Like all musical genres, house music did not arrive on the scene fully formed. This rough-hewn, Chicago-born sound gradually emerged in 1984 from the musical primordial ooze of the post-disco era, when beat-driven music that took full advantage of synthesizers and drum machines became more prolific.
In many cases, these "proto-house" records were late disco variants whose 4/4 rhythms and repetitive synth lines served as the rough template on which Chicago house was built. I've collected just 11 of the many essential records whose presence on Chicago's airwaves and in its nightclubs helped inspire the birth of what we know now as house music.
Italo disco was quite popular in the early 1980s Chicago club scene. Italian group Kano were early pioneers of the form. One of their first hits, 1980's "It's a War," combined the warm funkiness and campy performance of traditional disco with a gleeful synth refrain that quickly burrowed into listeners' memories.
From the beginning, it's obvious how a song like 1982's "The MBO Theme" by Italian duo Klein & MBO would end up influencing Chicago house. The way its opening synth sequence rises and falls all but predicts the similar path many early house tracks would tread. And while flecked with guitar, the "Theme" relies almost entirely on soaring synth melodies and its ceaseless drum machine engine.
One of my favorites to come out of this era is My Mine's 1983 debut, "Hypnotic Tango." The song's deliciously churning bassline is like a window through time, foreshadowing a sound many house and techno producers would emulate. Taken with its irresistibly sweet chorus, "Hypnotic Tango" is an absolute gem and dancefloor sure-shot even today.
Except for its slower tempo, the 1983 single "Feel The Drive" by Doctor's Cat is an exemplary blueprint from which to make house. With its clap-happy stomp and the half-spoken, half-sung vocals it's already halfway there, aided by the rapidfire bassline and slowly filtered chord being tweaked throughout.
UK duo Quando Quango's 1983 single "Love Tempo" feels similarly prescient, its opening drum pattern sounding surprisingly Chicagoan in nature. But it's the insistent bassline of this otherwise Talking Heads-adjacent tune where you hear how it echoes throughout early house tracks.
"Bostich" by the Swiss duo Yello is prototypical of so much electronic dance music it's difficult to overstate its importance. The whirling, mechanical rhythms at the core of this 1980 single are still addictive to this day and even formed the basis of Carl Craig's own 1991 classic, "Paperclip Man," under the Paperclip People moniker. Combining the robotic drive of Kraftwerk with Dieter Meier's at-times unhinged vocal delivery (itself a rallying cry for EBM music), "Bostich" is an early exemplar of what dance music could be.
Likewise with "Sharevari," the 1981 Detroit classic by A Number of Names. With its rambling melodic core, chanted vocals, and stomping beat, it contains elements of what would become electro, techno, and house years before they would exist. It stands on its own as a cornerstone of dance music history.
Released in 1982 by the NYC Peech Boys, whose members included legendary New York DJ Larry Levan, "Don't Make Me Wait" is an anthem for hungry lovers. With its interlocking groove of the piano, plucked guitar, and electric organ, all struck together by smacking drum machine beats, the tune still feels fresh today while having served as sampling grist for many house tracks since its release.
The UK trio Imagination scored a big hit in 1982 with "Just An Illusion," and it's not hard to understand why. The dreamy synths and soaring vocals that draw you in are girded by a seriously funky bassline that drops hints for future house producers to pick up later.
While disco played a bigger role in the second wave Chicago house sound, there's no denying its influence on the first generation of DJs and producers. While originally released in 1977, a shining example of disco's crossover was the First Choice song "Let No Man Put Asunder." Already exceptionally groovy—especially its stripped back middle section—the tune was also notably remixed by Chicago DJing royalty Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. Part of the canon.
"Fantasy" by Z-Factor, featuring Jesse Saunders, is widely recognized as the first house song, but it's no surprise to hear how much it shares with its proto-house peers. With a widely emulated bassline (including on Sauders' foundational "On and On") and a heaving rhythm that could only come from a band, this 1984 classic pierces the shell of the new house sound while holding on to the style that came before it.