House music is Midwestern at its core: Forged in defiance of New York’s disco and punk waves, the underground electronic genre first circulated within Chicago’s hip late-1970s DIY circuit. At local dance clubs The Warehouse and The Music Box, early pioneers like producer-DJs Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Larry Heard (aka Mr. Fingers) spread a gospel of inclusivity and four-on-the-floor beats. The house movement has endured to this day, inspiring a new generation of electronic acts including Daft Punk, Kaskade, Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Kygo. “In my head, I still live in Northbrook and I’m taking the train into the city to hear some proper house music,” Chicago-bred, Bay Area-based DJ Kaskade has written on Twitter.
Established in 1984, Windy City imprint Trax Records was an early force in the business. Its discography includes records from genre mainstays Knuckles, Jesse Saunders and Marshall Jefferson. “House is the mother of all electronic music as we know it today,” says Rachael Cain, the label’s owner/president and one of the first acts signed to the imprint under her artist moniker, Screamin Rachael. She has since collaborated with Heard, Jefferson, Phuture, Afrika Bambaataa and others. “A superstar DJ like Kaskade is wearing a Trax T-shirt. David Guetta and Daft Punk have named Trax as influences,” she says. “Young people who have never heard acid house think it’s brand new, but it’s timeless.”
Since she acquired the label in 2006, protecting the Trax legacy has been Cain’s chief concern: She shepherded a partnership with New York publisher Raleigh Music Group, which administers catalogs for Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and others, and is in talks with the Chicago History Museum to celebrate the label’s history with an exhibit. The outfit also will introduce new signings like queer artist Mikey Everything and Grace Jones’ brother Chris Jones.
Trax has leveraged the global reach of its records to widen its pop culture footprint, earning synchs from fashion houses Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Maison Kitsuné, as well as placements in FX’s Pose, Rockstar video-game titles and Kanye West’s Life of Pablo track “Fade” and 2018 single “Lift Yourself.” “While some people thought Kanye had lost his mind and some people thought it was genius, everyone said that the beat is fire — and the beat was Trax,” says Cain, who discusses her history in house music, its pop culture reach and what 35 years of Trax means for Chicago.
What makes a track “house”?
House songs weren’t songs in a conventional sense. They weren’t verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. There were no superstar DJs. Trax was the first label to actually put the DJ’s name on the record instead of the artist’s — it was all about the producers and DJs. And there were two in Chicago who really made a difference: Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. Because we were young and involved in the house scene, we weren’t going to nightclubs. When house exploded in Chicago, it was a youth movement. Frankie was doing his all-ages parties at The Warehouse, and Ron Hardy was doing The Music Box. Later, the Hot Mix 5 jumped onboard.
Why was the city ready for such a movement?
Chicago wasn’t an industry city at the time. The working-class environment was similar to that of the U.K. We had that same kind of ethic: more blue collar, less trendy. And because it was such a DIY city, with the industrial and punk scenes and all-ages shows, it became a hotbed for something like house to happen.
You’ve been involved with Trax since the beginning. How did you first connect?
I was very much into punk at the time. Rock’n’roll had kind of reached a point of homogenized overproduction in the mid-’80s. Punk and house both had that same sort of stripped-down sound. They were bare bones. I met DJ-producers Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence, and recorded some of the earliest house music with them. Eventually, Larry Sherman, who had a vinyl pressing plant on the South Side, became the designated adult. We were able to make test pressings. That’s what brought it all together.
The house movement also thrives on collaboration. Why?
When I was doing all-ages parties at The Space Place — which were pretty much punk — Ministry rehearsed there. Die Warzau was there. That was right around the corner from The Warehouse. Chicago was divided racially, which it still can be, but house music brought us together. It wasn’t only a youth revolution — it crossed all neighborhoods. You had rich kids from private schools collaborating with kids from Englewood. You never heard about violence.
[The Orchard COO] Colleen Theis is a great Trax supporter, and one of the first things we talked about was house’s spiritual quality — how you get lost in the music. The first time I walked into The Warehouse, the first time I walked into The Music Box, it was like that. I kind of think of house people as modern-day hippies.
Was it a response to disco?
The reaction toward disco made the city ripe for something stripped down. The punk and industrial scenes lent themselves in many ways to what became house. When we did the record “Fantasy” — myself, Vince and Jesse — and it went on rotation in Chicago on regular radio, I remember people said that it was like Blondie on a beatbox budget.
When did Trax and the house movement spread beyond Chicago?
I remember when the U.K. magazine The Face sent over journalists. Spin did a 1986 cover story called “Burning Down the House.” Once the journalists started coming to town and covering Trax and D.J. International — the two labels that really represented the movement — that’s when it went international. I lived in New York for a number of years, and I remember when I brought “Fun With Bad Boys” to Little Louie Vega. Those guys — Louie Vega, Jellybean, Kenny Dope — they were playing Latin freestyle. House wasn’t on their radar, and then suddenly, they became house heads and claimed it as their own. There’s a bit of truth there because nightlife fixture Robert Williams — the man behind clubs like The Music Box and The Warehouse —brought Ron Hardy over from Los Angeles and Frankie Knuckles over from New York, but the sound they played was born in Chicago. Its roots are here.
With your reacquisition and revival of Trax, what have you gained and rediscovered?
I have dedicated my life to fighting for this music and to keeping it relevant and the originators credited. I interned for [Sugar Hill Records founder/CEO] Sylvia Robinson and was there at the very end. Once she sold the label, I knew that people like Melle Mel and Doug E. Fresh were never really going to have their day — because at the same time Russell Simmons had pretty much taken over hip-hop. I promised myself that I would always try to have the people who made the music be remembered as the pioneers: the Marshall Jeffersons, the Mr. Fingerses, the Joe Smooths. That’s why it’s important for us to stay small and independent — it keeps a lot of heart in the label.
How do you feel about top dance acts citing house as an influence?
Since EDM has become homogenized, those artists are going back to their roots in house because it’s real. D.J. International isn’t around anymore, but I remember when I had a conversation with then-president Rocky [Jones], who said, “Rachael, we’re all going to be forgotten now. It’s going to be EDM and the European DJs who will be remembered.” And I said, “Rocky, you’re 100% wrong. No one will forget what we did.”
Why has the subgenre endured?
I can’t explain why a young kid thinks house is new music. I can’t explain why an old house head — who might be 60 — is still out there shaking to it and bringing his grandkids. What can I say? You’ll find them all in the same place. Everyone’s welcome. Everyone’s accepted in our house.