Classic House: A Primer

After the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, disco took a hit in its mainstream visibility. Local radio DJ Steve Dahl organized the event in which he asked attendees to bring disco records to be destroyed on the field. What was marketed as an exercise in rock pride was in actuality fueled by racism and homophobia. In the rubble were found records by artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, wonderful musicians who had nothing to do with disco but whose black skin gave listeners an automatic association with it. The promotion proved chaotic and the White Sox were forced to forfeit their second game that night.

Disco moved on to the underground clubs. Frankie Knuckles, an influential DJ in New York who came up under the legendary Larry Levan, relocated to Chicago. While opening his own club, The Warehouse, in 1982, Knuckles began combining the bass lines of his favorite disco with reworked synth lines. Taking cues from Knuckles, other Chicago DJs began buying cheap synthesizers and drum machines in order to create their own music. This new DIY form of expression, a safe haven for the gay and black communities of Chicago, was called house music. Frankie Knuckles once said that house music was “disco’s revenge.”

 If you are new to this music, here are some tracks to get you started.


Frankie Knuckles feat. Jamie Principle

“Your Love”

An original version of this track was released as a solo Jamie Principle effort before meeting Frankie Knuckles. Knuckles reworked the track and made it the most recognizable of the early Chicago house singles. It begins with a synth arpeggio that morphs into an infectious bass and drum groove. It all comes together with Principle’s soulful, overtly sensual vocals.

Mr. Fingers

“Can You Feel It?”

Larry Heard, a.k.a. Mr Fingers, pioneered a new subgenre, deep house. Deep house takes houses musical foundation but makes it much spacier by bringing in elements of ambient, jazz, funk, and soul. The smooth, dreamy synth motif that flutters throughout the track is washed over with shimmering hi-hats. It was a sure-fire staple in Chicago clubs.


Rhythim is Rhythim

“Strings of Life”

Electronic musician Derrick May, inspired by the music going on in Chicago as well as the industrial landscapes of Detroit, set out to make a new more futuristic offshoot of house. The music May created, which he described as “George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator,” was called techno. It was funkier and more mechanical sounding than its Chicago predecessor. “Strings of Life” starts off with a rolling piano motif but is suddenly met with an onslaught of 4/4 bass and drums, rolling snares, and some ferocious synth strings. It’s one of the hardest hitting and euphoric numbers in the classic house songbook.


“Acid Tracks”

 A group of electronic musicians got their hands on a cheap Roland TB-303 synthesizer, a commercially unsuccessful model that failed to initially entice musicians due to its “squelching” sound that didn’t come close to resembling any instrument you would see a live band play. While everyone else rejected this piece of equipment, Phuture embraced the bizarre noise. The result was an odd, trippy 12-minute track that was given to DJ Ron Hardy to be played at his club The Music Box. Phuture laid the groundwork of what would be known as acid house, a subgenre that eschews house music’s soulful beginnings for something much heavier and psychedelic.


Pacific State

“808 State”

 The house phenomenon didn’t stay in Chicago and Detroit. Eventually it found its way across the Atlantic into the UK, especially the city of Manchester. The charge was led by a group of electronic musicians under the name of Pacific State. Pacific State was influenced by the more psychedelic side of acid house, but took it in a more chilled out direction. This track is distinctive because of its off-kilter saxophone hook that floats throughout.

Matt Marciniec