A resurgence of 90s-inspired house music arrived June 17 beside the mixed reviews of Drake’s surprise dance album, Honestly, Nevermind. The rapper’s 14-song LP was executive produced by South African house legend Black Coffee and OVO’s Noah “40” Shebib, Oliver El-Khatib, and Noel Cadastre, in tribute to the late fashion designer, philanthropist, and DJ Virgil Abloh. As founder of the fashion label Off-White™ and Louis Vuitton’s men’s artistic director, Abloh consistently managed to incorporate his love for electronic dance music (EDM) alongside luxury goods. This admiration for EDM and its respective subgenres was extended earlier this week (June 21) by Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” the lead single from her upcoming seventh album, Renaissance.
The buzzing dance track references Robin S’ 1993 hit “Show Me Love” and samples Big Freedia’s bounce bop, “Explode.” As a consistent LGBTQIA ally, Mrs. Knowles-Carter utilized post-chorus vocals from Freedia and additive ball culture terminology. For example, the song’s lyrics, “Release ya trade…” refer to the word (trade) that “Black femme queers [created] to describe a guy who’s hot and acts masc despite being attracted to men,” per Vulture. Also, the underground ballroom scene and its independent houses as we know them today were first reimagined in the 60s by the House of LaBeija, ahead of the high-tempo genre erupting in the 70s underground clubs through gay DJs. These then-nightlife communities have since evolved and supported one another through historical movements.
Contributing “Break My Soul” elements and its four-on-the-floor cadences have roused debates across music and social media platforms about the true origins of the house genre. With respect to the interconnectedness of Black Music Month and Pride Month, REVOLT will sort through some of the digital confusion. ICON, a music production educational collective, archived, “The anti-disco rally was led by Steve Dahl, a loudmouthed disc jockey who had been fired from a Chicago radio station … The popularity of disco declined substantially after [his] ‘Disco Demolition Night’ … Many still believe the anti-disco movement expressed racism and homophobia.” In time, the Bronx-born DJ Frankie Knuckles, Brooklyn-born DJ Larry Levan, and Chicago-born DJ Ron Hardy innovatively rearranged dance sections and laid the tuneful blueprint for house music. Each of these Black gay visionaries was invested in LGBTQIA causes, such as uplifting their community through the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic with their take on the genre.
The Claim: Did Black people create house music?
Our Rating: True.
While it is crucial to emphasize that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS do not affect queer identities exclusively, these ailments have particularly ravaged Black bodies since 1981’s first reported cases by Los Angeles immunologist Dr. Gottlieb. Moreover, house genre pioneers Levan and Hardy were infected with the virus during a period of intentional misinformation. In context, the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) website paraphrased, “Calling HIV a ‘gay’ or ‘LGBTQ’ disease is medically untrue…” Concerning the era, HuffPost published, “Black gay men often flocked to a sacred space — the dancefloor … Our architects had already become casualties of the time … Both [Levan and Hardy] were long-term drug users and had been diagnosed with HIV.”
The development of house’s cultural appeal advanced among daily medical tragedies. “Racism, longstanding systemic inequities, residential segregation, social and economic marginalization, and other ingrained barriers are among the factors that have contributed to these troubling and persistent disparities,” documented the CDC while examining the virus’ ongoing treatment detriments. Thus, the liberation of Levan and Hardy’s 80s and early 90s house sets are believed to have provided impact far beyond the genre’s musicality. Even so, one turntablist is globally crowned as house’s originator.
“Nobody can agree on who invented the blues or birthed rock & roll, but there is no question that house music came from Frankie Knuckles … Knuckles is, hands down, one of the dozen most important DJs of all time. At his Chicago clubs, the Warehouse (1977-82) and Power Plant (1983-85), Knuckles’ marathon sets, typically featuring his own extended edits of a wide selection of tracks from disco to post-punk, R&B to synth-heavy Eurodisco, laid the groundwork for electronic dance music culture — all of it,” printed Rolling Stone. Before he was dubbed the “Godfather of House Music,” Knuckles became involved in Harlem’s ball culture as a designer, where he helped style separate houses with his childhood friend Levan. Electric Soul, a digital electronic music history forum, reported, “When Levan dropped out of high school and found himself working as a dressmaker for ball culture, he befriended Knuckles and many other notable DJs in the scene. Levan got his start DJing alongside Knuckles at the gay bathhouse, Continental Baths…”
Knuckles confirmed their teenage friendship to the United Kingdom periodical Defected, saying, “I got to the high school, studying art & design … by the time I got into the 11th grade, I discovered clubs and nightlife. I was running around with Larry Levan, who introduced me to The Loft [an after-hours spot] … I met Larry when I was fourteen…” The pair initially became established at sex-positive underground venues and alongside New York City’s ballroom elite, before launching celebrated disco residencies. DJ Lynnée Denise joined the present house discussion on Twitter by posting, “House music was used to help ‘the children’ raise money for weekly funerals when AIDS began to snatch bodies from the dance floor. We turned to house music and to ballroom mothers and fathers when our families turned away from us.”
Contemporary television links to Denise’s social media sentiment can be viewed on popular shows like “Pose,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and “Legendary.” And with acknowledgment of these associated movements, by the late 70s, Knuckles was seeking respect and growth for his proven benefactions — and transitioned to Chicago following an offer from Robert Williams, a dancer and entrepreneur who opened an after-hours club, the Warehouse. It was in this cultural moment that dance history was birthed. According to Forbes, “He merged disco classics with electro-pop, funk, soul and other genres. His style became known as ‘House Music’ … Knuckles’ contribution is only a sample of the numerous other legendary Black artists who also set the stage for the future of house and electronic music: Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, Marshall Jefferson, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Phuture, Larry Heard, Chip E, and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk are among the heavyweight names.”
Academically, house is defined as a “style of high-tempo, electronic dance music that originated in Chicago in the early 1980s and spread internationally. Born in Chicago clubs that catered to gay, predominantly Black and [Latinx] patrons, house fused the symphonic sweep and soul diva vocals of 1970s disco with the cold futurism of synthesizer-driven Eurodisco,” by Britannica. The genre persisted worldwide into the mainstream. Knuckles was inducted into Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
He became the first-ever DJ to win in the Remixer of the Year category at the 1998 Grammy Awards. All Music noted, “After more than 15 years spinning vinyl, Frankie Knuckles began recording as well, debuting with several singles released on the seminal Trax Records. Such efforts as ‘Your Love’ [and] ‘Baby Wants to Ride’ … were among the best tracks released in the Chicago house explosion of the mid-80s … He formed Def Mix Productions with David Morales and began working on house treatments for the biggest pop stars of the 80s and 90s, including Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan…” and many others.