A DJ Guide To Black Dance Music Classics — From Chicago House To New Jersey Club

A DJ Guide To Black Dance Music Classics — From Chicago House To New Jersey Club
Photo Credit: Simon King/Redferns

Amid Beyoncé and Drake dropping dance-centric albums, here’s a guide to the classics of Black dance music subgenres — from Chicago house to Baltimore Club.

Thanks to Beyoncé and Drake releasing their own respective dance-centric albums — Renaissance and Honestly, Nevermind — there’s been a renewed interest in dance music — specifically Black dance music — in the mainstream. In their projects you can hear references to a handful of Black dance subgenres, particularly four subgenres that Black people pioneered: Chicago house, Detroit techno, and New Jersey and Baltimore club.

Although there are other dance music subgenres Black people are behind (Miami bass, New Orleans bounce), it’s these four in particular that have been highlighted through Bey and Drake’s latest releases. And although it’s great to see them acknowledged in the mainstream by two of pop music’s biggest stars, that doesn’t mean that these sounds haven’t always been present, especially in the cities that birthed them. From Chicago to Baltimore you’ll still hear DJs old and new highlighting the classics — and contemporary hits — of their respective dance subgenre.

With the latter half of 2022 bringing in a renaissance of Black dance music to the mainstream, we spoke to DJs from Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, and Baltimore about the dance classics from their cities, as well as how they feel their dance scenes have changed since their beginnings. This is a DJ guide to the classics of Chicago house, Detroit techno, and New Jersey and Baltimore club.

Chicago House

“The roots of what is now known as house music comes from dance floor anthems established at places like The Loft, The Gallery, and Paradise Garage [in New York City], and later The Warehouse [in Chicago],” longtime Chicago DJ Ron Trent explained over email. “Uptempo R&B, which we now know as disco, is the godfather to house music and hip-hop (disco rap).”

However, Chicago came to define house music thanks to the late Frankie Knuckles, according to Trent. Bringing his New York style of dance presentation to Chicago, specifically the legendary Warehouse club, Knuckles began a movement that still is a part of the city and has never left.

I think it’s important to note that although the conversation of Black people in house music is mainstream at the moment, it has always been mainstream to Chicago,” Rae Chardonnay, also a Chicago DJ, said over email. “We’ve never stopped having the conversations, stopped making spaces to celebrate, or stopped creating house music and contributing to and being originators of its culture. All of your faves are sampling house music and your favorite Chicago artists especially, almost always have what could be considered a house track on their albums.”

“Young Black and Brown folks are really carrying house music today, just like in its infancy,” she added. “I want people to know that house music is Black queer trans from root to tip. Lean in.”

As for the DJs picks of classic house tracks, some highlight how the sound of disco gave way to dance genres like house, as is the case with MFSB’s “Love is the Message,” while others speak more to the actual sound that came to define the genre, like Jamie Principle’s “Your Love,” a song that both Ron Trent and fellow DJ Duane Powell selected. — Melissa Kimble

DJ Ron Trent

“Love is the Message” by MFSB 

Released in 1973, “Love is the Message” was a big anthem at The Loft with DJ David Mancuso, and later The Gallery with DJ Nicky Siano. This song in particular helped to summarize the message of the story being woven from the DJ booth to the dance floor. This Gamble and Huff Philly International production, up until this very day, represents the sentiment of the purest energy of how and why dance culture began. The orchestration is avant-garde, and the rhythm section and distinctive heavy bassline cast a magic spell. This record elevated the culture, and ushered in a consciousness that made way for a new sound to come. 

“Your Love” by Jamie Principle 

“Your Love” is paramount to the early beginnings of the house music sound. Produced by Jamie Principle and later released on the infamous Trax Records, the song was an underground classic years before it even was released publicly. You could only hear this song if you went to hear Frankie Knuckles play at his club, The Power Plant. It was very alternative but soulful. The bassline was unforgettable. It was high art and was a taste of the forward-thinking, edgy world that was beginning.  

DJ Rae Chardonnay

“Brighter Days” (Underground Mix) by Cajmere and Dajae 

It hits the mark with structure and not centralizing the vocals in a way that overpowers, really using the vocals as an instrument a part of the track. Dajae never misses on the delivery from the gut, gospel-giving vocals that add so much dimension to any track. 

“You Used to Love Me” by Ralphi Rosario and Xaviera Gold 

This track taps into early hip-hop in a way that some other Chicago house classics didn’t do. I know Xaviera was singing but she was also rapping. That, paired with the disco drums and everything else Ralphi does on this track, hits the mark for me. 

Duane Powell

“Your Love” by Jamie Principle 

Jamie’s music to me is what house music is. People have this idea that house music is this thing that came out of the ashes of the funk/disco era and it’s not true. Disco is an influence of house but that’s not the only one. Jamie’s sound had a mixture of all of it — house has electronica, house has a little industrial even.

“French Kiss” by Lil Louis 

Lil Louis was one of the first new house artists to get signed from major labels, and “French Kiss” definitely changed the way people view what’s possible in house.

Detroit Techno

Techno has had so many iterations, factions and eras since its beginnings in the Detroit suburb of Belleville in the ’80s. The genre has come a long way since the electro/techno sounds of pioneering duos like Cybotron — remember Missy Elliott’s and Ciara’s “Lose Control”? Well, that’s built around a sample of Cybotron’s classic “Clear” — and to this day, you can still find a great techno set on any given weekend in the city. 

Techno is so embedded in the city’s framework that Detroiters may not even realize that it doesn’t sound like this at every backyard BBQ or late night ride downtown. That bass, that kick, that energy, that tension? It’s techno — and techno is indisputably a genre that is native to Detroit. Techno’s founders and fans were young, Black and queer. It was made for and by people who can really get down and handle multiple grooves at once. Even as mainstream white audiences and producers have laid claim to electronic music, it all began with techno. 

We’ve entered an era where music is easier to find, trace, and research than ever before, so the next generation of curious Black DJs, music geeks and party hoppers can know exactly where their favorite music came from. The beauty of being in Detroit, a place where so much Black music history has happened, is that it holds the promise and the challenge to create something new, too. The group of local Black femme DJs below — DJ Etta, DJ Father Dukes and DJ Auntie Chanel — are doing just that, and they’ve shared a couple of their favorite techno tracks that both represent the genre’s sound, as well as songs from the disco era that were integral to techno’s birth, too. — Imani Mixon

ETTA

“I Feel Love” by Donna Summer 

“In Their Fear They Plotted Her Destruction” by Tygapaw

[These songs are] the foundation and the future. The love and the resistance and all the things in between.

DJ Father Dukes

“The Bells” by Jeff Mills

“Black Manta Corps” by Huey Mnemonic and D. Strange

For these picks, I went with a classic and something new that I think speaks to the staying power of Detroit electronic music, and the fact that this city simultaneously holds such powerful historical roots while constantly crafting the future of the genre. I stay in awe of being in a newer generation of DJs in a place where your favorite producer’s favorite producer is just up at the local cafe or dropping off their new records in shops. Nothing like being immersed in the music scene here.

DJ Auntie Chanel

“AUX Mind” (Egyptian Lover Remix) by Aux88 

“Art of Stalking” by Suburban Knight

I love blending bass-heavy techno with industrial music. Detroit, Black and goth culture are big parts of my identity. I try to make sure my selections are reflective of that.

New Jersey Club

Originating in Newark, New Jersey during the early ’80s, the Jersey club sound has stylistic origins in garage house, deep house, soul, and gospel music. DJs like DJ Kerri Chandler and DJ Tony Humphries pioneered the sound that would birth deep-house classic “Follow Me” by Aly-Us, but toward the late ’90s and early 2000s the Jersey sound would evolve into an electronic club sub-genre inspired by Baltimore club, juke, Miami bass, and house. The hybrid of house and hip-hop crafted by DJ Tameil and DJ Tim Dolla fostered the beginning of Jersey Club music, and their crew — the Brick Bandits — would help transform the sound into a movement. 

What began with DJs burning CDs of club tracks that would be sold on Broad Street in Newark, Tameil and Tim Dolla produced popular mixtapes consisting of club and house tracks that soundtracked parties in banquet halls in East Orange, Irvington and Newark, as well as skating rinks like Newark’s Branch Brook Park Skating. These safe spaces would cultivate an inspiring progression of music that continued to become its own distinct sound thanks to young producer-DJs like DJ Jayhood, R3LL, Nadus, DJ Sliink, and DJ Fresh. 

Jersey Club has played an essential role in the development of experimental dance music in the mainstream, but contemporary DJs in New Jersey like DJ Fade, Kia BHN, and Unicorn continue to champion the subgenre by both playing the classics and newer tracks that define — and redefine— it. Here’s their go-to picks for New Jersey club. — Kia Turner

DJ Fade

“Tip Toe” by DJ Frosty and DJ Fade

This record alone taught kids how to dance and became viral via MySpace. Back then, WIZTV was Jersey’s Tik Tok platform, and that music video was the tutorial on how to do the dance correctly. 

“Back It Up” by DJ Jayhood

DJ Jayhood’s discography is one of the greatest in Jersey club history. “Back It Up” is influential to the Jersey club scene of the “Booty Bounce” era. 

Kia BHN

“Shake Dat Donk” by DJ Flawless, DJ Jayhood and Nook

Easily one of the most well known songs in Jersey club culture and DJ Jayhood’s discography. Along with “Back It Up,” “Shake Dat Donk” was influential to the “Booty Bounce” era. 

“Salt Shaker” by DJ Big O

The production is fire. It’s a track that can get anyone dancing. The “What, what” in the background, the Ying-Yang Twins’ “Salt Shaker” vocals, and that beat drop — it has all the qualities of a Jersey club hit. 

Unicorn

“Heartbroken” by DJ Jayhood

It’s the perfect Jersey club record that’s been remixed multiple times and accepted by mainstream hip-hop as an introduction to the Jersey club sound. Forever a classic. 

“Ride Dat Wave” by DJ Frosty

Easily one of the most recognized Jersey club songs. The remix even featured Fatman Scoop, Young B and DJ Webstar. This record could have been what “Swag Surf” is had it taken off correctly.

Baltimore Club

Before club music’s fateful trek up the Jersey turnpike, the first traces of satellite house scenes began to develop in the Mid-Atlantic. 

Pioneered by local producers Scottie B, Frank Ski, and DJ Technics, Baltimore club was the East Coast’s first variant of Chicago and Detroit’s synth-and-sample-based experiments in dance music. Sticky, subversive and hypnotically symmetrical, Baltimore club amalgamated stateside and cross-pond club frequencies, melding the backbreaking BPMs of Miami bass, the entrancing sprawl of Chicago house, and the grit of the UK’s high-octane warehouse raves. In its earliest form, Baltimore’s regional sound was also arguably a strain of hip-house, the unheralded missing link between the Golden Age of rap party records and dance music’s brief (but mighty) mid-90s chart boom, complete with an instantly recognizable hallmark break lifted from Lyn Collins’ James Brown-produced hit, “Think.”

While Jersey and Philly’s respective augmentations are the core elements of club music’s recent pop embrace, to understand the modern history of dance music, you have to head back down I-95. We spoke with a few DJs, contemporary club kids, and producers in Baltimore about the sounds that shaped their own travels on the paths of rhythm. — Zo

Abdu Ali

“How U Wanna Carry It” by Miss Tony

Miss Tony is a Baltimore club icon. They were a staple figure in the city’s culture and one of my music heroes. To have a Black queer icon as an example growing up is a blessing, and this song is one of my favorites from Miss Tony.

“Feel It In The Air” by Blaqstarr

Honestly, Blaqstarr’s entire discography is a sonic blueprint for my music work, but this song really is the one. It’s a spiritual conjuring and even though he’s not saying much I know exactly what energy he is feeling.

Al Rogers Jr.

“Bestfriend” by Lil Lucky

“Bestfriend” is one of those club songs you heard on 92.Q more than you did inside the club, but it’s still a classic partly because of its rarity. It’s one of those forgotten gems for sure. 

“Dance My Pain Away” by Rod Lee

“Dance My Pain Away” is a Baltimore spiritual. When we felt grief, uncertainty, sadness, this song helped bring us all to solace. 

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