What is house music and what types of house music are there? The answer may be more complex than you realize, but before we get to that let’s go back to the beginning and ask where did house music start? The House music genre was born in Chicago in the 1980s, when a local record shop started categorizing certain records into a “House” section, an abbreviated version of the word Warehouse.
This section was for records that were being played by DJ Frankie Knuckles at the legendary Warehouse parties. It has since gone on to become one of the most loved genres of music around the world, spawning many subgenres that still dominate DJs record bags to this day. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of house music that have resonated with fans worldwide, delving into their histories and highlighting what makes each one stand out.
When thinking about house music and its definition, we must first look back and see where it came from, and what factors influenced its creation.
In this article
- History of House Music
- Elements of House Music
- Top 5 House Music Artists
- The most popular subgenres of House Music
History of House Music
What is house music without its extensive history? Before we jump into the many sub genres of house music, we should start by asking when did house music start and where did house music originate. Let’s take a look at the timeline of key events that got us to where we are now.
- 1977: Disco’s production and songwriting style leads the way to dance music becoming a significant force in the music industry.
- 1981: Chicago’s Warehouse club, where house music is said to have gotten its name, opens its doors. DJ Frankie Knuckles, known as the “Godfather of House”, starts his residency. This is arguably where house music originated.
- 1984: First house tracks like “On and On” by Jesse Saunders are released, setting a template for the genre.
- 1987: House music breaks into the UK market, leading to the rise of “acid house” and rave culture.
- 1990s: Subgenres like progressive house, deep house, and tech house emerge, diversifying the house sound.
- 2000s-Present: The different subgenres of popular house music continue to evolve, incorporating elements from other genres, crossing over into the mainstream and producing international hits.
Elements of House Music
So that’s the history of house music in a nutshell, but from a production point of view, what is House Music? When trying to categorize house music, its definition may be more tricky than you thought, but there are some key factors that you’ll find across all sub genres of house. Let’s have a look at the basic musical elements that have become mainstays of mainstream house music history.
Central to house music’s groove is the 4/4 beat, often referred to as “four to the floor.” This rhythmic pattern places a strong kick drum beat on every count of the bar, creating a consistent and danceable pulse. The unrelenting 4/4 beat is what keeps dancers moving and is a hallmark of not only the house genre, but a majority of club based electronic music from trance and techno to modern pop music and beyond.
For many house music fans it’s not the vocal line or melody that lodges in our head for days, but the bassline. This is where any good house track gets its groove from. Kick started with a 303 bass synth by Chicago producers like DJ PIerre and Marshall Jefferson, the bassline has become all encompassing, and writing a catchy bassline is sometimes the first place producers start when coming up with a new track. It’s that central.
Synthesizers, especially iconic models like the Roland TB-303, Juno-106, and Korg M1, have been instrumental in creating some of house music’s most revered tunes. It’s hard to make a list of classic dance tracks without hearing that M1 organ sound or a squelchy acid line from a 303. The Roland JP-8000 is another mainstay of 90s dance music, which heralded the shift into Trance around that time.
Arguably sampling is as important to the history of many different types of house music, as the 303 or 909 machines. Digging into rare vinyl to find snippets of sound to build your own track around is the cornerstone of not just House but Hip Hop, D’nB and many other electronic forms of music. Here’s a few of our favorite classic house tunes and the samples they used;
- “Music Sounds Better with You” by Stardust - Sampled: “Fate” by Chaka Khan.
- “One More Time” by Daft Punk - Sampled: “More Spell on You” by Eddie Johns.
- “Get Get Down” by Paul Johnston - Sampled: “Me and the Gang” by Bohannon
- “Atom Funk” by Trankilou - Sampled: “Tango Hustle” by The Kay-Gees
- “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)” by The Bucketheads - Sampled: “Street Player” by Chicago.
- “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” by Modjo - Sampled: “Soup For One” by Chic.
- “American Dream” by Jakatta - Sampled: “Theme from ‘American Beauty’” by Thomas Newman.
- “My My My” by Armand Van Helden - Sampled: “Comin’ Apart” by Gary Wright.
For a further dive into the world of sampling check out our superb Guide to Sampling on our site.
One unmistakable element of house music is its use of vocals. From tracks that use chopped up vocal samples to full vocal performances, so many house music tracks have vocals front and centre. It’s this strong connection with vocalists and vocal performance that saw many underground house music tracks cross over from the club to primetime commercial radio. Tunes like Ultra Nate’s”Free” and Inner City’s “Good Life” were massive crossover tunes that wouldn’t have hit so hard as instrumentals.
Even though the omnipresent 4/4 kick drum dominates house and all its subgenres, it’s the percussion elements that really bring the funk and groove. Producers can really go to town here using hi hats, cymbals, bongos, claves, and so much more, to bring life into the top end of the mix. Through the 80s and 90s it was commonplace to find live percussionists in clubs to compliment the DJ, such was the importance of its sound. Producers who occupy the darker end of house tend to use synths and samples as percussion elements, avoiding the more standard percussion sounds.
Influence on modern music
What is house music if not one of the key influences found in modern popular music? There’s no doubt that from the late 1980s the influence of house music can be heard across a varied section of popular music. Here’s the key talking points from the house music timeline, where its influence crossed over to the mainstream.
- Late 1980s: Inspired by a holiday to Ibiza, DJs Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold bring House music to the UK, leading to the rise of the “Second Summer of Love” and the rise of club culture.
- Early 1990s: The emergence of the “Madchester” scene in the UK, where indie bands like The Stone Roses, New Order and the Happy Mondays incorporate house rhythms into their sound.
- Mid-1990s: Pop artists like Madonna start to incorporate house elements into their tracks, and producers like John “Jellybean” Benitez and David Moralez are in high demand to provide production support or remixes for many huge pop artists.
- Late 1990s: The birth of “French Touch” with artists like Daft Punk, blending house with disco and funk influences. During this era, no disco tune was left untouched, as sampling took front and centre in both clubs and the pop charts.
- 2000s: The rise of Electro House saw artists like Swedish House Mafia influence chart-topping artists from Lady Gaga to the Black Eyed Peas.
- 2010s: House subgenres, especially tropical house, gain mainstream attention with hits from artists like Kygo and DJ Snake.
Top 5 House Music Artists
There’s no way that we’re not going to take some flack here, as any top 5 list is always going to be subjective, but here are the five artists that we believe have had the most influence on the different genres of house music over the decades.
1980s: Frankie Knuckles
Often hailed as the “Godfather of House,” Frankie’s pioneering work in Chicago during the 80s, including tracks like “Your Love,” kick-started the whole house revolution.
1990s: Masters at Work (Louie Vega & Kenny Dope)
This duo transformed the 90s house scene, blending Latin, Afro, and soulful sounds, producing classics like “To Be in Love” and heading up the much lauded Nu Yorican Soul supergroup.
2000s: Daft Punk
With their fusion of house, disco, and techno, hits like “Digital Love” and “One More Time” from their “Discovery” album became anthems of the era, and spawned a million disco sampling club hits and pop tunes.
2010s: Jamie Jones
A frontrunner of the modern tech-house movement, Jones’ Hot Creations label and tracks like “Hungry for the Power” brought house music to a new generation of clubbers.
2020s: Peggy Gou
With her eclectic mix of house, techno, and electro, Gou has become a leading figure in the contemporary scene, known for tracks like “Starry Night.” Just don’t mention all the corporate sponsorships!
The most popular subgenres of House Music
Many different types of House music have become successful sub genres over the years, some that have stood the test of time for over four decades. Here’s a few that we think have had the biggest impact across the years.
Known for its slower tempo and soulful vocals, as well as importing different types of chords from other genres like Jazz, deep house has never been particularly edgy, but has remained popular for the last four decades! Artists like Larry Heard (aka Mr. Fingers), Kerri Chandler, St Germain, and Moodymann, are legends of the house music scene, and their productions still get spins in clubs around the world.
Tech house bridges the gap between the soulful grooves of house and the minimal beats of techno. It clocks in at a slower tempo than techno but has maintained it’s dark percussive edge and sub basslines, but also combines it with the deep grooves and the cut up vocal samples of house music. Artists like Hot Since 82, Jamie Jones, Bushwacka and Patrick Topping have kept the genre alive over the decades.
Disco house connects the uplifting grooves of 1970s disco with the jackin’ beats of house music. Sampling is front and centre here, with cut up loops from disco tracks laid over chunky beats and basslines. Some of the biggest house artists in the world championed the disco house sound including Joey Negro, Dimitri from Paris, Daft Punk, and Armand Van Helden.
Championed by the likes of Sasha and John Digweed, progressive house was a mainstay of the superclubs in the 90s and early 2000s. With extended breakdowns and long build ups, the genre had as much connection to electronica from the 70s and ambient, than it did with many types of house music. If someone in the 90s said that a DJ took them on “a journey”, they were probably playing progressive house. The genre still exists in various guises, kept going by artists like Deadmau5, Eric Prydz and Hernán Cattáneo.
Acid house, born in the late ’80s, is known for its squelchy sounds produced by the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer. The genre often features repetitive, hypnotic basslines and a raw, underground feel. Key figures in the acid house movement include Phuture, who released the seminal “Acid Tracks,” as well as artists like Josh Wink, Hardfloor and A Guy Called Gerald.
Electro house is known for its punchy beats, distorted basslines, and catchy synth hooks. Often more aggressive than other types of house music subgenres, one of its pioneering elements was the massive drop, which is commonplace in EDM, dubstep and many pop productions. Arguably electro house was one of the most influential sub genres on popular music, as artists like Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta cut their teeth in electro house. The 2000s saw electro house take a huge leap in popularity with festival crowds, leading to a new wave of electro house artists like Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner, and Benny Benassi. Arguably electro house paved the way for contemporary EDM and massive festivals like Tomorrowland.
One of the sub genres that came ready for the pop charts right out of the box. Its sun soaked summer vibes made it hugely popular with holiday destinations like Ibiza, with day time sets flooded with tropical house anthems by the likes of Kygo, Thomas Jack and Sam Feldt. Tropical house became identifiable through using sounds like marimbas and steel drums, sounds not commonly found in many other house sub genres. It was never trying to be underground and probably fair better with fans because of that.
Emerging from the ashes of UK Garage and Wonk, bass house combines elements of other UK based urban genres and non house music styles, such as the wobbly basslines of Drum n Bass and the drops of dubstep. Championed by the likes of Jauz, Brohug, Joyryde, and Tchami, bass house is dark gritty music for dark clubs. Not one for the Ibiza pool party.
So the answer to the question, what is house music, is more complex that you might imagine. House music and its definition covers a wide range of sub genres and is one of the most enduring cultural movements of all time, showing no signs of slowing down, with new subgenres appearing every year, and new generations of producers ready to push the boundaries and mash styles like no one has done before.
On our site we have thousands of hours of video tutorials created by some of house music’s best producers, covering many of the different genres of house music, showing the tricks they use to create their own unique take on many different house music subgenres. Check them out here!