"Chicago house music was born of a double exclusion, then: not just black, but gay and black. Its cultural dissidence involved embracing a music that the majority culture deemed dead and buried. House didn't just resurrect disco, it intensified the very aspects that most offended the discophobes: the mechanistic repetition, the synthetic and electronic textures, the rootlessness, the 'depraved' hypersexuality and 'decadent' drugginess. Stylistically, house assembled itself from disregarded and degraded pop-culture detritus that the mainstream considered passe, disposable, un-American: the pro-disco of Salsoul and Philadelphia International labels, English synth-pop, and Moroder's Eurodisco."
- Simon Reynolds, "Generation Ecstasy" (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1998), p. 24.
"I grew up on rock and everything else, so I didn't stick to disco like 'Let No Man Put Asunder.' I got tired of playing that after six or seven years. It was nice to drop in now and then, but a lot of people wanted to hear that stuff all the time. I played rock, funk, R&B, disco, and everything from the Go-Go's and Devo to the B-52's' 'Mesopotamia.'"
- Jesse Saunders
XXXII: OUT OF AGONY, ECSTASY
By 1979 the all-night parties at the Warehouse had attracted a crowd of enthusiasts much too large for the venue. The faithful came in shifts, many after other clubs closed at 2 AM. Since Warehouse parties often bumped on until past nine in the morning, the lucky in the line outside might get to replace exhausted dancers who gave it up at dawn. Even if you didn't get in, the sound system could be heard outside, and it became the custom to dance in the streets if you couldn't dance on the floor. Passion surrounded the place.
A. RON HARDY
Ron Hardy was another creative and revolutionary DJ who spun at the Warehouse. Ron also came from the gay underground scene and began his career DJing at Den One in 1974. Ron and Frankie were friends and collaborators in the creation of the Warehouse sound. Many believe Ron was the most creative and dedicated of the two. Ron pretty much spent all his waking hours perfecting his DJ craft and often slept in the DJ booth.
Ron's tracks and mixing were much more eclectic than Frankie's, and he favored stronger, wilder more compelling rhythms. Like Frankie he would splice reel-to-reel tape to modify and enhance recorded mixes as well as provide background effects and rhythm tracks. Unlike Frankie, who was more disco-oriented, Ron would mix industrial, alternative rock, and new electronica from Europe into the disco platform.
After Frankie moved from the Warehouse to a new venue in 1983 (some say it was because the owner doubled the entrance fee), Ron went to LA for a few months and then became resident DJ at the celebrated Music Box on Chicago's South Side. The Music Box was another underground, hedonistic paradise of a venue. A bit more energetic than the Warehouse, I recall, with a raw, rough, anything-goes vibe that topped most Chicago house clubs of the era. The Music Box was African American albeit mixed straight and gay, so the audience for this black music became a bit wider than that at the Warehouse.
This enormously inventive pioneer had much impact on the evolution of the Chicago house genre, and it would be unfair not to recognize his unique rapport with the dancers as well as the inspiration he provided for much of the producer and DJ talent in the Chicago scene. I believe his legacy would have been more substantial had he managed to better control his destructive drug habits. As it was, he was forced to leave the Music Box five years after beginning his residency and died a few years later.
B. THE AGONY
1979 was also the beginning of the great darkness that was to envelope the dance community for a number of years. The death of disco began, as we mentioned in earlier issues, with the burning of over 100,000 dance records in Chicago's Comiskey Park. The discophobia and undercurrents of homophobia spread from there. Disco and dancing were decadent, unamerican, and subverted the virile Puritan, patriarchic culture. Dance clubs shut their doors; disco recording companies went under. The new dance music product available to DJs moved from flood to trickle by the early eighties.
The evolution of house music in Chicago from the end of the disco era to the first peak of the genre in 1986 resulted from many forces, including great social and cultural change as well the availability of new technology like synthesizers, drum machines and better turntables. Economics were also a factor: big record companies were no longer interested in investing big bucks to produce dance music -- DJs and producers had to find less expensive production techniques using available technology. But there is much more to house music than technology and economics.
The compelling quality about house music that has always so deeply moved my body and soul is the concept of release and salvation through this soulful yet sensual, sexual music. The heart of this music, the essence of house, can only be understood by telling the story of the creation of ecstasy out of agony.
The agony was AIDS. This sexually-transmitted plague swept through the gay community in the early eighties. It was in the midst of this painful death and dying that house was born. We were told that the most primal of life-giving forces, sex, could kill. We were told that we were suffering because of our sins, and that this dying was god's retribution. Friends turned their backs on us; families shunned us; even lovers abandoned lovers. Indeed, it seemed as if us gay dancers were in a hell -- some said of our own making.
Gay black dancers had a worse time of it than any of us. The African-American community and music industry's antipathy towards disco was no secret. And much of these negative feelings were openly homophobic. As Chuck D of Public Enemy said of house: "...its sophisticated, anti-black, anti-feel, the most artificial shit I ever heard. It represents the gay scene...." Juan Atkins expressed his feelings more aggressively: "Man, fuck that gay shit!"
The gay community was on its own, and we had to deal with our pain and rejection by turning inward, to our own collective bodies and souls, to regain some sense of self-esteem and to find some way to redeem our lives, loves and souls.
One would think that in the midst of a disease that made sexuality synonymous with death, gay music would become non-sexual and the dancing would end. But the opposite happened. We continued to dance in the face of death, continued to celebrate sexuality, and, indeed, made music and dance spaces that transformed the physical, the sexual, into a redemptive act.
Early house music, which arose from the African-American gay community, is often defined by the intense sexuality of the lyrics. Sex and spiritual redemption are fused into one.
An excellent example of this sexual defiance in the face of death and redemption through the body is Jamie Principle's "Baby Wants To Ride."
The lyrics begin with a common prayer: "Shall I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, pray the Lord my soul to take."
Then comes the oft repeated refrain: "Baby wants to ride, so high."
Jamie goes onto to speak of a revelation: " Jamie, it's time to tell them the truth. It's time to tell them the Revelation."
What is the Revelation? "She took me to the sky, so high, how she took me for love. Made me scream, deep, for love. She brought me to my knees, for love. Made me beg, please, for love. How our bodies intertwined with each other...we made so many positions...she took me, made me scream... When I go to bed at night, I think of you with all my might. Of all the things we did together... You know if they put my thoughts into a book, they would be x-rated, baby."
And this house classic ends with the affirmation: "I believe, do you believe?" "Baby wants to ride, so high, so high."
We believed, I believed, and I still believe after all these years.
In the next issue I'll discuss in more detail this notion of ecstasy and redemption through house music and dancing.
NEXT: ECSTASY AND CHICAGO HOUSE