Music Education

Disco’s Revenge: The Birth of House Music

House music began in the underground clubs of 1980s-era Chicago.

Defined by its signature four-on-the-floor beat and classical tempo of 120 beats per minute, house served as the foundation for contemporary pop and dance music.

Despite house music’s significant cultural impact, its history is rarely addressed in discourse.

Not only was house music instrumental in the development of many contemporary music genres, but it was rooted in unequivocal Black queerness.

Photo by Sam van Bussel on Unsplash

The Death of Disco

Before house, there was disco.

Emerging in the 1970s, disco formed with influences from the LGBT community, Italian Americans, Hispanic and Latine Americans and Black Americans.

The genre was known for its four-on-the-floor beats, syncopated basslines, string sections, brass and horns, electric pianos, synths and electric rhythm guitars.

Though its elevaton to the mainstream distanced the genre from its roots, disco’s inception was starkly countercultural: a response to the aggression (and subcultural hypermasculinity) of rock and the social stigma surrounding dance music.

Photo by Katie Bonilla on Unsplash

Derived from within marginalized communities, disco represented a richness in history and culture far removed from the straight white hegemony of the twentieth century.

Disco centered on vivid, unapologetic self-expression rooted in the era’s overarching sexual revolution. Groups like Earth Wind & Fire and Kool and the Gang emerged, bringing disco — and its message — to a broader audience.

However, such popularity also garnered enmity.

Disco Demolition Night, an event often marked as the death of disco, occured July 12, 1979 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

During the event, originally marketed as a Major League Baseball promotion, a crate of disco records was blown up on the field. Chaos ensued as thousands of audience members rushed out after the explosion in a riot.

This brazen display of hatred for disco music riveted the nation, inflaming the stigma already surrounding the genre. In the years following the event, disco’s popularity nosedived.

The once-bustling scene faded into virtual obscurity.

The Birth of House

In the decade proceeding the death of disco, queer Black DJs in Chicago’s underground club scene began developing something new, something that expanded upon the danceability and expressivity of disco.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

Among these DJs was the openly-gay Frankie Knuckles, whose impact on the genre’s development earned him the moniker “Godfather of House.”

Knuckles defined himself in the scene by playing unique mixes, blending together tracks and experimenting with different sounds and speeds. He also pioneered the practice of adding a drum machine and reel-to-reel tape player to create new tracks.

In the background of Knuckles’ musical innovations, a darkness was brewing. In June 1981, the first cases of the illness now known as AIDS were identified in five young gay men in Los Angeles.

House as a Home

While some argue that Knuckles was not the founder of house (in fact, the source of the name “house” is even contested) as a genre, it’s undeniable that his passion for the craft helped transform house into an international phenomenon.

Like disco, house was born from the creative influences of queer people of color. Its vibrance reflected a desire for freedom, autonomy and actualization.

Photo by Simon Noh on Unsplash

Dance halls were unifying spaces in which patrons could exist without fear. They became sanctuaries for individuals cast out of their broader communities on the basis of their sexual and/or gender identities.

Additionally, house reflected a bold response to the “murder” of disco at the hands of (majority white and heterosexual) detractors.

House rose from disco’s ashes a stronger, more sensational being. And it still goes strong today.

Additional Reading

By J

J is a DJ at WKNC and a staunch enjoyer of dark and moody music.