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30 of the best Chicago house tracks

Legendary tracks responsible for spreading the revolutionary sound of house music

  • Marc Rowlands & Dev White
  • 3 April 2020

New York, in whose dens of debauchery disco refused to die. The German cities manufacturing refined, steely electronica. Detroit, where fantastical imagination and ambition proved the perfect escape from stunted urbanism. And the UK, whose hedonism and innovation catalysed a myriad subgenres. Many places have made an indelible mark on the sound of dance music, but few would be foolish enough to refute Chicago as the birthplace of house.

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Not only did Jack build his groove there, but the Windy City also produced two of house music's most beloved and persistent strands - acid house and deep house. You could fill a book with a list of acid classics, its corrupted Roland TR-303 lines still causing mania on dancefloors today. Add to that a second volume for the deep house first birthed by Larry Heard.

But, stripped of these two perennially vital offspring there lies the backbone of the Chicago house sound, steeped in the songs and soul of Curtis Mayfield, drenched in the disco and funk of Rufus and Chaka Khan and hardened by imports often as industrial as the surroundings in which they were aired. From the most fundamental of early building blocks to the trippiest of disco house, but minus overtly acid tracks (save one we couldn’t resist) or deep house fare, here's our pick of 30 bona fide Chicago house classics.

MARSHALL JEFFERSON
'MOVE YOUR BODY'

When ‘Move Your Body’ was first introduced to house music aficionados in the 80s, the co-founder of Trax Records himself, Larry Sherman told Jefferson that it was moot. It wasn’t until Jefferson distributed copies of the track to DJs such as Lil Louis, Fast Eddie and Frankie Knuckles that the self-proclaimed, ‘House Music Anthem’ finally got its recognition. With glowing reviews in the US, the track trickled over to international scenes, captivating the minds of English DJs, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling. With shining jazz piano riffs and Jefferson incessantly singing of his love for house music, it’s a wonder how this staple was ever rejected. It led to Jefferson and Knuckles’ first-ever house music tour throughout the UK, bringing Chicago house to ripe European minds.

FARLEY “JACKMASTER” FUNK
'LOVE CAN’T TURN AROUND'

A track full of subtlety with a foundation of blistering piano runs to banging drum hits and topped with a screaming Darryl Pandy. This track made itself a force to be reckoned with as the first record in the house genre to hit the UK Singles chart, officially making house music an international sensation. Farley Keith Williams created under many nuanced names including, but not limited to, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Jackmaster Dick and Rude Boy Farley Keith. As a stronghold in the house community, he would go on to guest DJ at the Warehouse and hold a residency at Playground.

Adonis
'No Way Back'

Made for a steamy 3am drug-induced dancefloor, this classic Trax track is sure to keep your chest thumping to its rapid claps and steady bass beat, helping you to dance out the last of your hydration. Adonis studied contemporary jazz at the American Conservatory of Music, but it seems he found his real calling in Chicago’s dance clubs. Throughout the track, 19-year-old Adonis whispers, "release my soul / I’ve lost control / too far gone / ain’t no way back", detailing his inner dystopian thoughts on the dancefloor. This track is both soul reincarnating and downright frightening with its minimalistic, monotone approach. As a future pioneer of our beloved acid house, we’re not sure if Adonis ever quite made it back.

SLEEZY D
'I’VE LOST CONTROL'

With satanic laughs, concerning screams and a deep, demonic voice howling, “I’ve lost control”, Sleezy D takes us to the edge of a flaming pothole to hell. Frightfully weird, dark and experimental, it's still accepted, if not celebrated, for its utter dissonance. Unfortunately, Sleezy D never followed up from this devilish release as he preferred to stay out of the spotlight. It’s said that after dropping this famous track with Marshall Jefferson, he slipped away from the public eye and slyly had Jefferson adopt his moniker. But, it should be known that Sleezy D, born Derrick Harris, was a real person and another definite pioneer of acid house.

Joe Smooth
'Promised Land'

Flipping a 180 from the hellish atmosphere of Sleezy D’s ‘I’ve Lost Control’, this blissful track attempted to put all of us nightlife heathens back on the railway to heaven. Spiritual, optimistic and heartfelt, ‘Promised Land’ will make any non-believer lift their hands to the skies, thankful to be alive. Smooth encourages us to find a stronghold in human connectivity and persevere through the pitfalls of this nonlinear life, singing, “brothers, sisters / one day we will be free / from fighting, violence, people crying in the streets.” Floating between genres, Smooth would go on to work with artists such as Destiny’s Child, Ludacris, New Order and Whitney Houston.

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STEVE POINDEXTER
'WORK THAT MUTHA FUCKER'

With the obvious makings of a Chicago ghetto house track featuring a Casio rz-1 drum machine to create a “four-to-the-floor” kick drum feeling, this track permeates true rowdy warehouse energy. It made its way through the clubs before ever being released via Muzique Records on Poindexter’s debut EP. It's undeniable legend, as ghetto house tracks came to be recognized for their minimal use of analog synths and drum machines. Around the time of this track’s release, Poindexter, Brian Harris and Terry Hunter started the production group, the Chicago Bad Boys, spending nights producing material with each other. The group would eventually expand to about forty producers, notable members including Roy Davis and Gene Hunt.

RON TRENT
'ALTERED STATES'

Another absolute banger, ‘Altered States’’ atmospheric energy sets a solid background tone for your preferred state of mutated consciousness. Its fuzzy, jacking bassline and legato piano synth chords take you to a parallel dimension. If you ever felt that you were lacking in life, it should make you feel even worse to know that Ron Trent began recording this song while still in high school. However, his father ran a record pool in the late 70s, so Trent was no stranger to the limitless variations of sound design.

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CAJMERE
'PERCOLATOR'

This essential listen can only really produce one effect on the human emotional spectrum and that’s one of complete madness. One thing is for certain - this track is absolutely nuts, wrought with bleeping computer noises and multi-dimensional bubble sounds. After Curtis Alan Jones left a Chemical Engineering Masters program at UC Berkeley, he moved back to Chicago, shortly after dropping this track.

CAJMERE FEAT. DAJAE
'BRIGHTER DAYS'

Recently featured in Kanye West’s Sunday Service, ‘Brighter Days’ takes you back to the semi-traumatizing times of being dragged to church at 9am on Sunday morning and awoken to the sounds of the already lively gospel choir. In this iteration, we get a heavy, rolling bass beat to make you feel more like you’re in the club than being criticized by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Underground Goodies Mix is another way to enjoy the seeping essence of this transcendental track, encouraging you to bump your body to the neck-breaking down beats.

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PAUL JOHNSON
'GET GET DOWN'

Johnson’s 1999 release is sure to liven up old house lovers and newbies alike, serving us family-friendly, day party vibes. A single from the album ‘The Groove I Have’, Johnson shares his elated, body-flowing energy to pull you out of that cold seasonal depression and into the warm sensations of a summer BBQ. This is yet another example of a house track with piano as an integral component. In the US, the track managed to take the cake of Billboard’s Hot Dance chart, while peaking in the top ten of various international charts.

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Tyree
'Video Crash'

Distributed by hand long before the vinyl versions came out, Chicago's late '80s output was food for a thousand homegrown DJs inhabiting a small but enthusiastic pond. And they were swimming in the sounds of prolific hitmaker Marshall Jefferson. So much so, that when an edit of his 'Acid Crash' was cast aside and released under Lil Louis's name, both Mike Dunn and Tyree Cooper asked mentor Jefferson if they could have a bash at that month's floor filler. “Mike used acid in his,” Tyree Cooper told this writer, “and when his Westbrook version came out, it out sold mine and Lil Louis'. It took mine being bootlegged as 'Acid Crash' to make it more famous.” Many modern soundsystems work better with the basics. Perhaps that's why Tyree Cooper's stripped back 'Video Crash' still sounds so devastating today?

Fingers Inc.
'Bring Down The Walls'

Released in 1998, the 'Another Side' album collated many of this trio's outstanding singles. On some tracks, producer Larry Heard introduced a mood and musicality that set the template for deep house, on others he explored more jazzy and soulful directions. But, 'Music Take Me Up' and 1986 single 'Bring Down The Walls' were stark and brutal Chicago house. Reissued on Trax under lead vocalist Robert Owens's name, such was its naïve power that you could almost believe it held the wrecking-ball potential its title suggested. The walls it referred to were described to this writer by Owens as “the blocks of negativity and separation in society, mainly the ones found in the urban environment in which it was written” , a message which chimed with high-as-a-kite but idealistic UK audiences.

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Steve "Silk" Hurley & The Voices Of Life feat. Sharon Pass
'The Word Is Love'

Farley surpassed flatmate Steve Hurley with their competing versions of Isaac Hayes 'I Can't Turn Around' but, in early 1987, Hurley's 'Jack Your Body' became house music's first UK pop number one. Everyone heard it. It was hoped Hurley's duo, JM Silk, would replicate the pop success. But, they didn't, leaving Hurley free to truly master the producer's role. Although he was already back at the top of the charts in 1991 with 'Are You Gonna Be There' by Shay Jones and 'Too Blind Too See It' by Kym Sims, and despite a remix career which saw him paired with pop's biggest stars, it would not be until 1997 that a Steve Hurley-helmed song would reverberate around the world. The exquisitely well-produced 'The Word Is Love' held mixes which were embraced across a variety of different dancefloors, the pick being Hurley's Anthem Of Life.

Ralphi Rosario
'U Used To Hold Me'

With WBMX Hot Mix 5 member Farley Keith already bothering the charts by 1986, it was left to the team's Mickey 'Mixin' Oliver, Kenny 'Jammin' Jason and Ralphi Rosario to run the label named after the quintet. They hit pay dirt with the label's second release when the latter two combined on this embittered diva's rant, Ralphi Rosario and vocalist Xaviera Gold writing the track and Kenny Jason working on the brash mix that courted most favour.

Jamie Principle
'Your Love'

Finishing touches sprinkled by Frankie Knuckles resulted in the once definitive, still beloved version of this track. Early issues on Trax failed to properly credit songwriter and singer Jamie Principle, whose earlier versions were club play in Chicago way before this 1987 release. Those on the scene knew of Principle's involvement and perhaps a few who copped a copy of his preceding 'Waiting On My Angel' could have guessed. Both records were more complex and accomplished than most contemporaneous Chicago house. The refined keys and chord changes of Principle's tracks sounded more like the dark, druggy synth pop of Europeans like Depeche Mode and their yearning, frustrated lyrics chimed a chord with the gay club set. The Candi Staton acapella added in UK act The Source's mashup was perfectly placed, itself spawning as many covers as Principle's, but there's an ambiguity and mystery about the Chicago version that holds a timeless allure.

Lil Louis
'French Kiss'

It's perhaps as selfish to call 'French Kiss' Chicago house as it is to label The Beatles Liverpool pop. Sometimes music grows to such a stature its ownership can only be considered universal. Its monotonous charge and thrilling build of momentum have enraptured dancers since its 1989 release, although the tempo change midway and sex noises are what it's remembered for. Quite unlike anything around in Chicago at the time, it retains its anomalous standing and popularity three decades on. The Lil Louis debut album, 'From The Mind Of' from which it came also held two more unmissable singles. The female protagonist in 'I Called U''s exchange was painted as the nightmare ex but, truth be told, you wouldn't want to share a room with either of them. Its UK b-sides contained a wealth of brilliant off cuts like 'The Conversation' and the album's third single 'Nyce & Slo' features an epic midtempo Tony Humphries mix.

Lil Louis
'Club Lonely'

With an international hit like 'French Kiss' to their credit, a less self-assured man might have tried treading a similar path in order to replicate success. Confidence is evidently not one of Lil Louis's weaker traits and he didn't. Instead, fully armed with major label backing, he entered into the grand studio endeavour that would be his second album. 'Journey With The Lonely' is a highly accomplished mix of street smart, sass, innovation and soul. Barbara Tucker contributed vocals to its 'Funny How U Love', but the amazing Joi Cardwell handled them on 'Saved My Life', 'Do U Love Me', 'Dancing In My Sleep' and 'Club Lonely'. The perfect opener to a musical odyssey which, hands down, remains one of the greatest house albums ever made.

CeCe Rogers
‎’Someday’

CeCe Rogers was not from Chicago, but he was the singer Marshall Jefferson was looking for to record the ‘Someday’ single he’d written in the late ‘80s. Having made his mark internationally with a string of dancefloor hits, the majors had taken notice of Jefferson and, like his Ten City project, this would be signed to Atlantic. It would be the first house music release ever by a major label. The record still held many classic Jefferson ingredients like the timeless piano riff which, like the vocal and idealistic, forward-thinking lyric, were embraced on the wild UK house club scene. These ingredients alone would inform several key releases from that country’s ensuing rave movement. Unlike many of Jefferson’s songs, its reference to South Africa also placed it in overtly political territory.

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Chez N Trent
‘The Choice’ (Witch Doctor Mix)

In the early 90s, with Prescription Records, Chicago's Ron Trent and Chez Damier would take the deep house template set by Larry Heard and shift it into a new territory of sonic possibilities. They did so in the grand, new surroundings of an advanced recording studio paid for by the chart success of Inner City. The pair had spent endless nights experimenting at Kevin Saunderson's studio in Detroit, where Damier had been working as manager of the influential Music Institute club and prior to striking out on their own they released a couple of singles on Saunderson's KMS imprint. With its layers of keys, soulful vocal, muscular percussion and a bass sound more akin to those found in dub reggae, this stunning debut pointed to where they were going and would soon be reissued, minus the great vocal, on their own label.

Roy Davis Jr. feat. Peven Everett
'Gabriel'

Chicago resident Roy Davis Jr replaced DJ Pierre in acid originals Phuture, his sometime mentor leaving to pursue solo endeavours in New York. Their association ensured Roy Davis would contribute to the Wild Pitch sound Pierre had been pioneering and help establish relationships for him with New York labels like Strictly Rhythm and those of DJ Duke. It is therefore a huge disservice to simply write him off as an opportunistic thief in the contested authorship and ownership of monster hit 'Gabriel'. Its style and musicality point unequivocally to it being a song created and written by featured vocalist Peven Everett, the soulful vocal he delivered, coupled with the track's unusual rhythm and trumpet line, helping it to reach audiences much greater and more diverse than regular Chicago house fans.

Glenn Underground
'Chica Soul'

The mid 90s was such an interesting period in the development of Chicago producer Glenn Underground. Way past conquering the disco-sampling house he'd made his name with on labels like Cajual, the release of his 'Atmosfear' album and 'C.U.O Trance' on Peacefrog plus the comparable GU Essentials EPs indicated he was headed in a direction of bold and accomplished musicality which not only referenced the techno of Detroit and his earliest releases, but also reinvigorated the classic, jacking Chicago percussion sound. The 1997 release of 'GU's 70's Trip' was just a nudge sonically from the drawn out and druggy game changers like 'I Can't Kick This Feelin When It Hits' being issued by Moodymann at the same time. Glenn helped launch the Dust Traxx offshoot Nite Life Collective with this opening cut from their debut release. To be fair, everything else on the compilation paled in comparison following this explosion of intricate musicianship and masterful arrangement.

Risqué III
'Essence Of A Dream'

K Alexi Shelby, Robert McKay and Mr Lee truly broke the mould as Risque III with the 1987 release of 'Essence Of A Dream'. For years, a Holy Grail to deep house vinyl collectors, its menacing bassline and muscular drums actually placed it in a genre all of its own. The track's mixture of electronic and live-sounding percussion was wholly unique at the time, its perverted poetry even more so. Embraced by UK DJs, you could hear it played at The Hacienda in Manchester by its most maverick resident Jon da Silva and for years to come at techno clubs like Bugged Out. Mr Lee went on to become one of the leading lights of the short-lived hip house movement, K Alexi maintains a career as a singular producer of house and techno and Robert McKay still works in music, most notably in a management role with Ron Trent.

Dajae
'Is It All Over My Face'

Prior to founding Cajual and Relief, Cajmere gained his first label experience working at Clubhouse Records which Issued early singles by the likes of Cajmere and Ron Trent. Clubhouse label heads Hula and K. Fingers had already been on the scene since the mid 80s, working on releases with friend Maurice Joshua. But, in the early 90s, their finesse as writers and producers were about to pull them into several unexpected directions. Major distractions aside, they were called on as producers and co-writers for Dajae’s third Cajual single. Following the success of ‘Brighter Days’ and ‘U Got Me Up’, ‘Is It All Over My Face’ was arguably the most classic-sounding of all the releases from her brilliant ‘Higher Power’ album.

Indo
'R U Sleeping'

In 1991, Hula and K. Fingers’s production and writing on DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s ‘Summertime’ earned them an international smash hit and a Grammy nomination. Could further chart success be attained with their at-times comical (at others, downright vulgar) hip-house project The Outthere Brothers? For a time, certainly, but in the same year they launched that project on Clubhouse offshoot Af-Ryth-Mix Sounds, they also reverted to the classy, catchy and melodic garage house sounds at which they’d become so adept. The vocal cut-ups on Af-Ryth-Mix Sounds release ‘R U Sleeping’ by Indo weren’t nearly as radical as what MK or Todd Edwards were doing but, coupled with a skippy percussion track, the song was formed in just the right mould to be embraced by the picky UK garage movement and became an enduring anthem over the course of several remixes.

DJ Skull
'The Graveyard Orchestra'

The mid-90s releases on Dutch label Djax-Up-Beats which brought DJ Skull to wider, international recognition placed him within the techno community. But, they also obscured the fact that DJ Skull aka Ron Maney had been hovering around the Chicago house scene since his teenage years in the ‘80s. 'The Graveyard Orchestra' itself lies on the border between house and techno, but you would have been much more likely to hear Maney’s original mix pitched down substantially and played by underground house DJs than anywhere else. Its bassline and punctuating cymbal crashes still sound thunderous and devastating today.

Blaze ‎
'My Beat' (Derrick Carter's Disco Circus Mix)

UK audiences weren’t at all prepared for the DJ experience Derrick Carter delivered when he started visiting in the early 90s. Riding the mix for a nailbiting length of time and overlaying familiar vocals, he seemed to be creating new music and new possibilities before their eyes. Partially based in London with his musical partner in the Classic label, Luke Solomon, a showreel he carried at the time indicated his sound had moved on considerably from beloved earlier releases like the ‘Dreaming EP’ on Cajual. From 1995, fans were treated to a near decade of being able to buy something new and brilliant from the man every few weeks, including many EPs and a fine album on Classic, singles like ‘Tripping Among The Stars’ and incredible remixes for the likes of Blair, Roy Davis Jnr and Peven Everett, Super Collider, Chez Damier, Karen Ramirez, Dialect and many more. There often seemed to be an extra, underlying rhythm to many of his tracks, a funk edge which he combined with industrial, techno, disco and Latin influences in a way that perhaps only a Chicago perspective could provide. His cut-up of the vocal on this Blaze classic was so clever as to almost grant the song a new meaning and placed the remixer centre stage of the track.

Rickster
'Night Moves'

Produced by Rick Siepak on the relatively short-lived Chicago label Sound Pak and featuring the vocals of label regular Charles Steward, ‘Night Moves’ is something of a little-known anomaly. Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley was behind the mix of this 1988 gem, so the production is accomplished and manages to incorporate several strands of Chicago house including a smidgeon of acid, melodic piano, the soulful vocals of house groups like Fingers Inc, Ten City and JM Silk and also the moodiness of deep house. But, this understated amalgam was singular enough to leave a mark that ensured it would be sampled and even remade several times in the ensuing decades.

Phuture
'Acid Tracks'

Hailed as the first ever acid house track, this Roland TB-303 engineered classic is one of the most seminal records of all time. Its length and composition seem to indicate a knowledge of its marquee status from the off, clocking in at over 12 minutes with a slow, sparse build-up that morphed into that genre-defining acid wig out. Dance music was never the same after this one dropped.

Read this next: The history of acid house in 100 tracks

Ragtyme
'I Can't Stay Away'

Ragtyme were the earlier formation of one of Chicago’s most successful house music ‘groups’, Ten City. Group members Byron Burke, Byron Stingily and Herb Lawson worked with star producer Marshall Jefferson from their earliest singles, such as this, right through their breakthrough via two major label albums for Atlantic. Their first, ‘Foundation’ contained the hits ‘Devotion’ and ‘That’s The Way Love Is’. Though their second, ‘State Of Mind’ failed to repeat such chart success with any of its singles, it is a much more accomplished album and one of house music’s finest. Recording in a much more basic and raw format as Ragtyme, ‘I Can’t Stay Away’ has a much less refined and distinctly Chicago house feel to it, Stingily’s vocals heralding him as dance music’s falsetto successor to Sylvester. And any track that contains the line “For a chance to see you smile, I would wrestle crocodiles” but still be great, must have a little something about it.

Virgo
'Free Yourself'

Chicago’s Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders founded the Virgo group, their 1989 EP for Trax being joined by four more shots of deep house finery on their eponymous debut album, released the same year on the UK-based Street Sounds offshoot, Radical Records. Its release saw Chicago once again be responsible for one of house music's greatest albums to date. However, this isn’t them. It’s another of Marshall Jefferson’s guises, confusingly issued under the same moniker and on the same label. As with the other Virgo’s EP for Trax, each of the four inclusions here is of the highest standard, ‘Free Yourself’ sounding not unlike Larry Heard and ‘Under You’ containing all the drama of the rock music Jefferson had loved while growing up.

Dev White (selections 1 - 10) is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

Marc Rowlands (selections 11 - 30 + intro) is a freelance writer

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