"The beat won't stop with the JM jock. If he jacks the box and the partyrocks. The clock tick tocks and the place gets hot. So ease your mind and set yourself free. To that mystifying music they call the key."
-JM Silk, "Music Is The Key," 1985.
"All of the records coming out of New York had been either mid or down tempo, and the kids in Chicago wouldn't do that all night long, they needed more energy..."
"When we first opened (the Warehouse) in '78, I was playing a lot of the East Coast records, the Philly stuff, Salsoul. By '80/81, when that stuff (disco) was all over with, I started working a lot of the soul that was coming out. I had to re-construct the records to work for my dancefloor,to keep the dancefloor happy, and there was no dance music coming out! I'd take the existing songs, change the tempo, layer different bits of percussion over them, to make them more conducive for the dancefloor."
-Frankie Knuckles on the Chicago gay dance community, in the "Electronic Mail and Guardian" magazine.
XXVI. THE BEGINNINGS OF CHICAGO HOUSE
A. WHO "INVENTED" CHICAGO HOUSE?
There is lots of drama and passion in the house community around the issue of who actually created or invented the Chicago house genre. Personally, I believe this is like asking: "Who invented the blues, rock, or disco?" No one person is generally responsible for the birth of an important genre. New music arises from the hard work and innovation of many producers and DJs as well as a myriad of other factors like culture, place, technology, economic opportunity, specific musical influences and, indeed, serendipity.
One could probably write an entire book on the subject of who invented house. There are many who actively claim the distinction. Before we begin a more satisfying and detailed discussion of the evolution of Chicago house I thought I'd present some of the more interesting myths and facts relating to this invention dispute.
Frankie Knuckles played a very important role by bringing dance music and culture from New York to Chicago and laying the foundation for Chicago house. To my knowledge, however, he has never said he "invented" the genre.
Leonard Remix RRoy asserts that he gave birth to house on May 5, 1981.
LRRoy seems to have had a difficult, emotionally challenged life. He gave up spinning after his mother died in 1985, joined the army to deal with his grief, and has recently, I understand, got behind the turntables again.
LRRoy was, by all accounts, a remarkable and much respected DJ. He spun at the Rink Zone in the early eighties and won a legendary battle against Steve "Silk" Hurley at Sauers where Hurley was resident DJ. The participants were Eric "ET" Taylor, Keith Fobbs, Steve Hurley and LRRoy. Hurley mixed a record backwards in that battle and played a prerelease copy of Jamie Principle's "Your Love." Then LRRoy came on leading with "Big Bee" and totally rocked the crowd and the judges. He walked away with the $500 prize. It is said that Farley "Jackmaster" Funk refused to participate in the battle because he was fearful of losing to LRRoy.
Leonard claims he invented the term "house music" in the spring of '81. He says he was mixing "Chance With You" by Brother to Brother at his home when his mother suggested he mix some of the other old music in the basement of their house. Leonard did some edits on some old stuff like "Cathedrals" by D.C. LaRue and put the music in his mix. When Lowell Tuff of the club Bitter End asked him what he was spinning, he replied: "House music."
Then Chip E. is quoted as saying he created house music in March of 1985; and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk is alleged by some to have written and produced "Love Can't Turn Around," one of the biggest selling "House" records and he, therefore, invented house. One could go on.
My sympathies in this house family drama have always been with Jesse Saunders. Even before he began his one-man campaign in the late nineties to reestablish his role in the development of house, it was clear to everyone in the music and dance community that the first house recordings were issued by Saunders Jes Say label.
Further, there is general agreement that the first house music on wax was released in 1984. That record was "On and On," written and produced by Jesse on his new label. Next was Z Factor's "Fantasy" produced by Jesse but released on another label. The big house "cross-over" hit, "Love Can't Turn Around," was actually written, produced and arranged by Jesse. He sang background on it as well, with Farley. Jesse was in litigation over the copyright to this song and finally won in court all rights to "Love" from MCA Records. Finally, Trax Records did not own the Jes Say catalog. All music published by Jesse now belongs, I understand, to his current company Just Say Productions.
Jesse fought a long and hard battle to achieve the recognition he deserves. His music has been stolen, copyrights have been infringed, and he has been the victim of much negative drama.
Jesse sees himself as the "originator" of house music. By "originator" he means that he "...started and/or fused a sound with a lot of different ingredients, but was derived with the help of other influences (time, place, people, etc.)." He does not claim to have invented or created the genre and admits that house would not exist without the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Vince Lawrence, Farley "Jackmaster" Flash and the Hot Mix 5 as well as the promoters and labels that facilitated the distribution of early house. House music, therefore, evolved as a collaborative effort. Jesse sort of put the ingredients together.
Jesse also credits Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse as the venue where the term "house" originated. The energizing music Frankie played came to be called "house," and was eventually applied to the genre.
On July 17th, 1997, the City of Chicago recognized his efforts by proclaiming a "Jesse Saunders and the Pioneers of House Music" day.
Fine. I think most people can accept this reasonable interpretation of events. I can live with it. We will look at Jesse Saunders' creative and interesting house career in more detail later.
B. AFRICAN AMERICANS CREATED HOUSE MUSIC
Like virtually every important American musical creation, house music was created in and by the African American community.
Further, house music evolved in a subset of that community: the gay dance underground -- just as disco and garage in NYC blossomed forth from the black gay community.
Chicago house emerged from the ruins of disco, but with a flavor and texture that is uniquely Chicago. For Chicago itself has a rich and varied musical culture that includes important innovations in jazz, blues and soul music. Chicago was not a musical wasteland by any means when Frankie Knuckles moved from NYC to take up residency at the Warehouse. Rather, the existing musical culture and the resulting needs of his Warehouse dancers shaped the music he brought from the East coast, and not visa-versa.
In the next issue we will briefly look at some of Chicago's modern music culture and its influence on the creation of house music.
NEXT: CHICAGO JAZZ, BLUES AND SOUL