The Ultimate Guide to Chicago House Music: Where It All Began

House music is now a multi-billion dollar industry. But it all started in the underground in Chicago.

The Ultimate Guide to Chicago House Music: Where It All Began
Chicago as seen from the water in the 1980s.

Chicago house music is more than just a genre; it's a cultural movement that revolutionized the global music scene. Emerging in the early 1980s from the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago, this innovative sound laid the foundation for modern electronic dance music. In this in-depth feature, we will delve into the birth of house music, explore the visionaries who pioneered the genre, highlight the pivotal clubs that shaped its evolution, and examine the iconic tracks that continue to define its legacy.

Part I: The birth of House Music

The Warehouse and Frankie Knuckles

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a vibrant club scene was thriving in Chicago, with a mix of disco, soul, and funk dominating the dancefloors. One club that stood out among the rest was The Warehouse, located at 206 South Jefferson Street. It was in this unassuming venue that house music found its humble beginnings and earned its name.

Frankie Knuckles, a legendary DJ and producer, became the resident DJ at The Warehouse in 1977. Known as the "Godfather of House Music," Knuckles' DJ sets were more than just a collection of dance tracks; they were transformative experiences that united people from diverse backgrounds on the dancefloor. He played an eclectic mix of disco, soul, R&B, and European electronic music, seamlessly blending records to create a continuous flow of music that entranced the crowd.

The term "house music" itself is said to have originated from the shortening of "The Warehouse" to "The House." Patrons of the club would request tracks they heard at The Warehouse by asking for "that house music," and the name stuck. Frankie Knuckles' impact on the scene extended beyond his role as a DJ; he was also a talented producer and remixer, shaping the emerging sound of house music with his own releases and reimagined versions of existing tracks.

The Trax Records Revolution

As house music continued to gain traction in Chicago's underground club scene, Larry Sherman founded Trax Records in 1984. The label played a crucial role in catalyzing the spread of house music beyond the walls of The Warehouse and into the wider world.

Trax Records quickly became a platform for local artists and producers to release their music. One of the label's early releases was "Washing Machine" by DJ International, produced by Jesse Saunders. While Saunders is often credited with producing the first house music track, "On and On", "Washing Machine" was also a pioneering track in its own right, showcasing the raw energy and electronic sound that defined house music.

Trax Records continued to sign and release tracks from a multitude of artists, including Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, Adonis, and Marshall Jefferson, among others. These artists experimented with drum machines, synthesizers, and samplers, shaping the distinct sound of house music that was characterized by its repetitive beats, soulful vocals, and infectious energy.

The combination of The Warehouse's vibrant club culture and the rise of record labels like Trax Records provided the necessary breeding ground for house music to spread its wings and establish itself as a global phenomenon. The movement was just beginning, and the pioneers of Chicago house music were about to take their creation to unprecedented heights.

Part II: The Pioneers of Chicago House Music

Jesse Saunders and "On and On"

In 1984, Chicago native Jesse Saunders made music history when he released "On and On," a seminal track that is often considered the first house music record. At just 22 years old, Saunders' innovative approach to music production and his passion for DJing paved the way for a new era in dance music.

Saunders was deeply inspired by the eclectic DJ sets of Frankie Knuckles at The Warehouse, where he witnessed the power of music to unite people on the dancefloor. He was determined to create his own music, blending elements of disco, funk, and electronic instrumentation. Using a Roland TR-808 drum machine, a Roland TB-303 bassline synthesizer, and a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks drum machine, Saunders crafted the distinctive sound that would become synonymous with house music. If the main bass riff sounds a little like something Giorgio Moroder might have written for Donna Summer, that's a perfect marker of the Disco era moving into what we would know as House music (with a touch of Melle Mel's vocal style from "White Lines" the year earlier).

"On and On" was released on his own label, Jes Say Records, and its impact was immediate and profound. The track's infectious grooves, driving rhythms, and catchy melodies resonated with club-goers, and its success sparked a wave of creativity among other aspiring producers in Chicago's underground scene. The legacy of "On and On" continues to inspire new generations of electronic music artists, cementing Jesse Saunders' place in history as a true pioneer of house music.

The Power of the DJ: Ron Hardy and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk

In addition to the trailblazing producers, Chicago's house music evolution was heavily influenced by visionary DJs who had the ability to curate unique and transformative experiences for their audiences. Two DJs, in particular, stood out as key players in shaping the sound and culture of house music during its formative years: Ron Hardy and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk.

Ron Hardy, known as the "Father of the House," was a resident DJ at another iconic Chicago club called The Music Box. While Frankie Knuckles and The Warehouse played a crucial role in the birth of house music, it was Ron Hardy and his innovative DJ sets that solidified the genre's distinctive traits. At The Music Box, Hardy embraced a more raw, experimental, and edgier sound that pushed the boundaries of what house music could be. He was known for mixing genres fearlessly, incorporating new wave, post-punk, and industrial tracks alongside the emerging house records. This approach expanded the musical landscape of house music and made The Music Box a haven for creativity and self-expression.

Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, on the other hand, was an influential DJ, producer, and remixer who contributed to the popularization of house music. As a member of the Hot Mix 5, a group of DJs on radio station WBMX, Farley played an instrumental role in bringing house music to a broader audience beyond the clubs. His radio shows and mixtapes exposed countless listeners to the infectious rhythms and soulful vocals of house music, helping it reach a larger and more diverse fanbase.

Both Ron Hardy and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk demonstrated the immense power that DJs wielded in shaping the trajectory of house music. Their ability to read and respond to the energy of the crowd, to introduce new sounds and tracks, and to create a sense of community on the dancefloor played a crucial role in the genre's expansion and longevity.

The combination of visionary producers like Jesse Saunders and innovative DJs like Ron Hardy and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk paved the way for Chicago house music to break free from its local origins and make its mark on the global music landscape. Their contributions laid the foundation for the next phase of the genre's evolution, marked by the rise of iconic clubs and tracks that would come to define the golden era of Chicago house music.

Part III. The Clubs That Shaped Chicago House

The Music Box

The Music Box, located at 326 North Halsted Street, was another legendary Chicago nightclub that played a pivotal role in the development and popularization of house music. As the primary residency of DJ Ron Hardy, the club became synonymous with the raw, underground sound that characterized Chicago house.

While The Warehouse was known for its soulful and disco-influenced style, The Music Box embraced a more stripped-down, experimental, and electronic approach to DJing. Ron Hardy's sets were a whirlwind of creativity, seamlessly blending different genres, manipulating tracks with drum machines and effects, and keeping the dancefloor moving all night long. His bold and innovative selections laid the groundwork for the evolution of house music, and The Music Box quickly became a focal point for artists and music enthusiasts looking to experience this groundbreaking sound.

The club's diverse and dedicated audience, composed of people from various backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations, showcased the inclusive and unifying nature of house music. The Music Box was not just a nightclub; it was a cultural melting pot where people could come together, celebrate music, and embrace a sense of belonging that transcended societal barriers.

The Power Plant

Amidst the flourishing club scene in Chicago, The Power Plant emerged as yet another essential venue for the development of house music. Located at 2200 South Michigan Avenue, this former factory was transformed into an underground club that furthered the genre's growth.

At The Power Plant, the musical vision was curated by Frankie Knuckles and later, by another influential DJ and producer, Larry Heard (also known as Mr. Fingers). Both Knuckles and Heard had significant roles in shaping the Chicago house sound, and The Power Plant became a space where they could experiment with new music, both their own productions and tracks from emerging artists.

This club offered an intimate and immersive experience, allowing club-goers to connect deeply with the music and its creators. It became a breeding ground for innovative productions and remixes that would go on to define the evolving genre. The Power Plant showcased the essence of Chicago house music, with its soulful and emotive melodies, deep basslines, and hypnotic rhythms.

Together, The Music Box and The Power Plant played a crucial role in nurturing the creative spirit of Chicago house music. These venues were not just places to dance; they were havens for artistic expression and experimentation. The impact of these clubs, along with the influence of visionary DJs like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, and Larry Heard, helped solidify Chicago's reputation as the birthplace of house music.

Iconic Chicago House Tracks

Marshall Jefferson - "Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)"

One of the most iconic and enduring tracks in the history of house music is Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)." Released in 1986 on Trax Records, this track is an exemplar of the genre's euphoric and uplifting nature.

"Move Your Body" features soulful vocals, infectious piano chords, and a groovy bassline that compels listeners to dance. Its uplifting message and irresistible beat struck a chord with audiences, and it quickly became an anthem not only in Chicago but across the global dance music community. The track's impact is still felt today, as it continues to be a staple in DJ sets and a favorite among dance music enthusiasts worldwide.

Mr. Fingers - "Can You Feel It"

Larry Heard, under the alias Mr. Fingers, released "Can You Feel It" in 1986. This track is an essential representation of the deeper and more emotive side of house music, often referred to as "deep house."

With its ethereal pads, haunting synth melodies, and heartfelt spoken-word vocals, "Can You Feel It" transcends the dancefloor, taking listeners on a journey of self-discovery and introspection. It embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of house music, providing a profound experience that touches the soul.

"Can You Feel It" solidified Larry Heard's position as a master of the genre and helped define the sound of deep house, a subgenre that would go on to have a lasting impact on the global electronic music scene.

Phuture - "Acid Tracks"

The trio known as Phuture came to be synonymous with the genre of Acid House, such was the global impact of their iconic "Acid Tracks", released on Trax Records fittingly enough.

From the pioneering efforts of Jesse Saunders with "On and On" to the visionary DJ sets of Ron Hardy and the influential clubs like The Music Box and The Power Plant, Chicago house music emerged as a genre that would shape the global dance music landscape for decades to come.

As we celebrate the legacy of Chicago house music, let us remember the pioneers, the clubs, and the iconic tracks that continue to resonate with music lovers worldwide. This enduring genre serves as a testament to the power of music to transcend boundaries, foster inclusivity, and ignite a collective love for the dance. The spirit of Chicago house lives on, inspiring new generations of artists and enthusiasts, and reminding us of the unifying force that music can be in a world hungry for connection and expression.

Part IV: The Global Spread of Chicago House Music

The 1980s witnessed an incredible transformation in the music industry, with the rise of electronic music and the proliferation of house music beyond the borders of Chicago. The sound that originated in the Windy City quickly found its way to other cities in the United States and overseas, forever changing the course of popular music.

House Music's Impact on Detroit

Chicago's influence on the electronic music scene extended to nearby Detroit, where a parallel movement was brewing. Detroit techno, pioneered by artists like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, shared similarities with Chicago house, incorporating electronic instrumentation and innovative production techniques.

The mutual inspiration between Detroit techno and Chicago house led to a symbiotic relationship between the two genres. DJs and producers from both cities often played each other's tracks, and as the two sounds merged, a new wave of electronic music was born. The cultural exchange between Chicago and Detroit helped solidify the importance of house music and techno in shaping the future of electronic dance music worldwide.

The Global Dance Music Phenomenon

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, house music exploded onto the global stage. The genre found enthusiastic audiences in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond. DJs and producers from around the world embraced the infectious rhythms of Chicago house, adding their unique cultural influences to the mix.

In the UK, the "Second Summer of Love" in 1988 saw the rise of acid house, a subgenre of house music characterized by its squelchy and psychedelic 303 basslines. This movement, driven by raves and the dance music underground, sparked a revolution in British youth culture and laid the groundwork for the UK's iconic dance music scene.

Simultaneously, countries like Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands developed their own interpretations of house music, fusing it with their respective music traditions. The genre's universal appeal led to an influx of house music festivals, club nights, and a flourishing DJ culture that united people from all walks of life in a shared passion for dance and music.

House Music's Ongoing Evolution

As house music continued to expand globally, it continued to evolve and diversify. Subgenres like deep house, tech house, progressive house, and more emerged, each offering a unique take on the foundational sound that originated in Chicago.

Chicago house music, with its soulful and emotive roots, remains a significant influence on contemporary dance music. Producers, DJs, and artists from various backgrounds continue to pay homage to the genre, infusing their tracks with the spirit of innovation and inclusivity that defined its origins.


Chicago house music emerged as a beacon of creativity, unity, and liberation, shaping the trajectory of dance music culture worldwide. From the legendary clubs that embraced this new sound to the innovative pioneers who fearlessly experimented with music production, Chicago's influence remains indelible. As we celebrate the history and legacy of Chicago house, it's clear that its spirit continues to resonate in contemporary electronic music, reminding us of the power of innovation, community, and the universal language of dance.

The legacy of Chicago house music extends far beyond the city's borders, reaching every corner of the globe and leaving an indelible mark on the history of music. From its humble beginnings at The Warehouse and The Music Box to its influence on clubs, DJs, and producers worldwide, Chicago house music remains a timeless testament to the power of creativity, community, and the universal language of dance.

As we celebrate the journey of this genre, let us recognize the pioneers, the clubs, the iconic tracks, and the spirit of unity that have shaped the evolution of house music. Chicago house music's legacy continues to inspire new generations of artists, reminding us of the boundless potential of music to bring people together and create a world where everyone can find solace and liberation on the dancefloor. The story of Chicago house music is a story of innovation, diversity, and the enduring power of music to bridge cultures and create lasting connections.