“House music has a birthplace. It’s called Sauer’s on 23rd Street, South Side Chicago.”
So says Vince Lawrence, a man with as much right as any to have announced its successful delivery to the world, having released what is considered the first house track ever pressed on vinyl, ‘On and On’, with his good friend Jesse Saunders.
Sauer's on 23rd, South Side Chicago
There have been so many questions asked about the origins of house music and the pioneering architects of its ever-evolving design. To this day, there is dispute over who were the first, the best, the most influential and the most skilful, with those that have achieved longevity usually getting the last word. But one fact shall always remain undisputed: the city of Chicago, and in particular the sound of the South Side urban sprawl, gave the world house music.
The Chicago DJs, producers and record labels - both famous and forgotten - that nurtured the flame of musical reinvention, are responsible for so much of what the dance music industry holds dear today; their influence should never be underestimated. For Chicago is to house what Detroit is to Motown - the production line of house hits that reached out to the entire world was generated by the sub-culture of the South Side, its core group of originators and innovators undeniably the most influential artists of their genre.
To trace the origins of what we now call house music we have to go back to the roots of black music culture, through the story lines and melodies of the negro spirituals, blues, jazz, rock and roll, Motown, soul and funk. Inspired by faith and influenced by its surroundings, music became an increasingly vibrant and accessible canvas upon which the colours of discrimination, violence and urban decay were daubed, and a means by which to escape the misery.
Marvin Gaye framed it with ‘What’s Going On?’ lamenting the dire state of most black inner city neighbourhoods at the start of the ‘70s. This was the kind of music that Chicago was infused with: an eclectic, heady mix of influences that had a continuous link back to the time of slavery but to which the youth of that time paid scant regard. Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the like were as far removed from the youth culture of the late ‘70s as Louie Vega is from Afrojack today.
Jesse Saunders and Chosen Few DJs were from an early age
Every generation believes it has created music and wants to differentiate itself from the past: rock, punk rock, new romantics, grunge, EDM… Chicago in the ‘70s was no different. The teens embraced funk and disco as distinct genres from their parents’ playlists and it could be heard on the streets and in the basements of the South Side of Chicago, one of the most violent districts in North America both then and today.
This was the atmosphere that Wayne Williams and Ron Hardy found themselves playing in when they started performing as DJs in 1974. Though not as technically gifted as those who would follow, Williams and Hardy were the forerunners, and forged a path by playing their music.
Wayne Williams is a founding member of The Chosen Few DJs who, each year, celebrate the July 4th holidays with a huge community picnic and house music festival. Last year its 25th Anniversary was marked with a ‘shout-out’ by Barrack Obama from the Oval Office and this year saw all Chosen Few DJs visit the White House itself - a very long way from where this all began. From basements to the White House in 26 years, this is a journey into house music…
Chosen Few Picnic Flyer
Williams is the first to admit that violence was all-pervasive in the community in his time but that, “when you are brought up in it you don’t really know any different. It’s not until you look back that you realise the situation”. The Chosen Few parties and their like provided a safe place away from this violence and allowed the kids to celebrate life.
Williams himself started DJing at 14. A product of Mendel High School, he would play anywhere he could: basements, house parties, juice bars and the all-important teen events. These migrated from Mendel High to restaurants such as Sauer’s which, when the tables were moved out, catered for 1000 people. Then there was the Loft, an even more underground space, where punk, new wave and dance collided.
Mendel High concert flyer
Charles Parnell an ardent Loft-goer described it as, “where the underground started. But it wasn’t called house - it was just the music. This was crowded, sweaty. The floor would actually bounce,people would climb up poles… it was the wildest scene ever.”
These venues were for the teens and distinctly different from what the established clubs were doing. This was their sanctuary away from the violence that plagued the streets. At 12 or 13, a man that became synonymous with early house, Chip-E, sneaked into Vertigo parties at the Loft. “I went with Eric Bradshaw once, and my life changed forever,” he recalls. “Alan King (from The Chosen Few) was playing Martin Circus’ ‘Disco Circus’ and there were all these people - black, white and hispanic – all sweating and enjoying themselves.”
As time marched on, a slightly older Ron Hardy had begun to experiment with his broad fusion of funk, disco and soul. He introduced a lot of reel-to-reel edits and was always tweaking the sound system and adjusting the EQ. It was a revelation to the crowd. He had found new ways to fill the dance floor and drew the map to which all other DJs refer. Eventually he would work in the Music Box and own the crowd within it.
Ron Hardy, Music Box flyer
DJ Pierre, another influential artist to come out of Southern Chicago recalls, “I owe Ron a lot. His music selection was like no other; he played all genres of music and he sprinkled some energy on everything that he did. We would arrive at the Music Box with a change of some sort of clothing because we knew we would be there all night and we knew what we had on would be all sweaty when he’s done with you. Ron had you moving non-stop. He appealed to your intellect as well; as a developing DJ I noticed his track selections and I would go, that was a smart one...wow… He dropped this after playing that? How is that possible? So he always kept you on your toes.”
Marshall Jefferson, one of the pioneers of house music acknowledges how much of an influence Hardy had on his own career. "I wasn’t even into dance music before I went to the Music Box. Ron Hardy would play it all man”. As Terry Hunter, another successful Chosen Few DJ puts it, “Hardy was raw energy. He was harder – Knuckles was more polished”.
DJ Pierre and Marshall Jefferson
One of New York’s finest exports, Frankie Knuckles, took over the residency at a nightclub called US Studio in 1977 way before the Music Box even existed. He had been working alongside Larry Levan at The Paradise Garage and Dave Manusco at the New York Loft. Elements of jazz and disco aimed squarely at the gay scene came to Chicago and US Studio soon became known by the name that resonates through the ages for clubbing aficionados: The Warehouse.
Yet Knuckles’ had a very specific target audience, catering to an older, more multi-cultural and diverse crowd. It was the Chosen Few and a crew of like minded DJs that catered to the younger crowd. They entertained the South Side with their desire to celebrate music in an environment with unity at its core.
However it is not out of a spirit of love that the shoots of house music grew. Before it had a name, it had a mother. That single parent was called disco and in 1979 one act of wanton destruction all but wiped the genre off the musical landscape. The vehicle that had given so much life to Hardy, Knuckles and Williams’ careers took a near terminal blow.
In the years leading up to the ‘80s, disco had become an unsustainable, bloated monster that had saturated the music business. Like a greedy pig with its snout in the trough, America had overeaten at the ‘All-You-Can-Eat’ Glitter Buffet and mainstream music fans were turning off disco in droves.
Chicago Radio Station 97.9 WLUP-FM was particularly vocal in its hatred of the genre. On behalf of rock music fans everywhere, radio announcer Steve Dahl organised ‘Disco Demolition Night’ at Comiskey Park, Chicago, where he detonated crates of records whilst chanting ‘disco sucks’. People paid for the privilege of having their vinyl collections destroyed whilst the rest of the world celebrated their passing.
The event received so much attention that it hastened the demise of disco. It had already run its mainstream course but Dahl had now drawn a physical line in the sand. From that moment on, record companies rebadged their product as dance music. “The commercial viability of the genre disappeared,” recalls Williams. “It went underground.”
The Disco Demolition fireworks display engineered by a disgruntled rock DJ was the final curtain call, but, as an encore, that summer night in Chicago gave rise to a new generation of artists. Yes, disco was dead.But in the ashes of its destruction a phoenix was reborn or as Knuckles famously put it, “house music is disco’s revenge”.
“This (death) led to a void. There was like an empty space,” states Leonard Rroy. This space was aching to be filled and there was no shortage of artists wanting to make a name for themselves. Rroy was one of them – a DJ integral in evolving the music but who rarely gets credit. Coming on to the scene slightly after Williams and Hardy, Rroy developed a DJ sound at a venue called The Bitter End, generating his own sets sourced from his parents’ basement back-catalogue and reinventing them as remixes.
As well as playing The Bitter End, Rroy also performed at The Rink, a venue which gave an opportunity to another young DJ, Chip-E. “The Rink allowed me to have a taste of the limelight that other DJs enjoyed. It allowed me an environment where I could test new tracks and new mixing techniques - it was a proving ground.”
Contemporary DJs that still produce monumental tracks today such as Ron Carroll see the nursery somewhat differently. As opposed to Europe where the birthing grounds were the clubs and raves of the late ‘80s, it was the private residencies of South Chicago that were the classrooms to some, “(South Chicago) was a common place where people made music in their homes on beat machines. People that were younger used to use their parents basement to have gatherings and to make beats or to play records. I never had a mentor. I had to push myself through it all. And it was tough it was hard. There were a lot of people who had cliques and those cliques ruled certain sides of the city... so just imagine me, a loner trying to make it as a DJ surrounded by nothing but cliques of people that were promoters.”
This struggle to invent and engineer was very real. Production costs for aspiring musicians were far beyond the reach of most impoverished South Side residents, so the Chicago producers all had to find similar methods of rebirthing. They sampled. They edited. They perfected a method called ‘pause recording’ to create continuous loops, and they time stretched on reel-to-reel tape. They included new wave elements into their music and expanded their influence outside of the gay scene that Knuckles had ruled.
Other names so important to that development that do not get the recognition they deserve are DJ’s like Michael Ezebukwu and Kirk Townsend. Recognised by Chicagoans but no one else, they moved their fellow DJs not just the clientele. Then there were people like David Risque, instrumental in motivating the crowd at places like Sauer’s. To this day Risque is an iconic figure on the Chicago scene. “If Risque got up and danced to your stuff, you knew you had got it right,” said Vince Lawrence.
It was unsung people like Risque who spread the word amongst the all-important teen venues to which the South Side groovers flocked. Dwayne Woods’ sound systems amped the noise levels to the max and made sure the music was heard. This moving tapestry of influences had become infectious and the appetite for it in Chicago was insatiable. At the vanguard were The Chosen Few DJs and as founding member Alan King points out, “we took it to the broader market of South Chicago, and from there the world took a hold of it”.
But it wasn’t just the parties on the South Side that alone got the word out there - the established venues were just too small to really capture the mainstream. Knuckles and Hardy appealed to a niche group and the high school parties were limited to that demographic. The music needed a bigger champion and at the time they came no bigger than the Hot Mix 5.
Leading that charge was a name destined to influence more than just music in Chicago, Farley Jackmaster Funk. Included in the five were Mickey Mixin’ Oliver, Ralphi Rosario, Kenny Jammin’ Jason and Scott Silz. They ruled the airwaves with their continuous mixes and eclectic driving beats. Kenny Jason had been on the air since 1977 and had already established a huge following, but now the Hot Mix 5 took it to a new level.
WBMX Radio's Hot Mix 5
Mickey Oliver remembers: “the Hot Mix 5 started playing R&B songs on WBMX, but our turntable skills said otherwise. Soon we started playing New York beat tracks like, ‘Pop Goes My Love’, John Rooca and others that had that vibe. With these types of tracks we could perform turntable tricks while manipulating the songs with two copies. Next I really gravitated to Italo disco and started incorporating that sound into my mixes; ‘Plastic Doll’ would be a good example. Also we were playing some top disco classics of Loletta Holloway’s and other similar artists.”
The Hot Mix 5 influence cannot be overstated as WBMX had over two million listeners at that time. “In two short years it was the #1 radio station,” says Oliver. “To frame this a bit better,we had no budget.” That is how strong the music was. WBMX was a station that barely survived before the Hot Mix 5. With these talented mixers on board it came to dominate the airwaves for its target demographic.
The new movement of DJs that were absorbing the sounds around them included Jesse Saunders. Step-brother to Wayne Williams and resident DJ at the Playground alongside Farley, Saunders (with Lawrence at the recording helm) slowly began to morph the sound into something that we recognise today. Influenced by his contemporaries and after a year off, “paying his dues in the Hollywood New Wave scene whilst at college in LA,” The Go Go’s, Soft Cell and Devo began to appear in his sets.
Members of the Chosen Few
The Hot Mix 5 became the avenue to everyone’s success. The whole thing was organic and immediate; with the DJs as a direct pipeline, what was being worked at the clubs and parties at the weekend was making it straight on to the radio.
Like Ron Hardy, Leonard Rroy and the other DJs, Mickey Oliver was editing the songs into new formats. “You see back then a DJ would blend one song into another, playing about five to six minutes of each song. The challenge was to mix as smoothly as possible… My theory was to engage the audience into a trance. I would edit each song cleverly and play my edited songs layered with samples of other tracks over them. I used a second reel-to-reel and made tape loops of a snippet of a song and used them, bringing them in and out. For example a song that has a bit which says ‘the party’ in it, I would loop ‘the party the party the party’ repeatedly while bringing it in and out very cleverly. Today the edit or editing is a part of every DJ’s set.”
Digital technology would soon rip these analogue and dated methods apart however and once again the South Side represented. Inexpensive synthesizers like the Moog Prodigy became increasingly accessible to a number of inner city artists and they began to replicate and soak in bands like Kraftwerk and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. The combination of electronica and punk showcased by UK performers like Gary Numan made it into the lifeblood of people like Vince Lawrence.
Energised by this musical transfusion and with access to recording studio time via his father’s record label, Lawrence began to experiment with the new sounds he was hearing in the clubs. He got a lighting a job at The Playground and began to work alongside Jesse Saunders, who was starting to incorporate sequencers like the TR-808 and the TB-303 into his sets. This gave his music the overlap of that constant driving 4/4 beat and rounded bass that Chicago became so famous for.
Saunders recognises the benefits of the residency. “It allowed me to express myself the way I wanted to. I played new-wave, Italo, electronic, reggae, rock or whatever I felt would make people move on the dance floor. I still do that...”
From the knowing conversations and experiences at The Playground evolved the track that for The Chosen Few’s Alan King, “was a landmark moment for house music”. ‘On and On’ proved to the broader Chicago community that there was a market for the music and that non musicians could make it. Terry Hunter adds that, “no-one knew about how to make a song. They were just constantly experimenting with the technology. They didn’t stick to a format, that’s what made it different.”
Two dominant record labels grew out of the burgeoning scene: DJ International and Trax Records, their loose distribution network allowing house music to establish itself as a global phenomenon. The DJ International label grew out of a casual record distribution pool run from a small warehouse near Chicago's notoriously violent housing project, Cabrini Green.
Trax was a product of Lawrence’s vision. He recalls how he sold 1,000 pressings of ‘On and On’ to local record store Importes etc.“He said, ‘how much?’ I said, ‘four bucks per record’ and he took the whole lot straight from the trunk.” The young savvy businessman then saw the opportunities unfold before him. He approached Larry Sherman at Precision Records to establish a vinyl supply line for their releases and out of that relationship Trax Records was born. Both labels went on to dominate the fledgling house movement.
Several Trax artists also worked for the label. Wayne Williams, Screamin' Rachael Cain - who eventually ended up owning a slice of the action - and Ron Hardy all put their hands up. Saunders andLawrence had the ultimate distribution network: they could record a track, get the acetate and see immediately if it was going to work.
Chip-E also worked at influential store, Importes Etc. “It allowed me to learn about the retail business of music. I learned where records came from (domestic and imports) how they became priorities, how people asked for music, and what influenced them to take a record they’d never heard before.” This meant he became influenced by all kinds of sounds and beats and in turn promote that to the client base, distributing music back to the fans.
With Saunders’ and Lawrence’s success all the South Side could see the potential and that money could be made. If Sauer’s and The Loft were the clubs from which the music emerged, then the trunks of inner-city cars became the means by which it travelled. A new breed of brash entrepreneurs who sat outside the established record labels were capitalising on the moment and taking the music to the streets.
‘On and On’ was the song that allowed this natural progression, and Saunders is rightfully proud of that achievement. “That was the foundation that built house music and the record that people will always reference as giving other pioneers the notion that they could do it as well!”
Mickey Oliver is also proud of what the Hot Mix 5 added to the mix. “So basically around 1985 was when we actually realised that we had started a new genre called house music. What came out of the antenna at WBMX touched the world forever. If the Hot Mix 5 had never happened, you wouldn’t be calling today’s music house music.”
DJs such as Chip E, who later became aligned with DJInternational, were encouraged to take things further just by being around the scene. A year later he released ‘Jack Trax,’ the first recording that incorporated the words jack and house together.
“ ‘Jack Trax’ was based on rhythm tracks, samples and bass lines that I played live at parties to enhance my DJ experience. Essentially, it was a toolbox for DJs to use. It was a great departure from what Saunders and Lawrence or any other musician were doing. The two biggest staples from ‘Jack Trax’ were ‘It’s House’ and ‘Time to Jack’. They were the first records to use the term ‘house’ referring to a musical style and ‘jack’ meaning to dance as freely and energetically as you could.”
Ordinary working men, like the soon to be immortalised Marshall Jefferson, went into serious debt to buy the equipment needed to make this new form of music. Jefferson was working at the Post Office at night and didn’t even like dance music until he heard Hardy at the Music Box. DJ/producers all over town were pressing tunes and taking them direct to the record stores and labels.
Jefferson was amongst a growing band of non-musicians who were getting access to this technology. Not bound by musical convention, they were able to make music on their own terms. As a result the seemingly disparate influences of new-wave, disco, punk and science came to typify the South Side under the banner of house. Jefferson confirmed years ago, “now I wasn’t even thinking about making music. That was the furthest thing from my mind until Jesse came out with stuff and made it seem so simple.”
Musicians though were not letting DJs take all the glory, and started to get in on the act too. They digested the continuous mixes aired on WBMX and WDAI and began to experiment themselves. Larry Heard, a name now inextricably linked with acid house, was one of those musicians.
He bought the mixers, the turntables, the sequencers and the synthesizers, then thoroughly deconstructed and analysed the music before attempting to replicate it himself. When he saw that Jamie Principle, a kid from his high school was doing the same thing with his release‘Your Love’, he was inspired to venture out. Heard was frustrated with the perceptions of his fellow musicians.“I had ideas, man, but drummers are just supposed to hit out a beat, they are not supposed to make music.”
Heard teamed up with DJs Robert Owens andRon Wilson as Fingers Inc, creating their own musical arrangements as they migrated to a focal point that established their version of house music. Heard put out ‘Mystery of Love’ in 1986, with Owens on vocal. The defining moment for Heard was when he saw the community support for the music they were making. “It was different back then:more organic. Radio Stations didn’t have playlists, they would take a bit of everything from wherever they could get it. There was more variety.”
Heard, like Jefferson, was brought up on a melting pot of influences, interestingly into rock much more than disco as he played drums on the South Side. “It was a poor area and there was the beginnings of gang culture. I was a musician, so I was doing the live performance thing, which was different from the clubs. I was away from all that.”
Heard, DJ Pierre (with his release Acid Tracks under the pseudonym Phuture) and already established DJ, Joe Smooth, started to produce deeper tracks. Evocative and more spiritual than the new wave tinged house of Jackmaster Funk and the Hot Mix 5 tribe, they represented what was but a short step away from the deep house produced today.
Joe Smooth was a DJ first and foremost but he, like Heard, had a musical background. He plied his DJ trade at the SmartBar and like Saunders introduced sequencers into his set. Many of the main players used to congregate at his club and he was much admired for his innovative style. After collaborating with Chip-E on the ‘Time to Jack’ EP, he was invited to do so much keyboard work down at DJ International that he started making his own tracks. That work led to ‘Promised Land’.
Like with everything else with house music those days it was the free movement of the music and ideas which allowed it to grow. “I wasn’t in it for the money,” says Heard. “I am a musician and just wanted to see people enjoy what I did. My big chance though was when I got three acetates pressed and had a friend give one each to Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. When they started playing them it took off. That was ‘Can You Feel It?’ ”
It is these seemingly small moments that prove to be pivotal in house music’s development and exemplify how the genre only thrived in its nascent years thanks to favours and friendships.
Likewise, Sleazy D, a lifelong friend of Jefferson’s kick-started his career by putting taped copies of his work into the hands of Ron Hardy. Whilst Jamie Principle was making music for Knuckles, Jefferson became Hardy’s guy. Eventually Jefferson came up with ‘Move Your Body’ a piano tinged track that moved away from the Jacking sound of Farley and Hurley.
Not being a musician Jefferson had to fabricate the track at about 40bpm and then speed it up and elongate notes to make it sound palatable. In Hardy’s hands the crowd would go wild for the track. The popularity of the song on the bootleg market became so intense that Larry Sharman at Trax was forced to press it despite his personal reservations.He was so sceptical that Jefferson had to pay for the pressing himself, a fact that still rankles the DJ to this day. From that begrudging decision to press, blossomed piano driven house - and the genre has never looked back.
Rocky Jones and Benji Espinoza over at DJ International were also working incredibly hard to get the music out there, concentrating on developing national and international supply routes for their artists. Legendary record shop Vinyl Mania in New York became one of the more fruitful and significant connections they made.
Vinyl Mania was just around the corner from the Paradise Garage and a marriage made in heaven for the Chicago labels. The owners of the record store would see these strange, glittering people stumble past on their walks of shame and wondered where they came from. Occasionally these people would wander in and ask the salesmen for music they had never heard of. No one knew of the Paradise Garage or Levan. This was a world they were not a part of.
On the opposite side of the ledger, Jones and Espinoza knew they had to get New York on board and approached Manny Lehman at Vinyl Mania to complete the circle for all of them. The trickle of 12 inches that had been escaping Chicago now became a well-fed stream. As a result, the tempo of the music at the Garage changed as Chicago took hold. From a rather staid mid-range rhythm of laid back beats, Chicago upped the ante to 120 BPM.
Detroit DJs like Kevin Saunderson were driving four and half hours to listen to and pick up records from their Chicago peers. Tony Humphries was playing the songs on his New York Radio Show at KissFM and New Jersey also benefitted from Humphries’ long association with ClubZanzibar in Newark. Levan would play there on the occasional Wednesday, further dispersing house beats to the NJ faithful. The highways and freeways of America became the Internet of its day, as committed, passionate people rose to the challenge in an effort to get the music heard.
Mickey Oliver understands how it happened on a wider scale. “People of Chicago were compelled to record our mixes on a cassette and send them all across the world. Imagine being so moved to send a cassette tape to friends in Europe. That’s how house music swept the world.”
A few more fleeting footnotes in history like these were to give house the ability to dance on a global stage, through an exchange of cultures so far away from its ancestral home that it defies logical and racial divides but which through the prism of history seems so natural.Because on a Balearic island twinkling in an azure Mediterranean Sea as far from Chicago as culturally possible, house music was about to get the unlikeliest of eternal allies.
In the UK in 1986 house had already started to establish itself with Farley and Hurley’s chart hits ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ and ‘Jack Your Body’. These songs laid the foundations of what was to come. However, despite Darryl Pandy’s 8 octave live performance on Britain’s biggest chart show Top of The Pops and a shoe throwing incident that predated the Iraq war by some three decades, house music was considered just an extension of the High NRG sound of Hazel Dean and to have little longevity.
House did not produce immediately recognisable pop stars; it didn’t have band members. It was difficult to sell and was not immediately identified as the precursor to the music which would change the world. Isolated and eccentric clubs in the capital would occasionally dip their toes in the water but initially house was not popular. The Hacienda in Manchester would also oblige but it wasn’t yet making much headway.
In Ibiza though,the journey was well under way. Starting in the mid-80s, DJ Alfredo Fiorito was beginning to get a reputation for playing diverse dance music to an eccentric audience at a remote farmhouse called Amnesia. Alfredo sourced some of his music from an American contact in Madrid who in turn had connections to the Paradise Garage in New York. This man more than most should be thanked for his contribution to the migration of house from underground to mainstream, for amongst his clandestine collection of rare grooves was music from Trax Records and DJ International.
Trevor Fung, an English DJ working in Ibiza, fell in love with Alfredo’s mercurial sets and one hot night in August 1987, under his suggestion, house music began its stratospheric trip to the UK. Four soul boy DJs and promoters headed to Amnesia for a 24th birthday party as advised to by Fung. Today they are well known as the founding fathers of the UK acid house phenomenon - back then they were just four lads having fun. Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker would be forever changed by that night and in turn the very fabric of British youth society was turned on its head. Through Ibiza’s Balearic style, house was about to hit the UK.
Rampling has always stated, “Amnesia was a complete revelation. Alfredo… was the Larry Levan of Europe.” Alfredo himself talks about the atmosphere he created at the venue as being egalitarian - the intoxicating dance floor welcomed everyone.
If these accidental tourists hadn’t been so determined to continue that holiday feeling in the UK then house may never have taken hold like it did. Rampling started Shoom. Oakenfold started Spectrum. Holloway started The Trip. By the time 1988 rolled around The Hacienda had exploded with the sound of acid house. The Summer of Love was coming and the breeze became a howling wind from the clubs of Chicago.
Dancer at Shoom, UK
If the music of Harley, Saunders, Chip-E and Hurley built the house, then Jefferson, Heard, DJ Pierre and Joe Smooth took it to the world. Chicago’s musical offerings transformed the British weekend into a free-spirited, hedonistic journey and the recording industry and the rest of Europe soon bought tickets.
The attitudes of the house heads at Sauer’s and The Loft were exported across the Atlantic to every corner of Britain. Drunken pub crawls from one run-down venue to another were replaced by the need to experiment with love, drugs, parties and travel. Up and down the country kids were filling abandoned car parks, disused warehouses and chic inner city clubs, house music crossing the great social divide of class and wealth. As Alfredo said, “it was democracy on the dance floor”.
NME, the music industry bible, sent reporters to Chicago to cover the movement. When this happened people like Chip-E knew they were on to something. “That’s when we all knew that we’d made a beat heard around the world. We weren’t just a Chicago fad, but a new sound of music that would change the music world forever.” Indeed for Europeans,house music is a perpetual love affair that has stood the test of time.
NME Magazine cover, 1987
Move forward a third of a century and house has come full circle back to Chicago and is held up as a shining example of how a city should treat its artists. From a position of decline in the early nineties and an inauspicious beginning, The Chosen Few Picnic is not just a day in the park with barbecues aplenty. It is a community celebration of how its city’s artists are valued, promoting the tenets of love,peace and unity through its music. There is a reason why President Obama put his name to it.
The Hot Mix 5 now regularly hold popular free events in their home city which are so well attended that you cannot fail to notice house music in Chicago is the glue that binds the people. Chicago has a reputation for extreme violence but at the Chosen Few Picnic there has never been one incident in a quarter of a century. It has led to the formation of the Beyond the Groove Foundation, encouraging children to get educated in the music industry with the ultimate goal of having a performance venue accessible to all Chicagoans.
What was started by Knuckles, Williams and Hardy bore fertile fruit, and the links – fragile at first - between Chicago, New York, Ibiza and London have strengthened to influence and inspire a whole generation.
Why did it happen that way? What made Chicago move in this direction? DJ Pierre has his thoughts. “I think we all were very competitive and we all sought to improve on what the last person did. It was a healthy sort of thing. You have your bad apples always but the competition really pushed everybody. We shared gear as well and that helped the scene grow.”
Chip-E shares this memory of community. “At the end of the day, we all fed off of each other’s creativity, and I think we’re all Godfathers of House Music.”
Ron Carroll offers his spin, “This is the side that no one really talks about when it comes to house music. It was kids creating and loving it and living it.The roots of house are the same as the roots of hip-hop. We had our own voice our own world and our own community.”
Jesse Saunders is also happy with the way it has evolved from that bare stripped-down sound of the early ‘80s. “It's more soulful, but it will always be booty shakin'! Apart from that, house has taken on many shapes and forms to become more universal.”
Mickey Oliver adds, “sub genres of dance music have come and gone over the past thirty years, but one sound has been constant, house music. This sound is something that one feels inside oneself.”
New York, Detroit, Philly, New Jersey, Baltimore - they are all loved for what they have achieved but the rest of the world looks on Chicago as the grandfather of it all. That genealogy is key to the genre’s newer fans and influencers - for how are you supposed to know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?
The fact that 40,000 people celebrate its existence in Chicago proves house music to be a journey without end. Chuck Roberts put it best with the a capella speech which was later added to Larry Heard’s, ‘Can You Feel It?’ when he described house as a universal language.
And in my house there is only house music
But I am not so selfish because once you enter my house
It then becomes our house and our house music
And you see, no one man owns house
Because house music is a universal language
Spoken and understood by all
You see, house is a feeling that no one can understand, really
Unless you’re deep into the vibe of House
House has a Home. It’s called Chicago.
With thanks to, in no particular order,
Wayne Williams, Alan King, Jesse Saunders, Terry Hunter, DJ Pierre, Leonard Rroy, Larry Heard, Joe Smooth, Charles Matlock, Charles Parnell, Chip-E, Rocky Jones, Benji Espinoza, Marshall Jefferson, Ron Carroll, Mike Dunn, Tony Hatchett, Andre Hatchett, Mickey Oliver, Alfredo, Danny Rampling, Lehia Franklin, Black Music Research Centre, Mel Zeck, MN2S, Ken Hutchins and last but not least the city of Chicago and the residents of the South Side. Peace.