You only had to look at the titles to see that something was up: “Atmosphere,” “Morning Factory,” “Brighter Days.” There was a new dawn in America, and the rising sun was house. Like any unearthly force, house music takes many forms, unified by the steady pulse of the bass drum: four mighty beats played again and again, triggered by a machine standing in for human limbs. For skeptics, this can be a barrier to entry; there are those who encounter this music and can only hear the bass. I pity them. For those who know, feeling the beat is not being battered, it’s being baptized. Surrounding that endless rhythm is an endless palette of possibilities, which tell the stories of house music’s many points of origin: in Chicago, levitating pianos or strings; in Detroit, alien textures alongside snatches of humanoid soul. At its most electronic, and at its maximum beats-per-minute, house becomes techno, which can make you feel like you’re being beamed aboard the Mothership while having a heart attack. It’s serious stuff.
We still hear it in today’s music, even if in degraded forms. In 2022, Beyoncé released the curiously titled album Renaissance, building pop confections off the house blueprint. Back in 2016, Kanye West sampled Chicago producer Mr. Fingers for his hit single “Fade.” The following year, Drake tried to layer some Detroit cool into his voice by sampling the maverick house producer Moodymann’s distinctive flow. But before all of this retromania, the very producers whose work is now being plundered by superstars were cataloging Black sounds in real time, reaching toward a future utopia.
Picking up the pace set by disco, house created an escape route to a far-flung future where the mechanisms of social control became democratized, with drum machines as space vessels. You could rewire society in a way that you wanted it to be. As the British journalist Simon Reynolds wrote in his book Energy Flash, house music was “born of a double exclusion,” as a cultural practice associated with the social activities of gay and Black communities in Chicago. “Its refusal, its cultural dissidence, took the form of embracing a music that the majority culture deemed dead and buried,” Reynolds wrote. “House didn’t just resurrect disco, it mutated the form, intensifying the very aspects of the music that most offended white rockers and black funkateers: the machinic repetition, the synthetic and electronic textures, the rootlessness, the ‘depraved’ hypersexuality and ‘decadent’ druggy hedonism.” Like prophetic science fiction, house music fused myth with earthly reality, refashioning technology to cast a cocked eye on those who identified progress with the smooth operation of the machine. As you watch one version of yourself looped back into the matrix, the stuttering drums clap awake your second body, the one that can dance.
If the contribution of house to contemporary music is so pervasive that it’s hard to trace, it’s equally hard to pinpoint its exact birthplace. The problem is compounded by the proliferation of scenes and subgenres that followed the initial documentation of drum machines and synthesized bass at Chicago’s Warehouse club with local DJ Jesse Saunders’s 1984 record “On and On.” As Reynolds recounts, “When British A&R scouts came to Chicago to investigate house in 1986-7, they discovered that many of the top-selling tracks were actually from Detroit.”
The Midwest may have gotten there first, but there were deep waters in New Jersey. Take Kerri Chandler. He rose up in Zanzibar, a Newark club that fused the energy of the legendary New York disco club the Paradise Garage with the neon-gospel roots of his hometown. Soul and R&B had already been on a digital tip for a while, after futuristic funk bands like Parliament added layers of electronics to syncopated structures, and Chandler simply embraced the machine. It all started with a teenage internship at a local music studio that recorded the likes of Kool & the Gang. “People would come in off the street to rent studio time, but it was just the average Joe who thinks he can make a record and has no idea of the process,” Chandler said in an interview with Attack Magazine. “A lot of rappers and a lot of R&B singers. We didn’t have too many musicians coming in. They didn’t have a producer, didn’t have a track…. Being a kid, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll make you something.’”
The airwaves were where these sounds spread. In Detroit, it was the shadowy late-night radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo. In Jersey, Tony Humphries was the man with the message, one that commanded dance floors all over town. In 1988, a singer Chandler had worked with gave a recording to Humphries. Next thing Chandler knew, his tracks were on the radio, and by 1990 he had crossed over with the hit record “SuperLover/Get It Off.” “I realized there was a buzz around it,” Chandler recalls, “and everything started to fall into place.” The slowed-down chord changes of this type of house paired well with the noisy textures of Detroit techno—it was something deeper than house. Somewhere along the line, those who loved it christened it “deep house.”
There was a spirit of change in the air, and sure, let’s call it revelation. Not all the music that came out of this era stuck strictly to the template; it was a process of fermentation and of eventual growth. Those who grew the deepest did it underwater: The mythos of the Detroit group Drexciya is one of aquatic conception. The duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson made music that hinted at a grander world under the sea, splitting the beat in half and pushing synthesizers beyond replicating the sounds of musical instruments. Drexciya’s 1992 EP Deep Sea Dweller is presented as a collage of found recordings from an underwater tribe descended from enslaved people who escaped the Middle Passage to find their freedom in the ocean.
If you went up and over the Atlantic, as opposed to diving into it, you’d hear the sounds of UK drum and bass doing a run on the dollar. The European love affair with American house music that began with the scouting missions of the 1980s was blossoming, by 1988, into what the British press called the “Second Summer of Love,” forever associating house’s heartbeat with the social phenomenon of rave culture. In the early ’90s, house collided with the Caribbean influence on Black British culture, with producers distilling the Babylonian strains of Jamaican reggae to their lowest frequencies and increasing the tempo past the point any human drummer could sustain.
Rave culture on both shores was a scene of travelers—or, let’s say, missionaries. They went from place to place looking for a party they could get into, and then they would, depending on your perspective, either ruin the culture or revive it. In Energy Flash, Reynolds speaks of assemblies in unmarked locations, where the young became drugged-out cherubim and were reborn as holy ghosts. He assures us that Wisconsin’s 1996 Even Furthur festival, where the ravers actually burned a wicker man, was not quite “an epic pagan gathering of the tribes of Evil,” but he also warns of an environment with “no security” and “no lighting.” To get there, you had “to stumble through the mud by the fitful illumination of other people’s flashlights and the glint of bonfires dotting the hill slope.” It was Old Testament and New Testament at the same time: the false idols and desertlike atmosphere, the youth leading the way through the darkness, with only the light they made for themselves.
Each story of rave culture that Reynolds presents has this biblical feel. In his telling, the pure rave was realized in the UK and was corrupted stateside by drug abusers, cynical Silicon Valley freaks, and corporate record labels. “America is also a more hostile soil for rave,” he claimed. “For rockers who still think ‘disco sucks’ and who hate English ‘haircut’ synth bands, rave is self-evidently inauthentic, a phoney fad. This prejudice is not entirely without foundation. Exempt from the picture the black house traditions in Chicago, Detroit and New York (all of which pre-date rave), and it’s striking that the white rave scene in the USA has so far failed to generate a uniquely American mutation of the music.” It’s a classic case of looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. By the mid-’90s, as house, or something like it, exploded through the world—on open fields, in warehouses, even on the pop charts—the Chicago-Detroit axis itself underwent a quiet resurgence.
After a stint in art school, virtuoso DJ and producer Theo Parrish found himself making cars in Detroit; somehow the car sounds got into the music. It probably helped that Parrish spent his time scouring the streets of Detroit, looking for an auditory palimpsest of city life. Fellow visionaries also used the landscape as a canvas. For Moodymann, Detroit is its own planet: Like Pluto, it’s been underestimated by the powers that be, demoted to the status of dwarf. But Moodymann lives in the dark and embraces what’s been left behind, building structures of hope out of disco remnants and shards of broken automobile glass. Parrish’s 1995 track “Lake Shore Drive,” first released by Moodymann’s label KDJ, is named for the expressway in Chicago that runs alongside Lake Michigan, the body of water that sits between the two states of house music’s birth. The track’s drained-out disco chords and spinning synths feel like getting hit in the head in exactly the right way.
It continued to be local DJs who drove the music. Rick Wilhite seemed to tread a ground between Detroit and the outer reaches of space, by blending jazz improvisation with thick, concrete-like drum machine hits. Another former auto worker, Omar-S, wades these waters in the present day, connecting techno to house in his forays into the deep. Ron Trent, who rung in the ’90s with the rave classic “Altered States,” makes rhythms in that interstitial moment between kick drum and high hat. This year, he released his latest album, What Do the Stars Say to You, to wide acclaim.
Much has been made of how hip-hop is a reaction to a shutdown in public space. Rappers can directly address the lapse of a formalized welfare state, or the rejection of the belief that a government can do things for people, or the gutting of public arts education. House emerges from that same swamp, but speaks a different language. Once you understand it, what it says comes through loud and clear: You do what you can with the tools you have, and that might just mean the machines you can afford to buy with the job you have. If we can say that humanities programs subsidized indie rock, then we can say that cheap studio space and consumer electronics subsidized house music. None of this, of course, happened peacefully.
Contrary to Reynolds’s fears, America turned out to be the best place for an underground to develop, because the aboveground was and is just so terrible. It’s fair to say that what is communal about the “Black house traditions” of the inner city is decay. With rave, that decay radiated outward, finally hitting the kids in the suburbs whose parents thought they had moved away from all of that. It was escape music for whoever wanted it—no, needed it—and many people did. “The only escape was drugs or music,” Chandler says. “I always picked the latter of the two.”
One can only assume that if the pop gods are suddenly obsessed with the survival mode of house music, then something truly awful must be bubbling up. This is music for those who need to dive underwater and to stay there. It can drive you insane trying to catalog each song you heard when you saw Rick Wilhite, standing in a booth in a crowded club, making light emerge in the dark, and did anyone notice that there was a point where it seemed like the man was levitating or was that just me?
The truth of the matter may simply be this: The rave will outlast us all. It is the flood overtaking the earth. Listen to Drexciya. Grow gills.