Nearly every variation of the untz played in today’s festivals and clubs owes something to the recently departed legend Frankie Knuckles, the DJ and producer who helped foment the early, classic version of house in Chicago. But Knuckles wasn’t the only influential producer in this era, which spanned the Eighties and early Nineties. Here’s a look at 20 essential Chicago house records – by Knuckles and others – that serve as required listening for any devoted student of dance music.
Frankie Knuckles paved the way for the blend of music that would come to be known as "house." But many consider Saunders' 1984 jam to be the first proper house record, full stop. The new blend took disco loops and samples and gave them a futuristic flair courtesy of a Roland 808 drum machine and other machine wizardry.
The late Ron Hardy was best known as the groundbreaking DJ who commanded the booth at Chicago's late, legendary Music Box. The hard-driving, percussive "Sensation" is one of the only Hardy tracks that exists, and it has near-mythic status among fans — finding an original pressing is almost impossible. Hardy, who died in 1992, was a DJ's DJ who chopped up and reinvented music with innovative re-edits, radical juxtapositions and wild EQing. In many ways, Hardy was the polar opposite of Frankie Knuckles, who presided over the Warehouse and later, the Power Plant. Knuckles frowned upon drugs and alcohol, while Hardy indulged in a range of chemicals. Knuckles' approach was classier and more conventionally musical; Hardy's sets were crazier and more experimental, celebrating the twitchier aspects of new wave and the manic acid house mentalism of acts like Phuture. Knuckles was the yin to Hardy's yang; together, they represented two distinct and equally important sides of Chicago house.
The iconic Chicago house label Trax was notoriously cheap with vinyl; its pressings shoddy and thin. (Some have reported finding bits of paper in Trax pressings; a few have even found cigarette butts pressed into the vinyl.) An original 1986 Trax pressing stacked the Mr. Fingers masterpieces "Washing Machine" and "Can You Feel It" on the same side of a 12", with "Beyond the Clouds" on the flip side. Perhaps that's the reason why the sweeping eight-minute epic often gets short shrift, thought of as a mere B-side next to Larry Heard's other widely acknowledged classics. "Beyond the Clouds" is deeply moving and quietly haunting; melancholy strings swelling over a minimal synth line and the barest of beats.
This track's claim to fame is the first use of piano on a house record — and its barnstormer melody on the keys would be imitated for decades. Jefferson culled the song's vocalists — including lead crooner Curtis McClain — from his post-office graveyard shift. And, with his lyrics, he helped foment the long trend of the self-referential track: house music about house music itself.
This track is the result of a musical metamorphosis. It started with the Isaac Hayes 1975 original, "I Can't Turn Around." Steve "Silk" Hurley then re-recorded it as a house tune with vocalist Keith Nunnally — but this further transposed and reinterpreted version was the one that really took off. And how could it not? The robust, silky vocals of the late, great Darryl Pandy here are instant sunshine.
With this track, DJ and producer Larry Heard pioneered the development of deep house, which tempered the no-B.S. austerity of Chicago house's stripped-down tracks with jazzy, soulful touches. Constructed from an insinuating bass roll, a low synth thrum, and cymbal flurries, "Can You Feel It" is still pretty spare, though it was later fleshed out with the addition of Chuck Roberts' churchy exhortations, which suggested the Book of Genesis rewritten at a warehouse party, embodying house music's utopian vision: "In my house there is only house music. But, I am not so selfish because once you enter my house it then becomes our house and our house music."
Who, exactly, is Sleezy D.? The man remains an enigma, seeming to have largely vanished off the map after 1986's "I've Lost Control," his most iconic hit. "Sleezy is an actual person," assured Marshall Jefferson, who co-produced "I've Lost Control" under his Virgo alias, in a recent interview with the Quietus. "If you ever met him, you'd never forget him. Oh man, he is… sleazy." "I've Lost Control" features dramatically pitched-down vocals that sound like Darth Vader on a bad day. "I've lost control," the voice intones over and over, while an ominous acid line oscillates in the foreground. "I've Lost Control" foreshadowed many other explorations of losing your mind on the dancefloor — from J.M. Silk's peppy house tune "Let the Music Take Control" in 1987 to DBX's dystopian Detroit classic "Losing Control" in 1994.
Arriving a few years into house's existence, Hurley's "Jack Your Body" came out swinging with unapologetic experimentation — its Roland-centered electronic spine helping to touch off the acid house revolution in the U.K. Here was something far removed from disco's orchestral feel and entirely new. It was ultimately the first house song to hit Number One in the U.K.
Principle's original recording of "Your Love" was already more lush, more conventionally tuneful, more European than what other Chicago producers were constructing at the time. Knuckles, who'd been showcasing the younger musician's tracks in his DJ sets, only enhanced those qualities on this reworking. "Your Love" is built from contrasts: Smooth washes of synth blanket harsh minimalist arpeggios, a sneaky bass figure creeps below a dominant snare boom, and the indefinite yearning of the vocal seems to express a desire for both sexual ravishment and emotional companionship.
Phuture was a trio comprised of Earl "Spanky" Smith, Herbert "Herb J" Jackson, and most famously, Nathaniel Pierre Jones, better known as DJ Pierre. "Acid Tracks" was Phuture's most famous creation, and one of the most legendary tracks to emerge from Chicago's house scene. "Acid Tracks" was a radical departure from the more soulful house sound championed by producers like Larry Heard. The bizarre, skeletal 11-minute epic elevated the rubbery "acid" timbres of the Roland TB-303 synthesizer to bold new heights; the track's overtly electronic, futuristic feel made it seem like a transmission from outer space. When the late DJ Ron Hardy debuted the track at his Chicago club, the Music Box, the crowd went wild, and dancers dubbed the mysterious tune "Ron Hardy's Acid Track." The name stuck. "It's a sound no one's heard before," Pierre recalled to The Independent in a 2012 interview. "It's not a piano sound, it's not a string sound, you don't know what it is, you just think that sound is Acid."
Early house wasn't just a boys' club. Torres' early tracks bridged the sensibilities of house, synth pop and strains of Latin freestyle to bring a fresh female and Latina sensibility to the genre. Later strains of diva-house started with throaty celebration anthems like this.
A masterpiece of S&M transcendence. Not even Prince (a clear vocal influence) ever plunged into such a delirious confusion of the erotic, the spiritual, and the political.
Adonis was 19 years old when he made the dystopian classic "No Way Back," one of Chicago house music's most iconic tracks. "No Way Back" was a smash hit for the Trax label; according to some estimates, the single sold over 100,000 copies. The lyrics —"Release my soul / I've lost control / Too far gone / Ain't no way back" — seemed to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of being lost in music with no way out. Adonis' cold, minimalist vocal delivery — no ornamentation, or obvious emotion — made "No Way Back" sound effortlessly cool, and utterly terrifying. The stripped-down track, devoid of extraneous flourishes, still sounds ruthlessly modern.
Born Rachael Cain, Screamin' Rachael wore a series of influential hats, from being a recording artist, to heading the influential Trax Records, to being an early adopter of "hip-house," the sub-genre that featured rapping over dance music decades before David Guetta. Listen for some of its rhythmic seeds in this 1987 track co-produced with Afrika Bambaataa.
"Box Energy" is one of those tracks that clued-in DJs and producers speak of in hushed, reverent tones. Several electronic music legends have tried to create their own versions of the tune, most famously Aphex Twin (under the alias AFX), who did a sped-up remix in 2001. "Box Energy" has no vocals — just waves upon waves of disorienting Roland TB-303 "acid" basslines pinging back and forth like rubber bands over a bass drum and the occasional snare. It's a concentrated laser beam of energy that seems powerful enough to melt dancefloors, foreshadowing Pierre's later excursions into his radical "wild pitch" concept in the early Nineties.
Fast Eddie Smith was a pioneering house DJ with radio shows on Chicago's WGCI and WBMX, and his track "Hip House" would later pioneer the oft-disparaged dance-rap style of the same name. On this earlier track, he made the most of the modulated Roland TB-303 bass squelch dominating house at the time, making it clear why they called it "acid." Acid thunder may not be as corrosive as acid rain, but its ominous enough to cause the timid to take shelter from as the vocals cry out "Your kind of lovin' is stormin'" in ecstatic terror.
For all the pseudo-romantic flailings of contemporary EDM diva anthems, it's hard to match the raw sexiness of this track, whose vocals came courtesy of Shawn Christopher. But Louis also stretched house's characteristic build-ups to their most dramatic extreme for the era. "French Kiss" is one long, drawn-out crescendo to a climax — get it? — and it hits an almost techno-like, robotic trance.
Not to be confused with Marshall Jefferson's Virgo alias, Virgo Four was the collaboration of Eric Lewis and Merwyn Saunders. "Do You Know Who You Are?" is the graceful and uplifting opener on their remarkable four-track debut, released in 1989. An ebullient synth keyboard line ripples over a buoyant beat — party music to play as the sun comes up.
Knuckles at his most angel-hair delicate, seeming to soundtrack the latest moment possible in the longest night imaginable. An ambient synth wash and feather-brushed cymbals provide just enough structure for an electronically modulated flute to roam carelessly, its open-ended abandon suggesting, in the best possible way, that its melodic improvisation might go on forever. The synthetic chirp that joins in, and gives the song its name, suggests and inspires a spirit of camaraderie that's jaunty but never corny.
Curtis A. Jones ditched grad school in the early Nineties, returning from Berkeley's chemical engineering program to Chicago, where he establishing his own label, Cajual, and began producing under the name Cajmere. The electronic burble here, adorned with a synth whine and whipped into shape with a snare thwap, might first suggest Pac-Man squooshes if the voice repeating the subtitle didn't remind you what was brewing. Neither as far out nor comically dark as the meta-commentaries on club life Jones would release under the name Green Velvet, but the playful ingenuity of "Coffee Pot" helped spearhead the second wave of house in Jones' hometown.