Designed with the dance floor in mind: the story of Chicago houseMarshall Jefferson

Designed with the dance floor in mind: the story of Chicago house

The eighties were both a tumultuous and exciting time in the history of music, and the tale to be told about the birth and evolution of electronic music is far from a predictable one. New York had disco, Detroit had techno, and Chicago had house. The growth of all three branches of this dance music tree are important, but at its core house music emerged from the Windy City as the umbrella genre’s most universal derivative. As thousands prepare to make their way to Chicago’s Montrose Beach this weekend for the second annual Wavefront Music Festival, complete with a Chicago Heritage Stage, let us pull back the curtain once again and explore the places from which this music came.

Before there was house

In the early eighties, Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever were over, and “disco” was no longer a romantic notion in American pop culture. Above ground, other forms of music reigned the radio waves, but under the surface, in dark and sweaty New York clubs, the sound once referred to as disco was beginning to mutate into something completely different. Cultural and social change, in many ways, led the way for this musical evolution — clubs that were for the most part gay and black were opening their doors to revelers in search of a certain newfound freedom and intense escape found in the fusion of music, sex, drugs, and dancing.

Francis Grasso at the Sanctuary was the first DJ to blend records together, Nicky Siano dazzled with his mixes at the Gallery, and David Mancuso’s parties at The Loft were nothing less than legendary. Without one, there wouldn’t be the other, but if we can point to just one major development in New York City after disco that led to Chicago house music, it would be the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan’s defining ten year residency. The Paradise Garage was the model for the modern American nightclub, and Levan was really the first superstar DJ. He created seamless dance music at a time when “house music” was not quite yet a thing. He is, quite simply, the link between disco and house.

Frankie does Chicago

While New York clubs churned away, something else was bubbling in middle America. In 1977, Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago. Frankie grew up with Levan, and cut his DJing teeth at the same Continental Baths in New York playing soul, disco, and R&B. But while Larry would never leave his post as top dog at Paradise Garage, Frankie was fit to shake things up in another city. Unlike Detroit techno or New York disco, where the music rose from larger scale cultural movements within the city, the foundation of house music rests more directly in the hands of a few key players.

Robert Williams, the Chicago clubowner responsible for recruiting Frankie Knuckles, describes the city when he arrived: “nothing was happening, they had a lot of bars here, you know, but they didn’t have the after-hours clubs.” That soon changed. After a few successful parties with Knuckles in the driver’s seat, Williams opened The Warehouse at 206 S. Jefferson Street on the west side of the city. It was much like New York clubs: strict membership policies, an out-of-this-world sound system designed by Richard Long, and a DJ everyone came to hear. Catering at first to gay black men, Frankie’s style seemed to be what eventually broke down racial, socio-economic, and cultural barriers in nightlife. As Williams remembers:

“At first there was a phobia in terms of mixing crowds, the straight and the gays. And so we started out trying to mix them, but you know, being Chicago [it] was kind of…I’d just say [it] was voodoo in terms of that situation. But Frankie helped in turning that over, you know, getting more diverse crowds coming in, people from different racial backgrounds. And I guess because of Frankie’s music style no one could touch him at that point.”

The Warehouse was never trying to be upscale or high-class — it was a dark space with seven-foot tall subwoofers, commonly referred to as nothing more than a sweatbox. It was the birthplace of house music, as well as the birthplace of its culture. The music Frankie Knuckles was playing was something totally new to Chicagoans — its uplifting vocals, deeper bass lines, and groove-oriented approach truly enraptured its audience; instead of Donna Summer, it was Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face?” He was adding beats and rhythms to his sets from a primitive beatbox, and by the early eighties the music even had a name. It was “house” music, named after the venue in which he played.

the warehouse

Although Knuckles was not immediately accepted in Chicago, other clubs continued to pop up in the wake of The Warehouse. Space Place, The Bistro, Coconuts, and Horizon West all catered to slightly different crowds, and in 1982, Knuckles himself left The Warehouse to open The Power Plant (largely because The Warehouse had doubled its admission fee). People began looking for new music (and disco records were no longer really available) — relying at first on foreign imports and the music pumping off New York dance floors. Before too much time had passed, one of the most influential sources for records was Paul Weisberg and his Imports Etc. record pool. Farley “Jackmaster” Funk pegs Weisberg as much more responsible for driving the movement forward than many would assume. He would at first give away records for free, which in turn beget him dictating what was being played on dancefloors. He’d say, “I got these hot new imports that just came from Europe” and as Jackmaster recounts, “when we got the records, man, they blew us away.”

From The Warehouse to The Music Box and The Power Plant

Once Frankie left The Warehouse, Williams switched gears and opened up The Music Box. The Music Box and The Power Plant operated on different nights of the weekend and ultimately catered to different variations of the primitive house music sound. While the legacy from The Warehouse, that of a stricter membership policy and a more mature, gay crowd, continued on to The Power Plant, The Music Box was simply much more intense. Ron Hardy was at the reigns at the Music Box and along with an environment where “you could do all sorts of unspeakable things on the dancefloor,” he would edit and remix a personal brand of R&B at a frenetic pace.

ron hardy

When techno godfather Derrick May visited the club, he recalls he “had never seen people, especially black people, completely on another planet.” It was also The Music Box that would eventually inspired a group of regulars to go off and really set forward the global house music phenomenon.

The Power Plant was not resting on Frankie Knuckles’ DJing laurels. Frankie and Ron Hardy were friendly rivals, but it would be Frankie’s club that would give birth to Chicago house music’s first homegrown star — Jamie Principle. With the support of Frankie and others in the studio, Jamie’s tracks “Your Love” and “Waiting On My Angel” were some of the first hugely inspiring Chicago house records. As Marshall Jefferson (another house music pioneer in his own right) explains, “nobody would have made records if Jamie [hadn’t] come out with records first, because they were so good.”

House music gets waxed and takes over the airwaves

In 1984, the first house music record was pressed to vinyl. Jesse Saunders and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk were residents at the Playground club in 1982 and at first, focused on mixing New Wave like the B-52’s and Depeche Mode. Saunders started bringing a drum machine to the club, and even just setting the four-on-the-floor to old disco records, he was changing the game as they knew it. In 1983, Saunders was approached by Vince Lawrence and with his TR-808 drum machine, he was a rhythm section entirely unto his own. “On & On,” which is now considered the first house record created in a studio, had as Sean Bidder explains, “stole[n] its body direct from disco’s dead bones.”

Early house music was sparse and relatively poorly produced, but it still sold in higher quantities than these boys’ wildest dreams. For these Chicago producers toying around with drum machines and synths, it was not so much about the quality of the output as it was about the exploration of possibilities:

“I didn’t think much of it, until I found out that Jesse was from Chicago and he’s making music — ‘Oh shit, oh, this is cool, maybe I could do something like that,'” explained Marshall Jefferson. “That was the single most important record to me of the twentieth century, because it let the non-musician know that he could make music. It was the revolution, man. Everybody and their brother, their aunt, their uncle, starting making music after that.”

Not too long after the success of “On & On,” Jesse Saunders linked up with Larry Sherman (owner of one of the city’s last record pressing plants) to birth Trax Records. Saunders’ career was not particularly prolific in its own right, but his legacy laid the groundwork for the phenomenon that house music eventually became.

hot mix five

House music was finally beginning to come into its own by the mid-eighties and although many of the early records were looped bass lines and borrowed rhythms — there was no doubt it was popular in the city of Chicago. It was the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX, DJs Scott “Smokin'” Silz, Kenny “Jammin'” Jason, Farley “Funkin'” Keith, Micky “Mixin'” Oliver, and Ralphi “Rockin'” Rosario, that spread Chicago house from its core (gay) audience to rest of the city and the suburbs. Each of the five had a different style, were allotted an hour-long mix each week,  and along with the breakneck speed at which Trax was producing records, this little family of pioneers sculpted a new musical reformation in the Great Lakes’ largest city.

Acid Tracks Phuture

House music exists, in some form of irony, because of digital technology. As studio equipment like the Roland TR-808, TR-909 synths, and TB-303 sequencer (for acid house) became outdated, they were more readily available on the cheap, and so-called “non-musicians” like Jesse Saunders and later Marshall Jefferson, were able to get a hold of them and mutate their original purpose for early house music. In fact, Jefferson was so inspired by Saunders’ early releases, he went to a music store and was convinced to buy a sequencer, keyboard, drum machine, mixer, four-track recorder, amp, and a TB-303 — without knowing how to operate any of the equipment. Two days later, he had written his first song. His “Move Your Body (House Music Anthem)” (signed to Trax) was the spark plug for many, many more house music records. There were countless unavoidable early tunes — Larry Heard (or Mr. Fingers)’s “Can You Feel It?,” Adonis’s “No Way Back,” and Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” among the most successful.

By the time DJ Pierre and friend Earl “Spanky” Smith got together as Phuture (and toyed around with a TB-303 enough to make the squelching sounds now known as acid house on “Acid Tracks”), this music was destined to go global. “Acid Tracks” caught the attention of our friends across the Atlantic and “Jack Your Body” became the first house record to reach #1.

Unlike techno, Chicago house was born on a dance floor and has always been crafted with its origins at the forefront of a producer’s imagination. Adding a pulsing four-on-the-floor beat to a track’s bottom line is something for which we all have Chicago to thank, and every time you’re compelled to get up and move or tap your feet, you can give a nod to Frankie Knuckles, Jesse Saunders, and the other originators of the core sound. A global music phenomenon, a form of music engineered purely for release and exhaltation, owes its legs to an unsuspecting family of dreamers and misfits from the Midwest.

Join us at this weekend at Wavefront Music Festival, where you can hear Frankie Knuckles, Jamie Principle, Ralphi Rosario, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Diz, Gene Farris, Michael Serafini, and Terri Bristol at the brand new Chicago Heritage stage on Saturday. More on the lineup and tickets can still be found over at the Wavefront website. Also take a listen below to a mix Frankie Knuckles prepared just for the festival.

Like what you read? Check out our piece on Detroit techno here.



Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey (London: Grove Press, 2000).

Heiko Hoffmann, “From the Autobahn to I-94,” (2005),

Mohson Iqbal, “Larry Heard: Soul Survivor,” Resident Advisor (2008),

Sean Bidder, Pump Up The Volume: A History of House (London: Channel 4 Books, 2001).

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