Brandon Johnson, of Almighty & Insane Books, is a publisher devoted to preserving the history and culture of Chicago.
Mont contacted Brandon for some insight into Chicago; the house music, gang violence, urban renewal and graffiti that have influenced, provoked and inspired Almighty & Insane Books.
Can you provide your choice Chicago house/ party song that we can use to soundtrack the read? For this purpose, I gotta go with Mr Fingers "Mystery of Love". First released in 1985, it's a bouncy instrumental you can still read to. Apparently when Larry Heard (aka Mr Fingers) was growing up he'd try to emulate television show theme songs on piano and I certainly see that influence here. He wrote "Mystery of Love" the first night after he purchased a Roland Jupiter-6 synthesizer in 1984 and passed recordings of the song to Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, who played them out at clubs in Chicago. A second version was recorded with Heard's friend Roberts Owens as Fingers Inc, and was released by DJ International Records in 1986. Some attribute "Mystery of Love" to be the origin of the deep house genre. Anyways, it's a fun little tune from the early days of Chicago house that I've always enjoyed in particular.
Almighty & Insane Books has sole focus on Chicago history, can you talk a little about your own history with the city and any other similar literary projects there that inspired you?
While both sides of my family are rooted in the city proper, I grew up in a southwestern suburb of Chicago. While visits "downtown" weren't unusual for my family, there was still a big difference in growing up in the city and the 'burbs (which any native Chicagoan will be quick to point out!). For that reason the city itself held a mythic aura in my young mind. I carried that with me after leaving Chicagoland for university where I studied history, and to New York where I've since made a career in publishing and the visual arts. These things–my interest/training in the disciplines of history and visual culture, rooted in exploring a deep-seated reverence for the city of Chicago all added up to and continues to power Almighty & Insane Books!
As far as similar literary projects, I'm not sure I can think of any specific inspirations in that realm but I'm sure zingmagazine where I've worked for many years has had a deep influence, along with many hours spent at my local library when I was younger. Otherwise, it's just more a case of following the leads that were in front of me and moving forward.
Tell us about how the project with Sir Charles came together.
I'm happy you asked this! Gets to the heart of the direction I hope Almighty & Insane Books is headed. Sir Charles first reached out to me after the first book came out Thee Almighty & Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards from the 1970s & 1980s. We started following each other on instagram and in November 2017 I tabled for the first time at Chicago Art Book Fair. Charles told me he'd come through, which he did and traded me a drawing he made on the spot for a copy of the book. I saw in him an energy to do good and drive to succeed rooted in a desire to make a better life for his daughter and community. Having produced a couple books based on archives and ephemera, the next logical step was to begin working with active Chicago artists and Sir Charles was the perfect candidate. His style of lettering was deeply embedded in the Chicago hood culture he came up in, yet he made it his own by freestyling poems and messages on the street in an attempt to speak positively to the young minds of his neighborhood of Brighton Park through this pseudonym of Sir Charles. I began thinking about how I could get him to engage with the history of Chicago and eventually found my way to architectural photography from the archives of the Urban Renewal Department housed at the Chicago Public Library's special collections. These photos of old buildings targeted for destruction felt like a natural canvas for Sir Charles's letters and messages. And the history behind the photos—displacement forced by the city on immigrant and working class neighborhoods paralleled concerns Charles had for his own community. Fortunately when I pitched him the book idea he agreed! We decided to go the handmade route for this publication and were connected (shoutout Oscar Arriola) to Eric Von Haynes of Flatlands Press, who did risography. Being an artist himself, Eric understood what we were after and went the extra mile to help us to produce a book we were all very proud of. We were able to place nearly all 200 copies within a year, many of which went to everyday Chicagoans but also ended up in some important archives including the Cooper Hewitt Museum Library.
Do you view your work as contributing to a national political conversation?
Absolutely. I'm of the belief that this is unavoidable. In an ideal world, we can look to history in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The subjects of our books all happen within a historical context—not only cultural, but political, economic, and within an evolving structure of power. As individuals existing within our own historical contexts, these same apparatuses affect us in the micro and macro, whether consciously or not. So it is impossible not to bring my own views as shaped by my personal history and environment to the analysis of past history. Beyond this, I am specifically interested in the discipline of history as an active agent of change for the better. But it's also important to strive for objectivity and not overly moralize. Allowing room for individual interpretation and critical thinking from a reader is key. I believe that is a source of power and makes for a stronger society. Especially as relates to recurring issues in United States history such as the experience of immigrants and what it means to be American.
Can you speak of some of your creative rituals and habits? Do you work to a routine, or are you routinely disorganised?
Well I do have a full-time day job, which demands much of my time and energy. So when it comes to Almighty & Insane Books I stick and move. Determine what my goals are for the coming weeks/months, chart out a path, and then find my windows of focus and energy. Frequently this is dependent upon deadlines such as book fairs that I'm trying to finish publications for. It's just a matter of finding balance in the juggling routine to keep things moving forward. I find that breaking larger projects down into smaller parts helps with this. Being flexible and choosing to look at every step as a learning experience is probably what helps the most in moving past sticking points and achieving the best results. On a more practical level, meditation prior to beginning and listening to music that is conducive to working both help me tune in. For example, right now I'm listening to a playlist of old school Chicago house and contemporary electronic music. Moodyman's "Lyk U Used 2" is currently on deck.
Can you share with us some cover images of your favourite books that might have motivated Almighty & Insane?
To be honest, I haven't really looked to other publications as inspiration for our covers. The inspiration mostly comes from the content of each book itself, being that they tend to be visually-oriented. I try to pull fonts and/or isolate visual artifacts from the source material to include in the designs, which hopefully helps to communicate what's inside and leads to something a little more outside-the-box and immune to design trends. Plus it gives me a chance to try to replicate styles from other eras, which is always fun—trying to distill that essence.
Tell us about the first of these Chicago gang business cards you came across, and a little background on who the gang was and what the card was used for.
The first card I found was in a cigar box of my dad's old belongings in the attic of my childhood home. It was an aged Royal Capris card that I later found out listed some of their junior members. Apparently it was given to him in high school by a friend who was a member and possibly printed it up in their graphic arts class, which was not abnormal for this time. Cards circulated in schools and among members, between branches and allies. It was a way to make things official and to show pride, memorialize their dead, diss rivals, recruit, and stake a claim to certain territory.
Some would list members' nicknames, or even a president, vice president, warlord, etc.
Cards could act as a pass through a hood or to a party. They're known as "compliment cards" due to the fact many of them include the phrase "Compliments of..." according to whichever member printed the run. In some cases, members would need to be granted permission by the president or leader of a section or nation in order to print a run of cards.
The Royal Capris were a mostly white greaser club from the blue collar Logan Square / Hermosa neighborhoods on the northwest side of Chicago. They were founded at Belden and Ridgeway in 1973 and saw themselves as neighborhood protectors against a wave of change. As with many gangs, it was also a matter of safety in numbers.
In this case, it was in defense of the Imperial Gangsters who outnumbered them in school and on the streets. While the Royal Capris were a lesser known club, their membership peaked at around a hundred members. By chance one of their retired members heard about the book and contacted me a couple years ago. So I was able to get firsthand accounts of their lives back then, which is the most valuable resource for this history that isn't often recorded.
Almighty & Insane Books website can be found here.