The origins of house music can be traced back to a teen disco held at The Sheba Club on Chicago’s Southside in 1976. One of the guests, Jesse Saunders, was only 13, and had stumbled upon an exciting new sound.
"I remember them playing Spring Affair by Donna Summer. That song changed my whole idea of music," the Chicago DJ tells The National.
It was a sound that not only changed his concept of music, but one that sparked a passion that led to him becoming one of the pioneers of house music.
Saunders tells that story of disco, house and electronic dance music from the people who lived it, loved it and discovered it along the way in a new book called In Their Own Words that came out in June.
"[In 1976], that's when I started to pay attention to disco and dance music, and it was when I started doing pause button remixes,” he says.
Pause button remixes
As a teenager in the mid-1970s, Saunders didn't have access to digital editing or an easy way to alter the sequence of songs, so instead, he used the record and pause buttons to remix songs on cassette.
“By playing a record on my phonograph turntable, I could record up to the point where I wanted to change the direction of the music, or extend the part I liked by replaying the same part as many times as I wanted," he says. "I would accomplish this by stopping the record, lifting the needle and putting it before wherever I wanted to pickup the music.
"Once the music got to the place where I wanted the music to resume, I would release the "pause-button" thus starting the recording and repeating until I was satisfied with the result. The first record I remixed in this way was Boogie Nights by The Heatwave in 1976."
The pause button remixes gained traction on the Southside party scene, with Saunders playing them around his neighbourhood and at his high school. “It was truly a new experience and was the root of the DJ / Producer / Remixer era that overtook Chicago in the early 1980s.”
When Saunders turned 15, his stepbrother Wayne Williams got him into DJing. Wayne was a DJ and had a crew called The Chosen Few. Having previously mainly listened to rock music, Saunders started playing a lot of disco and funk, including James Brown, Parliament and The Heatwave.
Introduction to The Warehouse
When Saunders was 16, he started to play disco "pretty much all the time" at parties in apartment buildings, schools and gyms. In the summer of 1978, his remixes of Get Off by Foxy and One Nation Under A Groove by Funkadelic debuted to a packed house at The Burning Spear Supper club on the Southside.
Meanwhile, Frankie Knuckles, who in the '70s was building up a reputation DJing at venues across New York with Larry Levan, had just moved to Chicago to play at The Warehouse nightclub. The venue is often referred to as "the birthplace of house music".
Saunders first visited The Warehouse when he was 16, after being told about it by his stepbrother. “The club was very narrow, it probably was only mainly 20 maybe 30-foot wide, but it was really long. They had all these big seven-foot sub woofers all along the wall … The sound was crazy, you could feel it through your body and that was the first time I'd heard anything like that.”
After being bowled away playing in nightclubs and even opening his own in 1982, called by The Warehouse, when he was 19, Saunders invested in a nightclub called The Playground. Playing a criss-cross of different styles – from nu wave and reggae to disco to Italo-disco – he made drum tracks to segue between records of different tempos. One of these segues, made on an 808-drum machine, was what formed the first few minutes of Saunders' first song On & On, which on its release in 1984 became what is thought to be the first house record sold to the public.
The Chicago DJ's friend Vince Lawrence was the key catalyst to releasing it. The pair had met on the party circuit and Lawrence's father, Nemiah Mitchell Jr, owned a label called Mitchbal Records. Lawrence had made a record after his high school graduation called Fast Cars, which had a new-wave sound.
"I knew he had made a record, so when I described what I wanted to do with my version of On & On, he was the first person I sought out because I knew he could get it done," Saunders says.
Lawrence came down to The Playground one evening to talk to Saunders about the planned record, before introducing him to Larry Sherman, who would help distribute the release.
On & On was inspired by the B side of a bootleg record, which was a tape edit of Munich Machine's Get On The Funk Train, Donna Summer's Bad Girls, Lipps Inc.'s Funky Town, and Playback's Space Invaders.
"Everyone was playing the A side, then I flipped it over and listened to this B side tape edit that was known as On & On by Mach - as no one else knew what it was, I started using it as my theme song during my sets. One day, my records got stolen at The Playground and that was one of them so I decided to make my own."
Despite losing a sizeable chunk of his record collection, Saunders remade the song using his own beat tracks and playing the song’s bassline on a Korg Poly 61, adding other synthetic sounds. He and Laurence recorded it along with the vocals on a Tascam 4 track cassette recorder.
The release was a roaring success and Saunders continued to release songs such as Funk U Up and Real Love on Jes Say Records. Ten months later, Saunders and Sherman founded a new label, called Trax, where they sold thousands more records. House music quickly spread beyond Chicago, following extensive radio play and broadcaster coverage on the genre from ABC News to Billboard.
The term “house” music was shortened from “Warehouse”, to describe music that was played at the legendary club. Saunders says that this was something of a misnomer as Chicago house music was never played there – instead it was disco and other dance music. The venue closed before the likes of Saunders, J.M. Silk, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Jamie Principle made some of the first house tracks.
“There was probably a period of at least a year or so that kind of people started to take notice of that different type of sound. Record stores were trying to put up the house label trying to define this music heard at the Warehouse, this is where you can buy it and this is what it is.”
"As I released On & On, you still had that going on, but what it did was push the envelope in a different direction because what I was doing and what they were accustomed to - they were talking about music being played at the Warehouse - were completely different.
“Mine was pure electronic, it was pulsating, the beats were harder, the sounds were more eclectic so that term started to latch on to that sound as we released more records on my label Jes Say as we started tracks, as Precision [Sherman’s label] came out, as Dancemania [Saunders’ label] started that as well.”
But this year has been a struggle for the music industry, which has been heavily hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of events and festivals cancelled due to social distancing restrictions.
Saunders, who puts on a yearly dance music festival with The Chosen Few DJs, had to hold the event virtually in July.
Although he acknowledges that the pandemic will be tough for dance venues, Saunders says there are some positive aspects.
“Things are going to change completely, for everybody across the board. The good thing about it for me is that the problem was the clubs, venues and promoters anyway.
“It took the music in a completely different direction than it should have done. It became a business. I'm not against business but the business should pay homage to the music, it shouldn't take the music and turn it into something else.”
For Saunders, nightclubs now focus more on image, the latest fashions and how many drinks you are buying, with music often no longer taking a central role.
“Clubs were meant to be places you were have this great music, you could dance your cares away, you could meet like-minded people and you can just dance until daylight.”
Following the pandemic, nightclubs are going to have to go “back to basics” in an industry-wide reset as they won’t be able to over-charge for some time, he says.
“House music is music that you dance to - it's not anything else. It's the pure, un-adulterated, the pound of the beat through your soul and it makes you want to dance. That's what it needs to get back to and that's what it will get back to if it's going to happen again.