From its origins as an underground movement in Chicago’s club scene to its modern-day success as a major, international genre, house music has come a long way. It’s a sound that’s evolved with technology, uprooted musical conventions, and has even contributed to political movements.
As with all significant genres, it has both influenced and been influenced by the music and the culture around it, and the genre’s fingerprints can now be found across a broad and often unexpected range of musical styles.
But today, we’re going back to the basics. How did house music find its foothold, and why is it so popular today?
The Early Days of House Music
Our story starts in the late ’70s. Disco had taken the world by storm, and advances in hardware and technology gave DJs more freedom than ever to explore their creativity. Across the board, the DJ art form was going through a period of massive growth and expansion, and while mainstream disco dominated the charts, the clubs were giving rise to a wealth of innovation.
And that’s the music landscape we find ourselves in when house first springs onto the scene. Born in the underground club culture of Chicago, house music saw African-American DJs like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles take to the scene, reinventing disco with a more industrial spin.
A Diverse Community of Voices
Major artistic movements are often born on the fringes of culture, where marginalized voices seek to express themselves outside of the mainstream context. Some would argue that this was what gave rise to disco in the first place, as LGBTQ+ communities sought a place in society where they could exist and enjoy themselves without needing to live up to the standards and scrutiny of straight culture.
Likewise, early house music was an incredibly intersectional movement. African-American, Latino and LGBTQ+ people found a place in the house music scene, resonating with its culture of positivity and acceptance.
Key to house music’s development were advances in audio technology. This is the most straightforward case where house is so directly descended from disco. Both genres are dependent on technology, and both have a strong culture of actively embracing technology and where it can contribute to the creative process.
Perhaps most noticeable is the genre’s iconic use of drum machines, lending it its more mechanical sound. However, technologies/techniques such as samplers and synths also spread with a memetic fervor as DJs sought to push the sound further and further. House music may have inherited the same instruments as disco, but they played a very different tune.
House Music in 2023
These days, the best way to understand house music is through its widespread influence on music and culture. From its countless subgenres (acid house, deep house, progressive house) to the many fusions (hip house, electro house), house music casts a long and influential shadow. House music might have started underground, but these days, it’s come to dominate mainstream pop music in its chart presence and its strong influence.
Meanwhile, as the cost of equipment has come down and the bar for entry has been democratized, more people than ever are bringing their creativity and personality to the genre. Creative DJs are still tinkering and looking for ways to show people a sound they’ve never heard before.
Ultimately, the spirit of house music is alive and well, whether it’s on the main stage at Tomorrowland, an underground club, or a teenager’s beat-up old laptop.