“In the beginning, there was Jack,” goes the most famous house tune of them all. But where did Jack come from?
Well, disco. For a few years from the early to late 70s, disco was king. It could be heard on TV and radio, in the streets and in clubs all around suburban America. One event, however, brought about its demise in a spectacular fashion, paving the way for the rise of Jack, like a phoenix from the flames.
That event was on July 12th 1979 during a Major League Baseball game at the Chicago White Sox’s stadium, then called Comiskey Park but now known as Guaranteed Rate Field. Key to the story is Steve Dahl, a local shock-jock on WLUP who had been let go from his job when the station switched from playing rock to disco. Annoyed at the change, the disgruntled Dahl had long been drumming up hatred for disco and hosting anti-disco events. But, most significantly of all that July, he encouraged people to turn up to the White Sox stadium with disco records in exchange for reduced entry. It was a deal he’d struck with the White Sox, who at the time had dwindling attendance, but on that night, they turned up in record numbers.
After the first game, Dahl blew up a large box of the collected records as the fervent crowd chanted “disco sucks!” It has been argue since that the slogan has homophobic undertones and that the whole event might well have been an expression of racism because much of disco was made and enjoyed by people in marginalised communities. Either way, it hastened the demise of disco and the sound quickly receded from the headlines. What remained were high end clubs largely populated by wealthy, middle class white folks who co-opted the sound under a broader ‘dance music’ banner.
All those who no longer belonged suddenly had to find a new outlet for their emotions…
Enter house music, born on the streets and celebrated in raw, unglamorous but thrillingly real and authentic warehouse spaces, where young, old, gay, straight, black and Latino people all came together and could be whoever they wanted to be. Identity didn’t matter in places like The Music Box and, most famously of all, The Warehouse, where the late great Godfather of House Frankie Knuckles was resident and mixed old disco classics, new Eurobeat pop and synthesised beats.
Initially people didn’t have a name for the music he was playing, which was defined by a more mechanical four to the floor beat, gospel-tinged vocals and deeper basslines than were heard in disco, all of which took dancers to a new high…
The story goes that locals would head to the record store and ask for “Warehouse music”, which was eventually shortened to just “house music”. “The sound needs a continuous four on the floor,” says Chicagoan Lady D, who began playing in 1995 and has been in demand ever since “But it’s also gotta be funky. You can’t fake the feeling. It has to have a major groove.”
A track by a young producer named Jesse Saunders is often said to be the first widely accepted house tune. ‘On and On’ was produced on a basic bedroom set up of old Roland gear and gave house the rough-edged, perfectly imperfect sound it had for the next decade. It’s a track that approximated disco but was made on machines rather than played by live bands. Saunders pressed it to vinyl himself then hawked it to record stores from the boot of his car.
Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ soon followed and, ironically given the role radio had in the demise of disco, local stations like QGCI and WBMX played a big part in championing the emergent house sound to a wider audience. It even crossed the pond and became the first US house track to top the UK charts. We were quick to adopt house sounds on these shores, before then running with acid house and eventually rave.
Before long, the US industry was booming thanks to labels like Trax Records and DJ International. The first wave was completed with artists like Marshall Jefferson who gave Trax two of its most iconic tunes in ‘Move Your Body’ and the follow up ‘Ride The Rhythm’ (as well as birthing piano house, which you can read about here) while ‘French Kiss’ by Lil Louis was the peaky of sweaty intensity in 1989 after Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers brought super soulful depths with tunes like ‘Mystery of Love’ in 1985 and ‘Can You Feel It?’ in 1986.
During these most fertile decades, the likes of Roy Davis Jnr game through with his heavily vocal sounds. And then there was DJ Pierre, who along with Spanky and Herbert “Herb J” Jackson as Phuture stumbled on the freaky sound from their Roland TB-303 drum machine that accidentally birthed acid house via enduring anthem ‘Acid Tracks’.
By the time the mid-nineties came around, Dance Mania had spawned a so-called ghetto house sound that was even more raw and direct, all off the back of the visceral, strobe-lit ‘(It’s Time for the) Percolator’ by Cajmere aka Green Velvet in 1992. Velvet’s story is intrinsically linked with that of house music itself. His labels Cajual and Relief were some of the most prominent and prolific in all of Chicago in the early 90s. After the first decadent house wave of acts like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, his place was to strip things back to a mean and kicking sound that could be thought to be a precursor to modern evolutions like juke and footwork.
Now well known names like Boo Williams, Glenn Underground and DJ Sneak all contributed early on to Velvet’s labels as part of the house music second wave…
They brought with them their own takes, from superbly futuristic (Boo’s ‘A New Beginning’) to garage tinged and swinging (Glenn’s ‘Take Me Back’) or loopy and filtered (Sneak’s ‘Moon Doggy’). Meanwhile, having got into house music by working at Importes, Etc, the first house music record store, Derrick Carter soon began to make his mark, primarily as a DJ. Notoriously practicing his own style even before he left the bedroom (a style he called boompty house, because his mother would shout up to him to “turn down that boompty music”) Derrick has just the right amounts of everything – soul, jack, deepness, bang, bump and bounce.
Women also played a key part in early house music. Tunes like Robyn S’s ‘Let Me Show You Love’ crossed over to mainstream chart success, Crystal Water’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ remains a hit to this day, and selectors like DJ Heather kept hungry crowds happy with tightly mixed, high energy sets in her hometown.
Less well known is the key role of Judy Weinstein, the record pool founder and one of the earliest DJ managers who managed Def Mix, which very much helped launch the careers of icons like Knuckles, David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie.
Today, prominent Chicago DJ Lady D remembers first hearing house music on the radio via Herb Kent and his “Punk Out” shows which blended of punk rock, new wave and Italo disco via celebrated radio DJ collective The Hot Mix 5 in 1981 and ’82. “It was a lightning bolt. It just hit us.” She adds that, to her, house is “about love and the ideals of peace and equality. I think we showed how it could be done – all identities, all the different kinds of people, gathered together and getting along as one.
“Chicago house represents family, community, and all the dynamics that go along. Being “house” is a way of identifying yourself as open-minded, peace-loving, and liberated. Not a part of the crowd – you think for yourself and find it effortless to be yourself when you’re house.”
As a leading house DJ, Lady D is well placed to talk about how the sound has evolved in clubs. She says you could get away with more in the early days. “You could take more risks and do more inventive things. I saw Ron Hardy play when I was very young and I understood the power of throwing it all up in the air and being free to change your mind, and go in a different direction. I would rather lose a few and have the freedom than be chained to someone’s idea of perfection or what’s deep or whatever.”
For Chicago’s modern poster boy Gene Farris, who has collaborated with ATFC on ‘Spirit Of House’ for Toolroom…
“The Chicago house feeling is Ron Hardy, it’s Lil Louis, it’s Frankie Knuckles, it’s Derrick Carter, it’s Green Velvet, it’s Paul Johnson, it’s Bad boy Bill, it’s DJ Rush. It’s forever evolving for ever changing.”
He was 11 when he first heard house. At the time he had just lost his father and “I was looking for something to fill a void. From the moment I put the needle on the record I was hooked for life.”
Farris partied in those early days at The Warehouse with Frankie, and at another legendary Windy City club, Smartbar. “Frankie was special, a supportive and kind man,” he remembers. “The underground started from people wanting their own thing outside of the normal nightlife, to go later and be even more exclusive.” Gene has played his own huge part in this, running Gene Farris & Friends events that have been some of Chicago’s favourites over the years. “It’s been very special growing this brand. I try to give an underground feeling with a circus vibe and a real sense of expectation and excitement for the entire show. It’s definitely an experience from the dancers to the fire blowers.”
For Lady D, who is often said to be the “People’s Choice” amongst house devotees, Chicago house today is “an amalgamation of sounds containing soulful vocals, disco, techno, acid, classics, an R&B remake, a little afro-house – it’s a nod to the familiar and the new. It’s about the desired euphoria and however you can achieve that, then you play whatever takes them there.” She is also keen to remind us that house is the “domain, culture, and sound of black, brown, and queer people. For the founders, pay inequality and exploitative representation were probably the biggest issues then and now.”
She explains how house music in Europe has evolved away from its roots over the years. “In the beginning, while DJs were playing for audiences similar in makeup to them, audiences became overwhelmingly white because of things like racist and segregationist door policies. House made its migration to Europe and inspired white musicians. When Frankie Knuckles was headlining, guys like Oakenfold and Sasha were opening for him.
Over time, they got more popular. Simultaneously, there are more white DJs entering the profession and lineups began to reflect that. It’s all structural and deconstructing it reveals all the ways it lacks justice and is the opposite of peace, which house music has always represented. In some ways, it’s nothing like house at all because if it were, it would look very different. Knowing this, however, it can be rectified.”
Of his new single, Gene says it is “definitely modern Chicago vibes. That “new new” as I would say,” adding that he never sets out to make a certain sound. “I’m always just doing my thing and whatever comes out is usually what it is. The message of house is to believe in yourself, to believe in your abilities. To have the strength and courage to take the steps in life you’ve been afraid to take. Have confidence in yourself confidence.”
Gene is also keen to point out that “there’s tons of new, real, raw artists here waiting for their chance. Artists like John Summit, Steve Gerard, DJ Cross, Karsten Sollors, Alinka, Jerome Baker, Hiroko Yamamura, Sylvia Dziemian, Anthony Nicholson just to name a few.”
It might be approaching 40, then, but house music continues to write exciting new chapters with every passing year…