Monday, April 20, 2009

It's been a while since I took notes at EMP, but this year I had a splendid time and of course learned a ton. I've gotten good feedback on my presentation as well, on Chuck Roberts' "My House" a cappella--house music's unofficial national anthem, a post-standard, and now available as an MP3 thanks to Oliver Wang, who graciously praised my paper. (What I saw of his was well done, as usual.) I plan to do something longer with it, but this is what I delivered last Wendesday:

HOUSE IS A FEELING (for Rickey Wright) [edited for print]
(Experience Music Project, April 17, 2009)

Call a person a tool and it’s an insult. Call a record one and it’s not—not in DJ circles. There, a tool is a record that serves a specific purpose, like a Phillips screwdriver or an Allen wrench. Simply put, it’s a recording of one basic element that a DJ uses to layer over other records, which are sometimes tools themselves. A tool can be a drum break that’s been looped for several minutes—in hip-hop these are also called “battle weapons,” utilized for scratching contests—or a locked groove that plays continuously until you pick the needle up, like the one Jeff Mills made in 1994.

Maybe the most important tool in house music is the unaccompanied vocal: the a cappella. Mostly these are issued by anonymous labels and feature about a dozen vocals from well-known disco divas: Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, Jocelyn Brown. Any decent DJ shop has a small a cappella section—I counted eight the other day at the local store Zion’s Gate. House music has always genuflected toward its disco parents, and flying in a well-loved vocal on top of a hot track connects you to a tradition—maybe not in a way that’s deep, to use that most heavily abused of dance-music terms, but enough to signal that you have some grounding in the stuff.

But a sung a cappella is tricky to play over a track. You have to have some DJ skill to pull it off, at least if you’re only playing vinyl—the longtime standard, even if it’s far less common now. Let me show you what I mean.

(Play these both at the same time)

That’s what you call a “train wreck.” Obviously, lining these things up takes some patience and ability. But utilizing spoken words rather than a cappella singing is a different ballgame. Spoken word over just about any instrumental music is a kind of DJ fail-safe—any idiot can sound good. Especially if they play house music, and if the a cappella they’re using is this one.

That’s Chuck Roberts, a Chicagoan, from “My House,” a 1987 recording by Rhythm Controll (spelled with two L’s), on the Windy City’s Catch a Beat Records. Originally, the vocal was part of a larger musical framework: the “Long Version” of “My House,” from the same 12-inch.

If you’ve heard Roberts’ sermon set to music before, chances are it wasn’t that music. For one thing, the Rhythm Controll record is very rare: Discogs’ cheapest copy of the Catch a Beat 12-inch goes for $88, the most expensive for more than $500. Last year there was a limited edition bootleg repressing, which is already going for $62. For another thing, the a cappella was snatched up by another Chicagoan, Larry Heard, a.k.a. Mr. Fingers, who’d had a club hit in 1986 with “Can You Feel It?” In 1988, Heard reissued the song and added a little something extra.

This version of the “My House” a cappella helped turn it into house music’s unofficial national anthem. If a dozen other artists playing “Crazy” or “Umbrella” in concert while they were still on the charts make them modern standards, Heard’s claim jump helped to make “My House” a post-standard—a song known as much or more for the way it’s been sampled or remixed as for attracting cover versions.

The other thing that made it work was that it evoked house’s fast-solidifying origin story. House had made the U.K. charts in 1986 and, along with the drug ecstasy, would inspire the rise of rave culture in England: 1988 was the U.K.’s Second Summer of Love. By that point, house’s rise had been chronicled in detail by the British press; its creation myth was in place. A lot of early house records had taken as their subject house music itself, often simply by throwing the word “house” into every goddamn crevice that would admit it. So a song celebrating the music’s own creation myth could not have been better timed. Particularly as it was a sermon, the echo on Chuck Roberts’ voice evoking both pulpit and town hall: religion and politics. It’s not a coincidence that in 1988, Mr. Fingers also released this version of “Can You Feel It.”

Early Chicago house was escapist with a political streak, from Jamie Principle shouting down apartheid to the identity politics at the heart of the largely black and gay scene. House was a music of misfits and outcasts, like disco had been, and Chuck Roberts’ words were aimed straight at them.

“House is a feeling.” Dozens of tracks have sampled that phrase; I found about two-dozen tracks on Discogs called “House Is a Feeling,” and it’s the name of Irish dance critic Ronan Fitzgerald’s blog. It made its way into early jungle as well, particularly Cloud 9’s “You Got Me Burnin’,” which took Roberts’ bromide and turned it sinister:

Cloud 9, “You Got Me Burnin’ (Remix)” (zSHARE)

More than anything, though, the phrase has become the ultimate go-to explanation-slash-defense-slash-justification of the scene: you can’t judge it till you’ve been there. With club cultures, that’s generally right. And in the case of “My House,” it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, no doubt on purpose. Gross generalization time: almost everyone in America who knows the a cappella either was or is a habitué of nighclubs and/or raves; very few others know it at all. But although “My House” is best known via Mr. Fingers, its greatest strength is, indeed, as a tool.

Listen again to the a cappella. It’s stirring, sure, but it’s also pretty damn corny. But that’s fine—on a dance floor, sweating, open to stimulus and emotion, its job is to sneak up on you and push you over the edge. Arms in the air, head back, joints loose: it’s never more devastatingly effective than when you don’t see it coming. It works best when the track it’s paired with is as propulsive as the a cappalla itself. To prove it, play the a cappella at the same time as the instrumental portions of the following tracks. (It works nearly as well with other kinds of instrumental tracks as well—even non-house ones.)