Black music is Black history. Celebrate Black History Month with a deep dive into music history and the Black pioneers of genres like Chicago house, Detroit techno, Bronx hip hop, and Harlem soulwritten by Gabby Castellano, a BPM Supreme contributing writer from Brooklyn, NY.
When reading deeper into music history, there is a reason Black History Month and Black Music History Month in June exist beyond their celebrated recognition of African American voices. Those two months also honor heritage bearing the roots of monumental Black music. For decades, its ancestral storytelling was an unsung influence on developing American music scenes.
The Harlem Renaissance’s artistic web historically represented the blueprints of community, Black identity, and hedonistic counterculture above 110th street. Forty years later, a community would convene again on that same sweltering pavement in Harlem parks where b-boys flung their bodies on broken-down cardboard boxes to a beat, and young black men honed their craft of vinyl manipulation that would change the meaning of DJing. These are the rough drafts of hip hop music.
These events would continue in covert warehouses, where sexual liberation perusing the same dance floor as texturally complex sounds. Motown returned in undertones through the space-like techno world that defined Detroit just as much as proto-punk bands such as Death. While in Chicago, the house scene was heavily influenced by the same disco vinyl destroyed in Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night during a White Sox game.
It’s within these connections that one thing is apparent: Black musicians made music history and broke both the barriers of racial tensions, sexuality, and creative consciousness. Artists would tell their stories or the tales of their ancestors filled with rumbling passion in every beat–from rag-time to rap, jazz to jungle, and everything in-between.
Illinois native Robert Williams found himself in New York City during the disco craze, scouring Studio 54 and The Loft while befriending young DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levain. After some time, Williams ended up relocating back to Chicago and was curious as to where the club scene might be in the seemingly desolate city. He opened the venue The Warehouse in 1977, and its after-hours parties soon became a centric part of clubbing in the area.
Williams then invited Frankie Knuckles to be a resident DJ at The Warehouse, and he quickly became “The Godfather of House,” ‘house’ being short for the warehouse. House music at this time was defined by Knuckles’ experimental tempos, layers of percussions, and drum machine effects with a 4/4 beat, all while spinning deep cuts of east coast soul, gospel, and disco. Knuckles’ mixes would frequently play on Hot Mix 5, a Chicago DJ collective known for solely playing house mixes on WBMX. Detroit DJ Derrick May would travel to Chicago and happen to see Knuckles perform. He was highly influenced by Knuckles and Chicago house music and lent Knuckles his first drum machine.
But May wasn’t the only one; DJs Ken Collier, Farley Funk, and Marshall Jefferson spoke of Knuckles while the buzz began in Europe. As a Black and openly gay DJ, Knuckles helped create a safe space for identity in the Chicago house scene. He eventually moved on from The Warehouse to the club Power Plant and started recording his own music with the help of mentor DJ Chip E. and Jamie Principle. Knuckles’ production work led to winning a Grammy for Re-Mixer of the Year in 1997, mixing songs for Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Depeche Mode until he died in 2014.
Ron Hardy got his start when he was 19-years-old with a residency spinning disco at Chicago gay nightclub Den Club. He soon met Frankie Knuckles, who was DJing at the nearby venue The Warehouse. They formed a friendship instead of a rivalry, both spearheading the Chicago house scene, where club-goers would reportedly start at Den Club and end going into the next day at The Warehouse.
Later on, and after spending a few years in Los Angeles, Hardy moved back to Chicago and began DJing at Music Box, a rebranding of The Warehouse. What Hardy brought to the Music Box was lo-fi DJ sets playing funk, soul, and new wave. Tracks like Phuture’s “Acid Trax” were spun frequently, a single that defined the subgenre acid house, experimenting with reel-to-reel edit, EQs at random paces, and all at the highest volume. Hardy’s mixing matched the energy of his mind; the dance floor would just follow. In the late ‘80s, the Music Box had shut down, and in 1992 Hardy passed away, but the intense energy of his live sets live on in Chicago house history.
Wafting through the halls of Michigan’s Belleville High School were the beginnings of Detroit techno, where classmates Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May became a trio of friends immersed in the pre-electronic culture. Atkins had already dwelled in the computer games Kraftwerk, The Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Parliament Funk were playing on evergreen synthesizers, initially being exposed to their music by Detroit disc jockey The Electrifying Mojo’s radio show The Midnight Funk Association.
Their mutual love for these artists, a reverence for the house music scene occurring in Chicago, and studying the futurism movement where Atkins connected the music to the “techno-rebels” referenced in novelist Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, are the foundations of The Belleville Three’s impact. They stated that they didn’t listen to music but studied music, much like three electronic scholars searching for an answer. Attending high school in a predominantly white town–with just under 3,500 residents in 1980–the trio created a pact between Atkins “The Initiator,” Saunderson “The Innovator,” and May “The Elevator.” Known first as Deep Space Soundworks, they established themselves and began DJing house parties across Detroit.
It wasn’t until Atkins formed Cybotron with Rick Davis while attending Washtenaw Community College that the genre was fermenting into a movement. Cybotron’s “Alley’s of Your Mind” sounds directly influenced by Kraftwerk and is considered one of the first Detroit techno songs, while “Clear” is their most popular featuring synthesized loops that sample Kraftwerk. Decades later, “Clear” would then be sampled by Missy Elliot and Poison Clan, continuing a generational domino effect.
If Kraftwerk’s influence spawned music all over the world, then Atkins and The Belleville Three spawned an entire movement of DJs in the mid-‘80s, taking over the Detroit music scene locally, followed by globally. Its EDM sounding funk, alongside industrial and euphoniously space-age sound, rightfully became a genre that turned the mid-sized city’s once eminent and now vacant motor warehouses into rave clubs such as Club Heaven and The Packard. The movement was made parallel to the undercover warehouse parties thrown in the United Kingdom happening simultaneously.
Atkins went full circle, as Cybotron was frequently in rotation on the Midnight Funk Association. In 1985, he created the label Metroplex Records releasing singles by his pseudonyms, Model 500 and Infiniti, and tracks by Eddie Fowkles. Atkins was known to some as “Obi Juan” and much like the nickname’s fictional sci-fi pun, he was represented as a mentor with a guiding force in making funky and otherworldly sounds into a scene that soon went from underground warehouse parties to large music festival stages.
Eddie Fowlkes was introduced to mixing at the same time as The Belleville Three, but got his start before them, moving to Detroit to attend business school. “Flashin’ Fowlkes,” known for his rapid mixing methods, introduced techno soul to the scene and integrated Detroit’s Motown roots with the seeds of the electronic scene being planted in the early ‘80s. He played at venues like the Music Institute while establishing the Deep Space Collective with Art Payne, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Keith Martin, and Derrick May.
In 1986, Fowlkes began recording his own music after seeing Atkins’ Cybotron live and released considerably the first popular techno track, “Goodbye Kiss,” on the label Metroplex. Fowlkes’ impact was immortalized by the Detroit Historical Museum in their Techno: Detroit’s Gift to the World exhibit back in 2012. He now runs the record label Detroit Wax.
The Bronx hip hop scene emerged in the early 1970s from neighborhood block parties thrown by the group The Black Spades and at Kool Herc’s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue basement, where he introduced his Merry-Go-Round method later known as break-beating. Unbeknownst to anyone in that scene was that it would become a movement, with DJ Grand Wizard Theodore expressing that hip hop was simply a way for the community to celebrate their Black culture.
Theodore’s invention of scratching and needle dropping would carry itself into hip hop and cross over into pop music. Theodore invented the scratching method while recording a mixtape for school, pausing the music after noise complaints from his mother by holding his hand on the vinyl and causing the “scratching” or “scrubbing” sound that became his legacy.
Growing up in the Bronx with two older brothers in hip hop, who called themselves the L-Brothers, they befriended other seminal DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, who invented the “Quick-Mix Theory” (and used Theodore’s scratching method during his sets), and Kool Herc and The Herculoids, whose early recordings of their rap-battles against the L-Brothers are the foundations of New York hip hop.
Theodore’s first performance was at a block party at 63 Park between Boston Road and 169th Street. He soon would take over the club scene with his group The Fantastic Five and release the hit “Can I Get a Soul Clap” in 1980. In 1983, Herbie Hancock’s chart-hitting single and precursor to EDM “Rockit” was intro’d with scratching. What followed was the scratching method being implemented on radio hits from the late ‘80s through the 2010s, becoming an important aspect of DJing for all genres.
Funky 4 + 1
On Valentine’s Day of 1981, hip hop was introduced to mainstream television on Saturday Night Live. Hosted by Debbie Harry, who chose the group to perform on-stage that night, the SNL episode was Funky 4 + 1’s first time on national TV. They performed their second single, “That’s the Joint,” with MC Sha Rock as the “plus one” (who would be considered the first female rapper), and the “four” including Keith Keith, K.K. Rockwell, Jazzy Jeff, Lil’ Rodney C, and DJ Breakout scratching vinyl directly in front of the camera. The network didn’t understand what “scratching” meant, but it signified an entire hip hop movement occurring uptown that would make their mainstream mark in both New York and hip hop music history.
Funky 4 + 1 is also known for producing the longest rap song at 15 minutes, surpassing Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The group broke up before recording a full-length record, but just like David Bowie’s Top of the Pop performance is to rock, Funky 4 + 1 showed the world the meaning of hip hop.
In 1923, at just 16-years-old, singer Gladys Bentley ran away from her home in Philadelphia and relocated to New York City, where her bawdy singing took her from rent parties to a residency at Harlem Renaissance-centric gay clubs Harry Hansberry’s Clam House and Ubangi Club. There was a gender-bending culture shock to Bentley’s performances for outsiders curious about the speakeasy happenings uptown. Audience members would hear her distinct, echoing horn-like scat and energetic and pulsating piano playing. Then, the reworking of popular blues songs to be vulgar sing-alongs backed by a chorus line of drag queens or a cast of 30, as Bentley herself dressed in all-white tuxedos–her hair slicked back and covered by a top hat, with a cane in hand, as she flirted with female viewers under the stage name Bobbie Minton.
Her performance was sometimes labeled as a “male impersonator,” but her gender fluidity was blatantly expressed, and her identity was self-described as ‘existing between the boundaries of two genders.’ She had an outspokenness that went beyond the depth of her vocals, while her sexual identity was beyond her time–claiming to the press that she had married a woman and causing uproarious attention in the tabloids that led her to be chastised for her lesbianism.
Her career skyrocketed into headlining performances in Midtown venues and eventually in the Los Angeles gay nightclub scene until the McCarthy era left her feeling threatened and jobless. Convinced she had to renounce her sexuality, she published an op-ed in Ebony magazine and described her experience as being “medically cured.” Bentley ended up living a domestic life married to a man, but her legacy lies as both a symbol within the LGBTQ community and a powerful voice within the Harlem Renaissance.
As bandleader of the Harlem venue The Cotton Club, Duke Ellington and his jazz band would become a central part of the Harlem Renaissance with its exposure nationally through weekly radio broadcasts of their performances at the whites-only club. Ellington had moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City in 1919 and brought his burgeoning jazz career with him, initially writing his own ragtime songs and performing at local D.C. dancehalls.
Named the Cotton Club Orchestra from 1927 to 1931, Ellington’s band was the first all-black group at the Cotton Club, featuring trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, drummer Sonny Greer, trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley, and vocalist Adelaide Hall. Their impact was in the jungle jazz style’s Afro-centric key changes and pummeling drums combined with swing that had become a part of Ellington’s style. After the Cotton Club days, Ellington had become a well-known artist and starred in feature films in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. He released the singles “Creole Love Call” featuring Adelaide Hall and “Mood Indigo,” which would both become a prominent part of jazz music history.