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Last month, when Beyoncé became the winningest musician in the history of the Grammys, the prize that put her over the top was in the category of best electronic/dance album. And when she stepped onto the stage at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles to accept the award, she put her album, RENAISSANCE, into a very particular lineage. “I’d like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing the genre,” she said. “God bless you.”
That “genre” is house music, and it was indeed invented by Black and primarily gay DJs in Chicago in the late 1970s and 80s. Since that time, house has evolved; it has gotten bigger, it has gotten whiter, it has made a lot of people a lot of money. But the story of house’s roots is one about finding joy and making community even when that feels impossible. So when we decided to tell the story of its history, we knew we needed to go to some of the people who were there when it started, some of the musicians and DJs and dancers who filled little Chicago clubs and basements decades before house music’s influence took off in Europe, before it caught the ear of major labels, before it drew millions to festivals, before it made it onto the world’s biggest stages, including the one where Beyoncé accepted her record-breaking Grammy.
Here are some of the experiences of the people who were there at the beginning, who helped to create house music, in their own words.
(Unless otherwise attributed, the quotes in this article were collected in interviews by Throughline‘s hosts and producers. They have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear more of house music’s history in the full episode of Throughline, “Dance Yourself Free,” at this link or in the audio player below.)
Listen to Throughline: ‘Dance Yourself Free’
Frederick Dunson (worked and danced at the Warehouse; executive director, Frankie Knuckles Foundation): I was living on the west side of Chicago, in a working class neighborhood. Some people would say it was ghetto, but you know, it was what we knew. The reason that the underground clubs evolved was because most of the gay clubs gave most of the minorities a really hard time in getting in. And so as a result of that, people just said, “Oh, well, we can do our own thing and start doing underground parties.” So it was a solution to a problem that wasn’t getting better.
Vince Lawrence (house music promoter and producer): I mean, it started out in basements. You know, somebody would throw a party in their basement, play music, charge like two dollars to get in and 50 cents for soda. And we would be in there until the cops came.
In the 1970s, Frankie Knuckles moved from NYC to Chicago from NYC to DJ at a new club called the Warehouse. Knuckles helped innovate the genre by blending disco, funk and German electronic pop, playing obscure records, sound effects and drum machines. “I was in a car with a friend of mine, going to his house on the South Side and we were at a stoplight. There was a tavern on the corner with a sign saying, ‘We play house music.’ That was the first time I heard of it,” Knuckles recalled in a Red Bull Music Academy interview with Jeff Mao in 2011. “I asked him what it was, and he said, ‘It’s the music that you play down there at your club.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ He’s like, ‘That’s house music.’ I was like, ‘Oh. I didn’t realize it had a name.’ ‘Well, it’s the House, that’s everybody’s nickname for the place.’ That was the first time I really felt like I belonged in Chicago, that I was part of the city.”
Frederick Dunson: He wasn’t from Chicago, but Chicago soon accepted him. It took a couple of years. You had to remember, the Warehouse was an after hours private club, so you had to know somebody to get an invite in or to even attend.
There were nights that he played at the Warehouse, there were maybe 10 people there, and then all of a sudden, like a switch, people started coming. Just to see this influx of people start coming in, you’re like, oh, okay, well, I guess everybody’s catching on to what’s going on?
Lori Branch (DJ, house music historian, and co-host of the Vintage House Show): I think about when I went into the Warehouse and I was a 17 year old kid sneaking in, you actually had to be 18, so I wasn’t sneaking in that hard, but they let me in. It was mostly gay men there, you know, a few women. Uh, a smattering of white people and others, mostly black.
Frederick Dunson: You walked up a long landing stairs and then you walked toward the back of that room and there was a long stairwell downstairs to the dance floor.
Lori Branch: I remember the feeling more than I remember the music, the way that the sound was presented, how it engulfed you when you walked, descended into the dance floor, down the stairs, and that there was no pause, that you just experienced it all night. It was like a story, you know, like there was a beginning and a middle and the end. You just wanted to be there for the whole thing.
Frederick Dunson: We were open to six, seven, eight, nine, and then some days, maybe midnight the following night because there were marathon parties.
Lady D (aka Darlene Jackson, Chicago native and house DJ): [The sound of a] train and house must go together. They do because it is that type of energy, like nonstop. When you have the two turntables together and the mixer in the middle, and you’re able to keep that going all night long, it was like, literally, you couldn’t get enough. Full speed ahead and, like, full steam.
House music wouldn’t be confined to the underground scene at the Warehouse for long. Some of the teenagers who were sneaking into the Warehouse and listening to house music on local radio shows were bringing house music to the places they could party without needing to sneak in.
Lady D: You know, beyond the Warehouse, house was everywhere, right? There were other venues along the South Side where you could go and hear DJs playing house music. And the high schools were populating those places. It was like kids from the South Side — two parent house, professional, you know, or working class parents. And we had disposable income, right? We had cars, we had transportation. Our parents let us move about the city freely.
Vince Lawrence: I want to be the guy who throws the party, that way I for sure get in free. And we put together a little group. We had our DJs and promotion people and we had group members that went to high schools all over the city, so everybody would take some flyers and pass ’em out at their school.
Lady D: People wanted to dance. It was all about the music. It was all about the DJs, and it was all about getting together. And, you know, Jack. Jacking is a type of dance, this motion — you bend your knees and you pump your hips. That was like, if you went down, but if you went up, you went like flying, almost like running in air in place. And then two people could do it together. So a guy and a girl, a girl and a girl or a guy and a guy. Basically, you’re just like doing this pumping, running, like frantic, frenetic movement just to the beat of the music, to the rhythm.
Vince Lawrence: One weekend we had, you know, gotten a little drum machine, and we said, let’s, you know, go make some music. And we came up with a bunch of songs, and we started playing the songs on cassette at the party, and people kept dancing just like it was any other record, like a regular ole record. We were like, Hey, wait a minute, hold on. We could make these records.
In 1984, Vince and his friend Jesse Saunders made a song called “On & On” that many consider the first real house record.
Vince Lawrence: We were playing it at the party and it was going over like gangbusters. So we said, forget it … I know where the pressing plant is. And we pressed up “On & On” and we started playing it and giving it to our friends and some of our friends. One of our friends was Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, And he played a record on the radio [and] you know, it became really, really popular. Everybody would recognize it. … He says, “OK, I’m gonna make it perfectly clear: You guys are gonna make a good record with me or I’m gonna stop playing all of yours.” So I wrote this song and I said, I said, okay, well look, when you like somebody and they don’t like you back the same way, you still keep liking them. Like even though you try to say, “OK, that’s over,” really, love can’t turn around.
The single “Love Can’t Turn Around,” credited to Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and featuring vocals by Chicago gospel singer Darryl Pandy, was released in 1986. House scenes were growing in other cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C., but the song exploded in England, eventually making it to the top 10 of the U.K. singles chart.
By the mid-1990s the house music from Chicago and other American cities had morphed into electronic dance music styles like acid house, trance and drum and bass. These styles came back to the American mainstream as the millennium approached, now packaged as “electronica.” Soon, artists like Madonna, Rickey Martin and Jennifer Lopez were singing over tracks you could dance to at a club. Electronic music festivals popped up and grew into huge events. By the early 2010s the electronic dance music genre had grown from its roots in these tight-knit, marginalized communities in Chicago to become a massive industry, generating billions of dollars.
Chicago-based DJ Terry Hunter curated this playlist to showcase the sounds of house music in 2023. He writes, “These songs represent where house music is now. These artists represent some of the best in the genre. From Soulful to Afro to Disco … it’s all house music birthed from the City of Chicago that now influences music across the globe.”
Meida McNeal (Director of Honey Pot Performance and Chicago Black Social Culture Map): I think, when you start to really look at the landscape of folks who are part of the scene, making the music — the promoters, the folks holding down the parties, you begin to see a lineage. A lot of them grew up either in the church or had parents, uncles, aunts, whatever, who were in kind of like the black lounge, blues, whatever scene here in Chicago or had their own kind of lounges or taverns or mom and pop record stores. People grew up in these earlier forms of Black social music and ways of gathering.
Frederick Dunson: It gave you the strength to carry on, you know, to make it from week to [week]. Because, you know, people would look forward to, oh God, next Saturday. See you next Saturday. Cuz it was their release. It was their way of letting their hair down. So they came out on Saturday night to have a good time and go back and assimilate to whatever lives they were living the following week.
Vince Lawrence: For me, house music is the definition of the word intersectional. House music knows no race, it knows no social economic status. It knows no sexual preference, no religion. House brings everything and everybody together despite any so-called or perceived differences. When you’re one with house music, it’s all about that beat and the release and the spirit of music moving through you and all of the things that separate us kind of fade away underneath the boom, boom, boom, boom.
Meida McNeal: It has to start with the persistence, resistance and ingenuity of both Black and brown queer folk and young people. They innovated and catalyzed this genre into being and, again, it is telling a similar story just through what became popular culture, you know, social culture in that moment of kind of Black resistance.
There are all these ways in which the world and society cuts off access, discriminates, is anti-Black, is racist. And culture is a space where folks of color, Black folks, have really loudly resisted all of these efforts to silence, to make less human, to make less complex.
You know, when you really listen to the range of what is in house, like musically, sonically, but also in the lyrics, you know, it is telling stories of love.
This story includes contributions by Taylor Ash, Julie Caine, Jacob Ganz, Otis Hart, Casey Miner, Yolanda Sangweni, Anya Steinberg, Yordanos Tesfazion, Daoud Tyler-Ameen, Kevin Volkl and Lawrence Wu.