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Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet: Chicago House

by Philip Sherburne

Cheat Sheet: Chicago House


Various Artists
Various Artists

Chicago house never really goes out of fashion. Invented in the mid-'80s, it was a catalyst for both British rave culture and Daft Punk's "French touch," and its minimalist machine funk comes back into vogue every few years, especially in the mercurial form of squelching, wriggling acid a subgenre that's become synonymous with the sound of Roland's TB-303 bass synthesizer, first distilled by Phuture and Marshall Jefferson on 1986's "Acid Tracks."

With house and techno in a kind of holding pattern, bygone styles and retro fetishes are all the rage again, and from Los Angeles rooftops to the beaches of Ibiza, the jacking, chugging sound of Chicago reigns supreme.

For those interested in exploring its roots, a new compilation, EPM Selects: Chicago House, provides a good starting point, heavily weighted toward seminal classics like Mr. Fingers' "Can You Feel It," Farley Jackmaster Funk's "Love Can't Turn Around," Steve Silk Hurley's "Jack Your Body" and Mike Dunn's "Magic Feet." A few later tracks, like Gene Farris' 2002 "Black Satin (Miguel Migs Remix)," expand the compilation's remit beyond the strictly old-school, which is nice; many of the record's selections are already well known. The outliers do muddy the criteria slightly. It's too scattered to be a history lesson, too unbalanced to be a proper survey. Still, it's a solid collection, enlivened by rarities and forgotten album cuts like Gemini's "Z Funk" and Glenn Underground's "May Datroit."

If you really want to explore the canon, there's no shortage of compilations dedicated to early Chicago house, many of them recycling the same handful of chestnuts. Trax Records: Acid Classics, Trax Records Classics Volume 1, Trax Records: The 20th Anniversary Collection, The House that Jackin' Built - The Roots of '80s Chicago House, The House Sound of Chicago - House Classics Edition and Chicago Trax all provide solid jumping-off points.

With that in mind, consider this Cheat Sheet neither a primer on the music's pioneers nor an overview of the whole sweep of Windy City dance music. Instead, it's a grab bag of some of my favorite songs from the tradition, and the stories behind them. Countering dance music's cookie-cutter reputation, these tracks typify the inventiveness that gave Chicago house its unique spirit a spirit keeps the music sounding unlike anything else, all these years later, no matter how frequently or diligently imitated.