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One of Chicago’s premier DJs, Sean Alvarez has spent more than 25 years cultivating his sound and style.
After its demise, disco’s energy morphed into a global groove that’s still thumping.
Chicago. July 12, 1979. A rock DJ and anti-disco poster boy hosted “Disco Demolition” at Comiskey Park. The kitschy promotion was designed to capitalize on intense disco backlash from hardcore rock fans—and that it did. The night climaxed with a crate of disco records blown up in the middle of the ballpark and thousands of angry rock fans storming the field before being dispersed by riot police.
The infamous event multiplied disco animus nationally, and soon, the genre had all but disappeared from American pop culture. By the early 1980s, a new kind of electronic dance music was emerging. Cultivated in Black, Latin and LGBT spaces in Chicago—the same city that killed disco—house music was disco’s revenge.
“The vibration of the music, the tempo, the repetitive 4:4 pulse of the beat—it’s all very easy to get sucked into,” said Sean Alvarez, a Chicago native and DJ who spins house. “I was 12 or 13 the first time I heard house at a friend’s birthday party. We were too young to go to clubs, so we would listen to mixes on the radio. They would play these loops of songs blending together—one into the other. It was soulful. It resonated with my spirit.”
“Spiritual” is an apt way to describe the vibe at The Warehouse. One of Chicago’s most legendary nightspots, it was there that DJ Frankie Knuckles laid the foundation for what would later be known as “house”—short for music played at The Warehouse. Knuckles would overlay disco classics with sporadic drum machine pulses, and that marriage defined early house. Soon, local producers were mimicking Knuckles’ high-energy sound, and in 1984, the first official house music recording made its debut in Chicago record shops.
But house music’s slow burn in Chicago was about to get exported to the United Kingdom—and explode into a full-on blaze. In 1987, a group of Chicago house stalwarts, including DJ Frankie Knuckles, toured England for the DJ International label. They helped to introduce Europe to the deep basslines and electronic squelching of acid house.
“They would play these loops of songs blending together—one into the other. It was soulful. It resonated with my spirit.”
By 1989, acid house raves were popping up across the United Kingdom, and Margaret Thatcher felt compelled to stunt what she purported to be a dangerous, drug-fueled youth counterculture. In reality, her actual gripe with raves was the noise they produced. And others have speculated that the oneness of house parties—which united young people across gender, racial and sexual orientation lines under the same electronic groove—was what threatened the U.K.’s elite.
Back in the U.S., house wasn’t exactly ruling the charts in the ’90s, but elements of it began creeping into the work of major pop artists. A certain material girl launched the decade with a moody house track that came with its own pose-oriented dance style. And the gloved one’s baby sister delivered a rave-ready performance on “Saturday Night Live” in 1994, pulling back the curtains on house culture even more.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that electronic music became a steady, mainstream fixture. Rebranded EDM, the music’s new moniker is an attempt by the industry to distance itself from the music’s rave-y connotations. And now, everyone’s at the party. Top acts in pop, like Britney Spears, and R&B have dipped their toes in the EDM waters—and have hooked huge hits, like “Hold It Against Me,” in the process. And while there’s a bit of a disconnect between the originators of electronic music and its current purveyors, Chicago’s rap royalty remembers its roots, as a 1985 house classic served as the musical foundation for an award-winning 2016 smash.
As far as people thinking that house and electronic music were born in Europe, people look at what’s taking place now in the culture,” Alvarez said. “It’s who’s writing the story now and who’s reading the story now. That’s what people look at. That’s what matters today in terms of the perception of things.”
And a new perception has everything to do with electronic music’s omnipresence. From serving as the soundtrack of an inclusive youth subculture in the ’80s to its current place atop the pop charts, its rhythm and energy will always move the masses.