The History of House Music in Chicago

By: Liz Behler

November 10, 2014

When most people think of Chicago innovations, deep dish and skyscrapers come to mind. But what most people don’t realise is that the city was also the incubator for a new dance music style. While the sound may appear to be European, house music was actually born in Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Frankie Knuckles, the man known as the “˜Godfather of house music’, developed the sound while working as a DJ at South Loop nightclub, The Warehouse. It was here that Knuckles, who died earlier this year, combined old disco classics with bass and drum machines to create a sound that still continues to shape popular music decades later. House music in Chicago remains a constant in the local nightclubs, garnering a loyal following in search of the freshest house tracks from the hottest DJs.

The Warehouse has long been closed, and the stretch of Jefferson Street where it once stood was renamed Frankie Knuckles Way in 2004. But even though you can no longer dance all night in the club that started it all, there are plenty of other places to enjoy house music in Chicago.

House music in Chicago | Smart Bar
Smart Bar in Wrigleyville is considered a local nightlife institution © Smart Bar

One of the oldest house venues is also one of the best. Smart Bar in Wrigleyville has been home to local and international DJs spinning house and EDM since the 80s. An expertly calibrated Funktion One sound system, and lenient dress code, keeps the focus here completely on the music (if you’re looking for a place to see and be seen, there are plenty of clubs in River North to try). Come to hear local DJs like Justin Long, Derrick Carter and the Black Madonna spin.

house music in Chicago | Dolphin
DJ spins at Dolphin, where the Boom Boom Room takes place © Dolphin

Head to Dolphin on a Sunday night for the legendary Boom Boom Room, when the club dedicates itself to Chicago house. The night draws crowds, and in the past was a favourite of former Bulls star Dennis Rodman. The club underwent a million-dollar renovation last year, upgrading the 13,000 square foot space and investing in LED lights, projection screens and lasers.

House music in Chicago | The Underground Chicago
On the decks at The Underground Chicago © The Underground Chicago

For dancing with a possibility of a celeb sighting, head to The Underground Chicago, where Robin Thicke, Dave Chappelle, and Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child-fame) have been known to hang out. Every Wednesday, the club brings out its haze machines, lasers and professional dancers for a dedicated EDM night.

House music in Chicago | In the club
Chicago’s nightlife offers ample opportunity to really let loose ©  Digital Vision/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Another local nightlife institution is Spy Bar, located on north Franklin Street, which has been serving partygoers for over 18 years and is still going strong. Dubbed the “˜River North party paradise’ by Rolling Stone magazine last year, the bar continues to attract top DJs from the international house scene to its underground lair. The minimal décor, cosy seating arrangement and 300-person capacity makes it one of the more intimate spots to enjoy house music in the city.

Header image © Pawel Gaul/iStock/ThinkStock 

Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal direct service to Chicago from London Heathrow. Book your flight today.

Have you been to any of these Chicago clubs? Where do you go to listen to house music in Chicago? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Liz Behler


Liz Behler

Liz Behler is a Chicago-based writer and editor who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has been published by a number of outlets, including Fodor’s, Wine Enthusiast and National Geographic. She previously worked as Features Editor for AOL Travel before leaving her post to travel non-stop for a year. Follow her @LizBehler

Categories: Our Places