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How the USA fell for EDM, chapter one

In these excerpts from his lively and meticulous new book, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, longtime Reader contributor Michaelangelo Matos chronicles the three-decade ascent of EDM.



On July 5, 2013, people living in many north-side lakefront apartments and condos had their gorgeous Friday afternoon disrupted by pounding bass that made their floors quake and their windows rattle. Throughout their neighborhood, thousands of people, most young and many in beachwear, thronged the sidewalks and streets. The offending party was the Wavefront Music Festival, an electronic-­music blowout on Montrose Beach, and the annoyances persisted till late Sunday. The fest had debuted the previous year without causing much trouble, but for 2013 it grew from two days to three and got much bigger and louder—it used such powerful subwoofers that people in Rogers Park claimed to be able to hear them. Due to complaints about noise and crowd control from local residents and aldermen, the park district pulled the plug on the 2014 edition of the beat-heavy bacchanal, and it doesn't look like it's returning this year.

Wavefront and its fate speak directly to the topic of Michaelangelo Matos's new book, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, published April 28 by HarperCollins imprint Dey Street. Matos has been working on this monumental 443-page history since 2011—he put in two years of full-time work, conducted more than 300 firsthand interviews, and drew upon a huge trove of research material, including the archives of six stateside mailing lists and dozens of zines. The book follows the evolution of American electronic dance music from its artsy DIY origins in Chicago clubs and Detroit warehouses all the way to today's heavily sponsored megafestivals, which make the reverberations of EDM (and its culture) felt all over the country, both symbolically and literally.

Matos has been writing about music, in the pages of the Reader as well as in virtually every music publication on earth, for nearly 20 years. His impressive work ethic is matched if not exceeded by his voraciousness as a listener—not only has he built an extensive knowledge of popular-music history that encompasses a wide range of genres, he also absorbs (and writes about) more online DJ mixes than anyone else I know. Matos is well-versed in pop criticism too—in interviews with fellow critics Rob Sheffield and Chuck Eddy, he's put a clever spin on the "invisible jukebox" conceit, reading a snippet of another author's writing (usually but not always about music) and asking his subjects to guess its source.

If Matos could be said to have a specialty, though, it'd definitely be electronic music. One of his earliest pieces for the Reader is a 1998 essay about obscure dance sub­genre speed garage; his most recent, which is among the paper's most widely read music stories of the past few years, is a lengthy history of Chicago house music in the 90s.

In the following excerpts from The Underground Is Massive, Matos goes further back in time, to the birth of Chicago house at the Power Plant and the Warehouse. In a co­incidence with incalculable consequences for popular music, a young Derrick May visited Chicago from Detroit in 1983 and happened to check out Frankie Knuckles at the Power Plant. Knuckles inspired May and his friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson; the trio's Kraftwerk-­informed interpretations of house eventually birthed Detroit techno. In this first chapter and throughout The Underground Is Massive, Matos illustrates how happenstance, imagination, and determination dovetailed in small communities of artists, who pushed EDM into new places both stylistically and geographically. Its 18 chapters, each named after a party that changed the music's course, tell the story of how the pumping low end of a house mix at the Warehouse in the early 80s ended up shaking north-side lakefront apartments 30 years later. Tal Rosenberg

"Don't do it!"

Juan Atkins was beside himself. Twenty-­one years old in 1983 and already a recording artist, as half of an electro-funk duo called Cybotron, Atkins was still struggling to make it beyond his hometown of Detroit. He'd had a great idea—take what Kraftwerk, the German synth-pop group, was doing, but make it funky. Not just funky the way he knew them to be—a group whose 1977 album Trans-Europe Express could keep a dance floor going—but funky in a way that the rest of the world could hear.

Atkins was a DJ, and so was his best friend Derrick May—two years younger, brash and forthright where Juan was bookish and reserved. Together, they'd founded a mobile DJ company called Deep Space Soundworks. Juan named it and set its course. Deep Space, as its name implied, wasn't content to play the big R&B hits of the day. Atkins was a seeker, enamored of new technology. His Kraftwerk fandom attested to that.

So did his secret weapon—a Roland TR-909 drum machine Atkins played underneath the records he was spinning, to keep the groove going and goose it. That way you stood out in a crowded field—and the DJ teams of suburban Detroit's high school party scene were fiercely competitive. There was a bustling trade in invitational events for several hundred, mostly posh African American kids who took style cues from Paul Schrader's 1980 film American Gigolo. "It was so organized, so professional, you wouldn't believe it," says May.

But May was still unready for what he'd hear while visiting his mom in Chicago. Shopping for records in the Loop at Importes Etc., one rack there caught his attention. It was filled with older hits from the Philadelphia International and Salsoul labels, synth-heavy Italian imports, and British twelve-inches like Bo Kool's "Money (No Love)" backed with T. W. Funkmasters' "Love Money." The section bore an unusual header: "House Music."

May was impressed by the selection and puzzled by the jargon—not to mention the names. "They were saying: 'This one is Frankie's big record of the moment; Ronnie is really playing this lots; Farley is playing this one.' I didn't have any idea who these people were. But I would soon learn that Frankie was Frankie Knuckles and Ronnie was Ronnie Hardy and Farley was Farley Keith. I wanted to find out more: 'Where does Frankie play this music?' 'At the Power Plant, of course.'"

Located at 2210 South Michigan Avenue, the Power Plant—so named for the transmitters standing visible from the club's entrance—was Frankie Knuckles's second DJ home; the first had been the Warehouse, also in the Loop, and the source of the name "house music." Ron Hardy, of the Muzic Box on the north side, and "Funkin'" Farley Keith, of WBMX-FM, were the other key disseminators of the sound Importes was pushing, but Knuckles had created the blueprint.

  • Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
  • Frankie Knuckles, circa 1988

That night, May went to the Power Plant for the first time—"I didn't go with a group of people; I was always alone, man"—and promptly had his skull peeled back. The Detroit teen parties were professional, but this was church. The crowd—largely underage, mostly gay and black—moved harder than the kids May was spinning for, and Knuckles played louder, freer, more powerfully. He was sweet and easygoing, but he had a corporal's command over the crowd. After a couple of visits, May saw an angle. He had a second TR-909, he needed cash, and he'd heard from Importes manager Craig Loftis that Knuckles wanted a drum machine: Game, set, match. When May told him his plan, Atkins panicked. "Juan begged me not to. Nobody had a 909 yet."

The previous summer, Atkins had taken boxes of the first two Cybotron singles, 1981's "Alleys of Your Mind" and 1982's "Cosmic Cars," to New York. In Detroit, he could just hand the singles to local DJs and they'd play them. Out east, the game was a lot tougher. On his final day in the city, he turned on the radio and heard Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock"—a rap song set to replayed chunks of Kraftwerk's "Numbers" and "Trans-Europe Express." "The station was like, 'We got it first, nyah, nyah!'" Atkins told journalist Dan Sicko. Juan returned home, deflated. He may have told May, "Don't do it," but he could have been saying: Not again.

Worse, his carless friend had arranged a driver for the five-hour journey to Chicago: Juan's baby brother, Marcellus. That night, a furious Atkins went to see May's roommate, Eddie Fowlkes, another member of the Deep Space crew. "You know what this motherfucker did?" Atkins fumed. "Derrick went and gave away the fucking sound!"

[. . . ]

Just as the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" had done in New York in 1979, the 1984 issue of "On and On" in Chicago sired an explosion—the first for black music in the city since the early-seventies heyday of Curtis Mayfield and the Chi-Lites. Labels and producers popped up like baseballs at a riot-free double-header.

In August 1985, Marshall Jefferson cut a demo called "Move Your Body." In defiance of Larry Sherman, who scoffed that house music didn't have piano lines, Marshall nicknamed the song "The House Music Anthem," putting the word right at the top of every piano-­driven line: "Gotta have HOUSE! Music! All night long!" The record sounded like a pop song. "When I first took it to Ron Hardy, he played it six times in a row," says Jefferson. "He told me not to take it to anybody else—he wanted an exclusive on it. I said sure. I didn't care, because I didn't want it out because it wasn't released yet." It soon spread around the city, on tapes traded by the faithful.

Hardy got another tape, brought in by a third party, from a shut-in bedroom singer-­songwriter named Byron Walford, whose demos were recorded under the alias Jamie Principle. "He pretty much fashioned everything he was doing at that time around Prince," Knuckles said. "He was a real big Prince fan, hence the name Jamie Prince-­iple." Not to mention Prince's own early alias, as writer-producer for the Time, Vanity 6, and Sheila E.: Jamie Starr.

Principle's songs quickly became Muzic Box staples, but when he wanted a producer, he went to Knuckles. In 1983, Salsoul released Frankie's warhorse re-edit of First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder," but he had no real studio experience—or studio; they made their first recording, the smeared-ethereal "Your Love," in the Power Plant's DJ booth. Their first actual release was "Waiting on My Angel," on the tiny imprint Persona; Jesse Saunders promptly and unflatteringly covered it note-for-note on Larry Sherman's Precision.

The difference between Knuckles's and Hardy's spinning styles was also manifest in their production work: Frankie the disco perfectionist versus Ronnie the wild man. Hardy's remix of 1986's "Donnie," produced by Chip E. as The It, sounds like an accident, partly because it was—Robert Owens's strained, hypnotic wail came from him teaching Harri Dennis the hook, which Hardy mixed in.

Off-key vocals and one-take production gave early Chicago house a feverish feel. Few styles were as frankly sleazy, as with Adonis's maniacally repetitive "No Way Back" or Hercules's "7 Ways to Jack," with its reptilian porno vocals: "Number six: Physically touch the body in front of you—in every way imaginable / Number seven: Lose complete mental control and begin . . . to . . . jack." Knuckles and Principle's greatest record, 1987's "Baby Wants to Ride," is one of the all-time great Prince rip-offs: lyrics via Dirty Mind ("When I go to bed at night / I think of you with all my might"), synth skid via Controversy.

The studio of choice for much of this output was Chicago Trax on Halsted Street—no relation to Trax Records. (Wax Trax! Records is no relation to either—it can be confusing.) Chicago Trax's Studio B was in constant use by the city's fledgling producers; Studio A was block-booked for a year by Ministry, whose leader Al Jourgensen was then in the first throes of serious rock-star debauchery; Vince Lawrence and Screamin' Rachael were frequent guests. Chicago Trax became the place to go after Steve "Silk" Hurley and Keith Nunnally, who recorded as J.M. Silk, made "Music Is the Key" there. It was one of the most polished house records yet; even the goofy rap ("Music is the KEY! To set yourself FREE!") is fully integrated into the song.

The Chicago house recording made in 1985 with the biggest impact wasn't a song at all. One day, DJ Pierre (Nathaniel Pierre Jones), his cousin Earl "Spanky" Smith, and their friend Herbert Jackson—the trio Phuture—created "Acid Tracks" by accident. Spanky had picked up a Roland TB-303, the single-­octave bass synth Jesse Saunders made "On and On" with, for forty dollars. Knobs controlled cutoff frequency, resonance, envelope modulation, decay, and accent—to tune the sound till it sounded right. But nobody could program the damn thing.

Instead, Pierre began turning the knobs to undulate the pitch. It sounded crazy—pure machine music with an obviously human touch, constantly warping. "I approached everything like Ron Hardy playing in the Muzic Box, thinking about how that crowd would react to it," says Pierre. Hardy asked for a copy immediately after hearing it the first time, playing it over and over till the crowd got it, about 4 a.m.—literally jumping off the walls. The original title was "In Your Mind," but when people started trading micro­cassettes of bootleg recordings of the track, it became known as "Ron Hardy's Acid Track." Originally 127 beats per minute, it dropped to 120 when Marshall Jefferson, who produced the finished record, told them, "This is too fast for New York."

"Acid Tracks" remains one of the oddest "hit" singles ever made: Twelve minutes of a machine eating its own wires, the 303 gibbering away over drum machine, hand claps, and referee's whistle. The flipside was a heartfelt, and scary, antidrug monologue called "Your Only Friend," which began, "This is cocaine speaking." In 1987, Spanky watched as a clutch of Chicago drug dealers waved wads of dollar bills while the track played at a local club, hooting: "This is our song!" He was horrified. "It was never our intention for it to be linked to drugs," Spanky told The Wire. "We thought of acid rock because it had the same sort of changing frequencies."

[. . . ]

Kevin and Derrick also took after Juan by starting their own labels—KMS for Saunderson (his middle name is Maurice), Transmat for May. This was a crucial difference between the two cities. Detroit was DIY by necessity and historical tradition: Motown still loomed over everything. But though plenty of smaller, black-owned house imprints popped up in Chicago—notably, Chicago Connection, a subdivision of Mitchbal; Dance Mania, another Saunders imprint; and producer Mark Imperial's House Nation—the big guns belonged to Chi-caaah-go's music-biz old-boy network, ready to cash in on the craze.

Rocky Jones had been the head of a record pool before starting D.J. International in 1985, starting with Chip E.'s "Like This," a huge bite of "Moody" by New York post-punks ESG—a Frankie Knuckles staple. In 1986, Jones signed D.J. International's lawyer, Jay B. Ross, to the label as the Rapping Lawyer. "Only in America could an attorney sell himself via 'Sue the Bastards' T-shirts with his name and number on the back," Sheryl Garratt noted in The Face.

Larry Sherman was so cheap he pressed records on recycled vinyl—center label and all. "There was this huge boiler, about as big as a room," says Screamin' Rachael. "You know how people complain about Trax records having pieces of cardboard in them? That's why." In addition to repurposing unwanted LPs ("We ground up a bunch of Thrillers," she says), they also reused the cardboard jackets, with old label insignias, of bigger indies like Tuff City and King Street. Trax Records—nothing but class.

Lewis Pitzele was a Chicago concert promoter who owned a local clothing chain called House of Lewis. "He was like P.T. Barnum," says Screamin' Rachael. "He was larger than life. Once he stopped an ambulance because Jerry Lee Lewis would not go on stage without towels. So Lewis pulled a stack from an ambulance." Pitzele knew there was money to be made overseas. He'd begun hearing rumors that people liked house music in England.

So had Marshall Jefferson, who received a call in 1985 from London record-shop clerk Michael Schiniou, a.k.a. pirate radio DJ Jazzy M. Jefferson, and sent the Englishman some cassettes. He didn't include "Move Your Body." He didn't have to. Schiniou had gotten a copy from Alfredo Fiorito, a.k.a. DJ Alfredo, an Argentinian DJ living on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, who'd gotten his copy from Larry Levan in New York. On cassette mixtapes going hand to hand, house music was becoming international. But no one in her right mind could have predicted what would happen in 1987.  v

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