House is a music of defiant celebration and unquestioning acceptance, and it is pure Chicago. Though it’s one of those historical footnotes people will forever debate, many believe its very name comes from this city — specifically from the Warehouse, the relatively small and unassuming club in the West Loop where Frankie Knuckles and others gave birth to the genre in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
The history of these sounds is inextricably tied to an event that is emblematic of a very different attitude, and one Our Town should not be proud of. Disco originated in the Philadelphia soul sounds of the late ’60s, transformed and exploded in the largely gay, black and Latino underground nightclubs of New York City in the early ’70s, and became a chart-topping mainstream sensation later in the decade, with the inevitable and not entirely unjustified backlash. (I am no fan of Saturday Night Fever, but Gloria Gaynor and Sylvester? Hell, yeah!)
Though some argue that it merely was a publicity stunt gone wrong, the racist and homophobic undertones are obvious in the infamous “Disco Demolition” riot at Comiskey Park in July 1979. (The hatred is on display right there in the rallying cry, “Disco sucks!”) But neither the backlash nor changing musical tastes ever really killed disco; it simply went back underground to the aforementioned outsider communities and transformed into something even more powerful.
As Knuckles said, referencing the Disco Demolition, “House music was disco’s revenge.”
The music is of course alive and well today. One could argue that it has never been more popular, since Chicago House combined with the more electronic sounds of Detroit techno are the roots of all modern electronic dance music, even if the throngs of Millennial dancers who fill corporate EDM “raves” are blissfully unaware of that history.
27. Frankie Knuckles
“Not everything has to be on the main road — sometimes you find paradise in the smallest places.”
Born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx, the man who would become “the Godfather of House” started spinning records with his friend and fellow DJ Larry Levan while studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But he’d make his mark in Chicago after he moved here and became a regular fixture at the Warehouse, which another friend, Robert Williams, opened in 1977.
Frankie’s sound was an influential mix of disco classics, soaring gospel, the “dusty” indie-label soul rarities so beloved in Chicago and European electronic rock. The highlight of any late night at the Warehouse came when the already dim lights would suddenly go completely dark and Frankie would crank “Trans Europe Express” at top volume, creating the illusion of a train hurtling full-speed through the center of the club.
Eventually, influenced by pioneering Detroit techno DJ Derrick May, Frankie began creating his own rhythms on the earliest drum machines, and he was tapped to remix or enhance recordings by superstars such as Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Toni Braxton and Diana Ross.
Both his productions and his own tracks, like “The Whistle Song,” remain hugely influential, and Frankie is as beloved for these sounds as he is for a charismatic and loving attitude that inspired everyone he met. He died in 2014 at age 59 from complications from diabetes, but two years earlier, Greg Kot and I had the opportunity to interview him (along with two other Chicago musical giants from the ’80s who we’ll meet later in this series) at a Sound Opinions event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. That audio can be streamed here.
28. Steve “Silk” Hurley
“I think Chicago has always been about quality, so while fads come and go, great music can weather the storm and stand the test of time.”
Born in Chicago, Hurley would become the most commercially successful house DJ, producer and songwriter in the musical mainstream, thanks to millions of records sold, an armful of Grammys, and productions and remixes for a long list of artists including Madonna, Michael Jackson, En Vogue and Jennifer Lopez, among many others.
Frankie may have been the most prominent originator of the Chicago House sound, but Silk brought it to the top of the charts, as well as putting his own stamp on the grooves with signature tracks such as “Jack Your Body,” a fluke toss-off that became a smash hit. “It was just a record that I had fun with,” Silk has said. “I didn’t take it serious because I knew it was so against the grain!”
29. Cajmere/Green Velvet
“I’ve always been skeptical when it comes to the system. I have never seen it be an establishment that has the poor at heart.”
At the other end of the commercial spectrum, deep in the underground and more philosophically aligned to this city’s D.I.Y. punk scene, we have Chicago-born Curtis Alan Jones. The DJ, producer, head of the indie label Cajual, and occasionally Prince-link funk musician has worked under too many pseudonyms to count, though Cajmere and Green Velvet are probably the best known.
Younger, more avant-garde and more electronically minded than some of his peers on this list, he nonetheless continued to build on the classic house merger of soaring gospel vocals and driving disco rhythms, as evidenced by his timeless collaborations with Chicago singer Dajae, a.k.a. Karen Gordon. His influence looms large on the current dance scene, though he is now a born-again Christian who is unequivocally critical of the drug use that permeates much of EDM.
30. Ron Hardy
“If Frankie Knuckles was the Godfather of House, Ron Hardy was its Baron” — DJHistory.com
Following in the wake of the Warehouse as Chicago’s dominant center of the House sound and community, Ron Hardy reigned on the turntables at the Muzic Box, 1632 S. Indiana Ave., just as Frankie had at the earlier club.
As fond of already antiquated reel-to-reel tape decks as he was of his turntables and drum machine, Hardy’s mixes often made the phrase “utra-high-energy” sound like an understatement. The common refrain at the Muzic Box was “Ronnie used me tonight!,” which is to say, he made us dance until we collapsed.
Hardy lost his laboratory and center of community when the Muzic Box closed in 1987 in the wake of a new city law cracking down on late-night dance clubs which failed to distinguish licensed venues from unsanctioned parties. (This was the predecessor of the even more infamous “anti-rave ordinance” of 2000, and both prove the lingering legacy of a lack of understanding of or appreciation for the music and the community evident in the Disco Demolition.) He battled with heroin addiction and died at age 33 in 1992.
31. Felix da Housecat
“Everybody wants to be Hollywood.”
Born in Chicago as Felix Stallings Jr., flamboyant DJ and producer Felix da Housecat was the leading light of what came to be consider the second wave of Chicago house, incorporating more of an electronic edge in his grooves. Like Cajmere, he has worked under a number of pseudonyms (others include Thee Maddkatt Courtship and Sharkimaxx), as well as heading his own indie label, Radikal Fear.
As befits the changing times, Felix is now as celebrated for his work in video games as he is for singles and albums such as Virgo Blaktro and the Movie Disco, released by Nettwerk Records in 2007 with production by the vaunted Dallas Austin. But in that realm, he is bringing house to yet another generation of listeners.
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.
Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.
Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.
Click here for Part Three in this series, Gospel.
Click here for Part Four in this series, Rock in the ’60s and ’70s.
Click here for Part Five in this series, Soul and R&B.