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Rediscovering Chicago House: A Brief Introduction

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In the beginning, there was Jack, and Jack had a groove.
And from this groove came the groove of all grooves.
And while one day viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldy declared,
"Let there be house!" and house music was born.

–Mr. Fingers, "Can You Feel It"

Gotta have house music all night long/With that house music you can't go wrong. 
–Marshall Jefferson, "Move Your Body"

Confession: I'm a lifelong Chicagoan, but I only recently learned about the history of house music.  In my defense, I was in grammar school and high school during the genre's formative years, and did not have access to it.  After all, house was generally hard only in the clubs, and rarely on the radio.  Thanks to YouTube and various blogs, I have since discovered the music's appeal, and how it eventually became bigger in Britain than in America. 

On July 12, 1979, Chicago DJ Steve Dahl hosted an anti-disco rally at Comiskey Park entitled "Disco Demolition Night."  Dahl encouraged White Sox fans to bring disco records to the Park, where they would be blown up during the intermission of that night's double-header baseball game.  What began as a silly promotional stunt quickly turned into a riot, with fans rushing the field, lighting fires and destroying the batting cage. 

Subsequently the second game was canceled, but the event became notorious worldwide.  Disco Demolition transformed into a symbol of the growing backlash toward dance music, with many growing tired of its overcommercialization and oversaturation in the media.  Seemingly overnight, discotheques were shuttered, radio stations ceased playing disco, and once-popular club DJs found themselves out of work. 

While disco seemed to fade from the public's consciousness, it simply crawled back underground into the clubs.  But a new generation of Chicago DJs, such as Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, took obscure disco, italo or euro disco, and funk records and, using two turntables, drum machines, and other effects, gave the music a stronger beat.  Knuckles and Hardy were heavily influenced by New York DJs such as David Mancuso and Larry Levan, whose respective clubs The Loft and Paradise Garage spearheaded the dance music phenomenon. 

In Chicago, Knuckles's work at the Warehouse club received notice, with many club patrons wanting to buy the mixes and obscure disco tracks at such local stores as Importes Etc. Fans would ask for "House music," then referring to tracks played at the Warehouse.  The term eventually defined the genre, although other theories exist as to the origins of the "house" name. 

Hardy also pioneered the house music movement, with his work at The Muzic Box club gaining attention for its speed, innovative mixing techniques, and use of everything from soul to 80s pop (he even opened every set with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome").  House music would soon cross over to the radio airwaves, with the legendary "Hot Mix 5" (composed of Chicago DJs Farley "Funkin" Keith, Mickey "Mixin" Oliver, Scott "Smokin" Silz, Ralphi Rosario and Kenny "Jammin" Jason) spinning their own mixes on the now-defunct WBMX FM, most notably on their popular "Saturday Night Live Ain't No Jive" show from 1981-1984.

Sensing the rising popularity of house, local DJs and artists began composing original songs.  Using synthesizers, four-on-the-floor beats, samples, and electronic drums, these musicians recorded tracks targeted at the clubs, although eventually the songs were issued on vinyl through the local labels DJ International and Trax Records. 

At first House music fans primarily consisted of the black gay community, but rapidly gained a following among wider audiences.  By the mid-80s, DJs in Ibiza as well as British clubs like The Hacienda took notice of this new form of dance music, and a subsequent U.K. tour featuring house music's pioneering DJs boosted its popularity in England.  By 1989, British fans had fully embraced house, making it their own through original compositions, faster tempos, and a strong link with the drug Ecstasy. 

In the 1990s house dominated the U.K. charts while still receiving lesser radio airplay in America.  In England, the music branched into related forms such as techno, drum and bass, jungle, trip hop, and other endless subgenres.  But the hallmarks remained the same: soulful, at times gospel-like vocals, a strong, bass-driven beat, and synthesizer-driven effects. 

Obviously house music exists primarily for dancing, thus the lyrics may not be the most profound.  But the words do convey a spirit of freedom, tolerance, and joy that are contagious.  Chicago house still intrigues as an amalgamation of soul, disco, and funk that can be heard in modern dance tracks as well as hip hop.  What follows is a guide to some notable Chicago house tracks, often found on compilations:

"Your Love," Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles (1985) – With just three synthesizer notes on a continuous loop, the haunting song still resonates with its mournful lyrics and danceable beat.

"On and On," Jesse Saunders (1985) – The rap is corny, and it sounds as if it was recorded in a primitive home studio.  But "On and On" ranks as the first house record, selling out quickly at Importes Etc. and gaining a huge club following.

"Time to Jack," Chip E. (1985) – "Jacking" became a dance move unique to house, apparently established in Chicago clubs.  Similar to today's "freaking," "jacking" involved one person bending over while the dance partner would grind against his/her bottom.  Phrases such as "jack your body" were added to the vernacular, leading to a number of house tracks with "jack" in the title.  "Time to Jack," however, remains the original, with Joe Smooth chanting the title phrase over the beat.

"Music Is The Key," JM Silk (1985) – This legendary DJ scored with this hit, heavily influenced by Kraftwerk and Afrika Bombata, among other artists.  "Music Is The Key" exemplifies the Chicago house sound, a combination of disco with 80s techno.

"Move Your Body," Marshall Jefferson (1986) – Unofficially titled the "House National Anthem," this track cements house's new status as an indepdent genre.  In the British documentary Pump Up the Volume: The History of House (2001), Jefferson stated that "Move Your Body" was his attempt at defining the sound, much like Bill Haley and the Comets established the term "rock and roll" with "Rock Around the Clock."

"Love Can't Turn Around," Farley "Jackmaster Funk" featuring Darryl Pandy (1986) – Pandy, an opera-trained singer, became a house superstar thanks to Farley "Jackmaster Funk's" production.  At times campy but featuring a raucous piano break, it became one of the earliest house hits in the U.K.

"Can You Feel It," Mr. Fingers (1986) – Mr. Fingers was the alias of DJ Larry Heard, who created this precursor to other house subgenres like ambient and chillout music.  The sermon in the middle preaching about the history of house shows the deep soul present in the music. 

"Promised Land," Joe Smooth (1988) – Inspired by his stint on the highly successful DJ International tour of the U.K., Smooth penned this dance-take on Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.  These two influences resulted in a house classic, to the point where the Style Council released their cover of "Promised Land" a week after the original was released. 

The aforementioned songs represent a starting place for delving into the house genre.  To explore the origins of house music, seek out these influential dance tracks from the 1970s and early 1980s:

"Trans Euro Express," "Numbers," Kraftwerk
"I Feel Love," Donna Summer
"Planet Rock," Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force
"Let No Man Put Asunder," First Choice
"I Want to Thank You," Alicia Myers
"Is It All Over My Face," Loose Joints
"Love Sensation," Loleatta Holloway
"Trapped," Colonel Abrams
"Keep On," "You're The One for Me," D-Train
"Baby I'm Scared of You," Womack & Womack
"Just An Illusion," Imagination
"Spank," Jimmy Bo Horne
"Now That We Found Love," Third World
"Runaway Love," Linda Clifford
"Running Away," Roy Ayers
"Last Night A DJ Saved My Life," Indeep
"You Got the Love," Candi Staton

These classic or "deep house" tracks comprise just a small sampling of house music's roots, and can be found on various compilations (some out of print, but used copies may be available),  While house music's primary purpose is enticing people on the dance floor, listening to its early forms–Chicago house, deep house, and vintage disco–shows how the genre paved the way for modern dance music and even hip-hop.  Its themes of freedom and tolerance resonate as much as they did in the 70s and 80s, and everyone can relate to those two ideals.  Most importantly, house still makes people want to get up and dance. 

Sources abound chronicling the history of house music; such sites include Wikipedia's "House Music" entry, Global Darkness's History of Chicago House Music, a fairly thorough history at TruGroovz.com, Chicago House Music, and the excellent British documentary Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music (available for viewing on YouTube and other video sites).

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About Kit O'Toole

  • John D

    hey I really enjoyed this article! I didn’t know the background so really enjoyed learning about it.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thank you, Glen!

    Dyrkness,yes, techno had roots in Detroit, mainly through Derrick May (most famously “Strings of Life,” a great techno tune). And, yes, there are connections between D&B and reggae and dub. But England, more than anywhere else, seemed to transform house into several different forms–see the British documentary I mentioned in my column. Quite simply, I didn’t have the room to include techno, D&B, etc. in this piece. Maybe I’ll discuss them in a future column. Thanks for reading and for your comments!

  • Dyrkness

    I disagree with the sentence “In England, the music branched into related forms such as techno, drum and bass, jungle, trip hop, and other endless subgenres.” Techno began in Detroit and Jungle and D&B had it’s roots in Reggae and Techno.

  • Well done Kit. An excellent overview of the genre for the novice, and a very thorough recap for the already acclimated.