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The sound of Chicago: house

House, techno, trance, hardcore, acid and every sub-genre that falls under the new umbrella term EDM (Electronic Dance Music) are indebted to one legendary DJ and discotheque: Frankie Knuckles and The Warehouse. Chicago – where disco ended and house music was born and where the nightlife still remains ecstatic.

The year is 1977. The turntables of discotheque The Warehouse are manned by Frankie Knuckles who would later go on to write music history as ‘The Godfather of House Music’. Saturday Night Fever rules the box office and the music charts are dominated by the Bee Gees, Tavares and Donna Summer. Disco is the genre du jour, also in ‘The House’, as the club is known by its regular customers. Donna Summer doesn’t get much playtime here; DJs mostly spin the funky soul and disco albums by Cheryl Lynn, Positive Force and First Choice.

Frankie Knuckles, godfather of house music
Frankie Knuckles, godfather of house music

Chicago

Goodbye disco – Hello house!

In the summer of 1979, ‘Disco Demolition Night’ brings an abrupt end to the genre. A container full of disco albums is blown up in a packed baseball stadium in Chicago, as the crowd chants `Death to Disco` and `Disco sucks`! After a few years of disco mania, the crowds are done with it. They are ready for new music, but as there isn’t anything to replace disco, Frankie Knuckles starts to experiment. He mixes disco classics with European electronic new wave, using synthesizers and drum computers to add additional layers. These edits are pressed onto vinyl and – labelled ‘Music from The House’ or ‘House Music’ – sell like hotcakes in local record stores. House music is born, a new music style that quickly captures the music world.


The owner of The Warehouse smells the cash and doubles the admission price. This is the sign for Knuckles to pack his bags and open his own club: The Power Plant. Together with singer Jamie Principle, he scores hits with Your Love and Baby Wants To Ride. Other producers follow Knuckles’ lead and in 1986, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk scores his first real world hit with Love Can’t Turn Around. In that same year, the house hype in Chicago has come and gone. Knuckles shuts down The Power Plant and moves back to his hometown New York, which quickly develops into the new house capital of the world.

Knuckles legend lives on

Back to The Warehouse

So where can you hear the hits of those days and soak up the ambiance of the glory days? The following 3 events tele-transport visitors back to the days of Chicago house. This summer, also visit the exhibit ‘Move Your Body: The Evolution of House Music’ – see the agenda below. Nothing is as fickle as Chicago’s nightlife however; you will find the latest flyers in the record store Gramaphone Records

Queen!

Smart Bar started out as a gay club, but today everybody is welcome. Queen! is the weekly club night on Sunday hosted by house legend Derrick Carter, who remixed artists such as The Human League, Modjo and Röyksopp. Time Out Chicago calls it ‘The greatest house institution in town’.

Party through the night in the weekends

Wired Fridays

Twice a month the spectacular foyer of the Chicago Cultural Center is transformed into a disco. House heroes such as Roy Davis Jr., Michael Serafini and Garrett David spin their favourite classics to a mixed crowd. Go dancing during the day at lunch time. Admission is free.

The ceiling of the Chicago Cultural Center

Hot Mix Lunch

Chosen Few DJs has its roots in the 1980s Chicago house scene. Every year in the summer, the DJ collective organises The Chosen Few Picnic Weekend, a 4-day house festival with 40,000 visitors, as well as a free series of monthly outdoor dance parties around lunch time.

Find your way around Chicago’s nightlife scene

The glory days of house in Chicago are long gone. Thanks to then senator Barack Obama, 25 August 2004 has been proclaimed Frankie Knuckles Day, and the street where The Warehouse once stood has been renamed the Frankie Knuckles Way. Knuckles died in 2014 and the former legendary disco now houses an advertising agency. There is little to remind us of the ‘Godfather of House Music’ and the emergence of one of the most successful streams in music history.


Over time, house music has developed into a broad range of genres and sub-genres, such as techno, trance, acid, hardcore, deep house and dubstep, all encompassed under the American umbrella term EDM (Electronic Dance Music). Original house from the 1980s is now known as `Chicago house` which is experiencing a comeback throughout Europe. House heroes from yesteryear such as Lil’ Louis, Roy Davis Jr. and DJ Sneak are rarely booked for gigs in their own Chicago, but are in high demand in clubs, festivals and parties in London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and Ibiza.


Chicago doesn’t waste time looking back but has its eye firmly set on the future. The city is still known for its vibrant nightlife scene that welcomes upcoming talent. But you do need to know your way around. ‘The Windy City’ has another nickname: ‘The City of Neighborhoods’ – dozens of neighbourhoods that all feature their own nightlife venues. The Chicago River splits the city in two: the North Side is the domain of exclusive mega clubs with strict door policies, endless queues outside and VIP areas with astronomically expensive bottle service. Smaller, more progressive and less pretentious clubs can be found on the South Side.

Where it all started

The West Loop, where The Warehouse once stood, is now home to The Mid, one of Chicago’s most famous clubs du jour. EDM figureheads such as Tiësto, Avicii and Martin Garrix feature on posters, along with the occasional old school DJ, such as Derrick Carter or Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk. In River North you will find the SpyBar, an intriguing mix of a slick lounge and steamy club, with trendy electro-house by Digitalism or Crookers. A new addition is Primary in Gold Coast, where mostly local upcoming DJs pump house, electro and indie-dance through the impressive sound system.

Photo credits

  • Knuckles legend lives on: Flickr: Brad Perkins
  • The ceiling of the Chicago Cultural Center: Flickr: Viewminder