Rapid hi-hats, slamming snares, off-beat hand claps, funky synth grooves. This is the sound of Chicago house. Born at the end of the disco era, when Chicago DJs refused to let dance music die, Chicago house is the origin of the house music we know and love today. It’s been a wild ride, but Chicago house is still filling dancefloors around the world over three decades since its inception. We take a look at the rise and rise of the Chicago house sound.
Birth of a Sound
The first documented Chicago house track to be released as an official single was ‘On and On’ by Chicago DJ Jesse Saunders. Though the track was released in 1984, DJ in Chicago started making house music by layering Techno-inspired drum machine patterns over disco loops a few years earlier. This style of music was extremely popular in the clubs, as it emphasised the dancier parts of disco by cutting out the fat and adding a heavier beat.
Aside from Jesse Saunders, the leading house DJs at the birth of this movement were Frankie Knuckles, whose club the Warehouse gave house music its name, and ‘The Hot 5’. Comprised of Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Ralph Rosario, Scott “Smokin” Silz and Kenny “Jammin” Jason, The Hot 5’s mixes on radio station WBMX-FM gave even more early exposure to Chicago house sound.
Chicago house’s fortunes increased when record labels with worldwide distribution released house tracks. Thanks to big songs like Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’ on Trax Records, Chicago house gained global popularity. More than just a great Chicago house track, ‘Move Your Body’ is one of the most iconic house tracks of all time in any subgenre.
The success of Chicago house led to the development of deep house and acid house. House music, descended from Chicago in the 1980s, ruled the dancefloors of the world. But not all of the big house tracks could be described as strictly ‘Chicago house’.
The Second Wave
Ironically enough, by the early 90s Chicago house music was declining in popularity in Chicago itself. This didn’t trouble Chicago DJs, who knew that across the Atlantic, house music was huge.
So-called ‘second wave’ DJs, along with some of house music’s originators, came to England and Europe to play a big part in the emerging rave culture. Marshall Jefferson himself says the 1986-88 period was Chicago house’s highest point. 1988’s ‘Summer of Love’ spawned hundreds of house tracks, and countless ecstasy-fuelled house mixes at huge raves. But most of the music of the ‘88 rave scene, with its emphasis on the Roland TB-303 drum machine, was what became known as acid house, not Chicago house in the strictest sense.
Nowhere to be found in Chicago the city, and eclipsed by its druggier cousin in the UK, pure Chicago house music was in its darkest days at the turn of the 1990s. But when rave culture hit the USA in the mid-90s, Chicago house saw its first big comeback.
It was only a matter of time before house fans wanted to look back at the genre’s origins, and this was what happened at Chicago raves in the mid-late 1990s. Keen to recognise the importance of their city in a worldwide cultural movement, Chicago DJs began to play mixes of classic Chicago house tracks, such as those released by Trax or DJ International Records. They also created new tracks of their own in the classic Chicago mould.
Artists such as Green Velvet stripped house music back down to its minimalist origins. Second-wave Chicago house was encapsulated on the Cajual Records release, ‘The New Chicago House Sound’ in 1994.
The Chicago house revival in the USA once again spread overseas, and the sound continued to be popular in the UK well into the early 2000s. But after that, the genre’s popularity stagnated once again, giving way to pop music with a house influence. Though pop house’s originators such as Daft Punk were themselves influenced by Chicago house, this poppier incarnation quickly abandoned many of the central features of Chicago house, leaving the genre in the sidelines.
The New Comeback
In recent years, Chicago House has seen another renaissance. Marshall Jefferson and his first-wave compatriots are more popular than they have been in decades, and recent compilations of near-forgotten Chicago classics have been released to great critical acclaim.
Artists such as Hercules and Love Affair and Azari & III are influenced by the original Chicago scene. And Chicago’s most famous export, Kanye West himself, has been teasing new music that samples heavily from original Chicago House classics.
Jefferson points to Lay Far, Vince Watson, and Purple Disco Machine as some of the best new artists carrying the torch of the Chicago House movement, and MN2S signees Will Clarke, and Voyeur both show a heavy Chicago House influence in their music.
Clearly, Chicago House is a resilient genre that is not going anywhere. Even if its popularity dies down again, history shows that we should always expect it to bounce back. Marshall Jefferson knows this better than anyone. “Whenever the scene hits a low point,” he says, “someone always comes and lifts it right back up.”