Chicago house and the "democratization" of music production
Written by Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, PhD-student at the Department of Musicology, University of Oslo.
(Paper presented at the conference "Manchester, Music and Place" at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, Manchester Metropolitan University, June 8th -10th 2006)
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The innovations in dance music related to the club culture of Chicago at the beginning of the 1980s have had a major influence on the development of the global dance music culture of the 1990s. The DJs at the Haçienda in Manchester were playing tracks of Chicago house as early as 1986 initiating the so-called Madchester era, the second summer of love, the acid house-scene, the first wave of British rave culture.
The linkage connecting these two cities, Chicago and Manchester, in the 1980s, is the music; played at the Power Plant and the Music Box in Chicago and the Haçienda in Manchester, and the place; in this paper interpreted as the club, the place where dancing and deejaying sets the conditions.
Frankie Knuckles introduced the New York-tradition of deejaying and underground club-culture to Chicago. He was invited to deejay at the Warehouse in 1977 and his choice of music and methods in deejaying was of major influence for the contributors of what later has been identified as Chicago house.
This presentation will focus on the early tracks of Chicago house and the "democratization" process that took place at the beginning of the 1980s concerning prizes and distribution of electronic musical instruments, introducing new groups of contributors into music production. I believe this new group of contributors brought an approach towards music production that influenced the dance music of the late 1980s and the 1990s immensely.
My key question for this paper is:
How do changes in music production processes appear in the music of the club-culture of Chicago at the beginning of the 1980s.
My area of investigation is:
The transition from studio-recorded acoustic material to the use of drum machines, synthesizers and sequencers.
In focus will be the new approach towards music production and the use of Roland TB-303, TR-808 and TR-909.
A central theme is related to the conditions set by the music production being closely tied to a dance culture.
Or as Hillegonda Rietveld writes:
"(...) the production of house music is about what is at that moment the most effective on the dance floor (...)" (Rietveld 1998:22)
In the discussion of these matters, I will be using excerpts from:
Jesse Saunders "On and On", arguably one of the first two house tracks and more certainly the very first track on vinyl, and as another Chicago house innovator Marshal Jefferson says: "That was the single most important record to me of the twentieth century, because it let the non-musician know that he could make music. It was the revolution." (Bidder 2001:30) The other two tracks are Phuture's "Acid Tracks" establishing the distinct acid house sound from the Roland TB-303 and Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body", the first house track reaching number one of the British Charts. They are all examples of the new production methods typical of the Chicago house scene; the use of drum-machines, sequencers and synthesizers.
When Marshall Jefferson refers to the non-musician making music he is describing the effect of the democratization process. Most of the Chicago house innovators started as deejays and gradually implemented their own material in the set by using drum machines and tape-mixes and thus advancing to the act of fully producing their own tracks. Today the DJ is generally considered a musician but in the 1980s their skills were not approvingly valuated by the traditional musician, to a certain extent not even by themselves. Steve Hurley says: "I was using drum machines, being limited by my playing abilities, since I was not really a musician. Basically, I tried to emulate other records, concentrating on bass lines and programming." (Watson 2000) So the fact that he is not a traditional musician, that he is not accustomed to the acoustic music instruments, forms his working methods, from a focus on the act of playing to a focus on the act of programming.
Is this shift in focus traceable in the music?
Paul Théberge writes that the act of programming a drum machine is a very different activity than playing the drums:
Thus, he continues, one's sense of musical style and language can be relatively more abstract in nature.
I have studied drum-patterns in several tracks and a dominant feature is the lack of coherence to live drumming. In the manual of the Roland TR-808 all tutorial drum patterns are basic rock patterns, as a live drummer would have played them.
From page 16 of the manual for the Roland TR-808.
But this fact does not seem to have influenced the work of these early Chicago house contributors.
In Jesse Saunders' "On and On" there is a 1 min. 20 seconds drum-break.
Excerpt from the drum break in Jesse Saunders' "On and On".
You actually would need 4 musicians to perform this live: A drum set, congas, claves and cowbell, and the handclap Ð a very unlikely situation.
The patterns, especially the hi-hat, are shaped according to programming. A live drummer or a drummer programming would normally use the hi-hat to tie the groove together. The hi-hat is rarely as incoherently or disjointedly played as in this example:
To elucidate this argument I have removed the handclap and the snare drum with an equalizer so the hi-hat-pattern is more evident.
Measure 5 to 8 of the drum break in Jesse Saunder's "On and On" with the hi-hat accentuated.
The hi-hat pattern must be seen in relation to the other instruments in the higher frequency range; the hand clap and the snare drum. These three sounds alternate rather consistently in these four bars.
Measure 5 to 8 of the drum break in Jesse Saunder's "On and On"
One drum pattern or rather, one combination of two separate patterns is used extensively in the early Chicago house tracks. The four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern in combination with a hi-hat off-beat pattern. In these two excerpts from Steve Hurley's "Jack Your Body" and Phuture's "Acid Tracks" these patterns are present.
Steve Hurley's "Jack Your Body"
Phuture's "Acid Tracks"
In my PhD-project I have chosen to follow this compound pattern from 70s disco, through Chicago house, to the electronic dance music of the 1990s in order to compare its implementation in rhythmic structures produced with different tools. I believe the combination of these two patterns is closely linked with movement, either when we dance, tap or fingers, nod or head, etc.
Olu Taiwo, in the article The Return Beat, curved perceptions in music and dance, identifies this repetitive movement returning to the same point every time, as the return beat; most likely you are pulled out by the hi-hat-sound and pulled back in again by the bass drum.
The presence of this pattern in Chicago house tracks points to the functionality of the music. These tracks were aimed directly at the dance floor. Most producers were able to try out tracks from a tape copy before pressing the vinyl. So they could check out what got the crowd going. This practice might also be presented as part of the democratization process where the dancers are taking part in a process of making decisions, shaping the musical material.
The bass was also programmed. Most early tracks using a TB-303.
The bass lines were often taken from disco tracks and repeated without much alteration. The tonal variations a real bass player would contribute were excluded. The bass line from Steve Hurley's "Jack You Body" was taken from the Warehouse-classic "Let No Man Put Asunder" by First Choice.
Steve Hurley's "Jack Your Body"
First Choice: "Let No Man Put Asunder"
The bass line is characteristic. It can be divided in two parts; the first stable, accentuating the first two beats of the bar:
While the second part syncopated and leading back to the first part.
The small deviation in the second bar makes the two bar a short unit that can be repeated endlessly.
A perfect bass line for a dance track.
In the production of the early tracks of Chicago house MIDI was not fully utilized. The TR-808 and the TB-303 did not have MIDI. But Roland had a discrete system for synchronization called DIN-sync. The first two Roland MIDI-sequencers Roland MSQ 700 and 100 could run both MIDI and DIN-sync simultaneously. So using these sequencers one could synchronize the TR-808 and the TB-303 with samplers, like the Ensoniq Mirage and synthesizers triggered from a MIDI-sequencer.
And when external MIDI-sequencers and samplers were being used both synth parts and vocal parts could be programmed. In this excerpt from Steve Hurley's "Jack Your Body" the vocal part is programmed in this manner.
This vocal part is neither formed according to what a vocalist would do live. The approach is closely tied to the use of the sequencer and sampler. And with these tools I believe a distinct feature materializes. The condition that all elements are treated as rhythmic elements. As stated in this quotation from Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson in their description of Chicago house:
"Its sampled snippets of sung or spoken vocal do not add up to
coherent verses, rather instead becoming part of the rhythmic
syntax of the track itself. Its ability – by means of the sampler
and the sequencer – to turn any sound into a rhythmic element,
remains the basic template for most contemporary dance music."
(Gilbert & Pearson 1999:74)
My next point is elucidated with an excerpt from Phuture's "Acid Tracks"; the act of changing the sound quality (timbre) while playing.
Excerpt from Phuture's "Acid Tracks"
This feature exposes the use of machines. There are several of the six buttons on the TB-303 that are altered simultaneously.
This indicates that it is played by a sequencer, in this case the integrated sequencer inside the TB-303. Most acoustic instruments have a fixed sound that to a certain extent can be altered by playing techniques but not changed as radically as in this example. The most usual approach from a traditional 1980's musician when using synthesizers would be to find a suitable sound and leave the parameters untouched while playing.
The overall structure of a Chicago house track is also a matter of discussion. While the mainstream disco-track of the 1970s is predominantly binary verse-chorus structured most Chicago house-tracks have a flat groove-oriented structure. This structure is found in almost all electronic dance music. Groups or chunks of 4, 8 or 16 repeated bars of a certain material are varied throughout the track.
Some elements continue unchanged, some are removed, some are varied, some new elements may be introduced. Changes are usually introduced when a group or chunk of 4, 8 or 16 bars have finished, often introduced by an event in the last bar.
This characteristic must be seen in context of dancing and deejaying.
The Chicago house innovators had learned their trade from Frankie Knuckles. In Tim Lawrence book Love Saves the Day he has through interviews with the DJs made play-lists from certain clubs at certain time-periods. From the Warehouse he has a play-list or a discography from 1977 to 1979.
0.42->1.22: Verse, Bridge, Chorus.
1.30->2.11: Verse, Bridge, Chorus.
2.27->7.59: Groove-oriented improvisation on the material of the chorus.
What part of the mix was played by the DJ is of course a matter we can just assume.