Was it ever our House?

House music is one of the most popular subgenres of electronic music today, but where did it come from? Cole Carrico discusses how the subgenre of house music stemmed from a minority that was pushed to create their exclusive category of electronic music, subsequently making history

House music is a subgenre that was created in the Black and queer underground music scene of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. Simply referred to as ‘house’, this music is generally characterised by a few major components. First, it has a four-to-the-floor beat where every single beat is emphasised. Snares, high hats, bass drums, and body percussion work in tandem to occupy each beat, creating a constant pulse to a tempo from 120 to 130 bpm. Deep bass lines sweep in and out of beat, creating swells and deep lows that add to the hypnotic feel. Synthesisers dazzle on the highs while the song is further supported by spoken, sung, or sampled vocals. Together, these elements partnered with the aspect of an in-person community made up of crowds who attend live house music shows to constitute the house music genre.

House emerged partly in response to the racial and political climate of Chicago at the time. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition night was staged at Comiskey Park during the Chicago White Soxs’ game against the Detroit Tigers. During the event, fans were encouraged to bring disco records to destroy during the game. The event was symbolic of the hatred towards the distinct blackness and queerness of the disco subgenre. Disco clubs began being raided by police, resulting in Black and queer people being pushed away from queer clubs in the city. Without a space to find release, people were forced to create a new space. 

Disco clubs began being raided by police, resulting in Black and queer people being pushed away from queer clubs in the city. Without a space to find release, people were forced to create a new space. 

A key player in creating the house genre and scene was DJ Frankie Knuckles. Knuckles moved from New York City to Chicago in 1977, and was asked to DJ at a new club, The Warehouse. Knuckles brought his distinct ear and style to the club. He began mixing genres like disco, funk, and German electro-pop along with the heavy use of sound effects to create a new style. He began to fill the 600-person capacity dance floor with over 2,000 people on a good night. His success earned him a full-time spot at the club, and the people who attended his live events started to refer to his distinct style of music as ‘house’. Knuckles and others like Jesse Saunders, Vince Lawrence, and Larry Levin began to shape the new genre night after night on the dance floor.

The popularity of House music soon spread. DJs in Detroit, London, and other cities began to add their own flavour to the genre. Ken Collier, a gay Detroit-based DJ known as ‘The Godfather,’ helped to develop and change the genre, moving it more towards what we know as modern-day house music. House caught on particularly well in the UK, where the track “Love Can’t Turn Around” by Jackmaster took the country by storm and landed on the Top 10 Singles Chart. In 1988, a new and distinctly British House scene emerged in London. With remnants of punk music and coupled with the rise of the party drug, MDMA, a subgenre of the subgenre, ‘acid house’, was born. Evolution in house music hasn’t stopped since as the genre continues to morph and evolve. 

Electronic Dance Music, shortened to EDM, is now a multibillion euro-a-year industry. The genre is a direct evolution of house music making its rise in the late 2000s and early 2010s, pulling on the traditional pulse of house while multiplying the use of techno influence. EDM, however, seemingly lacks an important aspect of house music – the Black and queer DJs that created the genre. The EDM genre today is dominated by White, heterosexual artists, as are many of the subgenres of the electronic music scene.

EDM seemingly lacks an important aspect of house music – the Black and queer DJs that created the genre.

The house scene in Chicago is still thriving in 2024 and it is a welcoming environment to everyone. The energy that drew people to house music forty-five years ago continues to attract people nightly, and we owe it to the Black and queer people of Chicago in the late 1970s. Sally R. Sommer muses this of house: “The vibe is an active communal force, a feeling, a rhythm that is created by the mix of dancers, the balance of loud music, the effects of darkness and light, the energy. Everything interlocks to produce a powerful sense of liberation.”