Frederick Dunson was 17 when he first rode a rickety freight elevator to the sprawling industrial space where music history was being made. When the doors opened, the desolate Chicago neighborhood below fell away. The lights were dim and pulsing. The crowd was art-student chic. The music was the style that would come to be known as house. The men playing it were, like Dunson and many other attendees that night, young, black and gay.
It was 1975, and the club at 555 W. Adams St. and local venues like it were sonic and social revelations. By year’s end, the venue had moved to a members-only space nearby that was officially named US Studio, but was called “The Warehouse” by attendees. Revelers shortened that name to “house” to describe the music DJs like Frankie Knuckles -- who would come to be known as the godfather of the genre -- played there, grafting gospel and soul vocals over kick drums made with the era’s emerging drum machine technology and played at 120-130 beats per minute. With a thrilling soundtrack, the gay men populating the dancefloor could freely express themselves.
“Being ostracized as black, gay kids,” says Dunson, founder/president of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, which works to preserve Knuckles’ legacy and support his causes, “this felt like a place where we could be who we were while being protected from the judgments of society.”
“Chicago was kind of a racist town,” adds Warehouse founder Robert Williams, who relocated to the Midwest from New York in the early ’70s. He recruited Knuckles to be the resident DJ at his new club. The Warehouse “was a haven for the gay community, which also turned into the heterosexual community, because the gay kids were inviting their heterosexual friends who were dying to come in.”
From Knuckles and company in Chicago to fellow house innovators David Mancuso and Larry Levan in New York, dance music’s roots in the gay club scenes of the late ’70s and early ’80s are well documented. Gay men, and particularly gay men of color, are widely credited with creating house music and planting the seeds of the many genres that have evolved from it.
Walk into a Las Vegas club today, and you’ll hear music -- mainly, what’s known as EDM -- that draws on this earlier sound. Like the blues and other genres before it, it is music forged by a marginalized community that is now dominated by the heteronormative mainstream, with straight, white, cisgender men populating label boardrooms and festival lineups. While underground LGBTQ-oriented clubs continue trendsetting in major cities, in the most visible and lucrative incarnations of the scene they created, gay and black artists are in the minority.
Mainstream house music is nothing new. In 1991, CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Dance Club Songs chart. The 1993 club jam “Show Me Love” by Robin S. became a worldwide radio smash. Meanwhile, artists like Madonna, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were recruiting underground house producers like David Morales, Peter Rauhofer and Victor Calderone to remix their tracks.
At the same time, the AIDS crisis was dealing a blow to the worldwide gay dance scene, curbing its unbridled celebration and sexual adventurousness. “You could tell that the behavior of the consumer in those parties was not about just getting laid anymore,” says Insomniac’s Carlos Correal, a longtime talent booker and organizer of some of Montreal’s earliest house and techno events. “It was like, ‘If you keep doing that, you’re going to die.’”
It was around 2006 that EDM began rumbling stateside. While the genre built upon house and its electro and progressive subgenres it spawned after crossing over to Europe, the scene’s biggest stars were, and are, mostly straight white men like Calvin Harris, Diplo, deadmau5, David Guetta and the members of Swedish House Mafia. According to IMS’ 2017 business report, the global EDM industry is now valued at $7.4 billion. Published in March, Billboard’s Dance 100 list (determined using chart statistics, touring data and fan votes) included only two openly gay producers: techno powerhouse Nicole Moudaber (No. 87) and bass-funk producer GRiZ (No. 76).
Representation, particularly of women (of whom there were few even in house’s early years), has become a hot topic in the dance scene and industry at large, but for many event organizers, addressing the issue isn't a priority. “I find these subjects extremely counterproductive,” says Correal. “I look for the talent. I don’t want to let politics disrupt the focus on making the parties badass.”
The mainstream EDM scene is, in theory, open to LGBTQ artists. In early May, house producer Kandy came out on social media and got support from stars like DJ Snake, Marshmello and Diplo. Diplo also recently pushed boundaries of EDM heteronormativity by kissing Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar in Vittar’s video for “Então Vai.”
Still, LGBTQ representation remains paltry. “Coming into the EDM scene as an aspiring producer, there were no standout LGBTQ-plus artists for me to look up to,” says Kandy. Longtime music journalist Zel McCarthy notes that the business model hasn't changed “because the people running the business are straight men.” As those men fortify their networks in a world designed after their interests, it stands to reason that they’ll keep occupying those positions. (Of the 74 executives, agents and industry figures on Billboard’s 2018 Dance Power Players list, 54 are white men.)
Meanwhile, gay club culture continues evolving in (and out of) the underground. “I don’t feel the mainstreaming of dance music has had a significant effect on gay dance clubs,” says veteran journalist Michael Musto, who has been covering club culture since the ’90s. In San Francisco, Honey Soundsystem has emerged as a leader; New York’s Discwoman promotes female-identified artists and hosts shows; and Los Angeles’ A Club Called Rhonda attracts thousands of revelers each month with dancefloor hedonism and a pansexual ethos. Co-founders Gregory Alexander (who is gay) and Loren Granich (who is straight) have focused on booking new artists alongside gay icons. “The scene has changed to where the trailblazers are finally being celebrated,” says Granich.
In the last few years, Alexander says he has seen a particular rise in parties focused more on activist causes supporting lesbians, trans people and other at-risk subsets. “We have to realize that being a gay man comes with a certain amount of privilege at this point,” says Alexander. “The world has opened up to accept that type of person, whereas trans people are still fighting for their lives.”
While representation among gay artists is certainly limited, a scene welcoming fans of all orientations is baked into the old-school rave values of peace, love, unity and respect. For these fans, the core message of house music -- and the gay black men who created it -- endures. “House is and always has been,” says Dunson, “music of hope, love and inclusion.”