It's a Friday night in Charlotte, and I'm sweating up a storm in the Uptown nightclub HOM, dancing to the hard-hitting sounds of legendary Chicago-based DJ Julius the Mad Thinker. Inside the club, the bass thumps hard and often – like the heartbeat of something that's truly bigger than all of us – and the bodies of the other patrons move close to one another, trying to generate more heat than the DJ is putting out. People from all walks of life fill the dance floor: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, straight, gay ... you name it, chances are you'll find it. I swim through this melting pot of culture to get closer to the speakers so I can absorb the rhythm that's driving everyone tonight: house music.
Yep, house -- that DJ-driven, electronic-flavored musical genre -- has a propensity to unify divergent people (like it's doing tonight), but it's also a polarizing force. Here in the Queen City, for example, the art form has split the populace into at least two groups: One that believes house is a dead sound and subculture, and another group that says it's alive and thriving in Crown Town and beyond.
But, for the uninitiated, what exactly is house music?
"House is a feeling," as more than one bumper sticker I've read suggests. "House, food, shelter, sex (and always in that order)" reads another. Perhaps it is, as a T-shirt I once saw implies "a spiritual thang." It has been known to flourish in larger cities, and was known as "gay dance music" from its inception up until a few years ago, when DJs across the nation started popping up like weeds and forcing the hetero public to take notice. Ultimately house is, for better or worse, a type of music that has been falsely accused, falsely oppressed, and suppressed.
When speaking of it sonically, an easy way to describe it would be an up-tempo version of 1970s-era disco, minus the cheese. On top of that, add deeper bass lines, even deeper bass drums, super-sized or sultry vocals, and, most importantly, the sexiest grooves this side of a good porno soundtrack; or it could be as sparse as a desert, with no vocals at all -- but the groove is sooooo deep you can drown in it. This is house, bitches. Rub the variances over your nipples, and love it.
That "boom-boom-boom" is the backbeat (or as some call it, "the foot") of all house music. A lot of the music is very spiritual, with producers layering gospel-type, "big-voiced" vocals (think Whitney Houston with more grit) over repetitive, but hard-hitting bass drums, acting as a lifeline to a higher power. "It's extremely spiritual. As a matter of fact, there was even a dance called the Holy Ghost," says local "house head" (and my fiancé) Michele Charlan. "House is love."
In Charlotte, the decidedly nonmainstream musical genre can be heard in heavy rotation at a small number of nightspots like Loft 1523 and HOM. The majority of local clubs, however, only play it in small doses -- if at all. It is, for all intents and purposes, a hate-it or love-it type of music that is known to clear dance floors. But a few soon-to-open establishments plan to take the risk and make house their club's predominant sound (more on those spots later).
You'd think trying to find the beginning of something that lives off spirit and love would be like trying to explain the beginning of mankind, but the music actually does have a tangible starting point. Rising from the ashes of the disco era, house music began surfacing in the late 1970s and early '80s. It only seems right that Chicago -- the city that killed disco -- would be the same city to give birth to disco's bastard cousin (house, that is). (In a truly bizarre incident at Chi-town's Comiskey Park one night, people were asked to bring their unwanted disco records to the game. A massive bonfire was started, the records were tossed in, and so was the death of disco.)
DJ Frankie Knuckles popularized the disco-with-less-music-and-more-bass sound at the legendary Chicago nightclub The Warehouse, even helping to give it a name. (His performances/mixes became so popular that the records he played were sold with a label that read: "As Heard at The Warehouse.") But it was another DJ that would help it develop its own sound. Where Knuckles played up the disco edge, Ron Hardy gave the music a more rhythmic flavor and, at the same time, created a connection with the people by breaking several local house artists. The Music Box -- the nightclub Hardy played -- was the spot where local artists could bring their tapes and have Hardy blend them into his legendary sets, helping house truly become a Chicago trademark. But for us Charlotteans, it was still an out-of-town thing.