This article was originally published in SPIN on November 25, 2013.
Way back in the mid-1980s, when the disco gods appeared over the Chicago skyline and proclaimed, “Let there be house,” his acolytes responded, “And let it be deep.” And it was good.
Slower, moodier, and more sensual than most other club-music forms — heir to disco at its most mirrorball-blissful — deep house has survived for nearly three decades, staying mostly out of the spotlight, consigned to warm-up sets and after-hours reveries. But lately, it has bubbled back to the surface.
This month, the soulful sound scored a No. 1 hit on the U.K. pop charts with Storm Queen’s “Look Right Through,” a ’90s-flavored song by Metro Area’s Morgan Geist and busker extraordinaire Damon C. Scott that was first released on Geist’s Environ label in 2010. It was a more recent remix from ’90s deep-house mainstay MK (Marc Kinchen), and a summer’s worth of heavy club play, that finally pushed it to the top slot, on the back of MK’s recent success with remixes for Lana Del Rey, Sky Ferreira, and Disclosure.
“Look Right Through” wasn’t a fluke. Duke Dumont’s “Need U (100%),” another U.K. No. 1, has logged more than 17 million plays on YouTube; its plunging bass line and sub-aquatic keyboard stabs are direct descendants of Kerri Chandler’s deep-diving take on New Jersey garage. Disclosure, the year’s biggest dance-pop crossover success story, draw heavily from the deep-house playbook in their lanky grooves and woozy atmospheres. Behind them, there’s a veritable groundswell of deep-house revivalists: Jamie Jones, Maya Jane Coles, Breach, Dixon and the Innervisions crew, Axel Boman, Hot Since 82 — even Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke has plunged into the full-fathom sound.
In fact, 21 of Beatport’s current Top 100 tracks are tagged as deep house. That doesn’t make it the most popular genre on the site, but after big-room electro house, it’s tied for second place with progressive house, and boasts a stronger chart presence than tech house (14 tracks), house (12), indie dance (four), and techno and trance (two apiece). Remember dubstep? That particular wub-genre doesn’t have a single song in the Top 100.
A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable; deep house’s moody pulses were drowned out in a cacophony of lasers and jackhammers and drops. But deep house’s deliberately low profile is beginning to bear out the old meek-will-inherit-the-earth maxim.
Why now? In part, it’s a reaction to the ubiquity of EDM at its most garish and bottle-serviced. Warm, moody, sometimes hesitant, and often melancholic, deep house is the antithesis of mainstream EDM’s harder/faster/stronger ethos, that capitalist ego-topia fueled by cheap presets and dodgy Molly, hell-bent on success. Deep house is contradictory, wracked with doubt, so full of blue notes it bleeds indigo. It’s pro-sadness on the dance floor; pro-pathos in the mix.
Ironically, the success of deep house as an alternative to big-tent EDM has helped it creep towards the mainstream. Pete Tong’s “Essential New Tune” selections increasingly lean toward deep house breakout stars like Jamie Jones and Richy Ahmet, while the rest of his show favors crossover cornballs like Afrojack and Avicii; even trance grandmaster Tiësto now has a weekly deep house radio show on Sirius XM.
We’ll be the first to admit that some of the attention has been misplaced. A lot of what gets flogged as deep house right now isn’t really worthy of the name; it’s mid-tempo, pop-dance fare with a 2-step twist, or it’s snoozy, monotone background music tailor-made for SEO plays on YouTube channels emblazoned with soft-lit hipster cheesecake. In fact, “deep house” itself is a retrospective term; in their heyday, many of the first songs in the canon were simply considered “house,” full stop. It was only later that a style assembled itself around the template those originators had set.
So what classifies as deep house today? Some basic guidelines: The four-to-the-floor pulse is imbued with a suggestive bit of shuffle and swing, with accents on the two and four. The grooves are more restrained than techno’s, leaning back rather than barreling forward. The tempo generally runs between 118 and 125 beats per minute, although there are many outliers. More than anything, deep house is rich in harmony and atmosphere, buoyant as a jellyfish, bursting with lush textures and phosphorescent tones. Taking the definition of deep house at its most elastic, we’ve selected 40 songs that trace its evolution across 27 years, one inky chord at a time. PHILIP SHERBURNE
See also: The 30 Best Disco Songs Ever
Steffi, “Sadness” (Ostgut Ton, 2011)
Steffi’s “Sadness” is essentially a scale model of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” rendered in home-studio fashion. It’s not a cover, but it borrows the essential chords and vocal melody in a way that swaps out Laurel Canyon melancholy for the particulars of winter in Berlin — specifically, the steam rising from bodies in the Panorama Bar while a grey chill presses against the windows. “Believe me / My heart hurts / It takes me / The sadness,” runs the verse, and the chorus is even starker: “Loneliness / Emptiness / No happiness / Just sadness.” Lyrically, it’s got to be the most despondent song in the history of house music; it might also be the most cathartic. PHILIP SHERBURNE
Faze Action, “In the Trees” (Nuphonic, 1996)
Released when aggressive electronica had all but erased house’s soulful sensuality, “In the Trees” was a breath of fresh air made manifest by the track’s windy sound effects and stormy classical orchestration. Unlike just about every deep-house hit up to this point, the breakout cut by outer-London brothers Robin and Simon Lee is awash with genuine instrumentation: real strings, real bass, real drums and percussion. No doubt inspired by early-‘80s U.K. jazz-funk jams like Atmosfear’s “Dancing in Outer Space” and Powerline’s “Double Journey,” this is deep disco abstracted to the point that it becomes something else, something akin to Arthur Russell’s similarly otherworldly and cello-centric cosmic cries. BARRY WALTERS
Tensnake, “In the End (I Want You to Cry)” (Running Back, 2009)
Tensnake helped pave the way for the current deep-house revival with his 2010 song “Coma Cat,” a sluggish-yet-sparkling slice of vocal R&Boogie that started out on Munich’s Permanent Vacation label and eventually reached No. 85 on the U.K. singles chart after Defected licensed the tune. (Defected pursued a similar path with Storm Queen’s “Look Right Through,” which recently went to No. 1 in the U.K.) At the risk of sounding counterintuitive, though, let us posit that Tensnake’s “In the End (I Want You to Cry)” is the superior track, even if it lacks the pop finesse of its successor.It announces its presence subtly but firmly, with a secret handshake of sorts: If you’re at all familiar with the song, you’ll recognize that kick drum, splash of cymbal, and rollicking triangle pattern as soon as you hear them cutting through the mix. As opposed to the stripped-down introduction, the bulk of the track is bursting with sounds and ideas — jumbled disco breaks, cross-cut bridges, whippoorwilling oscillators, a steeple’s worth of bells, the chorus that gives the song its title, and densely interwoven chords and counterpoints and tiny melodic tendrils, all as thick and sticky as a blackberry bramble. Featuring two breakdowns, lord knows how many codas, and innumerable twists and turns, it’s practically maze-like in its structure, inspiring the dizziest kind of joy. (There are those that will scoff and say this is “nu-disco,” not deep house. Ignore them.) P.S.
STL, “Silent State” (Smallville, 2009)
Hamburg’s Smallville label has done as much as anyone to revive the classic sounds of Larry Heard and the Burrell Brothers, filtering their spindly bass lines and luminous Juno leads through a contemporary, post-mnml lens, with fuller sounds and even more sharply focused structures. If you need a moody, one-chord DJ tool to get you through another five minutes of the wee hours, you could pick pretty much any Smallville side at random and it’d do the trick. Consequently, label artists like Lawrence, Smallpeople, Christoher Rau, and Julius Steinhoff have all had their fare share of seasonal hits with their brooding little bruisers.This aesthetic is as well-formed as any label going, so it’s ironic that the imprint’s best and deepest track comes from outside its tightly knit Hamburg community via STL, a lo-fi minimalist whose dusty synth-and-drum fugues typically scrape like dull knives against butcher’s paper. Here, though, he’s practically 4D, beginning with a bouncing sub-bass line that roots itself deep in your chest and expanding outwards into demure little synth riffs that pinwheel like fireworks in slow motion. Like early deep house at its most tentative and abstracted, it’s got nowhere to go and is in no hurry to get there, moonstomping in place for 12 weightless minutes. P.S.
Fallout, “The Morning After (Sunrise Mix)” (Fourth Floor Records, 1987)
These days, Brooklyn’s Lenny Dee is known mainly as the doyen of hardcore techno, a style his Industrial Strength label helped inaugurate in 1991 with its very first release, Mescalinum United’s “We Have Arrived” b/w the Mover’s “Nightflight (Non-Stop to Kaos).” But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1980s, the former roller-disco DJ turned out some of New York’s seminal house classics working alongside Frankie Bones (as Looney Tunes), Victor Simonelli, and Tommy Musto. Armed with a TR-808, Roland D50, and Casio CZ101, Dee and Musto were inspired by synth-pop artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Hardcastle when they began laying down the dreamy, meandering jams that would become “The Morning After”; a more direct inspiration was the druggy, private after-hours parties at the RoofTop, a 23rd-floor speakeasy in Manhattan. Their woozy aftereffects (or “Fallout,” as the two musicians called themselves, in tribute to the feeling) are replicated in drifting flute-like melodies, buoyant string pads, and snares that palpitate like a heart running on fumes. P.S.
Axel Boman, “Purple Drank” (Pampa, 2010)
“I woke up with your name on my lips,” intones a dusky voice, a hair slower and lower than might be natural, but not so much that it feels forced. And with that, you’re sucked into the moody, muddle-headed hypno-scape of Axel Boman’s “Purple Drank,” a woozy blue fog that settles in and blots out everything of the world outside its quivering organs and numbing bass stabs. You don’t need the title to tell you that the track is all about a kind of druggy stasis, where a single thought does somersaults through your head while your body draws curlicues across the space that surrounds you. As the chords build strength and the beat drops away, the vocals fall into a locked groove, and “Lips-lips-lips-lips” turns into “slip-slip-slip-slip…” It’s Steve Reich meets Steve Miller; time keeps on slippin’, but this cup is bottomless. P.S.
Omar-S, “Psychotic Photosynthesis” (FXHE, 2007)
We could’ve gone with Omar-S’s “S.E.X. (C.G.P. (Conant Gardens Posse) Remix),” if only because it’s clearly the housier track, with deep-diving Rhodes keys, a skipping groove, and sultry R&B vocals. “Psychotic Photosynthesis” is tougher to parse, stylistically: Is it techno? Ambient? It’s defined in part by what it’s not. There’s no snare, no clap, really no drums at all, save for a muted kick and some shaved-down shakers; if you listen really closely, you might hear a woodblock pecking away deep in the mix, but for the most part the rhythm is marked by the absence of hard edges. It beats in the manner of wings, every pulse exploding into a million feathery micro-movements. But we’re going to go ahead and call it “deep house” anyway. The rhythm moves more with the laid-back wriggle of house than the hunched-shoulders tumble of techno, while its infinite variations on a single, lilting melodic theme open up a fractal passageway to another dimension, where “deep” and “high” are basically indistinguishable. P.S.
Luomo, “Tessio” (Force Tracks, 2000)
“The next episode in house,” read a sticker on the album’s sleeve, and damned if it wasn’t right. Coming at a time when European techno was awash in clicks and cuts and glitches and digital divots, Luomo’s Vocalcity took those same techniques and pointed them back toward house music’s soulful heartland, swathing springy machine funk in scraps of breath and even the occasional full-blooded vocals.No one had expected this from Sasu Ripatti, better known as Vlasidlav Delay — a former free-jazz drummer turned free-form ambient minimalist whose shifting silt-scapes expressed the contours of a prodigious drug habit (long since kicked, happily). Here were actual songs, albeit stretched to perilous length, like a cord that’s about to snap, and smeared to the limits of abstraction with filters and dub delay. Hell, the shortest song on Vocalcity ran nearly 10 minutes long, and the longest more than 16. “Tessio” steals the bass line from the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” schools it in the spunky ways of Larry Heard, and piles on cotton-candy vocals that sound like 10cc having their way with Motown’s master tapes. P.S.
The Other People Place, “Sorrow and a Cup of Joe” (Clone, 2002)
Detroit’s Drexciya never really made anything close to house music; they were too busy attaching jumper cables to Davy Jones’ locker in order to power their own, inimitable brand of Afro-futurist electro-techno. But on a curious song called “Sorrow and a Cup of Joe,” released not long before his death in 2002, Drexciya’s James Stinson gave the subgenre one of its strangest, most bittersweet classics. The syncopated 808 groove is textbook electro, but slowed to 118 BPM and suffused in parallel-harmony chords, it turns gelatinous and gloopy, taking Detroit beatdown to busted, burned-out new extremes. “Only mochaccino make me feel alright,” runs the chorus, little more than an absent-minded murmur. And that one word — “mochaccino,” really? — flips the whole thing on its head, a glimmer of humor that makes sorrow itself seem faintly ridiculous. A feel-good-feeling-bad anthem for the ages. P.S.
Kerri Chandler, Atmosphere EP (Shelter, 1993)
“I’ve always been in places where somebody has a gun, somebody’s getting shot, and we’re running,” Kerri Chandler has said of growing up in East Orange, New Jersey. “It’s daily. There’d be a war every night. The minute you heard something, everybody got on the ground. It’s routine. The cops would never come while this was happening, they’d just come to pick up the bodies. That’s where we grew up.” The son of a DJ, Chandler found his escape in music — first as a DJ and engineer, and later as a producer of his own records. What he took from New Jersey wasn’t the darkness, but the gospel influence of his church-going community; the pumping chords and effortless atmospheres of his tracks have led him to become one of the most imitated house producers in recent years. His Atmosphere EP, from 1993, lays down crisp, swinging drums daubed with horns, DX chimes, and graceful, bubbling keyboards — a perfect study in balance, proportion, and playfulness. P.S.
DJ Koze, “Cicely” (Philpot, 2007)
DJ Koze — a.k.a. Adolf Noise, Monaco Schranze, and Swahimi (The Unenlightened) — is an unreconstructed weirdo with a sly, squirrelly wit. The former International Pony member has covered “We Are the World,” Photoshopped himself alongside an octogenarian Spanish duchess, and given us a catalog that veers from the chopped-and-screwed kitsch of “My Grandmotha” to the deranged, dangerously unvarnished “Dr. Fuck.” But every now and then, he proves himself to be a total softie at heart.Released at the tail end of mnml’s reign, “Cicely” is modest in its materials but expansive in its reach. Three tuned toms serve in place of a bass line; save for 19-and-a-half bars of skittering hi-hats, there are virtually no drums at all. The bulk of the melodic burden is carried by wispy chords and a fine filigree of jazz guitar, and while nothing about the song follows virtually any of dance music’s standard dictates, the whole thing feels as natural as breathing. It’s probably a coincidence that it shares the name of a Cocteau Twins song, but it’s equally as apt a soundtrack for a rainy day, as ephemeral as fog on a windowpane. P.S.
Justin Martin, “The Sad Piano (Charles Webster Remix)” (Buzzin’ Fly, 2003)
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of tracks that do more or less exactly what this one does, with their scratchy grooves and belly-massaging sub bass and their blocky chords marched up and down the sampling keyboard. So what is it that makes Charles Webster’s remix of Justin Martin’s “Sad Piano” so damn exceptional? Who knows, but it is, and not only because it wrings such dewy-eyed pathos out of a relatively straightforward (albeit affecting) tech-house cut. As a remixer, Webster has always had an exceptionally green thumb — he’s capable of coaxing shoots out of the driest of soil — and here, he grabs a piano riff that Martin used as window dressing and turns it into the main attraction: just chords, chords, chords, as far as the eye can see. Then he goes and tops it off with silvery tendrils and dandelion puffs, a feathery explosion of trills and chirps and plaintive pings; it’s resigned and hopeful all at once, and so cozy you want to crawl inside and live in it forever. P.S.
Andrés, “New for U” (La Vida, 2012)
In 2012, while virtually everyone making deep house, from the diehards to the recent converts, was futzing about in sub-120-BPM terrain (a plenty productive tempo range, but, let’s face it, a furrow that has been well-plowed), Detroit’s Andrés (a.k.a. Dez Andres, Slum Village’s DJ and a member of Theo Parrish’s group the Rotating Assembly) pulled a fast one — literally.”New For U” runs a hair more than 129 BPM, a tempo usually reserved for far tougher strains of techno, but it still stands out as the sweetest, gentlest house track released last year, as well as the most timeless. Based almost entirely on samples (Dexter Wansel’s “Time Is the Teacher,” for one), swollen with the sound of Philly strings and vinyl hiss, and absent any conspicuously modern or digital touches, it sounds like it could have been released at any time in the past 25 years. Andrés earns extra points for his habit of mixing “New for U” with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a bold (if quixotic) refusal to let deep house go too gently into that good night. P.S.
See also: The 30 Best Dubstep Songs of All Time
Roy Davis Jr. feat. Peven Everett, “Gabriel” (Large Records, 1996)
Clearly, there’s some confusion as to what constitutes deep house nowadays — particularly in the U.K., where Disclosure’s success with a hi-fi hybrid of 2-step garage and house music’s richer strains has kicked off a whole movement of bass-heavy, tightly swung, vocal-centric dance music. Should you enjoy parsing the minutiae of genres — something we are not above, by any means — there’s plenty to discuss here. But let’s just point out a track that helped muddy the waters long before “U.K. bass” was a thing.Roy Davis Jr.’s “Gabriel” features the Chicago singer Peven Everett singing the praises of the archangel Gabriel while bright, joyous horns signal the arrival of the Good News and a buoyant dub bass line digs its heels into the here-and-now. As smooth as it is, there’s a raw, unrefined quality to the production; it might have been better if the elements didn’t veer quite so far off-key in places, but then again, that occasional dissonance is precisely what gives the song its peculiar frisson. It’s lean but excessive, as though what it’s trying to express could never be contained by conventional tunings or properly quantized beats.The slipperiness of the 1996 groove proved a perfect fit for the nascent U.K. garage scene; the following year, XL reissued the record with new remixes by Basement Jaxx and R.I.P. Productions. And in 2000, a 2-step remix by Large Joints made it onto Locked On’s seminal Sound of the Pirates compilation alongside cuts from Artful Doger, Zed Bias, and Wookie, indirectly paving the way for Disclosure and this year’s garage-inflected house revival. P.S.
Dream 2 Science, “My Love Turns to Liquid” (Power Move, 1990)
With its DIY-label typeface and private-press stats, this underground favorite had the one-off vibe of countless opportunistic house records that popped up in the wake of C+C Music Factory’s massive early-‘90s success. But its slinky, ultra-steamy sound — ingeniously shaped around an amplified sample of a dripping faucet — was clearly the work of someone who knew his way around a studio. That’d be Ben Cenac, who in the previous year had dipped his toe in the garage-house pool via Sha-Lor’s similarly sultry “I’m in Love,” but had blown-up big time via Newcleus, the pioneering ‘80s electro act most famous for Chipmunk-style rapping on the hits “Jam on Revenge (The Wikki Wikki Song)” and “Jam on It.” “My Love Turns to Liquid,” however, is as serious as those hip-hop classics are silly: It’s so laid-back that it makes you hype. BARRY WALTERS
Bobby Konders, “The Poem” (Nu Groove, 1990)
Deep house and dub reggae rarely mix, so it’s fitting that one of their first and most enduring fusions came from Bobby Konders, a Brooklyn producer and DJ who would go on to be one of New York’s most important reggae selectors. (A host of the Best of the Best festival and a staple of Hot 97’s On Da Reggae Tip concerts, Konders and his partner Jabba helm weekend late-night slots on Hot 97.) Even as an instrumental, “The Poem” would have been a classic: It’s got one of the most irresistible bass lines in the house canon, and its jazzy flute-synth soloing sustains its dreamy, meditative mood. Dry snares and subtle bass distortion add grit to textures as smooth as crushed velvet, as does an extended introduction sampled from Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem.” Beginning with a lament for the victims of the Middle Passage and an invocation of names — Marcus Garvey, Malcom X, Halie Selassie — Mutabaruka’s song of struggle gradually turns upon itself:Dis poem is no secret Dis poem shall be called boring stupid senseless
Dis poem is watchin u tryin to make sense from dis poem
Dis poem is messin up your brains
Making u want to stop listenin to dis poem
But u shall not stop listenin to dis poem
U need to know what shall be said next in dis poem
Dis poem shall disappoint u
Dis poem is to be continued in your mind in your mind
In your mind in your mind
As Mutabaruka’s voice fades out in a wisp of dub delay, church organs rise in the mix, and that bass line begins its curious up-and-down jig. It’s a perfect mirror of the beatific ambivalence of the poem itself. P.S.
N.Y. House’n Authority, “Apt. 3A” (Nu Groove, 1989)
New York’s Nu Groove was, for a time, virtually synonymous with the twin brothers Rheji and Ronald Burrell. Label founders Karen Kahn and Frank Mendez discovered the pair the truly old-school way: while shopping in a record store and overhearing their demos playing out of a boombox that the brothers’ studio partner Tim D. happened to be lugging around. After the Burrells’ contract making R&B for Virgin went south, Kahn and Mendez launched Nu Groove in 1988 as an outlet for their work. As that catalog ballooned — they put out 100 records in just their first three years — Nu Groove would also release records by Frankie Bones and Lenny Dee, Masters at Work, and Bobby Konders, but Rheji and Ronald represented the core of the label’s roster. Favoring low-key profiles and a prodigious release schedule, the twins recorded under a slew of aliases, sometimes together but mostly separately, taking turns in the haphazard studio they had set up in their mother’s basement in New Jersey. Ronald recorded as Aphrodisiac, Equation, KATO, and others; Rheji’s aliases included Assylum, Dance Lessons, Metro, Roqui, and N.Y. House’n Authority. In the liner notes to Burrell Brothers Present New York Underground: The Nu Groove Years, Rheji told Bill Coleman, “Our love of dancing — I’m talking expressive, acrobatic, seductive, fun, crazy dancing — inspired us to make raw, greasy, poorly recorded underground tracks that we liked to move to at 4 or 5 in the morning.” And that’s exactly what his “APT. 3A” sounds like. Crisply stepping drums hiss dry-ice tendrils. Bass, chords, and a synth-clarinet melody twine together in graceful counterpoint, while pitch-bent fillips mimic dancers pirouetting across a hardwood floor in stocking feet. It’s profoundly stripped down, even for the standards of the day, but it’s also expressive as hell. The six tracks on Rheji’s first EP as N.Y. House’n Authority bear apartment numbers in place of titles — an urban metaphor for the music’s careful balance of intimacy and anonymity. P.S.
Ananda Project, “Cascades of Colour” (Nite Grooves, 1998)
Atlanta-born producer-remixer Chris Brann had a Parliament/Funkadelic interchangeable-identity thing going on with his Wamdue Project and Ananda Project, which briefly even shared the same poised vocalist, Gaelle Addison. In 1997, the former entity scored a U.K. No. 1 pop hit with “King of My Castle”; the next year, the latter released this far more meditative sequel. Addison testifies with unquestionable poise that life is illusory, but a guiding light emerges as descending jazz chords tumble and synthetic birds chirp. Joe Claussell, Ben Watt, and Danny Tenaglia all had their way with this track, but Brann’s original Wamdue Black mix remains the most savory. B.W.
Storm Queen, “Look Right Through” (Environ, 2010)
New Jersey-born, Queens-based Morgan Geist makes connoisseur’s dance music. Both on his own and as half of Metro Area, his work is filled with nuance as well as nerd-tastic allusions to yesteryear’s cosmopolitan joints: Generic glow-stick grooves, they are most certainly not. So it’s kind of amazing (and a major sign of the times) that this three-year-old house track, which is a bit catchier but otherwise differs little from his disco-derived output, became a slow-burning club staple and, on its third release, a U.K. No. 1 pop hit this month. Vocalist Damon C. Scott gives a vocal performance dripping with Daptone-variety vintage R&B, and the lyric is downhearted; it speaks of being seen, but not comprehended or appreciated. Yet there’s playfulness in the percolating synths and percussion, a resiliency played out by the song’s belated success. Mark “MK” Kinchen’s remix, the hit version, strips the track, highlights the vocal, and cuts it up in the sample-happy early-‘90s style once again in vogue. Subtle it no longer is, but deep it remains. P.S
Gunnar Wendel, “578 (Omar S. Rude Boy Warm Mix)” (FXHE, 2010)
Kassem Mosse and the Workshop label have been responsible for some of the slowest, murkiest, and most mysterious house music of the last several years — their records are spongy and lysergic, like magic mushrooms sprouting from piles of mouldering reel-to-reel tapes in a dank Midwestern basement. “578,” originally released on the tiny Mikrodisko label in 2008, offers a spot-on approximation of the EP’s title, Aqueous Haze (The World Disappeared into An), with its swirling chords and ocean-floor clicks and slow, tidal grumbling. There are all of three chords, two bass notes, and a single drum pattern, but the dub delay extrapolates nearly unfathomable dimensions from its meager materials.In 2010, Detroit’s Omar-S made two remixes of the track for his own FXHE label (which he released, for whatever reason, under Kassem Mosse’s real name, Gunnar Wendel). More than remixes, they’re edits, really; the “Berlin Mix” mutes some of the midrange, while the “Rude Boy Warm Mix” slows the tempo a good 15 percent and strips it all down to nothing but skeletal drums, surly ostinato bass, and sleek leads that glide like manta rays. All three versions are great, but it’s the “Rude Boy Warm Mix” that captures the essence of the thing — a lithe, liquid dance between light and shadow. P.S.
Robert Owens, “I’ll Be Your Friend” (RCA, 1991)
Chicago-based frontman for Larry Heard’s Fingers Inc., guest vocalist for Photek and Frankie Knuckles/Satoshi Tomiie, and singer of many solo joints, Robert Owens is the voice of deep house the way Donna Summer embodied disco: His groans, moans, and excitations make a meeting place between gospel and underground clubland’s collective sensuality. Nearly all of his greatest jams — “Mystery of Love,” “Bring Down the Walls,” “Tears,” “Mine to Give,” and this 1991 classic — build memorable songs out of little more than vamps. Like on those other records, he fills the spaces over bass, beats, and richly atmospheric keys with insistent incantations of the title. Producer David Morales — one of the few DJs to adroitly bridge the deep house/pop-remixer divide — cloaks his cries in reverb as synth horns honk and dub-drenched rhythms reverberate. His message is uplifting, but the mood is dusky, ominous. The takeaway? Real friendship is heavy, yet godly. B.W.
Iz & Diz, “Mouth (Brad Peep’s Remix for Friends)” (Classic, 2002)
Matthew Herbert wasn’t the only one making kicking house tracks out of quotidian sounds back around the turn of the millennium. In 2002, Chicago’s Iz & Diz breathed new life into minimalism with “Mouth,” a lurching, jacking track sourced entirely from breaths, clicking tongues, and staccato monosyllables. Pepe Bradock’s remix is just as economical in its means — every sound was made by lips or larynx — but he blows it all sky high, inflating tiny vocal samples into ballooning, organ-like pads, piling on a billowy doo-wop chorus, and even indulging a zany, kazoo-like solo at the song’s dizzy peak. In Bradock’s hands, what could have been a novelty song is turned into one of dance music’s most inventive (and unerring) crowd-pleasers. P.S.
E.S.P., “It’s You” (Underground, 1986)
Long before deep house was a thing — hell, even before house itself was a thing, at least outside Chicago’s WBMX and a handful of local nightclubs —Tom Adams and Daniel Ellington laid down the sound’s foundations with “It’s You,” a heavenly slice of machine-assisted soul. The song’s verse-chorus structure is a holdover from traditional song form, but everything else about it sounds alien and spine-tinglingly new, from its stubby little bass line and brittle drum sounds to its plucked arpeggios and milky pads. It’s sneaky, too, laying down a dusky, deceptively minor-key introduction as the setup to the big reveal — those sunny, major triads of the chorus, which sound a little like the Cars’ “Drive” distilled into an IV drip for the treatment of broken-hearted robots. P.S.
Romanthony, “The Wanderer” (Black Male, 1993)
When New Jersey’s Romanthony died of kidney disease this May, most publications identified him first as the singer of Daft Punk’s “One More Time” (including, yeah, SPIN). That made sense: “One More Time” is one of the most famous and beloved songs in the dance-music canon; earlier this year, Mixmag readers even voted it the “Greatest Dance Track of All Time”. But Romanthony’s own music was far stranger and more affecting than that Auto-Tuned hook ever suggested — an unlikely collision of blues guitar, live-wire machine funk, and his own absolutely heavenly voice, which inspired frequent (and justified) comparisons to Prince.”The Wanderer” was first released on Romanthony’s own Black Male Records in 1993, reissued the following year on Chicago’s Prescription, and remixed many, many times since then; in late 2009, an edit by Berlin’s Dixon gave it a gentle overhaul in keeping with contemporary, Continental deep-house tastes. (This year, even Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak got into the action, picking up “The Wanderer” and fleshing it out with a handful of electro-house remixes. The results are forgettable, but their very existence is proof of the guy’s universal appeal.) “It’s the system that makes you a wanderer,” Romanthony mutters over chiming acoustic guitars and a proto-2-step skip, answering himself with a soaring chorus that sounds like heartbreak incarnate. The “Fusion Dubb” took the song to a much darker place, framing multi-tracked harmonies against a bare-bones jack track and ominous, rumbling bass, while the “Temple Vox Mix” stripped away the drums and left Romanthony floating wraithlike over gauzy synths and insect chirps — a soul without a body, a voice unbounded. P.S
MK feat. Alana, “Love Changes (Deep Mix)” (Charisma, 1993)
If Marc Kinchen had patented the jabbing organ bass of his early productions, he’d be a wealthy man by now; the MK bass line has gone on to become a staple dance-music trope, like the Reese bass or the Mentasm stab, and it has flourished in recent years, as acolytes like Maya Jane Coles have brought it back for a new generation of house heads. (It’s a canonical enough sound that you’ll even find production tutorialsdedicated to its recreation.) But Kinchen’s doing just fine on his own. After taking a production break that lasted from 1996 until 2009 or so, he has once again become the industry’s point person for sultry, subterranean club reworks, just as he was in the early 1990s; in the past two years, he’s remixed Lana Del Rey, Rhye, Sky Ferreira, Disclosure, Katy B, FCL, Sub Focus, Thirty Second to Mars, and Storm Queen, whose “Look Right Through” went to No. 1 in the U.K. charts on the back of MK’s remix.But his early catalog offers a similar bounty of deep, moody delights, like the sensual “Burning,” featuring Alana, or the abstract, nearly ambient “MKappella,” with its bird calls and crashing waves and vibey, vibey flute solo. “Love Changes (Deep Mix)” may not have attained the status of “Burning,” and who knows, on some scales, “Burning” might even be the deeper of the two. But let’s go with the non-canonical pick, if only because you won’t find pianos like this anywhere else, and Alana’s pro-love, pro-commitment, in-it-for-the-long-haul lyrics (“I wanna be right there for you / I wanna be by your side / I wanna be right there for you / ‘Cause love changed my mind”) come across as the most earnest dance-floor epiphany possible. Somewhere, there’s a 20-year-old walking around who owes her entire existence to this song, and you can bet that her parents are still together. P.S.
Earth People, “Dance” (Kool Groove Records, 1989)
This is another one that maybe doesn’t slot comfortably into deep house as it’s narrowly defined, but who gives a damn, because house tracks don’t come much deeper than this 1989 classic from New York’s Pal Joey in his Earth People guise. You can hear the origins of Daft Punk’s filter-disco edits here; just as importantly, you can hear the hip-hop roots in this pause-button style of cut-and-pasted funk. It’s not that far off from what De La Soul or the Jungle Brothers were doing around the same time, but liberated from hip-hop’s narrative dictates, Pal Joey is free to loop with hypnotic abandon, piling up snippet after snippet of sax and drums and voice and bass, drawing it out as far as it’ll go until it stretches like a smile drawn in chunky crayon from club wall to club wall. The fact that he called this EP — his first — Underground Classic is so prescient, it boggles the mind. P.S.
Chez Damier, “Untitled” (KMS, 1993)
Three tracks, all untitled, all iconic enough that any house head will know what you mean if you say, “KMS 49, the B1.” Take your pick, really, depending on the time of night. The A-side cut comes together like a Lego project, with a scratchy boom-tick beat providing the foundation for a towering assemblage of tone clusters — piano chords, organ stabs, and monosyllabic vocal samples — that quiver brightly, faintly out of key with each other. Both tracks on the B-side are variations on the same set of sounds: a rippling, clap-heavy drum groove dusted with ride cymbals; endlessly spiraling Philly disco strings; and a bumptious funk bass line and squelchy wash of chords, which provided the blueprint for Daft Punk’s whole filter-disco shtick.The B1 opens with a deceptive snatch of falsetto a cappella and 16 bars of nothing but chords and cymbals, and then, boom: The kick-drum drops, the bass and strings kick in, and the whole thing basically hits a glorious plateau that lasts for six spine-tingling minutes. The only shift in energy is when someone breaks in to admonish, “You ain’t dancin’! Oh my god, you ain’t movin’, you ain’t dancin’, girl — you ain’t dancin’! C’mon!” The voice, a woman’s, is run through a pitch-shift effect that creates a gnarly echo in the low end, an effect both druggy and comic — but not, perhaps, as comic as the idea that this record has ever seen so much as a square foot of empty dance floor in 30 years of play. P.S.
Cajmere feat. Dajae, “Brighter Days” (Cajual, 1992)
On paper, Curtis Jones’ split musical identity reads as a classic Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde scenario. He reserves his Cajmere alias for house productions, while the green-mohawked, dress-wearing Green Velvet dishes out white-knuckled techno with a cutting sense of humor. In reality, though, the line between the two is porous; one of Cajmere’s most famous tracks, “Percolator,” is as punishing and twisted as the gnarliest of Green Velvet’s output, and the low-slung purple funk of Green Velvet’s recent “Bigger Than Prince” could easily have been released as a Cajmere production. But he’s never gone deeper than on 1992’s “Brighter Days,” featuring the Chicago singer Dajae’s gospel-inspired R&B over shuffling drum programming and uplifting organ chords.Of the song’s many mixes, Louie Vega’s Masters at Work remix took it furthest, adding piano, looping and layering Dajae’s voice, and stretching the whole thing out to nearly 11 delirious minutes. Made in Chicago and given a soulful New York garage twist, it also anticipates the skipping rhythms that U.K. garage would adopt later in the decade. Closer to home, the song also had an impact on plenty of kids who would grow up to become footwork DJs and dancers, as evidenced by DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn’s recent track “Brighter Dayz.” Cajmere and Dajae’s song was a “classic hit for me and these guys,” Rashad told SPIN earlier this year. “Everybody out here, really. I might have been in seventh grade when that came out. It was just a song that we always like. It was like, man, we had to do it. We just did it our own way.” P.S.
Black Science Orchestra, “New Jersey Deep” (FFRR, 1994)
That this 1994 cut by Ashley Beedle, Marc Woolford, and Uschi Classen doesn’t necessarily scan as archetypical deep house says less about the song itself than about the genre’s gradual standardization over the years — its reduction, at least in certain circles, to two chords and a handclap. “New Jersey Deep,” on the other hand, has a ginormous breakbeat and great buttery streaks of Philly strings. It’s also got a rambunctious walking bass line. Hell, it’s even got a screaming electric guitar lead, which tears through the song like an unruly gust of wind, whipping the energy ever upward.The sample on which the song is based comes from Wood, Brass & Steel’s “Funkanova” — which, incidentally, Ron Trent lists as one of his 10 favorite deep-house tracks, despite the fact that it’s a jazz-funk song from 1976. (“One of Ron Hardy’s favorites,” he told Dummy. “Though this was released in the ’70s, it was fresh to the ears of the Chicago urban youth that it was being introduced to. When classics like this were being reintroduced to us, it was a mind opener. It was the introduction of what people like to now call ‘deep house.’”) It’s hard to believe that the whole thing clocks in at just four-and-a-half minutes; a masterful play of tension and release, tension and release, and tension and release, it feels like it goes on forever — in the best way. In a more perfect universe, it probably does. P.S.
Frankie Knuckles Presents, “Your Love” (Trax, 1987)
A superior and far more emphatic re-recording of Jamie Principle’s version released on Persona the previous year, this Chicago house classic borrows its bass line from Electra’s “Feels Good (Carrots & Beets),” a veggie-promoting Italian disco jam disproportionately big in the Windy City. It also has an uncredited Principle (a.k.a. Bryon Walton) crooning much like he did on the original, but here Frankie Knuckles — former DJ at the Warehouse, the Chicago club that gave house music its name — pumps the bass past the point of distortion, and the sequencer arpeggio that rips through the track similarly feels out of control. “I can’t let go. Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” Principle sighs, implying the very opposite. Years later, an instrumental “Your Love” chunk would be mixed with a similarly vintage a cappella of Candi Staton singing “You Got the Love” for a U.K. Top 10 mashup. B.W.
Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It?” (Trax, 1986)
Originally released as the middle cut of a three-track instrumental EP, “Can You Feel It?” would eventually eclipse in popularity and influence just about everything released under the many pseudonyms from Larry Heard, the most sophisticated composer amid Chicago’s original pioneers. Minimal like so much early house music but with a particularly subtle bittersweet dissonance, this is jazz rendered with house instrumentation — a particularly boing-ing bassline, hissy drum-machine hi-hats, similarly mechanical handclaps, and a low-key melody line that suggests a keyboard weeping in slow motion. Simultaneously severe and gentle, the soulfulness this track exudes would eventually inspire DJs and remixers to overlay various preachers on top — particularly Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech — but its musical feng shu is best heard unadorned. B.W.
Saint Etienne, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Masters at Work Dub)” (Warner Brothers, 1991)
For proof of house music’s abilities to unite all and sundry under the power of a groove, look no further than this fundamental, history-making remix. First, British indie-poppers Saint Etienne tackled a song off Neil Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush, of all things, turning his mewling lament into a shuffling breakbeat soundtrack to the waning of the so-called “Second Summer of Love.” Banged out in producer Ian Catt’s bedroom studio in two hours, the song got them signed to Heavenly and even made it into the U.K. pop charts, landing at No. 95; when reissued in 1991 as a double-A-side with “Filthy,” it made it all the way to No. 39 in the U.K., and it topped Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play rankings, thanks to a slow, dubby remix by Andrew Weatherall. (Oddly, it also hit No. 11 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart.)That’s already a pretty tangled family tree, but Masters of Work went one better, grabbing a vocal snippet from “Your Life,” a 1984 song by the Downtown funk band Konk, and extending it into a long, stuttering loop. The chord changes, meanwhile, are dead ringers for the stabbing keys in Nikita Warren’s “I Need You,” an Italo-house tune released the same year, although it’s unclear whether one song influenced the other, or whether it’s just an instance of the trans-Atlantic synchronicity that’s so common in dance music. Whatever the case, MAW’s organ chords turn up the next year in Chez Damier’s “Can You Feel It,” one of the most essential tracks in the whole house canon. Neil Young’s Trans may have failed to ignite the techno-pop revolution he hoped for, but with this song, he set off a far more unpredictable — and productive — chain reaction. P.S.
Theo Parrish, “I Can Take It” (Sound Signature, 2001)
Save for the jarring, cacophonous “Any Other Styles” (sourced entirely from kung-fu sound effects), virtually everything Theo Parrish puts his hand to is leagues deeper than anything else out there. He’s heavily influenced by jazz and disco, and his best productions have the heft and luster of worn Persian rugs, faded and frayed. For “I Can Take It,” Parrish had the Detroit singer Dwele reprise his vocals from Recloose’s “Can’t Take It,” released the previous year on Planet E; using a wordless vocal riff as the song’s elastic backbone, he sends those pained entreaties soaring in circles like lonely birds. The groove limps as though shackled, metal clanking with every stumbling thump. A bittersweet exorcism at 116 BPM, it’s as melancholic a meditation on freedom and its inverse as you’ll find anywhere in the American songbook. P.S.
Moodymann, “J.A.N.” (KDJ, 2001)
When it comes to hypnotic, minimalist soul, Detroit’s Moodymann (Kenny Dixon, Jr.) is in a class of his own. Only Theo Parrish has matched the profundity of his slow, inky, sample-heavy house productions. “J.A.N.,” released as a single-sided 12-inch, is exemplary of Moodymann’s fierce, sardonic wit: The title stands for “Just Another N*ggah”; the spoken-word voiceover is taken from one of the Electrifying Mojo’s on-air interviews with Prince. The Purple One’s answers have been excised, so that Mojo’s questions, cut up and spread out at great length — “What type of mood were you in when you recorded that album?” “It’s been said that you work when you’re on the road, you carry a studio around with you, you get up in the middle of the night, you get the idea for a tune, and you get up and go do it; some people have even called you the workaholic, uh… uh…” — come to seem like they’re in dialog with the music itself. You could count the song’s elements on one hand: Rhodes chords, shuffling drum track, a three-note bass line, and a slow flare of strings and chant. The mastery is in the way he weaves them together and teases them out, brooding and suspenseful. “What was it like growing up in Detroit?” asks Mojo; the only answer is a wordless howl, like a freight train approaching in slow motion. P.S.
Round Two, “New Day” (Main Street, 1995)
Berlin’s Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus are known primarily for a career spent exploring the interface between techno — they were among Germany’s earliest musicians to strike up a dialog with Detroit — and dub reggae. With their Basic Channel project, they laid the groundwork for minimal techno; Chain Reaction pushed the same material into the realm of ambient-dub blowouts, and with Rhythm & Sound, they brought dub techno back to the source by enlisting reggae singers like Tikiman and Cornell Campbell over their pinging, analog-voodoo riddims.Between 1994 and 1999, though, the duo also dipped its toes into house music via a five-record series on their own Main Street label. As was their spotlight-shy wont, they adopted a new alias for each record: Round One, Round Two, etc. Round One’s “I’m Your Brother” must have come as a shock to anyone expecting the steely parsimony of “Enforcement” or “Phylyps Trak”: Here, instead, was real house music, complete with jazzy keys, A/B changes, and a gospel-inflected chorus, resulting in the blackest-sounding music to come out of Germany since Giorgio Moroder. (Meanwhile, Chez Damier and Ron Trent supplied “Chicago’s Twisted Mix” on the B-side. With Round Two’s “New Day,” though, they eased off the R&B and retreated to more familiar terrain — chalky synthesizers, a humming pedal tone, and Motor City mechano-soul spun like fiber-optic webbing. But they kept house music’s four-bar changes and glistening, syncopated chord stabs, and Andy Caine, a sometime backup singer for the likes of Yazz and Tears for Fears, coaxed extreme pathos out of the most reticent of grooves.The bulk of the lyrics amount to an invocation of the power of love in the face of adversity (“Makes me want to shout about it / Shout about it / Where did we go wrong, tell me / For the love that we had was so strong / Open your eyes and you will see / That this was meant to be / There ain’t nothin’ standin’ in our way / We got a new day”). But it’s the way the verse begins that gets you every time: “Feel like a 24-hour sleep.” It radiates exhaustion — physical, emotional, spiritual. These dogs are tired, dog.And yet somehow, somehow, the song keeps pushing forward, upward, toward light, toward transcendence. It’s the essence of spiritual house. P.S.
Crustation, “Flame (Mood II Swing Borderline Insanity Dub Mix)” (Jive, 1997)
Crustation were a short-lived trip-hop group with ties to Portishead and Massive Attack; their 1997 single “Flame” was a perfectly nice, totally innocuous, and mostly forgettable contribution to the drowsy downbeat catalog. The journeymen producers Mood II Swing put their characteristically light, funky touch on a club-friendly remix of the song, as they did hundreds of times during their run as New York’s most dependable remixers. But Mood II Swing also had a murkier, more abstracted side; you can hear it in productions like “Move Me,” “The Slippery Track,” and the eerie “Inhale,” which sounds like Gary Numan’s “Cars” being sucked through a Teflon wormhole. But they outdid themselves on the “Borderline Insanity Dub” of “Flame,” lacing a skipping, proto-U.K.-garage beat with hiccupping vocal loops and a lithe, shadowboxing bass line; the icing on the cake comes courtesy of a swirling fog of vocal harmonies that pans from speaker to speaker. Running out of phase with the beat, it lends a sense of tidal ebb-and-flow, throwing the time deliriously out of joint. The fact that Mood II Swing never produced anything else quite like it only makes this fluid, enveloping tune all the more irreplaceable. P.S.
Blaze, “Lovelee Dae” (Classic, 1997)
The number of remixes commissioned for a given track isn’t necessarily a barometer of its quality, but one look at the artists who have updated Blaze’s “Lovelee Dae” over the years does suggest how far-reaching its impact has been: Carl Craig, Freestyle Man, 20:20 Vision, Freaks, LoSoul, Roman Flügel’s Eight Miles High, Swag’s Chris Duckenfield, Isolée, Michael Mayer and Tobias Thomas, and, more recently, Joyce Muniz, Tanner Ross and Kilowatts, and Flashmob. First released on Derrick Carter and Luke Solomon’s Classic label, the track is somewhat uncharacteristic for Blaze, a New Jersey duo which got its start on Motown, and whose catalog typically leans towards the most florid extremes of East Coast garage and spiritual house.”Lovelee Dae,” in comparison, is laser-focused on a single pedal tone, and one swollen, never-ending note. Flecked with soft, squelchy keyboard riffs, a syncopated organ chord and dry drum groove carve a graceful arc from beginning to end, paving the way for a blissful vocal hook capable of coaxing actual tears of joy on the dance floor, no chemicals required. The simplicity of its structure masks its incredible timbral complexity, as effervescent and opalescent as Steve Reich (at the Zanzibar, in dub). It’s basically one long, extended dopamine rush, buffeting and then enveloping you like a heaven-sent gust of wind. P.S.
Joe Smooth Inc. featuring Anthony Thomas, “The Promised Land” (D.J. International, 1987)
Having been raised on Sylvester and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (thanks to original house DJs Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy), Chicago’s earliest house heads had already been schooled on disco’s strong but often-overlooked gospel roots, yet few managed to turn that connection into a fully fledged song, one you could strip of beats and still bring to church. Joe Smooth did it most regularly, and with this, his debut single, he did it most perfectly. Mod-punk soulboy Paul Weller took note: The Style Council’s super-faithful 1989 U.K.-hit remake adds nothing besides banging gospel piano. B.W.
Pepe Bradock, “Deep Burnt” (Kif, 1999)
“Path of Most Resistance,” the title of a 2009 track by Pepe Bradock, pretty well sums up the French producer’s approach to house music. Not all of his work is as difficult as “Rhapsody in Pain,” an unsettling jam stitched together out of cartoonish yelps and wails — it sounds, in fact, like a massacre on the Muppets’ soundstage — but all of it dances defiantly to the beat of his own decidedly off-kilter drummer, full of quavering samples and weird, lumpy funk. But Bradock’s music is also unusually lush, as we’ve already seen from his melodic makeover of Iz & Diz’s “Mouth,” and “Deep Burnt” stands out as the emotive pinnacle of his work (followed closely by “Life” and “Ghost” from the following year). He builds the beat out of the opening tambourine of Max Roach’s “Driva Man,” and he borrows the sweeping strings from the introduction to Freddie Hubbard’s misty-eyed “Little Sunflower”; the rest is all him, laying down sparkling keyboard counterpoints and drawing out Hubbard’s strings like outsized soap bubbles that go twisting and turning through the air. You’ll not find a clearer testament to the power of sampling as an expressive art form. P.S.
Chez N Trent, “Morning Factory” (Prescription, 1994)
There are plenty of songs in deep house that are more “musical,” more ambitious, more cleanly produced. But none of them makes a clearer statement of purpose than Chez Damier and Ron Trent’s “Morning Factory,” a track that settles in like a luminous fog and just hovers for nearly nine minutes, absorbing everything in its path. Inside the haze, anything goes: Dancers are free to follow innumerable rabbit holes opened up by the drums’ strange, triple-time delay patterns. The bass line feels almost physical, like something solid, like a tree waiting to be climbed, even though it’s gone as soon as it leaves its staccato footprint. Bleary chords smear across the upper registers and hi-hats seem to crumble to bits. The whole thing is a whirling choreography of disappearance, powered by the morning sun falling on closed eyelids and the stars spinning behind them. P.S.