House music is one of the most popular genres worldwide in the modern era, but the emergence of the genre and other accompanying subgenres was birthed out of major civil unrest. The genre, much like how it still is today, was driven through the underground scene and ultimately exploded into mainstream culture. However, it is the story of how house music emerged in Chicago, much to the disdain of major corporations, that is simply fascinating.
House music’s roots originate deep in Chicago’s Southside, the city that birthed the popular genre, but it was through the fall of one genre, disco, that saw the genre of house music rise to the top.
During the late 70s, radio heavily impacted society and its culture, and its formatting influenced music. In an era where Rock n Roll reigned supreme, many grew angered at the fact that disco was pushing out the classic hegemonic genre, and incoming was a genre that promoted the ‘outcasts’ of society. So frightened by change in society, DJs of mainstream radio stations would smash disco records live on air, and run vinyl pins right across them so that they would become inaudible. In a last ditch attempt to destory the emerging genre, and with knowledge that the Chicago White Sox attendance levels were dropping at an alarming rate, rock station WLUP approached the White Sox with a lucrative offer they could not refuse. On July 12th, 1979, 50,000 people attended Comiskey Park, home to the Chicago White Sox to observe “Disco Demolition”. The promotional stunt, arranged by Major League Baseball saw fans permitted entry for nothing more than 98 cents provided they brought a disco vinyl along with them.
To issue some context on the “Disco Demolition Night”, you must take into account how commercially dominant disco had become in the US at the time. Of the 16 singles that made the top of the US chart in the first half of 1979, only three were not disco tracks. Alice Echols, cultural historian, academic and author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture explained: “It had pushed AOR (Album Orientated-Rock) not to the margins precisely, but classic rock didn’t have the dominance on radio that it once had. Live music venues were increasingly switching over to disco. There were people who thought it threatened their livelihoods, there were people who thought it sounded plastic and synthetic, and there were people who were just nakedly racist and homophobic.” The ugly event involved predominantly white men, storming the field and publicly destroying music made by black artists, dominated by female stars and with a core audience that was, at least initially, largely gay.
Fear of disco was simply the fear that the American identity was no longer synonymous with whiteness, and once the mainstream executives had turned their back on the culture, disco had to find a way to reinvent itself. However, there was a new form of music emerging in the depths of Chicago in the form of house music. House music attained its name from the Warehouse, a members-only gay club for black men, hosted by the legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles. Other young black men such as Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard were beginning to catch wind of the underground that revolution Knuckles had started, and through the technical innovation of drum machines, they began producing music of their own in the early 80s. It was the culmination of Frankie Knuckles and the other aforementioned House legends’ incredible hard work that allowed for the formation of what we know today as house music.
House music was, and very much still is, a genre based solely around inclusivity. It welcomed young, old, gay, straight, black, and other ethnic minorities because it didn’t matter, house music wasn’t about segregation. The Warehouse was the first major club to open its doors, but others soon followed suit, suddenly Chicago was thriving with clubs that minority communities would be welcomed into. There was The Music Box, The glass House, and 178. There was no glitz, no glammer, no alcohol, the people came simply for one thing: the music. Meanwhile, much to the disgust of leading executives at the time, female vocals often dominated house music. Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” and “100% Pure Love” remain classics to this day, whilst Robin S’ “Show Me Love” transcended house music, becoming a classic in both the dance and R&B scene.
The house genre is constantly changing with various sub genres stemming from the initial variant such as Acid House, Deep House, Italo House to name a few, but there are many artists who are still paying homage to its legacy. The likes of The Black Madonna, Honey Dijon (two of the biggest female DJs in the world), and Mark Farina all hailing originally from Chicago still waving the banner for ethnic minorities, and representing Chicago House music across the world still to this day. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago annually pay their respects to the genre of music that has seen the city stand out on the musical front, and displayed their devotion to inclusivity and equality. Every year the outdoor West Fest gives Chicago residents and visitors a weekend full of house music, food, and historical lessons on how house music became so important to the incredible city.
The evolution of disco to house music is such an interesting story. By no means did house music dethrone disco, it was more like a phoenix rising from the ashes of major corporations that wanted to sustain the white hegemonic dominance. Thankfully, they failed. The historic drum machines, samplers, and synths still live strong to this day, but it is the inclusivity of house music, in that any one was welcomed (and still is) that makes it so important, and probably a huge reason as to why it still resonates with so many people. Let there be house.