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:

"The drum machine, (...) bears no resemblance to traditional drums and drumming practice. The instrument has no direct, physical sound-producing mechanism; (...). It can be played, or programmed, with a series of buttons on its front panel, a keyboard, or a computer, and requires none of the physical coordination and discipline of a drummer." (Théberge 1997:3f)

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.

Frankie Knuckles

Select Discography (Warehouse 1977-79)

Ashford & Simpson, "It Seems to Hang On"

Roy Ayers, "Running Away"

Peter Brown, "Do You Wanna Get Funky with Me"

Bumble Bee Unlimited, "Love Bug"

Candido, "Thousand Finger Man"

George Duke, "I Want You for Myself"

Ecstasy, Passion & Pain featuring Barbara Roy, "Touch and Go"

First Choice, "Let No Man Put Asunder"

Taana Gardner, "Work That Body"

Jimmy "Bo" Horne, "Spank"

Inner Life featuring Jocelyn Brown, "I'm Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair)"

Kat Mandu, "The Break"

Chaka Kahn, "I'm Every Woman"

Patti LaBelle, "Music Is My Way of Life"

Machine, "There but for the Grace of God Go I"

Sergio Mendes, "I'll Tell You"

MFSB, "Love is the Message"

Moroder, "E=MC "

The Originals, "Down to Love Town"

Positive Force, "We Got the Funk"

Diana Ross, "The Boss"

Skatt Bross., "Walk the Night"

Gino Soccio, "Dancer"

Two Man Sound, "Que Tal America"

(Lawrence 2003:406f)

This list represents predominantly rather obscure tracks from a multitude of genres. But most of the tracks have one distinct feature in common. Long sequences with a flat groove-oriented structure. The more mainstream disco was aimed both at the dance floor and at radio and record sales and where mostly three-four minutes long songs. The 12 inch remixes became an intermediate solution with pressure from the artist or the composer to keep song structure and vocal lines untouched while trying to make a binary song structure suitable for the dancefloor.  Shep Pettibone's remix of "Let No Man Put Asunder" from 1983 uses the first two and a half minutes to finish the original song; verse, chorus, while the rest is a more flat structured groove on the material of the chorus.


0.00->0.42: Intro

0.42->1.22: Verse, Bridge, Chorus.

1.22->1.30: Interlude.

1.30->2.11: Verse, Bridge, Chorus.

2.11->2.27: Interlude.

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.


Excerpt from Shep Pettibone's remix of First Choice: "Let No Man Put Asunder" (4.11->)


To sum up so far; there are audible features related to our key question found in all instrument parts in the musical material in question, the drum parts, the bass lines, the synth, the vocals and the overall structure.


The move of focus from playing to programming appears through the following observations:


1. Instruments were treated without reference to its acoustic counterpart.


2. No effort was made to conceal the contribution of the machines.


Moreover, all these features may be linked to the fact that the dance floor was the principal supplier of conditions for the music-making process.


The contribution of machines brings us to the next area of investigation: The use of the Roland TB-303, the TR-808 and the TR-909 and the distinct sound of these machines. 




Paul Théberge lists the reduced prices on electronic music equipment as the most essential factor for the "democratization" process in the early 1980s, a factor caused by falling prices in microprocessor technology, improved manufacturing and the entry into the field of new competitors (e.g.: Casio Musical Instruments). He also describes two other important factors: The small cottage industry that supplies prefabricated sound programs for synthesizers and samplers and the design and development of MIDI. (Théberge 1997:73f)

The reduced prices in microprocessor technology initiated the transition from analogue to digital technology. The new digital equipment materialized by the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and the Linn Drum drum-machine, made especially the recently produced analogue equipment obsolete and possible to purchase second-hand at a reasonable price. Among these were the Roland TR-808, the TR-909 and the TB-303, the sequencer/synthesizer-hybrid intended for replacing a live bass-player. These three instruments became extremely popular among the innovators of the Chicago house scene. First used in the DJ-set, later as a production tool. 

Most musicians accustomed to acoustic sounds would probably not have tolerated the artificial synthetic sound of these machines. In this example is the same pattern played by acoustic drums and the TR-808.


Acoustic drums vs. TR-808.


So was it only because they were reasonably prized that these machines, regarded as obsolete by the professional music producers of its time, became the core of the Chicago house production.

One answer could be that the clubbers of Chicago were accustomed to hearing synthetic drum sounds. After the Disco Sucks-campaign and the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979 the mainstream popularity of disco decreased and the production of the soul-oriented dance music in America with an acoustic traditional sound diminished. So the DJs found new material in European disco, Italo-disco and synthpop. In these short excerpts from two Italo-disco tracks from 1982 the drum sounds are quite similar to the 808.


Excerpts from Klein & MBO: "Dirty Talk" and Capricorn: "I Need Love" (both 1982).


So the DJs had already experienced that these synthetic drum sounds functioned well on the dance floor.


My further observations concerning the sounds from these machines are related to how they are built. They have analogue components that are unstable compared to digital, and the sounds are mostly built with simple sound-waves, like the sinus-wave without overtones. Using a sonogram to analyze the frequency-spectre of the sounds I have observed how most drum sounds from the 808 occupy little space in the overall sound of a mix. In this comparison between the acoustic drums and the 808 you can observe the difference.  


Acoustic drums:




Roland TR-808:



These sonograms use a logarithmic frequency range.


Comparison acoustic drums vs. TR-808.


My point here is the possibilities to have several patterns running simultaneously without sounding chaotic. This is made possible by the short dry sounds of the 808 occupying minimal timbral space, setting a standard for drum sounds in electronic dance music.

Since I am studying these machines quite thoroughly I am presenting one more sonogram.




This is the TB-303 from Phuture's "Acid Tracks" (1 bar repeating) and the curious matter is how the stacks of overtones have diagonal movements. The machine has a slide-button that was created to mimic how a bass player can slide from one place on the string to another. I believe this makes the sound of the TB-303 especially well suited for dance music since the sounds initiate the next beat with this downward movement.

To sum up: How do changes in music production processes appear in the music of the club culture of Chicago at the beginning of the 1980s concerning the transition from studio recorded material to the use of drum machines, sequencers and synthesizers?


Related to the new approach towards music production I have presented the act of programming, the display of machines and the dance and DJ-related functionality as traceable features. When it comes to the specific use of TR-808, TR-909 and TB-303 I have presented the distinct sound and its advantages in dance music.


In a studio environment with a tradition more concerned with what Theodore Grazyk describes as the musical work in recorded rock; where


"The recording creates a "virtual" space and time in which a performance is represented as taking place." (Grazyk 1996:53)

one would believe it to be more accepted that machines where used to imitate what a real musician would do, if the machine where accepted in the first place.

In the history of music production this move away from what would be considered a more authentic rock recording at the time could be regarded as a next step in the direction started by Sam Philips in the Sun-studio and continued by George Martin and the Beatles in Abbey Road of using the technical possibilities to create an artefact not similar to the live experience. In the 1950s the prevalent aim was to faithfully transfer the acoustic event to the recorded media.

The contribution of machines in the process of making records at the beginning of the 1980s was counterattacked by a notion of the live performance as the real music and the machines as the cold and lifeless contributor. But in the dance oriented arena what matters is only how the music triggers movement. The place, in this matter being the club, has its own schema concerning authenticity and cultural capital, and a scepticism towards machines making music is not part of it. The Chicago house scene is not exceptional when it comes to the effect of the democratization process but there are several occurrences that makes the city an exciting area of research concerning these matters, especially in the light of the extensive influence of the music in focus related to the development of the electronic dance music of the 1990s and the pop music in general in our time.




Bidder, Sean. 2001. Pump Up the Volume. Channel 4 Books.


Gilbert, Jeremy & Pearson, Ewan. 1999. Discographies. Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound.  Routledge.


Gracyk, Theodore. 1996. Rhythm and Noise. An Aesthetics of Rock. Duke University Press.


Lawrence, Tim. 2003. Love Saves the Day. A history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Duke University Press.


Rietveld, Hillegonda. 1998. This Is Our House. House Music, Cultural Spaces and Technologies.


Taiwo, Olu. 1998. "The Return Beat, curved perceptions in music and dance" in Wood, John: The Virtual Embodied: Practices, Theories and the New Technologies. London:Routledge.


Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine. Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press.