There’s no mistaking the Year Zero quality of early Chicago house music from the mid-’80s. The product of youthful ambition, cheap gear, heady dance floors and a good dollop of camp (listen to The It’s “Donnie,” from 1986, if you don’t believe me), Chicago house sounded utterly alien in an era when R&B stars largely tried sounding like Prince or one of the Jacksons — Michael or Freddie — and “dance music” meant the clanging, cavernous mixes of Shep Pettibone and Arthur Baker, or the icy fantasias of Hi-NRG and British synth-pop. Reducing newfangled electronics to their absolute simplest and driest, early house worked on an unaccented, straight-four thump, an implicit bird-flip in the general direction of anyone who’d ever believed the phrase “disco sucks.”
Early Chicago house blossomed rather quickly once its basic format was in place — lots of inexpensive drum machines and synths, off-the-cuff vocals, and two-finger keyboard riffs, with feel mattering more than precision. But it too underwent an evolution, an early training ground that can now be heard for the first time on the new three-CD box set, 122 BPM: The Birth of House Music, which Still Music releases on July 9. Compiled by French-born Chicago DJ Jerome Derradji, 122 BPM chronicles the output of twin Chicago imprints Mitchbal Records and Chicago Connection, the former of which put out house records before Trax Records, long cemented as the preeminent Chicago house label (and thought of as having come first). At a moment when house music has become global pop’s lingua franca, it’s a major historical coup.
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