by Shuja Haider
In the 1980s, musicians in Chicago built a new genre out of obsolete machinery. Listeners lost their minds.
The author has assembled a playlist to accompany this piece. You can listen to it on Spotify.
The Muzic Box was open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, staying closed on Wednesdays and Fridays only to give Chicago’s competing disco club, the Power Plant, a chance to draw a crowd a couple nights a week. If you were a young, gay person of color in the Windy City during the early 1980s, there was no better place to be. The Muzic Box was a sanctuary, free from the judgment of a still-restrictive society that, in the days of panic over an increasingly visible queer culture, inhibited the sense of celebratory pride sorely needed by the local gay community.
Between the Muzic Box’s four walls, dancers were welcomed in the embrace of an idea. As the attention of the mass audience shifted away from disco, and “Disco Sucks” rallies were held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park stadium, these clubs were the only place to hear the music of the future. The songs on rotation in the Muzic Box may not have been categorized in the same bin at the record store, but they all shared invigorating rhythms and futuristic tonalities that suggested a new genre cutting through those established categories. The fearless explorer breaking through the boundaries between them was Ron Hardy, a virtuoso who mixed records together in a spontaneous collage style inspired by New York disco DJs.
Hardy had begun playing at the club in 1982, when it was called The Warehouse, and remained the resident DJ until it closed in 1987. His predecessor Frankie Knuckles first brought the disco DJing style, with its aim of creating a seamless landscape of rhythm, to Chicago from his hometown of New York. However, in spite of its East Coast origins, this approach to mixing music—and the approach to producing music that these DJs would eventually create—took flight in the Midwest. To this day, it bears the abbreviated name of the club where it began its international ascendance. The music had gotten so popular by the mid-1980s that Chicago record stores started giving the records that got played at The Warehouse their own bin, labeled “house music.”
It was on a night in 1985—whether it was Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday is lost to history—that Earl “Spanky” Smith and Nathaniel Pierre Jones entered the Muzic Box with a reel-to-reel tape, containing a track that they had just recorded in Smith’s bedroom. Hardy would sometimes switch from vinyl to a tape reel to play productions by local amateurs, in order to keep up with the developing sound of the genre. House DJs had already begun making inroads into production, thanks to the availability of cheap synthesizers.
Smith and Jones recount the evening they debuted their new track in a documentary for the British broadcaster Channel 4 on house music called Pump Up the Volume:
Pierre: We thought, if anybody would be daring enough to play this, it would be Ron Hardy.
Spanky: He ended up playing it four times that night. First time he played it, people didn’t really know how to react to it.
Pierre: He played it again, people was looking like “Hm. It’s early, I guess he playing some crazy stuff.”
Spanky: The fourth time, they lost they mind. That was the birth of acid, right there.
A new era began that night. The track didn’t bother with song form, melodic development, harmony, or lyrical content; it was an investigation of the infinite permutations of sound itself. Winding through a pounding, jittery beat, an atonal three-note motif wriggled and thrashed, as though trying to escape, for more than twelve minutes.
It did not sound like it had been produced by a musical instrument. Nor did it sound like a pop song, with its structure more akin to minimalist experimental music. Disco had already been moving in this direction, emphasizing texture over song. But this dispensed with the song altogether. It took a forward-thinking listener to see its promise, in 1985, as a potential dancefloor hit. Fortunately, Ron Hardy was precisely that kind of listener.
The producers had called their composition “In Your Mind,” but that may have been too limiting—listeners had lost their minds upon hearing it. The track was not an object for contemplation, but a shockwave that affected the body. Either because of its fluid yet abrasive texture, or because of its tonal similarity to the guitars of psychedelic rock, or because some dancers at the Muzic Box were so blown away that they thought someone had spiked their drinks with LSD, the record became known as “Acid Trax.”
The global phenomenon of rave music would eventually derive everything from “Acid Trax,” which was released as a 12-inch record in 1987 under the name Phuture. A subgenre of house music adopted its name: “acid house,” which would also become the label that rave music went by upon its earliest appearances in Europe. Acid’s abstract quality brought the futuristic nature of house music to the forefront, influencing the concurrent development of techno in Detroit and catalyzing the emergence of drum and bass in England. Today, aspects of EDM are uncannily similar to acid house as it was heard thirty years ago in Chicago.
What made “Acid Trax” so revolutionary was not just its structure or its sound, but its use of the technology that produced it. Jazz, funk, disco, and even rock and roll had emphasized timbre and spontaneity as much as melody and narrative, in the struggle over centuries to adapt traditional musical practices to new languages and new tools. “Acid Trax,” however, did not derive its complex sound from overblown horns or bent strings—or even distorted amplifiers. It was made almost entirely with one instrument or, more accurately, one machine: the Roland TB-303, which generated sound waves from scratch. Then bought for next to nothing at a pawn shop, the 303 has since entered into legend, and now commands thousands of dollars on eBay. Even today, producers of underground dance music try to capture the sonic force it holds.
In the writer Kodwo Eshun’s description, the machine itself shares authorship of “Acid Trax.” “Acid is an accident,” he suggests, “in which the TB-303 bass synthesizer uses Phuture to reproduce itself, to multiply the dimensions of electronic sound, to open up a nomadology of texturhythms, rhythmelodies.” The story of acid house begins in a factory.
While house music’s sonic textures drew from both African-American music’s corporeal funk and European synth pop’s electronic sheen, it only crystallized as a genre and production practice after some help from Japanese technology. The Roland Corporation, founded by Ikutaro Kakehashi in Osaka in 1972, unknowingly provided the final ingredients for the futuristic dance music that would emerge in America over the next few decades. In 1980, Roland’s TR-808 Rhythm Composer, the “TR” designating “Transistor Rhythm,” became one of the first synthesized drum machines to become available to consumers.
Early synthesizers were as complicated—and as large—as electronic manufacturing technology. But Roland’s instruments were appearing in a new context. Before the widespread extension of electrical power to residential areas in the 1920s, machinery under capitalism had been an instrument of labor. In Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” he remarked on the place of technology in the capitalist mode of production:
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry: natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand: the power of knowledge, objectified.
Over the course of the twentieth century, consumer electronics dispersed scientific knowledge further still. Beyond being a tool that workers used in the factory, electrical machinery became present in the home. Automation took on a presence in everyday life as well as within the means of production. The amplification of sound was inextricably linked to this process, with the development and distribution of electricity tied from its origin to telephone communication and radio broadcasting. By the mid-twentieth century, most homes had radios, making their operation familiar to a far broader population than expert telegraphers.
In the mold of consumer devices like the portable stereo, the TR-808 was built for home use. Its target audience was musicians who needed accompaniment for practice sessions, and its interface more closely resembled a stereo than a circuit board. In the late 1970s, however, the TR-808 began to migrate from the home to the recording studio. It started to appear on pop records—Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is a famous example—many of which may have been played by Knuckles or Hardy during their expansive DJ sets. Its rigid, aggressive drum sound may have driven professional musicians crazy, but its mathematically precise rhythmic divisions were perfect for DJ mixing, a process of matching up beats by adjusting the speed of rotation on turntables.
In 1982, Roland engineer Tadao Kikumoto designed a new machine as a supplement to the TR-808: TB-303, the initials standing for “Transistor Bass.” For $400, the 303 could be used as a supplement to Roland’s drum machines, giving a solitary musician in a domestic setting the experience of playing with a band. “Electric” is not to be confused with “electronic”—while a bass guitar amplifies sound that is produced acoustically, the 303 was triggered by a voltage-controlled oscillator cued by a one-octave keyboard, with knobs and switches to manipulate the timbre.
A traditional instrument like a bass guitar makes waves. What fluctuates in these waves, in the case of acoustic instruments, is the air surrounding a vibration in or around part of the instrument’s material body. When two frequencies occur simultaneously, they affect the shape of the wave, creating the effect that musicians call timbre—the character of sound that differentiates separate instruments playing the same note. While a pure sine wave creates a tone so pure as to sound lifeless, the sound produced by any instrument is complex, with a fundamental tone altered by harmonic overtones.
The early electronic synthesizer broke the relationship between the shape and substance of a physical object and the sound it produced, allowing for the formation of a waveform through a mathematical formula instead. There are two kinds of complex tones that formed the palette of electronic synthesizers like the 303: square and triangle. The square wave produces only odd-numbered harmonics of the fundamental tone, with a sound comparable to a clarinet. Though the wave looks like a square, it is in fact produced by a series of sine waves, embedded like a fractal set. The sawtooth wave produces both odd and even harmonics, making it sound something like a violin. The triangle wave resembles the square wave, but with less complexity.
The 303 had six knobs, reading TUNING, CUT OFF FREQ, RESONANCE, ENV MOD, DECAY, and ACCENT, controlling the parameters of the sound’s tone and articulation. This was not a conventional instrument like a clarinet or a violin, but more like a manufacturing tool, the kind that was being used on the increasingly automated assembly lines of the industrial factories then dominating the economy of the American Midwest.
As robotic instruments were incorporated into the manufacturing process, labor became oriented towards their operation and maintenance, rather than hand assembly. In a concert hall, an instrument is to be played; on a shop floor, it is to be worked on. The 303’s interface blurs the distinction: while it holds a portion of a piano’s keyboard, its primary mechanism is operated by means of knobs and buttons. Like a robotic arm, it is programmed as much as it is played.
The TB-303 didn’t sell. It may have been because the advent of sampling technology made it possible to reproduce recordings of other instruments directly. Or it may just have been, according to Peter Shapiro in The Wire, because Roland accidentally forgot to ship out manuals to English-speaking countries. Either way, the machine was devastatingly unpopular for its intended purpose.
In the early 1980s, a handful of inventive pop musicians did begin to feature the 303’s unrealistic sound as a novelty. Still, the machine lapsed out of production in 1984—a year before the arrival of “Acid Trax” heralded the invention of acid house. Earl “Spanky” Smith bought one at a secondhand music store for $40—sans manual—knowing it was what Jesse Saunders had used for “On and On,” the earliest foray into house music production in Chicago. He programmed a beat into his Roland drum machine and called his friend Pierre:
Spanky: Well basically, we started using the 303 just to try to make bass lines, because when we first started making music, it sucked. So I made this rhythm…
Pierre:…and it’s just playing straight, and he said, “I can’t figure out how to work this thing,” and he’s still doing this weird sound. “I don’t know how to program it,” he said, “maybe you could figure out how to program it, ‘cause it ain’t come with a book.” So instead of trying to program it, I just started turning knobs. I was like, “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo.” And he was like, “What you doing?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I’m turning these knobs!” And he said, “Keep doing that!” So we was just sitting there for thirty, forty minutes, just turning knobs, going “I like that, I like that!
In a 1988 interview, veteran Chicago house DJ Farley “Jackmaster” Funk explained that before “Acid Trax,” the TB-303 was “an obsolete, old-fashioned piece of technology that no one had ever thought of using that way before.” House DJs had already begun to resist the conventional distinction between production and consumption in consumer society by turning the playing of records into the playing of music as a creative process. Pierre and Spanky extended this intervention in a way that called for a redefinition of musical sound.
Since the TB-303 was built to emulate an electric bass, its real-world referent was specified. If you were to imagine a visual representation, you might picture someone playing the instrument, albeit one that looked a bit weird. But by playing the 303 itself, through manipulation of its electronic interface, Pierre transformed his virtual instrument as the track progressed. The image would have to exist in an amorphous dream logic, as though the instrument were a shape-shifting mutant: a violin, then a trumpet, then a flute, then a timpani, until it could no longer be associated with a recognizable correlate. As Pierre put it in The Fader, while the 303 “was supposed to be copying a bass guitar, [the way we used it] doesn’t sound like any previous sound you’ve ever heard before. And you can only describe it as being acid.”
“Acid Trax,” with its extended texture, was truly a track rather than a song. In fact, it was more than one; trax, in the plural, its name also describing every succeeding installment in the genre it created. In the late 1980s and early 90s, acid house spread like a virus. New records proliferated—not just by Phuture, but by other local producers like Adonis, Lil Louis, Mike Dunn, and the teenage prodigy Armando. Armando’s 1987 classic “Land of Confusion” epitomizes Kodwo Eshun’s contention that the 303 was a collaborator in the production of acid house. Its composition was described by Mike Dunn in Chicago’s 5 Magazine as based on the machine’s settings. “If you take the batteries out for a minute and put them back in,” he recalled, “that’s the first bassline that will come up.”
By the end of the 1980s, the style had become influential not only in Chicago but in Detroit, where a similar kind of dance music, called techno, had been emerging. Juan Atkins, the founder of techno, had begun to fuse the experimental qualities of funk and progressive rock with the rhythmic structure of contemporary dance music. His friend and collaborator Derrick May, after taking frequent trips across I-94 to visit his mother, had been “baptised” at The Warehouse. May established a link between the cities, even buying Frankie Knuckles’s TR-909, the successor to the TR-808, to produce his own records. Techno emphasized the space-age qualities of synthesized sound over the disco and gospel influences that characterized house. But if a line separates the sound of the two genres, acid house sits directly on it.
Acid house’s dissociation of sound from physical presence is now a fact of our sonic environment. For those who came of age after its emergence, acid has permanently altered our relationship to aural experience. Tones that might previously have been limited to sound effects in science-fiction cinema, intended as representation of alien objects, we now hear as musical in themselves. “For some, I guess, ‘synthesize’ means ‘duplicate,’” Juan Atkins told Wired. “But for me, ‘synthesize’ is synonymous with ‘create.’”
Today, contemporary pop music has fully incorporated acid house’s sonic range, if not its production method. Producers used it as a starting point for the sound of R&B and hip-hop in the new millennium—in 2000, Timbaland’s backing track for Aaliyah’s “Try Again” used a TB-303 for its bass line, inspiring countless producers to imitate the sound on other synthesizers and computers. For his part, Pierre sees something prophetic in the name that he and Earl Smith chose for their work: Phuture. “Twenty-six years later and acid is still going strong,” he said in 2011. “You can see the proof of this when platinum-selling groups and artists like LMFAO and Skrillex are putting ‘acid’ in their songs.”
But while the sound of acid has become incorporated into the output of what Adorno and Horkheimer called the “culture industry,” the act of its creation was a rupture of the equivalence that term assumes. Acid house was born in a space between the cultural and the industrial, between social life and the relations of production. It is here that we find not only art, but political action. Acid house relocates industrial sabotage from the factory to a domestic setting, allowing for creative acts that expanded the consumer sphere of the disco community to the practice of house music production.
In this sense, acid house fits into the spectrum of an ongoing struggle. In his 1963 book Blues People, Amiri Baraka traced the origin of jazz to the use, by African-American musicians in the nineteenth century, of unfamiliar tools. These musicians, lacking formal training, “developed an instrumental technique and music of their own, a music that relied heavily on the non-European vocal tradition of blues.” The result was a musical practice that used European instruments to achieve “the altered timbral qualities and diverse vibrato effects of African music.” On a guitar or trumpet, a fretboard or valve system provides an interface for producing tones corresponding to the chromatic scale of Western harmony. But through physical intervention, they can be made to deviate from that limited use. Acid house directs this intervention towards consumer devices, drawing altered timbres and vibrato effects from machinery.
This practice disrupts the presumption of autonomy between the spheres of art, consumer society, and industrial production—a presumption that was also investigated in Marx’s critique of capitalism. Italian political theorist Paolo Virno, in his essay “Virtuosity and Revolution,” shows that Marx had already addressed cultural production in his notes for Capital. Marx distinguished between two kinds of intellectual labor: “commodities which exist separately from the producer,” like paintings or books, and those in which “the product is not separable from the act of producing,” like the performing arts. As Virno argues, within the context of the service work that dominates advanced economies, “activity-without-a-finished-work moves from being a special and problematic case to becoming the prototype of waged labor in general.” The artist is in the same category as the service worker, in other words: “virtuosic activity comes across as universal servile labor.”
In this light, an artistic practice in itself does not escape the boundaries of the capitalist mode of production, which has included service work and the dissemination of cultural phenomena since the days of the printing press. Speaking to The Fader, Pierre pointed out that the sound of the TB-303 itself has now become subject to imitation by an arm of the culture industry. “I think since people have made all these clones of the 303,” he says, “to me that’s just like other manufacturers making bass guitars or lead guitars, or pianos.” To his ears, much of the electronic music that has followed simply repeats an old formula: “Even dubstep, as crazy as that stuff sounds, has sounds that are connected to a previous instrument—it’s still copying something in some kind of way.”
The real legacy of acid house may not reside in its sound, but in its method. Acid shows us a new way to relate to the machinery that increasingly populates our everyday lives, one that shifts our experience from the passive mode of consumerism into the realm of creative activity. The knowledge we share as operators of this machinery has the potential, as Virno puts it, to “affirm itself as an autonomous public sphere,” but only “if it cuts the linkage that binds it to the production of commodities and wage labor.” Acid house teaches us that the potential for a radical practice of culture may not lie in making a certain kind of sound, but in something more fundamental: not doing what it says in the manual.
Shuja Haider is an editor at Viewpoint Magazine and Popula.