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'Throughline,' NPR's history podcast, digs into the origins of house music

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

House music is having a moment. That was clear at the Grammys last month, where Beyonce picked up multiple awards for her album "Renaissance." Here's part of her acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE 65TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

BEYONCE: I'd like to thank the queer community for your love...

(CHEERING)

BEYONCE: ...And for inventing the genre.

INSKEEP: She was paying tribute to people in Chicago in the 1970s and '80s who created house music and underground clubs that were all their own. From NPR's history podcast, Throughline, here are Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Inside a lone industrial building in Chicago, Ill., people dance intensely in a sea of fog. A figure emerges from the mist. Behind a set of turntables, surrounded by crates full of records, his arms move back and forth to the rhythm of the music.

LADY D: Frantic, frenetic movement.

FREDERICK DUNSON: I mean, just dancing like he had no tomorrow to come his way.

ARABLOUEI: The DJ controls the party and the dancers like a conductor.

LORI BRANCH: Move your body.

VINCE LAWRENCE: This really magical place.

ARABLOUEI: Welcome to The Warehouse.

DUNSON: The Warehouse was an after-hours private club...

BRANCH: I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland.

DUNSON: ...So you had to know somebody to get an invite in or to even attend.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: The Warehouse, or The House, was a home for people who wanted a safe place to party. It's also what many consider the birthplace of house music.

BRANCH: It was like a story. You know, like, there's a beginning in the middle and a end. You just wanted to be there for the whole thing.

LADY D: Frantic, frenetic movement.

BRANCH: I remember the feeling more than I remember the music.

LAWRENCE: We can all be free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Chicago house music, like all music, is hard to describe, but it usually has a beat kind of like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: It's funky, repetitive and is generally around 120 beats per minute, kind of like your heart rate when you're dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That repetition, that beat causes an almost ritualistic feeling of being perfectly in sync with other people. It mimics the feeling of love, of letting go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Well, well, well. Oh.

DUNSON: I guess if you had to describe it, you could say it was akin to gospel dance music.

ARABLOUEI: Gospel dance music. That's Frederick Dunson. He was at those early house-music shows in the 1980s, dancing all night until the sun came up.

BRANCH: There was no pause, that you just experienced it all night.

ABDELFATAH: And DJ Lori Branch, a Chicago-born house music historian and DJ who grew up sneaking into The Warehouse.

BRANCH: I was, like, trying to find my life. And I found this community that just felt like home.

DUNSON: We all accept each other, and we all love each other.

ABDELFATAH: For both Lori and Frederick, house music provided more than just a good time. It was a lifeline, a means of claiming space in a city that could often feel too small.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Chicago in the 1980s was one of the most segregated cities in America. Black and white communities lived in different neighborhoods, different parts of the city. So if you were Black, there were clubs and parties you just didn't have access to. And if you were Black and gay, there were even less.

DUNSON: The reason that the underground clubs evolved was because most of the gay clubs gave most of the minorities a really hard time in getting in.

ABDELFATAH: While a white patron might be asked to show one form of ID...

DUNSON: When it got to me, they'd ask me for three or four.

ABDELFATAH: ...A clear sign to Frederick, a Black man, that he was not welcome.

DUNSON: And so as a result of that, people just said, oh, well, we can do our own thing and start doing underground parties. It was a solution to a situation that wasn't getting any better.

ABDELFATAH: Frederick says that was why The Warehouse was necessary and why it was so beloved. It was a sanctuary, a place for both Black and gay people to feel welcome and safe, where the music and dancing created community.

DUNSON: It gave you the strength to carry on, to make it from week to week, because, you know, people would look forward to - oh, God, next Saturday; see you next Saturday; see you next Saturday, 'cause it was their release.

ARABLOUEI: The Warehouse was like a dance church, a place to refuel and be in community, to be seen, to be loved, to dance away the pain and embrace the beauty, no matter how fleeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But house music didn't stay in Chicago's underground club culture for long. It became a global phenomenon in the late '80s and '90s, helping spark rave culture in the U.K. and Europe and sparking the growth of electronic dance music, or EDM.

DUNSON: House music was the foundation on which EDM's legs stand.

ABDELFATAH: Today EDM is one of the most popular and profitable genres of music. There are DJs and festivals that make millions and millions of dollars every year. And Frederick Dunson says that success has obscured our view of the people and places that inspired it all.

DUNSON: For new musicians to say, oh, well, we created this; we created that - that's not - that wouldn't be right. That's not giving credit to the people who actually put the work in.

ABDELFATAH: Which is why he and DJ Lori Branch...

BRANCH: I think that history gets erased often. And we are just now starting to claim that.

ABDELFATAH: ...Are committed to keeping the history of house music alive. They want to make sure the Chicago Black and gay origins of house music and electronic dance music are not forgotten.

BRANCH: It is a Chicago product, made by Chicagoans, made by Black and brown, queer, straight folk. And if you want to understand a genre, if you want to understand a people, there's no better place. The intersection of races and, you know, the different cultures that have come together to create it is what made it special and, I think, what made it international.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The voice of DJ Lori Branch there. The hosts of Throughline, the awesome podcast, are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole episode by finding Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.