House Music Scratches for a New Vibe in Houston

On the drunk side of midnight, in a stylish Midtown lounge called Union, the dance floor is chaotic, yet benevolent; the DJs, effusive, yet democratic -- laying down beats in a way that's part free-for-all, part group effort. They trade off tag-teaming the decks, passing the turntables around like hot potatoes.

Brotha Jibril smiles, tips back a Red Bull and savors the scene through his narrow, squarish glasses. He's been waiting all month for this. Olive-skinned, with a round face and a little goatee, Jibril lived the nocturnal existence of a full-time DJ a few years back and made a damn decent living off it.

Now he puts in 40 hours a week at a mortgage company in Sugar Land.

Brotha Jibril makes his dough by day as an office guy 
and courts his muse by night as a DJ.
Daniel Kramer
Brotha Jibril makes his dough by day as an office guy and courts his muse by night as a DJ.
The Rent party goes down once a month at Union.
Daniel Kramer
The Rent party goes down once a month at Union.

On Monday, he came into the office and his boss was riding his ass. Had to "pick up the pace" and "meet his quota" and all that. The only thing that kept him going through the week was a whisper in the back of his mind, reminding him that tonight he had his guest gig at Rent, a wildly popular monthly party. Call it aural yoga; the buzz will have to carry him through another 30 days or so of spreadsheets and tabulations.

Brotha Jibril is a master of the house sound -- that stepchild of disco born in Chicago some 20 years ago, with its resolute 4/4 beat, deep bass grooves and vocals often sampled from black divas.

Rent is a speck of light along a dark, quiet musical horizon -- a mature vision of the electronic dance music party, an "adult rave" of sorts. Since its inception, house music, together with its many electronic cousins and offspring, has billed itself as the sound of the future. These days, with hip-hop flexing its muscle, some fear that it may become a thing of the past. So Rent seems unusually optimistic for an otherwise struggling scene. What's stranger still is that Rent's hopes for sparking a revival are resting on the vocals of Stevie Wonder. And Diana Ross. And Joe Strummer.

This is how dance music grows up.

The sky is bleached a gloomy blue-gray, blotting out the afternoon sun, when Chris Anderson steps outside Chemistry Records to have a smoke with a DJ down from Austin. The weather suits the mood just fine.

"Dance music is really the redheaded stepchild," says the Austin DJ, known as Robert M. "You say you're into dance music up there, and they look at you like you might as well be talking German."

"Everything here is still pretty fucking fringe underground," says Anderson, Chemistry owner and a godfather of the local scene.

"It takes that much work to get 200, 300 people out there nowadays, whereas before, you make your flyers, six weeks, go hand 'em out and you get 500, 600 people at your club," says M.

"Man, I been going out to some of the indie shows, and you see all these, like, ex-ravers people there. Like, I walk in there and all of a sudden I know all these people. I'm like, 'Wait, I know you! I know you!' " They share a laugh, a hard laugh. "And they're like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm into this now. I'm into abstract hip-hop.' "

"Yeah, man." A brief pause and M remembers something. "Did you see that article on guitar sales versus turntable sales? Guitar sales are through the roof, while turntable sales are back down."

Anderson jumps on this point: "And it was just the opposite a couple of years ago! 'Cause it's all about being in a band now."

"Yeah, it's all about being in a band now." They shake their heads, reminiscing about the glory days when you could book five locals, two rooms and add it up to 2,000 people. M says that strangers come up to him now, starry-eyed over his mix tapes from legendary parties back in the day. The nostalgia feels premature and bittersweet, given the recent flatlining in a scene that, more than any other, has to have a pulse, a beat, to survive.

"It's depressing. It really is," says M.

"The future is very grim, and it doesn't look any better," says Anderson. With online downloading, vinyl peddlers like him have been hit just as hard as big studio execs.

"We're all stuck in a situation where we're hitting our mid-thirties and it's like, what're we going to do?" says Anderson. "I've been self-employed for six years. And it's like, yeah, I wanna call somebody up and be like, 'I wanna sell mortgages.' "

"Yeah, it's like, where are we going to be in 15 years?" says M. "Be at the Denny's bitchin' about stuff."

It's a cool Friday in late winter, and they go back inside the shop, having finished their smokes. The racks of Chemistry look sad these days, half empty like a Soviet grocery store. It wasn't always this way.

In 1992, Houston got its first taste of raves. Anderson, now 32, had just returned from England and helped put on one of the earliest events here. His quarter-page flyers were ghetto -- pictures snipped out from a magazine, text done in Microsoft Word -- but several hundred people showed up, presaging the slow, steady build of success over the next eight years. As the all-night underground dance parties grew, so did electronic music in its many forms: house, techno, drum 'n' bass and trance, among other hybrids and offshoots. By the mid-'90s, crowds of 1,500 were standard, with the higher end pushing upward of 6,000 or 7,000. One-off parties could easily turn five-digit profits, and local DJs could expect to pull down hundreds of dollars an hour for performing.

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