Monday, April 21, 2008

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music

Expect to read a lot this year about the 20th anniversary of acid house in the UK. There’s a new Danny Rampling '20 years of house' mix CD and a linked facebook group with 13,000+ members (worth a look if you’re on facebook as people have uploaded lots of great flyers). There’s also a planned flash mob event based around the premise of getting lots of people together to dance to acid house classics – on their headphones. Clearly 1988 was the year when house music really exploded in the UK, but house music itself goes back a few years further. The following article was originally published in the US magazine Out/Look in 1989, and looks at house music’s origins in the black gay clubs of Chicago in the 1980s:

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music - Anthony Thomas

America’s critical establishment has yet to acknowledge the contributions made by gay Afro-Americans. Yet black (and often white) society continues to adopt cultural and social patterns from the gay black subculture. In terms of language, turns of phrase that were once used exclusively by gay Afro-Americans have crept into the vocabulary of the larger black society; singer Gladys Knight preaches about unrequited love to her "girlfriend" in the hit "Love Overboard"'; and college rivals toss around "Miss Thing" in Spike Lee's film "School Daze."

What's also continued to emerge from the underground is the dance music of gay black America. More energetic and polyrhythmic than the sensibility of straight African-Americans, and simply more African than the sensibility of white gays, the musical sensibility of today's ‘house’ music- like that of disco and club music before it- has spread beyond the gay black subculture to influence broader musical tastes.

What exactly is house music? At a recording session for DJ International, a leading label of house music, British journalist Sheryl Garratt posed that question to the assembled artists. A veritable barrage of answers followed: "I couldn't begin to tell you what house is. You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it. It's more like a feeling that runs through, like old time religion in the way that people jus' get happy and screamin'… It's happening! ... It's Chicago's own sound.... It's rock till you drop… You might go and seek religion afterwards! It's gonna be hot, it's gonna be sweaty, and it's gonna be great, It's honest-ta-goodness, get down, low down gutsy, grabbin' type music." (1).

Like the blues and gospel, house is very Chicago. Like rap out, of New York and go-go out of D.C., house is evidence of the regionalization of black American music. Like its predecessors, disco and club, house is a scene as well as a music, black as well as gay.

But as house music goes pop, so slams the closet door that keeps the facts about its roots from public view. House, disco, and dub are not the only black music that gays have been involved in producing, nor is everyone involved in this music gay. Still, the sound, the beat, and the rhythm have risen up from the dancing sensibilities of urban gay Afro-Americans.

The music, in turn, has provided one of the underpinnings of the gay black subculture. Dance clubs are the only popular institutions of the gay black community that are separate and distinct from the institutions of the straight black majority. Unlike their white counterparts, gay black Americans, for the most part, have not redefined themselves- politically or culturally- apart from their majority community. Although political and cultural organizations of gay Afro-Americans have formed in recent years, membership in these groups remains very small and represents only a tiny minority of the gay black population. Lesbian and gay Afro-Americans still attend black churches, join black fraternities and sororities, and belong to the NAACP.

Gay black dance clubs, like New York's Paradise Garage and Chicago's Warehouse (the birthplace of house music) have staked out a social space where gay black men don't have to deal with the racist door policies at predominantly white gay clubs or the homophobia of black straight clubs. Over the last twenty years the soundtrack to this dancing revolution has been provided by disco, club, and now-house music.

Playback: The Roots of House

Although disco is most often associated with gay while men, the roots of the music actually go back to the small underground gay black clubs of New York City. During the sixties and early seventies, these clubs offered inexpensive all-night entertainment where DJs, in order to accommodate the dancing urgencies of their gay black clientele, overlapped soul and Philly (Philadelphia International) records, phasing them in and out, to form uninterrupted soundtracks for non-stop dancing. The Temptations’ 1969 hit “I Can't Get Next To You" and the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" are classic examples of the genre of songs that were manipulated by gay black DJs. The songs' up-tempo, polyrhythmic, Latin percussion-backed grooves were well suited for the high energy, emotional, and physical dancing sensibility of the urban gay black audience.

In African and African-American music, new styles are almost always built from simple modifications of existing and respected musical styles and forms. By mixing together the best dance elements of soul and Philly records, DJs in gay black clubs had taken the first steps in the creative process that music critic Iain Chambers interprets as a marker of disco's continuity with the rhythm and blues tradition: "[In disco] the musical pulse is freed from the claustrophobic interiors of the blues and the tight scaffolding of R&B and early soul music. A looser) explicitly polyrhythmic attack pushes the blues, gospel and soul heritage into an apparently endless cycle where there is no beginning or end, just an ever-present 'now.' Disco music does not come to a halt… restricted to a three-minute single, the music would be rendered senseless. The power of disco… lay in saturating dancers and the dance floor in the continual explosion of its presence.' (2)

Although the disco pulse was born in the small gay black clubs of New York, disco music only began to gain commercial attention when it was exposed to the dance floor public of the large, predominantly white gay discos. Billboard only introduced the term disco-hit in 1973, years after disco was a staple among gay Afro-Americans, but- as music historian Tony Cummings noted- only one year after black and while gay men began to intermingle on the dance floor.

By the mid-seventies disco music production was in high gear, and many soul performers (such as Johnny Taylor with his 1976 hit "Disco Lady") had switched camps to take advantage of disco's larger market. Records were now being recorded to accomplish what DJs in gay black clubs had done earlier. Gloria Gaynor scored a breakthrough in disco technique with her 1974 album, Never Can Say Goodbye. The album treated the three songs on side one ("Honey Bee," "Never Call Say Goodbye," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There") as one long suite delivered without interrupting the dance beat- a ploy that would become a standard disco format and the basis of house music's energy level.

As the decade progressed, disco music spread far beyond its gay black origins and went on to affect the sound of pop. In its journey from this underground scene, however, disco was whitewashed. The massive success of the 1978 film Saturday Night Fever convinced mainstream America that disco was a new fad),the likes and sound of which had never been seen before. While gay men latched onto the ‘Hi NRGEurodisco beat of Donna Summer's post-‘Love to Love You’ recordings and the camp stylings of Bette Midler.

Indeed, the dance floor proved to be an accurate barometer of the racial differences in the musical tastes of white and black gays and the variation in dancing sensibilities between gay and straight Afro-Americans. Quick to recognize and exploit the profit-making potential of this phenomenon, independent producers began to put out more and more records reflecting a gay black sound.

Starting in 1977, there was an upsurge in the production of disco-like records with a soul, rhythm and blues, and gospel feel: club music was born. The most significant difference between disco and club was rhythm. Club rhythms were more complex and more Africanized. With club music, the gay black subculture reappropriated the disco impulse, as demonstrated by the evolution in disco superstar Sylvester's music.

In 1978 Sylvester had a big hit with "Disco Heat"; in 1980 he released another smash, "Fever." "Disco Heat" was a classic example of the type of disco popular among gay Afro-Americans. At 136 beats per minute it combined the high energy aspect of white gay disco with the orchestral flourishes of contemporary soul. The song also contained the metronomic bass drum that characterized all disco. It was only the gospel and soul-influenced vocals of Sylvester and his back-up singers, Two Tons o’Fun, that distinguished the music from whiter genres of disco.

"Fever," on the other hand, more dearly reflects a black/African sensibility. To begin with, the song starts with the rhythmic beating of cow bells. Sylvester also slowed the beat down to a funkier 116 beats per minute and added polyrhythmic conga and bongo drumming. The drumming is constant throughout the song and is as dominant as any other sound in it. Just as significant, in terms of Africanizing the music, was the removal of the metronomic bass drum that served to beat time in disco. In African music there is no single main beat; the beat emerges from the relation of cross-rhythms and is provided by the listener or dancer, not the musician. By removing the explicit time-keeping bass of disco, Sylvester had reintroduced the African concept of the "hidden rhythm."

While most black pop emphasizes vocals and instrumental sounds, club music tends to place more emphasis on a wide array of percussive sounds (many of which are electronically produced) to create complex patterns of cross-rhythms. In the best of club music, these patterns change very slowly; some remain stable throughout the song. It is this characteristic of club music, above all, that makes it an African-American dance music par excellence. Like disco, club also moved beyond the gay black underground scene. Gay clubs helped spread the music to a "straight" black audience on ostensibly "straight" Friday nights. And some club artists, like Grace Jones, Colonel Abrams, and Gwen Guthrie, achieved limited success in the black pop market.

For most of its history, though, club music largely has been ignored by black-oriented radio stations. Those in New York, for instance, were slow to start playing club music with any regularity; finally WBLS and WRKS began airing dance mixes at various intervals during the day. In the early eighties, the two black-oriented FM radio outlets in Chicago, WBMX and WGCI, began a similar programming format that helped give rise to the most recent variation of gay black music: house.

Pumping Up the Volume

The house scene began, and derived its name from Chicago's now defunct dance club The Warehouse. At the time of its debut in 1977, the club was the only after-hours dance venue in the city, opening at midnight Saturday and closing after the last dancers left on Sunday afternoon. On a typical Saturday night, two to five thousand patrons passed through its doors.

The Warehouse was a small three-story building- literally an abandoned warehouse with a seating area upstairs, free juice, water, and munchies in the basement, and a dimly lit, steamy dance floor in between. You only could reach the dance floor through a trap door from the level above, adding to the underground feeling of the club.

A mixed crowd (predominately gay- male and female) in various stages of undress (with athletic wear and bare flesh predominating) was packed into the dance space, wall to wall. Many actually danced hanging from water pipes that extended on a diagonal from the walls to the ceiling. The heat generated by the dancers would rise to greet you as you descended, confirming your initial impression that you were going down into something very funky and "low."

What set the Warehouse apart from comparable clubs in other cities was its economically democratic admission policy. Its bargain admission price of four dollars made it possible for almost anyone to attend. The Paradise Garage in New York, on the other hand, was a private club that charged a yearly membership fee of seventy-five dollars, plus a door price of eight dollars. The economic barriers in New York clubs resulted in a less "low" crowd and atmosphere, and the scene there was more about who you saw and what you looked like than in Chicago.

For the Warehouse’s opening night in 1977, its owners lured one of New York's hottest DJS, Frankie Knuckles, to spin for the "kids" (as gay Afro-Americans refer to each other). Knuckles found out that these Chicagoans would bring the roof down if the number of beats per minute weren't sky high: "That fast beat [had] been missing for a long time. All the records out of New York the last three years (had] been mid- or down-tempo, and thee kids here in Chicago] won't do that all night long, they need more energy."(3)

Responding to the needs of their audience, the DJs in Chicago's gay black clubs, led by Knuckles, supplied that energy in two ways: by playing club tunes and old Philly songs (like MFSB’s "Love Is the Message") with a faster, boosted rhythm track, and by mixing in the best of up-tempo avant-garde electronic dance music from Europe. Both ploys were well received by the kids in Chicago; the same was not true of the kids in New York.

As Knuckles points out, many of the popular songs in Chicago were big in New York City, "but one of the biggest cult hits, 'Los Ninos' by Liaisons Dangereuses, only got played in the punk clubs there." Dance Music Report noted that for most of the eighties, Chicago has been the most receptive American market for avant-garde dance music. The Windy City's gay black clubs have a penchant for futuristic music, and its black radio stations were the first in the United States to give airplay to Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes." The Art of Noise, Depeche Mode, David Byrne and the Talking Heads, and Brian Eno were all popular in Chicago's gay black circles.

What's also popular in Chicago is the art of mixing. In an interview with Sheryl Garratt, Farley Keith Williams (a.k.a. "Farley Jackmaster Funk"), one of house music's best known DJ/producers, says: "Chicago is a DJ city .... If there's a hot record out, in Chicago they'll all buy two copies so they can mix it, we have a talent for mixing. When we first started on the radio there weren't many [DJS], but then every kid wanted two turntables and a mixer for Christmas... And if a DJ can't mix, they'll boo him in a minute because half of them probably known [sic] how to do it themselves."

What was fresh about house music in its early days was that folks did it themselves; it was "homemade." Chicago DJs began recording rhythm tracks, using inexpensive synthesizers and drum machines. Very soon, a booming trade developed in records consisting solely of a bassline and drum patterns. As music critic Carol Cooper notes, "basement and home studios sprang up all over Chicago."

DJs were now able to create and record music and then expose it to a dance floor public all their own, completely circumventing the usual process of music production and distribution. These homespun DJs-cum-artists/producers synthesized the best of the avant-garde electronic dance music (Trilogy's "Not Love," Capricorn's "I Need Love," and Telex's "Brain Washed") with the best loved elements of classic African-American dance cuts, and wove it all through the cross-rhythms of the percussion tracks, creating something unique to the character of gay black Chicago.

There are so many variants of house that it is difficult to describe the music in general terms. Still, there are two common traits that hold for all of house: the music is always a brisk 120 bpm or faster; and percussion is everything. Drums and percussion are brought to the fore, and instrumental elements are electronically reproduced. In Western music, rhythm is secondary in emphasis and complexity to harmony and melody. In house music, as in African music, this sensibility is reversed.

Chip E., producer of the stuttering, stripped-down dance tracks "Like This" and "Godfather of House" characterizes house's beat as "a lot of bottom, real heavy kick drum, snappy snare, bright hi-hat and a real driving bassline to keep the groove. Not a lot of lyrics- just a sample of some sort, a melody [just] to remind you of the name of the record."(4).

That's all you can remember- the song's title- if you're working the groove of house music, because house is pure dance music. Don't dismiss the simple chord changes, the echoing percussion lines, and the minimalist melody: in African music the repetition of well-chosen rhythms is crucial to the dynamism of the music. In the classic African Rhythm and African Sensibility, John Chernoff remarks that "repetition continually re-affirms the power of the music by locking that rhythm, and the people listening or dancing to it, into a dynamic and open structure." It is precisely the recycling of well-chosen rhythmic patterns in house that gives the music a hypnotic and powerfully kinetic thrusting, permitting dancers to extract the full tension from the music's beat.

Chernoff argues that the power and dynamic potential of African music is in the gaps between the notes, and that it is there that a creative participant will place his contribution. By focusing on the gaps rather than the beats, the dancers at the Warehouse found much more freedom in terms of dancing possibilities, a freedom that permitted total improvisation.

The result was a style of dancing dubbed "jacking" that more closely resembled the spasmodic up and down movements of people possessed than it did the more choreographed and fluid "vogueing" movement of the dancers at other dubs like New York's Paradise Garage. Dancers at The Warehouse tended to move faster, quirkier, more individualistically, and deliberately off-beat. It's not that the kids had difficulty getting the beat; they simply had decided to move beyond it-around, above, and below it. Dancing on the beat was considered too normal. To dance at the Warehouse was to participate in a type of mass possession: hundreds of young black kids packed into the heat and darkness of an abandoned warehouse in the heart of Chicago during the twilight hours of Sunday morning, jacking as if there would be no tomorrow, It was a dancing orgy of unrivalled intensity, as Frankie Knuckles recalls: "It was absolutely the only club in the city to got to… it wasn't a polished atmosphere - the lighting was real simplistic, but the sound system was intense and it was about what you heard as opposed to what you saw." (5)

No Way Back: House Crosses Over

Like disco and club, house music is rapidly moving beyond the gay black underground scene, thanks in part to a boost from radio play. As early as 1980, Chicago's black-oriented radio stations WBMX and WGCI rotated house music into their programming by airing dance mixes. WBMX signed on a group pf street DJS, the ‘Hot Mix 5’, whose ranks included two of the most prolific and important house producers/artists- Ralph Rosario and Farley Jackmaster Funk. When the Hot Mix crew look to the air on Saturday nights, their five-hour show drew an estimated audience of 250,000 to 1,000,000 Chicagoans.

Now in Chicago, five-year-olds are listening to house and jacking. Rocky Jones, president of the DJ International recording label, points out that ‘[in Chicago, house] appeals to kids, teenagers, blacks, whites, hispanics, straights, gays. When McDonald's HQ throws a party for its employees, they hire house DJs."

Outside of Chicago, house sells mainly in New York, Detroit, D.C., and other large urban/black markets in the Northeast and Midwest. As in Chicago, the music has moved beyond the gay black market and is now very popular in the predominantly white downtown scene in New York, where it regularly is featured in clubs like Boy Bar and the World. But the sound also has travelled uptown, into the boroughs (and even into New Jersey) by way of increased airplay on New York's black radio stations; house can now be heard blasting forth from the boom boxes of b-boys and b-girls throughout the metropolitan area. It has also spread south and west to gay clubs like the Marquette in Atlanta and Catch One in Los Angeles. Even Detroit is manufacturing its own line, tagged "techno-house."

House music has a significant public in England as well, especially in London. In reporting on the house scene in Chicago, the British music press scooped most of its American counterparts (with the notable exception of Dance Music Report) by more than a year. So enthusiastic has been the British response to house that English DJs and musicians (both black and white) are now producing their own variety of house music, known as "acid" house.

House music, however, is not without its critics. Like disco and club, it has been either ignored or libelled by most in the American music press. In a recent Village Voice article hailing the popularity of rap music, Nelson George perfunctorily dismisses the music as "retro-disco." Other detractors of house have labelled the music "repetitive" and "unoriginal." (6)

Because of its complex rhythmic framework, though, house should not be judged by Western music standards but by criteria similar to those used to judge African music. House is retro-disco in the same way and to the same extent that rap is "retro-funk."

The criticism that this music is unoriginal stems from the fact that many house records are actually house versions of rhythms found in old soul and Philly songs. Anyone familiar with African-American musical idioms is aware that the remaking of songs is a time-honored tradition. As John Chernoff has documented, truly original style in African and African-American music often consists in subtle modifications of perfected and strictly respected forms. Thus, Africans remain "curiously" indifferent to what is an important concern of Western culture: the issue of artistic origins.

Each time a DJ plays at a club, it is a different music-making situation. The kids in the club are basically familiar with the music and follow the DJ'S mixing with informed interest. So, when a master DJ flawlessly mixes bits and pieces of classic soul, Philly, disco, and club tunes with the best of more recent house fare to form an evenly pumping groove, or layers the speeches of political heroes (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson) or funky Americana (a telephone operator's voice or jingles from old television programs) over well known rhythm tracks, the variations stand out clearly to the kids and can make a night at the club a special affair.

To be properly appreciated, house must be experienced in a gay black club. As is true of other African music, it is a mistake "to listen" to house because it is not set apart from its social and cultural context. "You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it ‘... people jus’ get happy and screamin’”. When house really jacks, it is about the most intense dance music around. Wallflowers beware: you have to move to understand the power of house.


1. Sheryl Garratt, "Let's Play House," The Face (September 1986), 18-23.
2. lain Chambers, Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), 187-188.
3. Simon Wiffer, "House Music," i-d (September 1986),
4. Garratt, "Let's Play House," 23•
5. Wiffer, "House Music."
6. Nelson George, "Nationwide: America Raps Back," VillageVoice 4,19 January 1988, p.32-33.

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