WXTJ Writes! By Isabel Xiao “Love is the Message”: The Black, Queer Roots of House Music

Since the surge in popularity of house and EDM-adjacent music in the early 2010s, general public perception of the house genre has largely shifted to white, European male DJs. Artists like David Guetta, Zedd, and Tiësto have all been prominent producers and reached incredible levels of success, but many are unaware of the genre’s roots as an expression of joy and community created by queer, black individuals. 

The house genre began as an offshoot of disco, originating from Philadelphia soul and popularized by queer people of color in the 70s. As the decade approached its end however, mainstream culture began to turn against disco, a movement spearheaded by Detroit radio DJ Steve Dahl, who openly hated the “culture” around disco. Many young white men of the rock scene felt excluded and threatened by the rising popularity of a genre that increased visibility for queer black people. This sentiment culminated in the infamous “Disco Demolition Night,” in which Dahl invited his radio listeners to bring in disco records to be destroyed by explosives at the Chicago White Sox’s stadium Comiskey Park. At least 50,000 showed up to watch the explosion, rushing onto the field afterwards and beginning a bonfire that ultimately resulted in Chicago police arriving in riot gear, and 39 arrests being made. The sentiment behind the event was clear: disco music was for “queers,” and did not belong in the mainstream anymore.

A photograph of Disco Demolition Night

Although the popularity of the genre declined in the mainstream through the 80s, disco continued to evolve in the underground. Despite the homophobic and racist sentiment of the anti-disco sentiment, queer black people continued to embrace joy and community in Chicago clubs, most notably at “The Warehouse,” operated by dancer and DJ Robert Williams. As the club gained more popularity, Williams sought to focus on promoting and operating, bringing in DJ Frankie Knuckles to fill in the musical role. It was at this moment that disco was reaching a point in its sonic evolution that incorporated electronic drums and synthesizers to create a more “mechanical” beat, building upon the funk and soul inspired groove of disco. Knuckles was one of the earliest DJs to experiment with re-edits of songs, extending intros and outros in order to mix other tracks in, and adding new beats to give a new life and sound to old disco favorites. Initially, The Warehouse remained exclusive to its gay and black audience, serving as a safe space and community for those seeking joy and escape through music. However, as more curious straight audiences began attending, looking to sample the underground music scene of Chicago, the musical style of the club began to spread around the city and on radio waves. This new, reinvigorated offshoot of disco music would become known as “House,” derived from the “Warehouse” in which it was born. Knuckles would eventually become known as the “Godfather of House Music,” and would later manage and DJ at numerous other gay clubs, including the “Power Plant” in Chicago and “Heaven” in London. The genre was received well among British audiences, and would eventually spread to listeners all over Europe and America. Knuckles summed it up best in an iconic quote: “House music is disco’s revenge.” 

Frankie Knuckles’ photo in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame

The ethos of experimenting with remixes and adding new layers of synths, samples, and beats resulted in various derivatives of house emerging from different locations around the world. London DJ “Evil” Eddie Richards’ mixes focused on deep basslines and incorporated a Europop sound to them. London nightclub “Shroom” opened in 1987, and quickly became known for its use of thick fog, psychedelic atmosphere, rave culture, and minimalist, bass-heavy style of house music, ultimately spurring the UK acid house movement. Back in Chicago, “hip-house” began to gain popularity, incorporating the works of Chicago rappers. House also made its way over to New York and New Jersey, where it became infused with more female-centric vocals, and had a stronger gospel and R&B presence in its music. New York City club “Paradise Garage,” coined the term “garage house,” for this new sound. Ball culture was also a notable NYC haven for house music, with a very unique visual style and culture that incorporated dance and runway, and a musical sound distinguished by a distorted crash on every fourth beat as a form of communication for the dancers to hit the floor or strike a pose. The sound of house music in New Jersey also incorporated hip-hop and rap elements, eventually resulting in the iconic Jersey Club beat, characterized by its distinct rhythm and syncopation. In Detroit, DJs Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson would incorporate heavy synths, futuristic sound effects, and influences from Chicago house into what would become known as techno. 

House and electronic music spread further around the world throughout the 80s and 90s, creating different sounds in different countries and cities. Its popularity in Europe would continue to grow, and Berlin, Ibiza, and Barcelona would become infamous for their eclectic rave scenes. Unfortunately, as the house genre continued to evolve and gain widespread attention, its roots in queer black culture became less known, and white, male DJs were at the forefront of the EDM peak in the early 2010s. However, with rising acceptance of LGBTQ folks and increased representation among prominent black American artists, most notably Beyonce with her NYC-ballroom inspired album “Renaissance,” the true origins of house music are gaining more visibility. In an interview with 18 notable queer black and brown artists, DJs, and organizers, published in online LGBTQ+ magazine “Them,” artist DeForrest Brown Jr reveals insight into honoring the Black and queer legacy of techno and house: “This quickness, this force, this energy, is how I try to pay homage. By talking to the ancestors and tapping into the epigenetic history that is loaded up in my very contextual body.” DJ and Writer Turtle Bugg also shares: “A lot of the movement of finding rare records and the history of this music is told largely from a European perspective, because they have the means and interest to do so. But I like to say, ‘How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?’ If no one’s getting the stories from the source, you’re not going to get the truth. It’s imperative that Black people hear the stories from Black people from another Black person.”

The true spirit of house music comes from a place of community and organization for queer black people. In the modern age of queer nightlife, an attitude of collectivism is becoming more prominent as groups like Discwoman, BUFU, and New World Disorder continue to organize events showcasing QTBIPOC artists in the electronic music scene, taking the music back from mainstream promoters and booking agencies that only seek to profit. There is a strong ethos of identity and solidarity that prevails in the sound of the genre and the nightlife scene. DJ, professor, and writer Madison Moore stated in the interview with “Them”: “The question that always drives my work is how art and beauty are created under duress, or in state of emergency. Through performance and world making in [dance music and queer nightlife], you really get a sense of the state of emergency that marginalized people live in.” 

NYC Collective Discwoman

However, it is wrong to think of house music as solely a derivation of suffering and pain.

Although inherently political, house is an expression of resistance. House is an artistic product of beauty and kinship created to fight against oppression by providing spaces where queer black people can commune, organize, and freely express themselves. Perhaps the genre is summed up by one of its most prominent musical stems: the hit 1974 disco song “Love is the Message” by MFSB, one of the most sampled and remixed songs of all time, featured in countless house mixes. The title and origins of this track speak to the origins of the genre as a place of joy and acceptance, pioneered by black queer artists whose influence continues in all art forms to this day. Love is the message, and that is the true spirit of house music.






Isabel Xiao (she/they) is a 2nd year student and DJ for WXTJ. In addition to being the DEI Chair and co-chair of WXTJ Writes, you can find them hosting “haphazard realness” on Sundays from 1pm-2pm.

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