House Music: The Blues for Dance : The new sound pumps up the volume and eyes a move from R & B underground to the pop mainstream
The place: the Warehouse Club in Chicago.
The time: late Saturday night, some time in 1983.
The scene: Frankie Knuckles stands at the mixing console in the deejay booth, surveying the colorful Chicago characters “jacking” their bodies on the dance floor. Knuckles is pleased--he realizes that the Saturday - night “parties” he’s been throwing at the Warehouse since arriving from New York in 1977 have already transformed the Windy City dance-club scene.
Not that creating a new sound had been on his mind--it was just that the dance records coming out of New York at the time lacked something. It wasn’t hard for Knuckles to improve them by restructuring and rearranging the rhythm tracks at home, either on his drum machines or by jamming with his percussionist friend who played live to the tracks at the Warehouse.
That’s the element Knuckles really enjoys about the Warehouse, being able to put some of his own musical ideas into practice on new records, or expanding on the deep, danceable R&B; of the old Philly soul records he cherishes. He loves watching the dancers move to records that are now as much his as the recording artist’s, and he takes pride in the compliments that come his way afterward: “Oh, new record, huh? Is that a new mix on it? Who did that?”
Knuckles dreams of one day sliding into the record industry and becoming a producer. But Knuckles never suspects that the music he’s playing at the Warehouse is inspiring a host of younger club deejays and would-be producers . . . or that the sound that develops will soon acquire a name, a variant of Warehouse.
They call it house music.
House music didn’t stop in Chicago. The sound is now the latest contender to move into the pop mainstream from the R&B; underground. The style was initially developed and dominated by deejays and/or producers in Chicago releasing 12-inch singles that made a strong mark on the East Coast and European dance-club scenes. Now house music is international in scope, and the emphasis is shifting toward a fresh crop of artists.
“It looks like the major labels are about to launch some of kind of house assault, because they’re scooping up everybody out in Chicago,” said Marshall Jefferson, one of the most influential and prolific of the early house producers.
“They look on it as the next big type of music, and I don’t particularly like that,” he continued. “I want house to have variety because that’s when people can get innovative and not have to worry about sounding like the latest fad.”
What exactly is house music?
It’s bop-till-you-drop dance music that recalls the 120-plus beats-per-minute music of the disco era. But house music packs stronger bass lines than disco, and the minor-key melodies often create a moody undercurrent.
“The main difference I find between disco and house is that disco was a lot happier sounding, a lot more jolly,” explained producer David Cole. “House music is almost like the blues for dance--it has the same intensity, the same feeling and indescribable emotions that the blues has.”
Los Angeles clubs specializing in house music are usually underground affairs that shift their location each week, but dance music fans throughout America may already be familiar with house--although not by that name. House mixes have become de rigueur for any artist attempting to court the dance audience, from Samantha Fox and Debbie Gibson to Natalie Cole and the Tom Tom Club. Prince gave a nod to the style with the song “Housequake” on his “Sign ‘O’ the Times” album.
Clouding the identification issue are the several variations the style has spawned, like the more electronic version known as “acid house” that became a pop sensation in England last year. American listeners got a taste when “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S became a hit here last year.
“House is going through the same thing that rap went through,” said producer Cole. “When rap first came out, it had to make its mark. It had to say, ‘I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. What’s your move?’ That’s where house is now.”
The roots of house lie in the danceable R&B; of Philly soul and other early ‘70s grooves that led into the disco era. Like the reggae “dub” music of the mid-'70s, house producers and artists frequently engage in guerrilla warfare on a song by using studio technology to manipulate the melodies over the stripped-down rhythm tracks. Some artists, particularly in the acid-house arena, rely heavily on sampling (using snippets of other songs, TV shows or speeches) for hooks or to create collage-type melodies.
The music industry has acknowledged the ability of house deejays and producers to enhance a song by releasing house mixes of their artists’ material. Most originators of the house sound caution that “house” mixes by commercial pop artists may use all the right techniques--but that doesn’t guarantee that the result will be a house record.
“There are many things that create a house groove,” said Cole. “Some things have the elements that are considered to be house, but it’s not the elements. I hate to be corny but it’s almost a vibe, a sense of energy, that is created by those elements.”
Like most invigorating pop movements, house took off when fans took matters into their own hands. Following Knuckles’ lead in the early ‘80s, Chicago deejays began recording house tracks on 4-track tape machines at home with synthesizers and drum machines. They’d then play the tapes at their clubs.
David Cole moved from live jamming at a New York dance club to playing keyboards on dance re-mixes for producer Arthur Baker and his current production partnership with deejay Robert Clivilles. Marshall Jefferson describes himself as a “headbanger” rock guitarist in his pre-house days.
“Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t seem like a rebellious art form any more so I vacated it in ’83,” Jefferson explained. “The house crowd was a really rebellious crowd. They didn’t go for what played on the radio, and they seemed to take pride in enjoying a song because it was good and nobody else knew about it.”
Twelve-inch house singles began being released about 1985 on home-grown labels like Trax Chicago Connection and DJs International. The groups Jesse’s Gang and J. M. Silk landed major label deals in 1987 with Geffen and RCA, respectively, but their records failed to dent the charts.
“House was underground here because black radio stations by and large don’t like that kind of ‘clubby’ music,” says Brian Chin, director of artists and repertoire for Profile Records. “ ‘That’s the Way Love Is’ by Ten City was a real breakthrough record on black radio because it reached the Top 20. But all the breakthroughs have happened this year in America.”
Says Ten City lead singer Byron Stingily, “We felt that no one had stuck by their guns and followed through on this dance-music scene. Before, people in Chicago got their major label record deals and suddenly wanted to do commercial, crossover music. We decided to do what we do best, and we know it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
House became a major force in England when J. M. Silk’s “Jack Your Body” became a No. 1 pop hit in 1986. The big development was acid house, which spiced heavily electronic rhythm tracks with collages of “samples” and blossomed into a full-blown movement, with the happy-face smile button as its fashion trademark.
Acid house clubs attempted to create a total environment with scented, colored smoke and dry ice machines; some even reportedly featured swimming pools next to the dance floors. The movement became a cause celebre in Britain due to the reported heavy use of psychedelic drugs, and clubs were forced underground or out of existence.
But you won’t find many acid house fans among the earliest house artists.
“There might have been two acid records that I liked and it’s only because they balanced ‘em out with an acoustic piano,” said Frankie Knuckles. “It added an element of realness to it because there was one instrument that kept it from being totally electronic. Most of it was garbage to me.”
Is house music destined to become a household word in pop music?
Its immediate future certainly is bright. Veteran house producers like Knuckles, Jefferson and the Cole-Clivilles team have progressed from doing dance re-mixes to production projects for major labels in Europe and here. As house becomes more accepted, they’re starting to work with bigger names in the R&B; field.
The biggest development is the new surge of artists. And more are on the way. Ten City established house as a potential force on black radio with “That’s the Way Love Is,” and the Detroit-based Inner City duo featuring producer Kevin Saunderson has made inroads with its “Good Life” single.
Jive Records has opened a Chicago office and signed artists like vocalist Liz Torres and producer Adonis. Motown signed the production team Blaze, and Steve Hurley of J. M. Silk just signed with Atlantic. The acid house group S-Express’s debut album will be released soon by Capitol.
The best recorded introduction to the R&B-rooted; house style are Profile’s pair of two-record compilations, “Best of House Music” and “Gotta Have House.” A number of acid house singles have been dance-chart hits recently, and other house compilation albums are beginning to be released.
Acid house may benefit from the commercial cachet of being an Anglo hip trip, but it could also suffer from fickleness of the trendy set in the long run. A more promising move on the R&B; side is the potential merger of hip hop and house elements: Rob Base’s hit “It Takes Two” and the Jungle Brothers’ “I’ll House You” have been cited as harbingers of a new “hip house” hybrid.
“Rap and house were polar opposites before, because rap people often found club music to be too effeminate, too sissy for them,” said Profile Records’ Chin. “Merging rap with house didn’t occur until last year but it’s been a tremendously powerful combination because it’s got the tough approach of rap and the persuasive, accessible things about house music.”
But the future of house rests on the artists’ resisting the temptation to crank out formulaic grooves to capitalize on its trendy status.
“All it takes is people at the head of the field to do quality music and not worry about sales,” said Jefferson. “The only roadblock is that radio programming as it is today is resistant to a new sound.”