Picnic with a beat 

House in the Park casts old school in a new light

When you hear a DJ spin music in an Atlanta public park on a summer afternoon, it could come from a variety of efforts.

Could be a group of enterprising kids who obtained a noise permit from their neighborhood parks organization – or didn't get a permit and decided to set up their sound system anyway. Could be a party promoter who decided to throw an outdoor jam with a few dozen friends.

But when House in the Park took place at Perkinson Park in the working-class, mostly African-American community of Sylvan Hills this past Labor Day, the crowd that showed up didn't come masked in sunglasses and weren't nocturnal creatures you'd usually find at some nightclub. There were older men and women, couples of all ages, young children and twentysomethings, and people of all races dancing to house music in the afternoon.

"It was a beautiful thing to see a mother dancing with her son and a father dancing with his daughter to the music that I love," says Ramon Rawsoul, the DJ and promoter who organizes House in the Park. He points out that other cities have traditions of throwing major, family-friendly outdoor dance parties. In Detroit's Hart Plaza, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival is a free event that attracts tens of thousands. In San Francisco, the Love Parade drew inspiration from a concept that originated in Berlin in Germany.

DJ Ryze, who helps Rawsoul organize House in the Park, says the party "definitely gets away from what you expect in Atlanta as far as house music goes. If you go to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or outside of the country, you're going to be more exposed to more of these types of events during the day in the park. ... But for it to be in the city of Atlanta, it's huge, because you never see anything mainly focused towards the DJ and people who love DJs and house music."

Rawsoul hopes to build House in the Park into a major civic event. But for now, it's a Labor Day happening that attracts an audience you wouldn't expect to enjoy house music. Last year's edition featured Michael Alan, Kai Alce, Rawsoul, Salah Ananse and DJ Kemit, with Chicago star Glenn Underground as the headliner. It drew hundreds of people who barbecued, picnicked on the grass and danced in the pavilion. Rawsoul gets his permits from the city of Atlanta, and usually hires a few policemen to patrol the park and ensure a safe environment.

Rawsoul thinks House in the Park draws so many people because "it's alluring when you give anything for free." But, he adds, "House and R&B and neo-soul are so closely related that you can draw from all those other types of music and get people who don't think they like house to like house."

As a member of the old school who helped popularize house music in Chicago back in the 1980s, Rawsoul believes in the transformative power of house music. Since 2003, he has helped DJ Ryze in Imported Underground, a promotions crew that throws house parties around the city. He often spins at Sweat, a monthly event hosted by DJs Michael Alan and Calvin Morgan at the Apache Café.

For a while, Imported Underground had its own multidisciplinary warehouse, Studio 980. The crew decided to close in April in order to get a liquor license and, says DJ Ryze, "make some money." Studio 980 was one of the few venues where dance fans could really enjoy the music and not have to navigate the meat-market clubs that clog Midtown.

Studio 980 may return in a few months' time. But for now, house fans have House in the Park to look forward to. Rawsoul plans to throw it for a third year this Labor Day weekend, but hasn't solidified details yet. "My intention is to not necessarily keep it small, but keep it intimate, soulful and family-oriented," Rawsoul says. "In effect, we're creating another generation of people who love house music."

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