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Global Underground: Boiler Room And The Second City

By Kevin Robinson in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 17, 2014 7:45PM

(Boiler Room at Primary Night Club/Photo by Usuf Khan of PARADOX MMXIV from Primary's Facebook page)

In the long list of contributions that Chicago has made to American music, House music is both often overlooked and frequently misunderstood. People think that Disco fell out of fashionand died in the 1980s. To hear the story, Steve Dahl's Disco Demolition was the low-water mark before it’s polyester-clad funeral. But in fact the history of Chicago House music comes straight out of a disco, the kind of nightclub where black and Latino, gay and straight patrons danced to Disco records mixed with Soul, Funk and R&B, as well as a new kind of electronic pop music coming out of Europe, best exemplified by the German group Kraftwerk. And while Disco fell out of fashion in the popular culture, dance music remained popular here in Chicago, both in nightclubs, and on at least one radio station, WBMX-FM. The availability and popularity of locally produced dance records, coupled with advancing technologies in the realm of record mixing and electronic music making, came together in a noncommercial environment in the 1980’s, meaning that DJs and producers in Chicago could create their own edits of songs they liked and that they felt worked well on the dance floor. Hidden from the public disdain for urban (read: minority) dance music and shielded from commercial pressures, Chicago DJs began creating and playing their own edits of songs for other DJs and club-goers, the main audience for such music.

By the mid-1980s DJs in Chicago were not only mixing these records together for integrated audiences, they were starting to produce their own records specifically for other DJs to spin in nightclubs. The emergence of dance records specifically for a largely black or gay audience gave rise to what came to be known regionally as House music. (The exact origins of this term are in dispute, although it’s generally accepted that House is named for the nightclub WareHouse where Frankie Knuckles played, popularizing the sound in Chicago.) While such songs were unlikely to be played on conventional radio formats, many of the songs the Chicago DJs were spinning in nightclubs around the city were released on Trax Records, a Chicago dance label with global distribution. By 1986 Chicago House music had made it’s way to England and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's "Love Can't Turn Around" had reached number 10 on the UK pop charts. The following year Chicago artist Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body" had reached number one in the UK, and a revolution was under way. 1988 and '89 would see an explosion in dance culture across the UK with the Second Summer of Love-two years of drugs, dancing and the explosive UK rave scene. What came back to the US from England is what most Americans think of when they think of electronic dance music.

Peppered with African-American and Latin influences, and characterized by a repetitive 4/4 beat and bass-heavy breaks, Chicago House music has become the foundation for the global electronic dance music scene. What started as a regional phenomenon has been the inspiration for countless electronic artists the world over. And while it might not seem like it to the average American, dance music is almost universally popular everywhere except in the country that birthed it. Like so many other popular forms of music, like Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll before, House music has gone from being an artistic expression of a minority experience to being something that’s broadly popular and is considered artistic and tasteful. Alan King, one of the Chosen Few DJs that performed along with Jesse Saunders, told Dawn Turner Trice "much like jazz, rock 'n' roll and the blues, it has in many respects been co-opted by the dominant culture, where you have people like David Guetta, Daft Punk and Tiesto making millions of dollars a year off of it under the label EDM, or electronic dance music." Thirty years later and electronic dance music is finally beginning to get its due in the United States, although by no means is it as popular or pervasive in the US as it is abroad.

“Did House music originate in Chicago? If you follow it back to the WareHouse, it did. But it made its way around the country and then to Europe,” says King, noting that South Africa has a huge House music scene. In the UK, for example, House is experiencing a massive comeback (check out Disclosure for an example of a contemporary House production in the video above), and along with the rise of a modern House sound has come both an interest in the global aspect of dance music and it’s attendant culture, but also the roots of a musical phenomenon that took root before many of the folks on today’s dance floors were even born.

As European dance music made it’s way into the mainstream culture, through popular acts, movie soundtracks and large, commercial raves, it remained largely an underground experience in the United States. So while the second wave of House music was happening in Chicago in the mid-nineties through the early aughts, it largely stayed out of public view, taking place in lofts and other unlicensed venues. This disconnect between European audiences and Chicago audiences led to a growth in global dance culture that left American fans behind. With the growth in both a global dance culture and a rise in the interest in the music a series of web-based portals for accessing dance music and events has emerged to fill the niche. Among these is London-based Boiler Room, that broadcasts their performance live online. Founded by East London cultural empressario Blaise Bellville, Boiler Room features underground electronic artists in small spaces, placing the focus squarely on DJs performing for an intimate crowd. “It feels like you’re at a House party, but people are watching live,” Bellville told The Last magazine. “The success has just as much to do with the artists enjoying and feeling an instant satisfaction with it, whether that’s because they like to hang out in the room and they like the vibe in there, or it’s because Twitter and Facebook are going mad with the comments.”

And while Boiler Room has always had a focus on bringing underground music and new talent to a global audience, Bellville seems to always have an eye on the larger context of the global dance scene. With that in mind, Boiler Room put together a series of events in Chicago in February with a focus on the roots of House. Featuring performances by House legends Gene Hunt, Paul Johnson and Glenn Underground, and Phuture, who helped take House to it’s next stage with the creation of Acid House in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and Detroit native Kevin Saunderson (who is largely credited with inventing techno in the mid 80’s) February’s event was especially organized to highlight the originators of House and Chicago’s role in what has become an international musical movement.

For iconic Chicago DJ and promoter "Davey" Dave Mason of the House Preservation Society, who organized and hosted the Chicago shows, he hopes that Boiler Room can connect a broader, global audience with the music he grew up with. “People look to Chicago as where the beginnings of House music started. I think Boiler Room can touch a lot of people that wouldn’t normally be able to see what Chicago is really like,” Mason told Chicagoist. “You get to see DJs that you wouldn’t normally be able to see. I think that’s the best part about this show, you get to see how the crowd is in Chicago. The world still looks to Chicago, and Detroit, as [the foundation of House and Techno].”

He’s hopeful, as well, that American interest in electronic dance music can continue to grow. “Deep House has taken off and there’s been a lot of interest in early House and Techno, and people are trying to learn about it again,” Mason said. “It’s kind of remarkable, kind of ignored in Chicago. Like with Jazz, Blues, there were artists that nobody knows here, but they played packed, sold out shows in clubs and bars all over Europe. And House has followed the same path, with American markets being slow to accept what’s happening right here in their own backyard.”

While the February shows stand alone as one-offs, Mason is optimistic that Boiler Room can find a permanent place in Chicago, highlighting more contemporary local artists for a global audience. For Mason, it all comes back to Chicago. "It's such a rich and beautiful history, and it created a whole new genre of music. It essentially created the EDM phenomenon. Without Chicago, without the people, without the music, we wouldn't have House, we wouldn’t have this rich, vibrant global scene.”