Perhaps one of Chicago's greatest assets is its recognition as the birthplace of house music in the early 1980s. A genre that has since traveled the globe and now solicits stronger associations - for many people - with Europe than the United States, house has influenced countless subsequent genres of electronic music and helped define dance music as we know it today. And though it's now well integrated into the musical "mainstream," house began as a community refuge for various types of marginalized groups; its formative years were deeply political and distinctly underground.
In Chicago today, a similar scene continues to thrive. The city's outskirts, basements, LGBTQ+ bars and loft spaces host regularly scheduled parties to celebrate the culturally outcast and the ever-changing landscape of the musical underground. Below are some of the best spots for hearing cutting-edge electronic music - and experiencing Chicago's more eccentric nightlife - this August.
Smart Bar (3730 N. Clark St.)
If you're looking for a beginner's taste of Chicago's against-the-grain nightlife amidst the familiar comfort of sports bars, look no further than Smart Bar. Few hubs have shaped (and continue to shape) the dance music scene in Chicago like Smart Bar; both resident legends and budding talent grace its Funktion-1 soundsystem five nights of the week. The club is situated snugly beneath Metro - just a few blocks from Wrigley Field - and a ticket from the upstairs venue provides free admission to Smart Bar below. All of this makes for an interesting crowd of regulars, post-concertgoers and slightly confused Wrigleyvillers at various times of the week.
The club's name and carefully curated musical lineup generate enough clout to give Smart Bar an air of mystery and glamour, but it's far from sophisticated (and doesn't care to be). The venue's furniture and floors are worn and well-loved from decades of 4 a.m. closing time (5 a.m. on Saturdays). Affordable drink prices, a spacious bar and dance floor, a top-of-the-line sound system and DJs who know how to manage that responsibility earn Smart Bar its standout status in the Chicago music scene - but it's the club's unique character and down-to-earth atmosphere that make it an endearing safe space for many patrons.
Check out Sundays' weekly Queen! with resident house icons Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini, and Garrett David - Smart Bar has played host to every house legend from Frankie Knuckles to Jesse Saunders.
Recommended Event: Queen! every Sunday. $7 all night; doors open at 10pm. 21+.
Wang's (3317 N. Broadway)
Tucked discreetly next to sushi restaurant Wakamono by day, Wang's opens its shuttered porch doors in the evening and allows its customers to spill over onto the sidewalk where diners relax. The two establishments overlap in patrons, a kitchen, seating, and music for a brief couple of hours until the much larger Wakamono locks up for the night and leaves Wang's glowing in its wake like a cozy wooden box. Dim red lighting, darkly polished furniture and subtle Asian decor make the tiny bar room intimate and sophisticated, yet unassuming.
In the back left corner of the room lies an open doorway to the dance floor. This music room is nearly as large as its cozy counterpart, but completely empty save a small performance booth equipped with CDJ 2000s and adorned with three Chinese paper lanterns hanging overhead. Wang's' DJing setup is fairly recently acquired, but it's already played host to a number of local DJs at smaller neighborhood parties and laidback Friday nights. And though you'd be hard-pressed to hear Avicii there, the atmosphere is definitively unpretentious. Wang's' location a block from Halsted/Boystown draws a mixture of LGBTQ+ individuals and Lakeview locals.
Recommended Event: Opium Den on select Saturdays (revolving lineup). Typically $5; bar doors open at 5 p.m., but events don't typically start until 10 or 11 p.m. 21+.
Berlin (945 W. Belmont Ave.)
Berlin is one of the better-known bars in Boystown, and for good reason. The club is well laid-out with plenty of space, two dispersed bars, and numerous elevated surfaces for dancing (which also serve as stages for frequent drag performances). The DJ booth is buried up high in a tiny library-like room where curators can observe the effects of their performances from the enclosure of window-lined bookshelves. It's safe to say that dancing is the primary concern for many Berlin customers, and the music ranges from lounge-like house rhythms to filtered, synth-heavy PC music and everything in between.
Berlin gets pretty crowded on weekends - especially after midnight - but Thursdays tend to offer a more mellow experience. Stardust and Mishka's Total Therapy graces the club on the last Thursday of every month, warming up the weekend with the promise of unique music and open-minded clientele. Total Therapy has an ever-shifting lineup of residents and guest DJs.
Recommended Event: Total Therapy on the last Thursday of every month. Berlin doors open at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (closing at 4 a.m. Wed-Fri and 5 a.m. on Saturdays), but events don't often start until 10 p.m. 21+.
Exit (1315 W. North Ave.)
"Chicago's first punk bar" has been serving up counterculture since 1981 in its narrow, brassiere-lined chandelier establishment. Those itching for dance music are easily confused by the skull and cross bones insignia at the door and the first floor's classic punk-rock decor; it takes a moment of attention to one's ears to follow the pulsing bass lines up the stairs on the right. A dance floor sits between two bars - one elevated, with a large swath of chain link fence separating it from the dancing area - in front of a DJ booth equipped with scarce electronics (compared to other clubs). Most DJs at Exit use the free program VirtualDJ on their computers and bring more complicated technical equipment only if they own it personally.
With cheap neon lights, dirty floors, minimal seating and a fog machine, Exit feels more like someone's high school basement rave than a 4 a.m. bar for adults (except for the 4 a.m. part). In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), it's hosted some of the most consistently popular underground dance parties in Chicago, including Teen Witch Fan Club's #AREA69 and a regular series by internationally-dispersed collective Cold Tech.
Recommended Events: Cold Tech dates vary; check their Facebook for updates. Cold Tech parties are typically free (no cover). #AREA69, a year-round costume party with an alien aesthetic, is hosted at Exit monthly on Fridays. Its days are numbered, though; rumor has it that the next #AREA69 will be the last, so get there while you can. Exit doors open at 9 p.m., but events often start at 10 p.m. 21+.
East Room (2828 W. Medill Ave.)
Zack Eastman's East Room in Logan Square acquired a live music license in late 2014, and the bar's presence in the Chicago music scene has skyrocketed since. Often touted for its "secret entrance" (a red light above an unmarked door on Medill) on clickbait speakeasy lists, East Room's real magical appeal lies in its cavernous property, eclectic music and functional-by-day, aesthetic-by-night, elevator-turned-seating-area alcove. The dance floor and extensive bar are distinct, divided by a carved out wall that allows patrons in both areas to observe one another yet carry on with completely different intentions - and sometimes that's exactly what happens. Saturday nights often draw Logan Square's young professional crowd - more than once in conjunction with the regularly scheduled "pansexual dress-to-sweat event" SOFT LEATHER. What ensues feels like two completely separate events - almost two different venues - with Chicago yo-pros attempting to converse near the bar over the deafening ballroom tracks blaring through the carved-out wall from the next room. There, drag queens and scene kids jive across the floor, sweat dripping from their foreheads, until the bar closes at 2 a.m.
Recommended Event: SOFT LEATHER monthly at East Room and varying guest locations. Day of the week is contingent. Typically no cover; doors open at 6 p.m. but events often begin at 10 p.m. 21+.
Smart Bar: Gramaphone Records owner and "Queen!" resident Michael Serafini, by Tasya Menaker; JJDDJ.com | Wang's: Dearborn Architects | Berlin: Bob Meyers | Exit: Planet99.com | East Room: James Atkins