The house that Chicago built
In 1986 I went to Chicago to report on the new dance records coming out of the city, a stripped-down repetitive dance beat they were calling house music. Like all emerging scenes, I got the impression at the time that many of the main players — and especially their label, DJ International — were making it up as they went along. The label was frantically signing anything tht moved, including their own lawyer, a portly middle-aged white man they were trying to rebrand as a rapper.
But there clearly was something happening in the city: a mash-up of disco, underground gay clubs, cheap new synthesizers and samplers, and the kind of joy and energy, inspiration and enthusiasm you always see when a new scene is rising to its peak.
I went to a studio where a young post office worker by the name of Marshall Jefferson was reworking what was later to become a classic early track, The House Music Anthem. I met Joe Smooth, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Jesse Saunders — artists that would soon be in the charts globally, but then just jostling to be noticed.
Most of all I met Frankie Knuckles, a New Yorker who moved to Chicago to open an underground gay club, The Warehouse and inadvertently started a movement around the rhythms he played there, which locals started calling ‘House music. Frankie took me to my first real house club, The Music Box, where Ron Hardy played a raw, frenetic set that was one of the most exciting things I’d ever heard.
By the time my story came out in The Face magazine, the music was already taking off, its rhythms and DIY ethic quickly adopted by British youths who had picked up the same cheap tech and were starting to create dance tracks of their own. The music got tangled with the sounds Frankie’s childhood friend Larry Levan was playing at the Paradise Garage, with the techno tracks made by a close-knit group of friends in Detroit who loved Kraftwerk and were going out clubbing in NY and Chicago, and then it splintered into a million mutations via Ibiza and Berlin, Manchester and Sheffield, underground clubs and huge outdoor raves and festivals all over the world.
And now of course all of this is history.
And a culture that has been celebrated in yet another major exhibition in the UK. Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers is at London’s Design Museum till 14 February 2021.
If I’m honest, the show was fun, but it also felt a bit random, disjointed and arbitrary. And slightly surreal as we all moved around an exhibition celebrating the togetherness of clubs while wearing masks and keeping two metres apart from other visitors.
For me it also felt weird seeing my friends on the walls (Frankie Knuckles was amongst them, of course). Flyers from clubs I’d been to many times, displayed in glass cases. Issues of The Face magazine with cover lines I wrote in the 90s hanging on the walls as artifacts. A battered smiley-face riot shield made by Jimmy Cauty of the KLF, and costumes from one of the Chemical Brothers’ brilliant live shows.
Still, walking through it, you might think that we had a plan, that we all knew what we were doing. That the technology, the clubs, the music, the fashions and the art all unfolded in logical progression.
But that’s not how it really happened.
The truth is far more random. It was young Germans in the 1970s rejecting the weight of their recent history and using electronic instruments to make something that felt new and theirs. (Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream.) And then Detroit lubbers discovering that.
It was Black and Hispanic gay men shunned from mainstream clubs and society, creating spaces where they could dance and be free. Or later, kids in their bedrooms messing with a £50 synthesiser they didn’t know how to use properly, and bashing out a dance track.
It was dance acts and DJs trying to create something new and visually exciting for their live shows. Then artists, film-makers, graphic and fashion designers inspired by the energy of the music and the clubs, and incorporating that into their work. And it was daft ideas we had while coming down from our club highs, then somehow managed to turn into reality.
Eventually all of this meshed together into something bigger than any of the individuals involved could have imagined, because that’s how culture works. It’s people, making it up as they go along, blundering into each other and quietly influencing each other, moving from the margins into the mainstream and back again.
Club culture thrives when times are tough, when people need an escape and need to be together. And we’ve never needed that more than we do now. So how do you start making something similarly fresh and new?
Start small, and learn as you go.
Make some music.
Make a magazine.
Or some art.
Design a T-shirt. Or a stage costume.
A flyer. Or a website.
Take some photographs.
Write some stories.
Put on a party.
Make a film.
This is how to create a culture.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find your tribe. Other people to collaborate and compete with, react against, go out and party with. They’ll show you things you’ll incorporate into your work. They’ll sample your ideas and turn them into things you hadn’t imagined.
Whatever the result, you’ll have a brilliant time. And maybe, when you’re older, you’ll see it all on the walls of a museum, and see younger people passing through, looking for ideas they can repurpose into something new.
This is how culture is created. And at some point soon, when we no longer need masks and social distancing, this is how it will return.
Sheryl Garratt’s book about the 80s and 90s club explosion, Adventures In Wonderland, is available on Amazon. She is now also a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want her free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.