How Did House Music Start In Chicago

To better understand a genre such as House music is by going right back where it all started. The original House sound, in the mid-’80s, was in many ways a natural progression from disco. This new movement would use a standard disco beat via electronic instruments instead of real musicians, keeping the disco swing and percussion. Without the traditional symbols of star performers, groups, and ideological stance to mainstream lifestyles, the House movement became a prevalent music genre. A new meaning of activity had occurred to the masses dancing to records during the late 1980s, a movement that created a new role for the disc jockey. A movement where its empathy did not lie with individual personalities, nor with lyrical content. When talking about House music in Chicago, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of legendary DJs in the late 70s and early 80s who constructed this movement. Names such as Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, and Larry Levan belong firmly in any complete history of House music. The term House most often refers to the mecca of House music, Chicago’s Warehouse club. However, people also refer to the origin of House music by saying that it’s the place where most music got made, people’s homes. Others also refer to the gay afro-american scene or a description of the specific and unique style of music that was played in a given club, just as a venue might have a particular ‘house’ band. This form of music and its culture quickly took hold in Chicago before spreading its wings in New Jersey, New York, and Detroit. From there on, it spread towards Europe. Over 30 years have now passed since the House groove was born. In that time, sub-genres have come and gone, DJs have become superstars, and the House culture has had a massive influence. Through all of that, House music has continued to adapt and will move on like never before. The House music culture is something that can’t be put back in the box; it has been very influential regarding social, cultural, and political conditions.

Central to this analysis is a concern for examining the contribution it has made on global musical and social-cultural activities and the all-embracing nature it encompasses. What does this music communicate? To what listening aesthetic is this genre aimed at? How does it fit into the music market? Is there any meaning behind House music? These questions are answered via two focus points, which are: the DJ who is the marketer, performer, and composer of music and the role of the House music events as a cultural statement.

History Of House Music

Although some people will refuse to admit that the development of House music had much of its success through the rise and fall of disco, it did have an impact on it. Most fundamentals in House music were formed by disco, and in many instances, old disco records have been sampled to produce House music. When disco was at its peak, many record labels and artists jumped on the wave of this cultural phenomenon, which got deluged with countless disco versions of original songs and other poorly produced disco records. This deluged environment eventually led to the disco genre becoming commercially degraded. As a result, disco music was falling away in its success around the early 1980s. By 1981 disco died out in America, though it changed the entire face of club culture, the balance between primary and smaller labels, and prepared the way for a new wave of music that would grow into a whole culture called House music. 

“In the beginning, there was Jack, and Jack had a groove, and from this groove came the groove of all grooves, and while one day viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldly declared, Let there be House.”  

Before the House culture was formed, it had been a significant underground movement, which was in a very early stage of evolution before disco was hitting the mainstream. Francis Grasso, a resident DJ at a converted church known as the Sanctuary, was the first DJ in 1970 to mix two disco records, producing a continual groove. Via this, he kept the party people on the dance floor. What’s more, he is also believed to be the first DJ to mix one record on top of another record, a technique that was to form the very basis of dance music culture in general. 

Francis Grosso | Kaspar Noé

Francis Grasso, the pioneer of beatmatching

Drawing its inspiration from this unheard form of mixing, DJ Nicky Siano set up a club in New York, known as The Gallary, and hired two guys called Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles to prepare the club nights by putting acid in peoples drinks. In return, he taught both guys all about this newly created form of mixing records, and soon after, they became resident DJs in other clubs. The two worked together until 1977 when Levan eventually left the club to start his own place and was asked to DJ at a new club called the Warehouse in Chicago. Because Levan was running his club, he declined but recommended Frankie Knuckles, who took the offer and moved from New York to Chicago. Since this new club had no specific music policies, Frankie Knuckles was free to experiment and show off all the techniques his teacher Nicky Siano had taught him.

House Music |Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan | Kaspar Noé

Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan

Eventually, this led to a new form of disco, and The Warehouse quickly became the place for an Afro-American gay crowd due to its freedom. Because no actual House music existed at that time the meaning did not refer to any specific musical culture, but simply referred to the Warehouse and type of continual mixing it had adopted. If a song was House, it was music from a respected club, it was something you would never hear on the regular radio, it was completely underground. In Chicago, the cool clubs, like the Warehouse, would be House, and if you went there, you’d be part of the House. If you walked down Michigan Avenue (United States), you would be able to pinpoint who was House and who wasn’t by what he or she was wearing.

House Music | The Warehouse

The Warehouse Club In Chicago

We can, therefore, be sure that the word House, as we know it today, was used long before people started making it. ‘Kids were coming in looking for older disco music. “They’d say, I want some of that music played at the Warehouse, and this was referring to disco music. And so we found that if we put up signs that said, As Heard At the Warehouse, the records would fly out the racks. Eventually, that got cut down to just The House”.

Meanwhile, Knuckles was suffering from a severe lack of material. The ‘disco sucks’ campaign had slowly destroyed the industry, and the labels were no longer producing disco records. Eventually, this caused him to go to his friend Erasmo Riviera, who was at that time studying audio engineering. They worked together to create edits of earlier disco records in an attempt to keep his sets at the Waterhouse alive. Using a reel-to-reel tape machine, they would record and cut up records, lengthening the intro and breakdown, and layering the sounds on top of them to create complex mixes. These records were even pushed further when they began to experiment with complete new bass lines and rhythms underneath well-known tracks. Therefore, we cannot deny that this began to form the basis of House music, though no one had yet released an original House record. It was Jesse Saunders release ‘On and On’ in 1984 that was said to be the first true House track.

After this record, everything went very rapidly. Taking an interest in the scene, Larry Sherman, who owned Chicago’s only pressing place, decided to start the first House record label called Trax. Around the same time, another label came up called DJ International, which was started by Rocky Jones. It meant a massive competition between each other, causing a battle to release the best House music. Many of their releases are considered by many as the most influential house records of all time.

House Music | Trax
House Music |Trax

Trax Records & DJ International

House Music Production 

Around 1987, when House was entirely on its way, they were still using lots of ideas from disco music. Though the introduction of the TR-808, TR-909, Juno-60, and the Roland TB-303 drum machines and synthesizer gave House a harder feeling. It became disco made by ‘inexpert’ producers. The rhythms and basses were no longer live but sequenced and recreated on machines. 

The rise of House can be traced via music technology that has enabled the production of a new sound. Basslines, rhythms, and spirit recreated on machines that were as close to toys as they were to real instruments, played by people who were more club-goers than real musicians, all creating House music. Through this development, one of the most touching records in the history of House has been produced. One of those early producers, Larry Heard, released a record under the name Mr. Fingers, called ‘Can U Feel It’. This was the first House record that did not capture its sound from earlier disco. Instead, this record was influenced by techno, jazz, and soul that was simultaneously evolving from Chicago.

From this point on, the development of new technologies resulted in the merging of House music and other dance styles. It introduced new ideas to the House culture because artists began to find new ways of influence. One of the artists finding inspiration from newly influences was Todd Terry, for example, a hip-hop DJ from New York, who began experimenting with the sampling principle of rap music into the House culture. It gave the scene a way more powerful percussive style, which pushed House music into a whole new area. The programming of rhythms and drum sounds on machines, sampling, and MIDI (Multi Instrumental Digital Interface) would rapidly establish a range of artistic norms, which concentrates on the modernization of the so-called House beat. Software, which was designed for music production, became more accessible, versatile, and affordable. The musical genre became, therefore, relatively accessible to composers from a DJ perspective and non-musical background.

‘Byron Walton was shy and religious, could play the drums, and had a thorough college grounding in sound engineering. His favorite musicians were Prince, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and the Human League. Calling himself Jamie Principle, he created ‘Your Love’, an achingly beautiful musical poem so good that every DJ in the city wanted a cassette copy of it to play, so good that few people believed it had been made by anyone in Chicago’.’ (Brewster and Broughton, 2006: 327)

In terms of musical editing, like drum and MIDI programming, there were lots of effects on the formation of dance trends. As Hawkins (2009: 85) states, ‘it had emphasized a great advantage in flexibility via the implication of technology, which heavenly enhanced performance’. It was the creative use of music technology that implied the aesthetic of House music. Although the financial expenditure in technology and proper studio hiring were high, working without real musicians made it a very affordable means of creating music with high sound quality. Playing all the instruments involved was no issue anymore. It meant that the recordings were often, and still are, to be found by a single vision that is free from conflicts against the taste of other musicians.

Although some may perceive House music by inflexibility and machine-based statics of constant repetition, improvisation is an integral part of the DJ’s intuition. A process of continuous improvisation instead of gradual development generates the meaning and feeling in House music. Producing musical ideas in House is dependent on the DJ’s awareness form processing patterns that persuasively showcase the cultural, stylistic idiom. The DJ role, in Chicago house music, could have been compared with African culture, where the individual’s concern is to produce grooves that determine the sociability of the event. The DJ molds several layers of rhythmic timbres and textures, leading towards a musical outcome that is measured by the ability to make the community’ move.’ The quality of House lies within the process of repetition, inflection, and development, which is related to African music. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable with the looping of grooves that mold into polyrhythmic patterns, which move into a continuous stretch of time. Over the years to come, House music transformed into a whole number of different subgenres, all with its unique production techniques and names. Today it is known that there are over 14 different subgenres, which all came out of House music.

House Music Culture 

The House culture was possessing its unique aesthetics. The relationship between the DJ and the music business allowed the audience to hear music that would often not been brought out by big record companies. The potential for social awareness is where the commitment of musical performance was lying in House music. As already stated before, this was achieved by the unlimited mechanisms of sound reproduction. There should almost be no doubt that House music was referring to a complex manner of social circumstances, which were linked to a specific development and practice in the musical production. On this matter, Langlois (1992: 236) has insisted that ‘there is no other field where the connections between musical culture and sound had been so intense as in dance styles since the 1980s’. Therefore the relationship between the DJ and their sound can be considered as a ceremonial act which reveals what is at their core of consumption and music production. 

Getting to understand dance culture as a reaction to House music is about the use and recognition of developments in culture and technology. Interpretation lay in the interference between DJ and respondent; most club-goers knew that this was how House music was working. A person dancing to House was a way of interpreting its function. Experiences originating from a person’s consciousness of musical abandonment, exhilaration, and action are seen in individual responses to the groove and beat. The symbolic interchange of the beat was always equated with a recurring flow of erogenous material. Musical skills to control the crowd, with beats, were framing the aesthetic of House. It’s the groove that provided a main stimulus for the DJ in a way that insisted clubbers to party towards a point of total engagement in the beat. Beats, drum loops, special effects, sound textures, melodies, basslines where all the unfoldings of a House event that excites, thrills, and drugged the dancer on the event.

Many ways led towards a discipline of the beat, which was located in a pool full of changing textures and timbres that made up the rhetoric of House music. The lengthy repetition of a single rhythm was considered as an essential factor in the creation of the desired ambiance. The new narrative that was being told, through the use of mixing records, gave the listener an experienced twist in time and an exciting environment in which they could be absorbed entirely. 

By studying the consequences of House music, it needs to be mentioned that House culture had a significant impact on drug usage and was something that couldn’t be denied. Ecstasy gave a mood-enhancing influence and accentuated the sexual feelings, which was a central point to the pleasure-seeking club experience. Losing one’s daily struggles within the social context of the club was an essential part of the relaxing nature of House music. 

“To reach the dancefloor at the Warehouse club, you had to enter through a stairwell from the white, plant-filled lounger above. Heat and steam drifted up to meet you, generated in the murk of the underlit room by the glistering black bodies that were down there ‘jacking’ away. And as you descended into the shadowy cavern, you were hit by the power of the sound system, sparked by the energy of the dancers; many who were energized further by acid and MDA powder (a precursor to ecstasy)” (Brewster and Broughton, 2006: 313). 

The Warehouse club

Clubbers in the Warehouse

Drugs played a big part in the gendered identity of House music. It turned raves into a space where girls could freely walk around and be friendly with strange men without fear of sexual consequences. Controlled by this music and drug, the audience was becoming united via an ideological form of rituals that disregarded any restrictions of everyday social and fixed identity. No matter what, everyone was treated equally with respect. Therefore we could state that House music was a social interpretation. “That room was dark,’ Frankie said. ‘People would say it was like climbing down into the pit of hell. People would be afraid when they heard the sound thumping through and saw the number of bodies in there, just completely locked into the music” (Brewster and Broughton, 2006:313).

This quote by Frankie Knuckles represents the meaning of House music in how clubbers responded to it. It meant a display of shared values, which articulated a social function. Submitting to the beat was a way to become part of a classless community embedded in a type of religious mysticism. Trends of style in club culture related directly to ways in which body movements interpreted House music in specific social spaces, without any words to clarify its resource. It meant that dancers were able to focus on their individuality, while their physical motion functioned as an established ‘communal character’ which defined the genre, events, and context. House music worked in a communal philosophy; individuals were able to concentrate on their own physical ‘House world,’ losing themselves in the music. House events were generating an extraordinary existence, ritually separating the ‘normal’ world from the House environment. The House track sentence “Can you feel it” has been sampled many times since it came out in 1988, followed by a loud scream of confirmation from the audience. This motif symbolized the ideal effect of the event and music upon participants. The audience wasn’t only in the Warehouse club to listen to music but to become so emotionally involved that they could physically feel it.

Therefore we could assume that a Chicago House event generated a threshold existence, ritually dividing the everyday world from the dance environment. While the groove controlled the body movements, they are about delightful relaxation, about becoming one with the music, letting go, and reshaping communities. In this way, all the House events presented a different occurrence based on its own exceptional set of qualities, where the musical excitement became perceptible via the interaction of the human body and its sonically rhythmic surroundings. Therefore the House beat was regulating stimulus, functioning as a vital clue to the gestures and attitudes embraced by movements in socialization.

In this way, you could say that bodily display, like in House music, is genre-specific and linked to manners of communication that was culturally dispersed. So when the audience was ‘feeling the beat’, they were aware of the fact that control of their feeling was taking place by the immanence of a House music event. As the qualities of the mix, volume, sound system, timbre, and groove produced the stimuli for dance, so was the force of energy been given through the beat into the body, evoking a powerful emotional response. House music was ideologically advocating an aesthetic that is both provocative and hedonistic in terms of a musical event. This being said, the commencement of dance was primarily a natural response to rhythmic motions, based upon a fundamental awareness of processing and structure, wherein people experienced valuable moments of feeling paradise through the power of musical energy.

House Music | In the beginning there was jack


It is essential to recognize that the many cultural, social, technological, and political factors, which inhibit, mediate and allow musical emotion is a must in the understanding of House music. House tracks encode the dynamics of club culture where identities blend, creating an impulse for expressing a commonwealth of shared sentiments. The House movement is a part of a cultural whole. A House beat is thus linked to awareness towards cultural perspective as much as style; if the feeling of the groove is right, it will accomplish an arousing feeling and passion that ritualize people’s reality. The ideology behind the House movement did not propose an alternative lifestyle to the general culture; neither did it describe any anxiety of society. What House culture did give away was a feeling that generated a powerful experience of sensual sharing. It provided excitement, life, color, and a sense of community for a classless generation. Responding to House was a showcase of one’s erotic, emotional identity to the beat. The track “Can U Feel It” serves a nostalgic reminder of how musical feeling functioned in building new political, erotic, and emotional bridges between separate groups of people. By researching the nature of House music, I am almost certain to assume that the open-mindedness of its sound is generating survival in the twenty-first century.

So what is your experience with House music? 


Brewster, B. and Broughton, F. (2006) Last night a dj saved my life: The history of the disc jockey, 2nd edition, New York: Grove Press.

Garratt, S. (1998) Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture, London: Headline Book Publishing.

Gilbert, J. and Pearson, E. (1999) Dance Music, culture and the politics of sound, London: Routledge.

Hawkins, S. (2009) ‘Feel the beat come down: house music as rhetoric’, in Moore, A. (ed.) Analyzing popular music, London: Cambridge University Press.

Kirn, P., (2011) The evolution of electronic dance music, Milwaukee: Backbeat Books.

Langlois, T. (1992) ‘Can You Feel It? DJs and House Music Culture in the UK’, Popular Music, vol. 11, May, pp. 229-238.

Lubich, D. (1999) ‘H’Housenation’, Attitude Magazine, vol. 1, May, pp. 67-69. Macdonald, R. (2009) ‘The essential guide to house 2009’, Computer Music Journal, vol. 144, Autumn, pp. 25-36.

Mcleod, K. (2001) ‘Genres, Subgenres, Sub-Subgenres and More: Musical and Social Differentiation Within Electronic/Dance Music Communities’, Journal Of Popular Music Studies, vol. 13, March, pp. 59-75.

Snoman, R. (2011) Dance Music Manual, 2nd edition, Oxford: Elsevier.
Terphovem, A., Moller, B., Veen, G.and Slagter, A. (2013) Mary go wild: 25 kaar

Damce in Nederland, Amsterdam: Maslow.

Thomas, A. (1989) ‘The House The Kids: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music’, Outlook: National Lesbian & Gay Quarterly, vol. 5, Autumn, pp. 25- 33.

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