House music began its life in the clubs of Chicago in the mid-80s. But in the ’90s, thanks to a new wave of digital tech, it went worldwide.
House music can be seen in many ways to being a musical cousin of hip-hop and rap music. Both are reliant on street and club culture and both started in the 80s — through highly technological means (think 808 drum machines and the ‘Wheels of Steel’).
Further democratisation of digital technology saw house music spread its wings in the following decade. Stretching well beyond its Anglo-American routes, it picked up new inflections as it travelled through continental Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East.
While the genre was still finding itself after the acid house explosion of the ’80s, technology — especially lower-cost digital technology — continued on its incessant march. With new sequencers, synthesisers and drum machines being released onto the market, there was ample sonic territory to be explored. This included songs made from samples of older disco tracks (much like early house music), as well as a splintering into exciting reimaginings of the idiom.
House music and its devotees had also discovered an application of culture beyond ‘jacking your body’ and the industrial grind of techno: the birth of club culture and rave music. It took on an international flavour, where bands and artists from all over the world came to understand the house music sound.
A Case Study: Black Box’s Ride on Time
While Italo disco was a big part of the early-‘80s club scene, house was still an Anglo-American phenomenon. Italo house, however, was a contributor to the genre’s expansion in the ’90s. One of the first big hits was Ride on Time by Bologna-based group, Black Box; consisting of Daniele Davoli, Mirko Limoni and Valerio Semplici. While Ride on Time was an important contribution, there was controversy surrounding its creation and release in 1989.
The song was based on the sampling of Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 song Love Sensation. For this purpose, Davoli utilised an AKAI S900 sampler. Because of the technical limitations of the S900 (63 seconds in lo-fi mode and 11 seconds in hi-fi mode, at 8 kHz and 42 kHz respectively), there was only so much that could be sampled in one pass: “I sampled a piano line and groove…it only fitted three vocal snippets, so I had to play them over and over”, he told DJ Mag.
The size of the loops was limited by the S900’s minuscule 750 KB memory capacity (having to save recordings to floppy disk gives you an idea!). The work in progress was fleshed out more with Mirko Limoni’s work on the piano.
The track was a breakout success in the UK and Ibiza, with Black Box’s original label, Disco Magic, having signed the rights to Deconstruction Records. The success was driven in part by the very first pressings being swallowed up by DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling (the latter being responsible for the significant Shoom nightclub), who spread it far and wide during the UK’s Second Summer of Love in 1989. Once Black Box was invited to perform on Top of The Pops, everything changed.
The unexpected success of the song was a double-edged sword. As the group was garnering more exposure, things became awkward. The performance on TOTP was supported by Katrin Quinol, a model who was used as a stand-in.
Davoli recalls, speaking to NME, that “none of us three blokes from Italy would be a convincing stand-in for Loleatta Holloway…Katrin was the perfect fit, she knew what her role was.” The model’s miming to the song on TOTP caused outrage among the UK press.
Then the issue with the sampling reared its ugly head.
Love Sensation was written by Dan Hartman and released on Salsoul Records in 1980. Ride on Time’s distribution in the UK was handled by Deconstruction records, who was in turn owned by BMG. The issue here was clearing the sample; Davoli assumed that sampling less than two seconds was OK.
While BMG bought the rights to the use of the song for $5,000, Salsoul disagreed, saying that they had to pay $500,000 and that the paperwork for the clearance of the sample — and payment of royalties to Dan Hartman — had never arrived. Hartman contacted them, asking for a third of the royalties; “we discovered later that he could’ve asked for 100%”, Davoli said in an interview with DJ Mag’s Ben Osborne.
Faced with the copyright issues around the sample and Salsoul and BMG locking horns over the legalities of the use of those samples, the original version of Ride on Time was pulled from sale later on in 1989, in favour of a re-recorded version with vocals from Heather Small, who later became the face of M People. Davoli told NME that:
“They [BMG] flew to Milan with the new vocals and we had 24 hours to delete the original vocals and put the new singer’s take on instead…BMG said it was a new singer doing them a favour, someone who hadn’t released any music yet but was a big priority for BMG in the future.”
So what of Ride on Time’s holistic legacy in terms of house music? Well, one of the major impacts of the song (which peaked at #14 on the ARIA singles charts in 1989) was introducing the Italo-house sound to the world, foreshadowing the popularity of Eurodance over the next few years. In the following decade, house music began to diversify its sound and become a worldwide phenomenon, starting with the genre’s instrumentation.
Instruments of ’90s house music
Aside from the use of samplers and drum machines (like the aforementioned AKAI S900 or Roland TR-909 and TB-303), one of the most significant instruments used in house music in the 1990s was the KORG M1 and its collection of iconic presets.
In production from 1988 to 1995, the M1 was used alongside the S900 to help create Ride On Time. Other songs that heavily feature the M1 include Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless) by Crystal Waters, Show Me Love by Robin S, Passion (Naked Mix) by Gat Décor, along with countless others (including that iconic slap bass intro theme for Seinfeld).
Aside from sharing a velocity-sensitive keyboard with the Yamaha DX7, the similarities between these digital icons are few. The M1 was a truly innovative jack-of-all-trades as it contained a wide variety of samples and sounds (numbered from 00 to 99), synthesis with either 16 voices or 8 voices of polyphony, as well as two oscillators with 4MB RAM each and a built-in 8 track sequencer with capacity for 77,000 individual notes (where enough memory is provided to store 10 songs).
The star feature of the M1 was its factory-loaded preset library, from the Organ Bass, as heard on Robin S’s Show Me Love, to patch 46, SlapBass; which is responsible for the theme to Seinfeld. But its main claim to fame was the piano sound (as heard in Ride On Time). Called Piano16, this is the house music sound of the 1990s and was used by countless records.
The M1 was one of the first examples of a workstation, where all the elements needed to create electronic music were already contained in one piece of hardware. While the M1 was also able to patch through to other equipment with the help of MIDI, its onboard effects (tremolo, chorus and flange, delays, distortion and EQ) and drum samples proved incredibly useful.
Another important voice in the new incarnation of house music was the TR-909 from Roland. While the TR-909 is a contemporary of the TB-303 and TR-808, it was MIDI-compatible and slotted in seamlessly with the M1.
The 909 featured similar analogue circuitry as found in the 808 and generated most of its drum sounds in the same manner, but its cymbal and hi-hat sounds were digitally sampled from real instruments. Another intuitive feature of the instrument is the sequencer. The 909’s 16-step sequencer could chain 96 patterns for songs with up to 896 bars, along with 12 voices of polyphony as well as scope for tuning a wide range of parameters.
Throughout the ’90s, what identified house music as such continued to be refined, but its influence was felt far beyond an Anglo-American sphere. Italo house, for example, had moved past the sampling and controversy of tracks like Ride On Time. Out was sampling, and in were glittering drum sounds and the KORG M1 being used almost exclusively.
Italo House featured the genre’s emblematic tones: heavy basslines, drums courtesy of the 909, and piano courtesy of the M1, with examples like 707 Boyz’ Emotions (1990) or Don Carlos’ Alone (1991). Whereas tracks like Audio Trip by Dreamatic (1991) were more Balearic in their interpretation, with ethereal synth pads, spacious delays, but still grounded by thumping bass lines.
The heavy hitters of Italo house were all gone by 1994. Most of this has to do with the limited run of records produced at the time and that “the music all joined together under a big green, white and red branch, with tracks remembered by label and name rather than artist”, writes Louis Anderson-Rich in Mixmag. In Italo house production, the use of aliases is a mark of distinction and most artists only released a handful of records.
While the sun-soaked aspects of house music were being developed in Italy in Milan, Rimini and Ibiza, the influence of the genre was also being felt in the Asian underground.
House in Far East
Far East Recording was set up in Tokyo in 1988, founded by Soichi Terada (who would later go on to find some fame composing music for Ape Escape on the PlayStation). He was later joined by his friend and collaborator, Shinichiro Yokota.
Initially, the Japanese underground scene was all about hip-hop and breakbeats. While he met Shinichiro Yokota through mutual friends at various hip-hop DJ events throughout Tokyo in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t until 1988, at a party in a Tokyo Chinese restaurant that Terada had a revelation about the style of music that he was creating. He told FactMag that:
“I’d listen to what the DJs were playing and when I got an idea to make a song I would suddenly leave the party and go back to my house and start programming. And later on, I’d play what I made to Yokota and other friends.”
Like most house music, Terada’s approach does include some covers and sampling. One of the earliest examples comes in the form of Got To Be Real, which is based on the track of the same name by Cheryl Lynn. Made with the help of Shinichiro Yokota, the first release on the Far East Recording label was a four-track EP released in 1991.
The equipment used to create this music is still a feature in Terada’s studio setup today, and in his own words, consists of “an AKAI S3200 sampler, Roland D-70 synth, JV1080 digital synthesiser, XV 2080, Roland JD 800 synth explorer and a KORG Triton workstation synth and KORG TR Racks…I admit that it looks pretty much the same as it did in the 90s!”, as told Stamp The Wax.
FER’s output, being an outlet for Terada’s and Yokota’s work runs the gamut of house music. From the thumping bass and Chicago house-style piano of Into Desert, to the acid house bass of Tokyo XXX, and sampling of Got To Be Real, and otherworldy keys and turbocharger wastegate noises of West Gate; the first album of house from this label is a sampling platter of a delicious kind, in this writer’s opinion.
For club culture, 1991 was a pivotal year. By this year, not only had house music as a genre become clearly defined (through the use of certain instruments and production techniques, as already discussed) but it had also heralded the arrival of what the modern nightclub looks like.
Taking inspiration from New York clubbing heavyweights like the Paradise Garage and Area, and mixing it with the local scene from the Second Summer of Love in 1988, was the Ministry of Sound. Much like Shoom, the now global clubbing brand began in a disused car park on Gaunt Street in Elephant and Castle. In an interview from The Guardian about the beginnings of the club, founder Justin Berkmann describes the early days:
“We spent half a million quid on the sound system, and the same again on putting the whole thing inside a soundproofed, Magnesite box…we turned the sound system up to 156 decibels – loud enough to kill someone – and you couldn’t hear it outside…when we began booking American DJs like David Morales and Larry Levan, it helped to kickstart the superstar DJ era.”
House music had come full circle. It was born in the club and upon its evolution into something new, the club had gone global.