From the very beginning, it was the gay and black people that kept dance music alive.Mel Cheren, West End Records
Despite what ABC News might tell you, house music didn’t come from white French people. David Guetta did not, “bring house music to the United States”. The genre was born out of the underground scenes of black communities in Chicago and New York; they were cultural hives swarming with exciting ideas and creative minds.
BEFORE THERE WAS HOUSE, THERE WAS DISCO
Shaped and influenced by homosexual culture and primarily kept alive by minorities, disco was too black and too gay for an unaccepting America in the late ’70s. American audiences pegged the catchy sound as something synonymous with hit-making; people didn’t care for a genre that solely pumped out “hits” for the radio station. This notion, coupled with the extremely flamboyant culture surrounding disco, spawned a serious resentment for the genre.
As disco topped the US charts and flooded the mainstream, many radio stations completely reformatted their entire brands. They altered their sound station-wide by firing rock-oriented DJs and replacing them with disco aficionados, as a relentless chant for club hits drowned out any requests for Led Zeppelin.
Infuriated by the sweeping trend of disco in the United States, disgruntled ex-DJ Steve Dahl held the first ever Anti-Disco Rally at White Sox Stadium in the summer of 1979. Dahl led over 50,000 angry rock fans in deafening chants of “Disco Sucks!” as they burned disco records and memorabilia at Comiskey Park. The night eventually ended in an all-out riot and the stadium was forced to evacuate. It was a strange event born out of hatred for something that Americans failed to understand; not an uncommon sentiment for America.
It was recognized nationwide as the night that disco died. People who once openly celebrated the culture of disco were now ostracized; as Chicago’s population of gay African Americans and Latinos still looked to enjoy their music, they moved to the underground clubs beneath Chicago to change the history of music forever.
CHICAGO CLUB SCENE: DISCO REMIXES
At night, citizens of Chicago looked for an escape from the poverty cycle that controlled their lives. Club culture was one of the most popular choices. It mixed pulsating lights, heavy drugs, and loud, fast music to create an atmosphere in which people could become totally free. The dance floor was the only place where people felt like they could disappear. It was like another world to them.
As disco became less accepted in the mainstream, there was a shortage of disco music being produced. Artists weren’t making club hits anymore and DJs struggled to find new tracks for their audiences.
A shortage of new music, but an abundance of older hits, forced DJs to get creative. They began recycling disco hits by chopping and mixing different parts of the track; they could merge two tracks, isolate certain instruments, and create a completely new song. These disc jockeys were pioneers of a new genre that was slowly taking form on the dance floors of Chicago and New York.
“If you looked out on the dancefloor and saw that people liked a certain part of the record, you could repeat that part and scratch it and make it something new. I may intend to play the whole record, but the crowd might not want to hear it” – Steve Silk Hurley, Hot Mix 5
Forgotten records were brought back from the dead and given newer, groovier spins. This mixing is where house music was created. It was a genre born in the sweatiest, strangest parts of an oppressed city to be raised and cared for by the minorities of the early ’80s.
BUILDING HOUSE’S SOUND
As mixing became increasingly popular, there were a few venues that were notorious for their remixes. The Warehouse was where all the up-and-coming DJs came to mix. It was practically an exclusive club for black gay men. In 1977, club promoter Robert William brought DJ Frankie Knuckles to The Warehouse.
Hailing all the way from New York, Knuckles is largely acknowledged as one of the “godfathers” of house music. New York was faced with the same disco shortage as Chicago and slowly built a club scene also focused around remixing records. New York legends like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan played a huge role in forming the genre’s sound.
“Knuckles brought the energy of New York’s gay scene to Chicago, but it wasn’t long before straight kids were checking out the club.” – Carl Hindmarch, Pump Up the Volume
Though The Warehouse was almost exclusively a gay club, people from all around took notice. It was one of the only places you could go to hear the newest, best house remixes and everybody wanted to check it out. Slowly, people cared less about the culture surrounding the music and focused more on the music itself.
“I think at that time it changed a lot of people’s perception… A lot of straight people were finally like, ‘It’s ok to talk to gay people.” – Duane Buford, House Artist
As the mixes slowly emerged from the gay Chicago club scene and crept into the white, straight mainstream, an audience was steadily being built. Import Record Shop in Chicago was constantly selling the newest, most recent mixes and even had a section called “As Played At The Warehouse”. People came in to ask where the new “Warehouse” music was, and it wasn’t long until it was shortened to “House” music.
THE DRUM MACHINE
In an attempt to compensate for the lack of structural backbone in most remixes, DJs figured they’d make their own beats and rhythms for each record. The addition of drum machines to chopped and mixed disco music gave the genre its own distinct style and sound. Joe Smooth and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk explained that adding hard, fast drum machines to soft soul/disco sounds gave house music danceable energy.
When DJ Ron Hardy changed The Warehouse name to The Music Box in 1983, most people in Chicago claimed his music was some of the fastest stuff they’d ever heard. Why? Hardy was a serious heroin-addict. Everything sounded slower to him, so he played the drum machine ten times faster.
AN ORIGINAL PIECE
“On & On” was one of the first original house hits, as the concept of remixing & dj-ing was fully applied to creating a fully original piece. Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence made a simple beat with a drum machine, added some synths, and looped their vocals to produce a wholly original house track; it wasn’t a remix in any sense.
This creation of an “original” house track set a precedence for what the style of House should sound like. It typically involved a kick drum intro, worked into a bass line, followed by a cluster of hi-hats, snare drums, synthesizers, vocals, and anything to give it more bass.
“On & On” was the song that triggered the Chicago-House boom. It let the non-musician know that he could make music; people heard the record and thought they could make it better. From then on, house music became a competition focused on one-upping other artists.
By 1984, every kid with a drum machine was making house music. There was an electronic playground being played with by every black kid in Chicago, and the fever to join in was irresistible. Most of them didn’t even know how to play the instruments they were looping into their tracks.
Larry Sherman, owner of the only record pressing plant in Chicago, opened Trax Records in 1984. It was the first record label focused solely on house music and it was fueled by the vanguards of Chicago house.
“Most of ‘em weren’t even musicians. They came along with an electronic revolution; they learned how to beat out simple rhythms on drum machines that nobody knew about. They were innovators and pioneers.” Larry Sherman, Trax Records
When Marshall Jefferson released “Move Your Body” under Trax Records in 1986, it remained on the Billboards Top Dance Charts for over 10 weeks. Jefferson’s track moved the genre of house around the world. Jefferson claims that people came from all around the world to Chicago asking, “What’s house music?”
HOUSE AS AN INTERNATIONAL DANCE PHENOMENON
In 1983, House music practically existed in Chicago and New York. But, in just three years, house music dominated the European club scene. British culture couldn’t believe something so creative, energetic, and boundary-pushing had been contained to a few American cities for so long. Europe’s access to Chicago’s culture created an artistic explosion. Disco had lent its body to be used for something far greater and more creative.
When Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, and Joe Smooth arrived in Europe for the Godfathers of House tour, there were crowds and lines that flooded entire streets. People knew all their records and had shirts with their faces on them. It was like The Beatles were touring: if the Beatles were black and gay. House music had successfully infiltrated Europe and was still being driven by America.
As the decade was coming to an end, people found themselves dancing to the same drum that fueled the fast, energetic style of disco music. Black, gay culture had snuck into predominantly white areas, but with a different face than disco. Electronic music might not have been readily accepted in Europe if it was known to be of black or homosexual origin, which is why articles discrediting these artists are disappointing and can reinforce intolerance for black music through erasure of the past.
Robbie Baker is .WAV’s co-playlisting director, he wrote the article. Hailey Honegger is a .WAV staff member, she created the graphic.