The origins and ownership of the term “house music” have been hotly debated since, well, always. House music is a lot things to a lot of people. It's disco's revenge. It's a feeling. It's controllable desire you can own.
While house can still be a little elusive, it's like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: You'll know it when you hear it. House was born in Chicago from a meeting of late '70 and early '80s technology — synths, drum machines, difficult-to-program sequencers and samplers — and the people using it — mostly black, often queer, working class men and women. Classic Chicago house is sought out for its soulful and unapologetic rawness, a far cry from the swaths of antiseptic house available today on Beatport. As much of modern music tries to scrub out any imperfections, classic house openly embraces its limitations and blemishes.
This is a primer for new jacks, albeit an incomplete one, as 100 other records could qualify for this list. It's a cheat sheet for people who discovered dance music through mainstream EDM, pop or Jamie xx, and are curious to learn where this music comes from.
10. Jesse Saunders, “On and On” (1984)
“On and On” is widely considered to be the first proper house record. It starts with screams and maniacal laughter, then oozes along, with a healthy dose of reverb and twinkly synths as a top line, never quite fully banging into a typical hands-in-the-air crescendo the way we've come to expect from a house record. But it's evidence that house has never been singular. It can be many things. “On and On” is a gauzy 4 a.m. jam to bridge night into morning.
9. Marshall Jefferson, “Move Your Body” (1986)
The stomping live piano intro is cited as the first time live pianos were utilized in house music, a trend that would rage on into the '90s and beyond. Marshall Jefferson is 55 years old and still going strong on the club and festival circuit.
8. Farley “Jackmaster” Funk feat. Darryl Pandy, “Love Can't Turn Around” (1986)
This is part cover, part re-interpretation of the Isaac Hayes track “I Can't Turn Around,” which was also covered by Steve “Silk” Hurley (Farley's roommate at the time). Darryl Pandy is an absolute beast on this track, and it was the first house single to break into the U.K. singles chart.
7. The House Master Boyz and The Rude Boy of House, “House Nation” (1986)
Another Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, credited to his alias, The House Master Boyz. “Hu-Hu-Hu-Hu-Hu-Hu-House Nation” is pretty much all you need to get sucked into a hypnotic, liminal space of dance floor bewilderment and enlightenment.
6. Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It” (1986)
Fingers Inc. was a Chicago house supergroup, featuring Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers, Robert Owens, and Ron Wilson. In “Can You Feel It?” — originally released as a Mr. Fingers B-side in 1986, re-released and credited to Fingers Inc. in 1988 — they made what might just be a perfect record. The preacher vocals, the alien bassline, the cracking drums. It would become a blueprint for deep house, its moodiness and melancholia trumping its hedonism. It has been copied, again and again and again, with varying degrees of success.
5. Joe Smooth, “Promised Land” (1986)
On the other end of the tonal spectrum, Joe Smooth's “Promised Land” is an uplifting, spiritual anthem about rising above the horrible realities of inner city life in the Reagan years, but its themes are universal. Perfect for closing out any set and sending the punters home filled with euphoric warm fuzzies.
4. Phuture, “Acid Tracks” (1987)
This is the track often cited as kickstarting acid house, house's darker, extraterrestrial, squelch-laden offshoot (which deserves its own primer). Phuture was made up of Spanky, Herb J and DJ Pierre, and Pierre is still active as ever on the club and festival circuit.
3. Adonis, “No Way Back” (1986)
“No Way Back” wastes no time diving into its bouncy, wonky baseline. It's been called dystopian and fatalist. Adonis Smith also provided the deadpan vocals, which are simultaneously off-putting and body-jacking. The record was a huge commercial hit for Trax Records, Chicago's most visible house imprint, which originally released most of the tracks on this list.
2. Ron Hardy, “Sensation” (1985)
Hardy was the Chicago house scene's loose cannon. He played fast, aggressive and loud. His reel-to-reel edits inspired decades of DJs trying to recreate an edit they once heard at the Muzic Box, his stomping ground, which had a walloping sound system. He burned hard and bright, dying in 1992 at the age of 33 of a heroin overdose, according to Michaelangelo Matos' recent book on the history of dance music in the U.S., The Underground Is Massive. “Sensation” is one of the few records he made that was released in his lifetime. Play the long version.
1. Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle, “Your Love” (1987)
Frankie Knuckles was the undisputed godfather of house music and its ambassador to the world. Knuckles cut his teeth in New York before moving to Chicago to run the Warehouse, where his elegant, tasteful take on house influenced several generations of future producers, DJs and dancers. He's put out countless 12-inches and remixes, toured the world many times over, and had a street in Chicago named after him. Sadly, he passed away last year at the age of 59. This masterpiece is probably his best known track, and rightfully so.
Note: An earlier version of this list failed to mention the original Mr. Fingers version of “Can You Feel It.”