“If people can dance together, they can live together…”
“…that’s why it was so important we bring all kinds of people: black, white, straight and gay together with music.” — Mel Cheren, co-founder of Paradise Garage
The story of house music is unlike any other. It is a true example of inclusivity and freedom of expression creating real mainstream success. It was Chicago in the late ’70s is where this new revolution of electronic dance music began. One event in particular can be credited for both a major shift in the music industry and creating space for this new genre. In one of the most curious marketing partnership schemes, the MLB teamed up with some disco-disliking radio DJs to sell White Sox tickets and put an end to disco at the same time. The DJs were upset about the rise of disco music, favoring rock over this new “fad.” The deal was this: entry to that night’s doubleheader cost ninety-eight cents and at least one disco record. The records were piled in the middle of the field after the first game and blown up. The field was stormed by the crowd of almost 70,000 fans who attended that night and the rioting that ensued made sure of one thing: disco was dead. Well, at least as they knew it. One of the defining characteristics of disco culture was its exclusivity: private parties, fancy clubs and wealthy people. What emerged from the ashes was entirely different in that it was an inclusive, welcoming culture that arose to create a safe place for anyone on the margins of the mainstream to simply dance and be free.
House music got its name from The Warehouse, a nightclub in the Chicago area established in 1977. Crowds came in every Saturday to see the first music director of the club, Frankie Knuckles, spin a whole new type of dance music. Influenced by the sounds of European dance and disco’s remains, house music became more about the experience of nightlife than the means to a Top 40 end. Old recycled disco, R&B and soul tracks were thrown over synthy beats and bass, chopped and screwed to meet the energy of the crowd. Drum machines, sequencers, synthesizers and of course DJ decks were the instruments instead of traditional guitars and keys. Most of the pioneers of this phenomenon were queer, black and not afraid to go against the grain. Aside from Knuckles, “The Godfather of House,” other notable figures in this community included Larry Levan, Todd Terry, Marshall Jefferson, Jesse Saunders and Carl Cox to name a few.
Frankie Knuckles: Originally from New York, Knuckles moved to the Chicago area in the late ‘70s. When he arrived, his friend who was opening a new club which would eventually be known as The Warehouse. Originally, the Warehouse was an invite only gay club, but as Knuckles’ euro-synth-disco sound became more popular, so did the club, effectively opening it up to anyone. One of his most well known tracks is “Your Love” featuring vocalist Jamie Principle.
Larry Levan: A good friend of Knuckles, the two met while developing their craft under the direction of Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano. Levan was offered a residency at Paradise Garage where he played until the club closed in ‘87. Levan was known for his love of all genres of music: Philly soul, Motown, classic rock, new wave and punk to name a few. All of which he spun with his own house beats during his residency.
Another thread in the story of house music is the emergence of the Hot Mix 5, a group of five radio DJs from Chicago who took the style of house music to the air waves. They were considered the first to ever play on the radio what was usually only heard in The Warehouse: records being chopped and blended into something entirely new. In its infancy, house music was not traditionally recorded and consumed. DJing was an active form of music, you had to be present to enjoy it. This genre grew in popularity at the same time as major music technology advancements. Soon remixes and originals migrated over to physical copies for purchase and consumption. The popularization of house music on the radio and the accessibility to new technology encouraged an entire generation of musicians and DJs to experiment with the genre freely.
With this added exposure, many other clubs around the world began to experiment with this same concept. This created many similar communities as well as many splinter genres within the house framework. The other major nightclub that propelled this genre into the mainstream around the same time was Paradise Garage in New York, which would eventually became the blueprint for all other dance clubs. Another community in Detroit popped up and originated the sub-genre of techno. Eventually, house went global in places like Manchester, Paris, Ibiza and Stockholm, which gave way to new styles of balearic, acid, and progressive house, jungle, UK garage and hardcore among others. This migration gave house music many different cultural meanings, from acid house parties and raves in the UK, it began to be associated with drugs. However, its inception in the clubs of Chicago and New York were almost completely drug-less. Every community that celebrated house music gave it unique meaning from their own perspective.
Marshall Jefferson: A Chicago DJ whose most popular contribution was the song “Move Your Body.” This track was significant in two main ways. The lyrics were literally “gotta have house music” which forced familiarization with the formerly nameless genre. It also included piano, which many criticized claiming house music doesn’t feature acoustics. So Jefferson declared the track to be the house music anthem, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Carl Cox: The first DJ to play Shoom, a weekly party that featured acid house music. It was one of the UKs first major events associated with the genre, and the most significant start to the UK’s rave culture. Cox also embraced techno and became known for his experimentation with three-deck mixing.
“From ambient house to techno, none of the music we get down to today would exist without the Black DJs of Chicago and the culture made up of minorities that helped fuel it. From Madonna to Daft Punk, early house music’s influence reaches nearly all genres.” — Sydney Grant, EDM Identity
The music itself was characterized by blending genres, it could never be defined by just one thing. Inclusiveness, creative thinking and experimentation were paramount to the construction of this genre as well as the community it created. New perspectives have continuously evolved the music throughout time. House music may have gone in and out of the underground scene since its inception, but its influence altered many other genres and cannot be understated. The modern night club was modeled after these parties. Many pop, hip-hop and R&B radio hits would not exist without this radical experimentation from a relatively small, queer and black community of artists. House music culture may look a bit different now from its 1970s start, but it has stayed rooted in its original objective: to be the soundtrack of a safe place for anyone to dance and embrace nightlife.
Editor’s Note: This story was written by Becca Wig