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​Photo of: Cece Peniston byy Raymond Boyd/Getty Images, Crysal Waters by Tom Briglia/FilmMagic, Frankie Knuckles by Sal Idriss/Redferns/Getty Images.
Photo of: CeCe Peniston byy Raymond Boyd/Getty Images, Crysal Waters by Tom Briglia/FilmMagic, Frankie Knuckles by Sal Idriss/Redferns/Getty Images. Photo illustration by Srikar Poruri.

Black Music Month: The Pioneers of House Music

We’re celebrating the rich and vibrant history of Black house music.

Black people have always innovated, creating new lanes of art, thought, science and more. House music was started by Black Chicago DJs finding ways to extend the life of disco in the late ‘70s, with most of it being played in gay clubs. Now, the genre is more popular than ever, creating generations of hits and making its way into other genres. In all reality, Black people don’t get enough credit for the advent of house music, so for Black Music Month, we’re taking it upon ourselves to correct that perception. Catch up on the backstories of some of our greatest contributors to the rich history of house music.

Frankie Knuckles

House music was born out of the creativity of Chicago-based DJs as they aimed to evolve disco music. One of the DJs at the center of that era was Frankie Knuckles, who built his musical chops at a gay New York bathhouse called Continental Baths. He eventually moved to Chicago near the end of the ‘70s, where his sets at Warehouse, an area club that catered to the gay community as well as minorities, made him a sought-after DJ. House started as remixes and reworkings of disco songs, and Knuckles was heavily involved in that practice, a key reason why the genre both came into existence and became so big in Chicago and the world at large. Knuckles would go on to open multiple clubs of his own while racking up four No. 1s on the U.S. dance chart and a Grammy. He’s continued to influence house music artists, DJs and producers even after his death in 2014. Knuckles lives on through his contributions to house music.

Crystal Waters

To put it plainly, Crystal Waters is a house music legend. She has 12 No. 1 Billboard Dance hits, one of the most recognizable voices in the genre, and multiple songs that define the genre. Her 1991 single, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” is a core house song that combines dance music with social issues. The song tells the story of a houseless woman who never forgot about her beauty through her hardship. This song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Crystal would create another huge hit with “100 % Pure Love,” a 1994 single that reached No. 11 on the same chart. Boasting three albums in the ‘90s (Surprise, Storyteller and Crystal Waters) and timeless songs that still get sampled, Crystal Waters is a special talent.

Robin S.

House music wouldn’t be the same without Black women, and Robin S. is proof. With her powerful vocals and passion, her 1993 hit, “Show Me Love,” took over the clubs and radio waves. Rising as high as the No. 5 song in the country, “Show Me Love” stood the test of time, and still pops up in house mixes today. A track detailing the issues a woman faces in seeking a trustworthy and loving partner, “Show Me Love” is a house classic by any metric. She followed up with “Luv 4 Luv,” and her debut album (also titled Show Me Love) is excellent.

CeCe Penisto

With her blend of R&B and soul, CeCe Peniston brought an underlying funkiness to house music. Her first big hit was “Finally,” a 1991 dance song about yearning for the man of her dreams. What was unique here is that she sang it like an R&B song, in a genre where the focus isn’t really on superior vocal talent. The song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and rose to No. 1 on the U.S. Dance Club Songs chart. Cece had a bonafide hit, and would go on to drop two more dance chart No. 1’s in “We Got a Love Thang” and “Keep on Walkin.” All three songs appeared on her debut album, Finally, a project that solidified her status as an indelible force in house music.