Understanding House Music
There is pretty much nothing that I love more than great electronic music. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't ever get into electronic music because it is something that you really have to seek out, because like any other type of music, most of it sucks. Add to that the fact that there is a very limited radio audience, only a handful of credible domestic labels, and very little marketing associated with the good stuff, and you have a recipe for putting in more work than the average fan has time for. Electronic music is also notoriously confusing because of the absurd level of specialization and ridiculous array of genre-labels. Over the next few articles I will be discussing the ones that matter, and will hopefully inspire you to check out some music that you would not have otherwise tried. If I prevent anyone from ending up at a trance club when what he or she was looking for was house music, I will feel like I have done my job.
Let's begin with house music. House and techno are the two big genres that are mistakenly applied to all sorts of music that is neither. I start with house because it is what gave birth to the modern era of dance music. I offer that if you like to dance, I mean really like to shake your ass, then you should love house music. It's made for you.
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Full rundown after the jump.
What does house sound like?
House music essentially picked up where disco left off in the late 1970's. House is characterized by a straight four-on-the-floor beat, typically in the 120-130 beats-per-minute. Soulful deep house, for example, will tend towards 120 BPM, while funky house or tech house will be closer to 130 BPM. Anything in that tempo range with a 4/4 kick drum is house music, and most non-four-on-the-floor funky tracks in this tempo also qualify. Sounds easy enough, right?
The problem arises because there are a million different kinds of house music. Here are the ones that you should care about at first.
Deep / soulful house often has a soul vocal, and typically uses traditional instruments like piano and bass guitar. Because of this, a lot of deep house has very few artifacts of being machine music, with the notable exception of the ever present Roland TR-909 kick drum, a fixture in electronic music of all genres to this day. Deep house is on the mellow end of the modern dance music spectrum, and has a warm, groovy sound.
Disco house is, as one would imagine, made up of modern versions of disco elements. Disco house can be either instrumental or with a vocal, often in the form of a small vocal sample used as a hook. Expect huge horns, strings, and lush production rooted in creating a euphoric sound. Disco house tracks are typically arranged like their predecessors, around a big hook of some sort, and can be straight or funky.
Progressive house relies less on song structure, hooks, and flash than deep house or disco house. Progressive house is structured more around longer builds made up of lots of layers of organic and synthesized sounds, often using atmospheric or ambient backgrounds. Progressive tends to be a big catch-all genre for house tempo tracks that take the listener on a journey. On the lighter side, progressive tracks with tribal drums are uptempo, but still pretty mellow. On the heavier side, progressive house sounds and song structure eventually spawned a faster sibling that we now know as trance.
Tech house is simply uptempo house made with techno sounds, that is, sounds that are primarily synthesized. Tech house is usually funky, employing breakbeats in place of the typical straight 4/4 kick pattern and is usually vocal-free.
Acid house is the most esoteric of the major house genres. It was one of the first types of house, and is something that you either love or hate. It also paved the way for techno music and a whole army of musicians that took the distinctive acid sound and applied it to every imaginable type of beat. Acid is characterized by the presence of the Roland TB-303 Bassline, a failed 1982 synthesizer that was terrible at accomplishing its intended task, that is replicating the sound of a bass guitar, but turned out to be the perfect dance music synth. By tweaking the filter on the 303 while synched to his 909 drum machine, producers in the late 80's created a cult-like following that spawned countless followers who continue to take the acid sound to all new levels. Acid house can be stick straight or funky as hell.
What should I check out?
Unfortunately, few house producers have put together bulletproof full albums. Cassius' 1999, while drifting into the downtempo region from time to time, is a superb house album from front to back, as is the Basement Jaxx' first album, Remedy. Finally, if you don't already own a copy of Daft Punk's Homework, you need it for no other reason than to listen repeatedly to Da Funk, a quintessential acid track.
Otherwise, house music is definitely the domain of the DJ and the indie label. A straight ahead house primer would include people like Doc Martin, DJ Dan, Miguel Migs, and Carl Cox. All of these DJs have commercially available mixed CDs that you should be able to find with no problem. Better yet, get yourself to a place on Melrose that sells DJ vinyl and ask the guy behind the counter for the hottest house mixes they have.
The best house music, though, is going to be heard in your local house club or party, on huge speakers, with a couple of hundred other people ready to shake asses.