Averaging just one record a year since 1986, Rodney Bakerr’s Rockin’ House Records makes a fair claim for being considered one of Chicago’s greatest House Music labels.
Chicago celebrates things that last until they’re dead on their feet, like the pugilists’ love of the boxer with an iron chin. We have the worst professional sports team in the history of organized athletics – and they have a massive following. Many of our “landmark” buildings earned that distinction not because they’re beautiful, but merely because time and the Great Chicago Fire neglected to destroy them. This is a Chicagoan’s self-image, really: we’re not the best but we’ll outwork the best and hopefully someone notices.
Rockin’ House, the record label, probably has more admirers today than ever, but more people should have noticed by now. And they will. The label is simply Chicago House, writ large. With only 30 or so records released over 29 years, no single label has better embodied all of the scrappiness but also the brilliance of the Chicago House movement from the mid-1980s forward.
Rockin’ House didn’t overwhelm its peers with numbers. It simply outlasted them. Other labels that capitalized on the early Chicago House sound have tailed off into irrelevancy, with myriad “comebacks” marked by an A&R approach that barely distinguishes them from other bedroom labels. But Rockin’ House is releasing some of its best records right now, from on-point producers like Lil’Tal, and even with new records that are really old records that never made it out of the shed, like Rodney Bakerr’s own The Lost Tracks.
And it makes sense they would survive, because together with Dance Mania, Rockin’ House is one of the few labels that really seemed to emerge from the people; with a flair for art rather than exploitation.
We often compliment a work of art with the observation that it “stood the test of time.” But dance music is constantly renewing itself, churning new cultural artifacts on a yearly, monthly or even weekly basis. A new flood of hot records and new artists flush out the old, and trends die before they’re even fully embraced. Like abstract Nazca Lines, it’s only from a height of thousands of feet in the air that the overall shape and pattern is plain to the naked eye. To “stand the test of time” in this culture isn’t just praiseworthy. It’s extraordinary.
The Renaissance Man
The best labels take on the characteristics of their founders. It’s impossible to imagine Rockin’ House in the hands of anyone other than Rodney Bakerr.
“There’s a simple adage: you never get out of the record business,” Rodney told me on a Saturday afternoon in August. “I tried. Then some guy in Scotland wants that RH005 record, and if you don’t put it out, you know the bootleggers will. Every year there’s a record from 10 or 15 years ago subject to a resurgence of interest, and record after record keeps floating back to the surface.”
Rodney Bakerr is probably one of the most interesting people, with the greatest worldview, of his Chicago House peers. An award winning educator, he peppers his conversation with references to early electronic music, jazz and rock artists in a casual way, without pretension, and speaks about Chicago House Music with the assurance and authenticity of a folklorist. His own role can’t be understated, whether it was from an A&R standpoint, his own productions (which included industrial-style tracks) or his role creating the House patterns for the 808 and 909, which are still embedded in the DNA of dance music today.
The Days of Fred Brown
One of the earliest signings to Rockin’ House was a mysterious figure – now, like the label, something of a cult phenomenon – named Fred Brown.
Brown released a tiny handful of tracks (definitely less than ten and probably less than five) which sound like records made entirely out of time. On the short-lived CAM Records he released “You Don’t Really Care” – a record that laid down a thick Deep House vibe years before we could really say that anything called Deep House existed. Who was making records that sounded like this in the mid-1980s? After Larry Heard, it’s a very short list, if such a list could be made.
“We made three or four records with Fred Brown,” Rodney says, “two of which were released and the others were in the vault.” The first of those records, “House Whop,” was named after a dance that was going around at the time called The Whop (Tyree Cooper and Fast Eddie also released a track in 1987 called “The Whop”). The second was called “Roman Days,” which appeared on the Rockin’ House Tracks compilation and was later acknowledged as one of the archetypes of the Belgian New Beat scene.
The first time I heard Fred Brown’s Rockin’ House tracks, I began thinking that they sounded like they belonged in an early Acid House set – like someone had literally lifted the 303 out of the mix and played out the rest. They come from a weird place, but then to hear Rodney tell it, so did Fred Brown.
“When I started the label, I put out word among my students and school alumni,” he says. “Fred Brown’s name was brought to my attention. I paid a visit, and he was probably the most laidback guy I ever met. Fred Brown was completely chill on everything. That was how he made his music, too. He had a particular style of writing music that was out of the ordinary – a very landscape-like, panoramic way of making music.
“He was also a minimalist. He never used a lot of gear. He used the DX5 and the 505. And Fred Brown did incredible things with just those two pieces.
“‘Roman Days’ used the same set up. There was a patch for the DX5 – I can’t remember what it is offhand, I have mine in my basement – but I believe it was with the second version. And it made this incredible bass sound: bohhhhhhhhm. Fred built everything around that sound.
“His programming on the 505 was unique as well. It was complex, with intricate patterns – not just the typical snare/kick/hi hat. There were all kinds of percussive elements that filled the track out.”
After this brief run, Fred Brown apparently never made another record again. There are tons of stories like this – a guy who did an incredible but short run of tracks and then disappeared. It’s in a way the Chicago House story. Even their names – Fred Brown, James Martin – seem anonymous. They could have been anyone.
“I think it was just the time frame,” Rodney says. “I lived in Europe for a period in my life. I used to read Melody Maker and the New Music Express and follow the artists they wrote about. Every act that did more than 10 gigs seemed to get press. The places described in the reviews were really just these little pubs. Anything halfway decent got coverage. That didn’t happen here.
“If Fred Brown were in England, we’d probably still be talking about him now.”
The Ghost In The Machine
When the 303 was finally brought out of the back of the pawn shops and given a new lease on life as the “Acid box,” Rockin’ House jumped in with both feet. Rodney released some of the most dangerous yet still relatively unheralded Acid House tracks ever made.
“Greatest ever made” is one epithet which some have bestowed on “Love Is Happiness,” created by Rodney under the alias “Jaquarius.” Flip ahead to “Scream,” released under the alias of “The H-Men,” and you’ll hear a world in which Metroplex meets Italo and the two drop acid together – this track still has the power to fry a dancefloor, burning like a hair dryer that glows red hot and then shuts down. “House Girl” (under the alias “Mystic”) is another essential record from the Rockin’ House catalog. Why the twee residents of the Brooklyn haven’t built an entire genre around the twitchy 505, ornery 303 and the Ohio Funk-style vocal of this track is a mystery. These records are like a parallel universe’s vision of what indie dance could have been.
If there was a “golden age” for Rockin’ House (and if that age is sometime other than now – remember, we’re going big picture here), this era was it. Amid the explorations of new genres, Rockin’ House released a chapter in the ongoing saga of “Video Clash,” with Tyree Cooper’s “Video Crash” (RH005) joining the ranks of versions by Mike Dunn and, later, DJ Funk. E-Smoove’s The Eric Miller EP (note: released six years before The Marshall Mathers LP) showed yet another side of the label.
“You had to sit down with this piece of equipment and really think about how to put your soul into that machine. That’s what House Music is about: how to put your soul, your personality, into conquering the ghost in that machine. And later when it’s played over big speakers, other people feel something from what you put into that mechanical device. There’s an art to that.”
Despite the abundance of Acid House and jack tracks, there isn’t really a set Rockin’ House sound or aesthetic. “Rockin’ House looks at American culture and the whole history of music,” Rodney says. “Other labels don’t have the same historical perspective. Something comes in through the back door, they press it and it goes out the front. At Rockin’ House, we keep it in back and listen to it, look at it, tell the artist what needs to be changed – that this needs an acid part or an acid mix to give it more validity at this point in time…
“I can look at an artist and call him the ‘Hendrix of the 303’ or 808 or 909. I actually saw Hendrix live. The 303 in particular filled those gaps between people like Terry Riley and [Subotnick’s] Silver Apples of the Moon. Not a lot of people involved in Chicago House knew about early electronic artists, but they had long coat tails.”
This era is marked by another aspect: electronic music’s pre-computer age. While the definition of a “computer” can be expanded to incorporate a synthesizer, most people who made music before and after feel there was an undeniable but hard to quantify feeling to making music with analog tools. Rodney describes this better than most, with a flair for the poetic:
“You had to sit down with this piece of equipment,” he says, “and really think about how to put your soul into that machine. That’s what House Music is about: how to put your soul, your personality, into conquering the ghost in that machine. And later when it’s played over big speakers, other people feel something from what you put into that mechanical device.
“There’s an art to that.”
The Next Record
Rockin’ House continues, ornery but true into the ’10s. Though originally made in the 1990s, The Lost Tracks (RH019) took the world by storm, and was followed by Rockin’ House’s foray into Ghetto House and Juke with DJ Lil’Tal’s Juke Tracks.
“As a former teacher,” Rodney explains, “my theory is that House Music was originally a high school phenomenon. It was true that it existed in gay clubs and undergrounds clubs, but what really made it take off was the inner city Chicago high schools on the South and West Sides. Rockin’ House started because of that. The big push with the Hot Mix 5 came out of high schools, for instance.
“Later I saw the birth of footwork, which was the latest spurt of creativity from House Music. I would open the door of my classroom and see it all up and down the hallway.”
Of course, as Rockin’ House gets its due from a growing circle of DJs and vinyl enthusiasts, it’s running into the problem that increasingly bedevils the industry: speculators breaking down the system of distribution from artist to label to distributor to DJ. “RH019, The Lost Tracks, was the first time that happened,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s the right mindset to say it’s breaking down the system. You’re in business making records to show people a concept, an idea, to show them the trajectory of where you’re at. That’s the right mindset.”
“And in dance music, unlike rock, it’s always, always about making the next record.”
Mike Dunn: Acid Tracks (The Rockin’ House Years) is forthcoming from Rockin’ House.