HOW THE WEST WON THE DANCEFLOOR
- Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Thursday 3 March 2011 22.10 GMT
Chicago house music found a big audience in the UK in the 1990s. Now it’s back thanks to a slew of remastered CDs, remixes and compilations
At times, I felt like the baddest cunt in the room.
I felt like I owned it.” Andy Butler, ringleader of dance act Hercules and Love Affair, is reminiscing about his days dancing to Chicago house. “There was a frenetic pace that was really interesting to me, but at the same time there was a depth.” This deep and frenetic music made in the midwest’s biggest city in the late 80s and early 90s is now coming around again, influencing a new wave of producers, its more obscure corners lit up by a host of reissues and compilations.
The sound grew out of a mess of styles in the early 80s. “Chicago at that time had a very diverse dance scene,” recalls Marshall Jefferson, a producer and collaborator on countless house classics, including the genre-defining Move Your Body. “You had parties – we called ‘em punk-outs – with 5,000 black kids all dancing to the B-52′s, Kraftwerk, and Ian Dury, plus rap and disco. All this stuff was on one dancefloor. House music at that time was defined as the best underground dance music – it could be anything, except radio music.”
Important catalysts were the new cheap synths and drum machines coming on to the market. “It was no longer about a budget of $30,000 and hiring an orchestra,” Butler says. “It was about buying something that looks like a toy, with a girlfriend down the street who wants to sing about ‘fearing the night’. It became so much more personal – guys putting down raw, immediate ideas.”
After early experiments from Vince Lawrence and Jamie Principle, the scene was galvanised in 1984 by Jesse Saunders’s On and On, often claimed as the first house record to get a general release. “It was instantly recognisable because it was so shit,” says Jefferson of the track. “Me and everyone else said, ‘We can do better than that.’”
The growing house scene started to take on different hues in different parts of the city, as singer and producer Ron Carroll remembers. “The north side would be gay house, very queeny music, with chants in them: ‘Imma get that bitch, I don’t like that ho.’ Then you had the south-east, who listened to disco classics and melodic producers.
And the south-west, we called it ghetto house: straight, four to the floor, kick-snare monsters with crazy sounds. I was from the south-east, and we would venture over just to get that sound. We liked the ghetto girls – the girls on the south-east side were so snooty.”
“House told deep stories, emotional stories, in a different way than disco did,” Butler explains. “Disco had fun playing with cliche: ‘You shot that arrow through my heart!’ Chicago was nothing like that. It went to: ‘You said you’d never do this to me again.’”
The sound cut across race and class, and particularly age. The Chicago house pioneer Gene Hunt – who has compiled a collection of rarities entitled Chicago Dance Tracks – started DJing at 13, was taken under the wing of scene legend Ron Hardy, and within two years was playing in clubs to 3,000 people.
Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders, who worked under the name Virgo Four, started their first band when they were 12 and made their first house productions at 14. “The reason we got into the electronic side of it was that it was much easier to record – we were still kids with no money, so rather than trying to record a drum set with no mics, it was simpler to have a drum machine,” Sanders says.
Virgo Four didn’t use sequencers to lay out repeated bars in time, but instead recorded live and, in the case of the early tracks compiled on their new retrospective, Resurrection, just to a four-track machine. “If a track is four minutes, I’m playing that bassline for four minutes, even if it’s really simple,” Sanders says. “It’s like how jazz musicians are – they show up for a set, they kind of know the general idea, what happens happens, and that’s what you get that night.
And you know it when it happens – it hooked us both at the same time, like, ‘Yeah yeah, keep doing that!’” This loose, improvisatory method, paired with the crispness of the drum machines, makes Virgo Four’s music some of the most affecting in house.
JD Twitch, one half of the Glaswegian DJ duo Optimo, has just contributed to Trax Re-Edited, a compilation of reworked releases from the central record label of the Chicago scene. He remembers house hitting the UK: “You had the tail end of Italo, and European electronic music, and industrial, and all of it was quite maximal, and rigid. And this shop starting getting these records from Chicago that had more of a groove and swing to them. This stripped-downness was just so new at the time.”
As well as his variously sinister and euphoric solo work, and the lush, erotic tableaux of his Jungle Wonz project, Marshall Jefferson had a hand in one of the scene’s most impressive sonic innovations: the acid line, created with the Roland TB-303 synthesiser. This insidious algorithmic wriggle drove the UK wild. “I did two records on the 303 and I was done,” Jefferson says. “I thought, ‘I don’t need this shit no more.’ Next thing I know I went over to England, and everyone was like, ‘ACIIIIIIID!’”
He rapidly became a frequent visitor to the UK. “Every time I came over to England I would hit the kebab shop – man, those kebabs made my eyes turn up inside! It was real lamb, not that chopped up shit.” He also quit his job at the post office. “We were getting a lot of money out on the road, like five grand cash in hand, so I just, like, stopped going.”
Despite the growing success of the records it released, Trax would scrimp on production costs. “The original pressings were really bad – they used recycled vinyl,” JD Twitch says. “I’ve even got a Trax record that has the end of a cigarette in it.” Even worse, they kept sales figures and the European adulation secret from their artists. “The labels were keeping all the money, all the publishing, because if they showed it to you, you’d ask questions about where it is,” Ron Carroll says. “We were kept 100% blind.”
Sanders agrees. “There could be a house music convention here and no one on Trax would say to you, ‘You guys should come.’ The only thing was family and friends saying: ‘Man, I love your tracks.’ We didn’t realise there was a following in Europe. Up until a year ago, we were clueless.”
Labels would also single out one name for the cover of the record. “Everyone helped each other, it was a studio full of people and full of minds every night, it was a collective effort,” Carroll says. “And then one person starts getting all the credit, the label starts sending them royalties, and that’s when the scene started dividing itself.
Instead of people being smart and saying, ‘Oh no, let’s target the label,’ they target the person whose name is on the record.” Nevertheless, various lawsuits were brought against Larry Sherman, the head of Trax, though Sanders admits Sherman could also be generous, at one point giving Eric Lewis $1,000 for his college tuition.
Meanwhile, the UK music press calcified this scene that once defined itself by its variety, to the point where producers were forced into making productions that dovetailed with the new definition of the Chicago sound, namely four-four dancefloor bombs. “Once it got labelled, it went on a slow slide downwards,” says Jefferson. “I did midtempo songs, slow songs, and of course that worked against me, because house music had become defined. That was a painful period for me.”
With partnerships broken and the genre becoming overly rigid, many producers peeled away to the more financially verdant pastures of rap. One producer on the Gene Hunt compilation, 1015, would go on to become No ID, producer for Jay-Z, Drake, and Chicago’s most famous son, Kanye West. Carroll remembers: “People saw Queen Latifahs and KRS-Ones making waves, and they were like: ‘Wow! We can express ourselves about our lives and make money? We need to do this.’”
But the sound has always bounced back, first in the mid-90s with the likes of Cajmere and Derrick Carter (commissioned for the latest Fabric compilation), and again today. In Chicago, the frantic blur of the rap/electro hybrid juke is a direct descendent from the “jacking” tempo and dance moves of the city’s house scene.
And elsewhere, there’s the obviously Chicago-inflected Hercules and Love Affair, Shit Robot, and Azari & III, plus more unexpected echoes from various post-dubstep producers such as Joy Orbison, and young industrialists Factory Floor with their acid-washed pulse. “Chicago house was some of the most honest music I ever heard in my life,” Butler says. “And that honesty is something I don’t think I’ll ever shake.”