Before the misleading Beatport charts, the YouTube videos filled with semi-nude girls and the badly-curated Spotify playlists, deep house actually meant something.
Slower tempo, brooding bass, droning synths, chromatic key changes, swinging percussion and the general feeling of being deep in a rainforest, the ocean or a club bathed in red light at 3 in the morning are its traditional elements and if a track doesn't have them, it's not true deep house.
It's warm, inviting, a little trippy, very human and owes more to jazz and soul than the funk and disco of original Chicago house.
The 90s witnessed a thriving deep house scene from Chi-town to Detroit, New York to London and Paris and, in a time when the album wasn't dead, produced some stellar LPs.
Check out the 20 best pre-00s deep house albums below.
Mr Fingers 'Introduction'
Where else could we possibly start? Larry Heard is the godfather of deep house. The man from Chicago invented the genre as soon he laid down that first gorgeous Jupiter 8 chord over a boisterous bass line in 1986 on the sublime 'Can You Feel It'. With only his second track, Larry AKA Mr Fingers was a house music star. That track, along with 'Mystery Of Love' and 'Washing Machine', landed on debut album 'Amnesia' which some might think should warrant a place on this list. Instead we've gone for 1992's 'Introduction', a record that took another leap in furthering the genre he had already started. Opener 'Closer', the elegant 'Jazzy' and 'What About This Love' are all direct descendants of his breakout material, but have been refined, made dreamier and sound like the work of a genius fully given his own space to operate. And proven by performances at Dekmantel and Sunfall this year, Heard's material still sounds as fresh as ever.
Essential listening: 'On My Way'
St Germain 'Boulevard'
Considering their magnum opus ‘Tourist’ came out in 2001, it wasn't up for inclusion in this list. But 'Boulevard' is still a very worthwhile addition, and an early glimpse of the scene bubbling away in Paris. Let’s be clear, this is not French touch, it’s just not. There's barely any sign of a filter and the tracks possess much more than just a four-bar looped disco sample. The jazz and garage house influences here are strong with a mix of fully fleshed-out live piano jams, and infinite horn solos backed by swinging drums, not to mention a couple stone cold chill-out tracks. This is New York deep house by way of France that kicked off an important musical era.
Essential listening: 'What's New'
A good deep house track has the ability to fully envelop its listener and a minute into Moodymann's debut album 'Silentintroduction', we're positively drowning in the best the genre has to offer. Released in 1997 on Planet E, the album is anything but a silent introduction, instantly throwing the listener into a world of murky keys, lo-fi breaks and ingenious sampling. Seriously, who else would have had the foresight to sample that one bar of Chic's melodramatic 'I Want Your Love' to create the sneering and god-forsakingly funky 'I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits'. Deep house may have started with Larry Heard in Chicago, but Detroit artists like Moodymann and Theo Parrish helped refine it into a swaggering, unpredictable beast.
Essential listening: 'I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits'
Glenn Underground 'The Jerusalem EP's'
Glenn Underground's 'The Jerusalem EP's' is a scintillating ride through jazz and house that blends old and new forms with absolute aplomb. Underground has the ability to be technically incredible without allowing his tracks to develop into endless noodling. Rhythm and groove always comes first and it shows whenever one of these is dropped on the dancefloor.
Ron Trent 'Primitive Arts'
You simply can’t have a deep house list without something from the absolute master Ron Trent. There was a reason we made him the lead image for our definitive deep house Spotify playlist; we wouldn't want anyone other than him leading our expeditions into these exotic territories. Trent was already well established by the time his first album came out in 1999 having written 'Altered States' seven years earlier when he was just 16. But 'Primitive Arts' is Ron Trent crystallised into his most potent version. The drums pound primal on 'I Feel The Rhythm', simplistic ethereal pads swirl on 'Love' and 'Sometimes I Feel Like', and the 909 gets a workout on 'Time'. As an added bonus, Trent switches to chillout mode on 'Family' and 'Woman' to make for a neatly packaged seven-track album designed to be consumed in one hit.
Essential listening: 'Sometimes I Feel Like'
Wamdue Project 'Resource Toolbook Volume One'
It was hard to choose between this and Wamdue Project's sophomore which featured the grating 'King Of My Castle' but also some pretty forward-thinking tunes. But in the end, it's his debut that's a straight-forward hit of luscious vibes and truer to what we know as deep house. Chris Brann's Wamdue Kids collaboration with Chris Udoh and Chris Clarke is also worth a listen.
Essential listening: 'Three Toed Frog'
Gemini 'In Neutral'
Gemini aka Spencer Kincy, is one of dance music's most fascinating characters. Releasing over 200 tracks and establishing himself as one of the underground's biggest names from 1994 to 1999, he stopped at the peak of his powers, pulling out of the spotlight in mysterious circumstances. Thankfully he made 'In Neutral' before he got out. Coming in a year that he also released 'In And Out Of Fog And Lights' for Peacefrog and 'Imagine-A-Nation' on Relief, this recently reissued gem is the standout. Channelling the dark and dingy deep house flavours of Detroit, this Chicago classic bumps and grinds across 12 tracks of ragged kicks and razor sharp percussion, exquisitely bridging the gap between techno and house.
Essential listening: 'Memory'
Herbert 'Around The House'
Pure genius from the man who has, in the past, DJ'd with edible LPs, nobody could have a more eccentric take on deep house work this beautifully. Considered not only one of the best house albums but one of the best albums of the 90s full stop, Herbert's 'Around The House', made in collaboration with Dan Sicilliano, is a offers up many home comforts. Gigantic rolling soundscapes (that this era of house had a habit of indulging in) are often given up in favour of tight-knit tracks as cozy as the rug in front of a fire, percussion sounds like its been derived from the tinkering of cutlery in the kitchen and the grooves bang as hard as your mum's Sunday roast.
Essential listening: 'Never Give Up'
Larry Heard 'Dance 2000'
You didn't honestly think Larry Heard wouldn't get two album into this list did you? He's the godfather! And where 'Introduction' was dreamy and balearic and exactly the kind of tunes trendy kids on SoundCloud try to emulate today, 'Dance 2000' saw Larry Heard transition to the style of club-orientated deep house he had so directly inspired. Heard took things up a notch on this 1997 LP, pushing the tempo and energy to new levels. While it does still feature dreamier joints like 'Cycles Of Ecstasy' and 'My Primitive Nature', tracks like 'Teleportation' and 'Saga Of The Evil Queen' have a firm eye on the dancefloor.
Essential listening: 'Teleportation'
Blaze 'Basic Blaze'
A chronically overlooked production duo, New Jersey's Blaze turned out this classy album with heavy gospel overtones back in 1997. Coming seven years after their debut album on Motown, Josh Milan and Kevin Hodge had spent the time in between refining their garage and deep house sound on labels like Shelter and Sumo Records (of which you can find out about more here) and remixing artists like Babyface and Donald D. 'Basic Blaze' doesn't have the rawness of those in-between releases but what it lacks in a distinctly underground sound, it makes up for in ear for melody. Also the album art alone deserves a spot on this list.
Essential listening: 'Sacred Sex'
Nick Holder 'From Within'
There's no denying Nick Holder's production-line ethic of the post-00s resulted in some truly forgettable deep house and some might even name check him when talking about the eventual homogenisation of the genre. But pre-00s, the Canadian artist was in a rich vein of form. 'From Within' was the Canadian's first album with NRK Sound Division after two earlier, more disco-orientated LPs with !K7, and sees him bring it down a notch too deliver some classy understated jams. Billie Holliday's haunting vocals kick the record off right before heavy latin influences spin what would be a by-the-numbers deep house record into something special.
Essential listening: 'Return To Paradise'
The Timewriter 'Jigsaw Pieces'
Possibly the album on this list that offers the most in terms of variety, Jean Frank Cochois aka The Timewriter delivers up proper 90s deep house, ambient soundscapes and downtempo across a sprawling 15 tracks. 'Jigsaw Pieces' gives us the full picture.
Essential listening: 'Deliver Me'
Theo Parrish 'First Floor'
A Detroit don that it would be remiss to leave off of this list, Theo Parrish has produced not only some of deep house's most important albums but dance music's. His debut album 'First Floor' is a stone-cold classic of the genre, putting all of Parrish's production idiosyncrasies on display. The LP doesn't yield to anyone, with Parrish doing whatever he feels like to produce truly memorable tracks. 'First Floor Metaphor' wouldn't be that special without the outrageous build-up, 'JB's Edit' would probably just be another standard disco-house track if it wasn't so intensely lo-fi and 'Sky Walking'... well 'Sky Walking' is just an absolute tune. 'First Floor' really is where you should get on if you want to introduce yourself to Theo Parrish.
Essential listening: 'Sky Walking'
As with a lot of good deep house, subtlety is key, and Vincenzo's excellent '1-800-Vincenzo has it in droves. Perfect for that after-party that's just starting to hit levels of mellow weirdness it's a 12-track saunter through dusty house and hip-hop grooves that'll keep you going into the small hours. Dial it up.
Essential listening: 'Peace Is Not The Word To Play'
Joe Clausell 'Language'
Another legend that made his name in the second half of the 90s, Joe Clausell's debut album 'Language' certainly gets it point across. Full of relaxing grooves, this LP is possibly the most 'live' sounding of all the other albums with elements of afrobeat, latin and jazz glued together by a thudding drum machines. Have you ever heard a fiddle solo sound so sexy? 'Language' will speak to you in ways you'd never imagined.
Essential listening: 'Mateens'