The House That Jesse Built

By Shawn “Speedy” Lopes

The year was 1984, a whirlwind year in music. Prince’s purple reign was in full swing, Menudomania went worldwide, and rebellious teens who weren’t growing their hair out in the almighty name of heavy metal scared their parents half to death with the perilous prospect of breakdancing.

L.A. may have been America’s rock ‘n’ roll mecca and New York the hub of hip-hop, but in Chicago, 20-year-old musician-slash-deejay Jesse Saunders made musical history by putting out what can now be called the first house record.

To most, the rudimentary single “On & On” must have sounded quite peculiar. It was mesmeric and cadenced, with an insistent Roland 808 rhythm that offered little in the way of actual melody. It was a momentous record nonetheless. Saunders’ self-produced rhythm track not only marked the inception of a new sound, but also helped define what has become dance music’s most prosperous form.

“People say I have the first house record – OK, I can accept that,”said Saunders via telephone from his home base in Los Angeles. “But like with every type of music, it’s a series of things – and people – that make it happen.”

Saunders goes on to credit such Chicago notables as Farley “Jackmaster” Funk for giving house much-needed radio exposure, Paul Weissberg of Imports Etc., the city’s hippest record shop, for introducing Chicago deejays to new sounds, and the early record labels, on-the-level or not, for giving house artists a voice.

“House is not my thing,” he says. “It’s everyone’s thing.”

Saunders also credits a deejay-only promotional record as the inspiration for his first single.

“It was actually a tape loop,” he explained. “Before sampling, people would splice tape, and to this day, we don’t know who did it. One side was a megamix; one of the first mix records we’d ever seen, but nobody ever flipped it over and played the B side.”

The now-infamous mystery cut was instrumental in the creation of “On & On” and, eventually, the establishment of house music, as detailed in Saunders’ new book “House Music: The Real Story”.

In his memoirs and related interviews, Saunders recounts his experience with the house scene and his views on a variety of topics. First point of contention: Contrary to reports, neither Chip E. nor Farley “Jackmaster” Funk coined the term “house,” an abbreviated moniker derived from The Warehouse, a famous Chicago nightclub.

Second, while Detroit techno seemed to have traveled a synchronous and parallel path with Chicago house during the ’80s, techno was very much a byproduct of house, Saunders says.

“Those Detroit deejays will tell you they were influenced by Gary Numan and Kraftwerk, but where were they hearing these records? At The Playground (a Chicago nightclub).”

Third, he says, deejaying has become a lost art.

“When I first started deejaying, a deejay was a deejay and nobody really cared who you were,” he states. “As time went on, it became an idolization thing. The problem I see now is young deejays coming up who don’t understand what it’s about. It’s not about ego.”

Lastly, Saunders believes dance music should always be felt from the depth of your being. “One key ingredient (in house) is that it has a pulse or a groove. Other styles like trance or techno have no feeling to me and I need emotion in my music to make it work.”

He notes: “House gets in your soul and we need to know why it’s happening, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going.”

Jesse Saunders with “The Godfathers”: Kimball Collins, Justi and deejays playing hip-hop, jungle and house. Saturday, 9 p.m.-3 a.m., $6-$13, UH Campus Center Ballroom, 531-3500. Also: Saunders plays tonight, 10 p.m. – 2 a.m., at Indigo, 1121 Nuuanu Ave., for 21 and older,   $5-$8. 591-3500.

Dubbed from the Honolulu Advertiser, Friday, May 7, 1999

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