The origins of house are practically biblical. “From this groove came the groove of all grooves,” as Rhythm Controll put it in the 1987 anthem “My House,” and so it was that Chicago’s dance music ultimately became the world’s. In the beginning, there was the Warehouse, the factory-turned-club at Adams and Jefferson where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles presided — and where the music we now call house was born. But the full story’s more complicated, as the best Chicago stories tend to be.
The sound itself was deceptively simple: a repetitive 4/4 drumbeat punctuated by a high-hat cymbal and, frequently, a funked-up bassline and laser-like synthesizer riff. Knuckles once referred to house as “disco’s revenge” — an indictment of Chicago’s sociopolitical stratification as much as a commentary on the music itself. You could chalk up the “Disco Sucks” movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s as a backlash to Xanadu-era cheese, but in a city whose segregated structures extended to the club scene, it went deeper than that. House was music for young gay men of color, as radical in its reclamation of territory as it was in its unprecedented rhythms. And so its pioneers’ reverent obsession with making the old sound brand-new — editing disco, funk, and soul classics to make them weirder, wilder, and harder — was a political statement in the guise of a transcendent party.
Four decades after house’s inception, you might think classic tracks made with analog gear would sound archaic; if anything, it’s the opposite. There’s an essence to these songs that’s impossible to articulate — it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing. And though today’s electronic music industry has roots in Chicago, there’s a gap that can’t be bridged. House musicians never watered down their sound to appeal to the masses. Instead, they dared partygoers to follow the DJs, in blind faith, on a journey of the soul. Rough-edged but communal, house music is Chicago to the core — but in the words of Rhythm Controll, “Once you enter my house, it then becomes our house.”
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Producer Frankie Knuckles’s stroboscopic synthesizer riff and sublime bassline became electronic music archetypes — but the real magic comes from the gentle yet commanding voice of Principle, a Warehouse regular. The song’s visceral sensuality and wide-eyed romance embody all that house stood for: the dance floor as escapist utopia, a place of radical inclusion and release. This isn’t just the best Chicago house track — it may be the best dance record ever.
When Trax Records president Larry Sherman took the first test pressing to a club DJ, a patron offered him $500 for it. “It was just that kind of crowd pleaser,” he says. With its darting bassline and mantra-like lyrics, this debut from West Side producer Adonis Smith became one of the genre’s early anthems.
By incorporating jazz influences into a meditative, bass-heavy melody, Larry Heard essentially invented “deep house” with this track. While alternate mixes have incorporated Robert Owens vocals, Chuck Roberts and the Jacksons samples, and Martin Luther King Jr. snippets, the instrumental version remains the definitive one.
This banger by the onetime Smartbar DJ has a chorus that perfectly sums up the outsider mentality of house: “When the angels from above fall down and spread their wings like doves, and we walk hand in hand, sisters, brothers, we’ll make it to the promised land.”
Originally titled “In Your Mind,” it introduced the mind-warping capabilities of the TB-303 synthesizer to the world. DJ Pierre’s knob twisting turned a jumping little bassline into a siren song for all turntable spinners. “I read music, know how to write music; I played in symphonic winds,” Pierre says. “I was bringing that element to the machine.”
Owens’s impassioned vocals and producer Larry Heard’s delightfully jittery beats proved an inspired melding. With its emphatically imperative title lyrics, it fueled dance-floor catharsis for even the most jaded club kids.
New rule: No describing a track as “climactic” unless it stretches the sound of an orgasm to 10 trancelike minutes, as this one does. (The downright pornographic vocals come from Shawn Christopher, a backup singer for Chaka Khan.) “French Kiss” builds and builds — and just when you think it’s grinding to a stop, it goes for round two.
Brightledge belts one of early house’s most soulful vocals over Void’s sparkling piano sketches, uniting the futurism of electronic music with the hallowed aura of gospel music. The fusion is so irresistible that the Pet Shop Boys later covered it.
Larry Heard found himself among Chicago’s most in-demand producers after this self-released debut. The buoyant bassline became widely emulated by house producers and eventually crashed the mainstream: Kanye West sampled it on “Fade.”
This local quartet released only one track, but it’s an iconic example of early house, in large part due to Chuck Roberts’s sermonistic vocals, proclaiming a utopian vision in which “no one man owns house, because house music is a universal language spoken and understood by all.” Amen.
With its frenetic percussion and sweeping strings, this track from Trent’s debut EP bridged Chicago’s and Detroit’s house and techno sounds. At more than 13 minutes, it’s a raw, distorted, and hypnotic epic that inspires both dancing and science fiction.
A rebuttal to any claim that house needs hard beats and rough edges, it unfurls gently, floating above the dance floor like a cloud of smoke with delicate cymbals, keyboard-produced flutes, and, of course, that signature nonchalant whistle.
The stomping drums, whooping synths, and hypnotic vocals became the quintessential anthem of ’90s Chicago house. Whenever you hear “It’s time for the percolator” in the city, you can be sure a spontaneous dance party is about to pop off.
Made entirely with a Casio RZ-1 drum machine, it was the template for “ghetto house,” a more up-tempo, salacious style that flourished in mid-’90s Chicago. The record remains a sure-fire go-to: If you can’t kill with it, you shouldn’t DJ.
The blueprint for the mainstream crossover hits that came after it (quite literally in the case of Technotronic’s ubiquitous “Pump Up the Jam,” which samples it). The electrifying keyboard melody was as fitting in an underground club in 1987 as it is in the United Center today.
Irwin Larry Eberhart II layered stuttering vocal samples and minimal synthesizer lines on top of skittering beats, while vocalist Joe Smooth’s “jack your body” commands helped popularize a herky-jerky solo dance style that became an integral part of house culture.
Many house pioneers were DJs who learned to produce in service of their sets. Larry Heard was the opposite: a multi-instrumentalist whose omnivorous taste led him to drum machines and synthesizers. His musical chops show in this shimmering, melancholy track, featuring his own plaintive vocals.
Craig S. Loftis’s overlooked late-era single is a favorite among die-hard house fans thanks to its instantly recognizable elements: a near-martial drumbeat, a one-note synthesizer tap, and an echoing sample of Aretha Franklin’s “Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
Over a copy of New York DJ Todd Terry’s “Can You Party,” Maurice Joshua outlines the “new dance craze” that is acid. The track never really took off here the way it did in Britain, and it doesn’t resemble acid house at all, but it is so charming that you don’t care.
Tommy Thumbs and Daniel Ellington produced only two records as E.S.P., but this debut was a smash on local dance floors. Audiences cheer when they hear its sultry melodies and charismatically amateurish vocals purring silly come-ons (“You want my touch, I want your body”).
To create this list, we polled:
Celeste Alexander (DJ, Celestethedj)
Jacob Arnold (Writer, Guardian, The Wire, Chicago Reader)
Meaghan Garvey (Writer, Pitchfork, The Fader, MTV News)
Lori Branch (DJ)
Michaelangelo Matos (writer, author of The Underground Is Massive)
Jamal Moss (Musician and DJ, aka Hieroglyphic Being)
Steve Mizek (DJ, Writer, onetime proprietor of dance-music website Little White Earbuds)
Tal Rosenberg (senior editor, culture)
Chrissy Shively (DJ, producer, writer, owner of house music labels The Nite Owl Diner and Cool Ranch)
Tommie Sunshine (producer, remixer, DJ, and songwriter)
When I first opened the Warehouse in 1976, I served as the DJ, but I wasn’t very good. I knew Frankie Knuckles. I had been his juvenile counselor in New York. He was a truant. So I asked him to come to Chicago. He wasn’t a great DJ yet. He had always been in the shadow of Larry Levan, his boyhood friend, so he wasn’t getting a lot of gigs.
At the Warehouse, Frankie had the space to develop his skills and style. The club opened at 12, and the parties didn’t end until 8 or 9 in the morning. It started off as a gay crowd. It was like a family. Eventually, it became more diverse. Richard Long and Associates, the New York company that designed the sound system at Studio 54, put ours in. People in Chicago had never heard a sound like that. So Frankie really couldn’t go too wrong.
He and I would travel back and forth to New York for new music. He was getting European imports and songs that weren’t available yet in the Midwest. Then he would introduce them here in a different way. He would edit the tracks. He would manipulate the sound system. And he added sound effects. He would be playing a song and add the sound of a train coming through a station real loud. Here you’re dancing and all of a sudden it sounds like a train’s coming through the building. It was mind-blowing. He would start the music out at a certain pace and just build up, up, up into a real explosive situation. And then it would calm back down again.
A lot of people want to put a definition on where house music began and who started it. It started here in Chicago. And it had phases. Frankie was the first phase. He made it so that Chicago house music is known throughout the world.
It was more or less the aura of Ron Hardy that got me into DJ’ing. Mendel Catholic High School used to have these sock hops as fundraisers, and Hardy would DJ them. They were the best parties. I was around 13 or 14 when I first ventured there to hear him. He had already been a legend to me for a few years, so it was mesmerizing to see him. One tune that I actually remember him playing was “Ride the Rhythm” by On the House. I had never heard it that loud. It was like hearing it differently. He’d pull together an amalgamation of music, but it all had a four-on-the-floor drumbeat.
It wasn’t even called house music back then. It was just “music being played at the Warehouse.” But it became part of my existence. I felt like I had found my tribe. House culture made you different from everybody else. We were the space cadets, the aliens walking around the urban streets of America. If you listen to that song “Bad Boy” by Jamie Principle, that’s the soundtrack right there. It was one of those songs they only played at clubs. What he was talking about, being a radical motherfucker, resonated with you, even if you weren’t gay. You walked to a different beat.
I got into dance music around the same time everybody else did, the era of Saturday Night Fever, when I was 14 or 15. My senior year of high school, I started venturing out to clubs, to hear punk or disco. But the Warehouse opened up a whole new understanding for me of what underground music was about.
I grew up on the South Side — first in Englewood, then in Morgan Park — in a Christian household. I was very sheltered. My father was a minister, and my mom was a teacher. My parents were pillars in the community and had protected me from anything as outrageous as the Warehouse, a gay club with folks much older than I was, in an area, the West Loop, that was deserted at night.
It was magical. You didn’t drop into the Warehouse. You got there at 1 or 2 in the morning and stayed till it closed. It was like church. You had to go every week. For me, part of the experience was figuring out who I was. At the time, I was coming out as a bisexual kid. House was almost a protest, but not in a typical way. You were part of this accepting community of esoteric people who were discovering something.
I grew up in the music business. My family owned Barney’s Records, which was probably the biggest black-owned music distributor in the country. I first got exposed to house through the musicians, when Vince Lawrence, Duane Buford, and Jesse Saunders would drop off their Trax Records releases. The music was innovative and had a lot of energy — it would light up any party — and it helped our business. We did a lot of business in the Midwest, but when it came to house, we could sell to exporters.
When I started my own house label, Dance Mania, Duane offered to do our first release. Most of the guys I worked with had no illusions of having their record picked up by major labels. But when you have a guy in his basement making tracks who ends up selling 5,000 records, that’s not bad. Nobody had any idea house music would go as far as it did. At the time, it wasn’t anything to see Deeon, Paul Johnson, DJ Funk, and Parris Mitchell on a daily basis. Looking back now, people wouldn’t believe it. Those guys are legends.
Spring 1976Robert Williams brings Frankie Knuckles from New York to DJ all-night weekend sets at his newly opened club, the Warehouse, a black gay juice bar.
1981WBMX-FM hires the original Hot Mix 5, including future hit makers Farley “Funkin’” Keith (later known as Farley Jackmaster Funk) and Ralphi Rosario, to bring Warehouse-style mixing into Chicago’s living rooms every Saturday night.
Early 1982With the help of sound-engineering student Erasmo Rivera, Knuckles begins making reel-to-reel edits of his favorite club tracks, stripped-down and extended versions that will serve as house music’s blueprint.
July 1982Joe Shanahan opens Smartbar in Wrigleyville—the city’s longest-running house club still in existence—and books Frankie Knuckles on selected nights.
February 1983Williams opens a second club, the Music Box, installing DJ Ron Hardy, who pushes the tempo so fast he earns the nickname Heart Attack Hardy.
October 1983Dave Shelton opens the legendary club Medusa’s in Lake View, where the city’s emerging industrial scene commingles with rising house stars like Lil Louis, Armando, and DJ Rush.
January 1984Jesse Saunders releases “On and On,” commonly regarded as the first-ever house 12-inch.
1985Phuture—the trio of Spanky, Herb J, and DJ Pierre—brings a demo of “Acid Tracks” to Ron Hardy, who plays it that night at the Music Box. Tapes of it will trade hands for two years before Trax Records releases it, whereupon it births the subgenre of acid house.
1986Chicago mailman and amateur musician Marshall Jefferson, as part of the loose collective On the House, records “Move Your Body,” released by Trax Records. It becomes house’s defining sing-along.
January 1987J.M. Silk’s “Jack Your Body” reaches No. 1 on the pop chart in Britain, setting the stage for the rise of house there.
April 1987An ordinance passed by the City of Chicago goes into effect, forcing juice bars—which had thrived as all-night dance parties—to shut down at 2 a.m., the same as most dance clubs serving alcohol.
October 1989Lil Louis’s 10-minute “French Kiss” hits No. 1 on the Billboard dance chart.
January 1992Cajual Records, founded by Curtis A. Jones, a.k.a. Cajmere, releases the greatest one-two in house history: his own “Percolator,” so big it started its own dance craze, and “Brighter Days,” with vocals from Dajae.
March 1992Ron Hardy dies at 34 of an undetermined cause.
Summer 1994Under the moniker D.J. #1, DJ Funk releases the EP Ghetto Trax on Dance Mania, introducing the ghetto house subgenre, which features raunchy samples and superfast beats.
August 2004A stretch of South Jefferson Street is renamed Frankie Knuckles Way.
March 2014Frankie Knuckles dies at 59 of complications from diabetes.
SmartbarOne of the first places to listen to house is still one of the best. Queen, its queer party on Sunday nights, frequently features sets from local legend Derrick Carter.
BerlinA younger generation of DJs, including Chicago nightlife linchpin Ariel Zetina, draws on a wide range of house styles when this LGBTQ nightclub hosts the semimonthly party Rosebud.
HousepitAfter years of throwing weekly events in San Francisco, DJ Bai-ee has returned to his home city to do the same here. He’s joined every Tuesday night at Logan Square’s East Room by a rotating list of record collectors known for selecting minimal, rough-edged cuts from independent labels.
Chosen Few PicnicWhat started 18 years ago as a barbecue behind the Museum of Science and Industry has turned into one of the largest house music festivals in the country. On the first Saturday of every July, more than 30,000 people descend on Jackson Park for 13 hours of uninterrupted dancing, fueled in part by a collective of South Side DJs known as the Chosen Few.
Chicago House Music FestivalThis year, the city expanded its annual (and free!) party, which happens the Saturday of every Memorial Day weekend, into a full-fledged festival, featuring performances from house legends, a vinyl record fair, and even workshops on DJ’ing and dancing.
One night in 1984, DJ Pierre (a.k.a. Nathaniel Pierre Jones) was at the house of his cousin Spanky (Earl Smith) — his bandmate in the Chicago electronic music group Phuture — when he picked up a little silver box called the TB-303 and started playing around with it. That year, Roland had discontinued making the synthesizer, which features a one-octave keyboard for producing base lines and a half-dozen knobs for tweaking them. “I was flipping through a few patterns,” recalls Pierre, “and when I stopped on one, I thought, ‘I like the rhythm of this.’ So I started twisting the knobs.”
The result would eventually become Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”: a playful, alien-sounding sonic assault, 12 minutes long, that spearheaded acid house, a new style that still resonates through electronic and pop music today.
Below, Pierre walks us through the creation of the sound. Turn your sound on, then click one of the glowing red knobs below to explore.
Click or tap a knob to begin.