I started working on this blog post years ago. Originally, it was supposed to be an interview with a Chicago-born DJ and producer. Unfortunately, it never got finalized due to personal circumstances.
During this interview, I realized that while I was pretty familiar with some of the most important European electronic music pioneers, I knew way too little about the American pioneers of electronic music – known for their groundbreaking work.
The interview took place just a few months before I started experimenting with electronic music production. I found it important to learn the roots, and I wanted to know more than just some names and some tracks. I wanted to know the entire story. I wanted to know how it all happened…
There are many artists around the globe and many sources that wrote about these pioneers extensively, but I wanted to do a blog post that summarizes the most known ones in one place.
This is Part 2. – because even though there was a selection that had to be made, the list got too long for my computer’s CPU.
As said before, I am not inventing anything new – simply attempting to summarise what has already been written.
The primary sources used for this blog piece were the biographies of the artists from Discogs, Wikipedia, some other journals and blog articles, and sometimes the artists’ websites. These sources are always mentioned or linked throughout the blog.
Moreover, I have also added SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and YouTube links to the artists when they are mentioned in the text so that you can listen to their sets and productions right away.
This piece is for everyone who is not yet familiar with how the electronic music scene started and developed overseas in the United States. Part 1, which is about ‘The early pioneers of electronic music’ you can find here.
PIONEERS IN THE FIELD OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN THE USA [Part 2]
The Acid and House music pioneers
- Aliases: Lawrence Philpot;
- Variations: Barry Levan, L. Levan, L. levan, L.L., L.Levan, Larry, Larry Lavan, Larry Laven, Larry Levin, Levan
- In Groups: Man Friday, Peech Boys
Larry Levan (born Laurence Philpot, Brooklyn, NY) was an American DJ best known for his decade-long residency at the New York City nightclub Paradise Garage, which has been described as the prototype of the modern dance club. He developed a cult of followers who referred to his sets as “Saturday Mass”. Influential post-disco DJ François Kevorkian credits Levan with introducing the dub aesthetic into dance music. (Interesting fact: Robert Hood used the alias, Dr. Kevorkian, for his ‘Suicide Machine’ EP.) Along with Kevorkian, Levan experimented with drum machines and synthesizers in his productions and live sets, ushering in an electronic, post-disco sound that presaged the ascendence of house music. (Source: Wikipedia)
In the 1980s, he also DJ’d at Club Zanzibar in New Jersey, home to the “Jersey Sound” brand of deep house or garage house (with residents like DJ Tony Humphries best known for his shows on Kiss FM, and Kerri Chandler mostly known as the founder of Madhouse Records, Inc. and Kaoz Theory.)
Before his residency at the Paradise Garage, Levan used to attend the parties at David Mancuso‘s Loft in Manhattan. The crowd invited by Mancuso and the music both had a mixed nature (ethnicities and sexual orientations) – an aspect that Levan welcomed.” (Source: Socialdiscoclub)
“It was also the New York City black gay bar scene where Levan was introduced to Frankie Knuckles by a drag queen who went by the name of Gerald. The two became well known on the club circuit and by 1972 had worked their way into helping out DJ Nicky Siano with setup at The Gallery. (Source: Socialdiscoclub)
Larry Levan also began to hang out at Continental Baths and had managed to obtain a regular DJ gig for the Baths‘ small dancefloor. In 1974 the Continental Baths shut down, and Frankie received a resident gig at SoHo Place, a new club modeled after David Mancuso’s Loft parties.” (Source: Socialdiscoclub)
The Stonewall Inn and David Mancuso’s Loft
According to Dan Freeman, who wrote two articles for the Brooklyn Digital Conservatory about the origin of Disco and House music – Part 1 about Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and Part 2 about Larry Levan, “modern DJ culture was born” in clubs like Manusco’s Loft and the Paradise Garage during Levan‘s residency. But before The Loft and the Paradise Garage opened their doors, there was The Stonewall Inn…
The Stonewall Inn (often shortened to Stonewall) is a still operating gay bar, a recreational tavern, and a historical landmark in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City, as it was the site of the Stonewall riots of 1969, which is widely considered to be the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.” (Source: Wikipedia)
The Stonewall Riots
“On June 28, 1969 a social revolution began in Greenwich Village that would profoundly effect the city’s cultural life, among other things. The Village in the late 60’s was a hotbed of the social and political movements that had emerged over the past decade – African-American civil rights, the counter-culture and the anti-Vietnam movement. It was also the heart of New York’s gay and lesbian community. In 1969, New York had strict laws prohibiting homosexuality in public and private businesses and the New York Police Department used undercover cops to entrap gay men in bars, parks, restrooms etc. The few gay bars in the city were ‘owned’ by the Mafia who were able to pay off the police – and who made money by blackmailing wealthy patrons who didn’t want to be publicly outed.” (Source: Dan Freeman, BDC)
“On that fateful night in June, the NYPD decided to raid the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay club on Christopher St in the West Village. Except this time as they arrested the patrons of the bar and brought them out, a crowd gathered outside the bar. When the police began to violently abuse some of those arrested, the crowd rioted and for several days afterwards violent confrontations took place between crowds of gay, lesbian, bisexuals and trans people and the police. The Stonewall Riots sparked the birth of the gay liberation movement in the United States and within six months, two gay activist organisations and three newspapers were formed to promote gay rights in NYC. The first gay pride marches were held a year later on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the anniversary of the riots.” (Source: Dan Freeman, BDC)
One of the first demands of New York’s gay community after Stonewall was to establish spaces where they could celebrate and be free from the oppression of the NYPD and the Mafia owners of gay bars. In 1970, David Mancuso then a hippie audiophile obsessed with high-end sound systems who who loved playing records for his friends began throwing regular private parties at his huge loft at 647 Broadway, right north of NYC’s Houston St. The parties were by invitation only and mainly catered to a gay crowd and there at the Loft, they could dance together without fear of police harassment. In his loft, Mancuso built one of the best soundsystems in the world and he DJ’d the parties, playing everything from jazz to rock to classical, and built an integrated light show as well.” (Source: Dan Freeman, BDC)
Francis Nicholls aka Frankie Knuckles was an American DJ and producer from South Bronx, New York City. Due to his importance in the development of House, Knuckles is often remembered as “The Godfather of House Music”. His accomplishments earned him a Grammy Award in 1997. Knuckles had been long time friends with Larry Levan, they had had their musical upbringing together from going to clubs like the above already mentioned Loft and The Gallery.
Knuckles was the DJ at the Warehouse nightclub in Chicago from 1977 to 1982. It is widely accepted that his style of Dj-ing and his selection and the appeal of the Warehouse gave house music its name, although, in the beginning, the word ‘house’ was used only in Chicago to denote something ‘cool, hip, or fresh’.
In 2000, the city of Chicago got a notorious reputation in the dance community around the world for passing the so-called ‘anti-rave ordinance’ that made property owners, promoters, and deejays subject to $10,000 fines for being involved in unlicensed dance parties. In 2004, with the help of then Illinois state senator Barack Obama, a stretch of street in downtown Chicago was named after Knuckles, where the old Warehouse once stood, on Jefferson Street between Jackson Boulevard and Madison Street in Chicago’s West Loop. On August 25, 2004, the city renamed the block “Frankie Knuckles Way” and declared August 25 to be Frankie Knuckles Day. (Source: Wikipedia)
The Warehouse was a hub for the people of Chicago, specifically for the gay community. It was often compared to a religious and spiritual experience. At the time, many gay black men felt excluded from the religious communities that they had been raised in. This contributed to the culture created at The Warehouse. It was a place where people could be open and this sexual openness enabled the club to be unusually free of aggression.
The Warehouse was a place that allowed house music to flourish as a continuation of disco under Frankie Knuckles. According to Simon Reynolds, an English journalist, Chicago house was a specifically black gay genre in many ways for many years, and The Warehouse was a specific space that safely cultivated that scene. (Source: Wikipedia)
It continued the tradition of making music for the club, for people to truly feel and to create a holy dance atmosphere and experience over just trying to make something that could get hits on the radio or top 40 charts. The stomping four-to-the-floor kick-drum would become the defining mark of house music. Knuckles also used to alter songs by adding synthetic handclaps, special hi-hat patterns and bass loops. This way, he pushed the boundaries of how a track is supposed to sound and how it could be manipulated to fit a club setting. (Source: Wikipedia)
After the Warehouse doubled its admission fee in late 1982, it grew more commercial. Knuckles decided to leave and start his own club, Power House – a place to which his devoted followers followed him. In response, The Warehouse‘s owners renamed it to ‘The Music Box‘, hiring a new DJ named Ron Hardy, who became quite influential in the development of house music himself (Source: Wikipedia)
Ron Hardy was an American, Chicago, Illinois-based DJ and record producer of early house music. He is well known for playing records at The Music Box, a Chicago house music club. Decades after his death, he is still highly recognised for his edits and mixes of disco, soul music, funk, and early house music.
While Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse (and later the Power Plant) had a smooth style of playing, Hardy was different. He had less regard for sound quality and would play with manic energy, mixing everything from classic Philadelphia disco classics, Italo disco imports to New wave, Disco and Rock tracks. Hardy also pitched records up way more than Knuckles. One Detroit pioneer of The Belleville Three remembered having heard Hardy playing a Stevie Wonder cut with the speed at +8!
Midway through the 1980s, many Chicago DJs and club-goers started experimenting with creating their own rhythm tracks. DJs would play these homemade tracks, and (in short) this is how House music was born. Hardy was no exception, often getting the hottest acetates and tapes. Chicago producers including Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, Adonis, Phuture’s DJ Pierre, and Chip E. all debuted many of their compositions at The Music Box.
Hardy played many of the same tracks his DJ peers in Chicago played. However, his combative DJ style, loud volume, experimentation with new music and the general atmosphere of The Music Box makes him to be considered a pioneer within the house music genre. (Source: Wikipedia)
Phuture – a Chicago-based ’80s group, founded in 1985 by Nathaniel Pierre Jones aka DJ Pierre, Earl ‘Spanky’ Smith (1965-2016) aka DJ Spank Spank, and Herbert ‘Herb J’ Jackson. Their love for House music started back in the early ’80s when friends Pierre, Spanky, and Herbert Jackson got to hear the innovative DJ Ron Hardy play at the infamous Music Box in Chicago and would get lost for hours on end in Hardy‘s sound.
Deeply inspired by Hardy‘s style of Dj-ing, they decided to start their own group and founded Phuture. In 1985, Spanky came across a Roland TB-303, which was at the time written off. Unaware that they would go on to make history when they created a new type of sound that came out of the 303 bassline synthesizer. Tweaking the knobs at the same time the patterns were playing they used the 303 for something different than what it was originally made for. This was the beginning of a new era, creating first the sub-genre “Acid House” and more…
Tony Humphries – American electronic musician and DJ, born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1957. His father, Rene, a Colombian immigrant, was also deeply into music, being a salsa performer himself, and encouraged his son’s involvement with music from a very early age. So it comes as no surprise that Tony began collecting records at the age of ten.
“Humphries began DJing at college and got his first professional gig in 1981 at the then new, New York station KISS-FM following a chance encounter with Shep Pettibone. His big break was in 1982, when he was asked by Pettibone to fill in for a mix show on WRKS 98.7 Kiss-FM in New York and soon afterward, he became a regular contributor of the station’s master-mixes — extended and remixed versions of popular tracks — a process that had been pioneered on the station earlier by Pettibone. In the same year, Humphries got a residency at the already mentioned Club Zanzibar in Newark, New Jersey. Humphries and Club Zanzibar, alongside the Paradise Garage and its resident DJ Larry Levan, are considered to be the main driving forces behind the creation of Garage house music.” (Source: Wikipedia)
He is considered, together with Levan, as one of the earliest proponents of House music and has been instrumental in spreading the genre on both sides of the Atlantic. He also has two established record labels, Yellorange and Tony Records. Humphries‘ work encompasses studio production and remixes, radio slots on WRKS 98.7 Kiss FM and Hot 97, and DJ residencies at clubs including Club Zanzibar (Newark, New Jersey) and Ministry of Sound in London, UK.
- Aliases: A Night With Dick, Bobcat Trades, Creative Violence, Erik Landcher, Kamar, Matrix, Panic, S. Darling, Paper Maché, The Ruff House Boys, Three Generations;
- Groups: Afro Elements, Art Of Origin, Bassmental, Gate-Ah, Jerome Sydenham And Kerri Chandler, K.C.Y.C., One World, Stratosphere, Third Generation, Trailer Ends, UFP
Kerri Chandler – American electronic music producer and DJ known best for his contribution to House Music as the founder of Madhouse Records, Inc. and Kaoz Theory. Kerri‘s father, Joseph, was a DJ himself in New York.
He is also well-known for his House EP, ‘Super Lover’, on which the track ‘Get it off’ was dedicated to his girlfriend at the time, Tracy, who he lost under tragic circumstances near the club he resided at.
As already mentioned earlier, Club Zanzibar was a place in Newark, New Jersey, “that was noted for its influence on house music and garage house genres and scene. Club Zanzibar, along with other gay and straight clubs in the era, was both a straight and LGBT black and Latino nightlife destination.” (Source: Wikipedia)
In an interview in 2019 for XLR8R, Chandler described himself as being innovative and technical as he had modified almost all of his analog equipment in the past to get them the way that suited best for his sets – from his TR-808 and TR–909 drum computers to his turntables, etc., and until today, for the very same reason, companies like Native Instruments and Pioneer ask for his expertise and involvement when designing products.
Next to that, he also feels responsible to do an extensive sound check before every gig he performs, according to the XLR8R article.
“If he sees that a rented mixer or turntable has an issue, he tries to bring it back and have it changed, or sometimes he takes them apart and fixes what he can. If he finds blown-out speakers, he tries to re-EQ the room by changing the drivers or fixing one of the amplifiers in the venue. He is very dedicated to finding a solution and ensuring the best sound possible for the night.” (Source: XLR8R)
Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk
- Aliases: A Black Man, A Black Man And Another Black Man, Blackman, C.Williams, Exclusive T, Farley “Funkin” Keith, Farley Keith Williams, Jackmaster Dick, Sensuous Black Woman, The Godfather Of House, The House Girl, The Housemaster Boyz, The Rude Boy Farley Keith, The Rude Boy Of House, Zone
Farley Keith Williams (Chicago, IL) first become known as a DJ when he started broadcasting on Chicago’s WBMX-FM as a member of the Hot Mix 5 DJ team (together with Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Ralphi Rosario, Kenny “Jammin” Jason, and Scott “Smokin” Silz).
Farley also appeared at the Warehouse club and then began a residency at the Playground. Known as Farley Keith or Farley Funkin’ Keith until 1984. He then adopted the name Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and together with Jesse Saunders, created the first house single to reach the UK charts. His anthem “Love Can’t Turn Around“ (cover of Isaac Hayes‘ I Can’t Turn Around) made the Top Ten in mid-1986. By the late ’80s, he had lost his DJ residency. His recorded output during the ’90s was relatively small, preferring to concentrate on performing on the global DJ circuit. (Source: Wikipedia)
- Aliases: Fresh, Jes Say, Le’ Noiz, The Browns, The Force;
- Groups: Brothers By Music, Jesse’s Gang, Midnight, Z-Factor
Next, he founded his own record label Jes Say Records, and released “On And On” (in January 1984), which is said to be the first House record ever. Many years prior to this, Jesse had been editing and recording on reel-to-reel tape machines. He was also founder of Chicago’s Dance Mania before handing it over to Raymond Barney in 1986. He maintained his legend status in Chicago despite leaving for the West Coast where he closed a major-label production deal with Geffen Records by 1986. In 1996, with the release of “Take Me Higher“, he formed Broken Records. Through Broken Records he has released the timely hits “What’s This FX”, “On & On 2003“, “I Hear House Music“, and “Now That We Found Love“.
Marshall Julius Jefferson, too, from Chicago, Illinois. Jefferson started first as a producer. Together with David Dee and Chauncey Alexander, he is one of the founders of Open House Recordings – a Chicago-based label. Jefferson gained global recognition as a deep house DJ with his song “Move Your Body”, an anthem which, more than 30 years later is still played in clubs. He also contributed to the increasing popularity of the acid genre by working with Sleezy D on the track “I’ve Lost Control”.
His sets are a mix of house, funk, and due to the fact that he was inspired by rock, glam rock and scythe pop, his is known for featuring classical instruments in his sets, too, such as the piano, trumpets and heavy drums. Jefferson also worked together with Kenneth “Cece” Rogers and Sterling Void and is known to be one of Mike Bank‘s early influences. In 2015, Jefferson started a Kickstarter campaign to press his new, 23-track on a triple / quadriple vinyl album – with guest appearances from Full Intention, David Torte, Tyree Cooper, Rhythm Masters etc. (Source: The vinylfactory)
- Aliases: Curan Stone, Curtis Alan Jones, Geo Vogt, Gino Vittori, Green Velvet, Half Pint, Jazzy, The Underground Crew, Underground Goodies
Curtis had plans to become an engineer, but life got in the way. Inspired by the early house tracks from Chicago, his sound often features monotonous, or sometimes humorous (from an answering machine to monologues) lyrics on a mid-tempo house track, music created for late-night, hardcore party-goers. (Source: Wikipedia)
In 2001, his music faced major change with the release of his second album, Whatever, in which he ditched the repetitive lyrics to talk about political themes such as racism, fighting against the system, and drug use. His mixes became more industrial and punk-leaning. (Source: Wikipedia)
Derrick L. Carter
- Aliases: Conception, DJ Bang, Oneiro, Persnickety Presents, Sound Patrol, The Goodguys, The Innocent, The Unknown, Tone Theory;
- Groups: 24-7-365, Derrick Carter & Chris Nazuka, Music For Freaks, Red Nail, Rednail Kidz, Rednail Kidz + 1, Shock Therapy, Symbols & Instruments, The Magi, Us
Derrick L. Carter – one of the most important pioneers of House music in the 1990s. Carter used to work in the famous Gramophone Records store in Chicago and until today, he is considered as one of the best House music DJs in the world. Carter‘s sets are firmly rooted in Afro-American music of the 1970s with some hints to old-school disco, soul, and jazz. In 1989, together with Mark Farina and Chris Nazuka as the group Symbols & Instruments, they released the Mood EP, which had a strong influence on the flourishing ambient techno movement in England.
Even though the record wasn’t a big commercial success, it established Carter as an international artist in the underground House scene. In 2006, according to a survey by a free weekly newspaper, Newcity, Carter was named #53 in the 100 Most Famous Chicagoans. (Some other well-known people on the list were Felix da Housecat #21 and Frankie Knuckles #41).
Steve “Silk” Hurley
Hurley gained worldwide fame as a DJ on the Saturday Night Live Ain’t No Jive Dance Party on WBMX in Chicago in the mid 1980s. Hurley stood out because his mixing style differed from most radio–nightclub DJ who played house music on WRKS in the early 1990s, since his style of club mixing incorporated (and involves until today) advanced DJ tricks only done by hip hop DJs such as scratching, cutting, drop outs, back spins, and beat juggling.
He released songs under the stage name of Steve “Silk” Hurley and, with vocalist Keith Nunnally, had many hits on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart as J.M. Silk, including “I Can’t Turn Around” which hit Number one in 1986. His song “Jack Your Body“ was the UK’s first house-music chart topper, reaching number one for two weeks in January and February 1987.
Larry Heard aka Mr. Fingers
The DJ and producer Larry Heard, widely known as Mr. Fingers, was another important figure in the 1980s Chicago house music scene. Born on the South Side of Chicago (Illinois), Heard grew up hearing jazz and Motown at home, and just like some other pioneers, he could also play several instruments from a young age on. Before beginning his solo musical career in 1983, the 17-year-old Larry was the drummer in the band Infinity (a jazz fusion cover group that included Adonis). He began producing music in 1984 after purchasing a synthesizer and a drum machine. He recorded solo under various names, but most notably under the name Mr. Fingers. Only into a few days with his new gear, he had recorded three tracks that would later be regarded as some landmark tracks of house music: “Can You Feel It?“, “Mystery of Love”, and “Washing Machine”. He is also regarded as a pioneer of deep house music – bridging the gap between the futurism and “posthuman tendencies” of house and the lush, soulful sound of disco.
Despite initially not having a connection to Chicago’s club scene, he eventually met singer and DJ Robert Owens at a party and the two formed the group Fingers Inc. along with Ron Wilson and released in 1988 the album Another Side which was the first long-form house LP. Heard also began releasing solo singles as Mr. Fingers on Trax Records and DJ International. At the end of the decade, Trax released Amnesia, which compiled Heard‘s early tracks – unfortunately, without Heard‘s permission. In 1989, Heard contributed to the debut album by producer Lil’ Louis.
- Aliases: Lil Louis And The Diamond Corp., Lil’ Louis & The Party, Lil’ Louis & The World, Marvin Burns, Rain: A Lil’ Louis Painting
Born in Chicago, Louis was the son of guitarist Bobby Sims (Rotary Connection) and grew up with nine siblings, played both drums and the bass guitar as a child, then began DJing in the mid-1970s. He earned his nickname after appearances at the club River’s Edge while still in middle school).
By the end of the decade, he had his own club called The Future, where he began working on his editing techniques, thanks to a cassette deck and later a reel-to-reel recorder. By the 1980s, Lil’ Louis was hosting the biggest house parties in Chicago, and he began recording his productions around that time as well. His first single “How I Feel” appeared on his own label, and he began collaborating with Marshall Jefferson on several tracks, including “Seven Ways To Jack” by ‘s “I Can’t Stay Away”.
In 1987, his new single “French Kiss” became a local hit, then a platinum-selling international classic after being licensed to CBS and FFRR. The success triggered a major label contract through Epic, and the release of his debut album “From The Mind Of Lil’ Louis” (1989).
Roy Davis Jr.
- Aliases: Black Tribe, D.J. X-Ray, Infinity, S.R.-1, The Believers, The U.P. Connection;
- Groups: 3 Tha Hardway, Angora, Creators Of Deepness, Da Wild Pitch Boys, Fade 2 Tha Phuture, Free Men, Freedom Group, Groove Creator, Men From The Nile, Phortune,
Phuture, Phuture 303, Phuture The Next Generation, Radical Nomads, Roy Davis & Jay Juniel, Soldiers Of Universal Love, The Chicago Bad Boys, The Original Creators, The Underworld, Two Tribes Project, Umosia, What It Is
Before setting up his own record label, Undaground Therapy Muzik and becoming an A&R scout for the Strictly Rhythm imprint in NYC, Roy Davis Jr got known in the house scene after joining for a shorter time the above already mentioned acid house group, Phuture.
DJ Celeste began her career in 1982 as one of the first female DJs in the Chicago scene which was heavily male-dominated, debunking the myth that mixing was gender specific.
She has collaborated amongst many other DJs with the above already mentioned Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Steve Hurley, but also many other artists part of the Chicago scene, such as Andre Hatchett, Craig Loftus, Boo Williams, Farley “Jackmaster Funk”, Terry Hunter, Gene Hunt, Ron Carroll, Mike Dunn, Chip E, Tyree Cooper, Glenn Underground or Pharris Thomas.
She was also part of the 1980s all-female collective, The Fantastic Four, which was created to empower women in the industry. Celeste was the first female to play the world’s largest one-day event in house music, known as “The Chosen Few Picnic“. In 2009 she joined forces with Vick Lavender and Steven Stewart to become co-owner of Sophisticado Recordings, which is now one of today’s most known quality labels in the industry. Her currently ongoing podcast called “The Celestial Odyssey” is still one of the top ranked shows on Cyberjamz Internet Radio.
To read the last, third part of this blog piece that is about the Detroit techno and electro pioneers, click here.
Special note: While writing an update for this blog article in 2019, on the streets of the United States of America, the #BlackLivesMatter movement started. To many of us in Europe, seeing the news felt like the USA was on the verge of a civil war, because the acting (racist) president decided to use federal agents against unarmed civilians, protecting the status quo and his own interests. While the #BLM protesters were silenced with teargas and bullets, the movement that started during those days will never stop: "Until we all are free and equal".