In the beginning…there was Jack, and Jack had a groove.
This mythical godhead for the House genre that Godfather DJ Frankie Knuckles once referred to as “disco’s revenge” debuted in Rhythm Controll’s release “My House” in 1987.
But many in Denver who claim to be the current stewards of House music don’t know Jack.
From the first moment Jack viciously threw down on his box and proclaimed “House is a feeling,” people have been seeking out House music as a sanctuary from the homogenized, mundane and often oppressive world of mainstream life. It was the birth of an underground in the early 1980s between Chicago and Detroit where the roots took hold, among a mostly black and Latino, largely queer scene. Yet somehow in the past decade or more, the rise of EDM has blurred the boundaries of what House really is, and that has taken a big toll on the cultural and spiritual value of an art form that many use for their mental and emotional well-being through the genre's primary activity — dancing.
Those who stand to benefit from the commercialization and homogenization of House – often dropping the nomenclature altogether and calling it something else — like to use the excuses that times change, technology evolves, and art must shift and grow to meet its newest consumers where they are or there won’t be enough money to keep it going.
It is a racist, classist lie used to serve greed.
Why else in the Denver dance music scene do you see leaders who are primarily white, straight or male, who have money to burn on fancy studios, overpaid headliners and a whole lot of unearned influence?
The answer is because those leaders gladly exploit any form of culture to the benefit of themselves and their small group of associates. After all, the best path to fame and riches is to cater to the masses — the masses that House music aims to free us from. By booking and promoting to the sensibilities of white, cis-gender, hetero crowds, these unscrupulous promoters make it comfortable for the cultural majority to come spend their money, while remaining ignorant that the social groups who made this big business possible in the first place are being alienated.
If House music is supposed to deviate from its original intentions, why would the vocalist who first spoke of Jack gather a courtroom of House pioneers in 2018 to declare, “Let there be House” once more? And why would the originator of House music from Chicago, Jesse Saunders, publish a book about the collective experience of the culture over the past forty years?
I can answer that question, because I wrote pages in that book.
The truth is that we are in a struggle for the soul of House music, and if those who understand House do not rise to defend it, the magic and power of the genre could be lost forever.
House is a counterculture in which people who feel different from the hegemony of what American media tells them they should aspire to can free themselves from a shallow consumer nightlife culture where the highest enlightenment is to get wasted and laid. Dancing to House was supposed to be an expression of one’s deepest angst and wildest fantasies in a world that fosters anything but. Yet today, many Denver clubs and raves take the form of a mainstream concert. Except instead of free-spirited instrument players, slack-jawed observers drunkenly cram in to watch a celebrity DJ push buttons.
Real House dancers are seeking out dark corners where they can cathartically process life’s struggles through endorphin-generating movements. The focus of House music was never meant to be on the DJ; it was meant to be on those dancers.
That means you.
So next time you find yourself looking for that pumping, thumping sound that makes you rock your body all night long, maybe ask yourself: “What is House?”
Not everyone understands House music, nor should they; it was never intended to be for everyone. But beware, because these days, the promoters, DJs and other dancers you are sharing your night with might not get it, either.
Brett Starr is a local DJ, producer, promoter and record-label boss who has been living and working deep inside House music culture since 1998.
Westword publishes op-eds and essays on issues of interest to the Denver community on weekends; the opinions in these pieces are those of the author, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.