Out of Africa: Clubbers get a music history lesson at South Loop venue the Shrine

(courtesy of the Shrine)

(courtesy of the Shrine)

From the late ’50s and on through the ’60s, Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood was a black music mecca. So many blues and soul recording labels set up shop on South Michigan Avenue that the street earned the title of Record Row. Only a few traces of that legacy are still visible among the warehouses and high-rises that fill the South Loop today, but since its opening last June, the Shrine–a combination nightclub, live music venue, and upscale lounge–is trying to make the neighborhood once again the center of Chicago’s music scene.

“The choice of location was very specific. It’s a place to cater to black music and people who love black music,” says Curtis House II, the Shrine’s brand manager. Stepping into the entranceway, patrons face a full wall of illuminated album covers that index the club’s Afrocentric roots. Everything from Afrobeat, reggae, and rare groove to funk, R&B, and hip-hop gets representation here. Named for the legendary club of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in Lagos, Nigeria, the Shrine’s décor was largely inspired by the African travels of founder and principal Joe Russo. Almost every design feature in the club’s two rooms, from the wood paneling and wall hangings to the couches and light fixtures, helps to create the ambience of a luxury safari lodge. A 45-foot wooden bar stands on one side of the main room in front of a full dance floor framed by elevated platforms reserved for VIP bottle service. Everything in the venue’s aesthetic is intentional, House says. “It feels like the place was created by sound.”

The Shrine has rooted its flavor in the music it plays. “In a lot of top nightclubs, it’s about playing Top 40 hits and packing your venue. I think of the Shrine as a multi-cultural experience,” says Russo. “The main goal is to make sure the younger generation has some idea of the history of soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop. We try and incorporate that history in with what’s hip.” The venue hasn’t cut out Top 40 beats entirely, but its five different nights show how broad and how deep the loose category of black music can be. Resident DJ Timbuck2 spins hip-hop on Tuesday and Saturday nights, Wednesday is Latin-inspired (with salsa dancing in one room and Brazilian funk in the other), Thursday is ladies’ night and a video dance party, and Friday hosts a mix of house and hip-hop. Special events bring guest DJs from all over the world, and already in its first five months the venue has hosted an impressive list of live acts. Slick Rick played on opening night, and Pete Rock, Sean Paul, Ludacris, Rakim, Common, and the Roots have all made appearances. “Every one of the artists who play here has a certain synergy with what the Shrine is about,” says House.

There’s a tension in the Shrine’s message, as it tries to work its commitment to a music-based experience into a club scene heavily reliant on bottle service, where many venues have cut out dancing altogether. Service here is undoubtedly upscale. There are candles on the tables and staff to keep them lit. On weekends, a VIP guest list cuts the line. But even the lavish service is centered on the music. “We hope our guests will become musical pilgrims, that they’ll ask about the music, about something they’ve never heard before, and leave realizing the world was a lot bigger than they originally thought,” says House. Look around the club and it’s easy to tell that the club has a regular clientele that’s familiar with the staff, the music, and the message. There’s no official dress code, and cover for most nights is $5 to $10, never rising above $20, even for national acts. The approach appears to be working, as Russo is considering other cities in which to open another location under the same name.

It’s been a long time since the days of Record Row, but the South Loop is again emerging as a cultural destination. The Shrine is playing a leading role, effectively applying the slick sheen of club culture over the kind of deep love of music that made the neighborhood the heart of Chicago’s music renaissance the first time around. “We want to make sure that anybody coming to Chicago thinks of the Shrine as the venue that best represents Chicago music and Chicago nightlife,” says Russo. “We want to play our part to keep music on the South Side.”

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