To trace the origins of today?s house music, one needs to time travel back to the 80?s, following a bizarre trail that spans the Atlantic ocean, hits the Mediterranean dance floors of Ibiza, sneak into the backdoors of New York?s recording studios, and have V.I.P. passes to the clubs of Chicago and London. Since we can?t deliver any of that, here?s a brief retelling of the birth of modern dance music. House music?s earliest roots are found in the musical hotspots of Chicago around 1985. Transplanted New York DJ Frankie Knuckles had a regular gig at a club called The Warehouse. Knuckles would tinker with soul and disco tunes by laying down a drum machine-generated 4/4 beat on top of them. The clubbers loved this new sound and ?house? music, named for the club, was born. More DJs took to the tables and the studios, and soon there was an abundance of new house tracks penetrating both the clubs and airwaves of Chicago. The new sound found its way to the East Coast, where DJs in Philly and New York spun their own interpretations of classic dance tunes with a house beat on top. But the biggest fans of the Chicago sound weren?t in the U.S. at all? Simultaneously, pirate radio in Britain took to the Chicago sounds.
Incidentally, at the time pirate stations were the only ones playing black music of any kind in the U.K. Before long, house was the new soundtrack of the underground clubs of London. The first house tune to break the underground ceiling was Farley ?Jackmaster? Funk?s cover of Isaac Hayes? ?Love Can?t Turn Around,? which reached the national charts in September 1986. The UK couldn?t seem to get enough. Soon, commercial success beckoned several of the early artists. Steve ?Silk? Hurley was the first to reach the ultimate accolade, the UK No.1, with ?Jack Your Body? in January 1987. This success paved the way for a house-flavored single to hit internationally. The collaboration of British artists Colourbox and A.R. Kane, known as M/A/R/R/S, hit the big time with ?Pump up the Volume.? Considered lightweight by many house purists, the track nonetheless took over dance floors worldwide and delivered house beats to the planet?s masses for the first time. But many fans weren?t receptive of house?s sudden commercial success, and they went looking for a sound to drive it back underground. One inspiration for a house mutation came in the form of the Roland TB 303 synthesizer. One of the earliest instigators of this new sound was Britain?s DJ Pierre, whose work with the Roland dated back to 1985.
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Pierre cut drums on top of the 303?s bassline, and gave the results to a DJ working at Chicago?s Music Box club named Ron Hardy. Hardy renamed it ?Acid Trax? (after a well-fabled incident in which the club?s water supply was dosed with LSD) and played it incessantly. It barely made a ripple outside Chicago in 1986, but ?Acid Trax? was a sign of things to come. Acid, as it came to be known, was a hybrid of house with its roots on both sides of the Atlantic, and would define a new generation of dance music. ?acid house parties? sprang up over the U.K., scaring parents senseless with its double-entendre. Of course, the drug inferences and the trademark t-shirt symbol, a smiley face with a bullethole in the forehead, increased acid music?s popularity with the kids, and the music world took note. Mainstream pop artists began exhibiting acid influence in their records, and more crossovers from the underground appeared on the charts. Chicago?s house masterminds were busier than ever finding new grooves to lay down. College buddies Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May all produced records both influential and resonating (May?s ?The Dance? was sampled countless times for years to come) throughout the Windy City.
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Meanwhile, two other producers, Eddie Fowlkes and Blake Baxter fused Eurobeats with the funk of George Clinton. This was a creation they called techno. 1988 saw house branching out even more, as in the eclectic marriage of house beats with quasi-industrial music. Known as the Balearic movement, it found an audience in the Mediterranean clubs of Ibiza, and was championed by such DJs as Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, Johnny Walker, and Danny Rampling. Balearic inspired a few imitators, but in the end it was really just an extension of the existing form. Back in Chicago, deep house was taking shape as the new underground. The first ?true? house LP?s, Fingers Inc?s Another Side and Liz Torres with Master C & J?s Can?t Get Enough – both originally released in England, were rooted in the deep house brewing in Chicago. At the same time, Marshall Jefferson had several club hits with Ten City?s ?Devotion? and Ce Ce Rogers? ?Someday.? Realizing he was hot, Jefferson forsook Chicago for New York and signed to Atlantic Records as Ten City. From this point on, house had touring and recording acts, making videos and other promotional appearances formally saved for the mainstream pop artists.
While rap had been put to house beats in Chicago from the word ?go,? New York?s artists started developing this a bit more precisely in the closing hours of the 90s. Developing talent such as Todd Terry, the East Coast house began using more samples and rap to give it an urban edge. While this new faze introduced house to the Hispanic communities in the States, back in the UK it was treated like a revolution by the trend-loving music press. Also in New York, veteran DJ Tony Humphries started replacing the R&B influence into the music, mostly in the form of powerful soul singing. Good examples of this development are Adeva?s take on Aretha Franklin?s ?Respect? and Chanelle?s ?One Man? and ?Musical Freedom.? Following these leads were NY-based producers Clivilles and Cole, whose mix of Natalie Cole?s ?Pink Cadillac? thrust them into the mainstream spotlight, which they would dominate years later as C&C Music Factory. By 1989, the acid house scene had morphed into the rave scene. U.K. promoters would hold events in the countryside outside of London to contain the thousands of people now attending, while extending the hours throughout the night. The allure of big money and a semi-captive audience hindered the music?s spirit a bit, but the energy of the raves nurtured its growing audience.
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1989 also was the year a few of house?s original players got their dues. DJ Pierre?s spinning partner Lil Louis released ?French Kiss,? a slower, sensual track that landed him #2 in the U.K. and a record deal in the States. And the man who started it all, Frankie Knuckles, teamed with fellow Chicago veteran Robert Owens on ?Tears,? one of the seminal house tracks. While it did not chart well, the power of the track landed Knuckles work with powerhouses Diana Ross and both Michael and Janet Jackson. Knuckles would also go on to be the first winner of the Remix of the Year Grammy in 1997. The influence of the early days is still very present. Many of the early producers and artists still pump out the house spinning in clubs today, while mainstream artists such as Madonna keep the beats on the airwaves. The creativity during the genesis of house literally resurrected dance music after the disco backlash of the early 80?s. We have some fantastically talented people on both sides of the Atlantic to thank for that.
All information gained through interviews