Strings of Life

A Chicago Deep House Top Ten

The phrase “hi-tech soul” is most often associated with Detroit, but Chicago’s much bigger house scene produced more than its share of basement masterpieces. It’s easy to lose sight of the pure, underground tracks released between 1985 and 1992 amongst a sea of commercial dance acts and acid. Thankfully a re-interest in techno’s roots has resulted in some long-overdue reissues. Here are my choices to illustrate the deep instrumental side of early house.

Mr. Fingers: “Mystery of Love (Dub Version)”

Mystery of Love label

Alleviated Records, 1985

It’s hard to narrow down my favorite Larry Heard tracks, yet his very first was also one of his sweetest. The dub version, also included on the Nuphonic compilation David Mancuso Presents The Loft, is spacey and beautiful, with ascending echoes over a smooth, unrelenting bassline. The effect is hypnotic and transcendent.

Mr. Fingers: “Can You Feel It”

Washing Machine label

from “Washing Machine,” Trax, 1986

An obvious choice, to be sure. Every track on this EP is beautiful, but best is the original, instrumental version of “Can You Feel It.” It has just the right amount of melancholy emotion to make the dance floor a deeper place.

Virgo: “Free Yourself”

Free Yourself label

Trax, 1986

This short-lived collaboration between Adonis, Marshall Jefferson, and Vince Lawrence is one of the most beautiful Trax EPs. The title track’s wavering strings would fit right in with Derrick May’s Transmat releases.

Joe R. Lewis: “Love Mystery”

Love Of My Own label

from “Love Of My Own,” Target Records, 1987

Original copies of this EP fetch over $200 on eBay, but the key tracks were recently bootlegged (by the aptly named Booton Records). My favorite is actually “Love Mystery,” with its swelling strings and child-like bassline. There’s something pure and innocent about this one.

Laurent X: “12 A.M.”

Machines label

from “Machines,” House Nation Records, 1988

While better known for its A-side, the dark acid-electro masterpiece “Machines,” I want to focus on “12 A.M.” Strings fall over not-too-low bass stabs and perfect analogue drums. It all flows seamlessly into “Drowning in a Sea of House,” which is not quite as beautiful despite a fuller bassline. Perhaps the man screaming, “Help!” is too distracting.

Virgo Four: “In a Vision”

Do You Know Who You Are? label

from “Do You Know Who You Are?” Trax, 1989

Everything about this track is beautiful, from the most delicate blips, to the lush melodic strings and ever-changing old-school percussion. The recent Belgian re-issue has criminally bad sound quality, but Radical Records licensed the EP when it first came out, and both the vinyl and CD issues sound great if you can find them.

Ron Trent: Altered States

The Afterlife label

from “The Afterlife,” Warehouse Records, 1990

Thirteen minutes of luxurious yet lo-fi strings stretching into infinity. What more can be said?

3.2.6.: “Magic Fingers”

Just Like Heaven label

from “Just Like Heaven,” Dance Mania, 1991

Listen to those synths sing! This would fit in with a Detroit set if it didn’t sound so muffled. I have a copy that looks pristine, yet it still sounds like it was recorded to a cassette tape and the record scuffed with sandpaper. “Love Is…” is in the same vein, but even wonkier.

Brian Harris: “Wizdom”

Crime Stories label

from Crime Stories, Chicago Underground, 1992

Something about the bassline on this one grabs me every time. The keys are hindered by recording quality, but there’s a great moment half-way through when a new melody kicks in.

G Strings: “The Land of Dreams”

The Motivation Songs label

from The Motivation Songs, G Strings, 1990

A somewhat mysterious production, this was relatively unknown until recently. The bassline is wonderfully thick, the synths surprisingly delicate with their slight waver. All of the instrumentals on this EP are good, though it sounds like they were mastered direct from a cassette tape. Beware of bootlegs.

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  1. Nice list with some obvious choices as well as some stone-cold classics. I would also add Sweet D’s title track from the 1986 EP “Thank Ya” ( – one of my favorite house records ever.

  2. i so remember those tracks and those days. it was about the music. and i wasn’t aware of the revolution as it was happening.
    but this was and is a revolution.
    shake shakir

  3. Well said Shake! I’m honored you posted. I’m a big fan of your music.

  4. as much as i love the music from Detroit in a major way, this old chicago shit is the most inspirational to me. its so lo-fi and beautiful, as if they gloried in the DIY ethic instead of the constant pursuit of “professional sound quality” that plagues modern music. and they just put their souls into those grooves, the bad pressings almost makes it sound better to me as it increases the flaws which make the beauty all the more obvious. good post!

  5. “but this was and IS a revolution.
    shake shakir”
    emphasis added by me! i feel like so much of what happens in house music is just not even related to this revolution that is still going strong……

  6. It’s funny, but I had a lot of trouble coming up with a sub-title for this piece. I’ve been buying lots of old records, and these ten tracks obviously seem connected, but it’s hard to describe why. I tried the adjectives “sweetest” and “deepest,” but they made people think of vocal tracks. Ultimately, I think these records embody a style that hasn’t yet been named. Theo Parrish, Jamal Moss, and Omar-S definitely seem related. Maybe “lo-tech soul”?

  7. perhaps controversially, i find the best thing to call all of this stuff is “good house music” 😉
    seriously though, trying to call it anything else really ends up failing on many levels. obviously its all better than most house music out there, but it is house first and foremost.

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