Music 101: Voodoo with Dance Music

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Pinpointing the exact moment House music was born isn’t easy. It emerged from the ashes of disco, but even then it’s a case of alternating circumstances amid forces acting in both tandem and conflict. Its myriad influences – as much musical as societal – allowed the music’s growth to be fairly organic, but in many ways its emergence lies deep within man’s innate compulsion to dance.

From the mid- to late-70s disco was the sound of the dance floor in the major US cities. Nightclubs in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago were heaving with multi-racial, multi-gender crowds, fuelled by a powerful concoction of music, drugs, and sex. Black, Latino, white, gay, straight, rich and poor all came together in search of an escape from the bleak daily life that blotted the landscape of post-Watergate and Vietnam-era America. But for thousands it was one nation under a groove, and every weekend the  tedium of the 50-hour workweek evaporated in the fug and sweat of the club. Soaring R’n’B vocals, strings, thumping kick drums and jackin’ percussive elements moved the masses, for whom prejudice was non-existent: it was all about letting go, getting down, coming up, and bugging out.

But in 1977 Saturday Night Fever was released and the game changed overnight. Disco had hit the mainstream, and with it came Middle America’s immediate moral outrage. White conservative men were affronted by the music’s infectious energy, freedom and liberal attitudes, and the backlash began. Too black and too gay for many, the two intervening years saw the music’s swift demise – culminating in 1979 when a highly controversial anti-disco rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park resulted in angry mobs burning not only disco records but any records by black artists. But all this did was drive the scene underground. And when things go underground they tend to spawn new creations that are wilder and more unpredictable than what went in. That creation was what became House.

More embers were lit at the Paradise Garage on King Street, New York, where the legendary Larry Levan took crowds deeper than ever before. Variously described by regulars as ‘Dante’s Inferno’, crowds ‘hot, pumping, and body to body’ danced into the early hours to a heady mix of old disco tracks re-edited and enhanced by synthesizers and drum machines. As the DJs started getting more experimental, the sound got harder. And with a crowd running on love and LSD the beginnings of the modern club scene were born. The soundtrack to this early period included classics such as Levan’s remix of ‘I Got My Mind Made Up’ by Instant Funk, ‘Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)’ by The Salsoul Orchestra, and First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’. Disco had been reinvigorated by these new sounds, and nothing could stop it.

But it wasn’t until native New Yorker Frankie Knuckles took what he had heard in his home city and transferred it to Chicago that House really took off. It was around 1980 that he started DJing at the Warehouse, bringing the energy of New York’s gay, black scene to the foremost nightclub in the windy city. Knuckles later moved on to The Power Plant in 1983, but before he did, the tracks that he was playing at the Warehouse – tougher than any disco heard before – were being hunted down at Imports, the preeminent record store in town. Soon enthusiasts started asking for ‘House’ records, meaning songs they had heard at The Warehouse. Yet another seed was sown and the name was born.

From here it simply exploded as another young African-American DJ picked up the reigns – his late-night DJ sets at a new venue called The Muzic Box became the stuff of legend.  Ron Hardy, whose nickname was ‘Heart Attack’ due to his brutal, pounding sets, took the sound to a different level. Legend has it that due to his heroin addiction the music sounded slower, so he simply sped the records up when he played them out. The usual beats per minute (BPM) that we associate with house music today can arguably be attributed to one highly talented and unique DJ who just needed things harder and faster.

By this stage House was a fully realised genre, except that the records being produced were still essentially disco re-edits with added effects. But then, in 1984, came House music’s first official record. ‘Your Love’ by Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles is commonly referred to as Year Zero. Even though it wasn’t released on vinyl until 1986 it was being played out in the clubs over and over again from 1984 onwards. Perhaps it was here then that, officially at least, House was born. And once ‘Your Love’ appeared nothing would ever be the same. Hundreds of other producers began making House: Trax Records was born (which would go on to release most of the early classics), Acid House emerged in ’86 (with Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’), the same year that Marshall Jefferson produced the undisputed House anthem, ‘Move Your Body’. And so, from the remnants of disco – the scene that rose and rose until it couldn’t get any higher – came this wonderful entity we call House.

It was also around this time a young Detroit native called Derrick May, who would later go on to become a founding father of techno in his home city, started going to see Ron Hardy play at the Muzic Box, making the 600-mile round trip on weekends. May argues to this day that what Hardy was doing, in the early years of House, was on a different level: ‘If I had to think about it, if I was playing, I’d stop and think ‘this is the bullsh*t’ and I’d just leave.’ And that’s the true essence of great House. When it’s good, it’s that good. It’s something that lies deep within your soul, and, as the line goes, ‘ain’t nobody gonna take that away’.

Top 10 Chicago House Tracks

1. Jesse Saunders 
On and On (1984)

2. Chip E
 Time to Jack (1985)

3. Hercules 
7 Ways (1986)

4. Jamie Principle & Frankie Knuckles
 Your Love (1986)

5. Larry Heard
Can You Feel It (1986)

6. Marshall Jefferson
 Move Your Body (1986)

7. Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk & Jesse Saunders 
Love Can’t Turn Around (1986)

8. Phuture 
Acid Tracks (1986)

9. Maurice 
This Is Acid (1987)

10. Adonis
 No Way Back (1988)