Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Chicago house music
Why it’s daunting: Chicago house trafficked, like most dance music, in a rarified realm of singles that proved fleeting almost by design. They came and went, played by DJs at specific times in specific places, and they remain hard to gather for all their chaotic glory. Beyond that, distinguishing what constitutes house music requires at least a decent working notion of what constitutes techno by comparison. It helps to know that Chicago house evolved in tandem with techno in Detroit. Both shared certain mechanistic allegiances, but Chicago house diverged significantly in telltale terms of “soul.” House was more directly descended from disco, which made it more buoyant and fleshy than techno—more transfixed by the body, both as a vessel for the soul and as a machine that could be tweaked according to all sorts of seamy, sinister desires. Prior to the rise of house, in fact, Chicago had been the site of an infamous 1979 episode known as “Disco Demolition Night,” a stunt during which a radio-station DJ detonated a stock of disco records and incited a riot after a White Sox game at Comiskey Park. The ugly spectacle served as a rallying cry for burgeoning disco-sucks orthodoxy, but its message meant nothing in the largely black and gay clubs where house was born. (Indeed, it’s since been an ongoing project for revisionist historians to chart the racism and homophobia latent in anti-disco protests at the time.) It was at such underground clubs—namely The Warehouse, from which the genre’s name sprang—that house morphed from an offshoot of disco into a style of its own. As it adapted to new technology in the 1980s, house took on sometimes harsh, abstract electronic forms, even as it adopted an inclusive language that was all about communalism. Much of that language was coded, in accord with the drugs and deviance at play in all-night club affairs, but just as much of it was in service to the kind of shared spirituality at play on the dance floor.
Possible gateways: Frankie Knuckles, “Baby Wants To Ride” & Adonis, “No Way Back”
Why: A New York DJ who started playing in Chicago during the heyday of disco, Frankie Knuckles was a major force in the early days of house. (Much later, in 2004, the mayor of Chicago officially decreed a stretch of the city’s Jefferson Street as “Frankie Knuckles Way.”) His classic 1987 single “Baby Wants To Ride” represents Chicago house at its slyest and most spacious, with a distended beat stretched beneath a digressive spoken-word riff about steamy sex and civil disobedience. This is the strain of Chicago house that dug its nails deep into the back of a fellow Midwesterner named Prince, and it carries a pointed message—especially around the 6:20 mark, when it starts to pair a wry little-drummer-boy beat with lyrics like “America—clap your hands over this bullshit land” and “It’s hard to ride, baby, when you’re living in a fascist dream.” Lurking within it is a solemn protest against intolerance related to race and sexual preference, but the spirit is more slaphappy than sad.
At another outer reach of the Chicago house sound is Adonis' single "No Way Back," which skips past calls for greater humanistic understanding and focuses instead on a celebration of getting fucked up to post-human extremes. The track skates by on a clattering mess of snare sounds wrung from a primitive drum-machine, all to the tune of a robo-voiced apparition taking great joy in the fact that he's "too far gone.”
Next steps: The duality deep within Chicago house—between the aspirational and the Dionysian, the celebratory and the dystopian—played out in all sorts of direct and indirect ways. One essential piece of it all was an incessantly sampled (even still) spoken-word recording by Chuck Roberts, who delivered a fiery sermon about the origins of Chicago house—attributing it all to the power of the “jack,” the convulsive Chicago dance move derived from the folding action of a jackknife. The riff figured first into Rhythm Controll’s “My House” and has appeared in other records several jillion times. Here it is, starting around 1:30, in the smooth, sumptuous, and positively soulful 1987 classic by Mr. Fingers called “Can You Feel It.”
On the other end of the spectrum was the rise of so-called “acid house,” which started with the gloriously demented synthesizer sound in Phuture’s 1987 release “Acid Tracks.” The sound was the result of a Roland 303 synthesizer bass tone tweaked out of sorts, and it still stands as one of the primary elements of electronic music’s working vocabulary. (Its freakiness also helped spread Chicago house to points far and wide, where it served to stoke the rave movement overseas.)
Then there’s just straight-up insanity, like the kind in “I’ve Lost Control”—basically a dude yelling for nearly 10 minutes over a simmering death-disco beat by Marshall Jefferson, here under the name Sleezy D.
Working through prime singles is ideal, but compilations can be good too. The discerning English label Soul Jazz put out Can You Jack? Chicago Acid And Experimental House 1985-95, a solid 2-disc set with an uneven track selection but great liner notes with interviews and a written history by disco scholar Tim Lawrence. Then there are many compilations devoted to the fabled Chicago label Trax, from a strong single-disc set called The Original Chicago House Classics to a better 3-disc set called The 20th Anniversary Collection.
Where not to start: Just don't mistake any one aspect of Chicago house for the whole of it. Part of the genre's allure is the friction created between all its different kinds of pleasure and paradox. In the context of Chicago house, it makes perfectly good sense for churchly yearnings to play out alongside demented moans, and so on. Conflicts of the sort are essential, and they go a long way toward representing the hardness and the hope in a sound that grew from the deep, dark recesses of a churning American city.