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What is “House Music,” Anyway?

I came across an interview with Robbie Rivera in Las Vegas Weekly about his club shows and recent remix “100% Pure Love.” Rivera goes through the motions of promoting himself but then makes a statement about modern house music. “It’s bullsh*t,” he says. “There’s this little thing going on I see so much on Twitter, like all these big names saying they’re playing house and they’re doing house … They do one track that sounds house, but it’s really a mixture between electro and house. It’s not a real house track that grooves on and

[is] very funky.”

Rivera’s kind of on two wavelengths. One direction’s saying that because it doesn’t sound like the original version of Chicago house that it’s not authentic. Another, albeit traveling toward a similar destination, continues to exclaim that EDM isn’t “real” dance music and that its producers aren’t “real” DJs.

And in a listen to “100% Pure Love,” a simpler time in dance music emerges: The early to mid ‘00s, between the wave of electronica in the ‘90s and the current surge starting with David Guetta in the late ‘00s. It was a time when Tiesto and trance became huge, house still had soulful vocals, and production wasn’t pushed so low in the mix. Fortunately, there’s a reversal to these trends – classic house vocalists like Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston are making a return, and mainstream listeners in the U.S. are beginning to embrace a greater range of house music styles. Beatport’s current No. 1 track, Oliver Helden’s remix of “Can’t Stop Playing,” exemplifies such a shift.

Yet Rivera’s statement poses two issues. One, should music only be considered “house” if it follows the original minimalist formula? And second, considering house music’s Diaspora has proliferated with subgenres more than, say, trance, techno, or bass music, over the same period, how do you cohesively link the original Chicago style to the latest progressive house sounds and everything in between?

On a Musical Level

When you ask people on the street about their definition of house music, as THUMP did in this video, you’re bound to get a range of answers – some on the mark, some close, and many far from it.

Clubbers’ perspectives aside, house derived from disco. Early tracks stripped the melodic aspects away down to the rhythm and shifted toward repetition and a darker quality. Much of what emerged from disco’s aftermath in the early ‘80s – house in Chicago, synthpop in the U.K., and Freestyle in Miami and New York – started with a similar template, but what differentiated tracks by Frankie Knuckles from Depeche Mode, New Order, or Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were Chicago’s decades of sounds, particularly soul, funk, and jazz. With the Roland TR-808 and TR-909, and eventually the TB-303, creating the backbone of house tracks at the time, these elements entered through the vocals or occasional brass line added to the mix.

Beyond musical history, however, what characterizes this style is the 4/4 beat – or “four to the floor” from the kick drum – and the off-beat, hi-hat cymbals or snare. This extremely basic foundation means you can put anything on top, as About.com points out: the cheesy saxophone from Alex Gaudino’s “Destination Calabria,” excessive samples, huge stacked synth chords on a progressive house track like Martin Garrix’s “Tremors,” a single trombone (like we heard deep house DJ Aakmael do earlier this year), or country music and folk vocals, like Avicii does for the first half of True. And they all fall under “house” with this very basic music theory definition.

What this means is, house can go through (and has gone through) countless mutations over the years. Even five years after house music’s official start, it started spawning off subgenres: Acid house, itself a European interpretation of American sounds that appealed to the middle class on both sides of the Atlantic, is perhaps the first of this trend, although some consider techno and garage off-shoots in a similar manner. It’s been fused with pop and trance (Eurodance), techno (tech-house), trance (trouse), electro (electro house), reggaeton (moombahton), and even disco. Slower, more minimal versions, like deep house, get distinguished from the faster chord-driven varieties (progressive house) and where the genre’s played (underground versus big room). Even progressive house now has two distinctions: the snare-free Swedish sound from Avicii, John Dahlback, and Swedish House Mafia, and the “Dirty Dutch” iteration pushed by Chuckie, Nicky Romero, and Quintino in recent years.

Character and Message

Even if that 4/4 beat is the only factor uniting DJ Pierre, Fedde Le Grand, and Martin Garrix, critics like Robbie Rivera complain that house music lost its message years ago. The politically-charged tracks coming out of Chicago have since been replaced with lyrics about “popping bottles” or “raising your hands up.” Or an uplifting, linear character has subverted the darker, winding bass that emerged post-disco.

Some claim the association with drugs changed the movement, but even some accounts allege that the drinks served at the Warehouse were laced with acid. Rather, this now-gone character reflects house music’s origins. As Resident Advisor pointed out, the late ‘70s – when the DJing style that would go onto form house music in the mid-‘80s emerged – in Chicago saw closing record labels and segregated clubs. The Warehouse – and the clubs leading up to its creation – had the goal of bringing people together – black, white, Latino, gay, straight, male, and female.

But even with this message, house music allegedly spoke to a dissatisfied population – and for this reason, it spread to other major U.S. cities and eventually to Europe, where it connected with youth in Thatcher’s England. In between its origins and acid house’s explosion, accounts claim, the sounds started to appeal to a middle class, white audience. The soulful vocal style started to get stripped out for samples, while the lyrics that might’ve been more reflective of the political climate at the time became “Hey, music lover” or other empty words about elation.

The Soul

Since we went to the Winter Music Conference in 2013, the question “Whatever happened to house music singers?” has been asked a few times. Where did Crystal Waters, Barbara Tucker, Paris Grey, or even Dhany go? Why did this “soulful” style disappear?

If you look at the trajectory of dance music into the mainstream, there’s a fairly simple answer: It doesn’t fit on the radio, unless you’re Mariah Carey. And even the diva of all pop music divas has toned herself down in recent years. Listeners want airy and simple – like Lana Del Rey over a house beat. It’s likely why mainstream house producers who used a “soulful” vocalist until the late ‘00s, like Fedde Le Grand remixing Danish soul singer Ida Corr’s “Let Me Think About It,” suddenly stopped this decade and went with someone whose style’s a bit more ethereal (like Nadia Ali) or without significant range (think Matthew Koma or the girls in Krewella).

But as Attack Magazine points out, producers don’t always see a need for vocals. What could result is a complex, multi-layered instrumental-driven track or simply an empty boom-chick-boom-chick in the background at the club.

This trend seems to be turning around, but even if a more “soulful” singer ends up on a house track, does it suddenly have meaning? Considering dance music culture’s taken on a hedonistic character, from grandiose festivals, the entire Ibiza summer season, to expensive bottle service clubs, the tracks simply match what people are looking for: having a good time. That could simply be because the audience has money to spend, or they’re looking for something uplifting in a time of seemingly never-ending high unemployment and sharp income inequality.

What Rivera and critics of his ilk miss is that house music has continuously been evolving from the start – and itself an evolution of disco forced underground in the early ‘80s. Examining it isn’t simply wondering, “Why don’t people produce like this anymore?” and yearning for a bygone era of analog equipment and warehouse parties, but rather considering the time and place in which the sounds were created, with the same beat connecting decades’ worth of tracks together.

By | 2016-12-02T14:42:52+00:00 December 16, 2014|Opinion|3 Comments
  • John Parker

    For something to be classified as house you need ask yourself only one question. Would Frankie have played it? He created house and his club gave it it’s name. R.I.P. Frankie.

  • Mixxmaster Shawn

    I will agree that house music has changed, and not for the better. Really don’t care for the EDM influences in house mixes today where melodies and sexy vocals are sacrificed.