Anthemic, loud and brimming with soul, diva house - also known as handbag house - is a genre that takes on the task of preaching the warm and accepting gospel of our universal clubland ethos. Bringing themes of love, acceptance and power to the dancefloor, diva house is a bombastic clash of four-four beats that greets the uplifting forces of funk and disco.
Popularized during the mainstreaming of gay culture in the 1990s, the subgenre was, according to dance music historian Bill Brewster, instrumental in turning clubbing into a "mainstream leisure activity."
The term handbag house, however, was born out of a broad disdain for the genre. It refers to the notion of a group of female revelers dancing around a pile of their handbags on the dancefloor and was used in a derogatory and misogynistic fashion by underground purists who took a disliking to the genre's mainstream influences.
The Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture defines handbag house as having "prominent female vocals, breakdowns, a proliferation of piano 'stabs', and four on the floor rhythms." By this definition, handbag house is the genre of iconic club music pioneers like Inner City, CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters, David Morales, Barbara Tucker, Robert Owens, Larry Heard and Frankie Knuckles. Diva house, as we prefer to call it, is the unapologetically feel good sound that soundtracks the fight for equal rights in the gay community and continues to lift our spirits higher and higher. Without the divas or their handbags, house music would simply not exist (or perhaps just be relentlessly bland).
We picked out 20 of our favorite diva house records, both known and unknown, in the list below.
Black Box Ride on Time
'Ride on Time' is a song by the Italian music group Black Box. It was released as a single in 1989 and later included on their debut studio album 'Dreamland' in 1990. The song spent six weeks at number one in the UK, ultimately becoming the biggest selling single of the year. The Italian group became infamous after it was revealed that their supposed singer, French fashion model Katrin Quinol, was lip-syncing to the group's actual recorded vocalist, Martha Wash. Lip-syncing or not, the track overall feel and wailing vocal accompaniment still bangs to this day and it is considered one of the first high-profile examples of italo house.
Deepswing Diva (feat. Chance)
Eric Wikman, better known as Deepswing, is an LA-based artist who after hearing the original house sounds of Chicago and New York, got to work bringing the sound to Hollywood. Producing dancefloor oriented tunes with a positive and uplifting message attached to them, Deepswing tapped the singer Chance to help him create a reaffirming slammer ‘Diva’ - an ode to the all the divas that inspired his work and to all those who would come next.
Ultra Nate Free
The legend goes that as a very early recipient of a spanking new promo, Louie Vega broke Ultra Nate’s 'Free' at the 1997 edition of Winter Music Conference down in Miami. A cut on her comeback record ‘Situation: Critical’, which was released via Strictly Rhythm in 1998. Produced by Mood II Swing, Ultra's now iconic track ended up as one of the biggest dance records of the 1990s.
Barbra Tucker Beautiful People
Co-written with India and Lem Springsteen and produced by Masters At Work (Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez) in 1994, ‘Beautiful People’ is one of the most iconic vocal house anthems out there. With its rapturous gospel feel, Tucker takes took the genre to new heights with her peerless vocal turn. She’s one of the most deified voices in house music and ‘Beautiful People’ is a shining example as to why. Despite two legends on production, Tucker’s triumphant vocal is the star of the show. “When will we stop hurting and learn to love one another?” she belts out with moving emotional energy.
Adeva I Thank You
Hailing from Paterson, New Jersey, Adeva made a name for herself as one of the most respected vocalists of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s following the release of her self-titled debut album in 1988. Packed with dance hits that charted all over the globe, the LP cut ‘I Thank You’ is a gracious ode to friendship and guidance that is bound to make you smile.
Underground Resistance Living For The Night (feat. Yolanda)
Before Underground Resistance transformed into the formidable techno institution that it is today, the group took a break from their grungy and pioneering electronic sound and linked up with Yolanda Reynolds in 1990 for the single ‘Living For The Night.’ It’s a perfectly groovy summer tune with spacious percussion, larger than life piano riffs and the smallest hint of acid to give it that Detroit edge.
Jomanda Got A Love For You (Hurleys Club Extended Mix)
Jomanda’s 1991 crossover, house music single Got a Love for You was one of the biggest commercial house hits of its time. Driven by a sexy and infectious synthetic horn riff that belts it's way into your subconscious, the single is accompanied by a clean and forever pleasant Steve 'Silk' Hurley remix that sums up the classic diva house sound in more ways than one.
Masters At Work To Be In Love (feat. India)
Masters At Work (MAW) - the ground-breaking project of Louie Vega and Kenny Dope – released the track ‘To Be In Love’ in 1997 via the duo’s lauded New Jersey house label, MAW Records. Tapping the very talented India to handle the track's vocals, she went on to become the duo’s number one vocalist of choice due to her uncanny ability make your heart soar and your feet shuffle.
D'Bora Going Round
D'Bora is a house music singer who started out as a member of the Mercedes Ladies, an obscure all-female hip-hop crew from Bronx, New York in the early ‘80s. Despite the fact that many consider them to be pioneering female MC’s who paved the way for many who came after, the group never received any mainstream attention. She went solo and broke through with her first hit ‘Dream About You’ which she released in 1991. Becoming well known in the house music scene enthusiasts, she released her second hit single ‘Going Round’ in 1995 - a groove-laden siren song packed with pure diva house energy and attitude.
Robert Owens I'll Be Your Friend (Glamorous Mix)
An integral player in the birth of golden-era Chicago house in the late 1980s, Robert Owens released ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ single in 1991 via Nervous Records. He formed the group Fingers Inc with Ron Wilson and Larry Heard (aka Mr. Fingers) and his vocals have featured on many beloved tracks from the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Mosca, David Morales, Coldcut, Photek and more.
Bizarre Inc I'm Gonna Get You
English electronic music group Bizarre Inc reached the top spot in the US Dance charts and number 3 in the UK Singles Chart back in 1992 with Angie Brown-collaboration 'I'm Gonna Get You'. With its call and response lyrics, electrifying piano line and shining rave sensibilities, this one's still a certified banger! It hits like a shot of liquid serotonin in the dance, with the assertive tone of Brown’s vocals grabbing dancefloors by the scruff of the neck and thrusting them into overdrive.
Hercules and Love Affair Blind (Frankie Knuckles Remix)
The magic of Anohni's voice cannot be understated. Tapped by American DJ-producer Andy Butler, better known as Hercules and Love Affair, to provide vocals for this certified house and disco classic, Anohni and Butler released ‘Blind’ as the first single from Hercules and Love Affair’s self-titled debut album in 2008 via DFA Records. The song made such a huge impact that house music legend Frankie Knuckles felt it necessary to hit the studio and craft this unforgettable remix.
Alison Limerick Where Love Lives
"Where Love Lives (Come On in) is the greatest dance record of all time because it's got everything. It swings, it makes girls pout, boys preen and hearts sing. There's a touch of sadness about it but it's incredibly uplifting, reaching a bittersweet joy that only the most spiritual of house achieves. Ms Limerick - whose subsequent career never lived up to this - sings with a throaty, controlled abandon, hitting the high notes while arms hit the ceiling. Even the lyrics are cool: strong woman sends out her love but gives her lover a bit of a slagging while she's about it."
Robin S Show Me Love
Originally released in 1990 by Champion Records, its success didn’t peak until '92 when it got the remix treatment from Swedish producers StoneBridge and Nick Nice. The re-release took the mainstream charts by storm reaching number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 6 in the UK Singles Chart. Most importantly, in both 1996 and 2013 it made its way onto two of Mixmag's 'Greatest Tracks' lists. The combination of soaring vocals and a magnificent synth line creates non-stop euphoria across its full run-time. This track deserves to be shown all the love you can give.
Rosie Gaines Closer Than Close
A former singer in Prince & The New Power Generation, Rosie Gaines released her album ‘Closer Than Close’ in 1995. The lead single off the LP was majorly sucesful in the UK, reaching number 4 in the UK Singles Chart that year. The club hit earned Gaines a MOBO Award for Best International Single at the ’97 Awards show and it continues to run the dancefloor whenever it graces the speakers.
Angie Stone Wish I Didn't Miss You (Hex Hector / Mac Quayle Vibe Mix)
'Wish I Didn't Miss You' by Angie Stone was released on her second studio album 'Mahogany Soul' in 2001. The aching and compelling original tune was a smashing success, but it wasn't until the track got remixed by Hex Hector and Mac Quayle that it became a successful club hit and was officially identified as a gay anthem by the LGBT community. Adding to its infamy, it was the last song that Carl Cox played at Space Ibiza before it closed in October of 2016.
B Crew (Barbara Tucker, Dajae, Ultra Nate, Mone) Partay Feeling
Four of the 90s most iconic house music diva's - Barbara Tucker, Dajae, Ultra Nate and Mone - unite as B Crew in 1997 on Strictly Rhythm for this wicked and wild party single. If there is anything that these four lovely ladies have learned throughout the years, its how to put that 'Partay Feeling' into words.
Coldcut People Hold On (feat. Lisa Stansfield)
Sample pioneers and Ninja Tune founders Coldcut put 'People Hold On' with Lisa Stansfield as the first track on their classic debut album 'What's That Noise' back in 1989. The tune put the pair on the map and influential producers like Juan Atkins, Dimitri from Paris and Masters At Work, took notice of the UK duo's talent and each took shots at remixing the track. It's a clean and powerful dance track with a strong melody that marked the beginning of Coldcut's iconic career.
Disclosure F For You (feat. Mary J. Blige)
Disclosure and Mary J. Blige's major hit 'F For You' is a pristine example of how diva house lives on in contemporary dance music's sound and culture. While adding plenty of new production tricks that cater to evolving tastes and forms of house, the track is centered around the same kind of dramatic vocal and lively bassline elements that you find in all the classics. While diva house doesn't really live on in name anymore, it certainly does in spirit.
Inner City Big Fun
Years ahead of its time upon its release in 1988, and will remain timeless for evermore. The first of Inner City’s impressive five singles to hit the top spot in the US dance chart, it marries Paris Grey’s celebratory vocals with Kevin Saunderson’s vibrant production that’s packed full of fun flourishes. One of the most surefire party-starters in the crate of any DJ.