From the Crate: Phuture “Acid Tracks”
The birth of our underground brand, Factory 93, not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. With that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crates series, we’re breaking out seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
Determining “firsts” in music is always a tricky proposition. Was it Eric Clapton who introduced the world to the wah-wah pedal in 1967, or Jimi Hendrix? Does Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On deserve credit as the first commercial record with a drum machine? Or does it share the prize with J.J. Cale’s Naturally, also released in December of 1971? There is less debate on record of the inaugural nature of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” when it comes to scratching records, but most people first heard the sound on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.”
When Chicago producer Earl “Spanky” Smith Jr. passed away in September of 2016—just a few months shy of the 30th anniversary of acid house—there was no question as to the primacy of his contribution. As one-third of Phuture with DJ Pierre and Herb J, Spank-Spank (as Smith was also known) invented both the sound of the scene, built around the screeching and squealing metallic squawk of the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, and the name of genre with the group’s 1986 debut record, “Acid Tracks.”
Of course, no artist—regardless of how inventive—is ever truly prescient about the future of music. Like all the previous innovations, “Acid Tracks” and acid house came about via a mix of originality, accident and enthusiasm.
By 1985, house music was thriving in Chicago. Named after the blend of East Coast disco and European electronic music played by Frankie Knuckles at local club the Warehouse since the late ‘70s, the music had evolved into a more rugged and boisterous “jacking” sound, thanks to the harder-edged mixing style and custom edits created by Ron Hardy for his weekly residency at the Music Box. Local producers—mostly young black and Latino men of limited means—began creating their own records in sparse bedroom studios, using cheap Japanese-manufactured drum machines and synthesizers that, by their nature, delivered raw and aggressive sounds that were hastily mixed onto tape to be delivered to DJs like Hardy to be played, hiss and all. At the same time, the daily lunchtime radio mix by DJ crew Hotmix 5 on WBMX was broadcasting the sound to a wider audience than just the clubbing faithful, enabling nascent house music labels like Trax to sell tens of thousands of copies locally.
It was into this sizzling scene that Phuture found themselves immersed, originally as regulars at the Music Box. Pierre, a fledgling DJ, was encouraged by Spanky to form a group and start making music. As the tale has been told by Pierre on multiple occasions, he was listening to a home-produced track by friend Jasper G when the bassline caught his attention. It was produced by a TB-303 synthesizer, a “failed” product manufactured between 1981 and 1984 by Roland, the Japanese company responsible for the popular TR-808 drum machine and Juno line of polyphonic synths. Pierre told Spanky about the silver box, who then went and bought a used one at a local pawnshop for $40. Pierre began playing with his new toy and soon discovered that by manually tweaking the various pitch and filter settings while the preprogrammed sequence played, the fabricated bass notes mutated into serrated tones that wiggled and screamed like a flurry of laser blasts.
The trio became instantly enamored with the new sound and quickly cut a track, “In Your Mind,” using a minimal setup of gritty machine drums and their new 303. Constructed of an hour-long jam, they edited it down to 10-plus minutes and delivered a cassette to Ron Hardy. That night, Hardy played the song four different times over the course of his 12-hour set. The first two attempts cleared the floor. The third saw the crowd warm up to the tune, and when it came on for the fourth and final time of the night, it was, according to an interview Pierre did for RBMA, complete bedlam:
“People just went crazy in that place. They didn’t even know what to do… They were jumping up and down. I will never forget this guy—he was lying on his back and kicking his legs up in the air [laughs], and I was like, ‘What’s he doing?’ I’ve never seen anyone react to a song like that.”
The track became a staple in Hardy’s sets, with fans resorting to bootlegging it on microcassette recorders they snuck into the club. Just as they had when calling Knuckles’ sound [ware]house music, heads began referring to the mystery tune as “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track,” referencing the caustic and psychedelic sound of the 303 melody.
In the coming months, Phuture would re-record the song in a proper studio, with Marshall Jefferson acting as producer (in the classic sense of the word) and mixing the track. Jefferson was already a star in the house music scene, having released “Move Your Body (the House-Music Anthem)” on Trax Records in 1986. Beyond success in the clubs of Chicago, Detroit and New York, Marshall and Trax began selling records in England. When “Acid Tracks” was released in 1987, it too became a hit in the UK, earning countless spins at clubs like Shoom in London and the Hacienda in Manchester. By 1988, the “acid house” scene (as the British press called it) was in full bloom.
The 303 became a staple in dance music, appearing on tens of thousands of tracks over the three decades since Phuture first fiddled with the knobs. And as the recent rise of a new generation of acid producers proves, it’s a sound that can still drive dancers out of their minds.
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