The house that Trax built: 20 years of house music

By Mark Guarino

Evidence we’re desperate for nostalgia, no matter how petty the event, came this summer with the buzz surrounding the 25th anniversary of “Disco Demolition Night.” A backlash against disco’s popularity, the radio stunt gone haywire was deified in media memorials as culturally significant, even though it did nothing to contribute to culture except signify white male rock fans are threatened by music created by the black, Latino and gay communities.

The shrill and drunken escapade was really just a sideshow to what came afterwards. Even though disco faded from mainstream radio and punk rock and New Wave rose to replace it, dance music did not die. It returned to the underground, and was reborn as Chicago house.

“Once (‘Demolition’ provocateur) Steve Dahl … declared it dead, all he did was push it back to where it came from,” said Michael Paoletta, dance music editor for Billboard. In dusk to dawn parties held in clubs on the South and West sides, a new generation of DJs was hard at work “rebuilding it,” he said. “These tracks were so raw and so sparse. They were trying to retool something that been ‘killed’. They knew it couldn’t be the same.”

Next to the blues, house music is Chicago’s most significant musical export. Like the story of Chicago blues, it came about through an intersection of accident, convenience and good timing. Its pioneers came directly from the street, working by instinct with little or no royalties. The music, raw and soulful, had to gain popularity in Europe before earning respect at home.

A handful of labels are responsible for taking it from the Chicago streets and into the world, but none of them remain in business today except for Trax Records. Trax spread house into the furthest reaches of the globe and its catalog of early singles is considered a foundation of modern dance music. Because it never reaped the financial rewards to match its legacy, the label is on a mission this year, its 20th anniversary, to stake its claim through a handful of CD reissues and new recordings.

Trax origins

Standing on the roof of the Trax warehouse on the Near West Side, Screamin’ Rachael is striking a pose. Born Rachael Cain on Chicago’s North Side, she remains the eternal party girl, what Madonna might be like if she didn’t end up the domestic goddess who writes children’s books and promotes Pilates.

“House people are people who love parties,” Cain said. “There’s a cathartic experience when you’re on that dance floor with the DJ. It’s a special kind of freedom that if you haven’t felt it, you’re not going to understand it.”

As an early Trax artist, Cain enjoyed several club hits, including “Fun With Bad Boys.” She is also president of the label and is at the forefront of making Trax relevant in the modern day. Already, there is success. Two Trax artists — Paul Johnson and Joe Smooth — have hits on Billboard’s current hot dance club play chart.

Trax came into existence entirely by chance. In the few years following “Disco Demolition,” a handful of DJs, notably Ron Hardy, Marshall Jefferson and transplanted New Yorker Frankie Knuckles, began creating club mixes in underground clubs like the Warehouse, the Music Box, and the Playground on the South and West Sides. They were a new generation of digital era artists reaching a new audience of black, Latino and gay teenagers, hungry for a new sound. The parties were all mostly illegal, attracting up to a few thousand people at a single party alone.

“I’m going to tell you, the human body puts out a lot of heat. I would not be surprised if the clubs reached 110 degrees,” said Trax founder Larry Sherman. “It was a time that will never happen again. And if you weren’t there to see it, your life wouldn’t be as enriched. It humbled you, trust me, to see 2,000 Chicagoans and not a fight. It was sweaty fun.”

Sherman, a South Side native, collected vintage jukeboxes and became frustrated with the available records to stock them with. “I got tired of listening to the Andrew Sisters and Tommy Dorsey,” he said. “So I decided to do things the hard way.” In 1982, with the intent of transferring rock records to 78 RPM vinyl, he bought the Precision Pressing Plant in Bridgeport. Within three months, he was approached by local DJs hunting for an outlet to press their own mixes. Cain remembers having the same need (“all we cared about was getting vinyl,” she said) and discovering Sherman’s plant through a sign on the highway.

“We were the kids that had the dream. He was the person who believed in us,” Cain said.

The early singles Trax released endure due to their raw production, emotional passion and consistent emphasis on melody. Classics like Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body,” “I Can’t Forget” by Mr. Lee, “Jack the Bass” by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and “Your Love” by Jamie Principle, combined splashy drum beats, elementary synthesizer flourishes, primitive digital effects and vocals by singers like Trax greats Ricky Dillard and Jamie Principle that whisper, drone and roar with the spiritual release usually associated with gospel music. This is sensual music that makes its sophistication invisible but with grooves designed for total physical liberation.

“The music was very tribal,” said Sherman. “It reminded me of early jazz from the late 20s and early 30s. The harmonies and melodies were pretty much the same. It came from DJs and musicians who knew nothing but who felt the music, more than by notes and scales. They basically played what they felt.”

Trax heyday

Because Trax was a work in progress, it didn’t operate as a conventional label. Along with their competitor, DJ International Records, they were the only game in town. Creativity was allowed to develop organically because Sherman paid cash to unknown artists hungry to try new things. In the early days of MTV, he didn’t make videos, refused to issue CDs and had no budget for promotion or marketing. Sherman sold records out of the trunk of his car and would hit clubs, radio stations and record stores to let DJs directly sample the music. Club hits were created the old fashion way: they were good.

“They were really important,” said Charles Williams, who worked at Importes, Etc., an independent record store in Printer’s Row that was Chicago’s epicenter of house music throughout the ‘80s. Williams remembers DJs flocking to the store to pick up the latest European imports for sampling while also listening to the latest Trax singles. He also remembers the vinyl Trax produced suffered from frequent pops and hiss, an attribute Sherman said was due to his frugality. To save money, he said, he would not replace machine parts as they were needed.

“(Trax) would have hit the mainstream if anyone knew what the heck they were doing, including myself,” Sherman said. “If a record sold 20,000 copies, it did because they were good records, not because there was a political push. By the time we learned (about the business), the music had moved on. If I knew today, then, I would be a mega millionaire.”

House remained an underground phenomenon in the U.S., splitting into different subgenres that crept into the mainstream through club-oriented artists like Madonna (think “Vogue” or “Deeper and Deeper”), C+C Music Factory and more recently, Fatboy Slim and Moby.

In Europe, it was a different story. House was embraced and earned instant respectability, setting the stage for the rave culture of the late ‘80s and creating celebrities out of DJs like Paul Oakenfold. “England had a love affair with Chicago house music,” said Billboard’s Paoletta. “In England, you had radio playing these underground club tracks and it was not happening here.”

Chicago tracks started appearing on UK compilations, songs climbed the top of the pop charts, the press wrote about the new dance culture incessantly and DJs from both Trax and DJ International started touring UK clubs.

“When house exploded, it all happened so fast,” Cain said. “In the UK, we were gods.”

Trax rebirth

It took a considerable amount of time, but in the recent era of hip-hop, the stable of house pioneers are getting their due. Some of the early generation Trax artists are today successful remixers. Knuckles, who has credits with Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige among others on his resume, was the first to win the Grammy for remixer of the year in 1997. Maurice Joshua, a Trax producer, won a Grammy for best remixed recording early this year.

City of Chicago officials have slowly come around to recognizing house music’s legacy. In August, the block housing the long-shuttered Warehouse was renamed in honor of Knuckles. He later hosted a summer dance party in Grant Park, where 5,000 people showed up to move to his mixes. Cain said the city invited Trax to host another party next summer.

After being dormant for some time (Sherman recently sold the pressing plant), Trax is busy trying to reach a new audience. Lately, it has subsided on licensing its catalog to films (“24 Hour Party People,” “Swimming Pool”), compilations and to other artists interested in lifting samples from early tracks. Money for promotion and distribution has arrived from Toronto-based investors Casablanca Media, financiers of the recent batch of CD compilations, aimed to reach a new generation of dance enthusiasts.

“I think a lot of the DJs that are a part of the scene (today), they neglect the respect that they should have for the label. (Trax) is definitely a major influence,” said Billy Basil, 23, who as Billy the Kid, creates mixes for the overnight dance parties heard weekends on B96, 96.3-FM. “We all play house music. Younger kids are getting involved who are saying, ‘we never had an opportunity to hear this’. It’s great to know it was born here.”

Cain, the perpetual cheerleader, is optimistic the label will transcend its stature as just a classics label.

“I want people to remember, always, that it came from Chicago. Not because of industry hype but from the love of the music, and it rocked the world,” she said. “And still rocks the world!”

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