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House music forever

Episode Summary

House music is in the spotlight right now because of mega-artists like Beyoncé, Drake, and Bad Bunny. But the genre has been here before — we get into its history and enduring power.

Episode Notes

This summer, some of the biggest names in music decided that we all need to dance. Drake, Beyoncé, Charlie XCX, Bad Bunny — they all departed from their usual styles to create albums inspired by a genre called house music.

Today, we talk about how house music became the sound of liberation and why it’s back and more mainstream than ever.

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times pop music reporter August Brown

More reading:

Beyoncé returns with liberating house jam ‘Break My Soul’

The Gold Line carries house music to downtown L.A.

The Beyoncé effect: ‘Break My Soul’ propels ’90s star Robin S and the Great Resignation

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: This summer, some of the biggest names in music decided that we all need to dance.

Drake, Beyonce, Charlie XCX, Bad Bunny. They all departed from their usual styles to create albums inspired by a genre called house music.

Now, if you're a Boomer like me you'll know house music was huge in American music during the early 1990’s. Good stuff.

Even a nerd like me was able to show off some moves, maybe not, but just as quickly as house went mainstream, it then went back underground. Until now.

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times.

It's Wednesday, August 10, 2022.

Today, as summer starts coming to a close, how house music became the sound of liberation, and why it's back and more mainstream than ever.

Gustavo: My L.A. Times colleague August Brown covers pop music and the music industry. August, welcome to The Times.

August: Hey, thanks for having me.

Gustavo: So what exactly is house music? Is it the type of electronic music that goes, or am I messing it up?

August: So house music is…I guess the cleanest definition, and you'll know this as a child of growing up in the 90s, the differences between electronic genres like house music or techno or big beat or anything, you know, people have fought wars over these definitions. And I guess house music is it's dance music that's made with samples and it's meant to bring people together on a dance floor.

August: It's got a strong four on the four beat that kind of allows you to get lost in the music. And it's a real lattice work for all sorts of interesting musicality on top of it, it's usually got a vocal hook kind of a big belt to really kind of bring the, almost like a spiritual quality of a song home. And it's really meant to get people dancing together. It's not isolating like techno. It is meant to come together in a sacred, shared space and have the night of your life.

August: But yeah, it is onz music. Um, you know, if you wanna refer to it pejoratively, but yes, it is a strong four on the four about, um, maybe like 120 to 130 BPM. And within those rules you could do pretty much anything else on top of it.

Gustavo: Yeah. It's true what you say though, about the big vocals. I remember the older house music from when I was growing up and they always had just such great voices, but why do they call it house music anyways?

August: So there's a specific building and a time and place that house music came from, it was a club called the Warehouse in Chicago, which was run by this excellent DJ and really formative figure named Frankie Knuckles.

August: He, um, was one of the very early progenitors of house music. And there, there was a guy Larry Levon in New York that was the first to start taking disco music and really drawing it out and mixing it together into very long lengths that allow you to get lost on a dance floor and add some electronic elements into it. But Frankie Knuckles was the guy that would take those samples of disco records like we were talking about that house music is built on samples and cuts of older records and he would put them on loops, use that four on the four beat and made like a whole new genre out of it.

August: And he started doing this at a club in Chicago called the Warehouse in the 80s and into the 90s. Where a lot of the in post-industrial Midwest, black, gay, trans people could come to this club and experience this music in a really communal, joyful, extremely free non-judgmental setting in a society that really pushed them to the margins in other places.

Gustavo: That's interesting. You say that because then in the late 80s and early 90s, you started getting some mainstream exposure to house music or at least derivatives of house. So how did that happen?

August: So, this was the age of the house remix, artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson would get remixed by DJs like Paul Oakenfold.

August: you had, Daft Punk came to its first commercial success around then. 

August: You had people like Kylie Monogue using house beats to make top 40 pop.

August: I think a lot of the stuff that you're talking about though is, uh, artists like CC Peneston, who had a great song called Finally and Crystal Waters, Gypsy Woman, and then Robin S who was sampled on the Beyonce record. You know, these, you know, usually black women with really huge belter voices on top of this, like very. Just funky propulsive beats that, just were very popular gay clubs at the time. And then percolated up into the mainstream in the nineties too.

August: Anybody who was around in that era, who was dancing at nightclubs is gonna know those songs. Like they know their own DNA. I mean, these they're just imprinted on a generation of people.

Gustavo: Was “everybody dance now” of house music?

August: Yeah, it was drawing from the instrumentation of that kind of house music and used to, jock jam ends.

August: But yeah, what was exciting about that time it was, uh, there were kind of no rules, especially in America.

The genre was invented in America. Europeans kind of built it into this, got a kind of festival phenomenon and there's always been like a long kind of interplay between, Americans inventing Europeans refining and going back and forth too it was a really a no rules time. And especially in SoCal in the nineties, you know, you could go out to dance clubs to hear it, but a lot of the action was in these illegal Renegade waves off in the forests or out in the desert. And, people were like quite literally breaking the law to go here and play this music. It was a really interesting time.

Gustavo: Yeah, my friends would go to those raves that was too much of a nerd to go, but I was listening to what they were playing on kiss FM. And so how was house starting to change then going into the nineties and the two thousands.

August: well, I think in the nineties there was clear that there was some commercial potential to it people like, uh, like Moby or fat boy slim, had hits that, Americans would recognize and people were using a lot of those sounds. uh, you know, to make, interesting beat driven, pop music like that. Um, then in Daft Punk coming back in 2006 at Coachella was obviously a landmark moment, that blew people's minds to this day. You'll hear people talk about that set as. transformative in their lives.

August: And then into the two thousands came the EDM explosion in America, where a lot of acts that were using house music, became these huge festival phenomenons, guys like cascade and Tito, who was another big guy in the nineties, they suddenly had this second wind at their back, um, playing to a hundred thousand people at, you know, big American festivals. And, LA Times readers would probably remember electric Daisy carnival around the 2010 era. And a lot of. Kind of drama and conflict around, that at the time, but it did announce raving as kind of a permanent American festival phenomenon that, drew from house music and, most acts that play that, or have at least one foot in house music. And that continues to this day. I mean, EDC is still, I think the biggest multi-day festival in the United States.

Gustavo: Hmm. And now….house music is all over the mainstream…again.

August: This is the summer of house music. 

August: Mostly Beyonce and Drake are the two most high profile superstars that have been using the cultural context and the literal mechanics of house music, like using those kinds of beats, those kinds of productions. 

I think Beyonce's was better received. I think, her musical prowess, her virtuosity and just the strength of those songs and the message and cultural background of drawing from black L G B T uh, dance club culture, coupled with the strength of her voice that recalls, crystal waters and Robin S and CC Penton. 

August: There's no more natural fit than Beyonce to make a house record. 

Drake doing one was pretty interesting, I think he's always had an affinity for that music. he's worked with people like black coffee and Jamie XX, to make songs before but for him to do a whole record of it where he barely even raps was, I think took a lot of fans by surprise.

August: Reaction was mixed though. I think that there's some strong tunes on that one, but, I think if you're putting them head to head, Beyonce was the clear winner in that battle.

Gustavo: I was eating with a colleague of ours a couple of weeks ago, outside. And they had on here in Southern California kiss FM, and within the space of an hour, they played break my soul by Beyonce three times. And both of us were like from the same generation, we're like, oh, shoot. This is like going back to Sycamore, junior high, early nineties.

August: Oh, I'm quite literally cuz break by soul does sample Robin S and if you know that that hook, that's gonna make your hair stand up on end before you even really realize what's happening. it is meant for people like you.

Gustavo: More after the break.

Gustavo: So August, why all the attention right now to house by these big time artists, what is it about the summer that lends itself to the moment that we're at right now?

August: You might remember that we've all been locked inside, tearing our hair out for a few years now. And it's been an extremely halting return to any kind of social interaction or communal experience. And I think for a long time, people have been. just getting ready to get sweaty and meet some strangers on a dance floor. And, people have finally arrived at a point where they're going out regardless and they wanna dance and they won't be told otherwise. And I think, these superstars are trying to read the room and for people like Beyonce who obviously is deeply, influenced by a song like Robin SNY love that's the kind of music she wants to hear when she goes out and dances right now. And I think that's shared among her fan. And, someone like Drake, um, you know, a song like calling my name or Texaco green, really draws from a tradition of warehouse, music like Frankie knuckles, where it's just of like soulful sung, but also like moody and transported music where people want to go get lost in a dark room with smoke machines all night.

August: And I think that's what people have just been craving for, you know, several years now. Like they wanna just be in a room with their friends, meet strangers and dance and, you know, These pop artists are responding to that like very deep physical need.

Gustavo: Uh, people are seeking release and ecstasy and also commonality in a way, like get together and just let it all out on the dance floor. So

August: Oh yeah. Yeah. Everyone has been, you know, left to their own, uh, devices for so long that like doing anything, communally is like, we're all starved for it. And you know, Even early during lockdown. I think there was a lot of interesting kind of dance music and disco coming out, you know, like a DPA's, uh, album and the weekends album, all used bits of disco to lift people's spirits.

But you know, the Beyonce and Drake records, I think are they're meant to be experienced together on a dance floor. And I'm sure people are gonna find ways to get.

Gustavo: Yeah, I'm curious just how that OG era of house music from the eighties and nineties, how Drake and Beyonce and all these other artists are drawing it. So I'm gonna shout out a song and I want you to get into the rhythms, like really break, put on your pop music, genius hat, and just. Lay it down for us. So I'm gonna start with the most obvious one break my soul. You already mentioned it by Beyonce. And we actually talked about it a bit on the times episode with our colleague Michael Woods, but what's your thoughts on break my soul. And how does it relate to Robin S.

August: Well, I think the, the interesting thing is to hear it in the context of the album now, because when it came out, um, I think, you know, the reception was good. Beyonce has a powerhouse vocal, the Robins sample for anyone that's into house music. That's a north star of the genre, and when I interviewed to Robin S, she said that she takes it as a compliment. 

Robin S:  listening to the songs that, are on the album, I'm like, okay. Yeah, I was feeling that too. I was feeling that too, you know, it's, you know, that you've made an impact on this world, in the music industry, in society, in culture.When someone is redoing your song or taking a sample from your song, you know, you, you can't think anything otherwise

August: And you know, she spoke to me about how house music is supposed to uplift people and nourishment in difficult times and how she sees herself in Beyonce in that regard.

Robin S: I've also read stuff where, you know, some people are not happy about it because it's an album full of sampled songs. Well, the album's called Renaissance. It's called Renaissance for a reason. And, and I totally understand that it's not. My sample is on that song, but it's, it's a reason why the album is called Renaissance is all the music that made me feel good.All the music that I jammed to and listened to over my period of time.

Robin S: most of the music when people are not creative, when producers are not creative, they go back to what worked, am I right or wrong? They go back to what people were familiar to. So this is nothing new. It's nothing new. It's just that she's an R and B artist. And she's one of, she's the queen of a R and B artists, you know, the R and B world.And, and she decided to do dance. Okay. You can't, you can't get mad at that

August: it's a very smart and savvy way to immediately make the song feel familiar, even if it's brand new. it also samples big Frida who was a new Orleans bounce artist that, came up in the 2010s, but has remained this very influential. Figure within dance music for, a few decades now. And I think Beyonce owes a lot to that, gender progressive G B T dance, music, culture, and, sampled some of big Frida on that. And I think the kind of pairing of that really traces a path from the nineties into the two thousands into the song today, which has a really, it's got a powerful hook and I think Beyonce's singing a message release and, being sick of work and, the kind of grind of the last few years that I think really resonates with the spirit of even the eighties in the warehouse. You know, people working at factory jobs in Chicago, went out to the warehouse to go dance, to get away from the kind of misery of the post-industrial Midwest.

And, you know, I think Beyonce within that song, a path through in all those decades, all those sounds, all those moments. And when you hear it in the broader context of the album, it makes a lot of sense to see what she's doing. The song is, I think I said in my kind of quick recap of it, you know, it's the sexiest history lesson in kind of recent music.

Like it, you know, it, it's a, it's a masterclass in everything that's happened in dance music for 40 years, but it also just sounds amazing and of the moment and hits the spot for what people really need. Right.

Gustavo: What other Beyonce songs from her new album, stick out to you as like great homages to house.

August: Cozy is a great one that one's got, honey, a cameo from, this great underground artist named honey Dejan on it, you know, and that's got that big sassy, HOD, raw vocal delivery, it's Beyonce. So it's this very kind of artful, stutter step quick cuts, lots of interesting noises on it.

August: It is just meant getting up in a stranger ear and whispering sweet nothings to him on the dance floor, for sure. Um, I think alien superstars got a lot of it, it's got a very kind of classic house groove to it. Cuff it's got a really great Larry Levon kind of disco sensibility to it.

All these songs, you know, they're very kind of the moment Beyonce put s a very. Uh, you know, Beyonce style vocal spin on it, but she's very savvy in positioning them within these different eras of dance music that, you know, listeners coming to it for the first time. I think it'll peak their curiosity, but you know, for old heads that have been listening to this for ages, they're gonna hear a lot of it in a brand new light, and it's gotta be exciting to see, zoomers, rediscover someone like Robin S it's I guess it's gotta be really fun for.

Gustavo: Oh, yeah. What about Drake what's house about his new album?

August: So Drake's new album. It's interesting because where Beyonce taps into all these different eras Drake's is very of specific. And monochrome is the wrong word, but he's definitely going for this. DT a late night warehouse vibe where it's kinda one beat for 45 minutes. it's a lot of this kind of mournful pitch, corrected vocals. Like he barely wraps on a lot of it. Um, he worked with a producer from South Africa called black coffee. He's been big, on the, festival circuit. he just won a Grammy for best dance electronic album last year. He's not really topping into a lot of different eras, but it's this really clean distillation of a kind of 3:00 AM. maybe the drugs are really kicking in and you're feeling really good and want to go meet some strangers right now. But yeah, it's very transported and it's very, it's a very new look for him, mostly just cuz he's not wrapping at all really other than a couple of songs. So it's, it's kind of a nineties deep. Meets contemporary D TLA, you know, piling into an Uber with your friends and going into a, you know, a recycling plant where someone's set up a PA where you can dance till 6:00 AM.

Gustavo: The really interesting person for me is bad bunny. He's one of the biggest music stars in the world, the king of reggaeton, but DJs have been doing house mixes of his stuff for a while. So now he just got into the game.

August: Yeah, he's always had a great voice to be remixed. You know, it says that kind of. It's very mournful melodic, and it's usually smeared up with some auto tune and effects. It fits really well on top of dance beats. But you with this album, especially on the song he really leaned into it hard, it's got that kind of funky squelchy sack, synth sound. It's got a big chant. Vocal behind it. it's got a lot of Latin percussion, which is, you know, if you listen to old, like seventies, salsa, orchestra records, uh, you know, you'll recognize a lot of the percussion sounds on it.

August: , yeah, it really kind of does a Venn diagram between what he's good at versus this kind of house music moment in a way that's really distinct, even from Beyonce and Drake, only. it's a genre of one that he's doing right now. And I love that song. I think it's gonna be just crushing on mixes. That song PEPs, uh, was also really big, over the last year, especially in, of like Miami rave scene land and, you know, that's, that's a really interesting kind of pop Latin house music crossover right now that I think it has a lot of legs going forward. People wanna dance and that's a whole. Slice of the world. That's gonna be doing interesting things in the scene for a long time.

Gustavo: More after the break.

Gustavo: I'm sure you're reading all these headlines saying house music is back. House music is back, but it never really left. So when you read headlines like that, what's that say to you?

August: Well, it's kind of the story of house music is that it waxes and wanes culturally, um, in the mainstream over the years, you know, ever since it took. In, the eighties and into the nineties and two thousands, it's never gone away. You know, people always want to go dance. They always wanna find interesting new genre frameworks for the bedrock of house music. You know, it can, travel into all sorts of different. Scenes and sounds, and, um, you know, the, the human need to go communally dance together, never WANs. It's always there. And Robin S spoke to me about this too. She wanted to make it clear that even though house music is currently en vogue right now it never died. 

Robin S: it's just that people never paid attention to us, you know? I mean, it was, yeah. That music that makes you feel good for the moment. And then, yeah, I'm gonna go back to my R and B or my jazz.  I love the title of the album,  because if you listen to the album, it's all the music that inspired her, you know, from back in the day.

And I mean, It's called Renaissance.  Renaissance is pulling things from the old, into the new and, and, you know, giving them life again.. They tossed it to the side. It didn't mean that it died. It just meant that we had to protect one another. And that's what we've done all these years is protect one, another, protect our music, the things that meant something to us.

If you're going out, especially in like downtown LA on the weekends, you know, there are dozens of great shows. Always have been every night since the nineties. Um, and I think people that have been in the genre for a long time are like really familiar. top 40 radio coming in and, peeking around, taking what it needs, then leaving for a decade. it's not a new phenomenon, the people really committed to it will always seek it out and find it. And it's relative popularity doesn't really make a difference to what people go out and look for.

Gustavo: How does the pure house scene look like right now? In other words, those underground rave, not Beyonce, not Drake, but the ones as you put the recycling plants with a mixer right there.

August: yeah. the one really great thing about the contemporary scene is it is, it is extremely diverse at its Vanguard. Like we're at a banner year for trans women, making exemplary records, pulling great crowds and really just like setting the pace for where the genre is going. Like I'm thinking of right. So, um, Honey Dijon  contribution to Beyonce's track cozy, I think was, really intentional on Beyonce's behalf. I think she really wanted to highlight the, black L G B T roots of a lot of the genres that she's using on this record. And Honey Dijon has a great song called love is a state of mind that I think fits really neatly into this house music moment. And I think people that discover her on the Beyonce record, if they go looking, they're gonna find a well of really fascinating tracks from Honey Dijon.

August: I think she's got a real shot at using this moment to ascend to a new level of recognition within music, outside of the under. Beyonce’s gay uncle influenced a lot of the record and brought her into the gay L G B T roots of house music. I'm thinking of acts like, Jasmine infinity and Juliana Hable and, uh, Okta, Okta, and Aris. True. none of them are necessarily pure house music, but they're using the tools of house music. To do something really exciting and putting, trans women, especially trans women of color at the very tip of the spirit of this genre. Uh, everyone in the scene has to acknowledge that trans women run the show these days. And that's really exciting to me about where the underground is going these days.

Gustavo: Finally this episode could have easily been about hip hop. If podcasts existed in 1990s or disco in the seventies or rock and roll, if they were in the 1950s, in other words, underground genres always get a mainstream moment and some stay there and become part of the mainstream and others just go back. So what do you see as the future for house music?

August: Well,I think you alluded to it. I think the Latin house crossover is a really interesting. Global phenomenon of, where someone like bad bunny can make a top 40 hit out of it, by being completely uncompromising and doing something really unprecedented. Um, you know, I think,I look forward to seeing a trans woman artist get to the top of the chart with this. I think,, someone, like Kim Petris, is it is a trans woman doing, not house music per se, but like interesting electronic music, you know, know, she's got a lot of potential there. Honey Dijon, I think is, someone with a lot of interesting commercial potential too. She's a stellar producer writes great hooks is extremely charismatic on stage. And I think, when people, you kind in the vein of big free, I think she's got a lot of potential to take off here. Uh, but mostly, the scene, the best thing about the scene is it doesn't need the mainstream's approval to survive and thrive. It'll always find its own twists and turns.

August: The musical bedrock of it is never going away. And the best thing about it is you can't predict where it's gonna go. right now it's having a moment where superstars are paying a lot of attention to it. I think it's gonna draw a lot of new ears into the genre for sure. But the coolest thing about house music is it does what it wants.

It's a wild animal and anyone that tries to shape it or force it into, a box is going to find themselves outsmarted by the producers instantaneous.

Gustavo: August. Thank you so much for this conversation.

August: Ah, this is so fun. Thank you Gustavo, go dance on this weekend.

Gustavo: I'll try.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode at The Times, daily news from the LA Times, David Toledo, Ashley Brown, and Surya Hendry were the jefas on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show produced by Shannon Lynn, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo, Ashley Brown. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto, and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Shani Hilton and Jazmin Aguilera. And our theme music is by Andrew Epin. Like what you're listening to then make sure to follow the times on whatever platform you use.