House on fire

Jun 20, 2001 at 12:00 am

“What they call techno, that is just a Detroit version of what house is ...” —Jesse Saunders, creator of “On & On,” the first commercial house 12-inch.

In the last Pitch’d column, we noted the innovators (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson) were honored by the mayor of Detroit at the DEMF. Where did the innovators get their inspiration? We’ll focus on the impact of another Midwest metropolis and the home of house music: Chicago.

Knuckle sandwich

“House started in Chicago to a certain degree in 1984. I think they had a lot of influence on Detroit.” —Juan Atkins

The term “house music” came about to describe what Frankie Knuckles played at a club called the Warehouse, where he spun from 1977 to 1983. Knuckles was a New York DJ from the group that created the aesthetic of what a great open-minded dance party is. This includes Larry Levan (of the Paradise Garage), François Kevorkian and Tony Humphries. These DJs played idiosyncratic styles formed around great up-tempo R&B records on labels such as Philly International and Salsoul, but never limited by boundaries. In Chicago, this music found a new fever pitch when Knuckles opened the Power Plant (incidentally, what the name Kraftwerk translates to) and Ron Hardy took over at the Music Box, where he played a rawer, tougher version of the music Frankie played. It would be his influence that had the greatest impact on the sound of Detroit.

May days

Derrick May waxes: “Because my mother was living in Chicago, it gave me the chance to go and visit another city. This was before house music was even thought of outside Chicago — in Chicago it was just starting to happen. When I went to Chicago it was a real baptism for me because I had a chance to go to the purist clubs. Oh, God, when I think about it now! Somehow, I just don’t know how, I ended up at the Power Plant — this was Frankie Knuckles’ club and Frankie was the man. This was before they had anything called house music, when they were playing Jamie Principal on reel-to-reel, and everybody in the crowd would be singin’ the record in a real warehouse where parties would go to 9 in the morning, every week.

“For me, the reason I think I progressed in dance music or have done the things I’ve done was because I had a chance to see a bit of the future — gay black kids, straight black kids, everybody just going for it, and that was something you didn’t see much in Detroit. I called up Juan on the phone and said ‘Juan, I’ve just been to the Power Plant and the Music Box’ where Ronnie Hardy — who I still believe to be the greatest DJ of all time — played. Just his whole style of mixing and how he used to remix records and do things like pitch a Stevie Wonder tune up to plus-eight with a kick drum put underneath it and, phew, the kids would go crazy.”


When DJs began to create edits of classic records (such as First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder”) and play them to their crowd, and the crowd responding to each new variation would go nuts. Then that DJ would be the only person with that version of the record, so to hear that record you had to go see that DJ. DJs all over Chicago were doing this, and this created a demand for these special mixes (this strategy would later make Lil’ Louis’ career with “French Kiss”). Responding to this demand and prompted by the theft of one of his most important bootleg remix records, Jesse Saunders re-created this bootleg over an 808 and released the first commercial house record, “On & On,” in 1984. Unlike Detroit techno, whose first record (“Shari Vari”) is still amazing, Chicago’s first house record was so bad that it inspired everyone to release their own records, because it seemed that easy. In the words of one of house music’s first heroes, Marshall Jefferson: “They were looking at Jesse, saying, ‘I’m gonna take his spot, ‘cause he ain’t got no talent, I can do what he does.’ When that happened, everybody started makin’ house music and the flood gates were opened.”


“We used to travel to Chicago every week just to hear this radio show on WBMX and WGCI, which was Farley, Steve Hurley and just basically all the guys that was there at the beginning of mixing house records.” —Kevin Saunderson

All quotes credited to Jonathan Flemming’s What Kind of House Party is This? (Mind in You Publishing, 1995, United Kingdom).

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