House is a genre of electronic dance music characterized by a repetitive four-on-the-floor beat and a tempo of 120 to 130 beats per minute. It was created by DJs and music producers from Chicago’s underground club culture in the 1980s, as DJs from the subculture began altering disco songs to give them a more mechanical beat and deeper basslines.
The genre was pioneered by DJs and producers mainly from Chicago and New York such as Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Jesse Saunders, Chip E., Steve “Silk” Hurley, Mr. Lee, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Marshall Jefferson, Phuture and others. From its beginnings in the Chicago club and local radio scene, the genre expanded internationally to London, then to other American cities such as New York City and Detroit before becoming a worldwide phenomenon.[
House has had a large impact on pop music, especially dance music. It was incorporated by major pop artists including Janet Jackson, Madonna and Kylie Minogue, but also produced some mainstream hits on its own, such as “French Kiss” by Lil Louis (1989), “Show Me Love” by Robin S. (1992) or “Push the Feeling On” by Nightcrawlers (1992/1995). Many house producers also did and continue to do remixes for pop artists. Until today, house music has remained popular on radio and in clubs while retaining a foothold on the underground scenes across the globe.
In its most typical form, the genre is characterized by repetitive 4/4 rhythms including bass drums, off-beat hi-hats, snare drums, claps, and/or snaps at a tempo between 120 and 130 beats per minute (bpm), synthesizer riffs, deep basslines, and often, but not necessarily, sung, spoken or sampled vocals. In house, the bass drum is sounded on beats one and three, and the snare drum, claps, or other higher-pitched percussion on beats two and four. The drum beats in house music are almost always provided by an electronic drum machine, often a Roland TR-808, TR-909, or a TR-707. Claps, shakers, snare drum, or hi-hat sounds are used to add syncopation. One of the signature rhythm riffs, especially in early (Chicago) house, is built on the clave pattern. Congas and bongos may be added for an African sound, or metallic percussion for a Latin feel.
Sometimes, the drum sounds are “saturated” by boosting the gain to create a more aggressive edge. One classic subgenre, acid house, is defined through the squelchy sounds created by the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer. House music could be produced on “cheap and consumer-friendly electronic equipment” and used sound gear, which made it easier for independent labels and DJs to create tracks. The electronic drum machines and other gear used by house DJs and producers were formerly considered “too cheap-sounding” by “proper” musicians. House music producers typically use sampled instruments, rather than bringing in session musicians into a recording studio. Even though a key element of house production is layering sounds, such as drum machine beats, samples, synth basslines, and so on, the overall “texture…is relatively sparse”. Unlike pop songs, which emphasize higher-pitched sounds, such as melody, in house music, the lower-pitched bass register is most important.
The structure of house music songs — or “tracks”, as they are more commonly called — typically involves an intro, a chorus, various verse sections, a midsection and a brief outro. Some tracks do not have a verse, taking a vocal part from the chorus and repeating the same cycle. House music tracks are often based on eight-bar sections which are repeated. They are often built around bass-heavy loops or basslines produced by a synthesizer and/or around samples of disco, soul, jazz-funk or funk songs. DJs and producers creating a house track to be played in clubs edit a “seven or eight-minute 12-inch mix”; if the track is intended to be played on radio, a “three-and-a-half-minute” radio edit is used. Unlike trance music, which is designed to keep building in intensity, house music tracks are “more consistent” and rather based on “playing with the constituent parts and bringing them in and out” in a subtle way. House tracks build up slowly, by adding layers of sound and texture, and by increasing the volume.
House tracks may have vocals like a pop song, but some are “completely minimal instrumental music”, as vocals are not required for the house genre. If a house track does have vocals, the vocal lines may also be simple “words or phrases” that are repeated.
Influences and precursors
One of the main influences of house was disco; house music having been defined as a genre which “…picked up where disco left off in the late 1970’s.” Like disco DJs, house DJs used a “slow mix” to “lin[k] records together” into a mix.In the post-disco club culture during the early 1980s, DJs from the gay scene made their tracks “less pop-oriented”, with a more mechanical, repetitive beat and deeper basslines, and many tracks were made without vocals, or with wordless melodies. Disco became so popular by the late 1970s that record companies pushed even non-disco artists (R&B bands, for example) to produce disco songs. When the backlash against disco started, known as “Disco sucks”, dance music went from being produced by major label studios to being created by DJs in the underground club scene.
While disco was associated with lush orchestration, with string orchestra, flutes and horn sections, various disco songs incorporated sounds produced with synthesizers and electronic drum machines, and some compositions were entirely electronic; examples include Italian composer Giorgio Moroder’s late 1970s productions such as Donna Summer’s hit single “I Feel Love” from 1977, Cerrone’s “Supernature” (1977), Yellow Magic Orchestra’s synth-disco-pop productions from Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978) or Solid State Survivor (1979), and several early 1980s productions by hi-NRG groups like Lime, Trans-X and Bobby O.
Also important for the development of house were audio mixing and editing techniques earlier explored by disco, garage music and post-disco DJs, record producers, and audio engineers such as Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, Jim Burgess, Larry Levan, M & M, and others.
While most post-disco disc jockeys primarily stuck to playing their conventional ensemble and playlist of dance records, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, two influential DJs of house music, were known for their unusual and non-mainstream playlists and mixing. Knuckles was influenced by and worked with New York City club Paradise Garage resident Larry Levan. Knuckles, often credited as “the Godfather of House” and resident DJ at the Warehouse from 1977 to 1982, worked primarily with early disco music with a hint of new and different music (whether it was post-punk or post-disco). Knuckles started out as a disco DJ, but when he moved from New York City to Chicago, he changed from the typical disco mixing style of playing records one after another; instead, he mixed different songs together, including Philadelphia soul, New York club tracks, and Euro disco. He also explored adding a drum machine and a reel-to-reel tape player so he could create new tracks, often with a boosted deep register and faster tempos.
Ron Hardy produced unconventional DIY mixtapes which he later played straight-on in the successor of the Warehouse, the Music Box (reopened and renamed in 1983 after Knuckles left). Like Frankie Knuckles, Hardy “combined certain sounds, remixing tracks with added synths and drum machines”, all “refracted through the futurist lens of European music.” Marshall Jefferson, who would later appear with the 1986 house classic “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)” (originally released on Trax Records), describes how he got involved in house music after hearing Ron Hardy’s music in the Music Box:
“I wasn’t even into dance music before I went to the Music Box […]. I was into rock and roll. We would get drunk and listen to rock and roll. We didn’t give a fuck, we were like ‘Disco Sucks!’ and all that. I hated dance music ‘cos I couldn’t dance. I thought dance music was kind of wimpy, until I heard it at like Music Box volume.”— Marshall Jefferson
A precursor to house music is the Colonel Abrams hit song “Trapped”, produced by Richard James Burgess in 1984, referred to as a proto-house track and a precursor to garage house.
Rachel Cain, better known as Screamin Rachael, co-founder of the highly influential house label Trax Records, was previously involved in the burgeoning punk scene. Cain cites industrial music (another genre pioneered in Chicago) and post-punk record store Wax Trax! Records (later a record label) as an important connection between the ever-changing underground sounds of Chicago.
The electronic instrumentation and minimal arrangement of Charanjit Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982), an album of Indian ragas performed in a disco style, anticipated the sounds of acid house music, but it is not known to have had any influence on the genre prior to the album’s rediscovery in the 21st century. According to Hillegonda C. Rietveld, “elements of hip hop and rap can be found in contemporary house tracks”, with hip hop acting as an “accent or inflection” that is inserted into the house sound.
The constant bass drum in house music may have arisen from DJs experimenting with adding drum machines to their live mixes at clubs, underneath the records they were playing.
Origins of the term “house”
One 2009 book states the name house music originated from a Chicago club called the Warehouse, which existed from 1977 to 1983. Clubbers to the Warehouse were primarily black, who came to dance to music played by the club’s resident DJ Frankie Knuckles, who fans refer to as the “godfather of house”. Frankie began the trend of splicing together different records when he found that the records he had weren’t long enough to satisfy his audience of dancers. After the Warehouse closed in 1983, the crowds went to Knuckles’ new club, The Power Plant, while the club was renamed into Music Box with Ron Hardy being resident DJ.
In the Channel 4 documentary Pump Up The Volume, Knuckles remarks that the first time he heard the term “house music” was upon seeing “we play house music” on a sign in the window of a bar on Chicago’s South Side. One of the people in the car with him joked, “you know that’s the kind of music you play down at the Warehouse!”. South-Side Chicago DJ Leonard “Remix” Rroy, in self-published statements, claims he put such a sign in a tavern window because it was where he played music that one might find in one’s home; in his case, it referred to his mother’s soul and disco records, which he worked into his sets. The documentary also explored how house music was something that anyone could do. Mostly the documentary looks at some of the DJs from that genre, and how they stumbled into the music.
Farley “Jackmaster” Funk was quoted as saying “In 1982, I was DJing at a club called The Playground and there was this kid named Leonard ‘Remix’ Rroy who was a DJ at a rival club called The Rink. He came over to my club one night, and into the DJ booth and said to me, ‘I’ve got the gimmick that’s gonna take all the people out of your club and into mine – it’s called House music.’ Now, where he got that name from or what made him think of it I don’t know, so the answer lies with him.”
Chip E.’s 1985 recording “It’s House” may also have helped to define this new form of electronic music. However, Chip E. himself lends credence to the Knuckles association, claiming the name came from methods of labeling records at the Importes Etc. record store, where he worked in the early 1980s: bins of music that DJ Knuckles played at the Warehouse nightclub were labelled in the store “As Heard At The Warehouse”, which was shortened to simply “House”. Patrons later asked for new music for the bins, which Chip E. implies was a demand the shop tried to meet by stocking newer local club hits.
In a 1986 interview, when Rocky Jones, the club DJ who ran the D.J. International record label, was asked about the “house” moniker, he did not mention Importes Etc., Frankie Knuckles, or the Warehouse by name. However, he agreed that “house” was a regional catch-all term for dance music, and that it was once synonymous with older disco music, before it became a way to refer to “new” dance music.
Larry Heard, a.k.a. “Mr. Fingers”, claims that the term “house” came from DJs creating music in home studios using affordable synthesizers and drum machines, such as the Roland TB-303, Roland TR-808, and TR-909. These synthesizers were used to create the acid house subgenre. Juan Atkins, an originator of Detroit techno, claims the term “house” reflected the association of particular tracks with particular clubs and DJs, considered their “house” records.