House music is a genre of electronic dance music that originated in Chicago in the early 1980s. It was initially popularized in Chicago, circa 1984. House music quickly spread to other American cities like Detroit, New York City, and Newark – all of which developed their own regional scenes. In the mid-to-late 1980s, house music became popular in Europe as well as major cities in South America, and Australia. Early house music commercial success in Europe saw songs such as “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS (1987), “House Nation” by House Master Boyz and the Rude Boy of House (1987), “Theme from S’Express” by S’Express (1988) and “Doctorin’ the House” by Coldcut (1988) in the pop charts. Since the early to mid-1990s, house music has been infused in mainstream pop and dance music worldwide.
Early house music was generally dance-based music characterized by repetitive 4/4 beats, rhythms mainly provided by drum machines, off-beat hi-hat cymbals, and synthesized basslines. While house displayed several characteristics similar to disco music, it was more electronic and minimalistic, and the repetitive rhythm of house was more important than the song itself. House music in the 2010s, while keeping several of these core elements, notably the prominent kick drum on every beat, varies widely in style and influence, ranging from the soulful and atmospheric deep house to the more minimalistic microhouse. House music has also fused with several other genres creating fusion subgenres, such as euro house, tech house, electro house and jump house.
In the late 1980s, many local Chicago house music artists suddenly found themselves presented with major label deals. House music proved to be a commercially successful genre and a more mainstream pop-based variation grew increasingly popular. Artists and groups such as Madonna, Janet Jackson and C+C Music Factory incorporated the genre into their work. After enjoying significant success in the early to mid-90s, house music grew even larger during the second wave of progressive house (1999–2001). The genre has remained popular and fused into other popular subgenres, for example, G-house, Deep House, Tech House and Bass House. As of 2015, house music remains extremely popular in both clubs and in the mainstream pop scene while retaining a foothold on underground scenes across the globe.
Influences and precursors
Various disco songs incorporated sounds produced with synthesizers and drum machines, and some compositions were entirely electronic; examples include Giorgio Moroder’s late 1970s productions such as Donna Summer’s hit single “I Feel Love” from 1977, Cerrone’s “Supernature” (1977), Yellow Magic Orchestra’s synth-disco-pop productions from Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978), Solid State Survivor (1979), and several early 1980s disco-pop productions by the Hi-NRG group Lime.
Soul and disco influenced house music, plus mixing and editing techniques earlier explored by disco, garage music and post-disco DJs, producers, and audio engineers like Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, Jim Burgess, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, M & M, and others who produced longer, more repetitive, and percussive arrangements of existing disco recordings. Early house producers like Frankie Knuckles created similar compositions from scratch, using samplers, synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines.
The electronic instrumentation and minimal arrangement of Charanjit Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982), an album of Indian ragas performed in a disco style, anticipated the sounds of acid house music, but it is not known to have had any influence on the genre prior to the album’s rediscovery in the 21st century.
Rachel Cain, co-founder of an influential Trax Records, was previously involved in the burgeoning punk scene and cites industrial and post-punk record store Wax Trax! Records as an important connection between the ever-changing underground sounds of Chicago. As most proto-house DJs were primarily stuck to playing their conventional ensemble of dance records, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, two influential pioneers of house music, were known for their out-of-bounds behavior. The former, credited as “the Godfather of House,” worked primarily with early disco music with a hint of new and different music (whether it was post-punk or post-disco) but still enjoying a variety of music, while the latter produced unconventional DIY mixtapes which he later played straight-on in the music club Muzic Box, boiling with raw energy. Marshall Jefferson, who would later appear with the Chicago house classic “Move Your Body (The House-Music Anthem),” (originally released on Chicago-based Trax Records) got involved in house music after hearing Ron Hardy’s music in Muzic Box.
“I wasn’t even into dance music before I went to the Music Box,” he laughs. “I was into rock and roll. We would get drunk and listen to rock and roll. We didn’t give a fuck, we were like ‘Disco Sucks!’ and all that. I hated dance music ‘cos I couldn’t dance. I thought dance music was kind of wimpy, until I heard it at like Music Box volume.
Chicago House – An honorary street name sign in Chicago for house music and Frankie Knuckles.
In the early 1980s, Chicago radio jocks The Hot Mix 5, and club DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles played various styles of dance music, including older disco records (mostly Philly disco and Salsoul tracks), electro funk tracks by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, newer Italo disco, B-Boy hip hop music by Man Parrish, Jellybean Benitez, Arthur Baker, and John Robie, and electronic pop music by Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Some made and played their own edits of their favorite songs on reel-to-reel tape, and sometimes mixed in effects, drum machines, and other rhythmic electronic instrumentation. In this era,
The hypnotic electronic dance song “On and On”, produced in 1984 by Chicago DJ Jesse Saunders and co-written by Vince Lawrence, had elements that became staples of the early house sound, such as the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer and minimal vocals as well as a Roland (specifically TR-808) drum machine and Korg (specifically Poly-61) synthesizer. It also utilized the bassline from Player One’s disco record “Space Invaders” (1979). “On and On” is sometimes cited as the ‘first house record’, though other examples from around that time, such as J.M. Silk’s “Music is the Key” (1985), have also been cited.
Starting in 1984, some of these DJs, inspired by Jesse Saunders’ success with “On and On”, tried their hand at producing and releasing original compositions. These compositions used newly affordable electronic instruments to emulate not just Saunders’ song, but the edited, enhanced styles of disco and other dance music they already favored. These homegrown productions were played on Chicago-area radio and in local discothèques catering mainly to African-American and gay audiences.
By 1985, although the exact origins of the term are debated, “house music” encompassed these locally produced recordings. Subgenres of house, including deep house and acid house, quickly emerged and gained traction.
Deep house’s origins can be traced to Chicago producer Mr Fingers’s relatively jazzy, soulful recordings “Mystery of Love” (1985) and “Can You Feel It?” (1986). According to author Richie Unterberger, it moved house music away from its “posthuman tendencies back towards the lush” soulful sound of early disco music.
Acid house arose from Chicago artists’ experiments with the squelchy Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, and the style’s origins on vinyl is generally cited as Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” (1987). Phuture, a group founded by Nathan “DJ Pierre” Jones, Earl “Spanky” Smith Jr., and Herbert “Herb J” Jackson, is credited with having been the first to use the TB-303 in the house music context. The group’s 12-minute “Acid Tracks” was recorded to tape and was played by DJ Ron Hardy at the Music Box, where Hardy was resident DJ. Hardy once played it four times over the course of an evening until the crowd responded favorably. The track also utilized a Roland TR-707 drum machine.
Club play from pioneering Chicago DJs like Hardy and Lil Louis, local dance music record shops such as Importes, State Street Records, Loop Records, Gramaphone Records and the popular Hot Mix 5 shows on radio station WBMX-FM helped popularize house music in Chicago. Later, visiting DJs & producers from Detroit fell into the genre. Trax Records and DJ International Records, Chicago labels with wider distribution, helped popularize house music inside and outside of Chicago. One 1986 house tune called “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson, taken from the appropriately titled “The House Music Anthem” EP, became a big hit in Chicago and eventually worldwide. By 1986, UK labels were releasing house music by Chicago acts, and by 1987 house tracks by Chicago DJs and producers were appearing on and topping the UK music chart. By this time, house music released by Chicago-based labels was considered a must-play in clubs.
Origins of the term – The term “house music” is said to have originated from a Chicago club called The Warehouse, which existed from 1977 to 1983. Clubbers to The Warehouse were primarily black and gay, who came to dance to music played by the club’s resident DJ Frankie Knuckles, whom fans refer to as the “godfather of house”. After the Warehouse closed in 1983, the crowds went to Knuckles’ new club, The Power Plant. In the Channel 4 documentary Pump Up The Volume, Knuckles remarks that the first time he heard the term “house music” was upon seeing “we play house music” on a sign in the window of a bar on Chicago’s South Side. One of the people in the car with him joked, “you know, that’s the kind of music you play down at the Warehouse!”, and then everybody laughed. South-Side Chicago DJ Leonard “Remix” Roy, in self-published statements, claims he put such a sign in a tavern window because it was where he played music that one might find in one’s home; in his case, it referred to his mother’s soul & disco records, which he worked into his sets. Farley Jackmaster Funk was quoted as saying “In 1982, I was DJing at a club called The Playground and there was this kid named Leonard ‘Remix’ Roy who was a DJ at a rival club called The Rink. He came over to my club one night, and into the DJ booth and said to me, ‘I’ve got the gimmick that’s gonna take all the people out of your club and into mine – it’s called House music.’ Now, where he got that name from or what made him think of it I don’t know, so the answer lies with him.”
Chip E.’s 1985 recording “It’s House” may also have helped to define this new form of electronic music. However, Chip E. himself lends credence to the Knuckles association, claiming the name came from methods of labeling records at the Importes Etc. record store, where he worked in the early 1980s: bins of music that DJ Knuckles played at the Warehouse nightclub were labelled in the store “As Heard At The Warehouse”, which was shortened to simply “House”. Patrons later asked for new music for the bins, which Chip E. implies was a demand the shop tried to meet by stocking newer local club hits.
In a 1986 interview, Rocky Jones, the former club DJ who ran the D.J. International record label, doesn’t mention Importes Etc., Frankie Knuckles, or the Warehouse by name, but agrees that “house” was a regional catch-all term for dance music, and that it was once synonymous with older disco music.
Larry Heard, a.k.a. “Mr. Fingers”, claims that the term “house” became popular due to many of the early DJs creating music in their own homes using synthesizers and drum machines such as the Roland TR-808, TR-909, and the TB 303. These synthesizers were used to create a house subgenre called acid house.
Juan Atkins, an originator of Detroit techno music, claims the term “house” reflected the exclusive association of particular tracks with particular clubs and DJs; those records helped differentiate the clubs and DJs, and thus were considered to be their “house” records. In an effort to maintain such exclusives, the DJs were inspired to create their own “house” records.
Lyrical themes – House also had an influence of relaying political messages to people who were considered to be outcasts of society. The music appealed to those who didn’t fit into mainstream American society and was especially celebrated by many black males. Frankie Knuckles once said that the Warehouse club in Chicago was like “church for people who have fallen from grace” The house producer Marshall Jefferson compared it to “old-time religion in the way that people just get happy and screamin'”. Deep house was similar to many of the messages of freedom for the black community.
Regional Scenes (1980s – 1990s)
Detroit sound 1980 – 1989. Detroit techno is an offshoot of Chicago house music. It was developed starting in the late 80s, one of the earliest hits being “Big Fun” by Inner City. Detroit techno developed as the legendary disc jockey The Electrifying Mojo conducted his own radio program at this time, influencing the fusion of eclectic sounds into the signature Detroit techno sound. This sound, also influenced by European electronica (Kraftwerk, Art of Noise), Japanese synthpop (Yellow Magic Orchestra), early B-boy Hip-Hop (Man Parrish, Soul Sonic Force) and Italo disco (Doctor’s Cat, Ris, Klein M.B.O.), was further pioneered by Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, the “godfathers” of Detroit Techno.
Kevin Saunderson’s company KMS Records contributed many releases that were as much house music as they were techno. These tracks were well received in Chicago and played on Chicago radio and in clubs. Blake Baxter’s 1986 recording, “When we Used to Play / Work your Body”, 1987’s “Bounce Your Body to the Box” and “Force Field”, “The Sound / How to Play our Music” and “the Groove that Won’t Stop” and a remix of “Grooving Without a Doubt”. In 1988, as house music became more popular among general audiences, Kevin Saunderson’s group Inner City with Paris Gray released the 1988 hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life”, which eventually were picked up by Virgin Records. Each EP / 12 inch single sported remixes by Mike “Hitman” Wilson and Steve “Silk” Hurley of Chicago and Derrick “Mayday” May and Juan Atkins of Detroit. In 1989, KMS had another hit release of “Rock to the Beat” which was a theme in Chicago dance clubs.Derrick May a.k.a. “MAYDAY” and Thomas Barnett released “Nude Photo” in 1987 on May’s label “Transmat Records”, which helped kickstart the Detroit techno music scene and was put in heavy rotation on Chicago’s Hot Mix 5 Radio DJ mix show and in many Chicago clubs. A year later, Transmat released what was to become one of techno and house music’s classic anthems – the seminal track “Strings of Life”. Transmat Records went on to have many more successful releases such as 1988’s “Wiggin”. As well, Derrick May had successful releases on Kool Kat Records and many remixes for a host of underground and mainstream recording artist.
UK: 1986-early – 1990s – With house music already massive on the ’80s dance-scene it was only a matter of time before it would penetrate the UK pop charts. The record generally credited as the first house hit in the UK was Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s “Love Can’t Turn Around” which reached #10 in the UK singles chart in September 1986.
In January 1987, Chicago artist Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” reached number one in the UK, showing it was possible for house music to cross over. The same month also saw Raze enter the top 20 with “Jack the Groove”, and several further house hits reached the top ten that year. Stock Aitken Waterman’s productions for Mel and Kim, including the number-one hit “Respectable”, added elements of house to their previous Europop sound, and session group Mirage scored top-ten hits with “Jack Mix II” and “Jack Mix IV”, medleys of previous electro and Europop hits rearranged in a house style. Key labels in the rise of house music in the UK included:
- Jack Trax, which specialised in licensing US club-hits for the British market (and released an influential series of compilation albums)
- Rhythm King, which was set up as a hip hop label but also issued house records
- Jive Records’ Club Records imprint
The tour in March 1987 of Knuckles, Jefferson, Fingers Inc. (Heard) and Adonis as the DJ International Tour boosted house in the UK. Following the number-one success of MARRS’ “Pump Up The Volume” in October, the years 1987 to 1989 also saw UK acts like The Beatmasters, Krush, Coldcut, Yazz, Bomb The Bass, S-Express, and Italy’s Black Box opening the doors to a house music onslaught on the UK charts. Early British house music quickly set itself apart from the original Chicago house sound; many of the early hits were based on sample montage, rap was often used for vocals (far more than in the US) and humor was frequently an important element.
One of the early anthemic tunes, “Promised Land” by Joe Smooth, was covered and charted within a week by the Style Council. Europeans embraced house, and began booking legendary American house DJs to play at the big clubs, such as Ministry of Sound, whose resident, Justin Berkmann brought in Larry Levan.
The house scene in cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and London were also provided with many underground Pirate Radio stations and DJs alike which helped bolster an already contagious, but otherwise ignored by the mainstream, music genre. The earliest and influential UK house and techno record labels such as Warp Records and Network Records (otherwise known as Kool Kat records) helped introduce American and later Italian dance music to Britain as well as promoting select UK dance music acts.
But house was also being developed on Ibiza, although no house artists or labels were coming from this tiny island at the time. By the mid-1980s a distinctBalearic mix of house was discernible. Several clubs like Amnesia with DJ Alfredo were playing a mix of rock, pop, disco and house. These clubs, fueled by their distinctive sound and Ecstasy, began to have an influence on the British scene. By late 1987, DJs like Trevor Fung, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling were bringing the Ibiza sound to UK clubs like the Haçienda in Manchester, and in London clubs such as Shoom in Southwark, Heaven, Future and Spectrum.
In the U.S., the music was being developed to create a more sophisticated sound, moving beyond just drum loops and short samples. In Chicago, Marshall Jefferson had formed the house group Ten City Byron Burke, Byron Stingily & Herb Lawson(from “intensity”). New York–based performers such as Mateo & Matos and Blaze had slickly produced disco house tracks. In Detroit a proto-techno music sound began to emerge with the recordings of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson.
Atkins, a former member of Cybotron, released Model 500 “No UFOs” in 1985, which became a regional hit, followed by dozens of tracks on Transmat, Metroplex and Fragile. One of the most unusual was “Strings of Life” by Derrick May, a darker, more intellectual strain of house. “Techno-Scratch” was released by the Knights Of The Turntable in 1984 which had a similar techno sound to Cybotron. The manager of the Factory nightclub and co-owner of the Haçienda, Tony Wilson, also promoted acid house culture on his weekly TV show. The Midlands also embraced the late 1980s house scene with illegal parties and more legal dance clubs such as The Hummingbird.
US: late 1980s-early 1990s
Back in America the scene had still not progressed beyond a small number of clubs in Chicago, Detroit, Newark and New York City. However, many independent Chicago-based record labels were making appearances on the Dance Chart with their releases. In the UK, any house song released by a Chicago-based label was routinely considered a must play at many clubs playing house music. Paradise Garage in New York City was still a top club. The emergence of Todd Terry, a pioneer of the genre, was important in America. His cover of Class Action’s Larry Levan mixed “Weekend” demonstrated the continuum from the underground disco to a new house sound with hip-hop influences evident in the quicker sampling and the more rugged bass-line.
In the late 1980s, Nu Groove Records prolonged, if not launched the careers of Rheji Burrell & Rhano Burrell, collectively known as Burrell (after a brief stay on Virgin America via Timmy Regisford and Frank Mendez), along with basically every relevant DJ and Producer in the NY underground scene. The Burrell’s are responsible for the “New York Underground” sound and are the undisputed champions of this style of house. Their 30+ releases on this label alone seems to support that fact. In today’s market Nu Groove Record releases like the Burrells’ enjoy a cult-like following and mint vinyl can fetch $100 U.S. or more in the open market.
By the late 80s, House had moved West, particularly to San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego and Seattle. Los Angeles saw a huge explosion of underground raves and DJs, notably DJs Marques Wyatt and Billy Long, who spun at Jewel’s Catch One, the oldest dance club in America. In 1989, the L.A. based, former EBN-OZN singer/rapper Robert Ozn started indie house label One Voice Records, releasing the Mike Hitman Wilson remix of Dada Nada’s “Haunted House,” which garnered instant club and mix show radio play in Chicago, Detroit and New York as well as in the U.K. and France. The record shot up to Number Five on the Billboard Club Chart, marking it as the first House record by a white artist to chart in the U.S. Dada Nada, the moniker for Ozn’s solo act, released in 1990, what has become a classic example of jazz-based Deep House, the Frankie Knuckles and David Morales remix of Dada Nada’s “Deep Love” (One Voice Records/US, Polydor/UK), featuring Ozn’s lush, crooning vocals and muted trumpet improvisational solos, underscoring Deep House’s progression into a genre that integrated jazz and pop songwriting structures – a feature which continued to set it apart from Acid House and Techno.
The early 1990s additionally saw the rise in mainstream US popularity for house music. Pop recording artist Madonna’s 1990 single “Vogue” became an international hit single and topped the US charts. The single is credited as helping to bring house music to the US mainstream.
Influential gospel/R&B-influenced Aly-us released “Time Passes On” in 1993 (Strictly Rhythm), then later, “Follow Me” which received radio airplay as well as being played in clubs. Another U.S. hit which received radio play was the single “Time for the Perculator” by Cajmere, which became the prototype of ghetto house subgenre. Cajmere started the Cajual and Relief labels (amongst others). By the early 1990s artists such as Cajmere himself (under that name as well as Green Velvet and as producer for Dajae), DJ Sneak, Glenn Underground and others did many recordings. The 1990s saw new Chicago house artists emerge such as DJ Funk, who operates a Chicago house record label called Dance Mania. Ghetto house and acid house were other house music styles that were also started in Chicago.
Late 1980s-1990s – In Britain, further experiments in the genre boosted its appeal. House and rave clubs like Lakota and Cream emerged across Britain, hosting house and dance scene events. The ‘chilling out’ concept developed in Britain with ambient house albums such as The KLF’s Chill Out and Analogue Bubblebath by Aphex Twin. The Godskitchen superclub brand also began in the midst of the early 90’s rave scene. After initially hosting small nights in Cambridge and Northampton, the associated events scaled up in Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Leeds. A new indie dance scene also emerged in the 90’s. In New York, bands such as Deee-Lite furthered house’s international influence. Two distinctive tracks from this era were the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” (with a distinctive vocal sample from Rickie Lee Jones) and theHappy Mondays’ “Wrote for Luck” (“WFL”) which was transformed into a dance hit by Vince Clarke.
In England, one of the few licensed venues The Eclipse attracted people from up and down the country as it was open until the early hours. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was a government attempt to ban large rave dance events featuring music with “repetitive beats”. There were a number of abortive “Kill the Bill” demonstrations. The Spiral Tribe at Castle Morten was probably the nail in the coffin for illegal raves, and forced through the bill, which became law, in November 1994. The music continued to grow and change, as typified by Leftfield with “Release the Pressure”, which introduced dub and reggae into the house sound, although Leftfield had prior releases, such as “Not Forgotten” released in 1990 on Sheffield’s Outer Rhythm records.
A new generation of clubs like, Liverpool’s Cream and the Ministry of Sound were opened to provide a venue for more commercial sounds. Major record companies began to open “superclubs” promoting their own acts. These superclubs entered into sponsorship deals initially with fast food, soft drinks, and clothing companies. Flyers in clubs in Ibiza often sported many corporate logos. A new subgenre, Chicago hard house, was developed by DJs such as Bad Boy Bill, DJ Lynnwood, DJ Irene, Richard “Humpty” Vission and DJ Enrie, mixing elements of Chicago house, funky house and hard house together. Additionally, Producers such as George Centeno, Darren Ramirez, and Martin O. Cairo would develop the Los Angeles Hard House sound. Similar to gabber or hardcore techno from the Netherlands, this sound was often associated with the “rebel” culture of the time. These 3 producers are often considered “ahead of their time” since many of the sounds they engineered during the late 20th century became more prominent during the 21st century.
Towards the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s, producers like Daft Punk, Stardust, Cassius, St. Germain and DJ Falcon began producing a new sound out of Paris’s house scene. Together, they laid the groundwork for what would be known as the French house movement. By combining the harder-edged-yet-soulful philosophy of Chicago house with the melodies of obscure funk, state-of-the-art production techniques and the sound of analog synthesizers, they began to create the standards that would shape all house music.