“Big Business, Real Estate Determinism, and Dance Culture in New York, 1980-88”. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23, 3, 2011, 288-306.

Despite the late 1970s national backlash against disco, dance culture flourished in New York during the first years of the 1980s, but entered  a period of relative decline across the second half of the decade when a slew of influential parties closed. Critics attribute the slump to the spread of AIDS, and understandably so, for the epidemic devastated the city’s dance scene in a way that began with yet could never be reduced to numbers of lost bodies (Brewster and Broughton, Buckland, Cheren, Easlea, Echols, Shapiro). At the same time, however, the introduction of a slew of neoliberal policies—including welfare cuts, the liberalization of the financial sector, and pro-developer policies—contributed to the rapid rise of the stock market and the real estate market, and in so doing presaged the systematic demise of dance culture in the city. In this article, I aim to explore how landlords who rented their properties to party promoters across the 1970s and early 1980s went on to strike more handsome deals with property developers and boutique merchants during the remainder of the decade, and in so doing forged a form of “real estate determinism” that turned New York City into an inhospitable terrain for parties and clubs.1 While I am sympathetic to David Harvey’s and Sharon Zukin’s critique of the impact of neoliberalism on global cities such as New York, I disagree with their contention that far from offering an oppositional alternative to neoliberalism, cultural workers colluded straightforwardly with the broad terms of that project, as will become clear. 

The dance culture that I want to discuss can be traced back to the beginning of 1970, when parties such as the Loft and the Sanctuary pioneered the weekly practice of all night dancing that would go on to be labeled (somewhat problematically) “disco.”2 Initially off the radar, the movement became highly visible following the opening of Studio 54 in midtown Manhattan in April 1977 and the release of the movie Saturday Night Fever later that year. Disco achieved mainstream saturation across 1978—thousands of discotheques opened and the genre outsold rock—only for the combination of the overproduction of the sound and the slowdown in the US economy across 1979 to generate a homophobic, racist, and sexist backlash against the culture. Led by the Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl, the anti-disco movement highlighted the angst felt by white straight men about their increasingly uncertain future, and their perception they were losing ground to gay men, women, and people of color (or the alliance of dispossessed citizens that lay at the heart of the 1970s dance network). The “disco sucks” campaign, then, captured the crisis that enveloped the United States as disillusioned citizens sought out scapegoats to blame for the exhaustion of the postwar settlement, and picked on discophiles along with 1960s countercultural activists for leading the country into a cycle of supposedly unproductive hedonism.3 However, while the consequences of the backlash were far-reaching in terms of the number of dance venues that closed down nationally, as well as the cuts that were executed in disco departments across the music industry, New York City’s dance network was largely unaffected, and the independent record company sector that served it only temporarily troubled.

Downtown’s private parties survived with ease. “I read about ‘disco sucks’ in the paper and that was it,” comments David Mancuso, host of the Loft, the original downtown private party. “It was more of an out-of-New York phenomenon. New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music.”4 Opened in stages across 1977 and 1978 as an expanded version of the Loft, the Paradise Garage thrived alongside Mancuso’s spot, especially when owner Michael Brody turned Saturdays into a gay male night (with a female and straight presence), and maintained the already successful Friday slot as a mixed night. Flamingo, which catered to an elite white gay male crowd, and 12 West, which attracted a more economically diverse gay male membership, also prospered until the theater and bathhouse entrepreneur Bruce Mailman opened the Saint on the site of the old Fillmore East at the cost of $5,000,000 in September 1980. Sporting a spectacular planetarium dome above its dance floor, the Saint started to attract 3,000–4,500 dancers every Saturday from opening night onwards.

Public clubs proliferated across the same period. Among the new spots, the Ritz opened as a rock-oriented discotheque that showcased live bands, the colossal Bonds switched to a similar format when its original owners become embroiled in a tax scandal, Danceteria operated as a supermarket-style entertainment spot that dedicated separate floors to live music, DJing, and video, and the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge took off as bar and dance venue that prioritized new wave, performance art, and East Village drag. Forging a more overtly multicultural aesthetic, the Funhouse caught on around the same time when Jellybean Benitez was hired to DJ at the spot, and drew in a huge Italian and Latin crowd. A short while later, Ruza Blue’s Wheels of Steel night at Negril and then the Roxy offered a mix of funk, rap, electro, dance, and pancultural sounds. Meanwhile the Mudd Club continued to integrate elements of punk and disco in its mix of DJing, live music, art exhibitions, and fashion shows, and Club 57 maintained its spirited combination of whacky parties, performance art, and film screenings. A number of these spots displayed the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and other young artists who could not find a way into SoHo’s already sedimented gallery scene, and gave them jobs if they needed to supplement their income.5 As such, they operated as inclusive, self-supporting communities that forged a cooperative ethos that contrasted with the neoliberal logic of exploitation, division, and maximum profit. 

Liberated by the decision of the major record companies to withdraw from dance along with the loosening up of audience expectations in the postdisco period, independent record companies such as Island, 99 Records, Prelude, Sleeping Bag, Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and West End also thrived across the early 1980s. Together they reestablished the position independent labels enjoyed in the mutually supportive network that defined the relationship between dance venues, dancers, and recording studios across much of the 1970s, and although few of their releases went on to achieve a national sales profile, the independents were able to thrive on locally generated club-based sales that would often run into the tens of thousands. Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan enjoyed his most prolific and creative period as a remixer between 1979 and 1983, and along with figures such as Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, and John Robie, Levan contributed to the creation of a chaotic, mutant milieu that drew the sounds of postdisco dance music, rock, dub, and rap into a sonic framework that was increasingly electronic. 

While late 1970s disco producers recorded within the constraints of an increasingly demarcated and rigid format, early 1980s dance producers conjured up cross-generic combinations that drew explicitly from rock, dub, and rap. In the case of “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, bandleaders Michael de Benedictus and Larry Levan introduce cluster storms of echo- heavy electronic handclaps around which a thick, unctuous bass line splurges out massive blocks of reverberant sound, vocalist Bernard Fowler channels soul music’s routinized theme of sexual attraction through the erotically charged, transitory environment of the Garage floor, and guitarist Robert Kasper plays hard rock. On another contemporaneous release, David Byrne’s “Big Business” explores the connections that ran between new wave, funk and dance while delivering elliptical lyrics that appeared to warn against the country’s rightwards shift. “Over time disco became less freeform and more of a formula, and the arrangements also became less interesting,” notes Mancuso of the shifting sonic terrain. “There were fewer and fewer good records coming out. It was obvious there would have to be a change. People didn’t want a set of rules. They wanted to dance.”


Neoliberalism and Downtown Culture 

The shift to a neoliberal agenda can be traced back to the moment when the banking sector began to exert an explicit grip on New York in the mid-1970s. Unable to repay its short-term debts as a result of the decline of its industrial manufacturing sector and the flight of white taxpayers, New York’s government was compelled to strike a harsh deal that led to 65,000 redundancies, a wage freeze, welfare and services cuts, public transport price hikes, and the abolition of free tuition fees at the City University in return for a bailout (Newfield and Barret 3). In the eyes of free-marketeers, the city that had come to symbolize the intractable waste of the 1970s became a model of neoliberal adventure. “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s,” comments David Harvey in A Short History of Neoliberalism. “It established the principles that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of f inancial institutions and bondholders’ returns on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large” (48). 

A committed Carter supporter, Mayor Ed Koch had little choice but to accept the environment of extreme financial restraint when he assumed office in 1978. Yet rather than emphasize his opposition to the settlement, or seek to introduce policies that would support the poor rather than the interests of large corporations, Koch embraced the fiscal restraints imposed on New York City with the zeal of a born-again bank manager. As Jonathan Soffer notes in his biography of Koch, the mayor’s inaugural speech “reflected a neoliberalism that was far more concerned with ‘business confidence’ than with aff irmative action,” and concluded that the “city had been too altruistic for its own good, leading to mistakes ‘of the heart’” (146). Koch made gentrif ication “the key to his program for New York’s revival,” adds Soffer (146), and went on to construct a governing coalition of “real estate, f inance, the Democratic Party machine, the media, and the recipients of city contracts,” comment Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett (3). Struggling with the burden of a $1.8 billion debt in 1975, the city went on to produce a budget surplus ten years later thanks to strong economic growth. “At the same time,” note Newf ield and Barrett, “the poor were getting poorer, for the boom of the 1980s bypassed whole chunks of the city” (4). 

At the national level, Jimmy Carter preempted Reagan’s embrace of neoliberalism by introducing deregulation into not only the gas, oil, airline, and trucking sectors, but also the increasingly powerful banking sector (this via the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980). Adding electoral positioning, revisionist history, the conviction of class interests, and affective reassurance to the mix, Reagan delivered a series of speeches and policy statements that aligned him with the so-called traditional voting constituencies that Carter had failed to favor: he characterized the countercultural coalition of the late 1960s as the cause of the country’s demise during the 1970s; he seized on policy developments around deregulation and welfare cuts not as a requirement but as an opportunity to unleash market-driven wealth at the expense of greater equality; and he embodied a form of brill-creamed 1950s conservatism that reassured many that these radical economic and social changes would help reestablish the country to its supposedly golden past.6 William K. Tabb maintains in The Long Default that the Reagan administration became “merely the New York scenario” of the 1970s “writ large” (15), the main difference being that Reagan lacked Koch’s progressive instincts around healthcare, gay rights, and other so-called liberal issues. 

Along with the wave of artists, choreographers, composers, ex- perimental video filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, sculptors, and writers who gravitated to downtown New York during the 1960s and 1970s, the party hosts and promoters who operated in the East Village, the West Village, and SoHo appeared to be threatened by these developments. After all, they moved to the area because space was cheap, which in turn meant they could live in a community that was organized around creative work that put a low value on commerciality. As a result, they pursued unlikely interdisciplinary and cross-media projects, exchanged favors around performances, valued ephemeral art over the production of objects that could be sold, and forged a network that was notable for its integration and level of collaboration. “Artists worked in multiple media, and collaborated, criticized, supported, and valued each other’s works in a way that was unprecedented,” notes Marvin J. Taylor in The Downtown Book . “Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art” (31).

If the probusiness, progentrif ication policies of Koch and Reagan broke up that network, it would have made sense for politicians and cultural producers to be strategically opposed to one another. However, Sharon Zukin argues in Loft Living: Cultural and Capital in Urban Change that in fact the cultural producers forged an alliance with real estate investors and the city government in order to drive out industrial manufacturers from SoHo and other loft-rich areas. “Before some of the artists were chased out of their lofts by rising rents, they had displaced small manufacturers, distributors, jobbers, and wholesale and retail sales operations,” Zukin writes. “For the most part, these were small businesses in declining economic sectors. They were part of the competitive area of the economy that had been out- produced and out-maneuvered, historically, by the giant f irms of monopoly capital” (5).7 Zukin adds: “The main victims of gentrif ication through loft living are these business owners, who are essentially lower middle class, and their work force” (6).8 Of the 1975 amendment to the Administrative Code of the City of New York, Zukin argues: “With J-51 [the amendment], the city administration showed its irrevocable commitment to destroying New York’s old manufacturing lofts” (13). And in the postscript to the UK publication of the book, published in 1988, Zukin concludes: “With hindsight, and with the bittersweet taste of gentrif ication on every urban palate, it is not so diff icult to understand the ‘historic compromise’ between culture and capital that loft living represents” (193). 

David Harvey develops the argument that cultural producers and capital colluded across the 1970s and 1980s in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Indeed, Zukin notes that Harvey’s 1973 book Social Justice and the City inspired the analytical approach of Loft Living, and having written the introduction to that book, Harvey expounds on its central thesis; that far from being politically progressive, cultural workers became inseparable from the neoliberal project across the 1970s and 1980s. “The ruling elites moved, often factiously, to support the opening up of thecultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents,” he writes, “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture. ‘Delirious New York’ (to use Rem Koolhaas’s memorable phrase) erased the collective memory of democratic New York.” Harvey adds that a conservative distrust of the demographic make-up and outlook of artistic types caused ripples of dissent that were usually drowned out in the pursuit of prof it. “The city’s elites acceded, though not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversif ication (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production),” adds Harvey/“New York became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual experimentation” (47).

Harvey’s and Zukin’s analysis is reasonable insofar as a number of cultural workers purchased their loft apartments and went on to make signif icant prof its on selling their properties, having contributed to the gentrif ication of the area. In addition, some went on to prof it from the market-led rejuvenation of New York’s economy through the sale of their works and the receipt of sponsorships from the benef iciaries of the neoliberal boom, from Wall Street brokers to public institutions that were charged with the role of marketing New York as a global center of cultural tourism. However, both Harvey and Zukin overstate the collusion inasmuch as only a tiny proportion of cultural workers could have moved downtown in order to participate in a self-conscious project of gentrif ication, while many lived in small apartments in the East Village because even the low rents of SoHo, TriBeCa, and NoHo were prohibitive. In addition, Harvey and Zukin underemphasize the experience of the vast majority of those workers, who were carved out of SoHo’s gallery economy from an early moment, and were compelled to leave the area in signif icant numbers when rents went up.9 While some of the work of the downtown artists was suitable for co-option by the sponsors of neoliberalism, a far greater proportion was grounded in collaborative, noncommodif iable practices that could not be sold in any straightforward way. Along with Harvey, Zukin mourns the shift from industrial to postindustrial capitalism, yet inexplicably attributes this to the existence of cultural workers when she argues that they “displaced” industrial manufacturers, or ousted them forcibly, even though the artists moved into empty lofts that had been evacuated by industry, either because those businesses had moved to areas that were more favorable than downtownNew York, or because they had succumbed to the national decline in the industrial sector. That could hardly be attributed to a relatively small group of cash-poor creative types. 

New York’s downtown dance scene might have been post-Fordist in its co-option of ex-industrial buildings, yet its core ritual was anything but neoliberal, rooted as it was in the anti-individualist ethos of the dance floor, where dancers abandoned the self in pursuit of collective pleasure, often in settings that encouraged the kind of “inter-class contact” advocated by Samuel R. Delany in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (111). Indeed owners and promoters disregarded the prof it motive consistently, with David Mancuso and Michael Brody notable for spending huge sums of money in pursuit of perfect sound, Jim Fouratt and Rudolf Pieper for reinvesting Danceteria’s takings into risk-taking programs and costly interior redesigns, Bruce Mailman for seeking a degree of experiential perfection that left his investors dissatisfied, and so on. Moreover, whereas the arrival of artists contributed to the regeneration of SoHo and other downtown neighborhoods, the existence of dance venues, and in particular those that attracted a heavily gay and ethnic presence, was deemed to counter the gentrification process by local residents (who opposed Mancuso’s move from NoHo to SoHo, for example). Nor did neoliberal wealth trickle down to the protagonists of the New York dance scene. “All this money came into New York, and it was like, ‘Give all the money to the rich people and it will trickle down to the little guy.’ But that never happened,” notes Ivan Ivan, a DJ at the Mudd Club and Pyramid. “Money was coming into New York, but it was being enjoyed by a bunch of Wall Street guys doing blow, drinking champagne, and going to really fancy restaurants. It wasn’t really trickling down. Maybe some of the art world was getting some of that money, because these people had money to spend on art; but overall it was a pretty hairy time.” 

Opposing Reagan, the Mudd Club staged an ironic inaugural party, Danceteria mocked the bland conservatism of the government’s domestic vision, and venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage positioned themselves as safe havens for dancers who lived at the hard-end of economic, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. These and other spots were profoundly aware of the way their practices existed in relation to wider economic and political developments. “The Pyramid was an amalgam of glamour and the grungy surround that we lived in in the East Village,” explains Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, a drag queen who worked and performed at the Pyramid. “We also had a very strong 1960s influence that ran through everything; we were hippyish, if you will, idealistic. But of course we were living in the age of Reagan, so I don’t know how long our idealism lasted. After a couple of years the timbre of the shows became very sarcastic.” Ann Magnuson, who performed regularly at Club 57, Danceteria, and the Pyramid, comments: “At the time, it was, ‘Well, [Reagan’s election] that’s fucked up, but we’re going to keep on doing what we do. People were still saying, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down, or change who I am. But the anger kept on brewing and brewing, and the anger informed everyone’s work and performances. There was a lot more ranting and a lot more screaming and frustration and darker imagery.” 

Most pointedly, party hosts and club promoters along with noncommercial creative workers were forced to confront the consequences of Koch’s drive to turn Manhattan into an oasis for property investment. “Between 1982 and 1985, sixty new off ice towers went up south of 96th Street,” write Newfield and Barrett. “Real estate values in gentrifying neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn went soaring, and the exodus of major corporations from New York was stopped. A new convention center was built, a half- dozen luxury-class hotels were financed with tax abatements, and tourism increased, injecting revenue into the Manhattan economy of theaters, hotels, and restaurants” (3–4). Concurrent property price inflation, which rocketed by 125% between 1980 and 1988 in New York City, priced many party hosts and club promoters out of large swaths of Manhattan, while tax abatements that totalled more than $1bn in “corporate welfare” left them full of resentment, as the following examples illustrate.10 


Real Estate Determinism, AIDS, and Social Division 

The Loft became a site of embattled struggle when David Mancuso left his 99 Prince Street location in June 1984 because his lease was about to expire and the building’s owner wanted to cash in on the rising value of the property market in SoHo. Mancuso could not afford to meet the landlord’s price, and, as a countercultural radical who was deeply committed to running an integrated and ethical party, would not have wanted to anyway, thanks to SoHo’s shift from a zone that encouraged artistic and social experimentation to one that was embedded in boutique consumerism and real estate mania. Mancuso had prepared for his exit by purchasing a building in Alphabet City, which was due to receive a significant government subsidy, but maintains that the move hit problems when the plans to regenerate the neighborhood were abandoned and the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s began to take hold. Mancuso lost a signif icant proportion of his crowd immediately, with many of his female dancers concerned about venturing into an area where it was so hard to catch a taxi home. Moreover, the very forces that persuaded Mancuso to move encroached on his ability to engage in activism. “It took a couple of years to see what damage Reagan was doing,” recalls the party host. “In 1982 I knew I had to move, and when I moved from Prince Street to Third Street a lot of things changed in my life that meant I couldn’t focus so much on politics. I was just trying to survive.” 

Danceteria was also priced out of the real estate market. For three years, the promoters just about met their expenses as they showcased fledging bands, helped pioneer the staging of art-oriented events in a pop setting, and reinvented the interior of the third and fourth floors at a furious rate. But in mid-1985 Alex Di Lorenzo, the property mogul owner of the building, who doubled as part owner of the venture, decided to rent his space out for more money than Rudolf Pieper and manager John Argento could afford. “Our lease was up and the owner of the building had partners who were not part of Danceteria, and were making money from real estate,” recalls Argento. “We rented the whole building for $1.20 per square foot and he [Di Lorenzo] was getting offers of $25 per square foot. His siblings pressed him to rent the building for more money.” A realtor purchased the lease for $600,000, and Pieper and Argento were among the benef iciaries, yet Pieper had no control over the outcome and took little pleasure from the development. “When Danceteria opened, 21st Street was in an abandoned neighborhood,” he recalls. “You could walk for blocks and not f ind anything open at night. Then, gradually, the excitement of New York brought in hordes of moneyed bores from the rest of the country and real estate prices went up. The club would have continued where it was had not some speculator come up with an offer. Now it’s a residential building with ‘apartments of unsurpassed luxury.’ How exciting.” 

The Saint closed a little under three years later, apparently due to AIDS, which struck the venue’s membership with particular force because the balcony area doubled as a feverish zone for promiscuous and often unprotected sex; indeed, early on AIDS was nicknamed “Saint’s disease” because the virus was so prevalent among the venue’s members (Shilts 149). Initially, the dance floor dynamic was not affected, largely because the venue’s long waiting list meant that sick and deceased members were replaced seamlessly, and also because the venue offered those who were sick or knew people who were sick with a chance to “dance their troubles away” (as the Saint DJ Robbie Leslie told me). But when turnout began to decline around the middle of the 1980s, Bruce Mailman opened the club to straight dancers on Thursdays and Fridays, and numbers caved in on Sundays as well during the venue’s f inal years.11 “The Fridays stopped and then Sundays became very, very thin towards the end of the 1980s,” comments dance floor regular Jorge La Torre. “I didn’t want to stop going, but when there weren’t enough people to get the party going and f ill the dance floor it wasn’t the same.” 

The AIDS epidemic placed signif icant emotional and economic pressure on Mailman, who became involved in a public dispute with Koch as he fought to maintain the right of gay men to regulate their own sexual practices in the Saint and the St. Mark’s Baths (which he also owned). “Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn’t mean I’m doing something morally incorrect,” Mailman told the New York Times in October 1985 as the tussle unfolded. “In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I’ll do what I believe as long as I can do it” (Jane Gross). However, according to Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ who was close with Mailman, the Saint closed only when a real estate developer made Mailman an eight-f igure offer that would have at least doubled his initial investment, and the owner accepted, in large part to satisfy his investors, who had long expressed their frustration that the immense costs involved in running the club meant they had not seen a return on their outlay. “Bruce was very ambiguous about selling the club because he loved it so much and the last season (1987–88) was actually crowded again on Saturday nights,” says Sherman. “He did say to me, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sell it this year.’” Although numbers dropped from the mid-1980s onwards, La Torre conf irms that “Saturday nights always had a sizeable crowd,” and the ensuing success of the Sound Factory, which opened in 1989 and attracted a huge white gay male crowd, illustrated that AIDS did not amount to the teleological, retributive conclusion of queer pleasure on the dance floor and beyond. As devastating as the AIDS epidemic was for the Saint community, the venue was sold in the final instance because Mailman also needed to satisfy a set of investors, and those investors wanted to see a return on their money that embroiled the venue in the neoliberal turn. 

For its part, the Paradise Garage became entangled in a perfect 1980s storm of gentrification, AIDS, and drug addiction. First the freeholder of the King Street location made it clear to owner Michael Brody that the venue’s ten-year lease would not be renewed when it expired in September 1987—because the empty parking lot that lay next to the Garage was about to be developed into an apartment block, and the new owner of that block along with the neighborhood association insisted that the club close down. “When Michael f irst got the lease there was no one living near the club,” notes David DePino, the alternate DJ at the Garage, and a close conf idant of Levan’s and Brody’s. “On the corner was a parking lot. Eight years later the lot was gone and in its place was a very big and expensive apartment building. The developer and the local neighborhood association wanted the club gone so they persuaded the landlord not to renew the lease.” DePino adds: “Neighborhood associations are powerful. It’s not something a landlord wants to have problems with.” Brody responded by searching out possible new sites, but contracted AIDS soon after and resolved he would not attempt to continue. Brody’s deteriorating relationship with Levan, his totemic DJ, helped him make his decision; always demanding, Levan had become extremely difficult to work with after he became addicted to heroin. 

The independent label sector also lost momentum across the mid- 1980s, in part because its representatives were squeezed out by the major labels, which were emboldened by the economic recovery, the commercial success of the CD format, and the marketing bonus provided by MTV. The majors proceeded to cherry pick dance acts such as D Train and France Joli, rip them out of their integrated networks, and mismanage them into producing albums that did not work locally or nationally. Across 1983 and 1984, the majors also started to offer remix commission to cutting edge dance figures such as Arthur Baker, Franc¸ois Kevorkian, and Jellybean, who found themselves working on an increasing number of rock and pop tracks that did not translate in a club context. At the same time, the closing of Danceteria along with the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and other spots that showcased live bands alongside DJs deprived labels such as 99 Records and ZE of their principal means of promotion. Both ground to a halt across 1983–84, and although this could be put down to a mix of exhaustion and misfortune, the mid-1980s did not produce a new wave of danceable punk-funk acts to replace the likes of the Contortions, ESG, Konk, and Liquid Liquid. Nor did a towering f igure emerge to replace Larry Levan when his heroin addiction hardened, or Shep Pettibone after he went on sabbatical in 1984. When Chicago house music started to arrive in the city during 1985, dance DJs embraced it hungrily, in part because by then the majors had succeeded in reclaiming control of dance music, which they flooded with a pop sensibility (Shepherd, 1984a, 1984b). 

The mid-1980s New York club-music milieu also fragmented as record companies and club owners attempted to target their offerings with greater precision. Whereas 1970s and early 1980s disco and dance had operated according to the principles of integration and assimilation, mid- 1980s rock and rap shifted away from polymorphous rhythm in favor of a heavier, more aggressive, more masculine aesthetic. The shifting terrain made it difficult for integrationist parties to survive, and Ruza Blue was ousted from the Roxy when the venue’s owner concluded that her vision was not sufficiently prof itable; soon after the venue along with rap music became more tightly def ined and heavily commodif ied as the MC-rapper displaced the DJ-integrator as hip hop’s emblematic f igure. “The management at the Roxy were clueless, and didn’t get what I was trying to do there,” comments Blue. “They started to book a lot of MCs and groups, and the scene became one-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. It became a bit violent and troublesome. There were mostly men in there. Not very exciting.” 

Across the same period, the pluralistic sound that could be heard in white gay venues across the 1970s and early 1980s congealed around a beautiful disco/Hi-NRG aesthetic, in part because the high cost of membership and entry to the Saint encouraged its regulars to reimagine themselves as individual consumers rather than participants in a fundamentally collective ritual, which in turn led a significant number to write hostile letters to Mailman when they felt less than overwhelmed at the end of a night. The flurry of letters appears to have contributed to the drug overdose that killed the venue’s most established DJ, Roy Thode, and it also led the sacking of George Cadenas, Wayne Scott, and the venue’s most unlikely DJ, Sharon White, a black lesbian who liked to “play outside the box” (as she puts it). These and other developments encouraged many of those who held onto their positions to eliminate risk from their selections, which in turn led to an aesthetic stasis. The venue’s most popular DJ, Robbie Leslie, acknowledged as much when he told the New York Native in March 1984: “Music has evolved but New York’s gay market has faithfully held on to the romantic period of disco, which was 1978 through 1980. While we’ve all been dancing to that, we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of records being produced that over the past couple of years we’ve ignored because they haven’t f it into the mold that the audience has demanded” (Mario Z). When house music broke into New York in 1985, Saint DJs (with the partial exception of Terry Sherman) rejected it outright. Looking back, Leslie comments: “Overall we were walking on a cliff edge musically at the Saint and product was running scarcer by the week. I felt a feeling of imminent disaster.”

Meanwhile the Garage, the Loft and successor parties continued to espouse a pluralist ethos, but the heightened segmentation of the market, which witnessed rock and rap shift away from dance, and Hi-NRG targeting female pop and gay male dance audiences, left them with little to play beyond house music. Some outfits attempted to blend the sounds of house and rap, but the experiment was short-lived. Politicized by the inherently divisive consequences of neoliberalism and the effects of the crack epidemic on the black community, black rappers, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, came to see house as “elitist” and objected to the way it tried to “separate itself from the street” (in Chuck D’s words). Back in 1987, the perception that house music’s followers were not interested in addressing the most urgent concerns of the black community led Chuck D to address the issue in more incendiary terms and label the genre as “music for faggots” (Reynolds 49). In so doing, he drew attention to the broader failure of the black community to address the question of homophobia as well as the threat of AIDS, and he also gave expression to the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which encouraged groups that had once sought out common ground to see each other in terms of opposition and even betrayal. 

“In the early ’80s, everything was progressive,” Bambaataa commented in an interview in 1994 (Owen 68). “People listened to funk, soul, reggae, calypso, hip hop all in the same place.” But by the late 1980s, continued Bambaataa, club culture resembled a form of “musical apartheid.” “If you wanted house music, you went to this club, reggae another club, and hip hop yet another club,” he added. In the early 1990s, significant proportion of the “gangsta” rap scene would go on to embrace the Hobbesian trajectory of neoliberalism, or the argument that the world was made up of individuals whose natural mode was one of warlike competition. “Reagan appealed to that American sense of individualism that was really tailor made for the hip hop generation,” comments Mark Riley, a regular at the Loft and the Paradise Garage who worked in the news department of WBLS and LIB. “I am therefore I am; greed is good; the accumulation of wealth is a worthy goal in life; to hell with everyone else.” 

The demographic make-up of New York’s clubs shifted in line with the times, with Area a case in point. Opened in the autumn of 1983 by four Californians who wanted to place the idea of art production at the center of their venture, the venue attracted a mix of creative and for the most part hard-up partygoers who were drawn to the ingenious revamping of the club’s interior theme every six weeks. The cost of this work was so expensive the downers are said to have never made a prof it, but a year or so into its existence Area started to attract a new kind of preppy club-goer, and within a couple of years this new type had taken over the space. A dominatrix doorwoman, barwoman, performing artist, and promoter whose boyfriend Johnny Dynell DJed at the club, Chi Chi Valenti notes: “At Danceteria there were one or two of them—they were hideous geeks with a tie. But by the end of Area there were so many of them they weren’t just an irritant, they were a threat, and I took it very personally.” The shift mirrored changes that were taking place in the demographic make-up of downtown, where many low-earning cultural workers were forced to leave due to the cost of rising rents. “When I got to New York [in 1978] my feeling was the most uncool thing you could be was rich,” recalls Ann Magnuson, a performance artist who ran Club 57. “Then what started happening was the most uncool thing you could be was poor, and it sort of switched like that very dramatically. It shifted for me when Reagan got into off ice for the second four years.” 

Koch introduced social policies that contributed to the city becoming a more stable and profitable investment prospect while making it much harder for clubs to operate. Falling in line with Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act, ratified in July 1984, the mayor raised the legal drinking age to 21 in December 1985, ostensibly to prevent college students from drinking and driving. Whatever the intent, the effect on clubs was regressive, because young dancers injected bodies and energy into the culture; interviewed in 1985, Rudolf Pieper referenced the drinking reforms as “the final nail” (Michael Gross). Feeding the panic that surrounded AIDS, Koch also rounded on the city’s gay sex clubs and bathhouses in the name of public health, closing the Mineshaft and the St. Mark’s Baths in rapid succession, even though public health would have been supported much more effectively by backing the numerous organizations—including the St. Mark’s Baths—that were educating vulnerable groups about the disease. 

In broad terms, capital fed off club and music culture while offering little in return. When party promoters and musicians sought out cheap spaces in nonresidential areas in order to go about their work in affordable ways, they paved the way for young, smart, cash-poor populations to experience the area, only for that movement to function as the precursor to gentrification. In a parallel development, the government started to highlight New York’s cultural legacy in an attempt to promote the city as a tourist attraction, only for this to lead to the spread of expensive hotels and restaurants that made New York a less livable place for the core populations most likely to contribute to the city’s cultural life. Cultural workers might have contributed to the process of gentrification and tourism, but their involvement was often unwitting given that they were simply seeking out affordable space thanks to their lack of income. Moreover, their presence did not cause gentrif ication to happen, but simply enabled those with more money to move into the area and escalate property prices. Party hosts and club promoters were caught up in the same stream of developments, and their radically reduced presence in downtown New York across the 1980s speaks to the way rising property prices benefited owners and investors at the cost of those who wanted to undertake the simple act of congregating on a dance floor. 

Buttressed by the introduction of socially conservative policies around zoning and other policing matters, the further embedment of neoliberal policies supporting the deregulation of the banking sector and property investment across the 1990s and 2000s has reduced the number of places where dancers can head out to such an extent that the regressive period of the late 1980s now resembles a period of wild opportunity. Indeed, the city’s retail, property, and corporate interests have become so embedded that even the dip in the real estate market that followed the banking crisis of late 2008 failed to augur a mini-revival in dance culture. As a result, a generation of teenagers and adults has grown up with few opportunities to dance beyond the comparatively constrained environments of social dance forms such as ballroom and the tango. Within this context, the highlighting of an era when collective, freestyle dance parties were numerous and vibrant reveals not only what New York once was, but also what it can become. The critique of the role played by neoliberal economics and politics in the culture’s collapse brings to the fore the sometimes-obfuscated business and policy agenda that surely must be challenged if an alternative urban environment is to flourish once again.



1. I am indebted to Jonathan Sterne for suggesting the phrase “real estate 

determinism” after hearing an earlier version of this article at the EMP Pop Music 

Conference at UCLA on February 26, 2011. My use of the “determinism” moniker 

is not intended to suggest that the economic dictates everything around it, including 

the cultural, but instead to draw attention to the way the cultural occurs within the 

milieu of the economic. 

2. Disco historians, such as Alice Echols and Peter Shapiro, refer to 1970s 

dance culture as “disco,” but the culture was motored by private parties as well 

as public discotheques, from which so-called disco culture got its name in 1973.

Indeed, the private party network was arguably more influential than its public 

discotheque counter part for much of the 1970s, which is a case I make in Love 

Saves the Day (Lawrence). In addition, the DJs who helped forge disco began their 

work in 1970, some three years before the “disco” term was coined, and during 

this pre-disco period and after drew on a wide range of danceable sounds that 

included but was never reducible to the generic style that came to be known as 

disco. Therefore, while “disco” works as a neat description of 1970s dance culture, 

it obfuscates its richness. 

3. I outline the relationship between the slowdown in the US economy, 

the backlash against disco, and the rise of the Republican right in Love Saves the 

Day (Lawrence 363–80). An equivalent argument has been made by Peter Shapiro 

(227–32) and Alice Echols (205–15). 

4. All interviews conducted with the author unless otherwise stated. I am 

grateful to John Argento, Ruza Blue, Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, Chuck D, 

David DePino, Ivan Ivan, Jorge La Tor re, Robbie Leslie, Ann Magnuson, David 

Mancuso, Rudolf Pieper, Mark Riley, Ter ry Sherman, Chi Chi Valenti, and Sharon 

White, all of whom I quote in this article. In addition to these interviews, this 

article is based on interviewing and archival work (car ried out for a forthcoming 

monograph on New York dance culture in the f irst half of the 1980s) that is too 

extensive to cite here. 

5. By default, they also provided these employees, their friends and their 

peers with a premobile phone, preinternet space in which they could congregate, 

exchange ideas, and plan projects. 

6. Regarding the importance of affect, Laurence Grossberg (253, 268) 

maintains that Reagan was able to popularize a new conservatism because he 

“embodied the sentiment, passion and ideology of the new conservatism,” and 

“placed himself within the popular” both “rhetorically” and “socially.” 

7. My emphasis. 

8. My emphasis. 

9. Indeed even larger numbers did not live in a loft in the f irst place, because 

apartments in the downtrodden East Village were considerably cheaper. 

10. The inflation figures are sourced from http://www.forecast-chart.com/ 

estate-real-new-york.html. Accessed Feb. 26, 2011. Soffer (259) provides the tax 

abatement details. 

11. The introduction of straight nights is noted in “Saint Says ‘No’” 1. In 

an interview with Dar rell Yates Rist published in May 1988, Bruce Mailman noted

that Saturdays were attracting something closer to 1,200–500 a week rather than 

the regular “3,000 week in, week out,” rising to “6,000” at some special parties 

(Yates Rist 18). 


Works Cited 

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999. 

Buckland, Fiona. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 

Cheren, Mel. My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin’. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000. 

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. 

Easlea, Daryl. Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. London: Helter Skelter Publishing, 2004. 

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 

Gross, Jane. “Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns.” New York Times 14 Oct. 1985. 

Gross, Michael. “The Party Seems to Be Over for Lower Manhattan Clubs,” New York Times 26 Oct. 1985, 1. 

Grossberg, Laurence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–79. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 

Newf ield, Jack, and Wayne Bar rett. City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York . New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 

Owen, Frank. “Back in the Days.” Vibe (Dec. 1994): 66–68. Reynolds, Simon. “Public Enemy.” Melody Maker, 17 Oct. 1987.

Reprinted in Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. 47–55. “Saint Says ‘No’ to Straights on Saturdays.” Nightclub Conf idential 1.1 (May 1986): 1. 

Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Shepherd, Stephanie. “The 12′′ Single Is Here to Stay.” Dance Music Report (30 Nov. 1984a): 3, 12–13. 

Shepherd, Stephanie. “1984: Conservative Consciousness Reigns Supreme.” Dance Music Report (29 Dec. 1984b): 3. 

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987. 

Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 

Tabb, William K. The Long Default: New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis. New York: Monthly Review P, 1981. 

Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). “Playing the Field: The Downtown Scene and Cultural Production, An Introduction.” The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984. Ed. Marvin J. Taylor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006. 

Yates Rist, Dar rell. “A Scaffold to the Sky and No Regrets.” New York Native 2 May 1988, 18. 

Z, Mario. “Robbie Leslie: The Pat Boone of DJs.” New York Native 12 Mar. 1984, 21 24. 

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. London: Radius, 1988.



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“Acid and Experimental Chicago House”. Soul Jazz Records, 2005. Re-issued 2013.


House music is disco's revenge. So said Frankie Knuckles, reflecting on the charged history of the genre, which emerged in hometown Chicago in the middle of the 1980s. In this case home, to quote Gil Scott-Heron, is where the hatred is, or was. The disco sucks movement had its spiritual and organisational headquarters in the city, and the organisation's campaign reached its vitriolic climax when the celebrity rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated fifty thousand disco records during the halfway break of a baseball doubleheader. Metaphorical retribution arrived, according to the Knuckles, when dance artists, revisiting the disfigured disco of Dahl's melted vinyl, melded it into house. Revenge indeed.

House music's birth, however, has been largely mystified by this Darwinian story of destruction, survival and evolution. The genre might have received its abbreviated name from the Warehouse, where Knuckles, proud and defiant, continued to spin dance grooves in the aftermath of Dahl's headline-grabbing histrionics. But the sound of house emerged from an acute and unexpected angle that was in many respects cut off from the past. And while Knuckles played a heroic role in keeping disco alive in a city where so many chanted for its death, the acclaimed "Godfather of House" was a secondary figure when it came to pushing the mid-eighties incarnation of the genre.

An alternative genealogy of house might propose the following. That the key musical reference point for house wasn't disco, but a range of off-the-wall sounds that spanned late sixties rock and early eighties new wave. That the genre's key venue was not the celebrated Warehouse or the magisterial Power Plant (where black gay men were dominant), but the ramshackle Music Box (where the crowd was black and straight-leaning-towards-pansexual). And that its most influential spinner was not the ambassadorial Knuckles, but the deviant Ron Hardy ¾ a towering figure who, extraordinarily, was never interviewed before his untimely passing in 1992.

The heavyweight presence of New York has made it difficult to establish this alternative history. Drenched in disco, the city was initially suspicious of house, with Larry Levan, one of its most progressive DJs, notoriously slow to pick up on the genre. When Manhattan's spinners finally caught on, they tended to favour disco-flavoured cuts such as JM Silk's "Music Is the Key" over the obtuse, alien sounds of records such as "Acid Tracks".  Experienced through New York's eardrum, Chicago house sounded like an offshoot of New York disco. This was, and remains, disconcerting for many Chicagoans.

The strange life cycle of Chicago house in the UK only added to obfuscation of house music's original trajectory. The disco-derived "Love Can't Turn Around" went Top Ten before house had had a chance to create a buzz amongst dance aficionados. Then, following the successful release of Virgin's debut techno compilation, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, Chicago house was cast (yet again) as the intimate and conservative cousin of discoa music that, in contrast to techno's heroic and radical engagement with the future, was determined to look (or listen) backwards.

UK acid house culture, which referenced Phuture's sublimely freakish "Acid Tracks", soon came to signify a broader dance movement that was awash with bright yellow smiley faces, stylistically challenged baggy t-shirts, interminable debates about the meaning of "acid" that rarely referenced the music, and a new mythology that situated the culture's roots as much in the sunny holiday resort of Ibiza as the windswept post-industrial landscape of Chicago.

House wasn't born this way. Not in Chicago, at least. And this albumwhich focuses on experimental house records, many of them rarities, many of them released between 1985 and 1988opens up an opportunity to retell the story of Chicago house that gives belated emphasis to the music's progressive roots.

* * * * *

Chicago boasts a long history of radical, roots-oriented music making. The city played a central role in the evolution of the blues from the 1920s to 1940s, when it channelled the raw guitar work of the Mississippi Delta into the circuitry of electronic instrumentation, and in the late 1940s and 1950s it became a key centre for R&B, turning out artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, the Dells, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark and the Chi-lites. "By the late 1960s," writes Robert Pruter in his book Chicago Soul, "the predominant recording activities in the city were in the soul field."

Ironically, Chicago produced no DJs, remixers or clubs of national significance during the 1970s. Its most famous spinner, Frankie Knuckles, hailed from New York and travelled west only when his career (established at the Continental Baths) lost its early momentum (after the bathhouse closed, Knuckles found himself spinning at the less-than-hip Stargate Ballroom). Meanwhile disco commentators never considered the Warehouse, which became virtually synonymous with Knuckles, to be anything more than a regional footnote, at least in its 1977-79 incarnation. Of course these commentators penned their copy in New York, but if they had travelled to Chicago they would have surely described the Warehouse as variation of party spaces such as the Loft, the Gallery and, most spectacularly, the Paradise Garage.

Knuckles and the Warehouse did play an emotional and sustaining role in the face of the disco sucks campaign, and the intense devotion felt by dancers and DJs for this music was illustrated when, some time around 1980/81, the staff at Importes [sic.] Etc, the main dance store in Chicago, introduced the label "house music" in order to channel the stream of requests they would receive from customers in search of Knuckles's non-commercial selections ¾ mainly disco, post-disco R&B and a healthy smattering of imports, many of them from Britain (new wave) and Italy (Italian disco). "House" was, quite simply, an abbreviation of "Warehouse" and it soon became part of the established scenester lexicon. But the Warehouse had no direct role in the house music that emerged as a distinctive musical genre from 1984 onwards.

Mid-eighties house music was rooted, instead, in the unnatural technological soil that was being cultivated by a new generation of researchers, engineers and musicians. The most influential figure in this movement, Robert Moog, launched the first commercial monophonic modular synthesizer in 1967. The following year Columbia Records commissioned a series of electronic and modern compositions that used the technology, including Walter (now Wendy) Carlos's acclaimed rendition of Bach, Switched on Bach. The Beatles used the Moog on their experimental White Album, which was released in 1968, and Giorgio Moroder employed the synthesizer as a font of gimmicky sounds on "Son of My Father" ¾ its first appearance in pop. After a few songs he gave up on the new technology. "The audience response wasn't really there," he says, "and I was always a commercial composer-producer."

Kraftwerk took synthesizer technologywhich acquired a polyphonic capability with the commercial release of the Oberheim Four Voice in 1975more seriously, deploying it as an avant-garde sound source on the cerebral Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, and Moroder returned to the Moog soon after, this time in order to generate futuristic sounds for "I Feel Love", the final track on his journey-through-the-decades album with Donna Summer, which revolved around a hypnotic oscillating synth line. Although drum machines such as the Chamberlain Rhythmate, Wurlitzer's Sideman and Korg's Dunca Mata had started to appear on the market from the late 1940s onwards, their purpose was to generate dinky "samba" and "bossa" lines for amateur organ players, so Moroder ended up finding most of his percussion sounds from the Moog. "We managed to create a snare and a hi-hat but we couldn't find a punchy enough bass drum," he says. "Eventually we just did an overdub."

Roland launched its first preset drum machinesthe TR-33, TR-55 and TR-77in 1972. Six years later the company came out with the CR-78, which allowed music makers to programme their own patterns. Then, at the end of 1980, the Japanese manufacturer introduced the TR-808, its most "convincing" drum machine to date (even though the equipments sounds were all synthetic). Phil Collins was one of the first artists to deploy the TR-808 in the musical mainstream, although other musicians complained of its artificial sound. When the widely loathed Dutch outfit Starsound used a drum machine in order to join-the-dots on "Stars on 45", an abridged version of the Beatles greatest hits that was released in 1981, the technology seemed to be destined for permanent ridicule.

On the surface, the TR-808 appeared to be absurdly limited, capable as it was of producing just sixteen basic sounds (bass drum, snare drum, low tom, mid tom, hi tom, rim shot, handclap…). What's more, the sounds weren't particularly convincing. As music critic Kodwo Eshun notes, there were no drums in these drum machines, and their sounds (electronic pulses and signals) were utterly different from live drums. All of the sounds could be tweaked through rotary controls, however, and that was exactly what Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker tried out during the recording of "Planet Rock"which included TR-808-generated beats and the quivering orchestral keys of the Fairlight synthesiserin 1982. The emergent genre of electro soon became synonymous with these aggressive beats. The TR-808 no longer seemed to be quite so feeble.

Drum machine technology took another leap forward when Roger Linn released the LM-1 around the same time that Roland came out with the TR-808. The LM-1 was entirely sample-based and was considered superior to the TR-808 for this reason. The drums on Prince's 1999 were almost entirely sourced from the LM-1, and other high-profile artists, including the Thompson Twins, Stevie Wonder, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Jean-Michel Jarre and the Art of Noise, used the equipment. The five thousand dollar price tag, however, was prohibitively expensive for most musicians.

Roland released the hybrid TR-909, which used both analogue and sampled sounds, in 1983 (the samples comprised of recordings of "real" drums stored digitally). Only ten thousand machines were manufactured before the company discontinued the model and replaced it with the TR-707, which, like the Linn, drew on an archive of exclusively digital samples. More or less simultaneously, Yamaha launched the DX7, the first entirely digital synthesizer. Artists approved of the sparklingly, life-like sounds of the DX7 so much that the market for firsthand analogue synthesizers (including the original Roland machines) virtually evaporated overnight.

Chicago music makers didn't hang around for the market to collapse. A number of DJs rotated "Mix Your Own Stars"the B-side of "Stars on 45"to mix between records; Kenny Jason was reputedly the first Chicago spinner to use a "live" drum machine in his DJ sets; and Jesse Saunders, who was putting on parties for high school kids at the Playground, wired up a TR-808 to his turntables during the summer of 1983. These and parallel practices were interesting but far from extraordinary. "The sound of the drum machine wasn't that different," says Saunders. "Kraftwerk had been using electronic drum pedals. It was already in use."

Jesse Saunders and Jamie Principle laid down the first Chicago house tracks. Principle, an ardent fan of English new wave bands and a disciple of Prince, recorded the dark, stripped down, haunting and distinctly European "Your Love, which started to get reel-to-reel play in late 1983. Soon after Saunders, who soon linked up with Vince Lawrence, the son of a small-time Chicago record label boss, put together "On and On", a copy of a bootleg remix by Mach that included snippets from "Space Invaders", "Funkytown" and "Bad Girls". "On and On" was pressed up firstat the beginning of 1984.

Principle and Saunders were equally influential. Principle inspired his peers because "Your Love" teased open the awesome possibilities of a new musical sound that combined the faux futurism of British new wave with a mesmerising dance groove. Saunders, for his part, created a different kind of wonder. Few, if any, thought that "On and "On" was any good, but almost everyone saw Saunders sell thousands of copies and achieve an remarkable local fame. Saunders got the money, the girls and the cars, all from punching a few keys on a drum machine. "We didn't think we could touch Jamie, but Jesse's bullshit sold, and we could visualize doing better than that," says post office worker Marshall Jefferson, who was keeping half an eye on the unfolding scene. "Jesse was responsible for the house music boom. Without Jesse Saunders, the non-musician would not be making music."

* * * * *

There is almost no point in attempting to impose a calm, coherent chronology on the house music scene of mid-eighties Chicago, which gathered steady momentum during 1984 before the floodgates opened in 1985. The naivety and desperation of many of the record makers combined with the off-the-hoof machinations of the local label entrepreneurs created a recipe for vinyl chaos. What's more, there was no established practice, ethical or otherwise, for music makers and publishers to fall back on in order to reference the dos and don'ts of the music business.

To complicate matters further, the Chicago house music economy was only partially organised around the traditional process of pressing up vinyl. Whereas labels were dominant in the New York food chain, they were all but absent in Chicago, which meant that the grey economy of tapes took on a heightened role. It was quite normal for a producer to lay down a track, distribute it on tape and see it pressed up on vinyl several months later. What happened in between was anyone's guess.

Records that were pressed up independently took on a heightened scatological existence, especially if they proved to be popular. The more established labels, which might have rejected the track first time around, would suddenly scurry to put it out. Contracts, usually extremely flimsy affairs, were often an afterthought. And so a virtually unmappable exchange of tapes and acetates began to emerge in the second half of 1984 and accelerated during 1985. There was little order, but a great deal of excitement.

Into this cauldron of activity, two broad categories of house music emerged: house that, referencing the past, continued to live in the present, and house that, articulating an experimental present, reached for a tangible future. The first type of house, drawing on disco as its supreme inspiration, sought to rejuvenate seventies dance within the framework of eighties technology. The second type of house, which is rarely distinguished from disco-driven house in historical accounts, had no direct connection to its seventies predecessor. House was bipolar ¾ and at least fifty percent avant-gardistright from the start. It is the radical half of house that is the concern of this album.

Naturally, New York discophiles heard more than a faint echo of their favourite genre in the new house sound of Chicago. "When house first came out, it sounded a lot like disco, but really raw and stripped down," says Danny Krivit, a resident DJ at Downunder and Laces Roller Rink at the time. "'Love Is the Message' was a blueprint for house music and MFSB, with Earl Young on drums, were also the band behind a lot of the things that Frankie would play. He played these records on a good sound system and he used the three-way crossover to create a stripped down effect. He basically made old disco sound like house." Impressionable young kids, who lacked the musical skills of their disco forebears, listened and learnt. "The people who were going to listen to him used their new drum machines and synthesizers to emulate what they would hear in the club. Most of them were DJs, not musicians, and they just improvised."

Billboard columnist Brian Chin was initially cautious in his response to house, which he perceived to be essentially derivative. "Chicago house started out as a subset from Philadelphia," he says. "'Music Is the Key' was a rip-off of 'Music Is the Answer' by Colonel Abrams. Chip E 'Like This' was [ESG's]  'Moody' sideways. 'Jack Your Body' was [First Choice's] 'Let No Man Put Asunder'. Larry Heard 'Mystery of Love' was more originalit wasn't recognizably after any particular record ¾ but house was generally a hard-driving variant of disco." ("Like This" by Two of a Kind, which foregrounds its indebtedness to the mutant disco of ESG, can be added to the list. The record appears on this album.)

Looming over mid-eighties Chicago, disco was an impossible act to follow for the city's producers and artists, who didn't even bother to dream about pulling together the multi-tiered musical ensembles and studio time that was run-of-the-mill standard for so many disco productions. It wasn't just a matter of finances, or lack thereof. It was also about technical training. What would these young Chicago producers have done with all of these musicians and studio time? The answer is: nothing.

"The reason that house was stripped down was no one could afford to deal with live bands, plus a lot of people who made that shit weren't theoretically trained," says Lil' Louis, a rising DJ name who was spinning at the Hotel Continental. "You could hear that in the records. They were almost a dissident version of what real music should be." But one thing was clear. Disco was dope, and a subtle (or not-so-subtle) reference to a favourite song was the easiest way they could pay their respects ¾ and snatch what was required.

Yet while some Chicago's house producers gazed longingly in the direction of disco central (New York) and its key satellite states (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami), others gazed into space, searching for new co-ordinates, hoping to break with the past and gamble with the future. Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard led the way in trying to sound as strange, even as unmusical, as possible, and while they drew on the same technological pool as the discophile set they also deployed the equipment in such a different way that some would allege they misused it. This kind of house music wasn't something that gradually evolved out of the template established by Hurley and co. It was there from the start.

Jefferson, a rock freak who actively disliked disco, paid a visit to an equipment store in the summer of 1984 and started to lay down a slew of hard-edged, non-referential recordings. Virgo's "Go Wild Rhythm Tracks" (featured on this album) was put together with the less than helpful assistance of Vince Lawrence (whose 1986 track "Dum Dum" also appears on this album) and the seminal "I've Lost Control" (another inclusion) featured the deranged vocals of Sleezy [sic.] D as well as the demented gurgling of the 303. Neither of these recordings contained a self-conscious reference to disco, and the sound of the seventies was equally absent from the slew of recordings that Jefferson put together between 1984 and 1985.

Larry Heard, meanwhile, had grown bored playing drums in a local band and, at the end of 1984, purchased a Roland Juno 6 synthesizer and a TR-707. Heard went home and produced three tracks in one day: "Washing Machine" (angular, otherworldly, trance-inducing), "Can You Feel It" (technical, melancholic, low key) and "Mystery of Love" (lush, warm, gently percussive). In 1985 Heard teamed up with vocalist Robert Owens to re-record "Mystery of Love", and the duo went on to record "A Path", "You're Mine", "It's Over" and, with Harri Dennis, "Donnie". "Beyond the Clouds"featured on this album—was laid down after Heard added a Roland Jupiter 6 keyboard to his home studio in late 1985. "I was intrigued by synthesizers," he says. "I wasn't a writer. I wasn't a composer. I was just trying to do something creative. I knew I could play the keyboard in a traditional way, but I didn't want to do that."

These recordings were still indebted to seventies dance music. It is hard to imagine, for example, "I've Lost Control" or "Beyond the Clouds" happening (or at least finding a consumer market) without disco's emphasis on polyrhythm, the extended break and the rhythm section, plus the introduction of chant-like clipped vocals that drew on whittled down, floor-friendly themes. The journey from "work that body" to "jack your body" was a reasonably short one. Yet there was also an intentional break with the lush sophistication that came to define a good deal of disco in the second half of the 1970s, and the decisiveness of this rupture has yet to receive proper recognition.

House's forward-looking producersJefferson and Heard, with Adonis, Chip E and others—were stepping into a long-established practice of western avant-garde music making that received its most forceful expression when the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noises on 11 March 1913. Russolo's manifesto called for the creation of a new form of music that would be built around machine-like noise rather than the entrenched instrumentation of the symphony orchestra. "We cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality," wrote Russolo. "Let us break out!" Dance music acquired a futuristic edge with Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and the baton was subsequently picked up, according to many, by the street freaks of electro and the bedroom boffins of techno, with house producers playing only a supporting role of catch-up. If that.

"House music to me is nothing more than an extension of disco," says Juan Atkins, the senior representative of the "Belville three", the founding fathers of Detroit techno, who hailed from suburban Belville (Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson completed the troika). "Chicago came out with its own version of techno a couple of years down the road with Larry Heard and Marshall Jefferson, but they didn't call it techno because we already had the term, so they called it acid house." Atkins adds: "It was a little take-off. I think there was somebody there trying to emulate a Detroit record… It seems like an awful coincidence that our records were selling so well in Chicago and all of a sudden acid house came on the scene."

The best known of these records ¾ and the one that Atkins refers to ¾ is "No UFOs", Model 500's debut release on Metroplex, which came out in the spring of 1985. The record, produced by Atkins, entered the Billboard charts in August 1985, having weaved its way into Chicago a little earlier thanks to May, who was travelling Chicago regularly to visit his parents. In contrast to Atkins's earlier electro releases, which were recorded with the group Cybotron and were similarly saturated with ideas of the alien other, "No UFOs" used a four-four bass drum, and this, according to the Detroit producer, was the reason why the record landed so successfully in Chicago.

Yet while "No UFOs" was played on radio in ChicagoAtkins credits Farley "Jackmaster" Funk of the Hot Mix Five as being the first radio jock to rotate the trackit is less than clear if it was rotated in the clubs that counted. Chicagoans insist that it wasn't, and that Detroit techno only established a foothold in the city with the release of May's "Strings of Life" and "Nude Photo". But even if Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy did play the Model 500 debut, the daring originality of Jefferson and Heard's earliest productions is beyond dispute, and these were laid down before "No UFOs" made the westbound journey to Chicago. Chicago, in other words, didn't follow Detroit into the future. The Windy City was running a dead heat with the Motor City and it might have even been ahead, at least when it came to four-on-the-floor.

Techno aside (and it really was aside in Chicago during 1985 and 1986), differences between the two principal strains of Chicago house shouldn't be allowed to obscure their similarities. Whatever the relationship to the past and the future, house producers were part of a pioneering posse of alternative musicians whose principle activity was to piece together rather than play music. That was because the rapid spread of drum machines, synthesisers and sequencers (sampling had yet to take hold in house) changed the nature of musicianship, seemingly for good. While it was still entirely viable to learn to play a traditional instrument in real-time before attempting to record music, that kind of skill was no longer fundamental to the recording process.

Jesse Saunders might have regarded himself as a conventionally skilled musician, but most Chicago producers were more interested in finding than playing. Jacques Attali commented in Noise, published in 1977, that the musician was becoming a spectator of the music created by his computer." The French philosopher and music theorist added: "One produces what technology makes possible, instead of creating the technology for what one wishes to produce." Following this dictum, house music was (in the words of Simon Reynolds, writing for Melody Maker in February 1988) "assembled, not born". The distinction between music technology and music creation was becoming harder to define. And the difference between Chicago house and New York disco was become easier to hear.

* * * * *

Following the runaway local success of "On and On", Larry Sherman, the owner of the only pressing plant in Chicago, decided to set up his own house music label, which he dubbed Precision Records. Then, at the beginning of 1985, Sherman set up a label with Jesse Saunders, the most prolific (if not most creative) figure in the new genre. Vince Lawrence came up with a name for the label ("Tracks") and Sherman, a notoriously bad speller, the legendary lettering ("Trax"). "Wanna Dance?" by Le' Noiz, a pseudonym for Saunders, was the first release.

Sherman and Saunders were less gung ho when it came to releasing other people's music. They rejected Marshall Jefferson's "Go Wild", which the producer brought to them soon after the label was formed. (Jefferson responded by setting up his own label in order to release the record.) They also turned down Chip E's "Jack Trax" EP, which arrived on their doorstep in the spring. (Chip E formed his own label and paid Sherman to press up a single acetate of the recording.) Then, towards the end of the year, they passed on Jefferson's Virgo EP, which featured two tracks by Adonis, including a remake of "I've Lost Control", titled "No Way Back". (Jefferson put the record out himself, and when Sherman heard how "No Way Back" was going down he released it on Trax.)

By the end of 1985, Chicago's record label scene had divided itself into two: established independents and fly-by-night vehicles for producers who were being cut out. Trax was almost old school, having been in operation for almost an entire year, and DJ International, which was opened around the middle of 1985 by local record pool boss Rocky Jones, with Steve "Silk" Hurley in initial tandem, was also becoming a major player. Trax and DJ International soon developed an intense rivalry that was based less on their differences than their similarities: both Jones and Sherman ran "streetwise" operations in which artists, seduced by up-front cash sweeteners, rarely made as much money as they were due.

Artists who couldn't get released on Trax or DJ International often set up their own labels, flagging the move towards a highly flexible, deregulated and transient market in music recording along the way. Jefferson's Other Side was one, Heard's Alleviate was another. Their labels might have looked like they were the musical equivalent of vanity publishing, but whereas most self-published books don't sell, these records sold in their thousands. The problem was simple. There weren't enough labels around, and the ones that were up and running were still getting to know the market.

To all intents and purposes, Sherman controlled the blood flow. All records travelled through his pressing plant and numerous eyewitnesses testify to his willingness to siphon off the most profitable material pretty well as he pleased. If a reject record turned out to be a local hit, who could stop Sherman from pressing up copies behind the artist's back? The Wild West (or, alternatively, neo-liberal) business model was carried over into the mogul's use of raw materials, which were often more cooked than raw. In order to maximise profits, Sherman regularly resorted to using recycled rather than virgin vinyl and the result, which apparently didn't cause the plant owner too many sleepless nights, was a spew of a poor-quality pressings. "Importes Etc. had a lot of complaints from customers," says Charles Williams, who worked in the store. "But in the end they had no choice because these were the only versions."

The real powerbrokers in the Chicago house scene, however, weren't the labels but the Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hard, the two most influential spinners in the city. And even though Knuckles is commonly called the "Godfather of house", Hardy was the more influential DJ between 1985-88 period ¾ the period that marked the rise of house, and which is the focus of this album.

Both Hardy and Knuckles were operating in new conditions. During the 1970s there was little, if any, direct contact between musicians and producers on the one hand and DJs on the other. Record companies were the effective gatekeepers of the dance music economy, opening or barring the way to club play. Musicians and producers rarely went to the clubs where their music was being played, and key remixers such as Tom Moulton (who didn't like clubs) and Walter Gibbons (who was too busy DJing) weren't around to do the legwork. So it was left to the promotional reps of the record companies to hand deliver the latest sounds to the DJs, or drop off boxes of records at the local record pool.

This system began to break down in the late 1970s. Having entered the dance market at an ungracefully late moment, record companies pulled back with even less poise when the western-wide recession decimated music sales. By the early eighties, the gulf between the companies and the producers/artists had widened thanks to the wave of new, comparatively cheap technologies, which encouraged music makers to piece together rudimentary bedroom studios and press up records ¾ well away from the companies. By the time Chicago's fledgling house producers started to make records, it was easier to take a tape to Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles ¾ either in person or via a friend ¾ than it was to get a record released by one of the city's companies. And the contrasting personalities of the two DJs, combined with distinctive identities of their crowds, resulted in the emergence of distinctive dance worlds.

Having split with Robert Williams when the Warehouse closed in June 1983, Knuckles opened his own venue, the Power Plant, in November 1983. He was widely considered to be the more progressive and skilled DJ throughout 1984, and his crowd, which was largely composed of knowing and mature ex-Warehouse dancers, as well as some younger, more obviously streetwise elements, bolstered his reputation. "The Plant was located at 1015 North Halsted Avenue, in the 'back yard' of one of Chicago's most notorious public housing projects, Cabrini Green," says Alan King, a Warehouse and then Power Plant devotee. "Due to its proximity to Cabrini Green, the Plant drew a very interesting mix of people ¾ the more eccentric, often gay, former Warehouse crowd, as well as a more 'thuggish', generally straight element from Cabrini. It was very interesting to watch the communal power that Frankie and the music he played had on folks from very different walks of life. While some referred to house music as 'fag music', the hardest, straightest folks from Cabrini also became captivated regulars at the Plant."

The erudition of the Power Plant dancers also meant they had "high standards" and this, combined with Knuckles's penchant for expertly produced sounds and the inaccessible architecture of his towering booth, meant that the venue was comparatively closed to the rudimentary home-made tapes of Chicago's first wave of house producers. The devotion to discoincluding the dark disco of groups such as the Skatt Bros.—was accentuated by the memory of Steve Dahl. Having been told that their beloved music sucked, dancers at the Warehouse, and then the Power Plant, were doubly determined to guard its survival. The crowd, in other words, could be just as picky as their spinner when it came to new music.

Hardy, for his part, was considered to be relatively conservative when he was recruited by Williams to play at the new Warehouse, which was situated in the old home of the Schwinn Bicycle company, located at 1632 South Avenue. Born into a jazz family, Hardy had played at a string of Chicago clubs ¾ including Den One and Carol’s Speakeasybefore travelling to California in the late seventies. He returned to the Windy City in the early eighties and led a life of relative obscurity, but Williams "thought he was pretty good" and "had the potential to develop himself into a better DJ" if he was given his own space.

The new Warehouse opened for business around the same time as Knuckles triumphantly launched the Power Plant and was forced to shut down soon after. Williams's new club, it seemed had little going for it. Hardy was playing a less interesting selection of records than Knuckles, and the new Warehouse was much less impressive in terms of all-round finish than the Power Plant. So, acknowledging that he wasn't going to win back his core black gay crowd anytime soon, Williams reopened his venue as the Music Box and started to try and draw in an alternative clientele. "The Music Box became more heterosexual than homosexual," says Williams. "A lot of gay people came along, but it wasn't as gay as the Warehouse. It introduced another group of people into the scene."

The new crowd didn't burst onto the scene out of nowhere. Some had danced at the original Warehouse, but most got their first taste in variety of less celebrated spaces. One of the most significant was known as the Loft, which was an entirely separate entity from David Mancuso's New York party, despite the shared name (the organisers, like almost everyone else, hadn't heard of Mancuso's subterranean space when they opened in 1980). Running in parallel, Saunders put on huge high school parties at the Playground, where he played a mix of disco, R&B, new wave and electro that was similar to sets of Kenny Carpenter and John "Jellybean" Benitez, both of whom were attracting similarly young straight black, Latino/a and Puerto Rican crowds at the reincarnated Studio 54 and the Funhouse. Having been excluded during the 1970s, straight "kids of colour" were finding their way into clubs en masse for the first time.

It was at the Playground that Keith Farley (who became Farley Keith Williams, then Farley Keith, then Farley "Funkin'" Keith and finally Farley "Jackmaster" Funk) got his first DJing gig and then shot to local fame when he joined the Hot Mix Five, which was formed in 1981 and also included Kenny "Jammin'" Jason, Mickey "Mixin'" Oliver, Ralphie "Rockin'" Rosario and Scott "Smokin'" Silz. "It was called Saturday Night Live, Ain't No Jive, Chicago Dance Party," says Silz. "We started off playing R&B dance music and we gradually became more progressive. In 1982 and 1983 we started playing a lot of imports from Italy and Canada, and then we got into house music. We played records from Jesse Saunders and Wayne Williams." Listening figures shot through the roof. "The show was number one. We had a thirty share of the Arbitron rating in the Chicago market, which was just incredible."

The Hot Mix Five soon became synonymous with WBMXthe mixers played on Friday nights as well as a daily Hot Lunch Mix and Traffic Jam sessionand they also put on parties for local high school youths. "We took dance music from a very lean time period to the height of house music," adds Silz. "It used to be every kid wanted a baseball glove and a bat. It became every kid wanted two turntables and a mixer. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be a DJ. We were the force in bringing it to the masses."

While these events never came close to generating the same kind of underground cachet as the Warehouse, they nevertheless introduced dance music to thousands of youngsters and established an embryonic network that would go on to form an important part of the largely black straight crowd that gravitated to the Music Box. When some of these kids ¾ and their friendsstarted to record dance music, it was only natural that they would take the tapes to their local DJs. Hardy received the lion's share.

That was because Knuckles was relatively inaccessible, not just physically, in terms of the foreboding design of his new booth, but also psychologically, with regard his intimidating superstar (superstar in the relatively small world of Chicago Clubland, that is) status. Knuckles could be approached, and producers were certainly keen to give him their records, but he nurtured a reputation for accepting only high quality productions and a not entirely appetising rumour had it that the DJ cut up tapes he didn't like. The hurdles were formidable and the success stories fairly infrequent

Hardy, in contrast, was less of a star and had less of a reputation to protect. The less exalted base from which he had to operate suited the spinner, who stayed closer to the floor, and the people who headed in his direction were precisely the straight black youths and friends of straight black youths who were developing the nascent sounds of house. Tapes and acetates started to trickle in Hardy's direction during his stint at South Indiana Avenue, and when the Music Box relocated to the R2 Underground at 326 North Lower Wacker Drive the trickle turned into a flood.

"Ron Hardy got adventurous when he went to the Underground Music Box," says Marshall Jefferson. "He started taking tapes from everybody. I gave him fifteen tapes through Sleezy D and he played all of them. Frankie wouldn't take tapes. He tried to keep a level of quality and I don't think he really understood what was going on. 'I've Lost Control' was the biggest thing in the Music Box. I don't think Frankie played it." Chip E, who sold records to Hardy at Importes Etc., also found it physically easier to get tapes to the Music Box spinner. "Ronnie and Frankie were at different levels," he says. "With Frankie you almost had to have an invitation to the booth ¾ it had to be something that was planned before. But when I went to the Music Box Ronnie would put it on whatever I gave him, almost without listening." If Chip E couldn't get into the Music Box booth, he would just stretch out an arm and hand his latest tape to Hardy. "Ronnie was always more accessible."

The minimal-to-the-point-of-cheapskate design of the new Music Box complemented the shifting selections of the venue's DJ. The room, long and narrow, was painted black. Stacks of speakers lay at one end of the room and the DJ booth was positioned at the other, as if someone had set up a makeshift club in a dark and gloomy hallway. The sound system was loud but poorly defined, with the tweeters and midrange on the verge of permanent disintegration. The only source of light emanated from a couple of strobes, which flashed out visual warnings of sonic disorientation. It was as if the club physically embodied the dark, stark tapes that were being thrust in Hardy's direction.

Hardy developed a stylistic signature that matched the edginess of his selections at North Lower Wacker Drive. He started to play records fast (plus-eight fast). He violated established DJing etiquette and began to rotate his favourite tracks several times in succession. And, flying in the face of musical convention, he started to play tracks backwards via his reel-to-reel. "Ronnie took a real liking to 'It's House'," says Chip E. "He put it on reel-to-reel and started playing it backwards. Everyone loved it. People were coming into the store asking for the backwards version."

A hardening heroin addiction propelled the DJ's shift to an uncompromising style. "Ron had personal family problems that caused him to start doing the wrong kind of drug," says Robert Williams. "I'm not saying that Frankie didn't do anything, but he didn't do the wrong onethe one that was addictive. Ron started on heroin." Williams participated in the ritual but managed to survive its potentially pernicious effect. "I knew I could dibble and dabble, but I was very cautious and very mindful of what would happen if I got carried away. I used it as a recreational drug on occasions and didn't take it seriously. But Ron's brother had OD-ed and there were other family tragedies." Heroin made the music seem slower to Hardy, who responded by pushing up the speed controls. "That was why everyone thought Ron played with more energy than Frankie."

The predominantly young straight black crowd at the Music Box lapped up the madness. "It was full of urban guys from the west side and south side of Chicago," says Byron Stingily, who was introduced to the scene by Vince Lawrence, an old college friend. "Guys would dance with their arms locked around each other and jump around." Hardy's followers also jacked, which involved them thrusting their whole bodies forwards and backwards spasmodically, as if possessed by a demonic rhythm, and in so doing they inspired dance-driven cuts such as Chip E's "Time to Jack" as well as Hurley's "Jack Your Body". "The entire lyric for 'Time to Jack' was 'Time to jack, jack your body,' because that was all that was important," says Chip E. "People didn't need to hear a story. 'Time to jack, jack your body' — that was the story right there."

Power Plant dancers also jacked, yet they remained convinced of their own superiority. "The Power Plant had more disco sophisticates than the Music Box," says Andre Hatchett, a Warehouse regular who followed Knuckles to his new venue. "We were more knowing. We were the crowd. They were just our seconds, our hand-me-downs!" There can be little doubt, however, that Hardy's dancers had more energy than their Power Plant counterparts and, having received less education in the nuances of quality music, they were also happy to be taken on an extremely rough ride. "I went to the Music Box," adds Hatchett. "I didn't like it because I was a Frankie fan. Frankie kept a certain tempo and there was more of a groove. Ron Hardy had a more frantic tempo. Playing the reel-to-reel backwards started with Ron Hardy."

Contrary to popular folklore that has conferred the status of "Godfather of House" upon Knuckles, it was Hardy who lay at the fulcrum of house music's earliest, wobbliest, most experimental and most exhilarating incarnationand it was Hardy who broke most of the records featured on this album. Knuckles kept dance music alive in the post-disco sucks era, inspired the term "house" via his selections at the Warehouse and went on to play a selection of house records that passed his scrupulous standards. But it was Hardy who was hungry for the new sounds of house, who accepted tapes over his booth, who played them with barely a listen, who encouraged novice producers to keep on producing and who established a consumer base for these fresh sounds. "I give Ron Hardy and his crowd credit," says Hatchett. "They invented house."

* * * * *

The brainchild of Earl "Spanky" Smith, "Acid Tracks" (included on this album) was inspired by Ron Hardy. Having left Chicago for California in the summer of 1984, Spanky returned when his friend Herb Jackson told him about the new club. "Herb said I had to come back, just to go to the Music Box," says Spanky. "I haven't returned to California since." Around the beginning of 1985, Spanky persuaded his sixteen-year-old buddy DJ Pierre (who had been spinning records since the age of thirteen) to visit the venue. "It changed his life, too," adds Spanky.

Some time later, Spanky and Pierre visited another friend, Jasper, who owned a Roland TB-303. Spellbound by the equipment's seemingly magical ability to synchronise the bass and the drum pattern, Spanky decided he had to buy a Roland for himself. His initial search yielded no results: Roland had discontinued the model and the main equipment outlets had sold out. "Eventually I found one in a second hand store for two hundred dollars," he says. "I spent my last dime on it."

Following the long established and extremely serious tradition of experimental music making, Spanky took the TB-303 home and, along with Jackson, started to press buttons he didn't understand. "After a while this strange sound popped up," says Spanky. "It was programmed into the machine. I thought it was slamming. I could picture Ron Hardy play it in the Music Box." Spanky called DJ Pierre. "Spanky had a drum beat going and the 303 was making all these crazy sounds," says DJ Pierre. "I thought it sounded interesting. Then I started to twiddle some knobs and the sounds became even weirder."

Spanky and his gang had pressed a button that was supposed to sound like a live bass guitar, but the imitation was poor and when the friends started to mess about with the frequencies the result was positively strange. "We were already going to the Music Box and hearing weird shit," says DJ Pierre. "We were already attunedRon Hardy had trained our minds—so the bass didn't sound like noise. It sounded like something you could dance to."

Spanky and DJ Pierre took a tape of the record (provisionally dubbed "In Your Mind") to the Music Box and, standing outside the club in the bitter cold, waited for Hardy to arrive. When the spinner arrived he listened to their cassette and said it sounded OK, and later on that night he played the track. "The first time he played it the crowd didn't know how to react," says Spanky. "Then he played it a second time and the crowd started to dance. The third time he played it people started to scream. The fourth time he played it people were dancing on their hands. It took control over them. Ron Hardy said, 'That's a great track!'" DJ Pierre adds: "Frankie Knuckles wouldn't have played it."

Spanky and DJ Pierre went to the Music Box for the next fortnight and then took a three-week break. During that time a friend approached them and said that Hardy was spinning an amazing track, which the dance floor was referring to as "Ron Hardy's Acid Tracks". The friend played a tape of the record to Spanky and DJ Pierre. It was "In Your Mind". "There was a rumour that they put acid in the water at the Music Box," says DJ Pierre. "I don't know if it was true or not, but we now had a new name for our record."

Following a Music Box performance of "Move Your Body"actually titled "The House Music Anthem" and released on Trax in the summer of 1986—Spanky, DJ Pierre and Jackson approached Marshall Jefferson to see if he would produce "Acid Tracks". Jefferson, who had already toyed with the 303 on "I've Lost Control", agreed. "I tweaked the 303 before I recorded the track, whereas they tweaked it during the recording," he says. "I liked theirs better than mine."

According to Jefferson, there wasn't a great deal for him to do. "I sat in the studio and watched them. Larry [Sherman] told me he didn't want to put the record out unless I produced it. Since I recommended the project, I wanted to make sure it got taken care of." Jefferson introduced one significant change, slowing the record down from 126 to 120 beats per minute. "Marshall told us, 'New York has got to get into it!'" says DJ Pierre.

"Acid Tracks" was released under the moniker Phuture, and the first song on the B-side, titled "Phuture Jacks" (also included on this album), recycled the name. "We were sitting in a restaurant and a friend of ours called Tyrone, who was nicknamed Yancy, came up with the name 'Future'," says Spanky. "We thought that somebody would have already used it so we decided to call ourselves 'Phuture'." Given that "Acid Tracks" sounded like it had crash-landed in Chicago from some dark-and-twisted dystopia, the name was fitting. "The future was part of our lives," adds Spanky. "We weren't copying a sound that was already out there. We were creating a sound that you would expect to hear in the future."

Order and tranquillity reigned for about half a second. Armando released "Land of Confusion", ostensibly the second (or third if Sleezy D is counted as the first) acid house track, which the Phuture team enjoyed (Armando's "Downfall" appears on this album). After that, mayhem ensued, with an estimated sixty to one million acid house tracks being released in the slipstream of "Acid Tracks". Jefferson ¾ and it's not entirely clear if he's being serious or not ¾ blames DJ Pierre, who apparently revealed the TB-3030 secret to the rest of the world, for the avalanche.

The subsequent outpouring of acid releases included a good number of make-some-quick-money imitations, but also gems such "This Is Acid" by Maurice featuring Hot Hands Hula (included on this album), the cunningly titled "Acid Track" by Adonis (whose "Do You Want to Percolate?" also makes an appearance), and "Acid Over" by Tyree (another inclusion). "The crucial element in acid is that the bass line really carries the song," Tyree told Simon Reynolds in an interview for Melody Maker in February 1988. "It's the modulation of the frequencies of the bass line that keeps the track moving, keeps it hot."

Ron Hardy broke these and scores of other acid house releases at COD's, the Music Box having shut down some time around the end of 1986/beginning of 1987. Robert Williams eventually joined Hardy at his new spot, but it never became known as the Music Box, and Hardy subsequently left COD's for the Power House, where Knuckles had held his final Chicago spot before leaving to play a residency at Delirium in London in September 1987. (Knuckles, who was unable to detect any temporary, let alone lasting, value in acid house, returned to Chicago in December and then left for New York in January 1988.)

Hardy played alongside Steve "Silk" Hurley at the Power House and in the spring of 1988 the venue was renamed the Music Box. "A lot of the hardcore people who really loved the [Music Box] Underground at 326 didn't like the Power House," says Jamie Watson, who started to go out in the summer of 1988. "The Power House was a huge space compared to 326 and it didn't have the same atmosphere. The next generation was beginning to come through and a lot of the people who did their thing at the Underground felt they were too old to be partying with teenyboppers."

For many, 1988 was the year the Chicago scene experienced an irreversible downtown. Local authorities reigned in the clubs and WBMX went off air, all of which prompted Mixmag, whose attention was shifting sharply in the direction of New York, to announce in its July issue that the Chicago club scene was "dead". But while New York and New Jersey were now challenging Chicago as key centres of house music production, artists based in the Windy City continued to turn out experimental music, even if the circumstances of their release were often murky.

Tyree's "Acid Crash"(included on this album) typified the bedlam. Originally released as "Video Crash" on Rockin House Records in 1988, the record was bootlegged in New York and re-released as "Acid Crash" on House Musik later on that same year. Tyree had no cause to get upset, having drawn heavily on "Video Clash", which was released on Dance Mania in 1988, in order to make the record in the first place. And Lil' Louisaccording to many, Chicago's third most important DJ, even he is widely considered to have been a "long third" behind Ron Hardy and Frankie Knucklescouldn't get too upset, either, because his own contribution to the recording was disputed.

Jefferson (surely the most influential Chicago producer of the mid-eighties) laid down the first version of "Video Clash" with Kym Mazelle around 1986. Jefferson says that Lil' Louis was over his house "every day" during this period, always on the hunt for new music, and when the DJ laid his hands on Jefferson's distorted, virtually insance "Video Clash" he cut out Mazelle's vocal and turned the stripped down tracks into his signature tune at the Future (the old Playground, which Lil' Louis took over in the mid-eighties) and the Bismarck (a hotel where he put on huge pizza parties for a young crowd).

"It was a crazy song," says Lil' Louis. "I used to play it at my parties and people would beg me for it." Jefferson was characteristically blasé when, a couple of years later, Lil' Louis said he wanted to put the record out. "He expressed how upset he was that people were ripping off the tune," says Jefferson. "He then released 'Video Clash' under his own name [with Jefferson's permission] and didn't give me or Kym song writing credits." The recordincluded on this albumwas pressed up on Dance Mania in 1988. So at least the genesis of this particular record, and its manifold offshoots, is clear. Right?

* * * * *

In a short five years, Chicago house had more or less completed the first cycle of its story. The simple version of this narrative goes something l-l-l-like this. Having started out as a small town, organic art form that melded pragmatics, pleasure and creativity, house chiselled out a potentially lucrative market and, after that, was ransacked by moneymen. The drive to commercialism spawned sameness and fatigue, but it also helped generate new markets outside of Chicago that, in turn, spawned new waves of dynamism followed by plagiarism and fatigue.

The slightly more complicated version of house music's first half-decade, mindful that there can be no way back to the genre's earliest years, tells a different version of events. House music, according to this account, emerged in 1984 in an environment defined not by innocence and manic creativity but rather by ruthlessness and blandness. Two years of high creativity ensued (the departure of Saunders to the West Cost to pursue a recording career in R&B for Geffen may or may not have been a coincidence), and this inventiveness revolved around Hardy, who developed a frantically dynamic environment for artists and dancers alike. Some critics suggest that stagnation set in following the release of "Acid Tracks", but experimental tracks were still plentiful ¾ until a combination of government politics, excessive drug use drugs the greener concrete of other cities broke up the reigning artist-DJ-dancer nexus.

As Chicago started to splutter, Manchester, London, Paris and Rimini joined New York and New Jersey and flung themselves into house. (Detroit, and to a large extent Berlin, stuck to Techno.) Deep house emerged as a compelling counterpoint to acidJefferson was once again an important pioneerbefore it mutated into a more general repudiation of progressive house or trance, which were the dominant sounds of Britain and Europe in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade deep house (alternatively known as Garage or New Jersey) had largely descended into a cul-de-sac of jaded, chin-stroking tracks and too-highly-polished vocals. In the meantime, techno and drum and bass forged their position at the head of radical experimentalism ¾ and confined house to the realm of safe nostalgia (even "Dad's music") in the process.

Meanwhile Chicago, having climbed so high so fast, experienced an attack of vertigo and lost its balance altogether. Its subsequent fall was bruising, but not fatal. Key producers and DJs moved away or, in the tragic case of Ron Hardy, passed away, and for a while the city's dance scene, which had partied hard for the best part of a decade, suffered from a nasty hangover. By the early 1990s, however, the Chicago dance scene started to rediscover its rhythm and a new generation of producers (including Cajmere, Roy Davis Jnr., Ron Trent, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak, Anthony Nicholson, Paul Johnson, Boo Williams) and labels (such as Cajual, Prescription, Clairaudience, Relief and Clubhouse) made sure that Chicago didn't simply signify the past.

While many of the new scenesters looked to disco (for loop-friendly samples) and deep house (for mood-inducing instrumentation), othersmost notably Cajmere and Davis—developed a dialogue with the tradition of acid house. Cajmere's "Explorer" (1994), included on this album, provides one example of this evolving avant-attitude. Davis's "Acid Bass" (1995), also featured here, stands as another. (Incidentally, "Acid Bass" more or less coincided the release of the "Gabrielle", another Davis track, which did so much to inspire UK Garage.) The inclusion of these records stands as a reminder Chicago didn't disappear from the house music map towards the end of the 1980s. The city's experimental foundations might have wobbled for a while, but by the mid-1990s they had been firmly re-established.


All quotes are from original interviews unless otherwise stated.

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