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History of Chicago House Music

MUSIC IS THE KEY....

"The beat won't stop with the JM Jock. If he jacks the box and the partyrocks. The clock tick tocks and the place gets hot. So ease your mind and set yourself free. To that mystifying music they call the key". -Music Is The Key, JM Silk, 1985 House is as new as the microchip and as old as the hills. It first came to widespread attention in the summer of 1986 when a rash of records imported directly from Chicago began to dominate the playlist of Europe's most influential DJs. Within a matter of months, with virtually no support from the national radio networks, Britain's club scene voted with its feet, three house records forced their way into the top ten. Farley "Jackmaster" Funk "Love Can't Turn Around", Raze's "Jack The Groove", and Steve "Silk" Hurley "Jack Your Body", gave the club scene a new buzz-word, jacking, the term used by Chicago dancers to describe the frantic body pace of the House Sound. Whole litany of Jack Attacks beseiged the music scene. Bad Boy Bill's "Jack It All Night Long", Femme Fion's "Jack The House", Chip E's "Time To Jack", and Julian "Jumpin" Perez "Jack Me Till I Scream".

House music takes its name from an old Chicago night club called The Warehouse, where the resident DJ, Frankie Knuckles, mixed old disco classics, new Eurobeat pop and synthesised beats into a frantic high- energy amalgamation of recycled soul. Frankie is more than a DJ, he's an architect of sound, who has taken the art of mixing to new heights. Regulars at the Warehouse remember it as the most atmospheric place in Chicago, the pioneering nerve-center of a thriving dance music scene where old Philly classics by Harold Melvin, Billy Paul and The O'Jays were mixed with upfront disco hits like Martin Circus' "Disco Circus" and imported European pop music by synthesiser groups like Kraftwerk and Telex.

One of the club's regular faces was a mysterious young black teenager who styled himself on the eccentric funk star George Clinton. Calling himself Professor Funk, he would dress to shock, and stay at the Warehouse through the night, until the very last record was back in Frankie's box. Professor Funk is now a recording artist. He appears on stage dressed in the full regalaia of an old world English King singing weird acidic house records like "Work your Body" and "Visions". The Professor believes that the excitement of house music can be traced back to the creativity of The Warehouse. The Professor's memories carry a hidden truth.

The decadent beat of Chicago House, a relentless sound designed to take dancers to a new high, it has its origins in the gospel and its future in spaced out simulation(techno). In the mid 1970's, when disco was still an underground phenomeon, sin and salvation were willfully mixed together to create a sound which somehow managed to be decadent and devout. New York based disco labels, like Prelude, West End, Salsoul, and TK Disco, literally pioneered a form of orgasmic gospel, which merged the sweeping strings of Philadelphia dance music with the tortured vocals of soul singers like Loleatta Holloway. Her most famous releases, "Love Sensation" and "Hit and Run" became working models for modern house records. After an eventful career which began in Atlanta and the southren gospel belt, Loleatta joined Salsoul Records during the height of the metropolitan disco boom, before returning to her hometown of Chicago.

According to Frankie Knuckles, house is not a break with the black music of the past, but an extreme re-invention of the dance music of yesterday. He sees House music with a very clear tradition, a kind of two-way love affair with the city of New York and the sound of disco. If he were to list his favorite records, they would be a reader's guide to disco, including Colonel Abrams "Trapped", Sharon Redd's "Can You Handle It", Fat Lerry's "Act Like You Know", Positive Force "You Got The Funk" Jimmy Bo Horn "Spank", D-Train "You're The One". But most of all he relishes the sound where the church and the dancefloor are thrown together with a willful disregard for religious propriety. Religion weaves its way through the house sound in ways that would confound the disbelievers.

Most Chicago DJ's admit a debt to the underground 1970's underground club scene in New York and particulary the original disco-mixer Walter Gibbons, a white DJ who popularised the basic techniques of disco-mixing, then graduated to Salsoul Records where he turned otherwise unremarkable dance records into monumental sculptures of sound. It was Gibbons who paved the way for the disc-jockey's historical shift from the twin-decks to the production studio. But ironically, at the height of his cult popularity, he drifted away from the decadent heat of disco to become a "Born Again Christian", having created a space which was ultimately filled by subsequent DJ Producers like Jellybean Benitez, Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan, Arthur Baker, Francois Kervorkian, The Latin Rascals, and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk.

Most people believed that Walter Gibbons was a fading legend in the early history of disco, then in 1984 he resurfaced, and had a new and immediate impact on the development of Chicago House Sound. Gibbons released an independent 12" record called "Set It Off" which started to create a stir at Paradise Garage, the black gay club in New York, where Larry LeVan presided over the wheels of steel. Within weeks a "Set It Off" craze spread through the club scene, including new versions by C.Sharp, Masquerade, and answer versions like Import Number 1's "Set It Off(Party Rock)". The original record had been "mixed with love by Walter Gibbons" and was released on the Jus Born label, a tongue in cheek reference to Walter's christianity. Gibbons had set the tone again, the "Set It Off" sound was primitive House, haunting, repetitive beats ideal for mixing and extending. It immediately became an underground club anthem, finding a natural home in Chicago, where a whole generation of DJ's including Farley and Frankie Knuckles, rocked the clubs and regularly played on local radio stations.

For major house stars like Frankie Knuckles, the disco consul is a pulpit and the DJ is a high priest. The dancers are a fanatical congreation who will dance until dawn, and in some cases demand that the music goes on in an unbroken surge for over 18 hours. Mixing is a religion. Old records like First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder" and Candido's "Jingo" , Shirley Lites "Heat You Up(Melt You Down)", Eurobeat dance records by Depeche Mode, The Human League, BEF, Telex, and New Order, the speeches of Martin Luther King, and the sound effects of speeding express trains were all used when Frankie Knuckles controlled the decks. And the high priest of house had many desciples.

On the southside of Chicago, a young teenager called Tyree Cooper, was intrigued by Frankie's use of the speeches of Martin Luther King. He raided his mother's record collection and discovered a record by local preacher, The Rev. T.L. Barrett Jr. whose choir at the Chicago Church of Universal Awareness were the pride of the city. Tyree began using the record at local House parties and within a few months, sermon mixing, the art of splicing short gospel speeches over frantic dance music, became an established part of the Chicago DJ's art. It didn't end there.Tyree Cooper joined DJ International Records, ultimately releasing "I Fear The Night", and back home at his mother's church, the choir were beginning to excited about one of their featured vocalists

. A gigantic college trained vocalist, Darryl Pandy was boasting about his new record. He had left the choir a few weeks before to sing lead vocals on Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's "Love Can't Turn Around", which against all odds was racing to the number 1 spot on British charts. House had its roots in gospel and its future mapped out. The international success of House came against all known odds. New York and Los Angeles were firmly established as the music capitals of the USA and there was virtually no room for small regional records to make a national impact. According to Keith Nunnally of JM Silk, Chicago turned their limitations into an advantage, turning the poverty of resources into a richness of musical experiment.

Despite technical drawbacks, a whole wave of new independent dance labels sprung up in Chicago. The declaration of independence was led by Rocky Jones DJ International label, a relatively small company which grew out of a DJ Record distribution pool spreading from a small warehouse near Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project, to become one of the trans- national dance scene's most influential labels. At the 1986 New Music seminar in New York, DJ International roster of artists stole the show, as every major label made frantic bids to buy a piece of the house action. Within a matter of a few days, records by the diminutive House DJ Chip E, the sophisticated gospel singer Shawn Christopher and the outrageous Daryl Pandy were sold round the world.

At the height of the bidding, JM Silk signed to RCA records for an undisclosed fortune. The commercial evidence of tracks like "Music Is The Key" and "Shadows of Your Love" proved that House music had the energy and excellence to move from being a regional cult to a modern international success. Within a matter of months every music paper in the world was praying at the feet of Chicago House. Although the first wave of interest focused on the DJ International label and particulary the unlikely duo of Farley, a legendary Chicago DJ, and his opera trained vocalist Daryl Pandy, it soon became apparent that their hit "Love Can't Turn Around" was only the peak of mid-Western iceberg. Chicago was alive with musicians. Local radio stations like WGCI and WBMX rocked to the music of the "Hot Mix 5", a group of DJ's who mixed whole nights of dance music without uttering a word and clubs like The Power Plant stayed open all-night carrying the torch once held by The Warehouse.

Locked in local competition with DJ International were a hundred other labels. The most important was Trax on North Clark Street, a label which ultimately went on to release some of house music's recognised classics. Marshall Jefferson gave Trax two of its most important records, the hectic 120 BPM "Move Your Body" and the follow up "Ride The Rhythm". His reputation was rivalled by Adonis, who released "No Way Back". The second biggest selling record Trax has ever issued, a record which reportedly sold over 120,000 copies, a staggering number for an independent record which received very little air play.

Behind the visible success story of DJ International, Underground, Trax, were countless smaller labels like Jes Say, Chicago Connectinon, Bright Star, Dance Mania, Sunset, House Records, Hot Mix 5, State Street, and Sound Pak. And behind the stars like Farley and Frankie Knuckles are numerous other musicians, like Full House, Ricky Dillard, Fingers Inc. and Farm Boy. House music has spread throughout the world. It has spread to Detroit where Transmat Records released Derrick May's Rhythim Is Rhythim record at the Metroplex Studio laying down post-Kraftwerk tracks like "Nude Photo" and "Strings".

It has spread to New York, where the respected club producer Arthur Baker has been given a new lease on life, recording unapologetic dance records like Criminal Elements "Put The Needle To The Record" and Jack E. Makossa. It has spread to London where a gang of renegade funk boys called M/A/R/R/S took the British charts by storm, climbing to Number 1 with the brillant collage record "Pump Up The Volume". It has spread into the very heart of pop music, encouraging Phil Fearon, Kissing The Pink, Beatmasters and Mel and Kim to turn the beat around. And it has infilitrated into already dynamic cultures like the Latin and Hispanic dance scene creating new possibilites for Kenny "Jammin'" Jason, Ralphi Rosario, Mario Diaz, Julian "Jumpin" Perez, Mario Reyes and Two Puerto Ricans, A Blackman, and A Dominican.

Chicago house has become everyones House. House music is a universal language. Given the undoubted international popularity of the Chicago sound, it would have been easy for the producers of House music to rest on their laurels and continually reproduce more of the same. For a while the city stuck firmly to its identifiable beat - hardcore on the one - but the experimentation which gave birth to House inevitably wanted to change it. By 1987 a new style of House music began to escape from Chicago's recording studios. It was a "deep", highly sophisticated sound, which evoked strange, almost drug-induced images.

The second generation House sound probably began with the international success of Phutures's "Acid Tracks" a hugely influential record, which captured the extreme spirit of the House scene's most ardent adherents, the hardcore dancer in Chicago, who variously experimented with LSD, acid psychedelia and new designer drugs like Ectasy. Frankie Knuckles has been careful not to sensationalise the influence of drugs. "Today there is more psychedlic sound. Acid is probably the most prevelant drug on the scene, but House is no druggier than any other scene".

None of House music's prominent performers have advocated drug abuse nor set out to glorify chemical stimulation, but an increasing number of Chicago records have controversially referred to acid tracking, the estranged synthesiser sound you can hear on several house releases. These Acid Tracks have taken house music into a new phuturism, a modern uptempo psychedelia that London club DJ's call Trance Dance. The roots of Trance Dance are not to be found in the more established traditions of 60's psychedelic rock but ironically in 1970's Europe, through highly synthesised records like Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers".

The trance-dance sound is only beginning to establish on the Chicago Scene but it has already been adopted in British Clubs and will undoubtedly shape the new phuture of house. But beneath the abstract surface of acid-track house records is the same compulsive dance command. Frankie Knuckles is sure of that. "When people hear house rhythms they go freak out. It's an instant dance reaction. If you can't dance to House you're already dead" -Stuart Cosgrove for The History of House Sound of Chicago 12 record set on BCM records, Germany, Out of Print Inevitably, it was the restless London club scene and the illegal pirate radio stations of urban Britain that seized on the real potential of house.

The relatively cheap and do-it-yourself ethics which governed house production meant that young DJ's with inexpensive equipment could make records that were fresher and faster than the more institutionalized major labels. A series of sampled and stolen sounds, released on small scale British independent labels took the popcharts by storm, suprising the record industry and demonstrating that the house sound had a commercial appeal beyond even the wild imagination of the London club scene. In the spring of 1988 a small group of London based DJ's traded their turntables for the recording studios. Tim Simenon, working under the club pseudonym Bomb The Bass and Mark Moore using the band name S-Express had unexpected pop hits with sampled house rhythms. "Beat Dis" and "The Theme From S-Express" were charateristic of the sound that creative theft and sampling could achieve.

DJ's with huge record collections and a catalogue knowledge of breaks, beats, bits and pieces could string together an entirely new record concocted out of barely rememberal records. The masters of the London sampling scene were two unlikely DJ's, Jonathan Moore and Matt Black, who played under the name DJ Coldcut and devastated London's pirate airwaves with imaginative record choices, crazy mixes and a wilful disregard for what made musical sense.

When Coldcut's remix of Eric B and Ra-Kim rap hit "I Know You Got Soul" took the ungrateful New Yorkers to Number 1 in the pop charts in Europe it became obvious that sampling and the spirit of "Pump Up The Volume" was here to stay. The Coldcut rap mix was closely followed by the more house orientated "Doctorin The House" which featured Yazz and The Plastic People, than a cover version of Otis Clay's "The Only Way Is Up", an obscure soul sound which was big on Britain's esoteric northern soul scene. By a strange twist of history, and old Chicago soul singer from the 60's had his career momentarily revitalised by the fallout of the modern Chicago house sound.

By the summer of 1988, the British charts and teh over zealous tabloid press were over-run with acid. The music had clearly touched a raw pop nerve as one by one underground acid-house records stormed into the pop press. But their unexpected commercial success was pursued by controversy and daily press reports that the acid-house scene was a dangerous focus for drug abuse. Each new day brought increased public panic about the abuse of the synthetically compounded Ecstasy drug and by October 1988, acid house and its casual catch phrases "get on one matey", "can you feel it", and "we call it acieeeeed" were in everyday conversation.

The controversy reached its head in the autumn of press overkill when "We Call It Acieed" by D. Mob reached number 1 on the British pop charts. Radio stations were reluctant to play the record, BBC's phone in program, "daytime" had a nationwide debate on the acceptability of the song, and in a fit of moral outrage, the Burton's clothes chain withdrew smiley tee-shirts from their stores and refused to participate in the acid epidemic. Behind the hype and the press hostility the music continued its journey of unparalled progress.

If acid house had troubled the mainstream press it had also advanced the creativity of music introducing the remarkable and prodigious talent of Brooklyn's Todd Terry to the forefront of the underground dance music scene. Todd Terry is a child of house. His whole life spent buried in club culture and experimenting with the extremes of hi-tech music. Under the pseudonym Swan Lake, Martin Luther King's spiritual dream is turned into a dance floor drama, as Royal House's "Can You Party" and The Todd Terry Project "Just wanna Dance" catches the garage spirit of modern house.

-Stuart Cosgrove for The History of House Sound of Chicago The Story Continues... BCM Records, Germany Out OF Print

Related:

Farley Jackmaster Funk
Frankie Knuckles
Larry Levan
Phuture
TRAX Records Chicago Bio, Disco

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