In 1979, disco was at its pinnacle. Catapulted into the limelight by the movie Saturday Night Fever and popularised by the stars of Motown’s new direction under the production genius of Nile Rodgers, it seems like the good times would last forever. But it was about to come crashing down. Radio presenter Steve Dahl - an aggrieved rock music fanatic - used his show to propagate the “DISCO SUCKS” movement. At the time the movement presented itself as anti-establishment, but tongue-in-cheek. But the reality was that this attack on the scene had racist overtones, perpetuated by a bourgeois media. Many of the architects of disco were black - and this was merely another discriminatory method of keeping them in their place. With disco’s credibility tarnished and its popularity amongst the white market sabotaged, disco retreated - and the key players in the scene with it. Yet again, black Americans had been marginalised and their culture stranged. Quite by chance, this chain of events would result in the birth of house music.
In 80s America, an illegal warehouse scene was bubbling under the surface and away from prying eyes of mainstream society. Cavernous venues such as the Paradise Garage and The Warehouse in Chicago, were possible the most famous of these hangouts. Heavily frequented by outcasted gay, black and hispanic communities, it was here that DJs such as Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles unintentionally made a mutation of disco. These cult DJs created their own edits of disco and Euro synth pop records to give them longer intros and outros. Stylised by a 4/4 beat, thus making them easier to mix, they became the first iconic DJs of dance music. Eventually, the Warehouse where Frankie Knuckles had residency would lend its “-house” suffix to the name of the genre. Meanwhile, Larry Levan’s variation at Paradise Garage would spawn the term “garage”.
Other key components of the early Chicago scene included Larry Heard AKA Mr. Fingers and Sadar Bahar. Larry first experienced success under the guise of Fingers Inc. - a project he was involved with alongside Chicago vocalist Robert Owens. It was from this group that he would borrow the “Fingers” moniker. Continuing to release music in the present day under both his given name and his famous alias, it’s his earlier work that has achieved cult status. As a performer, he is equally adept - just check out his peerless live one-man show. A real treat. A compulsive stock-piller of rare vinyl, Sadar’s musical horizon borders on obsession. An unapologetic music fanatic firstly, and a DJ secondly, his remit on house music play particular attention to those records influenced by soul and gospel music.
Around the same time on the other side of Lake Michigan, three disaffected college students in Detroit were playing around on a Roland TR-808 drum machine. In time, these early dorm experiments would become 8-bar loops. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson - who would later become known as the Belleville Three - had invented techno. It’s futuristic properties led them to refer to it as high-tech soul. Soon the sermon of techno had infiltrated the underground club scene, despite the fact it had not been created with the intention of being music to be danced to. Underground Resistance - a more politically-motivated and militant entity headed by Mike Banks soon jumped on board. They, along with frequent collaborator and sometime member Jeff Mills, would form the first wave of Detroit techno artists along with Juan, Derrick and Kevin. Even in the present day, they retain god-like status within the scene. Few contemporaries are regarded in such high esteem. Arguably Mills, with his dystopic sci-fi vision, cinematic soundscapes and an affinity for concepts above that of humanity and planet Earth, is widely considered the embodiment of techno music. Jeff Mills plays at The Warehouse Project presents Feel My Bicep at Mayfield Depot on 30th November.
Another son of Detroit, Amp Fiddler - a prolific multi-disciplinarian - would help stretch dance music’s influence further by combining strands of house and techno with more established black music, such as funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop. The musical extravagoso had quite the tutelage, as a member of George Clinton’s seminal Parliament and Funkadelic group. Mixing in local circles, he has subsequently worked with another Detroit protagonist in Moodymann. Whilst not strictly pigeon-holed as dance music in the basic sense, he boasts an indelible impression on the city’s musical heritage.
New York City
Despite their similarities, at this point both house and techno were pretty contained scenes with little overlap. Neither had succeeded in spreading outside their respective city’s limits. Then something quite odd happened. DJs predominantly based in the North West of England, but across the UK including London, latched onto dance records being exported from the States. The scene exploded. Suddenly, from humble beginnings, house and techno producers and DJs were getting offers of work from across the pond. Although there being 800 miles between Chicago and New York, it took the adoption of US dance music by the UK for New York to take notice. But when it did, it didn’t look back.
The relationship between New York’s infamous club network and the authorities was a back-and-forth relationship back then - as it remains today. It too had suffered as a result of the disco sucks campaign. But the ushering in of house music was about to ignite a golden age for its scene. Again, it was the black and gay communities where it thrived most. Names such Todd Terry, David Morales and Danny Tenaglia helped forge a community there in venues and across the airwaves. Another notable name was Tony Humphries. Tony gained notoriety as king of the mixtapes and his own meticulous edits. To this day, there is arguably no greater utiliser of the mix format. Tony has been the go-to guy for compilation series. Even as recently as 2017, Running Back looked to him to launch their Mastermix concept.
Kerri Chandler’s unique sound would later be coined deep house. Still as instrumental today as he’s ever-been, Chandler’s longevity can be attributed to his undying passion and desire to stay ahead of the new generation. Famously, he said: “all you need is a basement, a red light and a feelin’” on the integral ingredients needed to create a great club night.
Want to catch one of the forefathers of our scene? Tickets for WHP // Feel My Bicep are on sale and available now. An education as much as an entertainment.