How White Kids Stole House Music from Black Aunties
It’s time for sonic reparations
“Let me tell you something about house music. It’s not just a groove; house is a feeling…”
So goes “The Word” — a classic a cappella by Chicago producer Aaron-Carl Ragland, since sampled on countless white label records played in club basements from the East Village to Edinburgh. It’s a short piece, but one with a universal message. In a proud and defiant timbre Ragland continues: “It doesn’t matter where you come from… For in my house, we are all free. One nation. God’s children coming together in the spirit of house.”
It’s a tempting telling; that on the club floor, four-count beat and bassline pulsing in time, all of us can find liberation, no matter our creed or color or sexuality. It’s a message that is sold elsewhere, in wicked incarnations; that if we just come together as one, we can be truly free in our “post-racial” society. Because all lives matter, right? Regardless, it’s an efficient thought, and one that might help clear our collective conscience if we deploy it properly.
Honestly though, I don’t buy it.
I don’t buy it because black peoples’ contributions to music have been downplayed since black people have been an established social class in society. By now, most of you might know that Elvis Presley didn’t invent rock and roll; black musicians were taking elements of blues and turning it up to eleven years before Elvis gyrated his pelvis all over national TV. In more recent history, Gen X white fave Madonna got credit for the genre and white-folk dance-craze “voguing,” which actually originated from the black and Latino ballroom scene, a credit that led house aficionado DJ Sprinkle to declare his dancefloor a “Madonna-free zone.” (Interestingly, Madonna was selling the same message: “It makes no difference if you’re black or white,” she boldly sang on the very same track.) Today, the internet continues to drag Iggy Azalea by her extensions for being a failed Australian pop star who got famous rapping like a cornier and coked-up version of Rasheeda from Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta.
If you thought house music was exempt from this sort of anti-black bacchanal, you thought very, very wrong. White house DJs and producers owe millions of dollars in recognition and royalties to black musicians who came before them. What you’re about to hear is how one tribe of house producers got away with and continue to get away with theft.
Do not adjust your stations, this is not a test.
“Ooh, that’s my jam!”
If you invite your black American friend over for dinner and your Spotify soundtrack includes, say, “It’s a Love Thing” by The Whispers, they will assume one of two things: either one, you just came back from a cookout teeming with aunties and uncles and who-invited-them-anyway cousins rapping the dozens; or two, you are about to fit them in yellow rubber gloves and make them clean the entire house.
This is an exaggeration, of course. But such songs, the kind that make even bespectacled and big-wigged church ladies bust out into a two-step on the back lawn, hold special significance to the African diaspora here in the United States. They encapsulate an era of black musicianship, falling between 1975 and 1995, when the rest of the country (read: white people) were devoting themselves to “Hotel California” and Joan Jett, hairspray metal and Nirvana. This is what the internet has dubbed “auntie music” — a brand of old-school R&B, quiet storm, boogie, post-funk and post-disco appreciated mainly by the Janices and Jocelyns among us, the soundscape for every black family cookout before “woke” white people on Twitter started getting invites. This is unequivocally black music.
Black music that is devalued. When I started crate digging at age 15 it was easy to find three-for-a-dollar vinyl of black bands of ages gone by. My favorites were the hybrid funk-disco of Shalamar and Dynasty, but I had a soft spot for the “little girls with big voices” too — Jocelyn Brown, Stephanie Mills, even Jody Watley after she went solo from Shalamar midway through the 80s. Add to that the electro-boogie that the 80s themselves ushered in — Kashif, Cheryl Lynn post-Gong Show, and her producer Ray Parker Jr., before the theme from Ghostbusters propelled him to one-hit-wonderdom — and a splash of soul from reinvented disco acts like Tavares and Brass Construction, and you end up with a technicolor palette of music of the African Diaspora from which to pull an endless amount of bangers, bops, and ballads from days gone by. All on a teenager’s salary at that.
Now, this music wasn’t equivalent to utopia — looking at that Shalamar video, we’re led to wonder why light-skinned Howard Hewett is given center stage and top vocal billing over darker-but-more-talented bandmates Jeffrey Daniel (peep the afro) and Jody Watley (sorry, I just really love her if you couldn’t tell already). But no one can deny this music had something — soul, melody, groove, a feeling, etc. — that the white music establishment did not and could not provide.
House music, too, is black music. The genesis of house is generally tied to Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, and the name “house” comes from The Warehouse, the club where Knuckles held a residency. The Warehouse, interestingly enough, catered to a mostly black gay clientele in those days; Knuckles gushed in an Ebony interview that in “the beginning, it was a predominately black gay club [but] as people began to learn about it, we started renting the place out on Friday nights for a lot of fraternity parties.” (Aaron-Carl, quoted above, was also black and gay. He died of lymphoma in 2010.) By the mid-90s, Knuckles was touring all over the world and playing out house remixes of artists as esteemed as Diana Ross and Michael Bolton.
For a while, the opportunity for widespread appreciation of yet another black musical invention was once again a possibility.
To paraphrase Césaire, Europeans ruined everything as usual.
By the early 90s, the house formula in Europe was mostly associated with Eurodance, a frenetic mash of synthesizer grooves and nonsensical lyrics made (most of the time) by white European producers and black vocalists. The genre produced the first era of true bangers, with either nods to or trespasses against the black musicians of a generation past; Jocelyn Brown and The Gap Band were sampled by Snap! illegally on 1990’s “The Power” and more-or-less legally on “Ooops Up.” By the mid-90s, Eurodance artists like Italy’s Joy Salinas were mimicking black predecessors’ vocals over techno-y backing tracks, like her 1995 cover of Don Armando and Fonda Rae’s “Deputy Of Love.” However, these rhythms were useless for anything other than a popper-fueled romp through an Ibiza bathhouse; they might have had power, but they didn’t have feeling.
Around this time, electronic music debutantes Daft Punk were coming together in Paris. Both members of Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo, are pros at the sampler for sure, but their first ventures into music were far from their robo-disco alter egos of the “Alive 2007” era. Bangalter’s first release, “Trax on Da Rocks”, was hard and mechanical, taking a bigger leaf from Detroit techno; de Homem-Cristo’s pet project, Le Knight Club, was lighter and more tropical, subverting the usual harshness of synths and filters to produce something bubbly yet far from bubblegum.
Their first release as Daft Punk, 1997’s Homework, seemed at first listen to be a quizzical fusion of these two antipodes. Singles like “Around the World” fused blips and bloops with a groovy bassline and processed vocals; sleeper hit “Da Funk” layered Barry White and Vaughn Mason drum samples underneath a squeezebox bassline to produce a synthetic answer to 70s roller rink bounce. They quickly established themselves as pioneers in the house music scene, toured extensively, and gained the respect of established house DJs like Todd Edwards and DJ Sneak in the United States. One song from Homework, the cryptic “Teachers,” name-drops producers in the scene (including Edwards and Sneak) while also shouting out tons of black artists, including George Clinton and Dr. Dre. Overall, if Wikipedia is to be trusted as a source, Homework “revived house music and departed from the Eurodance formula.” The Village Voice, a slightly more reliable source, exclaimed in 1999 that Daft Punk “[tore] the lid off the sewer, letting the music breathe again.”
Their big break in the minds of many came in the form of Discovery, their 2001 sophomore album, and Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, its visual counterpart. Discovery was different; in a 2000 interview, Bangalter waxed poetic about the pitfalls and potentials of his adoptive genre:
“We wanted to destroy the new rules that define house music today by doing something that is more in the house music spirit rather than the house music style. The spirit of house music is about questioning yourself and trying different things… While we might have some disco influences, we decided to go further and bring in all the elements of music that we liked as children, whether it’s disco, electro, heavy metal, rock, or classical.”
You’ll notice that this message of experimentation and groundbreaking is a bit different — though not mutually exclusive — from Aaron-Carl’s gospel of collective liberation. Still, sound bytes like this cemented Daft Punk’s status of innovators and wunderkinds within the genre and in the popular music scene as well.
Critics noticed that the album sampled quite a bit; credited samples included George Duke, Edwin Birdsong, Anthony and the Imperials, and the second most soulful white male vocalist of all time, Barry Manilow. (The first, of course, being Michael McDonald. I know. Take it in.) Pretty soon it became clear that other samples had been used or at least expertly recreated: guitar riffs from Sister Sledge’s “Il Macquilage Lady” had been heavily processed to make DP’s “Aerodynamic”; percussion from Rose Royce’s “First Come First Serve” was present in the intro for “Too Long”; and strings from little-known black disco artist Eddie Johns “More Spell On You” were chopped up, looped, compressed and filtered to make Discovery’s lone club charter, “One More Time.” Over ten years after Discovery’s release, a new sample from the album was brought to light from the depths of YouTube’s house fanatic community: “High Life” used microsamples (samples under 3 seconds in length) of a long-forgotten Tavares song, “Break Down for Love.” Daft Punk fans went absolutely nuts over this find; many assumed the sample to be so distorted that the source would never be found.
For those keeping score at home: seven samples of black artists on one award-winning album by two white European producers — and only three of those artists even got paid for it. It’s true that Bangalter’s father, Daniel Vangarde, was a disco producer, and young T-Bang inevitably grew up around the music he would later sample — even so, if anyone was attuned to the politics of plagiarism in the music industry, it would certainly be him.
Was the album, in its totality, composed of theft from black artists? No, technically. Club favorite “One More Time” as well as album closer/swan song “Too Long” features Romanthony, a black American soul singer and DJ. One would assume that he, and the black bands sampled officially, got their fair share of royalties. But the album title continues to haunt the listener. Discovery. Because the source music, what, previously didn’t really exist until these French disc jockeys “discovered” it, slapped a few patches on it, and mastered it anew to be something it couldn’t have ever been if left alone to collect dust in the crates?
To paraphrase Césaire again: Hmmm. Sounds familiar.
The “French touch” school of electronic music which birthed and housed Daft Punk for a moment in time is built around such “discovery,” the spinning and weaving of black sound threads into Euro-friendly silk. You’ve heard these songs before, and you probably didn’t even realize the black labor that went into them. Modjo’s “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”? Chic sample. We In Music’s one-shot anthem, “Grandlife”? Two Klymaxx samples and a bassline. These days, a new generation continues to make livings and careers from this practice. Take Louis La Roche, oui-oui alias of British producer Brett Ewels. Ewels first got famous from his song “Love”, which was leaked (some say by Ewels himself) attributed as a bootleg of an unreleased Daft Punk song, all while lifting heavily from Michael Jackson’s “It’s the Falling in Love” in the process. Some would argue that MJ’s music is in the public commons and shouldn’t be classified by his race. I disagree, especially given that the song was produced by Quincy Jones, a founder of the Institute for Black American Music which aimed to create a library of African-American musical traditions. In no time, Ewels was collaborating with Modjo singer Yann Destal and French house power producer Patrick Alavi, two of his icons who had quickly become his contemporaries.
But none of this was new business when Discovery hit the charts. In that same interview referenced above, Bangalter balked at the fact that “a lot of house music today just uses samples from disco records of the 70s and 80s.” This is an understatement. The trend du jour when Homework hit the charts was simple and infectious: take an old disco record, speed it up a bit, add a bassline, drum kit and some filters, and unleash onto the clubs. Take an anthem of the era, “Feel Alright” by Troy Brown, released in 1998. The final product is groovy, but once you break it down, it’s clear that the George Benson sample atop the 909 drum underpins it more than anything. British duo M&S followed this formula to a T using a Double Exposure sample to make their club smash “Salsoul Nugget (If U Wanna)” two years later. Hell, some producers were even lazier; Paul Jacobs’ (alias PJ) now-forgotten 1996 proto-banger “Happy Days” was literally just loops of a Northend song by the same name. And arguably none of any of this would have happened without tracks like Paul Johnson’s “Hear the Music”, a circus of sped-up post-disco samples meshed with Chicago-style beats.
The difference is that all of the aforementioned producers (including one-half of M&S) are black. White producers, in typical fashion, were a few years behind the trend. Swedish group Alcazar waited until 2000 to release their disco-inspired début, Casino, featuring hardly-hidden samples from black disco staples B. Devotion and Chic. (Yeah, B. Devotion may have fronted by a white woman named Sheila, but it was their instrumentation, not her voice, that was sampled on Alcazar’s record.)
So what made Daft Punk exceptional in their artistry? A few things. For some songs the duo followed the Todd Edwards school of sampling, which involves short 2- or 4-bar samples chopped up beyond recognition. Moreover, their sound was old-school and melodic, unlike their peers in the business who trended toward hardcore sounds. Breakbeat legends The Prodigy used similar sampling tactics — chopped and distorted samples of black artists like Kool & the Gang and Randy Weston among others — to make their controversial banger “Smack My B*tch Up” in 1997. What separated acts like The Prodigy and Daft Punk was marketability; unlike others Daft Punk could be friendly, robotic ambassadors from an electronic music scene that was hellbent on discord and distortion at the time. I mean, can we really imagine The Prodigy’s hypothetical visual album being aired on Toonami after hours for preteens to gawk at? Of course not. (Then again, we can’t air Lemonade on network TV either — for an entirely different set of circumstances, of course.)
How unethical is uncredited sampling? The short answer: it depends on how much you make off it. Interestingly, the poster child for uncredited sampling as theft is America’s Timbaland (the producer formerly known as Timothy Mosley). Timbaland literally made a career off of lifting melodies from obscure Third World musicians; most infamously, he was sued to the tune of millions for sampling or recreating Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdy’s “Khosara Khosara” on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” While Timbaland is far from indefensible — and even though he won the case against Hamdy — it’s telling that his craft work and not Daft Punk’s is soiled by the association with plagiarism.
The case for reparations
On July 12, 1979 in Chicago, a few years before Frankie Knuckles moved there and seemingly ages before house music let alone disco house took off, nothing short of a riot boiled over at Comiskey Park baseball field. While the crowd of 50,000 (twice the stadium’s capacity) chanted the phrase “disco sucks,” a local Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, stood at center field with crates of disco records and pushed a detonator. Fans rushed down into the newly-formed crater and began to tear up the rest of the field, wreaking havoc for almost a half hour before Chicago PD arrived.
In the aftermath of the event, christened “Disco Demolition Night,” radio DJs all over the country stopped playing disco records altogether. Dahl himself spoke up 35 years later to say that the campaign was neither racist nor anti-gay, just kids “being faithful to the bands that provided the backdrop to their lives.” Listen, I wasn’t there, but knowing a bit about the racial history of Chicago leads me to believe that the Venn diagram of white rock fans and white racists is probably closer to a circle than a figure 8. And the violence was hardly over; not long after, the emerging AIDS crisis began to wipe out disco’s largely non-white and gay buying market. A generation of black musical labor was pushed to the wayside because white rock fans wouldn’t let the black kids sit at the cafeteria table — or even in the same cafeteria for that matter.
Imagine the irony when twenty years later a new generation of white kids all of a sudden “discovers” disco! Case in point: current relevant white house producer and former Taylor Swift side piece Calvin Harris literally got famous off an album called I Created Disco. (I wish I was making this up.) Granted, it wasn’t the same strain of white kids, but privilege is privilege, whether in Montmartre or Manhattan. Where is the black equivalent to Daft Punk? Sure, we have famous house producers of color — Afrojack, Armand Van Helden, and Laidback Luke come to mind — but they are too often pigeonholed solely into the anonymous EDM ether, hence: they are not cultural icons. Our godfather Frankie Knuckles remains mostly a footnote in a Wikipedia article rather than a celebrated cultural figure. How can we remember and honor the blackness in these sounds if we have no black icons to praise?
This isn’t so much an attack on Daft Punk as it is an indictment of the electronic music industry at large. How else do we explain phenomena like Swedish singer Robyn releasing a reggae-inspired song dubbing herself the “Dancehall Queen”? Or colonizer du jour Diplo becoming the world’s ambassador for trap music? Or Avicii’s claim to fame being a lazily-used Etta James sample? While the musical establishment has been biting off black artists and sounds, an era of neoliberalism is leaving the black music consciousness under attack by structural forces. Don’t believe me? Ask André Cymone, former backing bassist for Prince and the Revolution:
“When we grew up, there were music and after-school programs to help inner-city youth like myself, and Morris [Day], Prince, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis. You had outlets. Now they cut a lot of those programs. You see more kids on the street.”
Why are we as patrons of an industry continuing to let white producers make money and livelihoods off of black musicians’ backs? This music fan says it’s time for sonic reparations. No one’s saying white people or anyone else can’t enjoy music with black origins. But we can definitely be responsible consumers as we stream our favorite tunes from the bathroom to the booth.
Don’t just go out and crate dig; check out the touring schedule for your favorite old-school bands and go see them. Hell, buy a couple t-shirts while you’re there. Listen to black producers and buy their music — check out what black house producers in particular like DJ Rashad (RIP), MNEK, and Good Junk are capable of. Check your ignorant friends on Facebook and SoundCloud when they’re praising their problematic white fave, and make sure the house producers you love are sampling with permission. And, lastly, find your neighborhood Janice or Jocelyn and shimmy along with them next time The S.O.S Band or The B.B.Q. Band comes on at the function. Hell, start your own function and give a black DJ or two a gig once and awhile. We have to pony up so that all of us can find the liberation we seek. And here’s Ultra Naté to sign us off.
“If you gave more than you took / Life could be so good / Come on and try / Now’s the time / Cause you’re free”
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