10 Black Electronic Music Pioneers You Should Listen To
Featuring Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Juan Atkins, and more.
Black people created many of the sub-genres of electronic music. Although electronic music appeared in Germany and Japan in the 1970s, it was Black artists like Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambataa, inspired by Kraftwerk among others, who refined and improved the genre. Many of the DJs who pioneered and shaped the sound in the 1970s were often Black. Additionally, many of them were gay and built the genres across gay bars in cities like Chicago. Mu h of these talented artists' contributions has been forgotten, yet their sound remains highly-influential. History, as always, has been whitewashed. Now is a good time to give them the spotlight and acknowledgment they deserve by retracing their history.
Here are some of the pioneering Black electronic music artists.
Considered to be the first celebrity DJ and one of the few openly gay ones at the time, Levan started his career in 1973. His sets were a mix of disco, funk and pop music. What made his performances so special and gave him a cult status was his ability to spin all night. On top of that, he would pick unique songs that were not necessarily dancing tunes and mix them in such an innovative way that the party goers would erupt. His genius was his intimate and accurate knowledge of what crowds wanted to hear, even when they were diverse and had eclectic taste. He popularized the use pop singers on house tracks, working with artists like Taana Gardner, whose career he contributed to.
Another DJ from Chicago, Johnson first started as a producer. He then gained global recognition as a deep house DJ with his song "Move Your Body," an anthem which, more than 30 years later, is still played in clubs. He also contributed to acid music increasing popularity by working with Sleevy D on the track "I've Lost Control." His sets are a mix of house, funk, and known for featuring classical instruments like the piano, trumpets and heavy drums, due to the fact that he was inspired by rock, glam rock and scythe pop. He worked with Cece Rogers and Sterling Void. Out of all the initial DJs who created and contributed to house music dominating the world, he is one of the very few that is still alive.
Curtis Jones, also known as Cajmere or Green Velvet, was raised by a father who was an amateur DJ. Curtis had plans to become an engineer but life got in the way. Inspired by the early house tracks from Chicago and their production, he released his song "Coffee" in 1991, a repetitive house track inspired by punk music. His sound features monotonous, sometimes humorous (from an answering machine to monologues) lyrics on a mid-tempo house track, music created for late-night, hardcore party-goers. In 2001, his music faced major change with the release of his second album, Whatever, in which he ditched the repetitive lyrics to talk about political themes such as racism, fighting against the system, and drug use. His mixes became more industrial and punk-leaning.
Hailing from Detroit, the DJ formed the group Cybotron in the 1980s with Rick Davis, releasing electro anthems like "Clear." His sets are a fusion of Motown classic tracks, synth pop, funk, hip-hop and techno. Like any good DJ, he knows how to pick the right music for the right audience. His live sets feature impressive lighting, providing the audience a unique visual and auditory experience. Cybotron at the time was all about the future, which explains the obvious Afrofuturist influences. Creative differences led him to leave the group a few years later. His frequent trips to the United Kingdom to perform made him contribute to the thriving rave culture there.
When Derrick Carter released his first EP as part of the group Symbols & Instruments in 1988, the record didn't have much commercial success. However, it became popular in the UK and helped to shape the growing techno movement there, which would eventually gain mainstream appeal in the 1990s. Carter's sets feature synth pop, funk and slow tempos. His music was born and remained inspired by the Chicago sound and thus, is a mix of old school funk, jazz and disco music made by Black artists, remixed on low tempo techno tracks that are extended to create a trance-like mood for partygoers. Carter is mostly a remixer, although he dabbles in production from time to time.
One of the most famous Black DJs, Frankie Knuckles was not originally from Chicago but New York. He did, however, move to the city to start DJing at the Warehouse, a Black gay club, when it opened in 1977. His sets were a mix of funk (an obvious influence during that time), synth pop, soul and disco. His sound evolved with the introduction of the persistent drum pulses into his mixes. His work with Jamie Principle led to the release of the popular song "Your Love" which was played everywhere that summer. Frankie Knuckles developed a cult following. Fans always knew what kind of sound to expect from him: hypnotic, synth-heavy, with soulful vocals. He won a Grammy Award in 1997 in the Remixer category. In Chicago, August 25 is known as Frankie Knuckles day.
The South African DJ started his career in the 1990s using money from a hot dog stand he owned to buy his equipment. One day, a scheduled DJ didn't show up at a gig. He used it as a chance to start spinning. With his collaborator Don Laka, a jazz musician, he refined his music by using traditional house tracks as a base by adding vocals sung in South African languages. His House music compilation Church Grooves introduced the genre in the country. Oskido became one of the first DJs behind the creation of the Kwaito genre, a South African house/electro genre that went to shape an entire generation and then inspire other genres like Gqom. His mixes feature traditional house songs, heavily influenced by jazz and repetitive slow beats. Low-tempo house music has since become a staple in South Africa's mainstream music landscape for years.
The legendary Chicago DJ was instrumental in creating and shaping the Chicago house music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. His music defined an entire generation. His carer began as a teenager playing in a gay club, Den One, one of the most popular Black bars in the region. Black Gay DJs thrived in gay bars were they could experiment new music and create tunes for the community. Ron Hardy was one of them. He became friends with Frankie Knuckles. His sets at the music box were a mix of funk and house music. His talent lied in his ability, as many recall, to stretch songs for as long as he desired, giving the opportunity for dancers to vogue before it was even a term or a movement. He revolutionized the Chicago scene and his music has inspired many people, including Wayne Williams, who went on to create the music festival Chosen Few in 1990. Every 4th of July, it celebrates the beginning of house music.
One of the first female DJs in the Chicago scene, DJ Celeste began her career in 1982. She had to fight to show that she could hold her own in a heavily male-dominated industry. She has collaborated with many other DJs featured on this list like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. She was part of the 1980s collective The Fantastic Four, an all-female collective created to empower women in the industry. Her sets are a mix of soul, house and R&B, setting a low key mood for late night party goers. She left the scene for more than 10 years before coming back to the scene, when her love of music reappeared. She now has a podcast.
The self-taught Chicagoan DJ started his career in 1977. At that time, the scene was so small that he was regularly spinning with other DJs featured in this list like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. His sets featured a large range of genres—from pop to disco to house—with an aggressive and upbeat style, mixing fast. Regardless of the song he would play, he would make sure the audience would move. More than 40 years later, his sets are still influential. Ezebukwu took a long career break at the end of the 1990s and came back in 2007.
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