Veteran DJ Mark Farina is widely considered a house music icon, and the title is well deserved. A pioneer of the Chicago house scene, Farina didn’t grow up in an overtly musical household or have some kind of lightening bolt dance floor epiphany. He was just a regular dude who liked music, frequented teen clubs in his big-city suburb, and ended up working in a record store.
Thing was, that store was Chicago’s fabled Gramaphone Records, a traveling DJ destination to this day. His coworkers at the time were people like Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, DJ Heather, and Ralphi Rosario — all instrumental figures in the legendary pairing of house music and the Windy City.
“That store was a DJ factory back then,” said Farina from his Dallas home. “And there were many points where I'd just get my paycheck in records. Sometimes, only 10 copies of a certain release would come in for the whole week. And many times, only a couple of those copies would make it onto the floor. We’d all be hovering like vultures. These are the things the digital kids missed out on.”
What no one missed out on, however, was when Farina took his carefully curated collection to San Francisco. The fledgling producer had already found his niche in a style he dubbed “Mushroom Jazz” — a mixture of slower-tempo house and hip-hop he was playing when he headed west. But the Bay Area embraced it in a completely different way.
Farina’s initial Mushroom Jazz cassette soon became something of an underground legend and spurred both a long-running series of releases, as well as three decades of chilled-out club nights.
In 2016, Farina celebrated the 25th anniversary of events under the Mushroom Jazz moniker and saw his eighth Mushroom Jazz compilation hit the top spot on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
And while new sounds have been incorporated into the mix over time (R&B, dub, jazz, soul, disco, etc.), Farina continues to ensure Mushroom Jazz maintains its original DNA.
“It can be a lot of things,” he said. “But there’s definitely a specific sound to it that I’ve carried over through the years. There is definitely a certain vibe to Mushroom Jazz. And even though I’m the curator and can alter it, I still try to keep it to a theme.”
Farina also has turned the theme into his own record label, Great Lakes Audio Recordings. He recently took a short hiatus on that front while a few things were ironed out with management, but it’s all been squared away and the veteran DJ has gotten back to promoting his favorite underground house artists.
“The label is really my ode to Chicago,” said Farina. “We’re back up and running, and we’re just about to release an EP from this Spanish duo, Iban Montoro and Jazzman Wax. We have an old-school guy, JT Donaldson, coming up next and a bunch of stuff slated throughout 2019.”
In addition to overseeing the label, Farina will spend much of next year (as usual) on the road. His goal is to hit the small list of global destinations that he hasn’t played yet, like Germany, Russia, and Thailand. He’ll also be continuing to add to his own record collection, which now tops out at over 30,000 albums, and has his sights set on releasing the ninth Mushroom Jazz compilation.
Farina is more than content to keep carefully crafting the sounds that have established him as a pioneering house DJ, and relishes the opportunity to inspire a new generation of listeners who may have never set foot in a record store.
It’s been a long and strange trip since a teenaged Farina hopped a bus and brought home his first pair of used turntables, carefully wrapped in pillowcases. But it’s one that he wouldn’t trade for the world.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to do this,” he said. “There are only a small handful of us who’ve been doing it for this long. And we’re still out on the front lines every week pushing the sound. When I started, you either played house or you played techno. So it’s incredibly nice to still be holding one of those banners. It’s a cool thing. Grateful is the word.”
When: 9:30 p.m. Nov. 30
Where: Music Box, 1337 India Street, Downtown