“I always say in Chicago, bad is good and good is bad,” Freakeasy co-founder Matt Fusello says over a plate of late night lo mein in the Windy City’s Chinatown. Fusello and Freakeasy partner Striz have asked Mixmag out to slurp down noodles in order to impart the feel and history for this legendary Chicago party before we attend. Amid the bang and steam that leaks out of the tiny kitchen, Fusello commands the conversation with big body movements and bravado. “If it fell off the back of a truck, good!” he declares with a hearty laugh. “If you snitch, bad!”
It’s true. Chicago has a long and storied reputation of allowing things to happen behind its shiny veneer, under handshakes and quid pro quo. And that includes underground parties like The Freakeasy.
The Freakeasy, a portmanteau of freaks and speakeasy where sweaty bodies gyrate until the sun rises, has been run by Chicago-based trio Matt Fusello, Striz and Justin Reed since 2009. That’s an impressive stretch for any event that runs under the radar, but to Fusello’s point, Chicago’s “good is bad and bad is good” mentality has allowed them to forge relationships that have protected The Freakeasy from external bureaucratic forces.
Though the first formal Freakeasy event debuted in 2009, inklings for creating this monthly event started back in 1997. Fusello went to Burning Man and, as it goes, was captivated by the feelings of creativity, freedom and community that it inspired. He yearned to bring it back to the city with him, but at the time, Burning Man’s popularity hadn’t fully broken into Chicago. “I felt this great energy,” says Fusello. “I could be myself. No one was judging me. It made me wonder – how can I feel like this more than once a year?”
Fusello started by joining the regional Burning Man Chicago mailing list. He scrubbed tribe.net (a sort of precursor to Facebook aimed at the Burning Man community), and found local groups from message boards. He saw hints of a Burning Man community bubbling under Chicago’s surface – they just needed a catalyst to bring them all together, and Fusello saw his chance. “It made me realize I should focus my energy into the local scene to see what could be accomplished.”
After integrating into the small, but present Burning Man-inspired pods popping up across the city, Fusello teamed up with illmeasures, a DJ collective comprised of Striz, Reed and Brad Miner (who passed away in 2013). Three components made the group a perfect partner: they’d been throwing underground loft parties since 2000, were well versed in logistics and owned a sound system. In 2006, the four put together a party called Resonate, featuring then unknown Bassnectar (who was booked for merely $500). It attracted 250 people, and they reinvested profits, building larger and larger crowds each time, eventually becoming a welcomed monthly extravaganza. So in 2009, The Freakeasy was born. It sold out. And so did the next one. In fact, every single Freakeasy to date has sold out ahead of time with an average attendance of 600-650 people.
“Participation is the key,” Fusello explains. “Most festivals hire acts, and you watch the act. At Burning Man, [I learned that] you are the act. Burning Man is the canvas, and people are the paint.” Though The Freakeasy has seen its fair share of bigger names grace the decks (J. Phlip, John Tejada, Gene Hunt, and Farley Jackmaster Funk among them), this isn’t the primary reason many flock to the event (although it’s certainly a bonus). Tonight is no different - despite the fact that hometown heavyweight Derrick Carter is manning DJ duties, he is not a headliner. He, like the people he is performing for, is the proverbial paint: here to dance, feel free and have a good time without the trappings of a traditional nightclub experience. “We’re not a club. We’re a group of friends,” says Fusello. “Everyone at the The Freakeasy is my mother, my father, my brother and my sister, as far as I’m concerned."
Within The Freakeasy walls, there is no VIP, no dress code, no gatekeeper judging at the door. There isn’t even a green room (privacy is afforded in a limited fashion to performers who are changing or DJs about to hop on the decks). “No one’s a rock star and everyone’s a rock star,” explains Fusello. “You can’t pay extra to get special treatment at The Freakeasy. If there’s a sense of exclusivity, then it means there are people who feel left out. We don’t want that. We want to equalize everything.”
By design, the entrance to The Freakeasy isn’t easily visible from the street. But once found, there’s a quick, friendly exchange with security and just beyond, a Technicolor-lit smoking area. It’s packed, but out of respect for the event and surrounding neighbors, conversation is kept to a murmur as cigarette curls mingle with the hot damp air that lingers from an earlier thunderstorm. To enter, Mixmag heads to the left. A lone open door beckons for visitors to come in with dull thumps bleeding out from the party upstairs.
As stairs are climbed, the temperature climbs, too. In a matter of seconds it becomes positively tropical as the air thickens with heat churned out by hundreds of bodies moving in tandem with the DJ. At the top of the stairs, turn a corner, and suddenly the space reveals itself. The main room is shrouded in a vibrant, purple wash, with all manner of decoration occupying pillars, corners, and bits of the ceiling. It feels like a perma-loft party. Strings of fairy lights, a hefty disco ball, a pirate flag, and a sign that spells out Freakeasy in large carnival bulbs (designed by Miner and displayed in his memory) are all here among the heaps of décor. A bar flanks the back wall, shouldered on one side by the DJ booth, and on the other by tiers of lofted beds, where partiers can perch to take a breather. It’s busy quite early, and packed with all manner of age groups, ethnicities and personal aesthetics all here for one common purpose: dancing the night away in a place where it feels entirely safe to be yourself.
To that end, it’s all this dancing, orchestrated tonight by Carter, that’s created the room’s soupy climate. Clothes begin to come off, and, by 3am, about half the room is missing some portion of attire, but is all smiles through the sweat as soulful house beats thump away. The carefree attitude is infectious, and noticeable. “There’s an osmosis that happens when someone is having a good time,” Fusello explains. “It affects the people around them. That’s how we’ve lasted so long. The vibe is good.”
Now in 2018, there’s been almost a decade of Freakeasy parties, and the trio has thrown nearly 200 individual events. Mixmag asks Fusello if he ever envisions his future without The Freakeasy in it. He briefly stops eating, his chopsticks frozen mid air with a pinch of noodles between them, thinking. “Sometimes I get burnt out and I think, what if I just quit?” he says slowly. “I think that would be a negative for me. I can’t imagine not having these people in my life.”
Dani Deahl is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @danideahl
[Photo credit: David Ziemba, Simon Rubinstein]