Austin's House Music Scene Clings to the African-American Community That Birthed It
House music rose to prominence from Chicago’s black music community and hangs on here in its original form
This past November, the North Door hosted house music history. A more electronic and minimalist offshoot of the disco revolution preceding it, the genre counts among its late-Eighties pioneers Chicago's Ron Trent, who debuted in Austin playing a three-hour set showcasing his deeply soulful style. Local dance community purveyors hadn't witnessed such a master class since house originator Frankie Knuckles graced the DJ booth at Kingdom in 2013.
For Trent, diversity ruled the venue floor. Typically, crowds in Austin are predominantly white and the sound reflects that in mechanical tech house, Burning Man-style hippie EDM bangers, and dungeon techno. By contrast, the visiting Windy City purveyor still shatters the stereotypes of electronic music, employing live instrumentation, vocals ranging from gospel to spoken word, and jazzy drums that skitter all around four-on-the-floor kick drums.
And like the majority of modern American music, the genre originated in the African-American community.
That can be a tough subject to address, but also a valid one in Austin's small black house music community. DJ Shani Hebert – who is a woman of color, a Chicago native, and opened for Trent's show on E. Fifth – attended her first rave on her 17th birthday in 1995 and followed up by sneaking into clubs and hosting a college radio show on Loyola's WLUW called The Groove Temple. Moving to Austin in 2010 from a city that's 32% black and where streets are named after house music legends, she was shocked by the size of Austin's scene.
"I play the black side of electronic music, or the electronic side of black music, depending on how you take it," she says. "When I got to Austin, I would go to these black parties and it'd always be hip-hop, R&B, and trap. I don't really connect with that."
In her hometown, house music remains a given. People debate its origins, but not the club that birthed it. Helmed by Frankie Knuckles, who's credited with evolving Seventies dance music into hard-hitting-but-expressive electronic music, the Warehouse (1977-83) prompted patrons into area record stores to ask for music featured at the club – "house" music. In the mid-Eighties, the style morphed into dozens of subgenres, while spreading internationally and paving the way for today's mainstream EDM culture.
In Austin, this style of house music flourished behind Jamon Jaleki Horne, aka J.A.M.O.N., who lost a battle with cancer in 2017. A veteran of almost every club in town, his import to the scene prompted Mayor Steve Adler to proclaim Oct. 19 as "J.A.M.O.N. 'Godfather of Austin House' Day."
"Jamon was the first ATX DJ to make me feel welcomed," says Hebert. "He had such a great spirit when it came to the craft of DJing. When someone as amazing as he transitions, we have to keep the torch lit of deep house. He'd have it no other way."
Despite Horne's success, his style of deep Chicago house countered Austin's overall ethos for the format, which bends toward weirder, psychedelic sounds. The huge crossover between Burning Man EDM and dance music in communities such as Cherry Cola Dog makes for a perfect example. Far eclipsing jazzier Chicago styles in popularity, modern house music mostly eschews its Midwestern roots.
"I don't think people are exposed to [classic house] at all," offers Hebert. "It's not just bleeps and bloops and big drops. You can have just drums, and not dubstep drums, but drums that are Latin, jazzy, African. Then you slap a vocal on it. It's a wrap."
Because house evolved so expansively, genre lines blur even amongst DJs. For starters, the word "underground" retains no meaning at all. One man's house is another man's techno, and EDM has become a catchall for anything with a drum machine. In the black community, those misconceptions are no different.
"House always had a bad connotation," posits Charles Moon (aka Charles Mxxn), a DJ whose collective Thank You for Sweating throws DIY events combining dance music and hip-hop and draws diverse crowds. "Now it's transitioning. Hip-hop and R&B are starting to have elements of house."
"Growing up, I liked house music and techno and Daft Punk," says Stefon Osae, who DJs as part of Nu Wave, a group that, like Thank You for Sweating, incorporates house into other styles of black music. "It's been generalized as a white people thing, but back in the day, it started from black people branching out from disco."
"If you like house music, you like hip-hop, but if you like hip-hop, you don't necessarily like house music," says Q Davidson, who performs as DJ Q.
Part of the problem is exposure. Whereas hip-hop, funk, and soul come well-represented on radio, you won't find much house music.
"We need a station that can actually cater to hip-hop, electro, house, all in one," says Toren Morrison, yet another black house DJ who plays the sound of Chicago. "We don't have that here in Austin."
Up north, classic house tracks pump out of car stereos.
"I went to Chicago a few years ago and was downtown when this Cadillac rolled up," recounts Thurman Jackson Jr., another longtime Austin house DJ. "It was all candy painted. They were blasting Cajual Records. I was just frozen looking at them."
Asked about the challenges to building a local African-American house music community, responses most often elicited a laugh, followed by a schooling in demographics and gentrification.
"What is [Austin's] population, a million?" shrugs Davidson. "We're eight percent? That's 80,000 people. Out of that, how many of them grew up with house music?"
"I own a moving company, and every week I move a black family out of Austin. They're saying it's the taxes, the rent, nobody will give us a job on the west side of I-35," says Morrison.
"House music is community-oriented," states Keyheira Keys, who manages artists and works as a program development manager with cultural preservation nonprofit Six Square. "Because the black community is shrinking so much, it's hard to have viable visibility."
And beyond pure numbers, geography also becomes an issue, points out Vincent Banks. As DJ R.O.C.K.M.A.N., he organizes a quarterly party at Plush called Blaximum Overdrive, featuring DJs of color playing all genres. Banks also helms the Friday Night Get Down at Dozen Street, a venue with a special appeal to Austin's black community. Unfortunately, that space remains one of the few.
"It's hard to have an all-black DJ scene because of gentrification," he says. "It's hard to pull people of color into Downtown. If you get that, it's going to be in Pflugerville or Round Rock."
"One thing I like about Dozen Street," relates Christian D. Nelson, who produces and DJs as Khris Paradise, "is that everyone's willing to talk. Everyone's having a good time. It's the music, it's the environment, it's the people."
"If I were to throw a house music event, it would be at Sahara [Lounge]," says Keys. "That's an example of creative place keeping."
The space opened its doors in 1962 as Lincoln Drive In, operated as TC's Lounge for 33 years, then transitioned to Sahara in 2011, but it aims to maintain much of the original character as owned, in part, by Golden Dawn Arkestra's Topaz McGarrigle.
"There are safe spaces in Austin, but I find there aren't spaces that are intentionally for people of color," says Anita Obasi, who founded the Unbounded Agency to help organize events for people of color and the LGBTQ community. "Honestly, it's not even just dance music. It's also hip-hop, unless a commercial artist is coming into town. It pales in comparison to other metropolitan cities, even in Texas."
Marketing to Chicago house connoisseurs remains a challenge in that much of the demographic now prioritizes more adult endeavors. Given the style's roots in the late Eighties and early Nineties, several DJs interviewed herein are over 40. Legends of the genre command huge fees, but their audience can be hard to reach.
"When the opportunity to book Frankie Knuckles came up, we did whatever we could do to make it happen," says Ian Orth, marketing director at Margin Walker Presents and the promoter behind Learning Secrets parties. "The crowd was very mixed, but primarily older. A lot of people emailing about tickets were former Austinites who live in San Antonio. It's just a completely different universe from a marketing perspective. It was people we'd never sold a ticket to before."
Even outlets that do market specifically to black audiences have difficulty promoting dance music. DJ Shani lists her events on Soulciti.com, a local African-American community culture site, but they're outliers on the calendar.
"It's very rare to see dance music," says Monae Miller, a music writer for the site. "A lot of the black community are confused when it comes to EDM or house music. I do see the gay African-American community gravitating toward it, but most of the other events are R&B and hip-hop."
"That sometimes can be a barrier, the assumption that it's only for gay people," says DJ Shani.
"In African-American discourse, there's definitely disdain on homosexuality," says Obasi. "There's homophobia for sure, but I've never experienced homophobia in a dance space."
"It started out in the gay community, but now it's worldwide for everyone," says Brian Adams, who DJs as Knos and organizes monthly house music party Midwest Sessions at Plush.
"I like the idea that these distinctions dissolve when you come in the door, that we can fit under one house," says Brett Johnson, a veteran Austin house DJ who hosts the weekly Secret Garden party at Ah Sing Den, which counts nearly every DJ quoted in this article as a guest.
Despite roots in any one culture, dance music's overall purpose is to bring people together under one groove.
"Every black person I tell that I throw an annual black history month party, their faces light up, even if they don't know a lot about house," says Hebert. The music may have been born in a certain tribe, but it's an art form that builds bridges, not walls, among the African-American community and beyond.
She sums up that idea in four simple words: "Music is fucking music."
DJ Shani Herbert presents United Vol. 4: A Black History Month Boogie, starring Blue Nefertiti of Les Nubians, with support from DJ I Wanna Be Her, at the Sahara Lounge on Friday, Feb. 8.
About the House, Under one Roof
Abstrakt (Plush, every fourth Thursday)
Club Vegas (Hotel Vegas, last Thursdays)
Feedback (Plush, every fourth Sunday)
Learning Secrets (Last Straw, last Thursdays)
Midwest Sessions (Plush, every third Thursday)
Secret Garden (Ah Sing Den, Thursdays)
Third Owl Club (Drafting Room, every third Sunday)
HOUSE CREWS TO FOLLOW
The Groove Temple
The Nu Wave
Thank You for Sweating
MORE HOUSE DJS
DJ Wet Male