Chicago – a windy city, a band, the name of Sweden’s most popular card game… but best of all, the birthplace of house. Not the TV M.D., the music genre. A special case in music minted by subculture, the birth of house marks the moment in which disco became decidedly less lame (don’t mention this to any Abba-loving Swedes!). It was the collision of dance music and an underground movement that spawned its unexpected rise.
Who Was in the House?
House music’s biggest innovators and inadvertent creators began as Chicago-based members of the underground gay club scene. Infamous stories surround the creation of the sub-genre like the bedazzled, sequin-pinned frills on a drag queen’s dress. And it just so happens that a drag queen dressmaker is largely credited with developing the standard house sound and bringing it to prominence.
Larry Levan, the Saturday DJ of the major underground gay club known as Paradise Garage took dying disco and spun it into gold – developing a sound so infectious even mainstream music couldn’t ignore it. Levan would intrepidly pull from different genres, salvaging obscure releases for later use in his punchy, choppy mixes. But, he wasn’t alone in this experimental development of such a brave new sound… His friend Frankie Knuckles, known now as the “Godfather of House,” was also doing his part to inaugurate the new.
…it just so happens that a drag queen dressmaker is largely credited with developing the standard house sound and bringing it to prominence.
Just like Levan, Knuckles married a diverse body of eclectic samples and sounds with experimental 808 drum beats. The sound was gritty, deep, and dark – unheard of on mainstream radio and fascinating for local nightlife.
Mutual friend of both Levan and Knuckles, Ron Hardy, also built on the house sound, playing in Knuckles’ main club haunt and its reincarnation, TheMuzic Box. His sets were high energy and often high speed to boot, with tracks played at 3x speed or more on the regular.
For the first time in club and music history, an eclectic breadth of classic soul would intertwine with native and imported disco to the rhythm of electronic drums, synthetic hand-claps, and other eclectic additions. The result was atmospheric, heavy, and irresistible. Sounds were as varied as the crowd of perspiring patrons, from the O’Jays to Kraftwerk and back again; musical diversity for ethnic diversity in the only club cool enough to be unsegregated at the end of the ’70s.
The Warehouse of House
There was one club in particular that played the most prominent role in developing this kind of music and mood. Known as TheWarehouse, it became ground zero for the sub-genre and was the home of house hero Knuckles during his experimental development of the sound.
Free to work his magic, Knuckles explored such unconventional creative avenues as genre-blending and inclusion of pre-programmed drum tracks in his sets – assailing dancers’ senses each night in ways they never saw coming. The Warehouse became more than a club; it was an experience like no other.
Known as TheWarehouse, it became ground zero for the sub-genre and was the home of house hero Knuckles during his experimental development of the sound.
As disco died, Frankie began to dip into soul tracks – altering them to better suit the dance floor. Songs would ebb in like low tide, rising in crescendo against a place-keeping beat. Moving feet found familiar foothold in disco-like progressions while the crowd delighted in dynamic divergences from the original records. Every track Knuckles touched morphed into something new.
Unforgettable tracks like “The Whistle Song” would follow, starring on his debut album in the early ’90s and inspiring house and techno producers for years to follow. It was the Warehouse however, that served as the sub-genre’s unofficial home and ultimately gave it its name.
Party-goers outside the underground gay scene in Chicago soon caught a whiff of the Warehouse’s musical “wares” and couldn’t get enough. When the Warehouse eventually opened its doors to the general public, house became a musical mainstay.
Suppress the Culture – Beget the Sound
Cultural suppression has long gone hand-in-hand with gay culture as a whole – giving rise to its attendant underground nature. But constant pressure from the outside forces the hands of artists, causing them to reach far beyond the bounds of their contemporaries in search of something as unique as themselves. Gay clubs in the ’80s were isolated, hush-hush venues, and it was there in their isolation that artists incubated an entirely new form of expression to lose themselves in.
Gay clubs in the ’80s were isolated, hush-hush venues, and it was there in their isolation that artists incubated an entirely new form of expression to lose themselves in.
When the world yelled “Disco Sucks,” the gay subculture engendered something better, an adventurous form of music yielding elements of style that have since grown so pervasive as to have made their way into nearly every major musical genre.
House bred with electro, funk, jazz, and minimalist music production and electronically produced music grew in favor shortly thereafter – with techno coming into existence in Detroit as early as 1988, when the term was coined. Now, minimalism and 4/4 dance-ability, cornerstones of the House aesthetic, are backbone to much of the world’s popular music.
And all of this because Chi-Town refused to stop dancing.