Revived by Roland: How Chicago House Saved Disco from Death

Acid, progressive, tech, lo-fi, deep, French, Afro, Japanese. House music today spans cultures, exists in endless forms, and fills every niche of the auditory marketplace. The evolution of the genre is defined by complex web of inspirations. Even the origin of the name is up for debate. It’s difficult to map the journey of these sub-genres from the early days, but we can be sure of some things – it started in Chicago, and the story starts with disco.

Chicago is famous for gifting the world with house music in the early to mid-80s, but the true origins of the genre stem from a cultural shift in the United States that was arguably sparked at a fateful baseball game in the summer of 1979. Chicago’s own White Sox had been struggling to attract fans that season, and so chose one to embark upon one of the weirdest and most extreme promotions in sporting history: “Disco Demolition Night”. If fans brought a disco record to the July game against Detroit Tigers, they would be granted discounted entry, but also the promise that local DJ Steve Dahl would be present to explode (literally explode) a whole load of this music. The chant “Disco sucks!” filled the air that night as tens of thousands of people launched disco records on to the baseball field, burned them on makeshift bonfires, and rioted. Dubbed by some as “the day disco died”, this event marked a turning of the tide. After several years of seemingly unending love for the genre, Americans were turning their back on it.

But disco didn’t die. It went underground, and as a core of musical innovators in Chicago reinvented the sound, disco was rejuvenated for the modern dance floor. Key players in the early 80s scene were the Hot Mix 5 and Frankie Knuckles, who filled the clubs and radio waves with old disco, electro, and hip hop records. Soon enough, DJs fused elements of these genres using electronic synths, and famously – the Roland TR-909 drum machine. The 707 and 808 models also had a part to play, but the deep 909 bass drum helped to solidify the enduring 4×4 beat of house, and the unmistakeable hiss of the hi-hats defined a style that would soon dominate clubs around the world. As the framework for house was set, disco continued to carve out its resurrection against a Roland kick, but with an Italian twist.

As America shunned disco, Europe enjoyed the groovy and melodic sound waves of Italo-disco. This was later fused with an American style to become the more energetic and euphoric Italo-house – a sub-genre that few people even today can resist the urge to move to. At this point, the return of disco influence was storming in to the global mainstream. Key ingredients to this style were melodic bass, cheerful piano, and huge diva vocals. It seemed to be that chopping and combining these elements, overlaying a soulful vocal sample, and driving it home with a Roland beat was the perfect recipe for a club hit. Black Box’s 1989 banger ‘Ride on Time’ is the perfect example of this:

Queue the 90s – Italo-house was refined and what came next was an array of timeless anthems. Tunes like Don Carlos’ ‘Alone’ are staples in the dance industry, characterised by an era of rave and happiness. Whilst this scene remained cool forever after, it largely died down, resurfacing here and there until the resurgence of disco-house in the 2010s. 

Today, it’s expected to have even pure disco tracks interwoven with house sets from the likes of Palms Trax, Midland, and Dam Swindle (formerly Detroit Swindle). For all the abuse that disco received 40 years ago, it has spent the last several decades proving that it never really died… it just got with the times.

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