20.12.2012, Words by Ruth Saxelby

The Dummy Guide to acid house

Acid house was born with the Roland TB-303 in the 1980s, but is there more to it than just “the acid sound”? Many recognise acid house as a social movement and subcultural revolution; it could be argued that it’s a whole way of life, in the same way that hip hop and rock and roll are. As a genre, it’s been mined as a relic of the past and seen as a fad to be looked back on, mythologised and institutionalised. Now, with artists from Skrillex to SFV Acid, and from Gatekeeper to Funkineven, all using acid in their sound, is it still a powerful force to be reckoned with today?

This is acid: the sound of the TB-303

The “acid house sound” is the noise that comes from an electronic bass synthesiser, the Roland TB-303. In 1982, Roland released a transistorised bassline generator to rival the popular, Fender-designed electric bass guitar. Launched alongside their TR-606 drum machine, the TB-303 was part of Roland’s vision of new technology allowing a songwriter access to a robust rhythm section without having to depend on session musicians. By programming a chain of patterns, the TB-303 could play back intricate basslines, an array of knobs, buttons and switches all used to sculpt the bass sound.

Despite this promise of musical liberation, Roland ceased manufacture of the 303 just 18 months later, having produced only 20,000 units. Needless to say, it hadn’t made a huge impact on the Western market: the Japan-born Roland did not include an English language instruction manual with the device, which was a beast to program for the uninitiated. Still, some artists had succeeded in coaxing strong basslines out of the box. Legendary electro-funk outfit Imagination’s Music & Lights and Orange Juice’s new wave classic Rip It Up are two popular songs that used the 303 in a traditional, non-acid house way.

Orange Juice – ‘Rip It Up’ [1983]

By 1985, the unit was allegedly selling for as little as $50 second-hand, and in Chicago that year a young DJ Pierre picked one up from a bargain store. Together with his friends Earle Smith and Nathaniel Jones, Pierre formed the group Phuture, setting the 303’s basslines to the drum patterns of the burgeoning Chicago house scene on their landmark Acid Tracks, widely considered to be the first acid house record created and eventually receiving a release through Trax Records in 1987. The legend surrounding Acid Tracks is that Ron Hardy, who loved the track, had to play it four times in one night for the crowd to fully understand and appreciate it. Their reaction went from indifference to elation by the fourth play, and it became nicknamed “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track”. The reason it got this nickname still remains opaque but ultimately Phuture kept the original name, and “acid house”, as a subgenre, stuck.

What gave Acid Tracks its acid sound was down to the way that Pierre used the 303. Unwieldy as it was, the 303 was capable of producing decent, more traditional basslines if programmed according to Roland’s conventions. But Pierre was not trying to play it according to Roland’s conventions, and not trying to get a conventional bass sound, and in the process created the alien, unique tones that are still used on records today.

Phuture – Acid Tracks [1987]

You can’t defeat us: the unstoppable rise of Chicago acid

“We are Phuture, you can’t defeat us.”
Phuture – We Are Phuture [1988]

The story of Chicago acid house has been documented, dissected, reinterpreted and generally mythologised endlessly, and there are hundreds of articles on the internet discussing its rise as a global force. Chicago in 1987-88 was one of the most invigorating periods in dance music’s history, creating a stream of unbelievable tracks that still sound glorious today. Released less than a year on from Acid Tracks, Bam Bam’s Where’s Your Child? and Armando’s 151 show how far the acid sound had come in such a short space of time, but there were nearly hundreds of acid house records that came out during this time that hold up excellently today. The mix of Armando’s 151 that appeared on Jack Trax’s 1988 compilation ‘Acid House’ is sublime, a one-note bassline that gets stretched to breaking point without ever giving in.

Armando – 151 [1988]

It was because of its commercial failure that the 303 really took off, rather than in spite of it. If the 303 had succeeded as a product, it would not have ended up in the realms of affordability that resulted in the poor communities of Chicago experimenting with it. Whilst it’s still likely that the acid sound would have been discovered eventually, the landscape of both dance music and club culture may have turned out quite differently if it hadn’t come together at the exact time and place that it did.

It’s hard to say what made 1987-88 such a golden era for Chicago acid house. Much of it must be down to the sheer newness of it all which led to a creative boom in the city’s dance community; the brilliant tracks made in this brief period number into their hundreds. A lot of it came down to the fact that acid house could be made quickly and easily – but the reason that these acid tracks live on as more-than-decent jams is because of the innovation of the artists. Acid house was a liberating proposition because it meant that a non-musician could create an acid track with little more than borrowed gear and enough imagination. Whilst there had been non-musical movements before, such as New York’s no wave scene, acid house took it out of the art and performance world and into something far larger and far more inclusive.

Importing acid

In 1987, house music wasn’t necessarily a new thing in the UK. Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley had taken his anthemic Jack Your Body to the number 1 spot in the UK charts, and tacky medley series such as Mirage’s ‘Jack Mix’ were proving popular. But the acid sound had not quite taken over the United Kingdom. This changed with a holiday that has since become part of dance music’s folklore. In 1987, four guys – Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker – went to Ibiza for a holiday in celebration of Paul Oakenfold’s birthday. The group were already DJs, and Rampling had read about Ibiza and the afterhours parties already, and they went to the open air club Amnesia. There, they heard its DJ, Alfredo, mixing tracks in a revelatory, eclectic style. The ‘Balearic’ style of weaving in soul, indie, funk and – importantly – some of the acid house imports from Chicago. It sounded incredible to the group, who had tried the then-new drug ecstasy out there.

When Rampling returned to London, he tried to recreate the Ibiza experience, exchanging the sun-soaked Balearic island for a fitness centre on Southwark Street. The first party he and his wife Jenny threw, held on December 5th 1987, was called Shoom. Carl Cox provided the sound system and the party carried on all night – the police wouldn’t bother them in that part of the city, even though licensing laws did not allow partying beyond 3.30am at the time. Even if they had, they would’ve been bemused by the crowd, as MDMA was so uncommon at the time that the police wouldn’t recognise people on it. It took a while to kick off properly, but word spread and acid house started taking over, with other clubs starting to play it and scenes such as soul and rare groove soon being replaced as the dominant sounds of London. In its three year lifespan, Shoom helped define the acid sound along with the clubs The Trip and Future. It also introduced the world to one particular image – on its third flyer, Shoom introduced the smiley face symbol that became the defining image of acid house.

The smiley face symbol introduced by Shoom that came to define acid house.

That’s how legend has it, anyway. The truth is, acid house had existed in the UK beforehand. A video shot in Moss Side, Manchester in 1986 shows a predominantly black audience dancing to DJ-mixed acid house, including Adonis’ classic No Way Back. Then again, there are examples of music made with the TB-303 in an acid-esque style that predate the Chicago explosion as well, such as Alexander Robotnick’s Problems D’Amour and the wonderful oddity that is Bollywood composer Charanjit Singh’s 1982 record Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat, which many trainspotters and archivists have retrospectively called the first acid house record. Writing in The Guardian, Louis Pattison explains that Singh “went into the studio with some new kit – a Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard, a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Roland TB-303 – and decided to make a record that combined western dance music with the droning ragas of Indian classical music.”

Charanjit Singh – Raga Bhairav [1982]

The difference between proto-acid artists like Singh and the Chicago acid pioneers, and these earlier acid house parties in the UK and nights like Shoom, is that neither of them presented acid house in the form that it would eventually take off as. In an interview with Resident Advisor, Terry Farley – a DJ in the upstairs room of Shoom alongside Andrew Weatherall, and founder of influential fanzine Boy’s Own – puts it best: “House music was already being played in some gay clubs and there was a rare groove club in London called The Hug club where everyone took Ecstasy and sat on the floor. Danny didn’t bring back house from Ibiza, he was just the first person to put it all together in a package.”

The UK acid sound

Very little tends to get said about UK acid house. This may seem an odd comment – “acid house” is a phrase that everybody is familiar with, the concept of a “rave” is commonplace and the Second Summer of Love has been well-documented. But when it comes to the music, very little tends to get mentioned – usually, the press talks about the acid house experience. When it does come to talking about the music, it tends to be overwhelmingly in the favour of the Chicago pioneers, with only a few cursory acknowledgements of homegrown classics like Voodoo Ray.

As acid house parties spread across the UK, so did the desire to make this new music. UK producers brought their own flourishes to the acid sound – the house sound that had spread across America, taking in places like New Jersey as well as Chicago and Detroit, preached communion with quasi-religious overtones inherited from America’s inner-city gospel tradition, but to emulate this would not have been true to the UK’s own roots. Graham Massey, of early acid group 808 State, says in an interview with Attack Magazine that “there’s a thread of UK subculture music that’s very much influenced by reggae and dub. When we were growing up in Manchester that’s what you’d always hear at parties. There was a different cultural mix in Manchester to, say, the Balearic thing that was coming out of London at the time. It reflected that sound system culture.” Richard Sen, who produces and DJs under his own name and with Padded Cell, echoed this sentiment in an interview with the Independent: “I think the reggae sound system culture among the West Indian community and the working-class kids of the inner cities was a huge influence in the UK then, as it is today with dubstep and drum n bass.” Richard Sen recently released ‘This Ain’t Chicago’, a compilation album of early UK acid house tracks, on Strut. The tracks on the compilation document Britain’s earliest forms of DIY dance music, showing the roots of UK’s rich bass culture. One can feasibly draw a line between these original sounds and movements like garage, 8-bar grime and dubstep.

Annette – Dream 17 [1988]

The sound received exposure outside of the clubs through pirate radio stations and, to an extent, magazines like Mixmag and underground zines such as Boy’s Own and Ace Of Clubs. As with youth movements like punk, it was an extraordinarily creative time – and not only for music. In the words of music critic Simon Reynolds, writing in his book Energy Flash, “Apart from Boy’s Own, there was next to no fanzine documentation of the scene as it happened. People were too busy having fun. But it was a creative period for short-term artifacts like t-shirts, flyers and club design.” Danny Rampling, speaking to me over phone, described the creative flux that the movement offered, saying how it opened opportunities for young people to pursue creative careers that would not have been possible before: “If they wanted to be a DJ, that’s what people did. It created a whole way of life for people.”

As acid house grew bigger and bigger in the underground, it started to make waves outside of the clubs and into mainstream consciousness. The biggest moment so far came in April 1988, when Mark Moore, under the name S’Express, released Theme From S’Express, the first acid house record to top the UK charts. Theme From S’Express is a pop banger, but it bears little resemblance to the hypnotic and heavy sounds of the early Chicago records – there’s a 303 line, but that’s about it, with the rest of the song comprising of overblown and busy samples. Ed DMX, writing for FACT, describes his love of Chicago acid house because the “[s]tripped-down, mind-numbing repetition made tiny changes in the beats into a highlight, and all the 303 tweaks and burbles took centre stage because Chicago guys hadn’t seen fit to swamp their productions in piano and strings and so on. Sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes a track heavy.”

After seeing the success of tracks like Theme From S’Express and noticing the popular demand for acid house, record labels started to capitalise on the fad. Chart hits received clumsy acid house reworks in the same way that many hits of the early 1980s received extended 12” versions. Whilst many of these extended 12” mixes, particularly those by “edit service” groups like Razormaid! and Disconet, are sought out by record collectors today, the “acid house remix” fad does not command much of a cult following. It’s likely that it never will, with many of these remixes sounding incredibly dated and throwaway by today’s technological standards.

Petula Clark – Downtown (Acid Remix) [1989]

Acid house vs. the establishment

While it might sound like a teen movie plot, the events surrounding the birth of the acid house and rave scene in the UK were all too real. The Second Summer of Love had its parallels to the events of 1967 that it took its name from, a period of enormous social change in which many young people really started to question the social structures that they were born into and, like then, the ruling powers were startled into disruptive action. Disconnected and desperate, they were of a generation that simply did not understand what was happening.

As acid house grew, so did the need for venues, but it was impossible to get licensed premises that would allow partying all night. As such, abandoned warehouses started to be adopted for the parties, which grew in size to accommodate the number of people. The Sun and The Mirror ran fervent anti-acid campaigns, usually exaggerating the aspects of drugs and heightened sexuality at these parties, describing organisers as “acid barons” and “Mr. Big” characters. In November 1988, Radio One banned any reference to “acid” from their playlists, a move which perhaps only fuelled the craze. Tracks like D-Mob’s We Call It Acieed hit number three in the charts despite its ban (and despite the fact that it didn’t even contain a 303 or any “acieed” house elements). Eventually, Parliament got involved, and the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990 essentially criminalised acid house and free parties by levering hefty fines onto organisers.

D-Mob – We Call It Acieed [1988]

An article on Rave.org describes the impact of this hysteria: “If tabloid journalists had addressed the phenomenon of acid house and E in a reasonable way…then we might have a society where parents understood more about what their children were up to, and where misinformed kids didn’t die because they knew nothing about the risks of E, or because they had been scared into drinking too much water. Perhaps the evil acid barons aren’t the only villains.”

Acid today

Naturally, the movement continued to spread, with parties growing in size and organisers developing increasingly elaborate strategies for staging them and outwitting the law enforcement. After “rave” took off as a concept, dance music followed long and interesting trajectories that are simply too exhausting to go into here (it is worth googling “the orbital raves” for more information, though). But in terms of acid house, the dominance of the 303 started to dwindle by the early 1990s and the music started to change, incorporating breakbeats and becoming faster and darker. Acid house as it had been known was essentially over.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the end for acid though. The 303 is such an important instrument in dance music that it stayed alive and well up until today, albeit in different forms. With 303-emulating VSTs such as ABL2 and reproductions such as the x0xb0x sounding almost identical to the untrained ear, it will probably never die, in much the same way that the guitar will never die. Of course, this does present problems – namely, will people still be using the 303 in the same way that they are now in ten years time? Speaking in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Gerald Simpson (aka A Guy Called Gerald) said, “I feel like I’ve heard all these analogue acid house sounds before. I had this dream back then, like, we’re doing all this acid house now, what’s it gonna sound like in the year 2000? I thought by now we’d have some ultra-new, crazy sounds, not something that sounds like it’s 25 years old. I’m still waiting for us to get past that stage.”

Perhaps the acid sound hasn’t progressed much due to how big the sound has become. A pre-owned TB-303 has become so in-demand that it will set you back at least £1500 on eBay today – if someone were to invest this sort of money into the hardware, it would probably be to create the classic acid sound, not to experiment with new forms of expression. But there are some musicians today who are continuing to fulfil the promises of modernity that the 303 offered. 23-year-old Zane Reynolds hails from San Fernando Valley and has released records under the name SFV Acid on impeccable imprints such as UNO and 100% Silk. “My grandparents gave me 1000 bucks to save for a car,” Reynolds tells me over email, “and instead of getting a car, I got a 303.”

SFV Acid uses the same Roland hardware as the old masters but gets refreshingly new, non-imitative sounds out of it: “I was really inspired by a load of stuff, a total shmear of weirdness. There wasn’t really one specific thing that led me to make ‘acid’ music.” This weirdness translates to his own music, full of the hallmarks of acid house – the 303 squelch, clattering drum machine rhythms – but often feeling distinctly un-jacking, bearing as much resemblance to a DIY skater punk band as it does a Tyree Cooper record. Reynolds does not consider himself to be continuing any legacy of acid house producers, although he does feel an affinity with musicians like Lory D and Ceephax Acid Crew (“they make really expressive, beautiful, harsh stuff”), and it’s precisely this attitude that makes his music so invigorating. “I really like to mess around until ideas really show…when I start thinking ‘chill’ or ‘club banger’ is when the music really dies,” he writes. “I would like to think we could leave the labeling out of it. The 303 is just a quirk, an important one at that. But the intention is life, and through life comes being expressive. Let’s express ourselves, rather then having a ‘chill club banger’ agenda. Let’s keep the intention free………?……!!!!”

SFV Acid – Ashland Slumber [2012]

Acid house legacy: institutionalisation, re-exporting and the future

“i feel sorry for the kids of today………there will never be a time like the exploition of the acid seen agian……i would love to turn back the clock and do it all again”
xbobstarx, commenting on Kariya Let Me Love You For Tonight [1988]

For anybody that didn’t live through the initial acid and rave explosion, there is nothing more groan-eliciting than this type of rave nostalgia. The desire to “turn back the clock” seems at odds with the initial, revolutionary promise of acid house, and this conservative attitude is often coupled with a resentment towards a younger generation that the old ravers simply do not understand, a generation that they believe could not experience a time like that again. This outlook seems particularly prevalent to this figure of the old raver, moreso than the old rocker. It may be because the 1988-92 period was the last grand narrative in music, the last time that such large groups came together under one unified style of music and belief.

But it may also be nostalgia for a time where things felt hopeful – acid house did indeed have an initial promise of social revolution, a sense of personal liberation and freedom in the political climate it was born under. A Conservative government, unemployment, strikes, recession, privatisation, corporate greed, free market ideology, individualism, riots…is it any different today? Of course, The Sun may have gone from vilifying acid house to celebrating it with their recently launched Clubz section, and there have been DJ sets at the House Of Commons, but did acid house actually change anything? Or did it simply create the concept of ‘clubbing’ as a brand, one that can be sold to people as a commodity – keep your head down, don’t ask questions, live for the weekend and repeat?

Shoom recently celebrated 25 years since its birth. This follows a string of recent anniversary events, such as Channel 4’s recent, Idris Elba-fronted ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ documentary. This reflects the wider acceptance of what acid house started – many of the original ravers are now in commissioning positions, and wish to celebrate their youth – and has now accepted acid house as an institution. It could be seen as damaging to the newness of acid house, but Danny Rampling sees the Shoom reunion as both a celebration of the past and a reason to look to the future: “There are original innovators on the lineup alongside innovators of today…the scene was and is now about breaking new ideas, new music and new DJs, and embracing that.”

Richard Sen, too, sees this reflection as a positive: “I guess with all scenes and periods of youth culture, no one is going to completely recreate or cover everything as perfectly as it was before. There are always people who are unsung heroes who will not be documented. However, it can only be a good thing to try, the main reason being is to show a new generation who weren’t around at the time. The explosion of dance music culture and electronic music was bigger than anything before and has become a fact of life and big business now, so to celebrate the beginnings is only natural.”

One of the reasons it may be receiving such celebration now may be because the quarter-century anniversary coincides with its slow adoption in America. Whilst it is possible to criticise how corporate the newly-coined EDM scene is across the pond, and there is an irony in the fact that the music that they created has essentially been resold to them, the spirit of communion is still the underlying factor. To see how far the original mission of acid house has come, one only needs to look at this. “EDM is what acid house was to us, on a grander scale,” Danny Rampling tells me. “Maybe the music is more commercial, but looking at the upside of that, it’s bringing together a generation of people. And people don’t recognise that – they’re too critical. Some people won’t like me saying that, but it’s what I think.”

If you missed it first time around, DJ Pierre picked his top 10 acid house tracks for Dummy back in October.

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