DJ Lady D and Mike Dunn Talk the Early Days of Chicago House, ARC Fest, and More

The legendary DJs (and old friends) catch up.

The Chicago DJs and producers DJ Lady D (aka Darlene Jackson) and Mike Dunn are pioneers of the city’s house music scene. The two are old friends, and fresh off of their performances at ARC Festival — a house and techno fest in Chicago — they caught up about their experiences there, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Darlene Jackson: So we both played on Saturday at the festival. You played the Elrow tent — I did get to come through, [but] I didn’t go backstage to say hello. Y’all were doing your thing, you and Gene Farris doing the back to backs. One thing that struck me was that — first of all, the festival was amazing. Literally from start to finish, I loved the curation of all the acts. But I think the back to backs were really cool, and it’s a good way to get more people involved and to line up people who maybe normally would not play together. Because I think that was the first time you and Gene had played together. Is that right?

Mike Dunn: Exactly. Yeah, it was an experience because all of my people were [there]. And I’m sure it was the same for Gene — we were like, “how is this going to work? Because you play this and I play this, and how are [we going to] gel this together and make it sound good?” But, you know, it’s a DJ thing — when you play music, either you’re going to follow or you’re going to lead. So it was a good thing.

It was an experience for me. This is a gift and a curse, but I felt like I was in Europe, with the big festivals. Other than the one in Detroit, festivals like this with house music, dance music, and things like that — we don’t get to get those. This was bananas, man. It was all the bells and whistles. I was looking around like, Wow.

Darlene: They pulled out all the stops. And then the thing about back to backs is, they might look easy, but they’re not. Especially if you’re with someone you don’t always play with. And so it takes a certain skill level to do that. I commend everybody that engaged in that.

Mike: Right. And truthfully — I mean, I didn’t have to be talked into it because it was Gene, but usually I only do back to backs with Terry [Hunter], which is our House N HD thing. So I had to get the blessings from the bro to do that.

Darlene: [Laughs.]

Mike: You know what I’m saying? It’s like, Louie [Vega] does it, but I rarely see Kenny [Dope] doing back to backs — you get Masters At Work or you get nothing.

Darlene: Yeah, true.

Mike: So this, I know how Gene played and Gene basically knows how I play, so we gelled it together. It was beautiful. I didn’t get to check out pretty much any of the festival, because I got there and there was a little time for me to play, and then after I was done — you know how I am.

Darlene: [Laughs.] In and out.

Mike: I come play and I’m out of there! So I didn’t get to see yours.

Darlene: Well, I opened up. So I kind of set the stage for the Expansion area. I thought the curation on that stage was amazing. We had Carl Craig and Seth Troxler, and I go back with both of them. And then Ricardo Villalobos was on, and then Derrick [Carter] and Mark [Farina] came on and did a back to back. And listen, I’ve seen Derrick and Mark do back to backs going back to the ‘90s — that’s an experience. If you weren’t there to see it, it was something special, because they have a communication already, they know each other’s styles, they play really well together. They used to be roommates, you know?

Mike: Gramaphone, baby! That’s the original Gramaphone. 

Darlene: I know, right! And then Honey [Dijon] closed. I thought everything was really great.

Mike: It was a great experience. Like I said, usually I have to cross the waters to be involved in something as big and flamboyant as that.

Darlene: [Laughs.] Flamboyant” — I love that word. I think that perfectly describes it.

Mike: It was just crazy — stilts, and people dressed up, and the whole thing. And for it to be at home, I think that was the thing that touched me the most. I didn’t have to get on trains, planes, and automobiles, you know? 

Darlene: Yeah, I agree. And the caliber of talent that they brought in, they got to see the way Chicago does it. But what I like most about the festival is, I thought it was so intergenerational. I think that people who came up in the House era — the first wave, the second wave, the third wave, kids today — I saw all of that, and everybody enjoying themselves. I saw a lot of people from various communities — my LGBTQ community, young kids, and the older folks, who just wanted to see their favorite people. I mean, where else are you going to see Carl Cox, Derrick Carter, yourself? Everybody that they had on that lineup are masters in the game. And I thought that they did a great job of being really inclusive with women DJs, which you don’t see on a lot of festival lineups at all.

Mike: That’s right. 

You know, I could not even tell you what year [we met]. 

Darlene: Well, I was familiar with your work from a while ago. I think when you did “Magic Feet,” that’s when I really started to know and understand Mike Dunn as a producer and DJ in the city. And then it would be a while before I actually started playing. I met you when you had the studio right off of Ashland, on Kinzie.

Mike: Yeah, right. Right down from Betty Blue! [Laughs.]

Darlene: Yes. [Laughs.] And I think I was over there doing some work with Ron Carroll, or I think Maurice Joshua was in that studio space as well. It was a few of you kind of running in and out. That was a cool little spot. I remember I used to go pick up records from the Music Plant people, or Georgie Porgie and Terry Hunter. And I definitely remember meeting you then, too — I want to say the late ‘90s. [You were] always really cool to me, always really awesome. I remember when my kid was in school and we were having fundraisers and selling taffy apples and all that stuff, you definitely were a contributor.

Mike: Right. And you know I don’t eat the apples, but I’ll eat the caramel on the top!

Darlene: You and Derrick Carter were exactly the same way. Derrick would buy, like, $100 of apples, and I’d show up with the apples one day and he’s like, “I don’t want the apples.” [Laughs.] 

What were the early days like for you? When I was experiencing places like Mendel and The Playground and getting to see Ron Hardy play, did you idolize them at the time? 

Mike: So, first, let me give you your flowers. My recollection is, I was hearing you play out a lot early around [Derrick Carter] and the whole Gramaphone thing. I was like, OK, this girl is serious about her thing. And then actually hearing you play — I’m just trying to remember what was the club, because of course it’s no longer.

Darlene: Right. Clubs come and go in this town.

Mike: Right. But I remember hearing you play and I was like, Oh, yeah, she got some. I’ve always spoken highly of you, because of your dedication and your passion — this isn’t something that you just wanted to do because you ain’t had nothing to do. [Laughs.]

I’m just saying, a lot of people… now, that’s a whole other topic, but a lot of people now, just because it’s the thing to do, [want] to be a DJ. “I want to be up here, I want to get my name called, I want people screaming,” you know. Which is the wrong way of going about it. 

But yeah, I heard you playing, and every time I’ve heard you play, it’s like, D is a beast. And — in a good way, I’m not saying it’s bad — but I feel like you don’t get what you should have. 

Darlene: Aw, thank you.

Mike: You know what I’m saying? You play a lot of parties and you do a lot of things, but they they really don’t understand Lady D, and where Lady D comes from. You get a lot of people that do their history and do their homework, but then you get equally as many people that don’t do it.

I feel like you’re like me — you’re like the female Mike Dunn. You’ve done so much, and you’ve contributed so much, but you get the least of the recognition. Now, I feel like people are starting — you know, once you get involved with the Defected machine, then you get highlighted. I remember standing outside of a club and these girls were talking like, “Where did Mike Dunn come from? He just popped up on the scene!” 

Darlene: [Laughs.] Wonderful.

Mike: This was maybe ten years ago. And of course, Reggie Corner was out there, so you know how that conversation went. [Laughs.] 

Darlene: He educated them. I appreciate you saying that, Mike. 

Mike: That’s real talk. That’s from the heart.

Darlene: Maybe this is our time. We’re just late bloomers. I think that I’ve always approached it with just a quiet reverence, just to do my thing. And whoever I touch, I touch. Of course, recognition is nice, and the recognition that I’ve received has has been really nice — I don’t know any other Black woman that’s played Lollapalooza at Perry’s Tent, to DJ there. And so I’ve had some really special moments in my career, and hopefully those will continue to come. 

Have you ever tried to quit house music? Because I’ve thought about how I should just quit, you know?

Mike: Remember, I did quit.

Darlene: You did quit! Yes, you did.

Mike: Remember when it started getting real hard and I went and did my thing with Bad Boy, when I was with Puff. I stopped for a minute. Cause I’ve always done hip hop and house — that’s what some people don’t know, I’ve been doing both equally as long. So when I went to Puff and did the Bad Boy deal, it was good while it lasted, but then I basically came back to house. I guess that’s why they said, “Mike Dunn popped up,” because I didn’t want to come back to house where I left off. I just wanted to start from ground zero again. So I basically just started doing little guest spots, and doing this and doing that. I didn’t want to come in doing the big parties — I felt like that would be disrespect to the people that were still doing it and keeping it going while I wasn’t doing it. For me just to jump back in front of the line… So I basically started from the beginning again.

But to go back to your question about Ron [Hardy] — can you ask me the question again so that I can answer it?

Darlene: So I was a spectator — I was a participant as a dancer, and going to the event — but you came in at that place producing and DJing. You were around some of the people that we were already considering the greats — the Frankie Knuckles, the Ron Hardys, even Steve Hurley. You know, the people who were on the radio that we were listening to, the Hot Mix 5, Farley [“Funkin” Keith], Kenny “Jammin” [Jason]. You were there with them in the mix. Did you have a sense that they were your peers, or did you idolize them? What was that like, to play at that time?

Mike: I idolized them. The two people I idolized the most in the Hot Mix 5, believe it or not, were Farley and Mickey [“Mixin” Oliver].

Darlene: Oh, yeah.

Mike: The reason Mickey was my favorite was because Mickey was cold on the edits. So I didn’t look at what he was playing, I was looking at what he was doing and how I could incorporate that into my thing. When Mickey would get on and do those edits and chop up the tapes and all that, that’s what got me. That’s what made me a Mickey “Mixin” Oliver fan. And Farley — that’s when it was Farley “Funkin” Keith. Still today, I call him “Funkin.” He’s big brother Funk. But my favorite DJ of all time — and I always say this in interviews, and he just be acting crazy a lot of times — but Leonard Rroy was my favorite DJ.

Darlene: Oh, my god! [Laughs.] He’s too crazy.

Mike: No, for real. Leonard was a beast. I used to go and just watch him edit, or just chop up records. You know, me and Tyree [Cooper] used stay one block away from each other. On Bishop, it was this crew that Tyree took me over to called BTO — that was Brian Frazier and Otto Hines. We’d sit in the basement and I’d see Farley walk in and be like [whispers], “That’s Farley.” Then Leonard would be over there. Just all the DJs would come through that house.

Darlene: That is so wild. I’m just tripping out, because in the ‘90s when I learned how to play, we lived in a loft building in the West Loop, and above us was Derrick and Mark Farina, Chris Nakuza and the Rednail Kids. And then they moved out and I was there with Javon Jackson and Mel Hammond, and we had the same sort of situation. We had six different decks of DJ setups in the apartment, so people used to just come through. And there was a club downstairs called Alcazar, so when they were done playing there, they would come up and we would have after parties and raves in our loft — Terry Mullan, and just anybody that was playing. So it’s wild for me to hear that decades later, the way we did things in Chicago was not very different. In the ‘80s, y’all were getting together, forming community, forming collectives, learning from each other, building relationships that last to this day. 

My favorite experience — you know, I used to go to Mendel a lot, but one day I got taken to The Playground or the Candy Store and got to see Ron Hardy, and that experience has always stuck with me. I always thought he was just a really dynamic guy, the way he played and the way people lost their minds. I just hadn’t been in a room like that, where people were literally crawling up the walls and hanging off the ceiling. I thought he was mesmerizing. He had a very magnetic quality to his DJing. And so when I’m playing in front of a lot of people, something about that experience always comes back to me — to be irreverent, to stay in the moment and to not be so mired in technicality, but to have feeling and let things go in a way that is unbounded and limitless. 

So what do you think about where you’ve come from, where things are now, where things are going? What do you see happening?

Mike: I’m just doing me right now. And I’m enjoying doing me. You know what I’m saying? I mean, house is going to be what it is. It takes its turns, and does this and that. I’ve been here so long and I’ve seen the ups, the downs, the ups, the downs, that I don’t worry about it anymore. When people ask me that, I feel like that’s a question for the younger generation. Hopefully not soon, but, we’re on our final laps. So what we should be doing more is enjoying this experience and not getting so wrapped up in what is it and where is it going. Life is so precious to me, after losing my girl a year ago to cancer. So I don’t…

Darlene: Your perspective is different.

Mike: Right. It’s totally different. And those things aren’t as important to me as they used to be. They don’t bother me the way they used to bother me. So, I can’t answer that question. It’s not at the top of my list. It’s way at the bottom. When I’m thinking about things, I just want to continue contributing the way that I contribute, the way that I can bring in people. 

And if I can help younger people with advice — a lot of people hit me on IG, and I’m being more of a mentor. Because when I got in the game and I saw the Farleys, the Steve Hurleys, the Jamie Principles — I was in the studio with all these people before I was actually doing records. I was, and I still am, a sponge. I’ll sit back and just soak up everything. What I learned from that was what to do and what not to do. So that gave me more of a humbleness. You know, I’ve always been the humble dude — I’ve never been the big head. I never been, “Oh, man, I gotta play at this time, I gotta do this.” I’ve been an opening DJ. And that’s what I explain to [younger people] — people don’t understand how important the opening DJ is. They set the tone of the rest of the night. So if you don’t have a great opening DJ… Or, I hate using the word “opening.” You’re first — it’s just playing.

Darlene: Exactly. I can totally relate — even in relation to ARC Festival, I opened up that stage. One of the things that John Curley [one of the festival’s founders] had said to me was, “Listen, Darlene, you have to be here on Saturday to open that stage. You’re going to set the pace for that whole day.” And I got it. I said, So I did feel honored to be able to set the tone for the day.

Mike: Yeah. It’s what we get labeled, and then people get caught up in that, as opposed to the opportunity and the blessing that you got to even play. They forget that, because they’re so worried about, “Man, I should have been playing—” When you sit down at the table and you have a pie, get your piece and be happy with your piece. Don’t get your piece and then be looking at everybody else like, “Man, why his slice a little bigger than mine?” 

Darlene: [Laughs.] Right.

Mike: You got some of it. Whether it was a little bit or a lot, you got some. You were able to sit at the table and break bread. People miss their blessings.

DJ Lady D, aka Darlene Jackson, is a pioneering DJ and writer from Chicago. She was dubbed “Chicago’s house music queen” by Chicago Magazine