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Legends of Electronic Music

The 10 best house documentaries of all time

By Angie Terrell
larrylevan

House music has a legacy unlike any other genre of dance music. Born in Chicago in the ’80s, the style grew outward to Detroit, New York, the UK, Paris, South Africa, and all points in between, and, some 30 years later, it’s touched just about every aspect of popular music as we know it. As part of our Legends of Electronic Music series, today we take a look at some must-see documentaries that track house music’s growth and popularity—from Chi-Town to Johannesburg. And while we couldn’t quite include Lil Louis’ The House that Chicago Built since it’s still in production, here are our 10 favorites up to now.

10. The Chemical Generation

Boy George leads us through the story of how acid house, raves, and drug use are all came together during the late ’80s and ’90s in the UK. At one point, Boy George asks author Irvine Welsh (who wrote Trainspotting), “Do you think acid house could have been as popular as it was without ecstasy?”

9. Inside House

This low-budget documentary consists of interview after interview with DJs like Kerri Chandler, DJ Gregory, and Jay-Jay in a bar setting. The early debate over the introduction of MP3s becoming widely available to DJs is a heavy point of discussion.

8. Slices: Theo Parrish

The only documentary in our list that features only one DJ, Theo Parrish—but it’s still a notable one, with the master of Detroit house digging for vinyl and talking in depth about the medium and how music technology sometimes translates to “convenience replacing artistry.”

7. This Ain’t Chicago: UK House According to the Artists That Lived It

The name says it all. This documentary puts the focus on how house music took hold in the UK in the late ’80s and early ’90s, according to Richard Sen and guests. Sen compiled a collection of tracks for Strut Records called This Ain’t Chicago, and this short documentary allows him to put those songs into context.

6. Paris Is Burning

Before Madonna wrote “Vogue” and popularized the dance trend, young, black, gay men in Harlem had been competing in ballroom dance contests for at least eight years—and they were as fierce as any breaking competition. The foundation of the ballroom movement was, naturally, house music.

5. From Jack to Juke: 25 Years of Ghetto House

Chicago was the birthplace of house music as we know it. But Chicago house also gave birth to juke. Today, the influence of Chicago juke on everything from B-more to trap to Mad Decent’s discography is all too evident. This great documentary explains the history of “jack,” “juke,” “booty,” and “ghetto” with DJ Gant-Man, DJ Superman, DJ V-Dub, and plenty of others.

4. Real Scenes: Johannesburg

The most contemporary documentary of all the choices, this Resident Advisor-produced film is a great synopsis of the hold that house music has on South Africa right now. It showcases everyone from the scene’s elder statesmen to its young producers who have nothing more than a tin shed and an old copy of Fruity Loops.

3. Maestro: The History of House Music & NYC Club Culture

Maestro focuses on New York City club culture and how The Continental Baths, The Paradise Garage, and The Loft helped give rise to the global DJ phenomenon, spanning from the disco heyday of the 1970s to the height of garage and house music in the late ’80s. Featured are some classic interviews with Little Louie Vega, Frankie Knuckles, and Tom Moulton, with, of course, a nice tribute to early house don Larry Levan.

2. Back in the House

Another documentary focusing on the NYC scene, however, this one picks up where Maestro leaves off and takes us into the 1990s when Masters at Work were producing hit after hit and Francois K’s Body & Soul parties were the center of underground house. Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia, David Morales, Roger Sanchez led the charge ushering in the “new” production talents of Mousse T, Armand Van Helden, and Daft Punk.

1. Pump Up the Volume

Pump Up the Volume is the consummate history of house music up until the mid-1990s. The series features legends like Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Pete Tong, Jesse Saunders, Happy Mondays, and more, taking us from Chicago to London and beyond.

While you’re at it, why not check out the 10 best Detroit techno documentaries, too?