Chicago: Deeper Than a Drop – The History of House Music
The first article in a new series highlighting Electronic music from a Chicago perspective.
By: John C.
An Introduction to the Series
When I was first brought onto EDM Chicago, I was faced with the difficulty of determining how I wanted to use the opportunity to add value to the site while providing readers with articles that were interesting to fans of electronic music in Chicago. As a current ongoing project, I am developing a website for Chicago area producers to discuss their productions, meet other producers, seek advice and collaborate on tracks. The idea for the project was inspired from my passion for Chicago and more specifically, it\’s electronic music scene. As the home of house music, I feel fortunate to call my home Chicago. The music scene in this city is both incredibly deep in it\’s origin and rich in it\’s talent. I wanted the project to be my contribution to the enhancement of that scene, giving myself a means to involve myself with it directly while paying homage to the city that presented me with the music I love. It seemed only right that I carried this passion for Chicago\’s music forward in my writing for EDM Chicago and present an editorial based series highlighting the city, from it\’s origins to it\’s current state. In this introductory article, I wanted to give a historical context for the music this city has presented the world with so that the reader may follow along as I discuss it\’s evolutions and adaptations up to the current date. This article will be one of the lengthier contributions to the series, but one that I have no doubt you will enjoy. At the end of the article is a link to my recently activated twitter account, where I encourage you to reach out to me with any comments or criticisms on the series or any suggestions for future material.
In the beginning there was Jack, and Jack had groove.
If you are a fan of House music in Chicago, the opening line to Larry Heard\’s 1987 track [Youtube], released under his Mr. Fingers alias, can certainly strike a resonating feeling of appreciation for not only the genre but also of it\’s home, Chicago, and for good reason. The track, originally released on Chicago\’s own Trax Records boldly declares the emergence of House music as both personal, universal, colorless and without religious restriction as it welcomes you to join the movement. The classic has stood the test of time, finding itself in countless house sets and having seen various remixes throughout the years. To understand how the emergence of house became so profound, one must understand the culture in which it was cultivated. Before we dive into the deep end (pun intended) of Chicago\’s music scene, let us rewind back to the early 80s, a time period that would begin to the lay the groundwork for house music and club culture in our beloved city.
The 80s marked a critical turning point in \’club music.\’ As Disco\’s rise to fame was intensified by 1977\’s release of Saturday Night Fever, it became the soundtrack to American dance clubs, including New York\’s Paradise Garage with resident DJ Larry Levan. America\’s love for Disco, however, was not as long lived as most had expected at the time and it\’s acceptance in pop culture began to decline. As with the dissolution of any trend in pop culture music, there is no specific point where disco instantly transitioned from mainstream acceptance to mainstream backlash, rather, it was the overall result of multiple cultural influences. One of the most notable influences, Disco Demolition Night, was an promotion held in Chicago at Comiskey Field in 1979. The promotion, led by Steve Dahl, a shock-jock DJ supportive of the anti-disco movement, invited fans to join him in bringing disco records to the park and promised to explode them in protest of the genre. Unfortunately, the promotion was not well controlled, leading to significantly more people attending the promotion than security could accommodate. As the explosion took place, fans rushed the field and the destruction continued until riot police were able to contain the crowd.
The results of the promotion showcased the poor taste behind it\’s message and alluded to the inner-controversy behind it. To many, the anti-disco movement included not only hatred towards the music genre, but also attributed it\’s roots to racist and homophobic sentiments as disco was popularized by both African American and homosexual clubs in Chicago and beyond. The calculated dissolution of Disco\’s mainstream appeal transitioned the genre from the top of the charts to the underground as American\’s chanted \”Disco Sucks!,\” a slogan which is also said to be founded in support of it\’s homophobic foundation.
As disco lost it\’s mainstream appeal, production of disco records was no longer considered a sustainable venture, and track releases began to take a steady decline. In many Chicago clubs and underground scene, however, it\’s popularity remained steady. As the availability of new material diminished, Chicago DJs found themselves looking for new ways to bring club attendees the sound they desired while avoiding continually playing the same tracks. They began re-working the material by utilizing disco hooks from popular tracks and reorganizing them so that the tracks could be presented in a new and interesting way. Most notable of these innovative DJs was the late, Frankie Knuckles, who had moved to Chicago in 1977 to be the musical director of Chicago\’s newest club, The Warehouse. Prior to his move to Chicago, Frankie Knuckles was a DJ along side Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in New York. Frankie\’s introduction to Chicago came with praise from club patrons, who were attracted to his classic soulful style originating from his parties in New York [Youtube], and most notably the influence he brought with him from New York\’s gay club scene.
As the need for new material progressed, so did Frankie\’s adaptation of track manipulation while carving out his own unique stylistic presence that made a name for him as well as the Warehouse. Suddenly, Chicago was hooked on this new music which was unlike what they were used to. Patrons demanded more of this \”House\” music, a reference to the sound unique to Chicago\’s Warehouse. [Author Note: The origin of the term House is not unanimously agreed upon with some theories pointing to it\’s homemade production, common at the time]. As popularity began to rise in Chicago\’s club and underground scene, the emergence of the WBMX Hot Mix 5 radio provided an additional spark to Chicago\’s house music explosion. It differentiated itself from other \’mix\’ style radio programs of the time by featuring Warehouse style music, but rather than playing entire tracks, as was common for radio of the time, the Hot Mix 5 would mix in and out of tracks after short periods, highlighting only what they considered to be the best parts of the individual songs [Youtube]. Chicago DJs were on the verge of a large movement, but their humble approach did not allow them to foresee the impact their contribution to music would have.
\”House music is the soundtrack to the more deviant, exciting rebellious side of life\” – Steve Lawler
As the popularity of House music continued to take off, the Warehouse began capitalizing on it\’s success and increased it\’s cost of admission. Not satisfied with the Warehouse\’s new direction, Frankie Knuckles left his residency to open his own club, The Power Plant. Meanwhile, the Warehouse re-branded itself as Music Box and hired a new DJ who would also play a key role in house music\’s rise to popularity, Ron Hardy. Hardy\’s style was said to be a contrast to the style presented by Knuckles, foregoing the classic soulful sound for an increased pitch and more energetic approach [Youtube]. The acceptance and demand for house music continued bringing in a new wave of DJs inspired by the music and set on making a name for themselves. As drum machines and basic synthesizers became more available, completely original house tracks began to surface regularly. Among them was Jesse Saunders, whose track \”On and On\” [Youtube] became the first house track to be pressed to vinyl and offered for sale to the public. It\’s success became influential and house music production became attractive to DJs who believed house music offered less barriers of entry to an artist not trained as a classic musician.
Larry Sherman, who owned one of the city\’s few vinyl press operations, noted the increase in demand for public distribution of house music, and along with Screamin\’ Rachel Cain formed Trax Records. With an official label capable of large scale public distribution, many house DJs brought their tracks to Larry in hopes of creating the next massive house sensation. House music was now capable of not only taking Chicago by storm, but spanning across the country and even abroad via official distribution. This rise in popularity gave way to an increase in competition amongst DJs, who were looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the others. Amongst these DJs looking to differentiate themselves was the group Phuture, which included the legendary DJ Pierre. Pierre was able to find his unique style with the discovery of the Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesizer. The TB-303, originally designed to assist musicians when practicing alone by duplicating the presence of a bass player, presented a bass sound that was radically different than what the genre was used to [Youtube]. Unsure of how to market the new sound, Pierre turned to Ron Hardy, a DJ already characteristically known for his high energy differentiation, to play it at the Music Box. After it\’s introduction by Hardy, club attendees began to take to the new sound. It\’s acceptance sparked a new movement within house, and gave birth to to the sub-genre Acid House, a reference to Phuture\’s \”Acid Tracks,\” which is said to be one of the first Acid House releases [Youtube]. As Larry Sherman continued to purchase tracks from DJs and press them to vinyl for worldwide distribution, house\’s underground popularity sky-rocketed, and was now receiving some international recognition.
As the music began gaining traction around the world, it was impacted by various local influences and the introduction of culturally unique instruments. As DJs globally began to create tracks combining these influences with the influence of Chicago\’s House music, the emergence of various dance genres began to gain similar traction and similar forms of electronic music were introduced. At the same time, completely independent electronic music styles began spreading and cross influencing with each other. Cities and even countries began to become synonymous with their local flavor of \”Chicago\’s Music\”: As Detroit presented the world with techno, electro continued to expand out of New York, dub continued to grab hold in Jamaica, and trance anthems spread outward from Germany. As the 1980s mainstream began to feature new trends in music such as hard/alternative rock, R&B, Hip Hop and country, the clubs, underground parties and niche-market radio segments were engrossed in the unique sounds resulting from the pioneers of Chicago.
It is, however, the Techno of Detroit and Acid House from Chicago that is most attributed to the birth of rave culture, at least in the term\’s current context. As the various genres developed a deeper subculture on an international level, the emergence of \”free parties\” began appearing in the UK, where event organizers would utilize open areas and abandoned buildings to throw parties that were not constricted by any club regulations and were free from limitations of the law. These events, often focusing on Acid House, began gaining the interest of party goers who enjoyed the free nature of these parties and caused the events to progressively grow in size. Later adopting the term \”raves,\” they promoted the community culture of the Acid House movement as a unification through music. The scene wasn\’t without it\’s criticisms, however. As the availability of drugs such as LSD (Acid) and MDMA (Ecstasy) increased, their presence within clubs and raves did as well.
As the parties began to grow in size they also began to catch the public attention. As thousands of rave attenders from various origins would meet at a publicly undisclosed location, their drug usage and destruction of the party locations began to catch the eye of parent groups and law enforcement alike. Meanwhile, the success of E-Zee Possee\’s Everything Begins with an E [Youtube], in 1989 incited media outrage as the music began to be associated more commonly for it\’s drug culture than it\’s music or community based origins. The track itself was eventually banned by the BBC who cited that the song promoted the usage of drugs. As these large scale raves, or \”massives,\” continued to grow in size throughout London and the rest of the United Kingdom, politicians decided it was time to put an end to the movement and passed a bill making such events illegal and allowing for event promoters to be directly held responsible for the action of it\’s participants. While law makers believed this would put an end to the rave culture, the plan might have backfired. As the regulations put forth drove the culture underground, opportunistic criminals saw an opportunity to capitalize on the parties\’ avoidance of law enforcement scrutiny as a free haven for drug trade, which worsened the media\’s image of such raves.
As the early 90s rave scene began spreading in Europe, DJs and event promoters that moved stateside or were returning from a visit overseas began bringing the rave culture to the United States by hosting similar underground raves. Most often credited with America\’s adoption of rave culture is a DJ by the name of Frankie Bones, who after performing at a large rave in England was inspired to bring a similar party style back to the US and created the \”Storm Raves\” event series. Frankie hosted raves throughout Brooklyn and New York City which began to grow in popularity as it influenced the culture\’s spread throughout North America. As these raves began establishing large scenes on both the east and west coast, underground parties also became more common place throughout Chicago and Detroit, the birthplaces of House and Techno, respectively. These state-side raves began receiving the same critical media attention that they experienced overseas, but the additional media coverage only seemed to introduce new people to the rave culture resulting in an increase in their popularity.
This is my house.
By the mid 1990s, house music had become a global phenomenon, both in terms of it\’s own popularity, but also in it\’s influences in other genres of music. As it evolved it began to enter the mainstream with pop artists beginning to adopt it\’s style and structure and combine it with that of their own while more traditional house music tracks remained the core of club music around the world. During the 90s, however, electronic music as a whole began to evolve in form fairly rapidly. As rave culture continued to expand in Europe, the mainstream reception gave rise to some of the first \’mega-star\’ electronic acts and artists such as The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim began taking the music to chart toping levels of success. America adapted the expansion and these artists, along with other international and domestic artists of similar style rose to fame. As this increase in mainstream appeal took place, a differentiation between the traditional styles of dance music, such as House and Techno, and the mainstream acts receiving radio play began to form.
It would seem from an outside perspective that mainstream reception was not the goal for many of the early house DJs. Although they continued to tour throughout the 90s, they did so in a manner that was not at the direct control of the music industry. House, and other electronic genres like techno and drum and bass, it would seem, weighed the importance of it\’s movement almost (if not more than) as heavily as the music itself. This was their music created as a representation of their culture and their ideologies, including the free nature of the parties. They enjoyed the avoidance of a judgmental environment, so attendees could unite under their own terms and allow themselves to free their mind to the music and environment they found themselves in. House was not designed to be the next rock and roll and it wasn\’t designed to be at the whim of the music industry, where the club environment would be left in favor of performing at mega-size venues to a sold out crowd of ticket holders. The benefit of the culture behind the music was the reason for the music. Unfortunately, this same freedom was not afforded to many of the artists that saw a quick rise to fame through the traditional pathway of the music industry. Instead (and often not at the artist\’s direction) the music was to comply with trends in pop culture appeal and career life-spans were dictated at the rapidly changing mindset of mainstream music appeal, often dictated by the heavy marketing behind the industry. While house and techno artists attempted to remain under their own terms, the initial chart topping DJs had to seek a harmony between their artistic direction and the industry control.
The 90s would continue to progress in this manner, with house music taking only a minor decline in appeal (from their traditional audience) and electronic artists that reached mainstream appeal riding the industry\’s marketing of \”electronica.\” The industry, however, began changing direction during the late 90s, and a brief decline would be observed for \’true\’ electronic artists as the industry began to blur the lines between electronic music and other forms of pop music. Suddenly, America was introduced to hip hop featuring electronic inspired supporting beats, rock bands featuring a DJ band member, increased repetitive synth lines, and ambient styles showing increased influence in the emergence of indie rock.
While the homogenization between dance music and pop music continued, the underground scene for House began to thrive and those that rejected the direction the music seemed to be taking from both the mainstream and impact it had on club culture. The rave scene flourished, and the emergence of massively organized events and promotors, such as San Diego\’s Global Underground Network, began to emerge. The scenes became large enough to drive the attendance into the tens of thousands and at times, even larger. Such reception paved a pathway for other emerging artists to take the sounds from the underground to the mainstream, including artists like the Crystal Method and Aphex Twin. This trend continued until America entered the 2000s, and increased regulation began to cause a decline in these \”massives.\”
Don\’t You Worry Child…
The time between the world cheering on the new millennium and today\’s date, electronic music has gone on an interesting journey. As large rave events began to see a decline, and pop culture\’s integration of electronic music left only a select few that could maintain fame while remaining a pure electronic music act, the next emergence of electronic music was set to take place. In place of legendary acts that received both mainstream and underground appeal, such as Daft Punk and Justice, the music industry began to observe a trend in electronic music: it was again beginning to rise and the \”DJ\” was becoming a star. As technology evolved for computers as a means of music production and the cost barrier of entry to an electronic musician were lowered, more and more unsigned artists began turning to electronic music as a medium. The industry developed a means to reintroduce itself, and suddenly, Americans began to know electronic music as \”EDM.\”
EDM, or electronic dance music, is a term said to encompass all genres of electronic dance music that was designed to support the marketization of the family of genres (It is easier to sell the public \”EDM\” then \”House\” and \”Techno\” and \”D&B\”, etc..). While this alignment of the industry opened the gate way for the next wave of electronic mega-stars, from David Guetta to Swedish House Mafia, the underground scene began to once again show a strong contrast and extreme distaste for the music, which represented a much more pop orientated sound that was more traditional to the music. At the same time, large, organized and increasingly corporate electronic music festivals began to replace the free-minded rave massives the underground cherished. The club scene even began to disintegrate in style as some clubs choose to cater to this next wave of electronic music, while others rejected it\’s lack of culture in favor of the preferred genres such as house and techno in their traditional form. While providing an investigative breakdown of the differences between both scenes and the music they produce would be interesting, the subject matter would be lengthy enough to warrant it\’s own article and the ensuing argument from various points of views would most likely be less than productive.
So where are we, fans of electronic music, at this point? In my opinion, we live in an era of true freedom of electronic music appreciation while simultaneously we may exist in a critical turning point for the direction of it\’s future. The underground and appropriately catered house and techno clubs provide traditional electronic music fans with feet moving house music, driving techno beats and more, while maintaining a sense of remaining true to the culture. At the same time, mainstream acts are seeing increased exposure, touring, and radio time for fans of their highly energetic representation of electronic music, while providing the younger generation to self-define their culture. As technology and cost of entry continue to improve for inspiring artists, more and more unique styles and sounds emerge on a nearly daily basis, and we are invited to discover and promote the electronic acts that we appreciate the most. We are in a period where all fans of electronic music are capable of finding their own culture and style they associate themselves with. As the debate continues to rise between the various cultures, those that are opportunistic about their sense of choice continue to enjoy the music they are passionate about.
No other place represents this as well as our city of Chicago. On nearly any night of the week you have a wide selection of electronic music to drive the night out. Are you into celebrating the classic and deep styles of house and techno with an emphasis on local talent? The Pool House at Primary welcomes you. Do you prefer a mix of local house and techno infused with the genre defining international artists that have remained true to the underground? Grab a cab and head to Spybar. If Martin Garrix\’s new radio hit is more your flavor, order ticket to the Mid, and close out with new age Chicago flavor like a set from DJ Zebo. The choice is yours and in this city these are only a few examples of the many electronic music-focused venues catering to every taste. Once the club closes, find your way into one of the many afters-parties this city offers and spend your night appreciating the underground\’s culture. If there is demand for a style of music, this city can offer it, and that is why as electronic music fans, we are fortunate to say \”This is my house!\” when describing Chicago.
While admittedly I was not able to cover every detail of House\’s rise from the sets of select Chicago pioneers to the global main stage, I hope the article provided you with a basic understanding of how the music and culture came to be and where it can direct itself. In future articles, I will explore various aspects of electronic music, from venues in our city to the international acts that play here all from the eyes of a fellow Chicago fan. I invite you to follow along and even provide your input on the subject matter or ideas for future articles.
Thoughts, Questions, or Suggestions? Head over to twitter and let me hear it! John C on Twitter.