23 Jul 2020
by bronwyn-hope | News
At surface-level, the electronic music industry is dominated by white, male faces. Google “best electronic artists” and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a person of colour until the 5th or 6th page. How did a musical movement, pioneered by Black artists and born from historically Black music (funk, soul, disco) become so whitewashed? Well, we know why.
Since the beginning, dance music has been about solidarity. The disco clubs in the 70s and 80s were where the misfits, the marginalized, the Black, Latinx, women, and LGBTQ2IA+ went to seek community, great music, and freedom. Your differences didn’t matter, in fact, they made you special. And this terrified the white population, so much so that they tried to “kill disco” during a summer night in 1979. The “Disco Demolition” was a turning point in the history of dance music during which angry, white White Sox fans snapped, burned, and blew up any disco record (in fact, any record of Black artists) they could get their hands on. Real mature, Bradley.
If these white baseball bros thought a little bonfire would be the end of dance music, they clearly underestimated the resilience of the Black community. The music went underground and what was born from that was Chicago house, Detroit techno, and New York garage. In the 1980s, underground dance music thrived. The faces of this music didn’t look like those of David Guetta, Martin Garrix, or Tiesto. The melanated and musically-inclined birthed electronic music and it’s about time we pay homage to them.
In this three-part series, we’re celebrating the Black faces that have shaped and continue to trailblaze the electronic industry. Get to know the Black artists that birthed house music in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Refamiliarize yourself with the group that moulded what we know today as electronic music and say hello to those who are making waves, guaranteed to be big names in the future. It’s time to crank up the volume on these incredibly talented artists and make electronic music Black again.
Often called the “Godfather of house music”, Frankie Knuckles can be chalked up to one of the most influential people responsible for the birth, development, and popularization of house music. Originally from the Bronx, Knuckles made his way to Chicago and that’s where his story really started. As an openly gay Black man, he began spinning at his friend’s nightclub, Warehouse, which catered to mainly gay, black men, and it is here they say House music got its name. His popularity at Warehouse surged, pulling in a much wider demographic before he went and opened his own club, The Power Plant. Frankie Knuckles rubbed elbows with some of the most iconic in the biz, including his best friend Larry Levan, Detroit techno pioneer, Derrick May, Jamie Principle, and Chip E. He released countless mixes and albums on labels like Virgin Records and Definity Records. He topped charts remixing iconic works by Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, and Diana Ross. Knuckles won the 1997 Grammy for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical and was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. In his 59 years, Frankie Knuckles forged the path for all future house artists.
A Chicago native, Jesse Saunders is another pioneer of the house music scene. Saunders had a musical upbringing, performing in the Chicago’s Children’s Choir and being taken under the wing of his cousin, DJ Wayne Williams, who taught him the art of DJing. Jesse Saunders was influenced by his predecessor, Frankie Knuckles, and became a Chicago nightlife regular from the tender age of 16. He quickly gained notoriety headlining multiple venues before opening his own, the Playground in 1982. In 1984, his first single “On and On”, co-written by Vince Lawrence, officially became the first-ever house record to be pressed and sold to the public. In the 90s he launched his own label, Broken Records, that solely released music digitally, truly embracing the Internet Age. After a worldwide tour following the release of the 25th Anniversary of House Music album in 2009, Saunders headed back to Vegas where he opened the Electronic Music Café and founded the Music and Arts Society that focuses on the preservation of DJ culture.
The invention of Detroit techno can be accredited to The Belleville Three. Comprised of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, the three met as boys in the rural Michigan town of Belleville. The boys would bond over their similar tastes in electronic and funk music and musical acts such as Kraftwerk, Parliament, and Prince. After hearing the sounds of Parliament, Atkins bought himself a synthesizer and got into the art of DJing, which he passed on to his other groupmates. Atkins and May started DJing in the Detroit nightlife scene under the name of Deep Space Soundworks in the early 80s. The trio visited Chicago where they were met with house music. They drew inspiration from the house scene, incorporated mechanical sounds of the likes of Kraftwerk, and came out with their unique genre of electronic music (what we know as techno) that amassed great popularity in the US and UK. All three men branched off to form their own record labels and have successful solo careers, in particular, Derrick May under his moniker Rhythim is Rhythim. Together, the three started their own nightclub, The Music Institute, that became a creative hub for DJs and artists to collaborate and ultimately led to the second wave of Detroit techno. The men found their way back to each other in 2017 and continue to tour globally.
We already know him as Frankie Knuckles’ BFF, but Larry Levan was instrumental in the development and surge in popularity of house music by his own rite. Best known for his 10-year residency at the New York nightclub, Paradise Garage, more aptly known as the Gay-rage, Levan was royalty in the ballroom scene. We’re not talking the waltz, rumba, or foxtrot. We’re talking Black and Latinx underground LGBTQ+ ball culture where participants would walk, lip-sync, and perform in drag for trophies, prizes, and most importantly, notoriety (think Netflix’s Pose). When Levan dropped out of high school and found himself working as a dressmaker for ball culture, he befriended Knuckles and many other notable DJs in the scene. Levan got his start DJing alongside Knuckles at the gay bathhouse, Continental Baths, before landing a spot at the Garage. His mixes were hitting top spots on dance music charts and his proficiency as a producer and remixer, as well as his diva personality, built Levan up to be quite the celebrity in the scene. In the height of the AIDS epidemic, Levan had to say goodbye to too many friends, which unfortunately led him to PCP and heroin as a means of coping. When the Garage shuttered in ‘87, Levan struggled to secure another residency, pushing him further into a downwards spiral. In 1990, he found his way back to DJing and went on tour to Japan in early 1992. Larry passed in November of 1992 leaving a legacy and lasting imprint on house music and the LGBTQ+ community. In 2004, Levan was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the genre and achievements as a DJ.
Curtis Alan Jones has a laundry list of monikers he has gone by since his first appearance in the dance music scene in 1991. However, he is best known as Green Velvet and Cajmere. Inspired by the house music craze in the 80s, Jones picked himself up a keyboard, 4-track, and drum machine to try his hand at making music. It turned out he had a knack for it and in 1991, under Cajmere, he began releasing music. In 1992, he started his own label, Cajual Records, and released “Brighter Days”, a collaboration with superstar dance music singer, Dajae. The song hit number 2 on the Billboard Dance Music Charts. Modern-day publications like Rolling Stone and MixMag have included the single on their lists detailing the best house tracks to date. In ‘95, under the name Green Velvet and on his new label Relief Records, Jones released another single “Flash” that too, skyrocketed to the top of the charts. He continued to produce bangers, putting out albums under the name Green Velvet, working with big names like Claude VonStroke and Carl Craig. Jones is still extremely relevant on the scene these days, touring worldwide.
The second wave of Chicago house was spearheaded by Felix da Housecat (née Felix Stallings, Jr.). Felix got his big break early at age 15 when under the mentorship of DJ Pierre, he released his first single. Clearly, the kid had talent. After graduating from university, he went on to release multiple singles under the UK label Guerilla Records in the 90s, gaining a huge following in Europe. Felix went on to start his own label Radikal Fear Records, releasing music by Mike Dunn, DJ Sneak, and Armando and his own debut album, Alone in the Dark. His 2001 album, Kittenz and Thee Glitz, brought him huge mainstream popularity and he went on to create remixes for Madonna and Britney Spears. Since his music has been featured in countless video games and movies. His ability to work with any genre has made him indispensable and a big name in the industry.
Carl Craig is another second wave artist, this time on the Detroit techno scene. Craig became entranced by house music while listening to Derrick May’s radio show in the 80s and began experimenting with making his own tracks. He got pretty good at it and eventually started his own label, Planet E Communications in ‘91. In addition to his own albums, the label has also released music by Moodyman, Kevin Saunderson, and Kenny Larkin. His own music topped charts throughout the 90s. In 2000 and 2001, he co-founded the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now Movement Electronic Music Festival) and his eventual dismissal by festival organizers brought him a bit of fame. He eventually returned to the festival as artistic director in 2010. Since his start in the 90s, Carl Craig has released over 200 singles and remixes earning him the notoriety as a crucial figure in techno, with publications such as Exclaim! and Pitchfork singing his praises.
Listen and learn. Check out the ladies who had a helping hand in shaping the world of electronic music.