“It Was Freedom….It Was Our Church” …. And House Music Then Changed The World
Robin S: ‘People say your song saved my life’
Robin S is the vocalist on the early 1990s house anthem Show Me Love, which Beyoncé interpolated on her single Break My Soul.
At that point it didn’t matter what the song did or didn’t mean to me. I knew the song was bigger than who I am. I’m the messenger and I had to give the message in the best way I can.
I love the people that I perform in front of. There’s generations! It’s not only people my age, there are kids aged five and they’re mouthing the entire song. That’s powerful. I’m just really thankful and grateful.
Beyonce’s Break My Soul is a wonderful homage. Mostly, when people want to pay tribute to your songs, you’re no longer on this earth, you’re gone. I’m thankful that I got my flowers while I’m still alive.
In fact, Beyoncé sent me some real flowers – white roses, and all kinds of other white flowers. The message in the card was beautiful too, about being an inspiration. I don’t know if you can get better than that? Well, maybe being onstage with her, but that’s her decision. Still, never say never?
Jesse Saunders: ‘House music offered a safe space for Black and gay people’
The DJ and producer is widely credited with creating the first commercially released house record, On And On, in 1984. He also produced Love Can’t Turn Around with Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk
It’s interesting when people talk about a sudden, renewed interest in house, because millions of people all over the world enjoy house, and have for a long time!
A friend sent me Drake’s album and I was like “Why? I don’t listen to Drake.” My initial reaction to that record was not very good, but I got into the later tracks a little more, they’re really well produced.
Then I heard Beyoncé’s track. It’s nice that she’s trying to do something in that genre.
Some people were being quite critical, but I see myself as more of an ambassador. One of the things I’ve always tried to stress is that house music offered a safe place for Blacks, gays and people who were different. We are tolerant and we must remain tolerant. Everyone is welcome in our house – we’re not going to kick Beyoncé out for trying to do something that we love so much. That’s the whole idea of what house music is; it’s love and understanding. That’s the theme of every house record with a vocal on it.
Chicago was pretty segregated back then. New York people mixed and mingled, Chicago people didn’t so much. The Playground [the early Chicago house club Saunders ran] was one of the first places in the city where you’d get straight kids, the gay crowd, all these people came together in one place, and it was really interesting.
That said, most of our crowd were straight kids from well-to-do families. And house music was a Black thing. It’s really weird that people come up to me who say “I didn’t know Black people like house music” because that’s how it began.
When I made the first house record [On and On], I was really trying to replace a record stolen from me at the Playground. I have no idea who stole my records.
The record I really missed [Funky Mix/On And On by MACH] became my signature record. When it went missing, I made my own version. I think that was the spark that lit the fire. People would say: “Hey, Jesse is a DJ and he made a record; I’m a DJ, maybe I can make a record.”
A couple of years later, when Love Can’t Turn Around [with Farley “Jackmaster” Funk] came out, we did a 16-date tour of the UK. It was incredible. We played the London Hippodrome, and to a huge crowd on Barry Island in Wales, which reminded me of Woodstock or something. I had never been to the UK before, and seeing the enthusiasm was great. I wish I could go back to that time.
The best thing about house in the early days was when people finally got it, when they realised they didn’t have to listen to the radio and commercial music any more.
Byron Stingily: ‘House music broke down barriers’
Byron Stingily is a singer-songwriter and lead vocalist in the seminal Chicago house group Ten City
I played in a lot of new wave bands; we liked Yazoo, and people were trying to dress up like A Flock of Seagulls. It was a fun time to be a teenager.
I remember Jesse Saunders said: “You’re always playing in bands, you can sing – we need to take this house music to the next level.”
At the time, I loved the music, but I thought club music was faceless. It didn’t offer me the potential to reach the masses with a big hit.
However, I was also working at a record distributor and I could see we shipped house records to Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. I started to realise those places had a scene. Then stores in England such as [the London record shop] Black Market would call and ask for Chicago records, and we started to move a lot of records to the UK.
Then two records, Love Can’t Turn Around and Jack Your Body, went top 10 in England; then it was like: “OK, we’ve got something here.”
In May 1987, I went to New York with Marshall Jefferson when he performed Move Your Body at the Paradise Garage. The crowd went completely insane. We were leaving, and we heard Move Your Body on the radio in New York – not even in the mix, on regular radio. I said, “Let’s call up major labels, this could be something really big.” In the end we got a deal for me and CeCe Rogers and I didn’t even have a demo. Atlantic Records said they’d sign the next record we did, and the next record we did was Devotion.
Marshall wanted to call the group Intensity, but I thought that was corny. I said, “Let’s take the ‘in’ off, and call it Ten City … and it’s going to be this perfect city, where everyone comes together in love and harmony.”
You see, Chicago is perhaps the most segregated city in the world. I grew up in a Black neighbourhood; all you saw was Black people. But Chicago has an Italian neighbourhood, a Lithuanian neighbourhood, an Indian neighbourhood, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican neighbourhood.
But when you went to a house club you saw everyone. House music broke down a lot of barriers.
I think if Drake and Beyoncé are making house, this is going to make the music more popular with the kids. So maybe Migos or Cardi B might say: “I want to do a house record.” Then, for someone like me, who has hundreds of songs published, it might increase the value of my catalogue.
Ultra Naté: ‘It was escapism’
Ultra Naté is a singer-songwriter and DJ who in 1997 scored a UK top five and Billboard Hot Dance Club number one with Free. This July, she performed at the Women’s Euro 2022 final at Wembley
Marshall Jefferson: ‘None of the gangsters would come to house music parties’
The legendary Chicago house producer created one of house music’s most influential records, Move Your Body. He tours the world today as a DJ
The first time I remember hearing house music was at the Music Box in Chicago [in the early 1980s]. The Music Box was like being in a totally different world. It was heaven for me.
‘House’ music at that time meant stuff from Philadelphia, New York, even Italian stuff. There was a lot of European influences. Everything was played on the one dancefloor. The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams was huge. I even remember The Look Of Love by ABC being played by Ron Hardy.
In the beginning it was Black music [being played], but a lot of new wave too. You’d have 5,000 Black kids on the dancefloor dancing to Rock Lobster by the B-52s and music by Liaisons Dangereuses [the avant-garde German electronic act]. The weirder, the better, because the purpose of house music at that time was to keep the gangsters out of the clubs. We found out early on that if we said it was a house music party, none of the gangsters would come because they thought it was a gay party, as Frankie Knuckles DJed at the Warehouse – and that was a gay club.
When Jesse Saunders came out and made On and On, everybody said: “I can make a record, too.” That was the thing that set me off. I was working at the post office, so I could afford equipment. There was a music store called the Guitar Center in Chicago. The salesman there told me: “This is a Yamaha QX-1. With this, you can play keyboards like Stevie Wonder, even if you don’t know how to play.” I said: “Wow!” They gave me a $10,000 credit line. When I took all this equipment home, my friends were laughing at me. But I wrote my first song two days after, and a year and a half later I put Move Your Body out – and DJs soon began hiring keyboard players to play piano like Marshall Jefferson.
I just wish there weren’t remixes. That cheapened the music and led to major artists getting it all on the cheap. I’m working on an album now but I’m under pressure to let other people remix it, which takes 70% of the soul out of the record. The reason why I’m against it is that if a white person does it, they can do the exact same music as what I’m doing now and people say: “Hey, that’s cool. That’s old school.” But when I do it? “Nah, you gotta update that.” I could make an album exactly like Daft Punk and it wouldn’t get played. They’d say: “It’s not hip.” It’s really frustrating. There’s a lot of pressure to sound like people that are copying off me – badly.
I’ve got no problem with people like Drake and Beyoncé making house records because every time somebody does something like that, it eventually comes around to people like me – the experts. A lot more high-profile artists are now reaching out. You want to get it done right? You want it authentic? See me.