Kaytranada made history when he won the Best Dance/Electronic album at the 63rd Grammy awards this year for Bubba. His achievement was iconic because he was the first black and openly gay man to win this award. This historic win also highlighted how far removed electronic music has become from its minority origins.

“When I was making my last album, I was really inspired by early house DJs, because now when house DJs actually come up, it’s really those white DJs and people don’t think about Black DJs in the sense that play House music,” House DJ and music producer Kaytranada explained to comedian Jaboukie about the inspiration for his sophomore album, Bubba in his 2020 PAPER Pride cover story.

Later in the conversation, Jaboukie added: “Specifically when it comes to electronic music, I feel like there’s such a history of gay, Black, queer, trans people being involved in music. It’s interesting because I feel like you have a lineage,” As an openly gay Black man, Kayranada is definitely a descendant of the early ancestors of house.

Like rock’n’roll, electronic dance music (EDM) has also experienced whitewashing. Today, many EDM enthusiasts seem to think that electronic music and genres such as house, techno, dubstep, and many other sub-genres stemming from the universal need to dance were created by white European men in the early 90s. This couldn’t be further from the truth. They often fail to recognize the communities of color, in particular the black LGBTQIA+ community that created electronic music as we know it today. They also fail to recognize the foundation of almost all current electronic music today stems from house music.

The history of current electronic music, in particular, house music, can be traced back to the underground gay clubs of New York and Chicago. Although the exact origin is unclear, the go-to story is that the genre was named after “The Warehouse” nightclub in Chicago’s South Side. Record stores in the city would attract listeners by playing mixes and dance records “as played at The Warehouse”. That was soon colloquially shortened to “house music”.

The nightclub The Warehouse first opened its doors in 1977 in Chicago. It initially operated as a members-only club almost exclusively frequented by Black and Latino gay men. At the time, gay bars and clubs were the only safe spaces for queer folks, away from police who terrorized Chicago’s gay community.

Sonically, house music was born from the ashes of disco. By the early 80s, there was a “Disco Sucks”  movement, a backlash from the oversaturation of the genre. The “Disco Sucks” movement became anti-dance and therefore anti-gay. As a result, house music was born. It was a blend of disco classics, Euro-beat, and synthesized pop. It has now evolved into many genres and subgenres within electronic music and also influenced pop and hip-hop.

A trailblazer and famous for his early house mixes and amalgamation of recycled soul mixes is DJ Frankie Knuckles. Nicknamed the “Godfather of House”,  Knuckles was also openly gay. Other early innovators included Larry Levan and DJ Ron Hardy, who too were gay and involved in the drag scene.

These pioneers and others played a pivotal role in evolving disco into early house music. They explored creative ways to edit, mix and remix records using innovative techniques. This was due to a lack of DJ equipment. Many DJs didn’t have basic equipment such as a DJ mixer, headphones, or turntables with varying speeds. At this time, DJs often also played the roles of DJ, producer, composer, and remixer.

[Image Description: House pioneer, DJ Ron Hardy performing his set at The Musicbox] Via Red Bull Music Academy Daily
[Image Description: House pioneer, DJ Ron Hardy performing his set at The Music box.] Via Red Bull Music Academy Daily
The early 80s was a vital turning point for DJing and music production. Synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, and drum machines became cheaper and more accessible. DJs and music producers in Chicago delved deeper into dance music production and embraced these machines. DJs would loop basslines, add percussion layers, mix in effects, add vocals, and apply other remixing techniques to make music that people would dance to.

Record labels soon took notice of the rapid popularity of this underground genre. In particular, Chicago-based record label, Trax Records, would commercially release iconic dance tracks including Your Love by Frankie Knuckles, Can You Feel It by Larry Heard, and Move Your Body by Marshall Jefferson.

Around the mid-80s, distinct electronic genres and subgenres emerged. These included deep house and acid house. House music and urban club culture, influenced heavily by gay urban club culture, continued to cultivate these new house sounds in clubs in emerging regional hubs like Heaven in Detroit and The Saint in New York. These new regional hubs often merged their own styles of music with Chicago house. The Saint also helped usher in a new era of electronic music and light shows that would inspire much of the rave aesthetic that now become synonymous with today’s EDM scene.

At the same time, house music has spread internationally, becoming one of the most popular genres in Europe. The first major house success outside of the US is considered to be Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Jesse Saunders, which peaked at ten on the UK chars in 1986. A year later, Jack Your Body by Steve “Silk” Hurley reached number one on the same charts becoming the first house record to do so.

By 1998, Euro-house, particularly French, Italian, and  UK house explosion, was at its height. At this time, more global influences like broken-beat, Latin jazz, and Afro-house were infiltrating into Euro-house which was now considered the house hub of the world.

“The constant innovation and globality of house music led to the emergence of acid-house and in turn techno and all other electronic sub-genres. In the mix of it all, queer folk of color have somehow slipped out of the established narrative.” Author Luis Manuel-Garcia detailed in  An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture.

Despite its globality and its inspiration for dance, freedom, and acceptance, all of this started with the queer Black people in a small underground Chicago club. DJ-driven dance music may have long since outgrown its minority origins, but it is still essential that this history not be lost and Kaytranada’s Grammy win and many Black electronic DJs in this space are making sure of this.

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  • Unathi Nkhoma

    Unathi Nkhoma is a multi-skilled digital and social media practioner from Pretoria, South Africa. A recent Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) graduate, Unathi specialises in design, writing and audio is passionate about pop culture and its intersectionality with race and gender. In her spare time, Unathi spends her time watching way too many YouTube reaction videos.