The Black Ass History of House Music

Written by Segen Assefa

Contrary to current thinking, the history of house and techno music is overwhelmingly Black. This capstone was written in collaboration with three members of the house music scene, who have offered their lived experiences and personal anecdotes to help us better understand the true history and culture of the genre, and how marginalized identities in the creative industry suffer through lack of widespread historical knowledge.

*** When you think of house music now, it’s easy to imagine gangly white men in costumes standing on the back end of a turntable, swaying a crowd of white, sweaty bodies. Thanks to many mainstream techno, electronic, and house music festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Veld, the poster children for the genre appear to be white women in flower crowns and beaded bracelets. The origins of house music have become overwhelmingly watered down not only due to the genre’s present-day predominate whiteness, but also because of practices and policies among clubs, venues, and by promoters coded with inherent racism.  

Unsurprisingly, the whitewashing of Black aesthetics is not a trend limited to recent years. Like other forms of cultural erasure, it has not been outwardly prejudiced, but rather subtle, using covert language, rules, and regulations towards partygoers, artists, and DJs of color.

This capstone was written in collaboration with three members of the house music scene, who have offered their lived experiences and personal anecdotes to help us better understand the history and culture of the genre. Outside of the weighted door of Berghain in Berlin or the velvet ropes of Le Bain in Manhattan exists the forgotten guest of history— the Black-ass roots of house and techno.

The History

It’s important to understand the origins of the technology that made samples and mixing a new medium for musicians and subsequently led to the birth of house music in the Black community.

Hip-hop is widely credited as being the first musical genre to incorporate sampling as an art form, as disc jockeys in the Bronx would set themselves apart by freestyling over vinyl records of well-known songs and beats. One of the pioneers of this style is hip-hop legend and innovator, DJ Kool Herc. Additionally, music groups in the United Kingdom like Cold Cut and The Art of Noise incorporated sampling into their work, helping to influence other location-specific genres like ska and grime. But sampling began in a more traditional format as early as the 1900s, when jazz musicians would borrow riffs and chord progressions from other well-known artists of the time, later becoming somewhat of an inside joke between artists.

In the late stages of the disco era, DJs in the early 80s were looking for a way to keep crowds dancing. Experimental methods of remixing and sampling drew in bigger crowds who were eager for a new style of music. The Warehouse Nightclub, located on the Southside of Chicago and established by Robert Williams, was the mecca for all things house music-related. Record shops in the city would sell records by marking them with stickers that read “As Played At The Warehouse,” which was later shortened to “house music.” Other sources note that house music earned its name from the equipment required in production; Many house tracks at the time were produced using the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, which allowed DJs and producers to work from their homes, and without the constraints of expensive studios.

Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles became a pioneer among these house DJs, performing for predominantly-Black and queer crowds during this time. Born and raised in the Bronx, Knuckles (born Francis Warren Nichols) got his musical start in New York. Alongside friend Larry Levan, he began working at venues throughout the Big Apple like Continental Baths and The Gallery. In 1977, after garnering a large following, Knuckles relocated to Chicago and was offered a residency as the first music director at The Warehouse nightclub.

Unfamiliar with the New York style of DJing, Chicagoans were intrigued by Knuckles’ use of beat-mixing and percussion, where he utilized a separate turntable. Thanks to this technique and through his incorporation of disco, rap, and other classic “Black” genres like “Quiet Storm” R&B and “Lover’s Rock” reggae, Knuckles helped to develop a new underground scene in Chicago. Prior to house, Chicago was most known for their rock and R&B artists, which made sense considering their proximity to powerhouse labels like Motown in Detroit and Atlantic Records in New York City.

The Entrance Of Whiteness

While pulsating beats and dynamic patterns have been relevant in Black music for decades, Knuckles and other young, Black, Chicago DJs like Ron Hardy, Jesse Saunders, and Larry Heard, elevated the house sound to what it is today. Knuckles’ talent soon shifted the crowds, however, as techno and house gained popularity overseas in countries like Germany and the UK, more white faces appeared during the club’s peak hours. This was in part due to the fact that many of the popular house DJs of the time were Black, and since securing work at white clubs was not guaranteed, it was easier for white patrons to cross the racial boundary, rather than the other way around.

During the early and mid-80s, New York began to see a similar surge in the house music phenomenon. Legendary disco establishments like Studio 54 began to fade in favor of more tech and electronic-themed danceries. The former Soho landmark Paradise Garage—led by Knuckles’ friend, resident DJ Larry Levan—had an overwhelming influence in the underground scene in NYC. Levan’s style of DJ’ing was regarded as laissez-faire, and his “anything-goes” attitude made Paradise Garage not only a staple in the house music community, but a microcosm of the shift that could be observed in the greater culture in the upcoming years of the 80s. The garage era of New York house music was inspired by the culture that started at Paradise Garage.

As house music spread throughout the midwest, in the suburbs of Detroit, high school friends Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—later known as the Bellevillie Three—came together to begin their own musical exploration through house. Inspired by European techno acts like Kraftwerk and Chicago house from DJs like Knuckles, Detroit techno was distinct in its incorporation of afrofuturist ideals and the use of synthesizers, including the Korg MS-10 and the MiniKorg-700S.

Throughout the 90s, as electronic music became increasingly popular, house music slowly became synonymous with whiteness, with white DJs and artists taking ownership of the genre. Leading into the 2010s, groups like Daft Punk, and DJs like Avicii, Skrillex, and David Guetta were part of the culture shift that affected the perception of house music. Between the lack of industry representation and the popularity of events like Veld and Coachella (which often did not prioritize Black artists across the genres they showcased), house music slowly became misaligned with white culture. Black venues were becoming few and far between, as police conducted targeted raids on Black nightlife establishments. Law enforcement and Black opponents implemented tactics that would bar the community from entering nightlife establishments, including stringent dress codes and calls to law enforcement under the guise of public safety and suspected criminal activity—practices that can still be seen today. 

Impacts in the Industry: Historical

Reverend Matthew Fox, a theologist and member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church until his excommunication in 1993, conducted extensive research and held sermons centered around the divinity of music in respect to organized religion. Reverend Fox’s ideas inspired a movement of thought among artists and researchers alike of the religious nature of house music.

While his work is important to the understanding of intersectionalities between music and religion, the idea that music is deeply incorporated through spirituality is not a new one. Reverend Fox’s teachings, ironically, parallel the same avenues of imperialist thinking in which white people are the supposed founders for historically Black ideas.

For many years, music has been an integral part of spirituality throughout the Black and Brown diasporas, specifically within African and Caribbean cultures. Syncretic religions including sects of African Christianity, voodoo, and santeria have all incorporated specific drum beats and rhythms which are integral to the spiritual process. As exemplified in the rising popularity of house in non-Black communities, the spiritual aspect of house music is not lost, even to outsiders.

Michael Salkind, an adjunct professor at Brown University, was active in the house music scene during the 80s and 90s. Thanks to his experiences as a DJ, sound designer, and curator, Salkind has indispensable knowledge on the house music scene in relation to Black culture. Born and raised in Kansas City, Salkind attributes the house music scene in New York City—where he attended college—as one of the largest factors in his growth and understanding of the genre.

“As a white kid in the US, the scene in New York City exposed a lot of the underlying history—especially being around the oldheads,” Salkind says. While music is an internal and external experience, Salkind notes that the strong connection between spirituality and house music is what encouraged him to delve deeper into the academic aspects of the genre.

Salkind also points to the fact that many of the trailblazers in house music culture were queer, which was alienating in predominantly-Black and Christian environments.

“The alienation of queer people from spaces like churches definitely led to the investment of Saturday night culture—which was, in all intents and purposes, Sunday morning culture,” he adds. “[House music] became the point of spirituality for a lot of people.”

Impacts in the Industry: Race

The whitewashing of house music also takes place through discriminatory hiring practices. (Though bias in nightclubs is not a new phenomenon). Many DJs have discussed the strict music and attire guidelines that directly targeted Black clubgoers. Nate Lopez, a Charleston, S.C.-based DJ who performs under the moniker DJ NattyHeavy, discussed these unfair practices with his local news publication, The Post and Courier. However, these inequities also affect nightclubs in larger, more populous cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York.

As the end of the 20th century drew near, white artists like Daft Punk and Pete Tong became the face of house music, as they sampled from Black artists. (“One More Time” samples disco classic “More Spell On You” by Liberian artist Eddie Johns, and Tong’s “The Calling” samples “Ironside” by Quincy Jones.) With their popularity, they were able to position themselves as the domesticated faces of a previously, predominantly “urban” and “lawless”  genre. This development left white people overidentifying with a musical style that was not created by them, and left Black people feeling disconnected from a genre that showed what was possible outside of R&B, soul, and hip-hop. Additionally, predominantly-white faces representing the genre encouraged clubs and other venues to begin welcoming house music into their spaces without the inclusion of Black people, contributing to further colonization. 

Mike Nash, better known as DJ Mike Nasty, is a house DJ based in Brooklyn, NY. Growing up in Tennessee, he listened to all kinds of music, but was most inspired by the sounds of house. After relocating to Brooklyn in 2017, Nash was disheartened to find that many of the clubs were not interested in forming a partnership with a Black DJ, nor were they willing to cater their events to a predominantly-Black crowd.

Nash explains that some promoters refused to book him for certain events, because they were making their own assumptions about the kind of a crowd that a Black DJ from the South would attract. He adds that they were concerned about the kind ofDJ regulars would prefer to see on stage. This isn’t the first time that clubs in New York City have been accused of discrimination, which is ironic considering the multitudes of the city and the Bronx’s influence on the genre.

As a DJ in addition to his role as an adjunct professor at Brown University, Salkind echoes similar sentiments. In the early 2010s, he authored Do You Remember House?: Chicago’s Queer of Color Undergrounds , which describes the slow trickle of people of color out of the UK’s house music scene. Starting in the late 80s, the genre was mostly dominated by people of color and punks across the pond. But as house gained mainstream traction, the original faces of the movement faded into the foreground. A similar trend can be seen today in the rise of genres like grime and drill, both of which take heavy inspiration from electronic music and edgier genres like punk and rap.

The element of sentiment has also been lost in the further colonization of house music and similar genres. Sampling was born out of a tradition of acknowledgment for other artists, as well as a nod of acknowledgement to varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

“I’ve had people comment on my DJ sets and complain that I play music from the 90s and the 2000s…what do they expect? I was born in 91’!” Nash laughs, but nothing is funny.

Over the years, house music has gotten a reputation as a computerized genre. (Icelandic singer and producer Bjork says it best in The Making of Homogenic: “How can you say that the music has no soul when you haven’t put it there?”) Current house music has avoided one of the most important aspects of the genre: tribute. Musical tributes make house music so revered among the social circles it encapsulates, as it is directly correlated to Black cultures that are both diasporic and indigenous to the United States.

Impacts in the Industry: Gender and Sexuality

As production and reach evolved, so did the thinking around what house music could, and did, represent. In the 70s and 80s, many Black residents in Chicago and the outlying suburbs identified heavily with church culture. (Chicago is also home to one of the first Black Catholic parishes and Black archbishops in the world). But for the queer, Black community, the overemphasis on religion drove a wedge between community and personal identity. One of the selling points for house music in the 80s was liberation from societal and familial expectations; instead the focus was placed on curating a space that welcomed those who had been cast away— physically and metaphorically. Additionally, many of the producers and DJs of the time were first- and second-generation children of Black Southerners, who had migrated north in search of a new beginning.

This was their opportunity to establish exactly what that beginning would be.

Queer Black culture heavily propelled house music’s influence. On July 12, 1979, “Disco Demolition Day” took place, where over 20,000 disco, soul, and funk records were smashed in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Orchestrated by local radio personality Steve Dahl as a way to protest the inherent queerness of the disco style, the demolition set a standard for the counterculture and its sympathizers.

“Basically if you were Black, gay, or sympathized with either of the above, you were being punished,” said DJ Jesse Saunders in an interview with Dazed Magazine. Instead of halting the movement, however, the actions in the park encouraged Chicago’s marginalized communities to turn inward and plan their next steps. After the symbolic death of disco, house music became appealing; thanks to its blend of genres and general message of transcending physical connections, the queer communities in major metropolitan cities (and their local and national supporters) flocked to house spaces.

But this trend has fallen off in the last few years, particularly when it comes to representation amongst DJs. DJ Litney hails from Toronto, ON, and proudly identifies as fat, Afro-Latina, and queer. While she turns the tables and brings an undisputed charged energy to the successful events she has spun, the changes in house music over the last decade have affected the perception of her marketability to promoters and club managers.

“I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to be where I’m at,” Litany says. “And as a fat, queer, Black person, I feel like [these] are a lot of things to be at once.” With the campaign to change the public perception of house music from a “white genre” back to its roots of being all-inclusive and transcending race, promoters and venues have still not caught on to the idea that their desired crowds at these events would want to see people who looked like them behind the booth.

Interestingly enough, there has been pushes for elevating Black, queer, and otherwise societally non-conforming DJs to be elevated to the same level of acknowledgement as their white counterparts. Discussions such as this one are common on online forums like Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter, further reinforcing the full circle of culture and the push for house music to be predominantly Black and queer once again.

“I know that if I were to be skinny, straight, or white, my career would take off a little bit more.”

Where We Are Now

While the reclamation of house music has a long way to go, not all hope is lost. In 2020, over 1 in 5 nightclubs shut down, and the electronic music industry shrunk by 54 percent. The surge in both freedom of time and expression has encouraged people to begin exploring what musicality means to them and to the communities they inhabit and serve. Since the start of the pandemic, creatives from all over the world have turned to different musical mediums for comfort when they were no longer a means to an end.

Through the pandemic, it was not uncommon to see posts on social media of people exploring musical mediums like songwriting, production, and curation. While nightclubs and live performances were at a halt, people were still engaging with music in a variety of ways. Platforms like Bandlab surpassed over 35 million users, and instrument distributors like Fender and Pioneer had some of their largest financially grossing years.

Platforms like Boiler Room and Instagram Live’s Verzuz series have also adapted to the change in culture by experimenting with the ways music can be brought to people in times of isolation. During the pandemic, both of these music platforms introduced streaming alternatives allowing people from all over the world to engage with music and artists on a virtual platform, subsequently making music more diverse.

House music has also benefited from the pandemic. International styles have become deeply incorporated into western club culture, with genres like amapiano and afrobeats incorporating drum kits and breakbeats into popular songs, providing an international twist. There has been a rise in popularity of more traditional house DJs such as Kaytranada and Muzi. Additionally, globally-recognized contemporary artists have begun incorporating house music elements into their albums, such as Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind and Beyoncé’s Renaissance. The latter album’s cover features a very prominent Studio 54/Biance Jagger tribute, symbolized by a silver, disco ball-mirror horse.

But for true change in the house music genre to take form, there must be a change of thought within the Black community. The claim that has been laid on house music from outsiders is nothing but a drop in the ocean of stolen ideas and misattributed contributions to the greater influence of society and culture today. At its roots, house music is as Black as can be, and it is up to the participants of the culture to not only educate one another, but advocate for the proper social propelling and positioning of their Black counterparts. With this, in addition to the advancement in technology and social media over the last four decades, there is great promise in making the future of house music just as Black and bad-ass as its history.

“It’s like a helicopter,” explains Nash. “A helicopter comes and whisks some of us away, and they pull the ladder up…There needs to be more camaraderie among Black people, because there’s so many of us in the underground space, but not in the public eye.”


In conjunction with this piece, interviews with DJ Litney, Dr. Micah Salkind, and Mike Nash can be found below, as well a curated Spotify playlist that can be found here.

madeintheurl 2023