My mother was giving a lot of parties back in the day, and she gave these events for the community. She would put together these things so she could drive people together and teach them how to be more harmonious. This particular event was a very risky event. It was involving opposite street gangs, so the reason she did this was because it was very violent in our area and she figured that if she could bring them together to have them sit and talk to reach other, or at least co-exist, she could figure out a way to allay all of the madness.

"I was serving punch at the time, and the DJ, in the middle of the set, had an epileptic seizure. They had to escort him out and take him to the hospital. And what that left was about 200 angry gangsters threatening to shoot up the place. Literally pulling out guns. So my mother said: 'Louis, go play a song.' And I'm like: 'What!? I don't know what to do.' 

"'Go play something, figure it out!'"

Lil Louis became a fast learner by necessity - he got out of that particular jam by playing, appropriately enough, Kool & the Gang's Jungle Boogie - but the next few years were to prove no less challenging than the baptism of fire he overcame in 1974. Chicago nightclubs in the mid-to-late 70s were as far removed from the ecstasy haze of the 90s as one could imagine; "hostility" is a word Lil' Louis repeats throughout in reference to his hometown, narrowing his eyes underneath a light brown leather trilby as he recalls an era he has little reason to be particularly fond of. "There was a lot of bias back then, it was very segregated… Chicago still is the most segregated place in the world, in my opinion.

"There was a lot of hostility born because of that. What we were trying to do was figure out a way to allay that. And it was a very difficult task in the 70s because there was no celebrity DJ when I started. You were considered a jukebox, and I've always kind of had the personality that if you want me, you want me. You don't want what you think of me, you want me

"In other words, I'm not gonna just play the way you want me to play, I'm gonna play what I like to play because you hired me. What that resulted in was glasses and bottles being thrown at me. I got fired from every club that I played for the first five years."

Speaking ahead of a self-curated museum exhibit dedicated to house music as part of the Sub Club's 25th anniversary celebrations, there are few DJs more qualified to tell an authoritative history of a genre and culture that remains so fundamentally misunderstood in popular discourse. A raft of documentaries have sought to proclaim their version of events as the definitive account, but Louis insists that his forthcoming film, The House That Chicago Built, will tell the "real" story. 

"There's a lot of misinformation. I stayed quiet because some of the people that were presenting their versions of the history of house were either colleagues of mine – friends that I either helped or supported during the years – and also people that I felt were trying to get it right. 

"So because they were trying to get it right, I didn't want to bash it, but I intentionally declined to be in any one of them, because realising what it was from the beginning, I didn't want to partake in something that was misinformed and wasn't true.

"The biggest thing is, they weren't there. None of them. I'm not being mean, but I'm just telling the truth. If you look at every single documentary – every single one – that has been done, not one of those guys was there in 1974. None of them. Most of them are telling the story from the 80s. There's a lot of stuff that happens from '74 to '82, '83 that built up to what we know as house music. And I mean, there are so many unsung heroes, like so many people that I know – because again I was there – that have never been mentioned, just never got any kind of due."

While the suspicion lingers that the film is not the wholly altruistic exercise Lil Louis would wish to portray – Lil' Louis, after all, is not a name heralded as often in such histories as that of Larry Levan or Frankie Knuckles – it is at least borne of a genuine desire to pursue filmmaking with the same craftsmanship as he did DJing and producing, and was the main reason that his production output ground to a halt in 2004, having also announced his semi-retirement from DJing at the time.

"Taking something like that on is not a part-time gig. Anything you do well or you are deemed great at, there's a lot of time that needs to go into that. I didn't know anything about film. Nothing. I just knew that whenever I created music, I approached it from a visual perspective, and a lot of people say, you know, with Club Lonely, with French Kiss, they could feel this visual thing, but what it was, was this frustrated director in there trying to get you to see the colours, trying to get you to the video, the visual end of it. 

"But because I cold only provide the audio, I couldn't show you the colours. As a director, I can show you the actual colour, the composition of it. I can give you a depth of field that I couldn't give you from a musical perspective."

These days, bottles and glasses seldom present themselves as occupational hazards (though try telling that to anyone billed at the Slam Tent), but what Lil' Louis – alongside a select band of DJs who begat house, disco and everything that came after – has done over the last near-four decades amounts to far more than the preservation of one's shardless coupon. Indeed, that house music has even survived so long as to merit its own exhibition, Lil' Louis says, is nothing short of remarkable. 

"Firstly, I'm very proud of what it took to get it there, because the other thing that this film is gonna show is that this wasn't a simple journey, and it certainly wasn't a pleasant journey. It was a lot of pain affiliated with it. Dynamic pain, y'understand, like necessary things. In fact, I was telling the owner of Sub Club (Mike Grieve), what I loved about Scotland, what I loved about this culture - it mirrors my culture. You guys are always fighting through shit, you're always fighting through something, and that's why I have this connection with Sub Club, because we're fighting together. 

"I think what I'm most proud of is the result of that fight. Now, eight, nine, ten generations removed, these DJs don't even realise how easy they have it. They don't realise how much we had to struggle to get them in a position where they could do what we did now. I'm proud of that," he says, reclining gently into his chair and tilting his eyes above the rim of his hat. "I'm proud of that."

The House that Chicago Built is due for release later in the year.