Just Don’t Call it House
When did House Music become the new Disco?
Perhaps what people imagine is The Situation, J Wowww, Snookie and gang, pumping their collective Reality TV’d fists when they hear the term House Music. Maybe they see a thousand glow sticks waving through the air at a warehouse rave. It’s possible that they even see the ultra baggy pants, pacifier, multi-color uniform of the stereotypical early 90s raver.
Whatever the case, if you ask many young Black men (I don’t know and haven’t asked anyone else) if they like House, that’s almost akin to starting off a friendship with mama jokes. Hopefully you ask through a messaging app and not face to face. Save yourself the embarrassment.
Despite the apparent curse word that House has become, 2016 has seen act after act pulling from the four to the floor bag to much acclaim. So what gives? And does House Music need a PR rep?
It’s no secret. I’m a lover of House. If I lived in Atlanta, House in the Park would be a ritual and as I discussed in “Who Stole The Soul….” my best club years were in the House heavy days of Plastic.
It was a music that was upbeat, driving, and some songs were inspiring (cheesy lyrics and all). At some point, Plastic closed and V103 stopped playing House on Friday and Saturday nights. Unlike modern rap, House was and remains a single driven, best served up mixed, genre.
Later, in the late 90s, one could stumble upon a Soulful House compilation in Tower but other than that, for me — the music faded into the background, never forgotten, always loved, but the background nonetheless.
Then I heard Azealia Banks…
People loved that “212.” It was cool. I didn’t quite get all the “innovator” talk, but I appreciated the fact that this relatively young sista from Harlem was rocking House Music.
When people told me they liked the song, I frequently asked, “Oh, so you like House?” Their face would scrunch up as if they were assaulted by a silent fart that no one was claiming. “No!” They would violently respond.
I was perplexed.
Recently, a similar situation happened when I asked my brother Michael Moore if he liked House in our Whatsapp group. He and others spent the next hour laughing at me and deriding the music. I had to stop reading their messages. Then it occurred to me — House is the new Disco.
Let me explain.
July 12, 1979.
White Sox v Tigers Double Header.
The White Sox were languishing 6 games under .500 with a record of 40–46 and the Detroit Tigers weren’t doing much better at 42–44. That day, the Tigers’ lefty, rookie Pat Underwood improved his record to 4–0 while Fred Howard, also a rookie, would take the loss landing him at 1–4…he would only pitch one more game before leaving Major League Baseball.
Of course, very few people remember or talk about that game. No. When people Google or talk about July 12, 1979, they know it merely as Disco Demolition Night or the Disco Sucks event.
This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen — we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood. Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, Disco Demolition Night
That day, Cominsky Field was filled to capacity by haters of disco who paid 98 cent for admission if they brought a disco record with them. DJ Steve Dahl, decked out in fatigues, would be the ringleader in the destruction of these records, setting a bonfire, burning the field, and igniting the riot-like situation that had “fans” rushing from the stands, destroying the batting cage, grass, and causing the White Sox to forfeit the game.
Just 537 days before this fateful event, Saturday Night Fever premiered and went on to explode to the tune of $237 million in the Box Office. The Bee Gees and John Travolta were catapulted to stardom. Even the captious New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael loved the movie. Disco was the rave.
What happened? Was it seeing Rock “greats,” The Rolling Stones go all Disco with their May ’78 release, “Miss You?” Or maybe they loved Rod Stewart so much that seeing him follow the Stones into the depths of Disco with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was too much to bare.
…maybe Disco was coded language, as Nelson George unpacked, that simply translated as “Black Music.” There certainly seems to always be a line drawn in the sand as soon as Black music begins to crossover into the minds of young (& old) white folk.
The music known as Disco existed for countless years before the majority of white people ever stumbled on it. That music would also retreat back from crossover appeal to being strictly Black music and that music is the foundation for House. But let’s go back to go forward.
Let’s get this out straightaway — so long as Black folks have been making music, we been dancing. So to call something “Dance Music” is almost an oxymoron. We “Lindy Hopped” to Big Bands, We “Jerked” to Motown’s hits, we some dancing people. That’s why, for clarities sake, when we say “Dance Music,” we’re talking about the music that emerged in the early 70s and spawned all the danceable music that we know and love today.
Initially Billboard magazine considered songs ranging from the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” to Kool and The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” disco (Billboard featured it’s first article on Disco in it’s Jan. 18 1975 issue). However, music historians like Bill Brewster in his seminal book, “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life,” consider Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” to be the first disco record.
Listening to the song now, no one would recognize it as a disco record. Perhaps it was the length (which I doubt, James Brown had some long ass songs) or the breakdown (see: James Brown) that had Brewster giving it that distinction. Or perhaps it was just the music that was played in early discotheques before there was a term “disco.”
Tony Smith, one of the first wave of famous DJs confirms this:
It wasn’t disco then. This is like 1972…1971. So we were playing Eddie Kendricks, James Brown. But we were also playing the Mexican and Chicano. It didn’t matter which category it was, as long as you could dance to it, it was fine.
So initially, Disco was simply danceable music. Vince Aletti, one of the first writers to cover the scene, recognized that the DJ was “discovering previously ignored albums, foreign imports, album cuts and obscure singles” in the September 13, 1973 of Rolling Stone Magazine, and that was what was considered Disco music. What people now identify with as the musical genre began in Philadelphia at a failed recording session.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were frustrated. Tried as they might, “The Love I Lost” did not work as a ballad.
After Leon Huff decided that the song’s slow tempo wasn’t working, “right there on the spot Earl (Young) came up with that high-hat pattern that everybody started using, like for the disco records and everything.” Bobby Eli
And just like that, the Four to The Floor beat driven by the bass drum was born. Young had previously experimented with the up-tempo play on The Trammps “Zing Went The Strings of My Heart” a year earlier in 1972, and it was a hit, but nothing like “The Love I Lost” which soon became the prototype for a string of Philadelphia International songs. 1973 was a breakout year of hits for the record label: The Intruders “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” The Trammps “Love Epidemic,” The O’Jays “Love Train,” The Three Degrees “I Didn’t Know,”….to name a few. This success spawned imitators and thus began the early rumblings of Disco.
Although songs like “Love is the Message” and “TSOP” were untouchable in quality (both released in early 1974), groups like The Hues Corporation still sold a shit-load of records with “Rock the Boat” after having their song pushed by New York DJs. Most of the songs that came out in 1974 that are now classified as Disco were really just danceable R&B tracks that party-goers championed. Few had crossover appeal. When they did though…the floodgates opened up and the industry took notice.
George McCrae happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Jerome Smith, Harry Wayne Casey, and Richard Finch took 45 minutes to hammer together an instrumental — no lyrics — as a demo. They had a title and the notion that they had a hit on their hands. With that confidence, they rushed the track to T.K. Records President, Henry Stone, played it, and were given the approval. They only had to find a singer.
George McCrae had given up on the music industry in 1972 and was studying Criminal Justice. On a whim, McCrae decided to give it one more try and approaced Steve Alaimo, T.K.’s A&R, to see if they had any material he could record. McCrae was given the demo, knocked it out in two takes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Rock Your Baby” was released in May of 1974, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in July and had sold 2 million copies by August. That hit empowered Casey and Finch with Stone and the label invested in their band, KC & The Sunshine Band.
The next two years (75–76) saw an increase in crossover hits, the return of the new Disco-fied Bee-Gees, EuroDisco, and an ever growing industry that at one point was estimated at $4 billion dollars (or $17 billion adjusted for inflation). But think about it, up until this point, a show meant a live band performing for an audience. Discotheques were all about the DJ, the music, and the experience. That fueled an entire segment of suppliers set to make Disco packages, complete with speakers, turntables, mixers, lights, the whole shebang.
Disco sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles for the majority of 1976 and only five (5) non-Disco related songs were able to squeeze into that number 1 spot all year (this would continue for the next three years). 1976 also saw two other things that would come to define what Disco meant to the masses: one was advertised as the first million dollar, laser discotheque, the other was an article written by a British author about the Disco scene in Brooklyn.
Male model, Uva Gardner, found out the former CBS studio was becoming available and jumped at the opportunity…he just jumped without enough money and needed investors. Enter Steve Rubell, who would quickly become the face of the club which was to be named Studio 54. Rubell brought in Ian Schrager. Studio 54 was the most expensive, largest, over the top club in NYC, packed with stars ranging from Mick Jagger to current Presidential Candidate, Donald Trump from it’s April 1977 opening and beyond. When people talk of Disco now, their first reference is Studio 54.
Their second reference is a movie inspired by the British author, Nik Cohn’s fabricated New York magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” a sort of amalgamation between Cohn’s earlier cockney experiences and the real events that took place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn that summer of 1976. Fact or fiction, it made no difference. Producer Robert Stigwood saw dollar signs, bought the property, nabbed the teen heart throb of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, John Travolta, pulled the Bee Gees in for the soundtrack and turned a $3.5 million dollar budget into a $237.1 million blockbuster hit.
Asked to define Disco, Nile Rodgers of Chic (the summum bonum of Disco in this writer’s opinion) says, “No,” and cited M.F.S.B’s “K-Jee” as an example. Rodger’s said that “we” defined it as a straight R&B record but in the context of Saturday Night Fever (where it played during a pivotal dance competition scene) it was now classified as Disco.
And that, dear reader, is the point. Saturday Night Fever, after the scene’s seven years of stratospheric growth, defined for many in America what Disco was. Soon everyone was trying their hand at Disco. Personally, I was no fan of EuroDisco (which will play into our later segments) but many say it is what kept the momentum of Disco going along with the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. But the music was no longer an underground phenomenon, nor was it just Black or Gay. It was mainstream and like all things that become mainstream the music was susceptible to being a fad.
After the Disco Demolition demonstration, Disco would only rule the Billboard Hot 100 singles for one more month and by the end of the 1970s the music would fail to chart ever again. Disco was dead.
Or was it?
Ever heard of the term “Post Disco?” No? Me neither. But apparently it’s a thing. I just saw it for the first time writing this article. But I’ve never skimmed through a stack of records labeled “Post Disco.”
Yet that’s how some people define the New York Club Music of the early to mid 80s.
In perhaps one of the greatest pivots of all time, dance music didn’t miss a four four beat with the whole “Disco Sucks” backlash. The high hat dropped out but not much else changed except one essential thing…
The music returned to it’s origin — Black, danceable R&B. I know, some white people will take offense to that but unless you were gay or a serious outlier you won’t know 90% of the songs that came out in that era, most of which, are Black anthems:
We’re talking “Glow of Love,” “Bon Bon Vie,” “Let’s Do It,” “I Want To Thank You,” “Over Like a Fat Rat,” and countless others. I certainly don’t remember a category on the music other than R & B.
Similar to the Disco era, many of these songs were produced by small, independent labels. Labels like Prelude, West End, SAM, Vanguard, etc. Also similar was many of these songs achieved levels of success based solely on DJ spins — not radio play. And two of those DJs would be the driving force behind House Music.
Although they were preceded by David Mancusa and Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, would go on to directly shape dance music from disco, to club, to house.
Friends since High School, Larry Levan from Brooklyn and Frankie Knuckles from the Bronx converged on Manhattan and got their first start with Nicky Siano as he opened his Loft inspired club, The Gallery in 1972.
Five years later, Levan would be opening the Paradise Garage and Knuckles was off to Chicago to spread the dance music gospel at the Warehouse.
Though they both initially played the same type of music, Levan would go into producing sooner and what the British dubbed “Garage” music was born — long mixes, with Reggae-like dubs that would drive a party into a trance (especially since Levan would play a song over and over until you loved it like he did “Heartbeat”).
Meanwhile, Knuckles was incorporating rhythm tracks made with a drum machine in his Warehouse parties as well as edits that extended parts of the songs he played, inspiring many acolytes who would go on and take the technology and make “house” music — called that because of the Ware’house’ of course.
The floodgates opened, however, when a Postal Worker came up with an idea for a song while sorting the mail on his late night shift. Playing all the sounds, Marshall Jefferson took a total of three hours to make “Move Your Body” and paid with his own money to have it printed by Trax Records (Larry Sherman, the owner, hated it).
But Jefferson believed that the track was the hottest thing he had produced DESPITE people telling him that no one put pianos in House music. He gave a copy to Ron Hardy…who loved it…playing it six times in a row.
Ron Hardy asked for an exclusive, which he initially had, but the demand was so strong that Jefferson had to give the track to Frankie Knuckles and other local DJs. All of that happened BEFORE a vinyl print was ever made.
The year was 1985.
There were House songs before “Move Your Body,” no doubt — but I start there because this is when House music takes on a form that is familiar to the average listener; that piano that “no one” used…yeah, that became and still is THE sound of house.
Not to mention, “Move Your Body” is the track that would win over many New York holdouts who weren’t trying to hear House.
Todd Terry, originally a Hip-Hop producer, found making House music easier and as soon as he started producing House tracks, “Alright Alright” (which to my ears, sounds more like freestyle)being one of the first, they sold like hotcakes. But most people’s introduction to Todd Terry was his and Tony D’s brainchild, the Jungle Brother’s “I’ll House You.”
Tony says, “You know your ‘Can You Party’ shit is enormous. We should do a rap version to it.” I was just, “Man, I don’t know about doing that” cause I didn’t want nobody on top of my records unless I thought of it. That’s how I was. But it really was Tony D’s idea — he’s the one that thought of it. Todd Terry
“I’ll House You” was essentially “Can You Party,” which in essence was a sampled and cut up “Move Your Body.” Terry didn’t think the song would be successful at first “I was like, ‘Come on man, that’s ridiculous, that’s not gonna work, what are we gonna call it? Hip-house or something like that?’” That label stuck and for the uninitiated to the dopeness that is the Jungle Brothers, it remains their signature track.
Me and my older brother, Ade, had initially heard House music in ’87 when we caught Touch’s video, “Without You” on The Box. Although, for some odd reasons it’s labeled as all types of things, “New York Club,” “Garage,” “New York Garage” that song and the others that they produced were definitely House songs. (maybe people define what is or isn’t House by beats per minute but surely there are House tracks under 120 bpms).
I was truly initiated into House music when Ade returned from his first semester at Morehouse. He gave me a cassette, “this is house music,” he schooled me, “and this is how people dance to it.” Me, Sayyed Munajj, & Aiyetoro KMT went crazy over this cassette with Aiyetoro even throwing it on his reel to reel. The majority of the songs were definitely Chicago House, towards the end there was some Detroit techno. But I’ll never forget how the cassette started… “To the Batmobile…let’s go!” From Toddy Terry’s “Bengo” on, I was hooked.
The next two years saw House music being freaked by everyone. Of course you had Jersey native, Queen Latifah rocking with “Come into My House” (which even had a Tony Humphries remix), Soul to Soul came with a few House cuts like “People,” and by the time I entered Clark Atlanta, it was by far the prevalent sound among young, (East Coast and Midwest-centered)Black youth and this is where our story began.
House music became increasingly instrumental by the mid-90s; songs with music, Roland 303 sounds, and very little singing.
House music lost its black audience and gained a big white audience [when] it became instrumental. Vocal house was very much in tune with that tradition of R&B, of the church. That was all jettisoned. Frank Owens
This drove pioneers like Masters at Work to take on a new identity and incorporate the soul back into their music as Nuyorican Soul. Eschewing samples, MAW tapped Jocelyn Brown, George Benson, Roy Ayers and others to produce the deep, earthy House sounds that could have easily been music of the “post-disco” era.
That same year (96) three DJs who were tired of the mechanical, electric sound as well as the bottle, profit-driven club atmosphere, started the Sunday Body & Soul parties at Vinyl. Francois K, Danny Krivit (both of whom date back to the days of the Loft in the 70s), and the young man of the bunch, Joe Claussel played a soulful mix of House and dance music and in the spirit of the Loft and Garage welcomed everyone.
The mix CDs that me & Ismail Latif stumbled on in Tower Records (that I mentioned earlier) were from Body & Soul and they would go on to make six more mix CDs. Body & Soul (the party/club) continued for eight years but the changing economy and high rents displaced the last House sanctuary in NYC. Body & Soul is now a traveling act.
There’s a whole lot of fist pumps from the DJs and the festivals look like circuses with fireworks, actual fire, and extreme light shows. Not to mention, festivals like EDC have approximately 400 performers. DJs like AfroJack, Tiesto and the like play out to over 150,000+ partygoers on stages that cost millions at festivals throughout the world where they bring in hefty fees…but few if any Black people with ticket prices between $200-$400 dollars.
Not only is the scene something that is foreign to a person who grew up in the culture of Loft/Garage/Vinyl but the music is starkly different as well. Most EDM DJs spin “progressive house” with the BPMs revved up to almost “trance” speeds. It’s melodic due to the instruments, but it’s a far cry from the uplifting spirit of the House music that evolved from the music Larry Levan & Frankie Knuckles played.
EDM is almost as big of an industry as Hip-Hop coming in at a whopping $6.2 Billion dollars a year, $4.2 of which, is made at festivals and clubs alone. This is what has come to be defined as House music and is likely the image that comes to mind when young, Black men think of the genre.
The term “House music” may be a curse word to the young Black man but to everyone else who’s interested in DJing for a living, they see House in its many incarnations as a tool to tour the world and earn a pretty decent living. Look at Pauly D of Jersey Shore fame. He racked up $10 million over the past year. Nowhere in the ballpark of the $66 million dollar man, Calvin Harris, but I’d say 10 mil is a good pull.
Obviously, House music never died but as far as mainstream music is concerned, it’s simply become a seasoning to add flavor to an album. People loved and sang along to Drake’s Jamie xx produced “Take Care.” This year DJ Mustard (yeah, DJ Mustard) and Stelios Phili swiped the familiar pianos from “I Wanna Thank You” for A$ap Ferg and Missy Elliot’s “Strive” making it an instant “hit,” and Majid Jordan pulled from their Twilight Zone experience(a club often DJ’d by Frankie Knuckles) and released an album that was almost entirely House music (which convinced my brother Michael that maybe he does like House after all).
House songs continue to appear on various albums from Anderson Paak to Foreign Exchange but as far as an industry is concerned — Black people have no parts in it (we’ve conceded our culture like we always do). And, if you’re talking to younger Black men (I didn’t ask anyone else), they may like the sounds or a song or two but don’t call it House.
note: In Trenton/Newark, Philly, & Baltimore a part of youth culture is “Jersey Club,” “Philly Club,” and the progenitor of both of those styles, “Baltimore Club.” Their origin is in house but like Chicago’s “Juke” it is insular, fast as hell (we’re talking 150 to 160 bpm), and very…very Black.
This is dedicated to Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and the many pioneers that may have never seen the billions of dollars that are floating around but instead left an impact on the world.