Through my time as a DJ for the past 16 years, it’s been my career and passion to study music. And I’ve learned one important fact along the way—the modern legacy of American dance music owes its roots to black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ spaces.
Most folks probably know that genres like hip-hop, jazz, and R&B originated from African-Americans, but what about EDM or rock ’n’ roll?
Let’s explore that.
As a teenager, I caught the tail end of the ‘90s rave era. At these all-night raucous gatherings, I assumed what I was seeing and hearing was completely different, edgy, and transformative. And while the crowd was eclectic, it was mostly white. The DJs I played with and the friends that we got down with were mostly white. So I came to think about dance music as a white cultural expression.
Turns out I was wrong.
Everything we were into could be traced back to “The Godfather of House,” Frankie Knuckles. Born Francis Nicholls, Frankie Knuckles was a gay African-American man. Growing up in the Bronx, Knuckles frequented discos as a teenager during the 1970s. He eventually began working as a DJ, playing soul, disco, and R&B at two of the most important early discos, the Gallery in Manhattan and the Continental Baths, a lavish gay bathhouse on the Upper West Side. In the late 1970s, Knuckles moved from New York City to Chicago at the behest of Robert Williams, who was opening the now-legendary Warehouse nightclub.
When the Warehouse opened in 1977, Knuckles was invited to play on a regular basis. His style was a mix of disco classics, unusual indie-label soul, European synth-disco, the occasional rock track, and other rarities. This would all eventually become the genre we know as “house music,” (derived from “Warehouse music,” of course). Knuckles was so popular that the Warehouse, initially a members-only club for largely black gay men, began attracting straighter, whiter crowds who normally might not have gone there. Knuckles left to open his own club, the Power Plant, in 1983.
House music went on to birth techno, trance, and electronic dance music (aka EDM and those pop-ish dance tunes produced by Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Avicii). But house music is actually disco reincarnated. The July 1979 radio campaign against disco, which some perceived as being anti-black and anti-LGBTQ, culminated in a promotion at Comiskey Park in which a crate of disco records was blown up on the field. While many saw this as the “death of disco,” house music rose from the ashes, hence why some people cunningly call it “disco’s revenge.”
House music doesn’t owe its roots to raves, and disco wasn’t created by a white guy in bell bottoms. As journalist Barry Walters wrote in Billboard: “The history of dance music in America and the history of LGBT folks—particularly those of color—coming together to create a cultural utopia, was and still is inseparable. Neither would have happened without the other.”
When I figured this out, I was blown away. Did my friends and DJs know this info? No one seemed to talk about it. It felt like I was let in on some secret history of American dance music.
As I went further down the historical path of music, the revelations kept coming.
Before disco was called disco, it was known as danceable R&B. Danceable R&B is an amalgamation of things like funk, soul, and jazz. R&B, of course, breaks down to rhythm and blues. All of these genres came from the African-American experience.
What about rock music?
Let’s take Elvis Presley—a man who we call the “King of Rock and Roll.”
His massive hit, “Hound Dog,” came out in 1956. Presley’s version is a remix. In 1953 Big Momma Thornton, a black woman artist, wrote and performed, “Hound Dog.” Whether it be his lyrics, aesthetic, or melodies, Elvis was just mimicking African-American artists, as he himself acknowledged. And for the record, Ol’ Man River declared that Chuck Berry was actually the King of Rock and Roll.
All that to say, without the cultural influence of African-Americans and the LGBTQ community, American music would be incredibly estranged from what we know and appreciate today. And if we’re to be fair, we need to recognize, honor, and share the origins of our music, the circumstances that brought it about, and the people who made it happen.
I’d like to address the role Hispanic music plays in this as well, but that’s another story for another time.
To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.