Beatport’s Definitive History of House
Beatport’s Definitive History of HouseJune 2, 2021
What is house music? It’s an eternal question — one that’s kept musicologists’ conferences and pub arguments going for decades.
In one sense, it’s simple: it’s the music that Frankie Knuckles played in Chicago’s Warehouse club in the mid 1980s, and everything that’s flowed from that. Or maybe, as Chuck Roberts’ sermon has it, house is a feeling.
In reality, feelings and history are anything but simple, giving rise to questions like, what actually makes a house record a house record? Where does a variant of house become something else? Is techno a part of house? Or are they separate? Overlapping?
We’ll try to map out the territory in Beatport’s definitive history of house.
With three and a half decades of history and a scene that stretches across the planet — from the deepest basements to the top of the pop charts — no history is ever perfect. After all, terms like deep house, tech house and jackin’ house mean very different things to different people, and the definitions have shifted over time. Beatport’s own current genre names are based on how DJs in today’s scenes select and categorise, and may reflect a very different use of certain terms to 20 or 30 years ago. But this piece represents the big historical picture — we can save those micro-questions for the pub.
“House is an uncontrollable desire to jack your body,” as Chuck Roberts put it. And this story covers more than three decades’ worth of people doing just that.
The elements that make up house music were all there as the ‘70s dawned, and the primacy of the DJ became paramount. What started with David Mancuso’s Loft parties in New York was later turbocharged by Nicky Siano at his legendary club The Gallery and Larry Levan at hotspots like Paradise Garage and Studio 54. Intersections of Black, Latino, and increasingly visible LGBTQ+ culture created something new that spanned from the pop charts to the underground.
The studio tricks of edit scientists Tom Moulton, John Morales, François K, Walter Gibbons and company became crucial: cutting and splicing master tapes to deconstruct and extend disco grooves, increasing the sound’s rhythmic repetitions. Particular Latin syncopations went through Salsoul and into ‘80s freestyle. European synthesiser and rhythm machine experimenters like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire were starting to enter into a two-way dialogue with black American dance music, which itself had already been dosed with sci-fi sound by Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Bernie Worrell.
You can hear the beginnings of house back in 1977 in the sequencer-driven repetitions of Donna Summer’s Giorgio Moroder-produced “I Feel Love”, and the synth bassline and use of space on First Choice’s album track “Let No Man Put Asunder”, a tune that would be both remixed by Frankie Knuckles and endlessly sampled by everyone else as house music properly emerged.
In Europe, you can hear the groove bubbling through the drum machines — from pop on Yazoo’s 1982 “Don’t Go” through synth psychedelia with Chris & Cosey’s 1984 “Driving Blind”, Manuel Göttsching’s “E2E4”, Italo disco on Klein & MBO’s 1982 “Dirty Talk” and Alexander Robotnick’s 1983 “Problémes D’Amour”, or on Front 242 Belgian EBM classic “Special Forces”. These tracks were played in the US and are still played today. And of course New York and New Jersey’s club scenes continued innovating sonically, as we’ll see later. But these varied elements truly came together in one windy, Midwest American city.
Frankie Knuckles was not a Chicagoan. Born and raised in the Bronx, he cut his teeth as a DJ in New York City’s clubs and gay bathhouses. But he moved to Chicago in 1977, specifically to become Saturday night resident at The Warehouse, a club that his friend Robert Williams was opening. In fact he was only there for five years, during which time the phrase “house music” was used by local record stores to refer to the mostly disco records (often older disco), which he was extending with tape edits and double copies at the club. Other DJs in clubs and radio were following suit, and notably the Hot Mix 5 team (featuring DJs like Ralphi Rosario and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk) on WBMX helped cement this as the sound of Chicago. Funnily enough though, it wasn’t until after Knuckles had left The Warehouse to found The Power Plant in 1982 that he started to use drum machines live in his set, and others in Chicago began making what we’d recognise as house records. That is to say, “house” existed as a culture in Chicago for a good while before it was a sound as such.
There’s some debate, but the first true house record is generally agreed to be Jesse Saunders’s “On & On.” Recorded with Vince Lawrence in 1983, test driven by Saunders at his DJ residency at The Playground, and released in 1984, it’s indebted to Italo disco, certainly, but definitely is house. A few records emerged through ‘84 and ‘85, with tracks from soon-to-be household names like Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s ”Jack the Bass”, Jamie Principle’s ”Waiting on my Angel” and Ralphi Rosario’s ”Pump it Up” beginning to appear on labels like Trax and DJ international.
Crucially, too, in 1985 came “Sensation”, one of the few releases from Ron Hardy, whose Music Box club was pushing a harder, more electronic, more hedonistic vibe than Knuckles’ soulful sets. Then in ‘86, the floodgates opened. This was when Knuckles’s own debut came out, as did Marshall Jefferson’s perennial “The House Music Anthem,” while tunes like Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Jesse Saunders feat. Darryl Pand’s “Love Can’t Turn Around” and Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” became international hits; Larry Heard and Fingers Inc. began prolifically releasing masterpieces like “Mystery of Love”; and Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” was being rinsed on tape by Hardy at the Music Box.
It’s impossible to overstate how huge house music was to Chicago at this point. As 1987 and 1988 went on, tracks like Joe Smooth’s “The Promised Land,” Jamie Principles’s “Baby Wants to Ride” and Mr Fingers’ “Can You Feel It” quickly became international club anthems. But in Chicago alone, 12-inches were selling by the tens of thousands. Radio audiences for house across the city and the Midwest were in the millions. Labels like Trax and DJ International were thriving, albeit using shady business practices. DJ/producers like Lil’ Louis, Mike Dunn, Bad Boy Bill, Armando and DJ Pierre, and vocalists like Robert Owens, Kym Mazelle and Ten City were becoming bona fide stars.
And already it was a broad church: from the most raw, percussive acid and jack tracks, deep and dreamy drifters, gospel-inflected soul, and heavy Latin influence, multiple sub-genres were created, as we’ll see in the following sections. But through the late eighties, it was all house, and there was no question that Chicago was its capital.
Of course, New York City and its neighbour New Jersey were never short of club music. In the downtown post-punk scene, one-offs like Arthur Russell were mutating disco into hypnotic, proto-house — see Russell’s “Is it all Over my Face?” as Loose Joints — right at the start of the eighties, and clubs like Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in NYC, and Zanzibar in New Jersey with Tony Humphries as its resident kept evolving a modernist disco-funk sound with the emphasis on continuous DJ mixing. Through the early eighties, people were making dub mixes of tracks that were almost, almost house: Visual’s “Somehow, Some Way” mixed by Boyd Jarvis and Timmy Regisford and Visual’s “Music Got Me” mixed by Tony Humphries, both in 1983, or Serious Intention’s “You Don’t Know” produced by Paul Simpson in 1984.
These kind of records were already being called “garage” after the Paradise Garage, and would segue neatly into a sound with a distinctive shuffle to its rhythms which became known as “garage house.” Humphries was making distinctly house tunes like Cultural Vibe’s Afro groove “Ma Foom Bey” in 1986, and by ‘88-‘89 the deluge had started. Records like Turntable Orchestra (aka Hippie Torrales)’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Adeva’s “Respect,” and untold productions by the group Blaze like Phase II’s “Reachin’” all came out of New Jersey, upping the ante in terms of production values and song structure compared to the generally raw sounds of Chicago — and they frequently charted abroad, particularly in the UK. New York too produced slick and soulful sounds, as the likes of David Morales and Roger Sanchez entered the house music arena.
But New York had other key elements in the mix — most importantly hip hop and electro culture. Early on, Frankie Bones, Tommie Musto and Lenny Dee (yes, the hard techno/gabber Lenny Dee) trod the boundaries between electro, techno and house, often inspired by gritty warehouse raves. The Nu Groove label focused on deep, tough, mainly instrumental cuts from 1988 on, and a year later Strictly Rhythm was founded, bridging the soulful, deep, tough dubs that made up NYC’s vocabulary.
The hard and spacious side of this would also set the tone for New York’s gay clubs. It was notable that Strictly Rhythm’s first release featured an “Underground Vogue Mix,” which later became the foundation for the vast tribal grooves of Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia and company. At the same time, Todd Terry and Masters at Work built bumping house beats using the sample collage techniques of their hip hop backgrounds: see TT’s Arthur Russell flip “Bango.”
For a brief time, it almost seemed like hip hop and house would fuse completely as New York and Chicago both fell for hip house in ‘88-’89. There was apparently even a collaboration album planned by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and NYC hip hop beat legend Marley Marl. It fizzled out, but the echoes of hip hop would give NYC’s house an edge that would continue into the ‘90s.
With the likes of Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Norma Jean Bell, Omar-S, Kyle Hall and of course MK revered worldwide, Detroit is now known almost as much for house as techno. But it was always there from the very start. Although the city became synonymous with the machine funk of techno, from the very beginning house has been both a part of that and a force in the city in its own right. Indeed, before techno really settled in as the dominant genre definition at the end of the eighties, many Detroit pioneers considered what they did as an offshoot of house. DJs were regularly making the four hour drive to Chicago to fill their sets, and The Music Institute — considered the crucible of techno — had Chez Damier and Alton Miller, both house to the bone, as residents. Kevin Saunderson, of course, trampled the distinction between house and techno with songs like Reese’s “Rock to the Beat” and Inner City’s “Good Life”. Techno second-wavers Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, Kelli K-Hand and Blake Baxter all had a jackin’ house groove at the heart of what they did from early on. Even Underground Resistance began with vocal house, in their still-glorious tracks with singer Yolanda like “Your Time is Up”.
House spread fast: the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa, France and especially Italy all adopted and adapted it to different degrees, but nowhere did it land as hard as Britain. Of course, most people will associate house music in the UK with the acid house revolution of 1988. DJs and producers like Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling, Lisa Loud, Andrew Weatherall, Farley & Heller and Carl Cox rode the wave and then the rave explosion that followed to global success. Groups like Farley and Weatherall’s Boys Own fanzine and then label/party crew codified a particular style and set of attitudes that became known as “acid house culture” — an enduring way of life that became detached from the specific sound of acid.
But the seeds were sown earlier in both the underground and the mainstream. Proto house and early house reached pockets of the soul, electro/breakdance, alternative and gay club scenes in the UK, and DJs like Mark Moore, Colin Faver and Paul “Trouble” Anderson in London; Greg Wilson, Graeme Park, and Mike Pickering at The Haçienda in Manchester; and Winston & Parrot at Jive Turkey in Sheffield among many others were keeping track with every development stateside.
Frankie Knuckles even held a summer residency at mixed/gay club Heaven in 1987. Not only did Chicago tunes start hitting the charts in 1986, but British experiments like M/A/R/R/S with “Pump up the Volume” did too in 1987. As acid hit, so the charts were flooded with the likes of Coldcut, D-Mob, Adamski, Orbital, 808 State and Moore’s S’Express project with “Theme From S’Express”. Meanwhile artists like Baby Ford, A Guy Called Gerald, and the Soul II Soul affiliated Warriors Dance label (with tracks like the truly remarkable “Bang Bang You’re Mine” by Bang The Party) brought in psychedelic, electro and reggae soundsystem influences, and were getting played in Chicago, New York and Detroit. Which helped lay the groundwork for the UK’s unique proliferation of genres as the 90s dawned.
House was built on rhythmic hypnosis and emotional engagement, and although Chicago’s early mixdowns and vinyl pressings might have been raw, the likes of Larry Heard with tracks like “Can You Feel It” and Marshall Jefferson with “The Jungle” (as Jungle Wonz) were bringing sophisticated musicality and bittersweet moods to their productions. Very early on in house music’s development, Heard’s unique atmosphere and Jefferson’s love of flutes and new age music set a template that has endured: warm washes of sound (“pads”), minor keys, subtle jazz elements, with the occasional softly sung or spoken vocals.
Through the ‘90s the sound crystallized. And perhaps more than anyone, the Detroit-Chicago team-up of Chez Damier and Ron Trent perfected it, creating a sense of endless, enveloping groove on records like their epochal KMS EP of untitled tracks. Derrick Carter’s Sound Patrol releases, like the slo-mo “Rising and Falling”, remain among the most affecting house grooves ever made. Theo Parrish’s “Sky Walking”, Moodymann’s “Mahogany Brown”, Rick Wilhite, and the late Mike Huckaby and friends in Detroit brought ever more musicality, connecting to Motor City’s long and deep soul/funk connections.
Dubs of tracks by artists who also had one foot in soulful or tribal house, like Miami’s Murk, New Jersey’s Kerri Chandler, New York’s Mood II Swing with their classic “Closer”, and the late Angel Moraes also became an important part of the mix. DJ Pierre’s “wild pitch” sound on “Generate Power” and “Rise From Your Grave” created a tougher, more intense deepness that was all about accumulating tension, inspiring extraordinary music from others in the likes of X-Press 2’s “Muzik XPress” and Felix Da Housecat’s “Freakadelika”.
While the piano-pounding, hands-in-the-air stuff got more attention, the underground side of the first wave of Italo house brought a whole movement of dreamy, sunrise-evoking grooves. Some of the best of these were collected recently by Dave Lee on the Italo House compilation. The UK spawned a set of names like AtJazz, Andy Compton and his Peng label, Jimpster and the late Phil Asher — who like Parrish, or Baltimore’s Karizma, or Germany’s sadly missed Michel Baumann aka Jackmate/Soulphiction, or Frenchman St. Germain — explored zones that overlapped into soulful house and broken beat.
Of course, broken beat and nu jazz artists like Berlin’s Jazzanova could overlap into deep house too, and perennially popular labels like Glasgow Underground and Aus Music sprung up in their wake. In late ‘90s and early ‘00s San Francisco, DJs like Mark Farina and Miguel Migs kept the deep groove alive on labels like Om and Naked Music. All of this found an extra layer of resonance in Ibiza, where the late Jose Padilla and those who followed him incorporated deep house into broader chillout music, and artists like A Man Called Adam — from their 1990 Balearic classic “Barefoot in the Head” onwards — created a particularly Balearic house groove.
In parallel, disco-inspired artists mapped out a similar dreamy territory: Faze Action’s “In the Trees”, Idjut Boys’ “Roll Over and Snore” and DJ Harvey’s late mix of House of House’s “Rushing to Paradise” — perfectly captures the vibe. In the early 2000s, this in turn inspired a whole wave of Norwegian artists. Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje, and friends brought melody, warmth, and a subtle humour to the game, blending disco/house grooves with pop and soft rock influences, but always with that deep and emotive undercurrent.
At the same time in techno dominated Germany, “real” house was having a resurgence. DJs like Tama Sumo with “Iron Glance”, and figures like Radio Slave, blurred the lines between deep house and techno once again. A movement was beginning — with Henrik Schwarz, Âme and Dixon with their Innervisions label were expressly referencing Chicago and Detroit, and increasingly using live instruments while building a kind of slow-burn groove that eventually would become huge globally: Âme’s “Rej”, is of course the defining track of a whole era. Japan, too, nurtured a rich deep house scene, with the Mule Musiq label especially building a world class catalogue.
As you might guess, the meaning of deep house became a lot less clear, and would continue to blur. As the 2010s went on and influences from bass music, minimal techno and electronica swirled around, it could mean anything from Maya Jane Coles’s “Piano Magic” to Four Tet’s “Pyramid”, Kim Ann Foxman’s “Creature” to tracks by Luke Solomon and Justin Harris’s Freaks project like “In my Head”. But whatever you call it, there’s no question that long, floating jams are as vital as ever.
From OGs like Detroit’s Alton Miller, to 2000s heads like New Yorker Fred P, Nigeria via Berlin Jerome Sydenham, to newer talents like the Japanese psychedelia of Sapphire Slows’s remix of A Psychic Yes’s “Maze Dream”, or names coming out of the London jazz scene like Tenderlonious and Henry Wu, to huge names like The Martinez Brothers and Dam Swindle, there are generations of deepness now at work and whole oceans of hypnotic sound to explore.
While other sub-genres have evolved over time, acid house arrived fully formed. The foundational tune, “Acid Tracks” by DJ Pierre, Herb J and the late Earl “Spanky” Smith, came like a bolt from out of the blue, and still sounds untouchably advanced to this day. It turned the Roland TB-303 bassline generator — an almost obsolete synth that was originally intended as a simple automated accompanist for solo musicians — into the most iconic instrument in all of dance music. A tape of the “Acid Tracks” was hammered by Ron Hardy in the Music Box in 1986 and became one of his signature tunes. Released in 1987 on Trax, it immediately set off a whole new style in Chicago.
Tracks like Adonis’ “No Way Back”, Mike Dunn’s “Magic Feet”, Sleezy D’s “I’ve Lost Control”, Tyree’s “Acid Over”, Armando’s “Downfall”, and Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child” still send shivers down a house lover’s spine, but crucially, are records that can demolish a dancefloor as effectively now as 30-plus years ago. And once Chicago and the UK had their explosive chemical reaction in 1988, the sound truly became immortal. At this point, “acid house” also came to mean the broader British cultural explosion that became rave, but the longevity of the original warping, squelching, twisting sounds of Chicago-derived acid house has had a life completely its own.
The sound was kept alive through the nineties and on by Germans like Air Liquide, Netherlanders like Miss Djax (who maintained strong connections with the OG Chicago acid producers, and made her own great acid tracks like this “Welcome to Chicago” remix) or Stefan Robbers, whose Acid Junkies tracks like “Sector 9” are enduring classics. Americans like DJ Duke aka Mark The 909 King, Abe Duque, Josh Wink with his inescapable “Higher State of Consciousness”, and many more besides carried the torch into the future.
And, well, that’s it: acid house hasn’t needed to change. From Hardfloor’s remixes of New Order and Mory Kante all the way through to Calvin Harris’s biggest hits, acid lines have consistently featured in mainstream anthems. And on the underground it’s been a staple: whether from IDM-adjacent acts like Syntheme, electro-house acts like Shadow Dancer, house/techno purists like Jerome Derradji (see 2011’s glorious “SOS”), relative newcomers like Tin Man, Funkineven, Paranoid London; veterans like Kirk DeGiorgio or Andrew Weatherall; or stalwart labels like Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, Optimo Trax or Super Rhythm Trax; the 303 keeps bubbling through the ages.
As we’ve seen, particularly in the UK, house was chart music from the outset. And as the ‘90s went on, big, bold house tunes became part of the cultural fabric. Sometimes they were based in Eurodance, like Livin’ Joy’s “Dreamer” or JX’s “Son of a Gun,” the work of Sister Bliss, or Faithless. Others still were rooted in real-deal US house, like Crystal Waters’s “Gypsy Woman” (produced by Baltimore’s Basement Boys), De’Lacy’s “Hideaway” (remixed by Washington D.C.’s Deep Dish), MK’s remix of “Push the Feeling On” by Brit band Nightcrawlers, and the mother of them all, Robin S’s “Show me Love,” whose remix by Sweden’s Stonebridge conquered the world and set the organ preset on the Korg M1 keyboard as the instrument for mainstream house thereafter.
As the ‘90s came to a close, dance styles like trance and UK garage tended to sideline house in the charts, though filter disco did continue to generate crossovers: Phats & Small’s “Turn Around”, Modjo’s “Lady (Hear me Tonight),” Armand Van Helden’s “U Don’t Know Me,” Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” and of course “Music Sounds Better With You” by Stardust. The 2000s were a fallow time for house, with records like Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me” the closest you came to real house in the charts, and only the occasional funky gem like Shapeshifters’s “Lola’s Theme” breaking into the public consciousness.
But then came a twin-pronged attack: first, the rise of Disclosure with hits like their remix of Jessie Ware’s “Running”, and the bass-house hits that came in their wake in the early 2010s: David Zowie’s “House Every Weekend”, Route 94’s “My Love”, Gorgon City’s “Here for You” and Duke Dumont’s “Need U (100%)”. And then the EDM explosion in the US and globally, which was quickly followed by a new wave of unashamedly big and shiny, commercially friendly house. And so it is now that Diplo and Mark Ronson’s Silk City project, Paul Woolford’s work under his own name on tracks like “Tear it Up”, Calvin Harris’s less banging moments like the undeniable “One Kiss” — and, reigning over it all, the original king of crossover house, MK.
While the levels of cheese in future house might be high for some, with people like Woolford and The Blessed Madonna working hard to connect the pop world to more underground house, it’s going to be fascinating to see where this goes next.
The phrase “progressive house” started to emerge somewhere around 1991 as a reaction against the increasing mania of hardcore/rave music. Dutch and Italian producers were starting to make heavy use of “tribal” percussion — see The Traveler’s “Tribal Journey” and African Tribal System’s “Baa Daa Laa” — along with overtly psychedelic atmospheres that leaned more towards the Balearic and trance aesthetics than to American house.
In the UK, early remixes and tracks by Andrew Weatherall, like “The World According to Sly & Lovechild”, or Justin Robertson remixing TC1992’s “Funky Guitar”, and above all Leftfield’s timeless “Not Forgotten”, helped to pull the style together into something recognisable, emphasising dub-influenced basslines, breakbeats overlaid on four-to-the-floor kicks, and a slow- to mid-tempo chug. There was a definite hippie element to this — out-and-out crusty festival acts like Eat Static and Astralasia were in the mix, and in California, the Hardkiss collective were heavily influential. The early progressive movement also launched bands like Fluke, Spooky, and the mighty Underworld, even generating some huge hits early on, notably Gat Decor’s “Passion” and Atlantic Ocean’s “Waterfall”.
It really took off, though, in the middle of the decade when Sasha and John Digweed — already superstars at home in the UK and making major inroads in North America — ran with it. Tracks like “For What you Dream Of” by Digweed as Bedrock, or Sasha and The Light’s remix of Gus Gus’s “Purple”, marked out a zone of epic structures. It was influenced by trance and breaks but kept a house pulse, and was tailor made for vast arenas, right as superstar DJ culture blew up big time. From this moment on, prog house became one of the most enduringly popular and trend-proof movements in dance music. Artists like Omid 16B, Deep Dish and Tomcraft and many more launched decades-long careers off the back of this late nineties explosion, and tracks like Sasha’s “Xpander” dominated Ibiza and the rest of the clubbing world.
Over time it absorbed influences from the melodically and harmonically inclined ends of European electro house, nu disco and techno. That led to huge crossover tracks like Booka Shade and M.A.N.D.Y.’s “Body Language” or Superpitcher’s “Happiness”, which provided new ways forward for prog’s big chugging riffs, while overlapping with tech house and continuing to crossbreed with trance. Indeed, through the 21st century, “progressive” came to mean something closer to trance, while “melodic techno” — epitomised in the rise of artists like Joris Voorn and Patrice Bäumel — confusingly now means something rather more like the prog of the ‘90s.
Whatever you call it, tracks like Peggy Gou’s remix of Jessie Ware’s “Midnight”, Maceo Plex’s “When the Lights are Out”, Gui Boratto’s “Beksys”, Gorgon City’s “Ahora Todo Va”, Nick Warren’s “Ride the Storm”, and Sebastian Selares more modern track “Juno”, fit squarely in the wide-open spaces of prog.
For many, everything else is a distraction, and “soulful house” — disco influences, solid Chicago/NY drum programming, and churchy vocals right up front — is just house. From the very earliest work of Ten City on their 1989 hit “That’s the Way Love Is”, to Cajmere, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Masters At Work, Dave Lee (formerly Joey Negro) and CeCe Rogers on 1987’s “Someday”, soulful house been a constant in dance culture. Indeed, of all the strands of house, it’s probably changed the least, bounded by deep house on one side and pop crossover appeal on the other. Entering into a to-and-fro relationship in Britain with UK garage — and consistently maintaining some of the most racially mixed audiences in the process — it’s never been broken, so there’s no need to fix it. Always the ideal soundtrack for “grown folks’ dances” or getting down in the sunshine at a festival, bubbling with positivity and empowerment with a bittersweet undercurrent of struggle and heartbreak and a little bit of sauce, it’s the heart and soul of house.
This is also where divas are stars. Think of classics like Ultra Naté’s “Free”, Barbara Tucker’s iconic “Beautiful People”, India on “I Can’t Get no Sleep”, and talented, timeless voices like Jomanda, Katy B, Paris Grey, Róisín Murphy, Ann Saunderson, Rosie Gaines, Martha Wash, Jocelyn Brown, Dajae, and the endlessly sampled and re-sampled Loleatta Holloway: all names to send a tingle down the spine of any house head. Male voices are also vital: Michael Watford, Byron Stingily, Colonel Abrams, Jamie Principle, Arnold Jarvis, Romanthony, Peven Everett, and Darryl Pandy have all sountracked untold peak dancefloor moments. And it’s never, ever gone away.
Above all, the mighty Defected label – with the various imprints it’s taken under its umbrella, like Classic Music Company, Nu Groove, and Soul Heaven – has seen to that! And as the years go by, artists like Dennis Ferrer, DJ Spen, Omar-S, Hi Fi Sean, Mark Hawkins, Waajeed, Honey Dijon, Crooked Man, Cardinal Sound, Sandy Rivera (aka Kings of Tomorrow), Soul Vision with tracks like “Come in to my Room” and most recently the return of Ten City endlessly keep the flame alive. Who needs progress? When you’ve got a heart-stopping voice and a rock solid beat, — whether it’s a hands in the air banger or a small hours heartbreaker — soul never ages.
Afro house is one of the loosest possible definitions — after all, Africa is an entire continent, and its influence is manifold, both on the roots of house, and now directly as countries and cities across the region develop their own sounds. African music had been bonded into disco (think Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”) and house (the remixes of Mory Kante’s “Yeke Yeke”) from the start, but these were normally one offs.
There were two key threads that created a more lasting relationship: the adoption by South Africa of house as the sound of the new, post-Apartheid nation, leading to its own slower, soulful take known as Kwaito; and an interest in African roots from outside the continent. Crucial names here are Missouri-via-NYC deep house producer Osunlade (see “Lovery”), who studied the beliefs of West Africa’s Yoruba people, became a priest and named his Yoruba label accordingly; as well as Nigerian-born Jerome Sydenham – whose recent Kraftwerk remake “Trans Afro Express” is as joyously witty a piece of Afro house as you could ever hope to hear.
Meanwhile from France, there were Frederic Galliano who released tracks like “Melou Melou” with his African Divas project and DJ Gregory whose Africanism project would be a surprising influence on the rise of UK funky in the ‘00s, and who continues to work his distinctive aesthetic on tracks like “Tourment D’Amour”.
More recently though, African and particularly South African artists and scenes began to set the pace. This has ranged from breakout hits like DJ Mujava’s “Township Funk” through South African expats Esa and Floyd Lavine (“Nohme Ne”), from huge international names like Black Coffee and Themba to emergent genres like the experimental gqom like DJ Lag’s “Ghost on the Loose”) and the smooth and soulful amapiano (“Spiritchaser” by Abidoza and twin brothers the Major League DJz), which is sweeping various UK scenes as we speak. With all this going on, it’s no longer a case of US or European artists looking abroad for an “African” flavour, but of individual African styles making their presence felt on their own terms.
Increasingly, it’s not only South Africa by any means. There’s Ghana’s Gafacci (“I Like Your Girlfriend” with Bryte), and Kenya is home to many breakout stars: Suraj with his remix of Emannuel Jal’s “BAAI”, Vidza with “East African Calling” and Dylan-S with “Jaber”. Then there’s the unique Angolan-Portuguese sounds of Lisbon’s Principe label. In today’s world, cross-cultural fusions no longer mean American or European producers remixing or sampling random African singers: from underground electronics like Scratcha DVA’s “DRMTRK (Tribute to DBN)” through jazzy deep house like Andy Compton and the Sowetan Onesteps’s glorious “Pushit,” to the Disclosure and Fatoumata Diawara’s mainstream hit “Douha (Mali Mali)”, they now need to be true collaborations. This may be a very loosely defined area of house music, but with the fast development of the African continent’s own music infrastructures, and more and more localised electronic styles emerging, it’s also one of the most exciting to watch.
Like deep house, tech house means many things to many people, and its definition has changed repeatedly over the years. But it began as a distinct scene in mid-‘90s London, led by old guard acid house names like Mr. C, Eddie Richards, Terry Francis, Nathan Coles, and Layo & Bushwacka!. They were largely reacting against the increasingly pounding techno world by bringing their sound back to something a bit funkier and more spacious with tracks like “Nightshift”, “D-Comm”, “Took From Me”, “The Shack”, and “So Lonely”.
This sound soon underpinned London’s clubbing sound, especially in the underground: first at The End, then fabric, which of course launched with Francis as resident. Out of this world, enduring careers were made for producers like Pure Science and Steve Lawler, while Americans like Stacey Pullen (see his remix of Ultraviolet’s “Union”), Kenny Larkin, and John Acquaviva were drawn into the orbit of British – and increasingly Ibizan – clubs.
In the ‘00s things became a bit more blurry, as tech house’s territory was squeezed by electro house on one side and minimal on the other. But it was chunkier, funkier and more groovy than both, flourishing on labels like Ostgut Ton, Bpitch Control, Get Physical, Perlon and M_nus. Tracks like Ben Klock’s “Invasion”, M.A.N.D.Y.’s “Jah”, Mathew Johnson’s “Decompression”, John Tejada’s “Mental Jukebox” and Martin Buttrich’s “Full Clip” were distinctly tech house. And the Ibiza sets from the likes of DC10’s Circoloco resident Tania Vulcano were not far removed at all from those of Mr. C and company. It was in this climate that releases like Jamie Jones’s “Amazon”, Nicole Moudaber’s “Dilemma”, Solomun’s “Wellenfanger” and Nina Kraviz’s “Pain in the Ass” marked the arrival of future superstar DJs.
Meanwhile in the UK, an underground scene that would become known as “deep tech” was brewing. Led by Mark Radford and his Audio Rehab label, the sound blurred the edges of tech house with UK bass with tracks like “On Point”, opening up the scene to more multiracial crowds than before. All of this set the pace for a decade of massive expansion in the 2010s. Tech house became the sound of vast events from Buenos Aires to Beijing, and of course the superclubs of Ibiza and of the pristine beaches of Tulum. Many bass music acts – Skream and Solardo most notably – crossed over and became huge names in a new style. Patrick Topping with his 2014 hit “Get Beasty” has gone from breakout to star in his own right, proving that while tech house may be significantly more banging and played in bigger arenas than when it emerged in London, its momentum is unstoppable.
Booming sound system, low-frequency sound was incorporated into UK house from very early on — see early WARP releases by Nightmares On Wax’s “Aftermath”, Coco Steel & Lovebomb’s “Feel It”, and releases on the expressly African/Caribbean influenced Warriors Dance like “Koro Koro” by No Smoke. UK garage always had a kissing cousins relationship with house, too. Early releases on Grant Nelson’s Nice ‘N’ Ripe (like the 1994 Dub Essentials EPs), or on tracks like “Catch the Feeling” by Tuff Jam, were scarcely discernible from the Armand Van Helden or Todd Edwards dubs they were taking their cues from. Well, except from a little bass boost to suit British soundsystem-loving tastes, as heard on 24 Hour Experience’s “Together”. As speed garage and two step entered the picture, things began to truly split, but it was never that far from the source. And what house DJ can resist a cheeky drop into Double 99’s “Ripgroove” once in a while if things are getting energetic?
House and bass music went their separate ways for a while during the initial upswing of grime and dubstep, but very quickly reconvened. First there was the sound of UK funky, which generated enduring classics like DJ NG and Baby Katy (aka Katy B)’s “What it Is”, Hard House Banton’s “Sirens”, T Williams’s “Heartbeat” and of course the huge (and later Drake-sampled) anthem “Do You Mind” by Kayla and Crazy Cousins. UK funky also launched Roska, Cooly G and T Williams — three DJ/producers with a deep understanding of house’s history — into the more mainstream club world.
In the north of England there was bassline house, epitomised by the slithering bass of T2’s “Heartbroken”. Then there was “post dubstep,” which covered a multitude of rhythms at 125 to 130 BPM, but more and more often found itself veering into the four-to-the-floor, giving us an era of mighty hybrid tracks like Joy Orbison & Boddika’s “Mercy Me”, Midland & Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound’s “Your Words Matter”, Ikonika’s beautiful remix of DJ Madd’s “Flex’d”, and Julio Bashmore’s era defining “Au Seve”, while inspiring Stateside crews like Claude VonStroke’s Dirtybird. And on the boundaries of electro house lay “fidget,” which birthed a whole wave of rowdy sounds from the likes of Switch, Sinden, AC Slater, Jack Beat, and Laidback Luke and A-Trak with their banger “Shake it Down.”
Those fusions of UK soundsystem culture and more internationalist electro riffs continued to multiply through the 2010s. And now, with international megastars like Diplo, Hannah Wants, and Eats Everything in the mix, there is a whole, post-garage, post-post-dubstep landscape from underground to mainstream — see tunes like “On My Mind”, “Bamboozle”, and “Burn”.
And with the massive popularity of new generation bassline house embodied by the Lengoland collective and new artists like Wheeto still growing, things are only going to get rowdier. A track like the Chris Lorenzo/DJ Zinc teamup “Full of Love” perfectly captures where the sound is right now. And with vast organisations like Insomniac maintaining bass imprints (in their case In/Rotation), and staples like Night Bass going strong and pumping out preposterous but extremely popular bassbin-throbbers like The Sponges’ “Feelin’ Alright”, this sound is without a doubt a fully established part of the global house mainstream.
Jackin’ was an intrinsic property of house from its gestation in Chicago, referring to a specific dance move involving the whole torso. If a track didn’t make you “jack your body,” it wasn’t house. But over time, jackin’ coalesced around the most brutally repetitive, percussive, looping tracks, which inspired the wildest dance moves. These “jack tracks” or “trax” quite frequently came with a ribald sexual sense of humour, as in Farly “Jackmaster” Funk’s “Jack the Dick” or Maurice Joshua’s “I Gotta Big Dick” or Steve Poindexter and Armando’s “Work That Motherfucker”. As the ‘90s went on, these elements became more and more separate from the soulful side of house, creating two distinct but related strands in Chicago.
One wore its musical rawness and rudeness on its sleeve: the “ghetto house” epitomised by the mighty Dance Mania label got faster and simpler, boiling everything down to rhythm for jacking and footworking, to repeating filthy lyrics over and over. DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo, DJ Funk, Traxman, Paul Johnson and more made some of the purest dance music of all time. (Ironically, these basic beats, looked down on by more soulful house fans and musicians, would evolve into the delirious rhythmic sophistication of 21st century footworking production.)
The other side of jackin’ Chicago — which sometimes involved the same musicians — was also loop-based, but a little more sophisticated. Centred on Cajmere’s Relief and Cajual labels, a wave of Chicagoans built a sound that sometimes leaned towards techno, but was often built on relentless chopping and filtering of disco samples with Akai samplers, inspired heavily by Ron Hardy’s tape edits: see a track like Gene Farris’ “4 Minutes of Pleasure”. But there was plenty of crossover between these two poles, as a track like “Outta my Way” by Paul Johnson and Traxmen clearly demonstrates.
This disco looping style, pioneered in Chicago by artists like Armando, Turntable Bros, Gemini, Glenn Underground and above all DJ Sneak — as well as New Yorkers like Todd Terry, Kenny Dope and DJ Duke — exploded around the world. Daft Punk were the most obviously inspired by the no-frills sample manipulation, and via them and Thomas Bangalter’s Roulé label, filter disco came to become a vital part of “the French touch.” Carl Craig’s Paperclip People tracks like “Throw” became huge club staples. Armand Van Helden and Basement Jaxx had a good go at it too, taking it into the charts, and ultimately making it into the defining house style of the late ‘90s and into the 00s — pumped up still further by the glitterball Hed Kandi “glam house” boom. Think Stonebridge “Put Em High”, Booty Luv “Boogie 2Nite”, and any number of Crossover House tracks already mentioned. But it wasn’t all mainstream by any means — a tune like Paul Johnson’s “Get Get Down” could bridge the gap, while tracks like Sneak’s “U Can’t Hide From Your Dub” were 2000s underground staples, and Phil Weeks’s “The Grind” saw in a new decade.
Since then, jackin’/disco/funky house has been a staple of clubs worldwide, rising and dipping a very little in popularity, while remaining the backbone of house internationally. As long as there are samples to be mined, it’s a failsafe for DJs and producers: the familiarity of the disco elements and the primal impact of beefy drum machines always get a crowd going. And it remains a mainstay for some of the biggest DJs on the scene: Honey Dijon, Demuir, Phil Weeks, Mark Farina, and DJ Heather all know the value of pumping out the disco loops. DJ Sneak is still going strong with his I’m a House Gangster label, and imprints like Robsoul, Purveyor Underground and Late Night Jackin’ keep the flow of beats coming. A tune like DJ Mes & Rescue’s “Hornblower” might be a little more technologically advanced than a 1994 Dance Mania tune, but it still has the same inspirations and the same dancefloor drive at heart.
It’s hard to pin down exactly when big riffs really started dominating, but it must be somewhere around the birth of electroclash in the late ‘90s. As a reaction against the slickness of trance and filter house, people started gravitating to trashy fashions and big, silly bangers like Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400,” The Timo Maas remix of Azzido Da Bass’s “Doom’s Night” and Mr Oizo’s “Flat Beat,” as well as the bigger electroclash hits like Fisherspooner’s “Emerge” and Green Velvet’s “La La Land”.
From there, it was a short skip and a jump to Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”, Bodyrox’s “Yeah Yeah”, Fedde Le Grand’s “Put Your Hands up for Detroit” and a re-energised David Guetta on “Love Don’t Let me Go” at the populist end, and Tiefschwarz’s “Issst”, Vitalic’s “Poney”, Ed Banger hits like Justice’s “Waters of Nazareth”, Boys Noize’s “Volta82”, Kompakt releases like Rex The Dog’s immense “Prototype”, and any number of Erol Alkan remixes like Alter Ego’s “Rocker” for cooler kids, who provided a punkier, more energetic, unpretentious alternative to the Ibiza/Berlin minimalism of the mid ‘00s.
Come the dawn of the 2010s, with the grand spectacle of Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 still reverberating through the North American consciousness, and the increasingly rowdy sounds of tear-out dubstep turning dance culture upside down, the electro/big room sound mutated into something bigger and shinier still.
The size of global crowds became overwhelming: big room really meant BIG room. In Las Vegas, Dubai and mega festivals around the globe, the likes of Calvin Harris, Knife Party, KSHMR, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Blasterjaxx, Martin Garrix (who blew up at 17 thanks to the inescapable “Animals”), as well as occasional older trance heads like Tiësto, pumped up those big riffs to truly inhuman size. Few tracks epitomise the era like Avicii’s 2012 breakout anthem “Levels” or Swedish House Mafia’s 2012 smash “Save The World Tonight,” which brought the term “EDM” to America and introduced a whole new generation of (mostly white) teenagers to dance music through inescapably catchy hooks and achingly inspirational vocals.
This was a long way from the LGBTQ+ Black and Latino clubs of Chicago, Detroit, New York and New Jersey in the early years of the 1980s, to say the very least. And yet, for every big EDM breakdown that bends closer to hard dance than it does OG house music, there’s a groove or piano riff or sample that still carries the DNA of Frankie Knuckles, or a fan or producer who gets drawn to the deep stuff. As big room culture’s global expansion continues, there’s no knowing what will come next.
For as long as there’s been house, there’s been someone trying to make it weirder — even The Orb began their experiments with a house tune of sorts in “Suck my Kiss” in 1989. But then house is weird in and of itself anyway, and its originators knew that too: witness Larry Heard’s gloriously wonky Gherkin Jerks alias with tracks like “Red Planet”. Few, though, drew the authentic funk of US originators together with really groundbreaking sonic science like Matthew Herbert on tracks like “Back to the Start”. Herbert’s late ‘90s experiments perfectly connected the glitchiest electronica with the rhythms of Chicago and New York, and in fact prefigured what would become one of the dominating forms of the next decade. The “clicks and cuts” of people like Herbert, Vladislav Delay, Sutekh, and Isolee were initially considered fairly niche, but eventually, they were absorbed into global clubbing life via Ibiza by way of Berlin.
In the ‘00s, you couldn’t escape 15-minute tracks consisting of little more than a kick and abstract clicks and blips. Ricardo Villalobos — epitomised by his epic and terrifying remix of Shackleton’s “Blood on my Hands” — and a rejuvenated Richie Hawtin — at his tripped out best remixing Spektrum’s “Freak Box” — ruled the day. Others like Vera, Margaret Dygas followed, including, unexpectedly an entire wave of Romanians, including Raresh, Rhadoo, Petre Inspirescu, who were making some of the best music of the era. Other mavericks thrived, too: the Wighnomy Brothers from Jena, Germany stand out in particular as having made some of the freakiest, but also funkiest music of the time, with brilliantly funny titles like “Waffelekspander”. And they don’t get much more maverick than DJ Koze, who around this time was properly honing his giddy, phased-out, sampladelic grooves, with similarly odd names like “The Gekloppel Continues 2”.
Elsewhere, though, there were people making house that was almost directly opposite to this ultra-detailed stuff. Chicago’s Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being, almost single-handedly crafted a sound that could be terrifyingly distorted, but with true Chicago funk and cosmic visions, as on “D.O.S.”. He was followed by other mavericks like fellow Chicagoan Melvin Oliphant III aka DJ Traxx on “Feel It”; Dutchman Legowelt, whose electro tunes have always been interspersed with four-to-the-floor pumpers like “Nuisance Lover”; and later the motley likes of Funkineven with “Fuck Off”, Karen Gwyer on “Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase”, Actress’ “Crushed”, Kyle Hall’s “Slow Dancen Steppin on Toes” and Delroy Edwards’ “Feelings.”
Artists like these helped map out a kind of non-genre often tagged as “outsider house,” with the L.I.E.S. label as its lodestone. Nowadays, between these poles, experimental house can be many-splendored. From the psychedelic pop/rap infused sound of Yaeji to the ultra-detailed dubwise sculptures of Beatrice Dillon; the aggressively raw throwbacks of Robert Bergman to the subtly melodic electronica of rRoxymore. But then what do you expect? As long as house abides, there’ll always be someone to mess with it.
Despite all the divergences, there were always large sections of the clubbing world that were dedicated to straight-up, no-messing-around house. As mentioned in the crossover section, even as superstar DJ culture of the late ‘90s reached its peak at the turn of the millennium, the biggest hits still included things like “Music Sounds Better With You,” a track that with its simple disco sample, looping groove and soulful vocal, epitomises the fundamentals of house.
And as the ‘00s progressed, and the genres of the ‘80s and ‘90s looked in danger of being pushed aside by new generation sounds, there were always clubs and brands like Faith, SecretSundaze and Soul Heaven that kept the faith alive — even if being committed to the real deal was sometimes branded as “dad house.” And even though minimal was often seen as dominating Ibiza, you were just as likely to hear no-nonsense house music somewhere like DC-10.
But then as the 2010s approached, some very interesting things began to happen. Young crowds who’d grown up on experimental music, UK funky, dubstep and grime began to discover the roots of house for themselves. The rise of garage-house act Disclosure was emblematic of the time, but the convergence of DJ/producers like Skream, Martyn, Midland and Ikonika towards funky four-on-the-floor patterns provided a wide open conduit from other genres to straight house.
Theo Parrish’s residency at London’s Plastic People became a lynchpin for house heads of all ages. Artists from KAYTRANADA in Montreal to Finn in Manchester reminded people of the joy of radical sample-flipping in a house context. The rise of new labels like Lobster Theremin, Shall Not Fade and Toy Tonics provided solid platforms for house using classic elements as something current, rather than being thought of as a throwback. Though sometimes seen as an overhyped trend, lo-fi house was really just another term for back-to-basics bumping house grooves, hitting its zenith around 2014/15 with the huge success of tracks like Palms Trax’s “Equation,” X-Coast’s “Mango Bay”, DJ Seinfeld’s “I’ll Always Pick U Up”, and above all DJ Boring’s “Winona.”
The rise of EasyJet club tourism also had a huge impact on house by creating a highly mobile, young crowd ready to jet not just to Ibiza, but Croatia, Mexico and many more spots worldwide. And this was a crowd who loved classic house, resulting in a popularity boost for long-standing greats like Kerri Chandler, Todd Edwards and MK, and the cementing of Defected as a powerhouse label and events brand, taking established house labels like Strictly Rhythm, Classic and Nu Groove under its wing as it did. Other vintage US labels like Chicago’s Large Music and New York’s Nervous began to get a new lease of life too.
The underground was completely transformed as well, as the early 2010s saw Art Department, Jamie Jones and Hot Creations; Solomun with his Diynamic brand; and Dixon, Âme and Innervisions becoming overnight sensations. Add to this the huge crossovers of David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia, and Calvin Harris — whose residencies in in Ibiza forever changed the island — and the rise of big names like Claptone, Dom Dolla, and most recently Camelphat, David Penn and John Summit, and house has cemented itself as the heartbeat of global club and festival land: something that can weather trends, breed new innovation, and still appeal to each new generation with its core musical values.
House has had its ups and downs, its identity crises, and its problematic aspects. Like all parts of the dance music industry, there’ve been issues of whitewashing and heterosexual male dominance what was originally music by and for Black, Latin and LGBTQ+ communities. But in an era where the most exciting stars in the world of house or house-influenced music include the likes of Ash Lauryn, India Jordan, Josey Rebelle, T. Roy, Honey Dijon, TSHA, Horse Meat Disco, KAYTRANADA, Yaeji, Jayda G, The Blessed Madonna, Violet, not to mention legions of artists breaking out globally from African and Latin American nations, there is no question that its diversity is its strength, and that its future durability depends on that.
House is a feeling, but it is also a many-splendored concrete reality that’s been woven into the lives of millions of people’s lives. And that is going to remain the case for a very, very long time.
Check out Beatport’s Definitive History of House playlist below.
Joe Muggs has been a fixture in underground electronic music for a quarter of a century as a DJ, promoter, and most notably as a journalist for The Guardian, The Telegraph, FACT, Mixmag, and The Wire. Find him on Twitter and check out his book ‘Bass, Mid, Tops: An Oral History of Sound System Culture.’