Credit Jernej Graj via unsplash

The history of house: Chicagoan lofts to Boiler Room sets

By Olivia Marrins

How has house music shaped the metropolitan dance scene?

Born in the chipped wooden floors of Chicago lofts, the history of house music is eclectic in its cultural influences, and its progression through the genres of the music industry. Its addictive sounds and beats were soon enough danced by those in New York and London, becoming a style fixed to the metropolitan appeal of the big capitals. 

The Chicago house scene is arguably eponymous for each dance decade which followed. Many would associate house music with its dilution into other popular dance genres such as techno, hip-hop or synth. But even though its origins can be heard in these subgenres, as a stand-alone genre, house music should be regarded as the agency in which other dance styles are enjoyed. 

The late 70s disco scene emerged in Studio 54, on Bianca Jagger’s white horse, or Grease’s opening party. New York’s most iconic dancefloor slowly seeped its way down to the underground clubs, experimenting mainstream disco fixed tracks with alternative funk and jazz remixes. But it was The Warehouse in Chicago’s south side which can claim territory on the birth of house music. DJ Frankie Knuckles (nicknamed as the godfather of house) opened the doors to the club of house music, where society’s outcasts frequented in David Mancuso’s elaborate get-togethers in east coast brick walls and 12” disco enriched tracks. Knuckles’ unorthodox style as DJ and club owner paved a moment of dance culture which infiltrated through the communities of Chicago and, subsequently, New York and London. 

Personified by a 120 bpm and driving 4/4 undercurrent, house music never witnessed the death of the party. Decorated with descending piano notes and string sub quality, the immersive listening experiences of house music exposes the foreshadowing of each technique to the intimate and social culture behind this genre. Traditionally employing samples of pre-existing vocals; the house sound is an interplay of heavy basslines and synthesiser overcoats. Samples of disco or funk are played against the simplistic vocals of a pop style in an experimental instrumental setup, creating an anticipated layering of sounds under a drum machine. 

House music has been a saviour to many communities. The soundtrack to many social minorities’ exploration of culture and individuality, or a tranced invite to a space which felt inclusive to outsiders. Beneath the sonic construction of each single lies early lyrics of house preaching relatable messages to the subculture of African Americans, Latins, and LGBTQs of this time. One must remember, New York and Chicago in the late 70s and early 80s saw epidemic health threats and a rebellion uprising disguised in a financial skyscrape. These clubs posed as a sanctuary for those escaping the public eye, soundtracked by revolutionary sounds which cemented house music in the same communities today.

House music is still enjoyed through its compelling authenticity. Though it is most frequently heard in oversubscribed techno music in raves and festivals, the NYC dance scene is still run in the Boiler Room across the East Side, or the attics of Brooklyn. Playing to modernity, Boiler Rooms televised music for the internet generation; forget Vevo or MTV. Underground music these days has to be curated in online streams to reach the right audience. Boiler Rooms create reels of diverse collaborative styles, exposing hidden subcultures in the realm of dance music. Emerging artists have toyed with the foundations of house music to bring a new Chicago basement scene to the present day. This was especially apparent in last Brit Nominee Fred Again’s sets last summer, as he explored bass house from the early 80s, deployed through a deep techno sound.

The album Renaissance is one of pop’s biggest female stars’ ode to house music. Beyonce plays homage to female powerhouse vocals and queer musical influences; sampling Donna Summer and taking influence from the flamboyancy of the 80s ballroom scene. Artists still project the power of house music in today’s tents: American DJ Honey Dijon preserves her Chicagoan house roots in her releases, reimagining house origins after its authenticity had diminished through cultural commercialisation and whitewashing. Over the most recent decades, queer and black communities have been forced to defend its legacy, as mainstream exposure has overshadowed real artists pushing for history to be appreciated.

Ultimately, we must honour the significance of house culture as a gateway to explore hidden dance styles, because house music holds its power in the communities who created it.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments