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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Earwormz: The Legacy of House

This week Earwormz examines the survival of disco music, in the face of racist and homophobic attacks, and how it gave birth to a new genre altogether: house music.

Dec 7, 2019

July 12, 1979: the night disco music died. Commonly known as “disco demolition night”, this devastating event was the end of the war that was, in the words of Steve Dahl, "dedicated to the eradication of the dreaded musical disease known as DISCO.” Dahl rallied his troops on this July day to the Chicago White Sox baseball game, discounting the game tickets to 98 cents for anyone who turned in a disco record as they bought their ticket. The White Sox were expecting 20,000 to turn up to this game during their lackluster season, but Dahl and his rock-warriors brought together over 50,000 attendants. Disco records were thrown like flying saucers across the field, as Dahl and his cohort riled the crowd up by chanting, “Disco sucks! Disco sucks! Disco sucks!”as he drove a jeep to the center field where the records were heaped together under a pile of explosives.
BOOM! The explosion left a gaping hole in the center of the field as close to 7,000 attendees rushed into the field. The dance moves, culture and people of disco were humiliated in his rendition of a parody song as the vinyls burnt behind him. Mobs erupted. The riot police came in and dispersed the battering mobs. But what happened to disco? Well, this game-night was symbolic of the actual demise of disco music. This groovy genre was laid down in the land where it was once given birth. Homophobia and racism fueled the death of the sounds of a generation of black, latino and queer dancers.
Although they burnt records, they couldn’t burn a culture; the A-side was done playing, but the B-side was just getting warmed up. In the early 1980s, disc jockeys Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles turned the record over. They spiked up their disco collection with Europe’s drug of the century: bass. Layering classic disco tracks with basslines made by the inaugural Roland TR 909 and 303 drum machines, layered over soul-melting disco vocals and European pop beats. These elements, between ‘84 - ‘86, mark the inception of a new genre that was dubbed as a rawer, deeper version of disco.
The pivoting 909 bassline against the growing synth chords on Jack Your Body (1986) by Steve “Silk” Hurley feels dark yet refreshing, like a disco record dipped in the River Styx to achieve immortality. Similarly, “Can You Feel It” (1986) by Mr. Fingers borrows the high-hats frills from jazz while bathing its chord progression in an electronic, acid wetness. These tracks exemplify how artists schooled the nascent genre of house in the legacy of other musical styles that came out from similar spaces of oppression.
The soundscape of late 80’s house music diversified across time and space, and subgenres popped up all over Europe. The iconic track “Acid Tracks” by British producer Phuture, took up the TB-303 synthesizer’s punch to a new level as the howling vocals of disco got swapped out with the screeching aftertaste of the acid sound. Another cousin was birthed in the discotheques of Rome as Italo house, working on amplifying the airy, majestic synths and oversung vocals from Chicago house played against complex electric piano progressions. All these grooves popped up just as Marshall Jefferson, back in Chicago, was redefining the nuance of how house can use the piano as a rhythmic centerpiece in dance music with “Move Your Body”, popularly dubbed as “The House Music Anthem”.
By 1989, house had made it; not just in the U.S., but all around the world. Black Box’s legendary track “Ride on Time”, an Italo house classic, went from being an underground House tune to spending 6 weeks on the top of the charts in the UK. Sampling the almost illegal reach of Loleata Holloway’s big diva voice in “Love Sensation”, “Ride on Time” rode on Marshall Jefferson’s new technique of piano rhythm schemes. In this short history, house music became the race-blind child of disco, moving dancers towards the legacy of tomorrow. Whether you listen to Michael Bibi pushing on the next tech-house “banger” in Ibiza or Ricardo Villalobos spinning another plate of micro-House in the Berlin underground, now is a good time to remember the story of our sound.
Aravind Kumar is a columnist. Email him at
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