Celebrating 20 Years of Ghostly International, Art, and Community in Chicago

Ghostly International took over three of Chicago's best artistic spaces, the Metro, Smart Bar, and Notre Shop, to celebrate the culture and communities that supported their legendary 20-year creative mission.

Twenty years ago, Sam Valenti IV started Ghostly International out of his dorm room in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since then, the boutique record label has flourished into a multimedia collective of legendary and emerging musicians, visual artists, and designers. To celebrate these two decades of music, visuals, and design, Ghostly held a series of collaborative events throughout the globe. From Austin, Berlin, Movement, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Detroit, to Chicago, Ghostly spotlighted the artists and communities that pushed their 20-year creative mission.

In Chicago, the celebration started as Ghostly held a pop-up shop in Notre, a staple boutique store that is known for its careful curation. On the second night of the pop-up, Valenti joined the Notre Talk series to discuss how the record label developed into a multimedia collaborative effort. Amid the pedestalized Vans x Ghostly slip-on’s and hanging Notre x Ghostly hoodies, soundtracked by the many tracks that broke genres and the artists that bridged the globe, the pop-up embodied Ghostly’s 20-year creative mission.

That same weekend, Ghostly took over two neighboring Chicago venues, the Metro and Smart Bar. The night began at the Metro as SV4, aka the founder Valenti, dropped a decades-spanning mix. The same thoughtful curation that developed Ghostly’s 20-year catalog guided every artful movement of Valenti’s hand to drop mood-setting selections. It was the preamble to the forthcoming night.

Thereafter, Steve Hauschildt discreetly walked on with a cellist and guitarist. As a trio, they took up only the left half of the stage, but their sound certainly demanded the whole venue. Even the gentlest strums and bows, met by minute keystrokes, created tunneling drones that rumbled the marble floors. As soon as the textural swellings hit an apex, the trio walked off as discreetly as they entered. Taking after the transient nature of Hauschildt’s roving compositions, his performance appeared, evolved, and then fled.

From the unassuming to the assertive, the middle act Drama hopped on with a completely different but just as endearing disposition. As a hometown duo, Via Rosa and Na’el Shehade truly took over the Chicago crowd. With every towering croon by Rosa and heavy synth drop by Shehade, the whistles, yelps, and singalongs grew louder. “I’ll never be / The girl of your dreams”, the audience lustily cried for “Billy”. As the crowd continued to howl every chorus, it became clear that they came to celebrate the homecoming of Drama. Rosa knew it too, infectiously smiling and held speechless at times by the overwhelming response.

After the crowd gave a tender goodbye to Drama, their anticipation for another midwest musician grew palpable. The Chicago crowd greeted the Michigan-bred, Ghostly staple artist Shigeto, aka Zachary Saginaw, with excited hops, feet ready to move. Encircled within a table of MIDI gear and a drumkit, Saginaw single handily controlled an array of instruments and samples, while also dismantling the dancefloor with his drumming. At times, Saginaw’s outstretched arms reached for both MPC buttons and cymbals, literally pushing the limits of his body. The audience certainly admired his all-out, sweat-drenched performance as they moved to every diverse rhythm, from grooving jazz like “MCW” to grinding beats like “Detroit Part 1”. Just about the only moments the crowd stood still was during Saginaw’s virtuosic drum solos, standing fixated on and amazed by the whirling drumstick that flowed as if they were possessed.

To close the celebration at the Metro, a massive LED screen rolled onto the stage to flash the name of the legendary TOBACCO, aka Thomas Fec. Accompanied by the seven fields of aphelion, aka Maureen Boyle of the late Black Moth Super Rainbow, and a masked drummer, Fec made a grand entrance. As soon as the trio began, TOBACCO’s signature blend of vocoders, analog synths, and crispy drums pushed the limits of the sound system. As the closing and loudest act of the night, the piercing psychedelics entranced the crowd. Heads collectively banged to the rolling beats of “Got Wet in the Bomb Shelter”, and eyes closed to really hone into the sweeping synths of “Gods in Heat”. Before the show, Fec spoke with PopMatters about “the thought of pressure from the weight of the event”. Of course, such pressure led to a heavy performance that reflected the massive energy of that night.

As I walked down the grand steps of the Metro to head next door to Sound-Bar for the second round of artists, I noticed fans donned in not only Ghostly apparel but also Warp, Brainfeeder, Hyperdub, and various artist tees of all genres. Really, that night was a recognition of something more than the label itself. It was a beautiful sight, artists and fans coming together to celebrate the “cities we love, communities that inspire us, places and people vital to our culture of music, art, design, and creativity”, as Ghostly intended. Their dedication to the culture is not necessarily held together by the workings of a record label, but rather the idea of a flourishing alliance of artists. Rightly, Ghostly International took over three of Chicago’s best artistic spaces, the Metro, Smart Bar, and Notre Shop, to celebrate the culture and communities that supported their legendary 20-year creative mission.