The Gospel of House Music

Will Bankhead, the unflinching gauge of cool in electronic music and head of Trilogy Tapes recently dispelled some sage advice via his twitter account: “A lot of you experimental music dudes need some gospel house shoved up your arse”. In an age of heads dropped low as deep, indistinguishable Tech-House beats eddie around uniform dance floors – only to stroke the ego of an over zealous coke-head in the booth – Bankhead’s comment hits a salient nerve. Heavy-handed, disenfranchised DJs playing 125 BPM 4-4 kicks at 11:00 at night to an empty dance floor need to re-evaluate their sets and perhaps the best place to start is to return the roots of House music. Gospel choruses and throaty vocal performances exalting syncopated beats from their hallowed vaults contained on wax, is the only appropriate way to communicate the reverend nature of this culture we call House music.

Think about it… An early morning in the company of your peers, singing and dancing along to music as commanded from a raised pulpit… “It’s like church,” Tony Humphries once famously said“ you know what I mean? Especially on Sunday mornings.” The club is our church, the DJ is our reverend and the music is made to raise the spirits. We’ve subjugated the omnipotent deity and our only absolution is the momentary escape from the realities waiting outside, but the similarities to a place of worship is eerily consistent; but in modern times there has been something important lacking. It’s the music and when music supplants all religion it’s the crucial piece if the puzzle for the club and this has sadly been missing of late. Functional, droning electronic beats marching with drastic precision lack the soul of House music’s origins and it’s time to rewind, turn back the clock and once again make the dance floor our church.

Let’s take it back to its origins and one of the pre-eminent Disco tracks, that even preceded  proto-House to become one of the most legendary dance floor tracks of all time, “stand on the word.” Now that we know the track has absolutely no connection to Larry Levan, other than he might have played it at some point, this track was the precursor to all the vocal House music that came after it. Originally penned by Phyliss McKoy Joubert, a minister out of Crown Heights, New York the song was originally recorded for a compilation LP of Gospel music. It found its way onto the dance floor when Tony Humphries spread the word through his residency at the legendary New Jersey club Zanzibar. After getting his hands on a couple of copies of the record he would extend the breaks and the the tracks eventually became a Zanzibar anthem. “7:30, 8:00 in the morning, you would have an encore or closing song,” Humphries told RBMA. It was so popular that Humphries would eventually remix the track under the new title the Joubert singers where it is still enshrined today and lives on in infamy as the track started it all.

As Disco morphed into House these origins would play a fundamental role in the emerging new sound of the 1980’s, coming out of New York and Chicago through selectors like Frankie Knuckles – appropriately referred to today as the godfather of House. Unsurprisingly Knuckles had a similar vision of the club as Humphries in that he believed it was “like church… by the time the preacher gets going, the whole room becomes one”. This analogy to the Sunday reverence might in fact be something embedded in the cultural roots of the early facilitators of this music. People like Knuckles and Larry Levan, predominantly black inner city kids, would have undoubtedly been going to church with their parents from an early age and bare witness to the awesome, spirit-elevating might of a choir or an angelic soulstress, as they were wont to do in the US.

It seems unlikely that these, usually gay black or latino kids would find solace in church music, but that connection is confirmed today through countless books and think pieces about this music. Today it’s something that echoes through the whole legacy of House leading up to the present. Go to Horse meat Disco or the NYC Downlow and House music is still perpetuates this balance between thumping 808 beats, mind-bending 303 surges and a vocals belting out soulful exaltations from up high. Whether it is acting on the fringes at club-concepts or at the height of its popularity, Gospel infused House has remains resolute and it offers a human dimension and an inseparable link to the origins of this music. House music and the clubs from which it sprang was the last sanctuary for the persecuted black and gay young men and women, a place where they could be themselves, completely liberated from the conservative views. The music facilitated this feeling through the sounds of Gospel, not as a church-going music but something that offered an escape from the trials and tribulations of growing up gay in the late seventies, early eighties and even nineties in every-day America.

It’s no surprise that the music reflected a proud and determined optimism of Gospel music rather than a sombre dissatisfaction in sound. Uplifting melodies high-energy tempos and spirit-raising lyrics all coalesced in music with a positive message for the oppressed at its core. “Brother and Sisters one day we will be free” sings Joe Smooth in 1989 on “Promised Land” and that message has echoed through House music ever since. Robin S asking in no uncertain terms  “you gotta show me love” from deep beyond her lungs or Ru Paul inviting you into her “House of Love” conveyed a positive message of hope and perseverance for a disenfranchised youth in the familiar Gospel motifs.

In his book Trance Formation, the academic Robin Sylvan even suggests that the Rave Culture that followed was not merely a counter-cultural revolution, but rather a “significant religious phenomenon”. And this makes absolute sense… doesn’t it? Music, for as long as it’s existed has had a significant part to play in religion and vice versa. Consider the English Reformation: The music, which had previously been the reserve of a church elite, sung in Latin, started being transcribed to English to put the word of the God into the mouth of every common English- man and woman. Then consider the music of Bach – exclusively written for God, but today lives on in the classical cannon beyond religion.

Music has always had a spiritual dimension, and as we’ve progressed as a society and started doing away with ancient folklore about pre-eminent spirits watching over us like big brother, the spirituality continues to live on in the music… but only if the music reflects that.

As people turn away this “spirituality” in House music they also unwittingly, or in some cases purposefully, dishonour the legacy established by the young gay, black and latino men and women who created this music. The idea of the club as a church, can’t be sustained if the music doesn’t offer that spiritual dimension. At some point during the end of the nineties the vocal became some kind of tawdry production cliche and as artists and DJs abandoned it, a little of the soul of House music left along with it. The dance floor became an isolated experience, unless you went to specific club nights that honoured these roots, usually gay underground club nights like Honey Soundsystem or the aforementioned Horse Meat Disco. Trance-inducing synth-melodies work on occasion, but when all you need is a song to sing along to, something to move the spirit and bond with a stranger, nothing beats a powerful vocal expelling messages of love, unity and spirituality deep from within a soul. House music isn’t just something for your body, but rather something for your mind, body and soul.  

*Hear the full gospel at Jæger from the lips of an originator.

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