House Nation: Jesse Saunders Celebrates 25 Years of Four-on-the-Floor at Incognito

House Legend Jesse Saunders at Incognito, 5/15/09
House Legend Jesse Saunders at Incognito, 5/15/09
Liz Ohanesian

Twenty-five years ago, Jesse Saunders' seminal dance single "On & On" was released through his own Jes-Say Records, ushering in a style of dance music called house that would go on to dominate dance charts for the ensuing decades. "On & On" might not necessarily be the birth of house, after all, Saunders and his Chicago cohorts were already established DJs by the time of the single's release. However, the 12" did alter the way DJs approached their work. Now, DJs weren't solely meant to push dance cuts, they could make their own too.

To celebrate this milestone, Saunders has embarked on a not-so-ordinary tour. For his set, he has been performing what he calls a "live disc jocumentary," where his mixing corresponds with documentary footage explaining the origins and evolution of house music playing on a screen above him. The tour also features a mobile art exhibition with Saunders' own archival material mixed with artwork based on well-known DJs like Masters at Work and classic club tracks like Lil Louis & the World's single "French Kiss." Friday night, Saunders launched his cross-country jaunt at local party Incognito. That a Chicago house personality chose to begin his tour in LA may seem odd, but, Saunders, who is now based in Las Vegas, has lived off and on in the city for the past twenty years. In fact, he even spent some of his formative years spinning at USC parties while attending the university's prestigious film school. Before that, though, The DJ/producer got his start as a teenager in the late 1970s, making "pause button remixes on a cassette deck."

"I always felt thay you could to take the best parts of the records and make them cool," says Saunders, who further documents his story in the book, House Music...The Real Story. "So I would take the breakdown and put them at the beginning. I would take parts that I like and repeat them over and over again where they weren't supposed to go and then I would start making records flip. Playing them backwards."

By the time he was fifteen, Saunders was part of a high school party circuit that infiltrated nightclubs and sweet sixteen parties. It was at those events that the purveyors the four-on-the-floor sound, influenced by godfathers of the movement Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, first met. The scene that formed was, at least at first, as DIY as it was regional, with independently produced and distributed vinyl releases becoming hit singles on Midwestern radio stations. Eventually, this caught the attention of the major labels and Saunders' own band, Jesse's Gang, was picked up by Geffen. While that deal may have been short-lived, as a result, Sauders spent the 1990s and early-'00s as an in-demand remixer. Recently, though, he has stepped away from the mixing board to concentrate on his digital label Broken Records.

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"For me, I think it's more beneficial to open the doors for the next up-and-coming person," he explains, "to give them the channels so that they don't have to go through all this crap and have to go through years dealing with major labels, people trying to screw you and lawsuits."

Below, we compiled a list of some tracks illustrating the evolution of house as it became a worldwide phenomenon. Feel free to add your own picks from the genre in the comment section.

Phuture

"Acid Tracks"

Back in 1987, Phuture (then featuring DJ Pierre, Spanky and Herb J) helped to propel the Roland TB-303, a synthesizer meant to imitate a bass, into cult superstardom with "Acid Tracks." Produced by DJ Pierre and Chicago house legend Marshall Jefferson, this track helped define the acid house sound, which would rise to popularity at the junction of the '80s and '90s and go on to profoundly influence the DJs of the rave era.

Lil Louis and the World

"French Kiss" (Probably NSFW)

A club sensation that crossed over into the pop charts in 1989, "French Kiss" is notorious for its breakdown, slowing down to a languid crawl of a rhythm before pausing and speeding up to an ecstatic frenzy, all highlighted by extremely heavy breathing. This might be NSFW.

Masters at Work

"I Can't Get No Sleep"

The New York duo of "Little" Louie Vega (not to be confused with Chicago's Lil Louis) and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez are renowned in the house world and "I Can't Get No Sleep" is perhaps their best known track. Featuring India, who later became salsa star La India, on vocals, this 1993 cut still gets played at clubs across the globe.

Stardust

"Music Sounds Better with You"

A one-off collaboration between Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter, noted producer Alan Braxe and vocalist Benjamin Diamond, Stardust created both a club and radio sensation in 1998 with "Music Sounds Better with You." Based on a Chaka Khan sample, the song embodies the French take on house in the 1990s, blatantly disco with a filtered sound and accompanied by a cool video. This one was directed by Michel Gondry.

Soulsearcher

"Can't Get Enough"

A 1999 hit helmed by producer Marc Pomeroy, the track features Thea Austin of Snap! ("Rhythm is a Dancer") on vocals and is a favorite of Jesse Saunders. "They actually sampled the original Gary's Gang song 'Let's Lovedance Tonight,'" explains Saunders, "which is one of my all-time favorite songs from the '70s."


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