While disco was taking over airwaves throughout mainstream culture during the 1980s, deep in the underground producers were experimenting with jacking rhythms to establish the foundation of house music. It was a special time. Innovators like Larry Heard, Marshall Jefferson, Frankie Knuckles and more might not have realised they were revolutionising the music industry, but the result was a captivating and infectious vibe that will rule over clubland for the foreseeable future. Let there be house!
Many of the classics produced before 1990 were well ahead of their time, and select tracks stand out as setting the stage for house music culture to progress. DJs wanted their beats harder in order to set dancefloors ablaze with energy and the evolution of house during the 80s revealed a clear transition to a more rhythm-focused sound profile, while still retaining a melodic nature. With that in mind, Mixmag has compiled a collection of timeless tracks from the days when house music was only just beginning to take form.
Here are the 20 best pre-90s house classics...
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The Fascination 'The Flight'
We wrote about this forgotten imprint back in our influential labels spotlight. Play House was one of Chicago’s unsung heroes and ran for just three short years, but offered up some of those excellent early Italo and acid cuts hitting city record stores that would eventually become known as house music. In that time, label owners Mike Macharello and Duane Thamm Jr turned out some fantastic tunes, like ‘The Flight’, a track tailor-made for the coming house explosion across the pond.
Disco-D 'Dance Tracs'
What is a list of the top 20 pre-90s house tracks without a rare record currently fetching top prices on Discogs. Disco-D, an alias of none other than Larry Heard, released a five track 12” on Alleviated Records in 1987 littered with a brilliant simplicity that allows it to stand out from everything else released during the formative years if house. All tracks on this record are influential, so be sure to have a listen to all of them here.
Royal House 'Can You Party'
There’s no denying the importance New Yorker Todd Terry played in the foundations of deep house music. And you didn’t need to look far to find the super producer’s name somewhere among the credits on any given record of the late 80s and early 90s. Among his many, many aliases (another of which we’ll get to soon) Royal House really brought the party hits. Old school classic ‘Can You Party’ is Terry’s sample-happy banger that became the track pretty much every house stereotype derives from. From the raving stabs to the “CAN YOU FEEELL IIITTT”, it’s full of an energy that, when finely paired with ecstasy, has people dancing non-stop for days.
Bäs Noir 'My Love Is Magic'
As one of the first releases on the influential New York City label Nu Groove Records, Bäs Noir’s debut single titled ‘My Love Is Magic’ has done serious damage on dancefloors since 1988. Produced by Ronald Burrell, one half of the Burrell twins who helped lay the foundation of Nu Groove, this sensual track features a warm bassline, frantic piano melody and seductive vocals by the New Jersey natives Mary Ridley and Morie Bivins. Dimitri From Paris later revisited the track in his ‘Knights of the Playboy Mansion’ mix in 2011, which helped breathe new life into the house classic. That said, this gem will never be forgotten.
Black Riot 'A Day In The Life'
Todd Terry strikes again with another simple riff and another stone cold banger. Terry only made a couple of records under the Black Riot alias but it left a mark on today's house music landscape. The warped string sound comes from speeding up and playing a section of Sequal's 'It's Not Too Late' backwards, creating an almost proto-hoover type sound and minting one of house's identifiable trademarks. Combine that with the hectic bongos of the break and a couple stuttering samples and you have a classic that will live on forever.
Joe Smooth 'Promised Land'
There are house anthems and then there are classics that transcend even that title. Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’ is one of those dancefloor bombs that has the ability to lift a crowd to new heights like no other track can. Also the title of his debut album, ‘Promised Land’ was released in 1987 and features all the makings of a house classic. The percussion is infectious, the melody is heartwarming and the vocals are soulful and uplifting. By the time it was released Joe had already been a staple at Chicago’s Smart Bar and had toured throughout Europe. His entire catalogue is brilliant, but his pre-90s material is especially worth a look with tracks like ‘Can’t Fake The Feeling’, ‘They Want To Be Free’ and ‘Goin’ Down’ helping to push the deep end of house music forward.
Frankie Knuckles 'Your Love'
There really is no denying the impact of Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle's 'Your Love', a tune you voted one of the best dance tracks ever. Knuckles and Jamie Principle built house with 'Your Love', with every roundabout arpeggio laying down another brick for the genre that would eventually take the world by storm. We can't thank the godfather and his friend from Chicago enough.
Mr Fingers 'Can You Feel It'
Simply put, Larry Heard was way ahead of his time when he produced the first deep house track ‘Can You Feel It’. Hidden away on his 1986 ‘Washing Machine’ EP released via Trax Records, the production level on this classic is unparalleled, especially for its time. The raw percussion, deep bassline and soaring atmospherics are instantly recognisable. For newcomers to house music, start here, then dig on deeper into the old school.
A Guy Called Gerald 'Voodoo Ray'
'Voodoo Ray' is truly optimistic. There's just something so upbeat, almost childlike in its ambition that makes it a must-have for any list like this. House had arrived in Britain and suddenly there was a new slant on the 4/4 club sound. A Guy Called Gerald created his magnum opus across two days in the summer of 1988. He laid down some incredible sounds, looped up a vocal to perfection and produced it in a way that utilised all of its frequencies, both the ones you hear and the ones that just move you. It will always be a tune as at home on a festival soundsystem as it is in a dark club on a winter's night.
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Mike Dunn 'So Let It Be Houze!'
Deep acid house madness from Mike Dunn is a win any night of the week. ‘So Let It Be Houze!’, released via Westbrook Records in 1988 is one of his finest tracks and one of house music’s most important records as it fused key elements that became influential moving forward. The distinct vocal tone, acid riff and hard-hitting percussion helped establish Dunn as an innovator in the scene and he would build on this sound profile throughout his career. Like the title declares, let it be house!
Julian Jonah 'Jealousy & Lies'
When this writer picked up a Royal House compilation for £2, he didn't think much of it. Maybe there would be some throwbacks, maybe some classics that could be busted out at a party everyone once in awhile. But the second track in changed everything. Julian Jonah's 'Jealousy & Lies' is one of the coolest, smoothest and vibiest tracks on this list, full of pumping sub bass and slamming warehouse drums that's best heard via the medium of vinyl. It's all topped off with a tantalising vocal from the man himself who is somehow not even from New York or Chicago but the UK. He had us fooled.
Frankie Knuckles presents Satoshi Tomiie feat. Robert Owens 'Tears'
It’s impossible to not talk about Frankie Knuckles when discussing the early days of house music and ‘Tears’ is a perfect storm if there ever was one. Three absolute legends coming together on a beautiful masterpiece, now an untouchable classic of house music. The dreamy essence of the track is the product of possibly the greatest Japanese house producer in Satoshi Tomiie linking up with the most influential house producer in Knuckles and and the most iconic house vocalist in Robert Owens. There’s so much emotion in this track, they just don’t make them like this anymore. Take us back to 1989!
Thompson & Lenoir 'Can't Stop The House' (Basement Mix)
If you didn't notice already, the earliest house tracks were all about rhythm. Much like the disco and funk drummers before them, house producers were always trying to find the groove and fit into the pocket. That was when you could really make your dancers jack, a dance move that swept Chicago's clubs in conjunction with house music. The Basement mix of 'Can't Stop The House' by Thompson & Lenoir (a production duo that only released a few other records afterwards) is the perfect example of locking into a rhythm for the dancefloor. The 909 bumps, the vocals stay minimal and rhythmic, and the bassline bounces up and down, much in the same way a dancer's body might. Thank fuck it got repressed not too long ago.
Greyhouse 'New Beats The House'
Hearing Greyhouse’s ‘New Beats The House’ in the club today is like being transported to a cosmic realm of blissful acid house, but not from days of old. Originally released in 1989 on R&S Records, this timeless anthem will undoubtedly retain its power forever. It was a highly sought after record, but thanks to a recently reissued 12” on Dark Entries in 2017 it’s available for all. Don’t sleep on this one, pick it up now if possible!
808 State 'Pacific State'
The tune that made saxophones cool in dance music, 808 State's ‘Pacific State’ isn’t some super underground selection but it still engenders itself to the hip, chin strokers at the back as much as the tops-off, fist-pumping lads moshing in the middle. The only question that cropped up when selecting this track for the list was 'which version'? But just like Doritos, original comes up best. Those dreamy synths, the simple basslines and pumping kick of the original mix all equate to a certified house classic.
Sterling Void & Paris Brightledge 'It's Alright'
An ode to house music's bright-side-ism and positive thinking, this socially conscious, early vocal classic (released 1989) by Sterling Void & Paris Brightledge looked at all the shitty stuff going at the cigarette end of the 80s and proclaimed, don't worry – "It's Gonna Be Alright". And after hearing this tune, everything was.
Nitro Deluxe 'This Brutal House' (Brutal Mix)
Released in early 1987, Nitro Deluxe's 'This Brutal House' really captures the transition from disco to house and the influence of the European sounds that had for so long been spread by the likes of Kraftwerk. It slowly builds like a normal house track, all flailing hats and chipping clave before the sprinkling of light strings gives it an ominous tone. Then, out of nowhere, a synth stab so weighty it sounds like it's come from a naughty tech-house track from 2017. It's like listening to musical history being made and if that doesn't make you emotional then we don't know what will.
Ten City 'Devotion'
Marshall Jefferson knew a thing or two about house music. Throw one of the greatest house vocalists of all time, Byron Stingily, into the mix (plus guitarist Herb Lawson and keyboardist Byron Burke) and you know you've got something special. Witness! Check out a special 'Sax Mix' for more 'Devotion' here.
Inner City 'Good Life'
Masterminded by Kevin Saunderson, one of the original creators of techno (and one third of The Belleville Three along with Derrick May and Juan Atkins), Inner City took the Saunderson sound and melded it with Paris Grey's soulful vocals to create tracks that rocked underground dancefloors and commercial charts alike. Listen above to learn why...
Farley Jackmaster Funk 'Funkin' With The Drums'
Is it really a list of the best pre-90s house tracks without one from the legendary Hot Mix 5? Farley Jackmaster Funk was by the far most successful producer and despite producing 'Love Can't Turn Around', THE tune that launched the sound across the pond, we went with his deep, moody classic 'Funkin' With The Drums' as one of the best. Much like with all of these tracks the key is in that growling bass. Before house came along that level of aggression in a bassline that wasn't played on four strings of nylon hadn't been heard. This shit is dark, man. Coupled with an ominous, lonely synth and some washy FX, it was truly futuristic.