You don't have to look far to know that house music is having a moment. From Beyoncé's Renaissance to Drake's Honestly, Nevermind and, to a certain extent, Lady Gaga's Chromatica, the genre is in the midst of a pop revival with some of the industry's biggest names going back to house's roots for inspiration. Artists are working with contemporary producers like Honey Dijon and Black Coffee, referencing classics like Robin S' "Show Me Love" and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and paying homage to the inclusive and communal ethos that the scene was built on. And while these interpretations have varying levels of depth, some who have been with the genre since the very start are quick to dismiss them.
"We don’t need you! But I get it. I get it!" DJ and producer Ron Carroll says backstage at ARC Festival in Chicago where some of the genre's forefathers and local legends have assembled alongside some of the world's top DJs to celebrate all things house music, rolling his eyes at the notion. But the genre's resurgence in the charts does serve as a good reminder to give flowers to the people who made house and have kept Chicago's scene alive in the years since.
Chip E, one of the early architects of house alongside legends like Frankie Knuckles, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Mr. Fingers (and the first artist to actually use the words "house" and "jack" in the name of a record), recalls the birth of the genre from the ashes of disco:
"I was working at a record store, Importes Etc., and we were the dance music store because we specialized in imported records. By imported records, I mean a lot of Italo Disco. Around 1983, there was a guy in Chicago, Steve Dahl, who declared the 'death of disco' and with that, it became the national death of disco. A lot of Italians, however, didn't get that message and they started making Italian disco music and that was the only music we could get. So we started importing it and we continued to play that and tried to switch it up and turn it into our own."
Finding a home in Chicago's Black, Hispanic and gay communities, house gained traction in clubs like the Power Plant, the Music Box and the Warehouse, from where many claim the genre derived its name. From there, the genre spread by word of mouth.
"Back then, there were no cell phones and there were no portable recorders," Chip E recalls. "If you heard a song at a club that you wanted to buy, you would go to the nearest payphone and you would point it towards the club and you would have it on your voice recorder when you got home and you’d take that cassette tape to the record store, and be like, 'Do you have this record?' So I found that through marketing, repetition is good. That's why I gravitated toward sampling. My first house record was called It’s House. And the lyrics literally are 'It’s house. It’s house. It’s house.' I made it so simple that if you heard the song, you would know what it was, you’d go to the store, tell me what it was and you would be able to buy it. That was the beginning of house music."
A melting pot of people from early hip-hop, industrial and post-punk scenes, house music soon began to take on its own distinct character. "We liked our tight jeans. We liked polos. It was kind of a preppy look. And sometimes a little bit of punk too, so jean jackets and safety pins through it," DJ Lady D recalls. "We loved all of the British music too, like the new wave that was coming out. When the kids got ahold of the drum machines and started making their own tracks, that really started to define what house was. And the way we danced — jacking, jacking is a huge part."
Being the ur-dance genre, house music would go on to spawn several sub-genres such as deep house and acid house, evolving into techno and later rave. Through it all, Chicago remained the epicenter.
"We the mecca, baby! We the mecca!" Mike Dunn, one of the progenitors of acid house, asserts. "This is the mecca of house music! No matter what people may say, this is the birthplace of house music, so it’ll always have the influence of Chicago house and that’s just what it is."
Gene Farris, who's released records on labels such as Cajual, Relief, Dirtybird, Defected and his own imprint Farris Wheel, explains that what sets Chicago's scene apart from any other is the level of dedication and esteem it has for the genre. "Everyone from the barback to the promoter to the DJ all the way to the top is a music head. Everyone in this town who’s involved with the scene, it’s just not a fly-by listening thing for people from Chicago, it’s more of a lifestyle here," Farris says, explaining that that Chicago wears being the birthplace of House as a badge of honor. "It’s a pride with people who come to DJ in the city. It’s a respect kind of thing. Even the biggest DJs from Carl Cox on down, when they come to play in Chicago have nothing but mad respect because they know this is the source. This is where it all started."
At ARC festival, the reverence for house's OGs is palpable in a myriad of small ways like Honey Dijon peering over local mainstays Derrick Carter and Mark Farina going back to back right before her headlining slot or spontaneous dance circles that would open up in the crowds. From the pyrotechnics and laser light shows of the main stage to the more intimate sets played on the various side stages, there was no shortage of DJs throughout the weekend big or small that took the time to shout out the city where it all started.
For Chip E, House's greatest strength is the scene's inclusive attitude. "Other genres of music have been exclusive. Like to be in the ska band, you got to shave your head, you got to be into all that. To be in country music, you have to be a good old southern boy. To be in classical music, you gotta be a highly sophisticated person. But to be in house music, we don't care if you're rich or poor. We don't care if you're Black or white. We don't care if you're gay or straight. We don't care who you love, how you live. We care that you love the music and that you love life."
DJ Lady D
House's popularity would go on to ebb and flow over the next few decades, hitting a peak in the 90s and an all-time low during the early 2010s EDM boom. "It’s been really moments of highs, where in the '90s I would say that the loft scene, the club scene, the rave scene all converged, so house was seven days of the week, it was everywhere, it was in every club, everybody wanted it," DJ Lady D recalls. "And so you come out of the '90s and go into the mid-2000s, there’s so many DJs. So it gets diluted a little bit. There’s a lot of little lounges popping up, and then they’re like, 'Sure, you can DJ! 50 bucks or whatever.' It really changed the dynamics of the scene. People didn’t put as much energy or effort into making a great sound system for a little club, which influenced how people listened to and received the music, 'cause club is all about bass in your face! It comes from that same tradition that was born watching a wall of sound and speakers. Then you get into this era where they don’t really care what’s in the booth or what’s in the room, people started to care less about what was important to us initially, which was really having an experience walking into a room and being completely saturated with it."
On a logistical level, Hiroko Yamamura explains that, while Chicago has that House pedigree, it hasn't always been able to consistently attract international talent. "We’re a very middle-class city. We don’t have that LA and New York money," Yamamura says, adding that this often resulted in limited options for club-goers. "We’ve always had what I call coast envy. We’re not New York. We’re not LA, and everything looks cooler over there," Yamamura says. "At least for myself, I’m always like, 'Gosh, we’re behind the times all the time! All the parties are over there! All the fests are there that I want to go to!' But it’s starting to happen here now."
All that being said, Chicago's House scene has always found a way to persist, with many of the mainstays and names that have been with the genre since day one still going strong. "It’s that versatility, man!" Ron Carroll says. "Here, you can find anything here! That’s what I like about it. If you like EDM, if you like underground, if you like soulful vocals, jazzy-type house, big room, techno, tech, we got it all here! That’s the thing about Chicago. Every night of the week, you can find it. It’s great!"
The consensus among many veterans, though, is that the new, up-and-coming generation of house producers is revitalizing the scene.
"Newer kids bring in the new stuff and bring in their vibe or energy," Mike Dunn explains. "What I love about the younger generation is they study the older generation. You’ll hear a lot of influences from the beginning of house. Some people don’t like change, but change is always good. You have to move with the times or you get left behind."
Ron Carroll is quick to shout out artists such as I Love Techno's Microdot and jazz house producer J Star — "It’s people all over the city that’s killing the game right now" — and DJ Lady D points to DJs like Eris Drew and Ariel Zetina who are carrying the House torch forward. "I think about the way it’s opened up for all kinds of identities and for people who are just deeply into it. They have done their homework, appreciate it and show that they respect what it’s all about."
"I think that it’s been a renaissance of giving back because it's natural. Because it's the right thing," Chip E says. "I had a friend of mine who told me, 'When you're born, you’re like an empty vase and as you go through life, people who have defined who you are give you flowers, and it comes to a point in your life where you have to start giving flowers to other people.' I think that's what house music is. House music is you getting your flowers. House music is you giving your flowers."
Another promising sign that the Chicago House scene is starting to really thrive once again has been the emergence of the ARC Music Festival. Drawing major names from across the global underground house and techno scene such as Honey Dijon, Carl Cox, Claude VonStroke, Charlotte De Witte, Fatboy Slim, Richie Hawtin and more, the flagship festival founded by John Curley, Stuart Hackley and Nick Karounos is now heading into in its third year in 2023. ARC is looking to reaffirm Chicago as the house music capital it always has been by bridging the gap between international and local scenes. Inviting traveling parties such as Elrow as well as championing local legends like Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, Ron Carroll, Chip E and Mike Dunn, ARC fills a much-needed hole in the city's musical landscape while also making sure to prioritize the inclusive and communal vibe that makes house what it is.
"I think it's significant for the city of Chicago but also for the US because a lot of these artists, they’re global names," ARC's founders explain."With ARC, we now have this anchor in the ground here on Labor Day weekend where there's names within the genre that want to be here and want to be playing. And when they come here, sometimes they stay. They’ll play somewhere the weekend after, a couple weekends after, a week before. You have major events going on in Ibiza around this time, so it creates this temple for not only the city of Chicago to be able to experience a lot of these artists in one place at the same time but also for the US because these artists are coming over for this festival that may stay in the US."
For many of house's old guard, a festival on par with ARC feels long overdue. "A lot of the music fests, not just in Chicago but around the world, seem to celebrate a lot of European and white DJs," Chip E says. "They kind of discount us, even though Chicago's the house capital and the birthplace of house, they don't seem to get the recognition. I love that ARC has really gone above and beyond to find, not just me as an architect, but to find the founders of house music, the people who’ve celebrated house music, the people who’ve been there and are still here."
"We’ve always had what I call coast envy. We’re not New York. We’re not LA, and everything looks cooler over there," Yamamura says. "I’m always like, 'Gosh, we’re behind the times all the time! All the parties are over there! All the fests are there that I want to go to!' But it’s starting to happen here now. I think one of the great things is the folks that started are still in the game. There’s still opportunities for them. They have not given up. Innovators — Chip E is hanging out over there, DJ Hyperactive is over here. They started it! And being there at the inception where there was no benefit. There was no crowd like this! It was all a risk and it was you putting yourself out there. It’s super great to see that continuing."
As the immortal gospel of the Mr. Fingers classic foretold:
"In the beginning there was Jack
and Jack had a groove.
And from this groove
came the groove of all grooves
and while one day Jack was throwing viciously down on his box
Jack boldly declared, let there be house
and house music was born."
House will always call Chicago home. Through the genre's ups and downs, the Windy City has remained a constant for the genre; the two have been inextricably bound since the start and will continue to be until the end of time. Whether it's artists like Beyoncé and Drake hopping on the trend or the newer generation of artists and promoters looking to give the genre its proper due by reminding the world that Chicago is the house music capital, the city's connection is stronger than ever.
"The underground music always endures," DJ Hyperactive says. "The trends and commercialized sounds come and go. This is stuff that me and my homies, back in the day, we always said the underground is gonna thrive forever. It sets the tone for it all."
Photos courtesy of Matthew Reeves, Nancy Huyunh and KURSZA/ARC Music Festival