It feels like this year more than any other, we need to come together. To share collective experiences – even if they’re online, via streams – and celebrate music and life has never felt more important. Any form of dancing speaks to that primeval urge we all have to move to a pulsing rhythm, but few soundtracks can get us as enraptured and as one imbued with the spirit and message of gospel house…
It’s a subgenre rich in rousing chords, choral grandeur and lung-busting vocal performances that rise us all up out of syncopated grooves and to a higher spiritual plane. While religion might have fallen in popularity over the years, humans will always look for their own form of secular communion in whatever form. These days, plenty of us find that through sweaty, intimate club experiences that leave us feeling revitalised, uplifted and a part of something bigger than us.
When you think about it, the parallels between clubs and churches are obvious – early mornings spent in the company of friends old and new, singing and dancing along to music served down upon us from an elevated booth is no different to a Sunday service where sermons are commanded by a preacher from a raised pulpit. These days, the DJ is our reverend, the records are our psalms.
One of the first that started the gospel house movement is thought to be 1985’s ‘Stand On The Word’ by The Joubert Singers, which was originally recorded for a compilation of gospel music. It soon became a club classic once Tony Humphries – resident at legendary New Jersey club Zanzibar – picked it up and spread its word each and every night.
As the eighties progressed and black DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan began to define the emerging house sound, the influence of their church-going upbringing always loomed large. Their desire to capture the spirit-elevating might of a choir or an angelic soulstress in the club is what led to them finding, playing and making the gospel house records we still reach for today.
House music and its associated clubs became sanctuaries for the persecuted black and gay young men and women who searched for liberation but were not allowed it under the traditional banner of religion. Gospel house specifically offered them the same escape as Sunday service but in a safe, accepting space liberated from overly conservative views.
Right from the off, the language of the gospel was deeply entrenched in house music. “Brothers, sisters, one day we will be free” sang Joe Smooth on 1989’s enduring classic ‘Promised Land’, and that is a message that continues to echo through house music to this day. And with that the loose template was set – percussion in the form of tambourines and handclaps, syncopated grooves that ease you into a state of hypnosis and often call and response vocals that are mainly repetitive – arguably a legacy from the days when slaves were not encouraged to read, and repetition was the easiest way for people to worship.
Over the years there have been many standout tracks with gospel overtones. Take Michelle Weeks, who had a background singing gospel and carried that over into her deep cut house roller ‘The Light’, a paean to God with its positive message of hope. Or Roy Davis Jnr and Peven Everett’s seminal ‘Gabriel’ which is a garage tinged tune with lyrics, though often overlooked, which talk of the archangel of love and dedicating your life to the spirit. But you don’t need to have noticed that for the track to make its deep emotional mark.
While David Morales may best be known for his piano classic ‘Needin U’, his mix of Robin S’ ‘I Want To Thank You’ is a steamy, uplifting track of slow release spiritual house euphoria.
Away from the American canon, even the Italians got in on the act with the under the radar gem ‘Sunday Morning’ (WMC 98 Mix) by Backroom Congregation with its fancy organ twirls, ecstatic vocals and stomping beats all sousing like one of the more impassioned televangelist deliveries you might find on TV late at night on an unknown digital channel.
The influence of the church has waned over the decades, but not over the decks. Modern examples of house tracks rich in rapture include the superbly subtle ‘Maybe’ by German artist Kettenkarussell from 2018. All it takes is a deep rolling beat and a melancholic vocal sample to somehow connect you to an otherworldly spirit that drowns you with emotion.
Gospel influences are not the sole preserve of house music, either: techno titan Robert Hood aka Floorplan, which later became a duo with his daughter Lyric, have long been getting crowds under the spell of the Lord.
His always funky rollers are deceptively simple, with chunky drums doing the leg work with choice and always rousing vocal samples setting dance floors on fire and getting hands in the air. The 2011 Floorplan classic ‘We Magnify His Name’ is a perfect example.
American Terrence Parker is a DJ and producer who has long been known for his spiritual house sounds – he even produces Gospel Grooves, a two hour show of all gospel house music on Charivari Detroit Radio.
As a child, he went to church every single weekend unless he was “extremely sick” and remembers that his favourite bit was always the music, which has had an enduring influence on the music he makes and plays to this day. It was the sounds of the B3 organ, the bass, piano, and drums he heard that resonated back then, but he says that “as I have traveled and experienced many different cultures and music styles, it now is more about the loving spirit from which the music is made that influences me the most.”
You only need to listen to his bona fide, heart swelling classic ‘Your Love’, with its warm bass, tender vocals and life-affirming strings for absolute proof of that. “Most people are going to clubs and festival events to escape their daily pain, pressures, and struggles. Thus the reason why some people choose to take drugs to “further” escape when going to these events. I try to fill their spirit with music and messages that are uplifting and positive. Some are speaking directly about GOD, while the overall theme of my music is love.”
He goes on, “gospel house shouldn’t be pigeonholed into a specific style. It doesn’t have to sound like traditional gospel music. That being said, it can certainly be the music that helps get the message of love across.” His current favourite is 2020 Susu Bobien’s 2020 jam ‘Truly Amazing’ (Deeply Amazing Remix), with its impassioned vocals, luxuriant backing singers and prominent organ.
For Kurd Maverick, gospel house has a unique energy “that just grabs you immediately and you want to move to it. And it is of course about positivity. Be positive and it will come back to you.” His new tune on Toolroom Records, ‘Dancing To’, perfectly encapsulates this. It has the rolling drums that get you deep into the moment and churchy vocal loops that take you to a place of ecstasy. The gorgeous vocals are the main hook, but when everyone starts clapping together for minutes, a trance-like state arises that cannot be escaped. Those vocals are sampled from the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir’s ‘Jesus Can Work It Out’ tune from way back in 1980. It was also used by Karimiza in 2017, but Maverick first heard it on television and immediately Shazam’ed it. “Lucky us to have this technology these days,” he says, delighted to have been able to dig deeper and discover his gospel choir from Chicago. “I went into the studio, cut that part out and started dancing right from the first minute. That’s always a good sign for me and every time I played it, the people loved it.”
He might have used a well known sample, but Maverick wasn’t phased during the production process. “Sometimes you have these moments when you hear something and can directly imagine how it should sound in the end. It is always difficult to implement that. But in this case it was easy because I just wanted to support the positive feelings with the instruments and drums in a positive, uplifting way.”
As a DJ, Maverick sees his role as giving people beautiful moments that free them from everyday worries. “That’s what brings a smile to my face,” he says. “And if you bring this feeling into your everyday life, it makes us all a little more lovable. The great thing about all forms of music is that it brings different people and cultures together who don’t come together very often. After the difficult pandemic period, this will become even more clear in the next few years and we will appreciate it even more.”
Far fewer people align themselves with worship of any kind these days, especially those of clubbing age. Parker, though, thinks the messages still remain, just in different forms. “House music always had all kinds of messages in it from the very beginning. For example, the very first house track ‘On & On’ by Jesse Saunders wasn’t preaching the gospel when he said “These things inside my soul cause me to lose control. It goes on & on bitch!” I just think as the music’s popularity grew, the various forms of subject matter grew.”
Given its religious roots, you might wonder if Terrence thinks that are set rules when it comes to making gospel house in a respectful way, but no.” There isn’t a right or wrong way,” he says. “As long as the artist or producer is being true to their feelings and the message. Music has always been a source of inspiration, hope, faith, and love throughout history. I think especially in this Covid-19 world, most people are open to receive the message of hope and love in any genre of music.”