Words: Ed DMX
I’ve always had a problem with genres; I usually fail to grasp what it is that distinguishes one from the next. It took months for me to understand that hardcore rave was different to techno because of the breakbeats. To me it all sounded like a unified thing that definitely wasn’t hip-hop or jazz, and I wasn’t really motivated to get a grip on the finer details. I loved it all.
So how do you define "acid house"? So much has been written already and I’m surprised FACT hasn’t already had an acid top twenty from someone with more cred than me. For the sake of this list I’m using an arbitrary definition of "house music with acid in it".
Acid: it’s the sound made by a Roland TB303. Zillions of articles and compilation sleevenotes have held forth on the history of the little silver box designed in Japan by Tadao Kikumoto that accidentally spawned a whole genre of music. So I won’t go into that too deeply, you probably know what a 303 is and what it sounds like, if not then listen to any of the records below and feel the squelch.
As far as "house music" goes, I mean music characterised by a four-to-the-floor kick-drum beat, made to be played at Chicago’s Warehouse club, and music directly descended from that stuff. For me, 99% of acid house is from Chicago. I won’t include earlier TB303 tracks like Alexander Robotnick’s ‘Problems D’Amour’ or Ice T’s ‘Reckless’, nor will I include Belgian new beat tracks, which I see as coming from a slightly different lineage. Because of my own feeling of what constitutes "house" I won’t include banging techno tracks with distortion such as Richie Hawtin’s early classics on Probe or the awesome acid bangers that constituted a good deal of Underground Resistance’s early catalogue. But I do include one UK track that was inspired by the Chicago sound, and there would be more UK stuff if this was a top fifty instead of a top twenty.
Acid: it’s the sound made by a Roland TB303.
In an important way, acid house was a UK scene. Again, many words have been written about the summers of 1988 and 1989, and you can Google "second summer of love" if you need a refresher. Even though nearly all the best records were made in Chicago, the music took off in a big way over here, it was massively popular, much imitated, loved by clubbers and ravers and misunderstood by the media. Lots of Chicago tracks were only released over here. Sometimes amazing tracks (like Pierre’s ‘Box Energy’) were only available as album cuts on poorly-pressed UK complations, others like Charles B’s ‘Lack Of Love’ got proper 12" vinyl pressings in the UK but were never released in the USA.
My first acid house record was a UK one, Perfectly Ordinary People’s ‘Theme From P.O.P.’. I wasn’t really aware of the distinction between UK & Chicago tunes or the geographic origins of the sound. I knew some Chicago house hits like Steve Silk Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’ but it wasn’t until early 1992 that I got educated about original acid house on a trip to Brick Lane Market in Bethnal Green. In those days Brick Lane market was mostly a place to find people selling things like a single shoe, or a dead person’s dentures, or possibly a nicked mountain bike, but nestling among all the junk I came across two boxes of brand new dead stock records selling for a couple of quid each. In one box were copies of the Jack Trax compilation album Acid House and in the other, the Westside double LP We Call It Hallucinates. I snapped them up, took them home and got submerged in the sounds of Phuture, Armando, Liddell Townsell and the rest. The music was similar to the UK acid stuff I knew but with all the cheesy "commercial" elements removed. Stripped-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.
It was hard to narrow this list down to twenty tracks and of course lots of classics had to be left out but these are definitely twenty of the all-time top forty! I gave myself some arbitrary limitations as detailed above, and didn’t include anything more recent than 1989, not for any good reason, but just to help me narrow down the selection. The track descriptions get a bit repetitive but that’s the nature of the sound.
Nearly all these tracks were released in 1988, and I could easily have listed another fifty. Can you imagine if this many great records came out in 2009? Imagine how much money you’d spend if you found yourself in a record shop in 1988 with a couple of hours until the time machine brought you back to the future…
Ed DMX is best known as boss of Breakin’ Records and for his work as DMX Krew, releasing on labels like Rephlex and Ersatz Audio. Visit dmxkrew.com for more info and to download his brilliant radio podcasts.
01: DJ PIERRE
(from ACID TRAX VOL.2, 1988)
‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture isn’t in this list. It was probably the track that gave the genre its name, but it’s nowhere near as good as this, DJ Pierre’s finest moment. It was only properly released on 12" a couple of years ago, after languishing for many years on a compilation called Acid Trax Volume 2 that was pressed too quietly to play out in a club. The track features a pumping, constantly shifting 303 line over hectic TR808 drums and a weird sizzling noise that comes in and out, and that’s it. It’s at a very high tempo for a house track of this time. I can only squeeze in one track by each of the great producers really, so aux. honours go to ‘Fantasy Girl’ by Pierre’s Pfantasy Club, and many other greats that DJ Pierre produced or co-produced, but ‘Box Energy’ is the greatest. I DJ’d with Pierre in around 2002 and he played awful tunes like ‘Lady Hear Me Tonight’. Afterwards I went over and said, "Thanks for Acid House, mate," or words to that effect, and he replied, "That was a long time ago." Not interested. Shame really. Anyway, nuff respect.
02: SLEEZY D
‘I’VE LOST CONTROL’
If Pierre’s ‘Acid Trax’ was the first track to use the word "acid" and christen the style, the "Space Mix" of Sleezy D and Marshall Jefferson’s ‘I’ve Lost Control’ was the first proper acid house track on vinyl as far as I know. In a similar vein to "Box Energy" we hear a 303 in square-wave mode over TR808 beats, this time with a scary pitched-down vocalist losing control over the top. Marshall Jefferson did loads of excellent stuff but this is the most acid one and it’s really intense.
(from ACID HOUSE, JACK TRAX 1988)
In 1987, Armando Gallop released an early acid stormer on Westbrook Records entitled ‘Land Of Confusion’. Once again the formula was the same but this time the drum machine was a TR707 giving a more angular. jerky feel to the beat in contrast to the more rounded analogue vibe of the 808. On the 1988 Acid House compilation is this remake ‘Confusion’s Revenge’ which ramps up the trippiness a few degrees by putting everything through a massive warping flanger and adding a great smurf-rap all about the story of acid. He created several other absolute classics too, such as ‘Downfall’ and ‘Overload’.
04: BAM BAM
‘WHERE’S YOUR CHILD’
The label that released ‘Land Of Confusion’ belonged to a guy named Chris Westbrook, better known as Bam Bam. This track is his finest hour, a rather slow-paced dark acid tune,
th pitched down vocals, satanic laughter and smashing glass sounds leading into a driving 303 line over a steady 808 beat. Bam Bam released this and other amazing tracks on Westbrook but my copy’s on the UK label Desire.
05: CHARLES B
‘LACK OF LOVE’
Another track released in the UK by Desire, and never pressed in the USA, this is the only proper song in this list. It’s got a real vocal sung in a normal un-effected voice by a human, and the beat changes in different sections, there are even some piano chords. I suppose it’s quite close to the UK acid sound of acts like Perfectly Ordinary People and SLF who had a far less minimal approach to production than the Chicago originators. But it also has a great big squelchy 303 bassline all the way through and it always fills the floor when you DJ it. It’s my favourite production by Adonis, who did loads of great stuff, most famously ‘No Way Back’ all the way back in 1986, but also some great simple acid tunes as Jack Frost & The Circle Jerks – just check ‘Clap Me’, ‘Two The Max’ or ‘Shout’ for example.
06: MR FINGERS
Here’s another artist who released on Desire, specifically his band Fingers Inc’s monster hit ‘Can You Feel It’, which was issued with an acappella over the top taken from an obscure 1987 release by Rhythm Controll. Jack Trax also released the same track with a Martin Luther King speech over the top. I wonder why they couldn’t leave it alone? The original instrumental was pretty amazing. Anyway I’m supposed to be talking about ‘Acid Attack’ which is not Larry Heard’s most emotional track but it’s his most acid moment, comprising an unhinged 303 pattern that is not a whole number of bars in length, so it gradually drifts around in timing relative to the drums. The rest of the track is just some beats from a TR707 and some conga samples in the background, that’s it. Simple and head-spinningly good.
08: 808 STATE
(from NEWBUILD, CREED, 1988)
Before Gerald Simpson left 808 State and became ‘A Guy Called…’ he helped them create the first and possibly the only UK acid house tracks worthy of comparison with those from Chicago. Given how badly 808 fell off after his departure – especially in comparison to the strength of his early solo classics such as ‘Voodoo Ray’ and ‘Blow Your House Down’ – it’s easy to imagine that he probably made this track more or less solo. This is a bit more layered than Chicago tunes of the era but still minimal and trippy as you like. 808 State also did some good acid tracks under the name Lounge Jays, and all their best stuff has been re-issued by Rephlex. There are other great UK acid tunes like Ecstasy Club’s ‘Jesus Loves The Acid’ but there’s no 303 in that one so it’s consigned to the margins of this list.
08: COMING DOWN BAND
‘SLOW MO ACID’
(from ACID TRAX VOL.3, NEEDLE, 1988)
So I planned to not have more than one track per artist in this list, but I put this one in without ever checking who actually made it. It’s a fairly obscure track from Acid Trax Volume 3, once again just nice TB303, this time two contrasting patterns in different parts of the song, with some slightly distorted TR707 drums underneath. Just now I googled the names of the writers of the track, N. Jones and E. Smith. It turns out that N. Jones is DJ Pierre and E. Smith is Fast Eddie so that explains the awesomeness of this track.
09: K ALEXI
(from ‘ALL FOR LEE SAH’, TRANSMAT, 1989)
Acid house was a Chicago thing and not much acid came out of Detroit unless it was something on KMS or Express remixed by Mike "Hitman" Wilson (who was from Chicago) or else the banging acid techno of UR et al a few years later. This record was released by a Detroit company – Derrick May’s seminal Transmat label – but it was made by a Chicago native, Keith Alexi Shelby. Distorted, simple and dark, with an extremely minimal 303 line and K Alexi’s trademark thing of stopping the drum machine and starting it again out of time so you can’t easily mix the record with another one. This is the only record on this list from 1989 apart from…
10: CODE 3
‘CODE-OF-ACID’ (CODE-OF ACID MIX)
(INTERNATIONAL LATIN HOUSE, 1989)
An obscure and sought-after uptempo tune with a nice female rap over the top of a stuttering 808 beat, one-note 303 pulse and a bouncy square bassline. Quite simple but actually with a lot more going on than most acid tracks – at least two more synths and a vocal besides the usual drum machine and 303 combination! This track is on the B-side of a freestyle track with terrible vocals and the record is sought-after by freestyle collectors as well as acid house ones. Regardless of the trainspotter appeal, ‘Code-Of-Acid’ is plain and simply a great tune. Just don’t play the A-side if you ever get your hands on a copy.
11: DA POSSE
‘IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT’ (ACID MIX)
Here’s another nice acid tune with a female vocal, this time the vocalist is singing (in a totally different key to the 303) about… you guessed it, acid house. Da Posse was a group of four people including Maurice (see below) and Hula, both of whom released some serious solo jams. I couldn’t fit Hula in this list so please check out his classic "Hot Hands". "In The Heat Of The Night" features a few different contrasting acid lines, and the drums are enhanced with some nice TR727 latin percussion sounds, and it’s their best acid track, although "Searchin’ Hard" comes a reasonably close second. They also did a few non-acid house tracks that are great as well as some terribly misguided attempts at RnB pop vocals.
‘THIS IS ACID’
This is kind of the theme song of acid house, Maurice from Da Posse rapping through a nice pitch-shift effect over a slowly growing acid line and a funky and crisp 808 beat with nice congas and tasteful use of the 808 cowbell as heard all over Whitney Houston records of the era. On the same EP on Trax Records is another great downbeat spoken-word acid tune called "Feel The Mood" and the immature and smutty ‘I Got A Big Dick’. Overall a superb EP!
13: LIDELL TOWNSELL
‘JACK THE HOUSE’
Also on Trax, this time from a five track EP. My copy’s got the wrong labels but I’m pretty sure "Jack The House" is the title. Most Chicago tunes feature the TR707 or TR808 drum machines, but this one uses a TR909 which is much more commonly heard in Detroit Techno of the era and gives the record a different, harder sound. I’m guessing Lidell & Tyree shared the same 909 because they seem to be the only Chicago guys who used one. Lidell made several excellent deep acid jams and some great acid hip house tunes with rapper Kool Rock Steady, of which the best is ‘I’ll Make You Dance’.
14: MARK IMPERIAL & CO.
‘SHE AIN’T NUTHIN’ BUT A HO’
(HOUSE NATION, 1988)
Some TB303s just sound better than others. They contain analogue circuits and components with varying tolerances. My 303 is quite out of tune – high notes are rather sharp and the low octave is noticeably flat. I could fix it but I quite like the sick feel it gives. Luke Vibert’s 303 always sounds lush. Mark Imperial had a magic 303. Maybe he had some amazing production technique but as far as I can tell his 303 is just a good’un. He started releasing way back in 1985 but this is a great 1988 acid track with a nice echoey 303 line and a vocal about Mr. Imperial’s troubles with the ladies.
15: MD III
(from ‘FACE THE NATION’, UNDERGROUND, 1988)
Another rap about female problems, this time over a quick 808 beat and a beautifully burbling acid line. Mike Dunn did loa
ds of good stuff, including the contentious "Magic Feet" which is very similar to Lil’ Louis’ "The Original Video Clash" and there seems to have been some dispute over who came up with the idea first. Marshall Jefferson claims that Lil’ Louis stole it from him. This controversy was rendered irrelevant when Tyree or possibly Rodney Bakerr stole the idea and made a track superior to both…
16: TYREE & RODNEY BAKERR
(ROCKIN’ HOUSE, 1988)
Better known for his hip house classics including ‘Turn Up The Bass’ and the very acidic ‘Acid Over’, Tyree’s take on the Video Clash / Magic Feet idea of stabbing synths and crashing thunder effects slays the earlier versions with its massive 909 beat, although the Mike Dunn & Lil’ Louis versions are excellent as well. I’ve just realised there’s no TB303 in this track; the only version with 303 is Mike Dunn’s ‘Magic Feet’ but Tyree and Rodney’s is better so it stays.
‘LOVE IS HAPPINESS’ (ACID RAIN)
(ROCKIN’ HOUSE, 1988)
On the same label as ‘Video Crash’, Rodney Bakerr’s Rockin’ House, this track from the label boss is about as experimental as Chicago acid ever got. The rainy theme is carried over from Acid Crash with deep thunder crash sounds throughout; the 303 is mangled through some intense echo and phaser effects and the acid line keeps changing and moving back and forth between the front and back of the mix. Truly psychedelic.
18: FAST EDDIE
‘ACID THUNDER’ (AA AACCID)
(DJ INTERNATIONAL, 1988)
Like Tyree, Fast Eddie is best known for his hip house hits like ‘Yo Yo Get Funky’ and the one that named the style, "Hip House," which has some nice 303 in it. His Jack To The Sound LP includes some excellent acid jams like ‘Clap Your Hands’ and ‘Keep On Dancing’, the latter of which once again refers back to Video Clash / Magic Feet / Video Crash with some Lil’ Louis samples. The version of ‘Acid Thunder’ on the LP is rather cheesy with strings and vocals but this version from the 12" is good and simple repetitive 303 and 808 action of the best kind, with some nice drum fills and a great change up halfway through into a piercing sixteenth-note acid onslaught. The strings come in at the end in a very tasteful manner.
19: FARLEY JACKMASTER FUNK
‘I NEED A FRIEND’
(from NO VOCALS NECESSARY, HOUSE RECORDS, 1988)
Farley had a massive UK chart hit in 1986 with ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ but his greatest acid moment came in 1988 with the LP No Vocals Necessary. The two sides of the record were devoted respectively to "Acid House" and "Deep House". The deep house side contains strange Casio-ish remakes of various disco classics including Sylvester’s ‘I Need You’ but the acid side is nicely simplistic stuff with some of the lowest 303 ever heard throbbing away on top of a very distorted TR808. I guess they just overloaded something when they were recording this, the production is kind of terrible but it gives a nice dirty vibe. ‘The Acid Life’ is the hit but ‘I Need A Friend’ has a bit more structure, quirky cellos, a pitched-down vocal sample and a nice unexpeted change in the 303 pattern at one point.
20: JAMES JACK RABBIT
‘ONLY WANTED TO BE’
This is rather rare record that has recently been bootlegged. I’m pretty sure my (bootleg) copy has the labels on the wrong sides. The title of the release is ‘There Are Dreams And There Is Acid" and both tracks features a very high level of sound quality and production compared to other acid house records of the time, with individually effected drums – heavily flanged hihats, and reverbed claps. ‘Only Wanted To Be’ has a dark evolving acid line, ethereal howling voices and a pitched-down melancholy spoken vocal. Whereas a lot of acid tracks are just quick jams knocked out in an afternoon (and it’s true that if you gave 100 monkeys 100 TR808s and 100 TB303s, you’d probably get more than 70 decent acid tracks) this track stands out as a seriously thought-out song with fantastic sounds and structure. "Rabbit Trax" on the other side is a very early prototype for the hard acid techno sound that later became popular through UR, Richie Hawtin, Mike Dred and many European labels.