Trax Records: The 20th Anniversary Collection

(Casablanca Trax)

Acid Classics

(Casablanca Trax)

Mayor Daley has officially declared August 25 “Frankie Knuckles Day.” That evening the godfather of house will close SummerDance’s “DJ Wednesdays” series with a set in Grant Park, and earlier in the day Chicago will make his legacy a part of its landscape by designating the strip of Jefferson Street between Van Buren and Monroe–near the site of the old Warehouse club–Honorary Frankie Knuckles Way.

This is from the same city that passed an ordinance in 2000 all but outlawing underground dance parties–the kind that helped spread Chicago house across town and around the world–by requiring organizers to procure liability insurance and amusement licenses and shut down by 2 AM, under threat of $10,000 fines. The same town that, a year later, made building owners and landlords legally responsible for drug use at parties held on their property and promised them jail terms into the bargain.

This bizarre belated outpouring of official recognition is thankfully irrelevant. Frankie Knuckles hardly had to wait around for Chicago to acknowledge his enormous influence on the world of dance music. When Knuckles moved to town in 1977, he set up the Warehouse, which would become the most important dance club in Chicago history. His residency there, along with DJ Ron Hardy’s sets at the Music Box and the Hot Mix 5 radio shows on WBMX, shaped the mid-80s postdisco dance style that took its name from Knuckles’s roost: house. Once house reached Europe–where people cottoned onto it big-time, thanks in large part to the popularization of the drug ecstasy–rave culture was born. House’s impact on today’s pop is as undeniable as that of hip-hop (if nowhere near as thorough), and the genre is the foundation for almost all modern club music.

Even though the best house is now being made elsewhere, Chicago holds a permanent place in the imagination of nightlife denizens as the genre’s ground zero–for a whole lot of people, particularly in Europe and Japan, Chicago equals house. And just like modern-day rappers from New York’s boroughs, Chicago’s DJs and producers have a leg up in the credibility department because they were born and raised alongside the music they make.

In the early days of house, most of those DJs and producers–Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Larry Heard–made those records for Larry Sherman’s Trax label, founded in 1984. Before the decade was up Trax would release many of house’s canonical singles: Phuture’s “Acid Tracks,” which kicked off the acid-house subgenre, Jefferson’s “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem),” Maurice Joshua’s “This Is Acid,” Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles’s “Baby Wants to Ride,” Heard’s “Can You Feel It” (as Mr. Fingers), Adonis’s “No Way Back.”

This summer Trax, in partnership with Canadian firm Casablanca Media, has launched an extensive series of reissues–the most important of which are Acid Classics and the three-CD 20th Anniversary Collection (the first two discs mixed by Maurice Joshua and Paul Johnson, the third featuring several of the same cuts unmixed). The idea is obviously to drive home the point that, back in the day, Trax was the only house label that mattered.

Trax did get there first, but it was hardly the only Chicago house label, and it certainly wasn’t the biggest. That was DJ International, started in ’85 by Rocky Jones. DJ International had bigger hits, and compared to the Trax singles–which were stripped-down and strange–those hits were smooth and song oriented, a lot more like what folks think of as “house” these days. Among them were Joe Smooth’s gospel-tinged “Promised Land,” routinely honored with spots on club-music magazines’ lists of the greatest records ever, and Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Jesse Saunders’s “Love Can’t Turn Around,” both of which hit the top ten in the UK–Hurley’s at number one.

One thing the two labels shared was a reputation for cheapness. Jones bragged to Barry Walters in a 1987 Spin article that DJ International’s 12-inch singles cost an average of $3,000 to record, even pointing out that one was made for $50. (The $50 wonder was Tyree’s “I Fear the Night,” and it sounds it.) Trax was groundbreaking in part because of this cheapness. The barely decorated beats, amateurish vocals, and thunking bass lines all over 20th Anniversary Collection and Acid Classics bear the same resemblance to classic disco as a Roger Corman B movie does to a classic Universal horror film from the 30s. By tearing disco down to a rude skeleton, completely redefining its aesthetic values, Trax helped transform it into the most popular DIY music on the planet.

All that said, Trax’s CD reissues sound excellent–especially surprising given Sherman’s fondness for feeding his in-house pressing plant recycled vinyl. Of the notoriously shoddy original releases, Andy Kellman of the All Music Guide once wrote, “I could probably have my neighbors’ kids play with [another record] in their sandbox all day in 100 degree weather and it would still sound better than the Trax records [I own].” Up to now the label has been equally cavalier with its own back catalog–the 1997 three-disc set Chicago Trax was put together with all the loving care of an off-label truck-stop cassette, without so much as a liner note. This all makes Trax’s newfound attention to detail especially welcome.

Listening to 20th Anniversary Collection and Acid Classics today is like cracking a time capsule. The tracks use drum machines and analog synthesizers that immediately date them to the mid- and late 80s. But the overemotional, frequently off-key vocals and one-take production give them a feverish feel that’s harder to pin down–probably because so little of the house music that followed sounds anything like this. As house grew, it became more polished, more urbane. But there’s nothing classy about Trax releases like Adonis’s “No Way Back” (which repeats “Release my soul / I’ve lost control / I’m too far gone / Ain’t no way back” over a maniacally repetitive keyboard bass line) or Hercules’s “7 Ways to Jack,” with its reptilian porno vocals (“Number five: rhythmatically move your body to the beat / Number six: physically touch the body in front of you in every way imaginable / Number seven: lose complete mental control and begin to jack”).

Even Trax’s more straightforward stuff has a lurid charisma. Mr. Fingers’s “Can You Feel It” is best known as an instrumental, but the alternate version on Anniversary features a vocal by Robert Owens, whose delivery is so overheated that when he drops in some 12-step boilerplate toward the end (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) it takes a second to realize you’ve heard the words somewhere else. Master C & J’s “Dub Love” (also on Anniversary) uses a filtered voice-over of “Ooooh–you drive me cray-zay!” that sounds like something the Playboy Channel might’ve edited out as too campy. Even Maurice Joshua’s subdued, almost poppy “This Is Acid” (on both comps), a classic clubland explain-it-to-the-adults record, has salacious overtones. When he explains, “Acid has a certain groove / That makes your body want to move / When you hear it,” the moves he’s describing don’t seem like dance steps. And Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle’s expert Prince rip, “Baby Wants to Ride”–well, it’s not about cars.

Now that house and its multiple offshoots–techno, jungle, trance, etc–have been evolving for 20 years, you’d expect these records to sound quaint. But in fact they sound stranger and fiercer than ever. Despite the clearly obsolete technology employed, they seem outside time, as though they fell to earth encased in a meteorite. Part of this has to do with how self-referential many of the songs are, and the way those references start to seem inexplicable as the scene that originally gave them meaning recedes into the past. “Just like New York rap is about rap and Washington go go is about go go,” Walters wrote in Spin, “Chicago house is about house.” Even now house music loves to talk about itself, but nowhere does it do so with the kind of palsied obsessiveness of Mr. Lee’s “House This House” (from Anniversary: “Let’s house this house / Until we can’t house no more,” it exhorts, over a mnemonic riff consisting of a sample of the word “house” repeated so rapidly that each iteration sounds like Pac-Man eating a pellet. “House is a feeling,” to quote one oft-sampled monologue–and if you haven’t been there, it can be awfully hard to find someone who can describe it to you.

Appropriately, the vintage Trax sound most directly emulated by current practitioners is the label’s most distinctively alien. That sound–enshrined on Acid Classics, whose tracks date from ’86 to ’94–comes from a manipulated Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, an instrument originally designed to repeat a programmed bass line for the benefit of a rehearsing drummer or guitarist. Since the machine’s keyboard was only a single octave, there were also several knobs for adjusting the bass line’s pitch–and a manhandled 303 can produce some of the most unearthly squelch imaginable.

“Acid Tracks,” the 1987 12-inch by Phuture that kicked off the brief craze for acid records, is still one of the oddest “hit” singles ever made: nearly 12 minutes of a machine eating its own wires, the 303 jibbering away distractedly while drum machine, hand claps, and referee’s whistle march imperturbably onward. Laurent X’s “Machines” (originally released on Mark Imperial’s House Nation label in 1988) is even noisier, with a staticky two-note motif counterbalancing the whipping, willful 303.

By the 90s the 303 had become an anchor for several dance substrains: Plastikman’s minimal, subtly shaded techno, funky breakbeat cuts like Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness,” stark early German trance like Hardfloor’s “Acperience,” with its massed 303s like a colony of singing bats.

What distinguishes these later records from Trax’s output is the impression that the musicians had a certain level of mastery over their machines. Much of the stuff on Acid Classics, like a lot of the “regular” house on 20th Anniversary Collection, is far looser–you get the feeling that the artists weren’t quite certain what they were doing, and that they preferred it that way. Now that it’s possible to judge them with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like they had a point.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Marty Perez.