Sun, 28 Dec 2003 19:15:11
written by Phil Cheeseman for DJ magazine
It’s been ten years since the first identifiably house tracks were put on to vinyl, ten years which have changed the technology behind the electronic music revolution beyond recognition but left the basic structure of house intact. It’s seven years since it was being said house couldn’t last, that it was just hi-NRG, a fast blast that would wither as quickly as it had started. But then the music reinvented itself, and then again and again until it gradually dawned on people that house wasn’t just another phase of club culture, it was club culture, the continuing future of dance music. The reason? It’s simple. People like to dance to house.
While Frankie Knuckles had laid the groundwork for house at the Warehouse, it was to be another DJ from the gay scene that was really to create the environment for the house explosion – Ron Hardy. Where Knuckles’ sound was still very much based in disco, Hardy was the DJ that went for the rawest, wildest rhythm tracks he could find and he made The Music Box the inspirational temple for pretty much every DJ and producer that was to come out of the Chicago scene. He was also the DJ to whom the producers took their very latest tracks so they could test the reaction on the dance floor. Larry Heard was one of those people.
“People would bring their tracks on tape and the DJ would play spin them in. It was part of the ritual, you’d take the tape and see the crowd reaction. I never got the chance to take my own stuff because Robert (Owens) would always get there first.”
“The Music Box was underground ” remembers Adonis. “You could go there in the middle of the winter and it’d be as hot as hell, people would be walking around with their shirts off. Ron Hardy had so much power people would be praising his name while he was playing, and I’ve got the tapes to prove it!
“The difference between Frankie and Ronnie was that people weren’t making records when Frankie was playing, though all the guys who would become the next DJs were there checking him out. It was The Music Box that really inspired people. I went there one night and the next day I was in the studio making ‘No Way Back’ ” In 1985 the records were few and far between. By 1986 the trickle had turned to a flood and it seemed like everybody in Chicago was making house music. The early players were joined by a rush of new talent which included the first real vocal talents of house – Liz Torres, Keith Nunally who worked with Steve Hurley, and Robert Owens who joined up with Larry Heard to form Fingers Inc, though the duo had already worked with Harri Dennis on The It’s ‘Donnie’ -and key producers like Adonis, Mr Lee, K Alexi and a guy who was developing a deep, melodic sound that relied on big strings and pounding piano – Marshall Jefferson.
Marshall worked with a number of people like Harri Dennis and Vince Lawrence for projects like Jungle Wonz and Virgo, who made the stunning ‘RU Hot Enough’. But it was ‘Move Your Body‘ that became THE house record of 1986, so big that both Trax and DJ International found a way to release it, and it was no idle boast when the track was subtitled ‘The House Music Anthem’, because that’s exactly what it was. Jefferson was to become the undisputed king of house, going on to make a string of brilliant records with Hercules and On The House and developing the quintessential deep house sound first with vocalist Curtis McClean and then with Ce Ce Rogers and Ten City. “I can remember clearing a floor with that record” laughs Jazzy M. “Though they’d started playing it in Manchester, most of London was still caught up in that rare groove and hip hop thing. A lot of people were saying to me ‘why are you playing this hi- NRG’ and it was hard work but people were starting to get into it.” ‘Move Your Body’ was undoubtedly the record that really kicked off house in the UK, first played repeatedly by the established pirate radio stations in London, which at the time played right across the Black music spectrum, and then by club DJs like Mike Pickering, Colin Faver, Eddie Richards, Mark Moore and Noel and Maurice Watson, the latter two playing at the first club in London to really support house – Delirium.
Radio was the key to the explosion in Chicago. Farley Jackmaster Funk had secured a spot on the adventurous WBMX station, playing after midnight every day, and it wasn’t long before he brought in the Hot Mix 5 which included Mickey Oliver, Ralphie Rosario, Mario Diaz and Julian Perez, and Steve Hurley, giving people who couldn’t go to the parties the chance to hear the music. Then there was Lil Louis, who was throwing his own parties. By this time, house was moving out of the gay scene and on to wider acceptance, though in Chicago at least it was to remain very much a Black thing. Though a number of Hispanics were on the house scene, the number of White DJs and producers could be counted on one hand.
The labels were still mostly limited to the terrible twins that were to dominate Chicago house for the next two years Trax and DJ International. Between them they had nearly all the local talent sewn up and by popular consent they were just as dodgy as each other, with rumors and stories of rip-offs and generally dubious activity endlessly circulating. Everybody it seemed, was stealing from everybody else. One that remains largely untold involved Frankie Knuckles. “This was the story at the time” recalls Adonis. “Supposedly Frankie sold Jamie Principle’s unreleased tapes to DJ International AND Trax at the same time. Then Jamie came out with a record called ‘Knucklehead’ dissing Frankie. After that Frankie went back to New York.”
When Rocky Jones at DJ International became convinced by a larger- than-life character named Lewis Pitzele who was helping put a lot of the deals together at the time that Europe was the place to focus on, house poured into Britain with London Records putting the first compilation of early DJ International material out. As the press bandwagon rolled into action the 86 Chicago House Party featuring Adonis, Marshall Jefferson, Fingers Inc and Kevin Irving toured the UK’s clubs. Trax took a little longer
Adonis: “Trax was meant to be a bullshit label for all the dirty, raggedy records Larry Sherman didn’t give a shit about. You know, labels were always trying to do radio stuff, but Trax became popular after ‘No Way Back‘ and ‘Move Your Body’ and all those tracks.” It was DJ International and London who notched up the first house hits, first with Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around‘, a cover of the old Isaac Hayes song with camp wailer Daryl Pandy on vocals which reached Number 10 in September 1986, and then a record that spent months gestating in the clubs before it was finally catapulted to Number One in January 1987 – Jim Silk’s ‘Jack Your Body’. The Americans were gob smacked. Their underground club music was going mainstream four thousand miles from its home. But it was no surprise that Steve Hurley was behind the track, which hit the top despite only having three words – the title. Even then he was the one with the commercial touch. It wasn’t a terribly original record – the bassline was from First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’, but it summed up the mood of jack fever. All of a sudden the word ‘Jack’, which originally described the form of dancing people did to house, was everywhere ‘Jack The Box’, ‘Jack The House’, ‘Jack To The Sound’ ‘J-J-J-J-JJack-Jack-Jack-Jack’. It was the stutter sample on the ‘J’ that took the word into legend. Vaughan Mason’s Raze, who’d quietly been doing stuff out of Washington DC burst into the clubs and then followed Jim Silk into the charts with ‘Jack The Groove’. And garage? New York simply couldn’t match the energy flowing out of Chicago but there was little doubt that the music was developing simultaneously. The Jersey garage sound, boosted by Tony Humphries (who’d also been on the radio since 1981) at Newark’s Zanzibar Club, was beginning to take shape with Blaze but the New York club sound was defined at the time by Dhar Braxton’s ‘Jump Back’ and Hanson & Davis’ ‘Hungry For Your Love’ which borrowed heavily from the Latin freestyle sound but echoed the energy of house. And over in Brooklyn, producers like Tommy Musto working for the Underworld/Apexton label were developing a different style again, one that like Chicago seemed to take its roots as much from Eurobeat as from Black music, though the mood and tempo was strictly New York.