Archive for the ‘House Music History’ Category
By now, the movement known as House is gaining momentum with every record dropped on a slipmat. The sound, borne out of the sweaty, crowded dancefloors in New York, Detroit, and Chicago is fanning out across America, and the globe.
The irony of House is it was a music style that originated in America, heavily influenced by European music, that was heavily influenced by American music IN THE FIRST PLACE.
That ought to keep you up for a few nights trying to work that out…
House music is an odd bird. You can say where it may have started, but it always feels like it was just waiting for its time to emerge, as if it were always here to begin with. Just laying dormant beneath the veneer of cocaine and garish polyester.
Just like it had been with disco, those that exist at the margins of so-called polite society carried the torch. Black, Latino, and Gay influences abounded in House, and still do, right up to present day. The producers, the singers, the musicians, the dancers.
House also had a significant deeper meaning. With AIDS ravaging the community, House music was literally a sanctuary. It was the gospel for a forgotten tribe, the soundtrack for a misfit family. The Reagan/Thatcher years ushered in a new Puritanism. Its proponents and supporters preached that AIDS was “God’s revenge.”
House music provided an alternative message. Not without a sense of irony, House also borrowed heavily from gospel music. The call and response was lifted right out of Black American churches. When placed in juxtaposition with House, it fit seamlessly.
In a lot of ways, House music is a lot like Jeet Kune Do, the martial art developed by Bruce Lee. Yes, it is pretty badass, but that’s not quite, what I had in mind…
House music is a form without form. It can be whatever you want, and marries well with other forms and styles to create a new style. It adopts all kinds of instruments naturally.
Like a piano, for example…
In 1986, Marshall Jefferson was producing music and DJing in Chicago, like so many others. He came into contact with Larry Sherman, owner of Trax Records. He had an idea for a new House track, something completely different from the heavily synthesized, almost metronomic sound of most House at the time.
Jefferson wanted to breathe a little humanity back into the music.
He decided to use piano instead.
“Move Your Body” became the first House music track to use a piano, and the effect was seismic. People went mental for it. It became the House anthem. It seemed to perfectly encapsulate the joy of the music, and make a definitive social statement about the culture at the same time.
House music gonna set you free, indeed…
Meanwhile, similar things were happening across Lake Michigan, in Detroit, a city with it’s own storied musical legacy. The Midwest would prove to be the epicenter of a major musical revolution…
TO BE CONTINUED…
No one is entirely sure who coined the the term “House.” No one is entirely sure when, or where it was first used.
What we do know is it’s here, and it ain’t going nowhere.
The past lessons of Disco, New Wave, Hi-NRG, were merging and converging in various cities. The irony is that the music of Europe, in the form of bands like Kraftwerk, Yazoo, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, and Depeche Mode, hit the shores, naturally establishing a beachhead in New York. From there, visiting DJs spread out to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami. These songs found their way into the crates alongside Latin dance music and Italo disco. The DJs?
Larry Levan, Junior Vasquez, Frankie Knuckles, Tom Moulton, Farley Jackmaster Funk, among many others were spinning in clubs, but more importantly, they were engineers and mixers at recording studios. Well versed in the arts of making dance records, they took those finely honed talents, along with the now affordable and available synthesizers and drum machines, like the Roland 808 (as in 808 State), these DJs and studio technicians were at the centre of an all too perfect storm.
As I previously stated, this is where things get fun, but tricky. Depending on who you would ask, there are several origins that describe how House gained its moniker.
Story #1: The Warehouse in Chicago. What Mecca is to a Muslim pilgrim, the Warehouse is to House music connoisseurs. Frankie Knuckles is probably its most famous alumnus, but many of the first generation DJs have blessed the decks at one time or another. When the downtown clubs resegregated, Black, Latino, and gay clubbers found a home at the Warehouse, where the DJs would spin their home recorded dance tracks. Eventually they would manage to get a mass pressing of vinyl distributed. It would go on to be known as “Warehouse Music,” which eventually was shorthanded to…(drum roll, please!) House Music.
Story #2: South Side Chicago DJ Leonard “Remix” Roy worked old soul and R&B records into his sets. He acquired many of the records from his mother’s house, hence the term.
Story #3: Clubs in major cities always had at least one DJ who was not just playing records, they were also making records that would be, for the most part, played in that club only. Like the “house” wine or salad dressing, they would have music synonymous with that club or house.
Story # 4 : DJ Larry Heard believes the term was coined from the fact that many of the early pioneers recorded the tracks at home.
Maybe only one of them is true. Maybe none of them. I like to think they all happened around the same time. Like a virus, the idea grew and spread, until it became a concept, then a movement.
So, what was the first track?
Again, it’s tricky. Elements of house were forming as far back as 1980. Hi-NRG had some of the major components, but it was still just a diamond in the rough. Italo Disco was close, but still, no cigar. Jesse Saunders essentially laid down the true blueprint in 1984 with “On And On.” It is to house music what the wheel was to transportation.
There were others released at the same time as “On And On,” but none with as much impact.
Then a fella by the name of Marshall Jefferson came along, and changed the game….
TO BE CONTINUED…..
I blame Giorgio Moroder for all of this….
He got this wild notion in his head for Disco to sound like some space-age symphony. While everyone else was rushing to put whole orchestras on a record, the half-German, half-Italian producer went light years in the opposite direction and created an orchestra of one.
Thus Euro-Disco is born. Euro-Disco would then merge with punk and voilà, you have New Wave!
Ideas are a lot like the common cold. Once it infects others, it spreads fast. Pretty soon, everybody’s got it. That also explains some of the appalling fashion trends of the Eighties.
Disco never died. It certainly didn’t die in Chicago in 1979. Like any popular fad, it lost public interest and stayed with the people who truly cared about it. Disco was just another name for something to dance to. To that end, it then became Hi-NRG. Not much of a name. Think of it as a cultural place holder.
The pieces were slowly falling into place, though. R&B and Disco permanently bonded. D-Train came out of Brooklyn with the same drive as the subway line. You’re The One For Me wasn’t House in the purest sense, but the blueprint had been established.
As a coastal city, New York was absorbing sounds brought over from visitors and its resident club DJs making record buying forays to Europe. Heavily synthesized Italian disco fit in perfectly with the American R&B dance music. Add the Latin Influence of Salsa and Merengue music, along with powerhouse female vocalists like Jocelyn Brown, Gloria Gaynor, and Martha Wash…
You see where this is heading, don’t you?
Each music form fed of the other, influencing, imitating, and replicating, like some mutated musical fetus. A beautiful, mutated, musical fetus.
Arthur Baker was a DJ and producer from Boston who soaked up the hip and electro coming out of New York. He’d been there with Afrika Bambatta, and he made the acquaintance of three young men from Manchester who were still reeling from the loss of their lead singer. He took their lyrics and set it to a four on the floor beat.
Tell me now, how should I feel…
Actually, Baker lifted the hook from another NY producer, Bobby O, better known as Bobby Orlando. Bobby O and Arthur Baker are to house what Little Richard and Elvis were to Rock. Both men were originators and innovators. Bobby O didn’t gain as much notice because most of music was unapologetically for the gay crowd. Nevertheless, he put out music at a rate that would have scared Prince.
But all wasn’t joy in the Eighties.
AIDS was claiming a vast cross section of the people within the creative scene. Paranoia over the disease, coupled with the one-two combo of Reagan and Thatcher ushered in a new Puritanical Age. “Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied” was replaced with “Just Say No.”
Now, here’s where things get a bit tricky…Fun, but tricky…
I can’t actually say what it is for another DJ, but for me… it is some seriously powerful shit! I have been a fan of house music since the late 80s when shit was really sketchy. New York was a late bloomer when it came to House Music. NY seemed to be so wrapped up in Hip Hop that Chicago was spreading House Music and Detroit was spreading Techno Music worldwide without us really being in the know. So we didn’t start to really see any progression here until the early 90s. House was the bastard child of Disco after she had love affairs with both Funk and Soul but she didn’t really know who the father was. Some real ghetto shit, right? I know but doesn’t all really superb music start out in the hood? At least that’s how I saw it. Disco at the time had been abandoned by the mainstream and was cast into the abyss to be forgotten. The “four on the floor” thump had been watered down with cheap electronic sounds instead of 5-20 piece bands.
Every soul, jazz and R&B singer on the planet had jumped onto the bandwagon and made a “disco” track. When Johnny Mathis (and don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Johnny Mathis) makes a disco song, you are headed down a dark path from which there may be no return. I loved my disco music from the 60s and 70s but this crap coming out in the 80s killed me. It lacked a significant amount of soul and originality. Kind of like what modern “Commercial Rap” music is seeing right now. I was first exposed to House Music at; you guessed it, a “House Party” at someone’s crib in Brooklyn, NY circa 1987. Someone had found some not-so-shitty electronic sounds and made them sound really, really good! I can’t even remember the song but I kept my ears open for the sound at every party and it began to increase more and more. There was the Hip Hop, the R&B, the Reggae and then a little House segment. The house segment was always the most intense part. The B-Boys/B-Girls seemed to dig it more than they dug dancing to Hip Hop. It caught on like wildfire on the underground because you know they wouldn’t play it on the radio. You had to be at your crib, a party or a club to get some good house music. In the U.S. the same holds true to date as far as I’m concerned. Occasionally you’ll catch a 2 a.m. dope House Music mix somewhere in the US but rarely is it long enough to suit a house head’s taste. Anyway, in NY I saw House begin to integrate itself into other underground formats and gave rise to the likes of Hip-House, Trance, Jungle, Tech-house and a myriad of other styles with the same 4-bump kick drum root. It was pretty incredible by the early 90s how it became integrated into everything, even the mainstream. The marvelous thing about House Music is that it split into so many sub-genres that it has been able to accommodate the most discriminating underground House head in the ghettos of Brooklyn to the most uppity Ivy League graduate from the suburbs of Minneapolis.
Knowing and having been able to experience all of that history allows me to soak up all of the wonders of spinning some Deep, Soulful and Classic House. Watching the incredible timeless bodies that are well into their 60s and the newbies in their 20s all share the dance floor define what it is for me. Spinning House Music is beyond magical. The only thing I love more than spinning it is dancing to it. Yes, you will find me on the dance floor cutting some serious rug! Watching the looks on people’s faces when they are dancing is amazing. Most of them don’t seem to care about anything else except for the song that is on and the way it makes them feel on that crowded or even a not so crowded dance floor. It is solidarity and unity at the same time. Bodies gyrating, sweat, smiles, frowns when a hard baseline comes on, the way everyone bounces at the same time when the music drops out and just the drums and percussion kick in, the hands clapping, the whistles blowing, the random tambourine that someone brings out… Nothing touches watching this. Nothing can come close to the exhilaration of knowing that you are guiding the joys of these people. Teasing the crowd with lead-ins to a really popular song and feeling the heat in the room swell and then letting them have it at just the right moment…Boom! The release! That is what it is to spin house music. Most people will never know what it feels like. I feel really sorry for them.
Disco is now a dirty word in America. Ronald Reagan is about to take office and send the world into a nationalistic, evangelical Dark Age. Strange times are ahead…
The haters were confident that Disco, their sworn enemy, was finally, and permanently dead, consigned to the musical and cultural scrap-heap. No longer would red-blooded, heterosexual, American men feel the need to dress up in garish polyester shirts, tight, crotch-hugging gabardine slacks, platform shoes, and engage in mindless casual sex and Himalayan mountain ranges of cocaine.
America was once again safe.
To be fair, Disco hadn’t done itself any favours. Like some of its loyal followers, Disco hadn’t been selective about mating partners. Like any musical revolution, once the popular market got its grimy hands all over the scene, doom was written on the cards.
Pop music is a cultural vampire. It latches on to whatever is hot at the time, sucks all the available creative juices, until all that is left is a dried out husk.
When Disco first started, the music was inspired, passionate, delightfully and deliriously over the top. Artists like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band brought back 1930′s big band swing with disco hips. Silver Connection dropped a disco bomb in the middle of a classical orchestra, straight outta Munich. Even credible rock acts like Blondie, Rod Stewart, and The Electric Light Orchestra were getting in on the act.
Then Nile Rodgers got turned away by Steve Rubell at the doors of Studio 54. Chic started a revolution. When Le Freak dropped, it was the Never Mind The Bollocks of disco.
Of course, no musical revolution is complete without mind-altering chemicals. Jazz had marijuana. Psychedelic rock had LSD. Disco had COCAINE.
Lots and lots and lots of cocaine. Pure, white, fluffy, tasty….I’m sorry, where was I?
Cocaine was everywhere during the Golden Age of Disco. It was a cool time. You had to figure there would be snow…
Of course, the good times couldn’t last. By the late 70′s the musical output had deteriorated so much, Hollywood stars like Ethel Merman were making disco records. Google her, kids. She was a big star back in the day, trust me.
It would be hard to take a musical style seriously that didn’t take its shelf life into consideration. Disco wanted to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad (Thanks, Meat Loaf!).
Previously, I quoted the first Law of Thermodynamics. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only become another energy form.
That law can also be applied to music. Music is a form of energy. Sound energy, to be precise. Vibrating waves that hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate.
…And the beat goes on.
Disco was the amphibian taking its first steps on land. It was never meant to remain static.
It was as if everyone had forgotten that caterpillars form a cocoon. After a dormant period, a butterfly emerges.
Let’s hop into the DeLorean, shall we? (Sidebar: I love the fact that the DeLorean is such a cultural icon. Who else but a guy who funded his company dealing coke could come up with the idea of building a car out of stainless steel? You can’t make this stuff up, people!)
Fast forward five years to 1985. I’ll fill you in on the way…
People still wanted to dance. They just wanted to wear different stupid clothing.
Disco wasn’t the only casualty of the time. Rock had become a bloated carcass of 60′s bands getting rich and insanely high off of past glory. Punk emerged, a lean, mean predator that burned out even faster than Disco. It was meant to. Strangely enough, without either culture knowing it, Punk and Disco, which had flirted occasionally (See Heart Of Glass, by Blondie), now rutted with a savage intensity.
New York and London witnessed the carnage, first hand. In impoverished neighborhoods, where gang violence was rife, a gang leader named Afrika Bambatta heard a DJ spinning Trans Europe Express, by Kraftwerk, a German group of four men and their synthesizers. Around the same time, Martin Gore and Vince Clark were in Basildon, Essex, listening to German electronic music.
Although neither of the parties realized it, but they would go on to become pioneers in their respective genres, and also sow the seeds for another great musical leap forward.
New Wave and Hip Hop. Disco’s bastard offspring. Five lads in Birmingham were digging David Bowie and Roxy Music. Their bass player had an affinity for Chic, in particular, Bernard Edwards, the bassist.
Some eyeliner, and a few puffy sleeves later, Duran Duran was born.
Three guys and a DJ got together in New York, and started rapping over a break from Good Times by Chic (them again!)
Rapper’s Delight, by The Sugarhill Gang.
1985. Larry Levan was a DJ at The Garage, a nightclub in New York. Derek May was a DJ in Detroit. Frankie Knuckles had just arrived in Chicago. He would get a job as a DJ at a nightclub called the Warehouse.
And now, the fun begins…
TO BE CONTINUED…
Why, do ask, should that date be significant?
Well, allow me to elaborate…
Thursday, July 12, 1979 was Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, in Chicago, Illinois. The promotion had been organized by Steve Dahl, an on-air personality (a contradiction in terms).
Dahl had been fired by radio station WDAI, which changed its programming format from rock to disco. Hired by market rival radio station WLUP, Dahl concocted Disco Demolition Night as a way to retaliate against his former employers.
Held during a doubleheader baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, Disco Demolition Night would consist of fans bringing their unwanted disco records to the game in exchange for reduced admission. The offending records would then be brought to middle of a field, where they would be placed in a crate which was then to be blown up with explosives by Steve Dahl.
I won’t go into details here, suffice to say the American appetite for destruction hasn’t changed much over the years. Disco was just collateral damage along the way, cultural road kill for a country seeking its identity.
Okay, opinionated social commentary notwithstanding…
This event is significant, in the fact that, in the words of writer Malcolm Gladwell, this would be considered a “Tipping Point.”
If there had been no Disco Demolition Night, there might never have been House Music.
Okay, maybe eventually House Music would have come to pass, but when?
This single event, which is lost to its participants in a beer-soaked, disco-hating, testosterone-laden, cathartic haze, was a blip on the cultural radar, but this was the Boston Tea Party of House.
Perhaps the funniest thing about that night, and by funny, I mean in an ironic, ha-ha, futility of your actions, kinda way, Steve Dahl accomplished NOTHING that night. In his mind, to this day, he thinks he is single-handedly responsible for the death of Disco.
In order to properly put this all in context, I’m going to veer off on a slight tangent here. I am not demonizing, nor am I demagoguing. I’m a big picture type of personality, and I want you to see the big picture with me.
America, like many countries before it, was founded on ideas. They were noble ones, as all ideas are when they start out. Naïve and idealistic, the people and ideas, hand in hand, side by side.
The problem with ideas, is they have a nasty habit of running smack dab into Reality. It’s almost always messy, and it almost never ends well.
America believes itself to be a country of rugged, independent people. In particular, the men. They have guns, they drink beer, they occasionally use said guns to kill animals or people. The idea of the rugged American Male was, and still is a strong selling point. Davy Crockett, John Wayne, the Marlboro Man, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky/Rambo…take your pick.
The problem with that image is, most American men aren’t that, and that image is almost always, Caucasian, single-minded, extremely masculine, conservative in ideology, and unambiguous in sexuality.
See where I’m going with this?
Anything that doesn’t fit with that image of the American Male is violent rejected, suppressed ridiculed, or destroyed. It is a threat that the cultural white cells must purge from the body politic.
Which brings us to here.
The image of the American male is an illusion, one cultivated and created to provide a safe, acceptable image, an ideal to aspire to.
Disco, at the time was not only an affront to the American Male image, it was tantamount to blasphemy. It was, by its very existence, the total antithesis of that image.
A music form born out of homegrown music styles from Black American culture, Disco takes the danceability of Funk, the seductive elements of Rhythm and Blues, the hard backbeat of Rock and Roll, the free-form musical anarchy of Jazz.
Disco, like its root music sources, was celebratory in nature. Its sole intention was to make you forget your daily drudgery. For three minutes, you weren’t your job, your gender, your race, your bank account, your upward mobility. You were part of a utopian experience, euphoric, hedonistic, social and sexual anarchy with a four on the floor beat.
No surprise that the Black and Gay communities shaped the culture. Songs about surviving and being yourself found common ground in social groups used to being oppressed and pushed to the margins of society.
It was empowerment in music form. Disco celebrated WHO you were, not WHAT you were. Not without irony that women were at the epicentre of Disco.
The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy under normal conditions cannot be created or destroyed, simply transformed from one type of energy to another.
Steve Dahl saw that Thursday as the end of an era.
He had no idea what was about to begin…
TO BE CONTINUED.