Molly Bandonis

"Popular Songs Are Punctuation":

The Rise and Significance of House Music in Chicago Culture


The distinctive energy of the gay nightclubs of New York City came to Chicago in 1977. Club promoter Robert Williams imported DJ Frankie Knuckles to his club, the Warehouse, to spin records. Steve Dahl led the "disco sucks" campaign of 1979, and out of the ashes of that dance music genre, a new movement was born. While Frankie Knuckles spun at the Warehouse, DJ Ron Hardy began playing at the Music Box, which opened in Chicago in 1983. Both DJs had a distinctive style: melding sweeping ‘70s pop/disco b-sides with drum machine beats – used to compensate for the lack of music, as DJs were scouring vinyl crates for every forgotten disco record they could find. As we see in the documentary, Pump Up The Volume, Ron Hardy opened every night with "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome," and cast a spell so thick over a dance floor crowd; it was reportedly "like voodoo with dance music." Less than a year later, a tape of house music's first original ‘hit' began circulating – "Your Love" by Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles. Principle, still a teenager, wrote the song for his then-girlfriend. Every record company the duo took their tape to turned them down, but the track was well known and well loved in every Chicago club. Jesse Saunders released house music's first record on vinyl, "On & On" on his own label "Jes Say Records," notes Jesse Saunders in House Music…The Real Story. Trax Records opened and began pressing house vinyl on recycled wax and Chicago's own WBMX radio station ‘broke' house music to the masses who "ate it up," says David Sabat, who is a DJ and runs Pump Up The Volume shows us that Marshall Jackson's "Move Your Body" became the genre's "national anthem" and commercial success, both nationwide and overseas, was a reality by the early ‘90s.

So how do we know we're listening to house music? The genre is characterized by a hasty 120-128 beats per minute (BPM) today; house of the ‘80s spun at closer to 118-120 BPM, claims David Sabat. Czarina Mirani, editor of Chicago's 5 Magazine – the city's only magazine devoted solely to the genre of house, says, the structure of the music is 4:4, commonly referred to as "four on the floor" and no live instrumentation is used – drum machines, turntables, keyboards, samplers and synthesizers are the primary tools. House songs generally rise, or build anticipation, whereas sister-genre techno begins at the same level it ends, says Andy Lurhing, a freelance DJ and employee at Chicago's Gramaphone Records. And Sabat points out that vocals on the tracks are very common, usually what's referred to as ‘deep' or ‘soulful' which are words that, in house music, ranges in definition from the very use of vocals to anything that "moves you." Vocals are padded between a "good amount of beats – around 64," which act as intros/ ‘outros' through which the current song can be blended seamlessly to the next one – beats match in order to achieve a flawless sound, adds Mirani. In a house set, argues Lurhing, a DJ will commonly sample mainstream music to "tease the audience," "popular songs are punctuation" within the larger structure of the set. House DJs also tend to break music, introducing the audience to "something you've never heard before, but can't stop dancing to," claims Sabat.

The culture of house music began as part of a largely gay scene – the music originated in predominately gay clubs. But, as house music gained a wider audience, the culture surrounding the genre became one of diversity and acceptance. Mirani says, "because the music came from oppressed culture, you can walk into a house club and they are very accepting of you." The house of the ‘80s possessed more of an extravagance when it came to fashion, but modern house culture finds people more dressed down. "It's very t-shirt and jeans, people want to dance, get sweaty and get down." Because of the inherent secrecy within the house music culture (necessary in avoidance of violating city's noise ordinance restrictions), many times a party (or rave – a somewhat separate, but still closely related culture) will occur at a location undisclosed until immediately before the event. In these cases, says Lurhing, one should "dress for a lot at once." (Luhring). Drugs occupy strange territory within the culture of house music. A major pillar of the culture in most minds, drugs are much less prevalent with house music than the larger rave culture/ scene, where "the intention is to get twisted, fucked up," notes Mirani. Several DJs seek a drug-free vibe, arguing that music should be appreciated without the influence of substances.

Chicago's unique environment contributed to the birth of the genre within city limits. "The city is loaded with talent," observes Sabat. Luhring adds that the city's atmosphere was integrally characterized by "open minded people, and the size of the city - cops in smaller towns don't have much else to do than worry about sound ordinance." Or, as house legend Jesse Saunders says, "Chicago was too full of old passions and nights of pure ecstasy to be quieted at night."

Chicago house music has created, within itself, a significant sense of legacy and community in the city, for both fans of the genres, or just curious listeners. Mirani points out that " No city in the world can touch Chicago in terms of house music events. We have house music festivals and picnics which thousands, including non-house music people, attend because the events are so legendary." DJ David Sabat extends the community ideal to any music scene in the underground, " underground music connects people internationally. Once you find the scene and get connected, the scene will find you. In the underground community, you instantly know you have things in common with folks you meet." Also distinctive within the house music community, is that the legends of the genre are "accessible – you can meet these people," says Sabat. Unlike the music of the mainstream, house fans and performers are more likely to connect with each other on a personal level instead of simply through the music.

            The contribution house music has made to Chicago culture is immense. By introducing a new genre of music, many subgenres of dance music were made possible. By banding a community of fans and listeners together, the underground community of the city grew and thrived. The creation of a widely diverse and wholly accessible collective of performers and fans is a testament to the city's nurturing environment for budding culture and innovative music.