The DJs They Couldn't Hang - Chicago House (1986)
I've found it! I've read an awful lot about this article. It's referenced in the lot of other pieces, texts and books. It might well be the first real coverage true Chicago house got in the UK. Unsurprisingly it was from the NME, one of those bastions of music in the 80s and 90s that actually pushed quality journalism and thought-provoking/cutting edge music, alongside the much maligned Melody Maker. In fact the two magazines would "join forces" in the year 2000 and, as a result, become distinctly less than the sum of their parts. But that's a rant for another day and probably isn't the domain of this project anyway.
But just look at it! Look at the names! Farley Jackmaster Funk, Tyree Cooper, Daryl Pandy, Khalid, and the Rev. T. L. Barrett Jr (now fallen from grace somewhat with an distinctly iffy pyramid scheme). In fact, it might be that Barrett could be hugely important to this project. I haven't found enough to make a definite case for that yet, but it'll certainly be something I explore over the next couple of weeks. Anyway, onwards into the article...
Throughout the various materials I'm using for this project there's always an implied, rather than explicit, hint or nod towards the idea of gospel and christianity as something inherent in house. A few pages of Simon Reynolds' incredible Energy Flash (an abridged version was published as Generation Ecstasy in the USA) are the most the topic is given anywhere. Those few pages have become a bit of a bible (pardon the pun) as they, perhaps more than any other text, really deal with some of the driving motivations for the interwoven nature of Gospel iconography and aesthetics in house music. Other authors, articles, and books also deal with this but always in a veiled manner rather than plainly stating it in the way Reynolds does. That was until I finally got my hands on this article.
In the section of the article titled JACKING WITH JESUS the article actually attempts to draw some lines of commonality between the vocalists as church-taught Gospel singers and the potential influence this may have on the music. Whilst an obvious connection to make it's certainly one worthy of exploration. Indeed, it's not surprising that many of the vocalists house called upon, and those that made it as disco divas before the appearing of house in 1984 were trained in Chicago church choirs, particularly the Black Gospel tradition (something Chicago is particularly well known for according to Brewster & Broughton, 2006). It's an easy line to draw between the two, but there's so much more to it than what is offered here. There's always been a tension between the Church and the state of house - something I'm particularly keen to explore in some of the interviews I'm about to conduct in the next couple of weeks (this is explored somewhat in my conversation with Tim Lawrence); and simply saying house vocalists were church vocalists seems too clean cut in an area that's anything but clear.
What is certainly interesting is that, at this early stage of Chicago house, a lot of vocalists (Daryl Pandy is mentioned by name) attended the same church (The Life Center Church Of Universal Awareness) in Chicago, overseen by Rev. T. L. Barrett. Barrett himself is a bit of a Gospel icon. I don't want to discuss Barrett in too much details here, as I feel he deserves a full post to himself. But I'm starting to form the impression that this one establishment may have been incredibly influential as far as that original house vocalist sound is concerned. Is that the source of the Nile? Do all roads lead to 5500 South Indiana Avenue? Or is this placing too much emphasis on one locale?
Like some of the other NME articles from this early period of house that I've found (Jamie Principle, 1988 and Marshall Jefferson, 1988) the photographic evidence is very specifically themed towards ideas of religion. Beyond the image of Barrett and his choir, there are images of Jack-In-House striking a "Jesus Christ pose", arms outstretch in a benevolent expression. And another appearance of a quasi-halo motif around the head of Farley Jackmaster Funk (a trick that would be used again in the Marshall Jefferson piece from 1988). In fact, these halo motifs are getting weird now. They're cropping up a lot in the imagery surrounding house music. If you follow the halo tag you'll find other articles with examples of it. Whether it's a common image for music magazines to use, or whether it's something particular to house and dance music I'm yet to find out.
Mixing is a mission — Tyree Cooper
In the latter half of the article there's an explanation from Tyree Cooper about the potential source of those Preacher-style acapellas that may bear some fruit. It discusses Frankie Knuckles overlaying recordings of Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech onto house tracks. It would certainly offer some evidence as to a source for those ideas of civil rights and Black and/or gay emancipation/liberation that are quite prevalent in the early days of house most notable in tracks from the likes of Cassio, Db, and The Children (listening examples here). And, lest we forget, Dr. King was a baptist minister, and I Have A Dream was littered with christian references.
There are other ways to infer Cooper's statements. It may be about somehow recontextualising the notions of freedom into something related to musical expression rather than gay liberation. Or it may simply have been an attempt to mimic Knuckles' style and technique. But, on balance, I do honestly believe the connection is something deeper, something with a strong spiritual thread drawing all these ideas together. As Cooper says himself "Mixing is a mission" i.e. a way to express those christian values in a different type of space and to a different group.
I've only just realised how shocking the title from this article is. I imagine, given that The Smiths' Panic came out only the month prior, and them being NME darlings, that this was a reference to Morrisey's commands to "Hang the DJ!". But this is a piece deeply embedded in Black gospel and soul music. It may have also been a more subtle link to the abhorrent practice of lynching as a symbol against which the Black civil rights movement could position itself against (something that was in decline, but still present during the formation of the civil right movement). Perhaps the oddest thing about the article is that there is no attempt made to link the title to any of the text. I'm left slightly baffled.