What is house music? A brief history of the eternally relevant club genre
© Julia Mayorova / Red Bull Content Pool
House music has a rich and fascinating history – here are the basics you need to know before stepping onto the dancefloor.
As one of the building blocks of modern club music, it’s hard to imagine what would get played in clubs now if house music hadn’t taken shape in the 1980s. The genre’s origins are in clubs in New York and Chicago with predominantly black and gay audiences and to this day house music thrives among various generations across the world. The story of house is a big one and there many scenes to explore. Here’s a general overview of the genre’s story so far.
What preceded house music?
Before house came disco. Disco peaked in the late ‘70s and set the standard for nightclub music that stomped between 110-130 beats per minute (BPM) and stretched out the rhythm sections and breakdowns in tracks. This helped cement DJ culture, especially in New York. As the ‘80s kicked in, synthesisers and drum machines started to replace live bands and orchestras of traditional disco records, and the first ripples of electronic disco and proto-house were felt at clubs like Paradise Garage and countless other underground spots in NYC and elsewhere.
What were the first flash points?
Like all major cultural movements, there’s no one definable moment when house music magically appeared – it evolved out of a mixture of developments and experiments in the studio and advances in technology.
But importantly, a few key DJs combined certain sounds and inspired a new trend. Key amongst these pioneers were Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, whose Chicago-based venues The Warehouse and Music Box respectively championed the distinctive sound of tough machine beats and powerful melodic hooks with a futurist sensibility offset by the heart and soul of disco. The Warehouse was so influential it’s widely credited as the place which gave house music its name.
Watch an RBMA lecture with Frankie Knuckles below.
How does a classic house track sound?
Those first records that started to be called ‘house’ records (for their suitability at clubs like The Warehouse) were pretty uptempo affairs that featured crashing drums from rhythm boxes like the Roland TR-707 as well as punchy, robotic basslines, big lead synth hooks and powerful vocals. They thundered along on the same 4/4 framework disco was built in – an insistent kick drum stomping out four beats per bar. Just check JM Silk’s Music Is The Key – one of the early house classics from 1985 – and you’ll hear how the romantic swoon of disco and boogie had been boiled down to a raw machine sound.
Where did acid house come from?
As the house sound took hold, the scene exploded due to the accessibility of the machines used to create this party music. Out of the ingenuity of three producers messing around with Roland’s low budget and widely rubbished TB-303 bassline synth came a phenomenon still explored to this day – acid. DJ Pierre, Spanky and Herb J as Phuture tweaked the filter and resonance on the 303 to create an alien, squelchy sound that they rode for 12 minutes over the classic tune Acid Tracks. It famously took Ron Hardy up to four attempts on the same night to get the crowd into this weird new sound, but once he had them on side, a new house-related genre was born.
How did deep house develop?
Alongside the more upfront early house sound came one of the most significant developments in the genre – deep house. There are many artists who helped push this more reflective, soulful strain, but original house pioneer Larry Heard is widely credited as one of the godfathers. Elsewhere artists like Masters At Work brought some of the live, organic elements back into the music, with an emphasis on diva vocals, while over in New Jersey labels like Movin’ Records pushed a unique, incredibly funky line in deep house with swinging drums.
How has house music travelled and evolved?
The seismic waves that were coming out of Chicago and New York as house music blew up reached many places, merging with existing cultures and spawning all kinds of wild new modes of expression. Distinct strains of the genre include the drum-heavy tribal house; moody, melodic progressive house; the upbeat and song-focused funky house; the experimental and stripped down minimal house; fast and frenetic hard house; and the constant grey area between techno and house known as tech house.
In Detroit, the bedrock of appreciation for electro, industrial, P-funk and other genres collided with house to spawn techno. Techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson frequently made the pilgrimage to Chicago clubs as they were forging their own iconic sound.
On house music’s home turf Chicago, the raw ghetto house style found on labels like Dance Mania in the '80s and '90s gave rise to the intense, experimental genre and dance culture known as juke / footwork – which was pioneered by the likes of RP Boo and the late DJ Rashad.
Via the sunkissed Balearic parties of Ibiza and the established London rare groove warehouse scene, the UK cottoned on to house and especially acid house wholeheartedly in the late 1980s and became another key outpost for the culture with its own unique spin on the formula.
In Italy they were ready since the days of Italo disco (which helped inspire house in the first place) and acts like Jestofunk brought their own twist on house music to the table. In France they took a distinctive, hip-hop attitude to sampling classic disco and funk records and brought about French touch, a subgenre defined by the likes of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Bob Sinclair, Etienne De Crecy and more.
Meanwhile in South Africa kwaito became the sound of the townships – a localised twist on house that celebrated the culture of its geography as well as the influence from abroad. In Japan, early adopters included Satoshi Tomiie.
The trouble with a genre as monumental as house is there is so much to it – a simple overview will never do it justice. Our advice is to follow these pointers and start digging from the beginning – there are untold pioneers from Lil Louis to Ultra Naté, Marshall Jefferson to Kerri Chandler, who all had a major impact on the genre’s evolution. Look them up, you won’t regret it.
How popular is house music today?
While its popularity has waxed and waned more than a few times, house music culture has always been in motion. The internet has helped foster a widespread appreciation for original, pioneering house music from the ‘80s and ‘90s, which has seen a rise in more classic approaches to house music and a whole lot of reissue labels. Most importantly, there are still producers innovating and taking the sound in new directions. There are chart-topping acts like Disclosure that draw on the genre for mainstream success, but the beating heart of contemporary house music is tangled up in a web of independent, underground labels and artists, new and old.
From Theo Parrish to Jayda G, Honey Dijon to Motor City Drum Ensemble, Max Graef to Aybee, or Floating Points to Jenifa Mayanja, there are countless inspired musicians currently exploring variants on the house music blueprint. In its seductive fusion of pleasure, passion, futurism and funk, it’s the sound that just gets richer with time.
Listen to DJ sets of house, techno and beyond via Red Bull Radio.