Finding Jesse - The Discovery of Jesse Saunders as the Founder of House
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Thirty years of history had passed without anything really authoritative being developed, no book had detailed the story that was quickly being corrupted by time and the goldfish mentality of popular culture. So I set out to interview everyone who would speak to me, to read everything available to me. To scour the internet for any sign of DJ lifeÖ anyway, I spoke to a few hundred people and started compiling all that had gone on for decades into the pages of my notebooks.
House music artists today often acquire a snooty reputation, but this was not the way it always was and is not the way it is with those that truly matter
I had reached the point where anyone with a site on Google had at least received a preliminary email from my account when I came across a name that I had never heard before. Feeling that everyone should have a chance at telling their side of this story, I entered the man's web site and began to cruise around to see what I could find out about the man before I queried his email address. The page said many of the usual things, where he'd toured and what records he'd put out, however there was one thing that caught my eye.
It was a simple sentence that read, "Jesse Saunders: The Innovator of House Music." I read through some more and here and there would be a reference to Jesse's role as the father of all house music -- the very beginnings of this whole music movement I had been researching. I was sure that it must be some sort of gimmick, I was under the impression that pretty much everyone knew that Frankie Knuckles had developed the house music sound at his Warehouse club in Chicago. But, as I continued my research into different sources in order to verify it, it seems that it was more than just a rouse.
A group of DJs and industry people, including the likes of Pete Tong, ended up conspiring to take Jesse's name off the record through a licensing scam that left another DJ to take credit for the work and left Jesse once again out of the public eye
Jesse Saunders had released the very first house music record. Jesse had set up the first house music recording label. Jesse was the first house music artist to enter the Billboard music charts, the first to reach the top of the radio charts and the first house music artist to be signed to a major label. But even all these impressive achievements didn't make him the creator of the house music sound.
What did change my mind was the story of how these things came to be. Jesse Saunders first started to DJ at Chicago nightclubs and dance halls back in the late 1970s. Frankie Knuckles did indeed DJ at a place called the Warehouse on the other side of Chicago and had altered the disco sound of the day into something new and exciting. However, the sound was very connected to disco and Frankie would DJ mostly at gay clubs. Jesse first heard the music of Frankie Knuckles around this time and fell in love. He absorbed it as an influence into his style and decided to spread the music into the rest of the club going population. However, Frankie Knuckles was not Jesse's sole influence. He had been developing his own techniques similar to those of Francois Kevorkian in New York City: cut-and-pasting cassette recordings and mixing the sounds very much like it is done today by all modern DJs.
Jesse Saunders was also influenced by the electro movement of Europe, groups like Kraftwerk made their way into his music collection often, as well as the funk, R&B and early hip hop of the day. By the early eighties, Jesse had developed a sound that was very different from Frankie's. While Frankie Knuckles maintained a close connection to disco music, Jesse had evolved away from disco into a new blend of different music that sounded more closely connected to a soulful R&B track than anything else. While bringing his music to the greater public, Jesse's sound evolved more quickly than the isolated sound of Frankie.
When the official house music vibe was created, Jesse started recording original material from the inspiration, the first person to ever move his music from a mixing style of the tables to a song-writing style in the studio. The music Frankie Knuckles had been playing sounded different from what Jesse had developed, and it was Jesse's sound that became the one we recognise as house music today. Although Jesse is quick to say that Frankie had a huge part in how the whole Chicago scene had developed, house music as we know it today came from Jesse Saunders.
Jesse's influence even spread to the UK, where his track 'Love Can't Turn Around' became a number one hit -- the first ever number one house record -- and was a major key in launching the rave movement of the late eighties. But wouldn't you know it, Jesse got less than credited for this milestone too. A group of DJs and industry people including the likes of Pete Tong ended up conspiring to take Jesse's name off the record through a licensing scam that left another DJ to take credit for the work and left Jesse once again out of the public eye.
But how does Jesse feel about all this today? He gives a smile to bad memories past and looks into the future with great hope. It is his love for electronica that is most important to him and that has never let him down. He has been able to watch his baby grow up to take over the radio waves and dominate the popular culture of the world that ignored its father. The crowds have never let him down either, people who love great music still flock to him at tour stops all over the world and become pleasantly surprised to see someone so committed to his craft.
While others have climbed onto pedestals to be worshipped by ravers and party goers, Jesse has stayed in his lab creating music for the people and stayed underground to help house music continue to push its boundaries. When raves were on the endangered list in the US, he even pulled in some political connections to create Rave Secure -- a method of sanctioning rave events with the municipal government and police in order to hold the events without being bothered. Yet he didn't use this role, his actions that ensured that raves could continue right up until today, as a platform on which to stand and preach. And he continued to help young artists climb up into the industry and grant interviews to kids like me.
In 2004, Jesse is touring to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his first house record entitled 'On & On', released in January of 1984. He leaves the crowds breathless with his old school style and veteran skills, needing no more than three tables and a dozen records to create his set. He is gracious about what he has in life. He will go out into the crowd and party with the same people that just heard him play after his set is done. He will slap drugs out of the hand of a thirteen year old kid and try to teach them the beauty of music without such chemical assistance.
When I asked Jesse myself why he called himself the innovator of house music, he merely said in a modest tone, "I guess it's because some people say that I am, and I guess I released the first house record". Then he changed the subject. He didn't go on and on about himself. He may have never told me if I hadn't asked. He hasn't plastered his face all over house music so that every time the goldfish bumped into that corner again they'd know it was because of him. He allowed house music to fly free and reach as far as it could go without limiting its potential by slapping a label on it. So when the goldfish (that's us by the way) rediscovers house music, the names they find attached to it include only those that have tried to nail it down, not those that truly should take credit for its existence and continued success.
Frankie Knuckles is much the same in his character, he hasn't sought fame so much as had it plopped in his lap by the media. He is just as humble. A lot of the old DJs do not flaunt who they are like the newer generation, they don't put themselves up on a pedestal in order to get their audience to worship them. They were a part of the audience; there was a unity then that is now difficult to find between a DJ and their crowd. It is a time gone by, when the DJ was just a DJ, yet so much more. Jesse Saunders is perhaps the very best example of this. House music artists today often acquire a snooty reputation, but this was not the way it always was and is not the way it is with those that truly matter.
I have come to believe that without historians there would be no history, yet without the historic there would be nothing to create historians out of normal men. Thank god for the spirit of people like Jesse Saunders, who come along every once in a while and remind us why it is important to at least remember our elders, if not listen to them as well.
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