"Let There Be House" — Preachers in House Music
Interviewees for this project are often quick to diminish or refute the claim that house music is expressly christian. Whilst it is certainly a common thread that house music is 'spiritual' (whatever that means), and can take on aspects of some kind of religious experience, many of those I've spoken to stop short of saying house music is in some way influenced by christianity. In many instances, especially the live instantiation of house music with a dance floor and a DJ, their claims of some kind of quasi-religiosity are perfectly understandable. Indeed, why should there be any christian about that rather than simply some form of ineffable experience? It's been a common human behaviour since time immemorial: people get messed up, dance and commune with some kind of internal or external spirituality. And it's certainly not something unique to house specifically, many musical gatherings have elements of the sublime wrapped in their experience. But there are instances, and a lot of instances at that, where house music specifically does appear to be invoking very christian artefacts. Enter the role of the Preacher.
As early as 1986 there's evidence to show that preachers were becoming part of the musicological makeup of house music. In the NME's cover piece titled "The DJ's They Couldn't Hang" Tyree Cooper describes Frankie Knuckles' use of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, inserting vocal snippets from the speech on top of his mixes (whether sampled or records dropped live he doesn't detail). It's likely this occurred before 1986 as this is from Tyree's recollections rather than being presented as a contemporary occurrence. Dr King's phraseology and direct quotations/fragments crop up often throughout house. "I Have A Dream" snippets crop up consistently, and informs so much of the discourse around house music that it deserves a post to itself (watch this space).
Tyree Cooper's interview extract also offers a tantalising view into something else well worthy of consideration: the simple fact that house music, musicians, vocalists, and the church were all incredibly intertwined in the early days of the movement. We know that many house vocalists, musicians and their families were often involved in the church. Daryl Pandy was a vocalist in T.L Barrett's church in Chicago, Robert Owens was trained in The Voices Of Cornerstone choir under James Cleveland. We also understand that Cooper's use of Barrett's sermons in his own records was a direct result of family influence (his mother). The motivations for including expressly religious content in this manner is something that requires further scrutiny.
The modus operandi of this early period was to directly sample sermons and religious figures. Perhaps one of the most pervasive and well known examples would be Green Velvet's Preacher Man sampling Clarence Levaughn Franklin (Aretha Franklin's father, fact of the day) released in 1993 (N.B. I'll concede that this certainly sits well in the arena of techno rather than house). The track itself plays on the double entendre of children "playing house" over a record that would have been ostensibly included in harder end of house DJ sets. The double entendre is done to death by the end of the piece but it provides an insight into one of the more unusual yet on-the-nose uses of the preacher vocal. A comparable example appeared with the Fingers Inc re-versioning of Can U Feel It containing a direct sample of the aforementioned MLK speech.
Whilst the early house records directly sampled preachers and sermons, there came a point where the genre began to expressly record it's own "sermon" fragments for inclusion in tracks. By mimicking the stylised vocals of preachers with their wild dynamic shifts, extreme enunciation, almost sprechgesang recitative technique, house producers were able to compose and create their own psuedo-sermons with whatever lyrical content and rhetoric they desire. Relying heavily on pre-existing lexical fields, implicitly understood and internalised by those who often attending church (many vocalists were already familiar with preachers and their presentation style from their time in the ranks of choirs) producers created useful forgeries of the style. Perhaps the best early example of this could be ascribed to Rhythm Control's My House with vocals provided by Chuck Roberts (that was also later reworked with Mr Fingers' Can U Feel It coincidentally).
What separates Chuck Robert's vocal performance from the array of tracks sampling Franklin and King is the fact this sermon is specifically not religious. Rather it takes an established christian text, biblical Genesis in fact, and twists and distorts the text away from it's initial meaning. Rather than offer the story of creation, this new house myth tells the story of Jack presenting music and dance to the world. These kinds of subversions are something that pose an interesting point of convergence in house music. Their meaning and intention is certainly a sticking point with this project.
Into the mid 90's the faked/forgery preacher voice is something heard often. Eddie Amador's Rise, Rhythmatic Junkies' The Feelin', Ron Carroll's The Sermon, all take this approach (with varying degrees of success). Todd Terry's Ready For A New Day album starts with an introductory piece from Roland Clark titled The Preacher, which also begins "In The Beginning" akin to Rhythm Control's original acapella. Oddly Roland Clark, coming from projects such as Leviticus and Urban Blues Project certainly seems to come from a more sincere background, yet in the Todd Terry recording will readily subvert the style to fit with the trends of the genre at that time. The voice has even permeated other styles of dance music, in this instance hyper-rave drum & bass in Danny Byrd's Throw Ya Hands. Byrd certainly hits the correct notes, although doesn't go as intensely christian as some pieces.
As with all these discussions the material appears to do these spectacular shifts in direction just at the moment you believe you might have cracked it. So many of my analysis pieces have finished with this same thought, but each time it evolves. There are often those that transgress the boundary between pastiche and sincerity. Two Half's Praise His Name is a prime example of this coming from a more sincere devotional perspective. But this leads me to believe that interpretation and intention aren't perhaps as important as I'd initially suggested. Perhaps intention is something that can decided by the listener rather than the creator. And creating music with multiple interpretations increases it's likelihood of pieces being accepted.
On a personal note: I don't think I would enjoy the experience of a DJ playing Praise His Name. The arbitrary and undemocratic nature of the DJ set may make it feel like I'm being forced to engage in worship which, as I'm someone who isn't religious, I would find an unpleasant experience. I suppose the last question to ask is is whether there is a subculture of christian house nights where people listen to vocalists impersonate preachers and dance to it as an expression of faith. That would seem an odd notion, especially given the current US trend towards huge CEDM groups. But these things must have a purpose, and they must have an audience when they go so far over the line they cross back into christian music.
These trends haven't gone unnoticed by DJs. The practice is somewhat standardised and accepted by most house producers and DJs, but it's inclusion is usually limited to specific styles of house (typically house styles that were present and developed before the year 2000, deep, funky and vocal). Newer or harder styles of house tend to shy away from using this tool very often. I've been unable to find instances of the preacher voice in electro house, tech house, bassline, french house etc. Surprisingly it's also rather absent in disco house derivatives. Given the lineage of disco to early house music it seems odd that the style that reincorporated disco elements back into house would miss such an important musicological device. Read more about Simon Dunmore's thoughts on speech and preacher acapella recordings and his approach to DJ sets in his FoH2016 interview.
The bootleg record label Goldfinger$ Inc. created a series of acapella releases from these early styles. The content of these releases varies in terms of religiosity. Whilst some tracks included are obviously apparent (Can U Feel It, House Of God, Rise etc.), there are other pieces that seem incredibly ill-fit (Salt-N-Pepa's Push It stands out as a bizarre inclusion).
Musicologically speaking the "preacher voice" is undeniably part of the fabric of house. There are many other ways the spiritual, the christian, or the religious can present within the oeuvre of house but the preacher is one that directly links to the roots of the creators. Whether this is a simple attempt at that subversion and cannibalism I've hinted at in previous posts (something that will be discussed further into the project) or whether it's an attempt to minister is yet to be determined. But I'm tempted to suggest that the truth lies between the two. It may well be using utopian message but stripping away divinity by recontextualising the voice in a field of electronic music and hedonism. Perhaps, in a very real way, the roots of house are wrapped around the message of christianity, if not the dogma.