Acid House: Chicago

By Kris Needs

In 1986, while London’s clubs nodded to rare groove, Manchester’s Hacienda started Nude to let Mike Pickering spin the new house sounds coming from Chicago with ballistic consequences. The following year would see Rampling and Oakenfold start their own clubs embracing the new music but when the press got to it, warning bells went off that this could be another short lived fad. It wasn’t to be. The music that had started as a weekend party soundtrack for gay black crowds in Chicago had kick-started the biggest youth movement since punk rock.

Nobody had heard of house’s producers, just revelled in this rawer, machine-driven take on disco. The story seemed simple enough: Between 1977 and 1982, Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles built a happening scene spinning soul, disco and European electro-pop at a black gay club called The Warehouse (from which came the genre’s name) before moving to the Powerplant. This inspired budding producers to start making tracks using drum machines, analogue synths and primitive samplers, releasing it from the mid-’80s on two local labels called DJ International and Trax, or starting their own. The rest is history.

Ron Hardy was a drug-fuelled maniac who hotwired rabid crowds with pitched-up decks and reel-to-reel edits at senses-bombarding volume.

All true, but for years house music’s other main pioneer was overlooked. Ron Hardy took over the old Warehouse space from Knuckles, renaming it The Music Box. If Frankie was the smoother high profile Godfather of House, Hardy was a drug-fuelled maniac who hotwired rabid crowds with pitched-up decks and reel-to-reel edits at senses-bombarding volume, throwing in a wildly-diverse ghetto-Balearic selection traversing Philly soul, post-punk, Italo disco, even rock. Listening to recordings of Hardy twenty-five years ago, he’s pumping the hardest electronic house while shooting into space with audacious cuts and insane effects. Every one of the house originators I spoke to cited Hardy as an awesome figure who drove crowds through the roof with his sheer energy.

“Frankie wouldn’t be as experimental as Ron,” recalls Robert Owens. “That’s why a lot of people leaned towards Ron because they knew he would play the new stuff.” New producers like Marshall Jefferson, DJ Pierre and Larry Heard used Hardy as a yardstick to test new creations. Early house anthems which became guaranteed mayhem at the UK’s parties, like Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’ or Sleazy D’s ‘I’ve Lost Control’ first blew off the roof in Hardy’s hands. Sadly, a heroin addict, he was forced to quit The Music Box in 1986, dying of AIDS in 1992.

Allegedly the first house record was ‘On And On’ by Jesse Saunders, the first DJ to play house to straight crowds. Chicago’s first UK top ten hit came in August 1986 after Saunders and Hot Mix 5 DJ Farley Jackmaster Funk stuck a 909 kick under an old Isaac Hayes song like they’d seen Hardy do at The Music Box to make ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’. Amazingly, J.M. Silk’s ‘Jack Your Body’ hit the number one spot the following January with no radio play.

Then along came house’s noisy little brother. Music Box regular DJ Pierre started creating music with his mates on cheap, unfashionable analogue equipment like the Roland TB303. In 1991, Pierre told me the sound came out by accident when the batteries ran down, while Marshall Jefferson said he found it by turning the settings all the way up . They called the resulting squelch-fest ‘Into The Mind’ and gave a tape to Hardy, who played it relentlessly until the club was screaming. The tune was snapped up by Larry Sherman’s Trax Record to be released as ‘Acid Tracks’ by Phuture. Acid house was born, soon spawning UK answer tunes (especially when Maurice dropped ‘This Is Acid’ with its “Acieed” hook).

Larry Heard inadvertently started a chilled alternative when he started producing emotional tour-de-forces like ‘Can U Feel It’. When local DJ Robert Owens turned out to have an amazing voice, the pair formed Fingers Inc, creating classics like ‘Break Down The Walls’ and 1988’s seminal ‘Another Side’ album. Larry’s music, named ‘ambient’ house, was insidiously influential on New York’s deep house movement and in the UK, turning dancefloors into hugging masses while providing ultimate end-of-night tunes.

Lil Louis was an enigmatic talent who unleashed strange assaults like ‘Wargames’ before putting house music on its back with sex-epic ‘French Kiss’, which leapfrogged acid house to foreshadow European trance. Many more names appeared around this time, often to sink while the most talented climbed to greater heights, but Chicago had already done its part in changing the world.


You can visit to listen to and purchase a selection of the Acid House classics discussed in our retrospective.

Click here to visit JUNO.

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