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In 1988, if you wanted a comprehensive survey of the mutant strains of robotic funk that had risen up in the wake of disco, you couldn't have done much better than to get your hands on The History of the House Sound of Chicago, a mammoth, 15-disc compilation put out by Germany's BCM Records. The box set had it all. Discs one and two, "The Tracks That Built the House", focused on the disco and Italo sounds that Frankie Knuckles had been playing at the Power Plant and the Warehouse. Disc three focused on the D.J. International label's roster—artists like J.M. Silk and Fingers Inc.—while disc six, "Trax Classix", compiled now-classic tunes from Trax artists like Adonis and Marshall Jefferson.
Despite the box set's title, it didn't focus exclusively on Chicago artists; Detroit's Derrick May (aka Rhythim Is Rhythim) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City) were both included, along with artists from New York, New Jersey, and the UK. That same year, you could find May and Saunderson, along with their Belleville Three colleague Juan Atkins and other Motor City producers like Blake Baxter and Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes, on another comp, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, released by a Virgin subsidiary. Over the years, techno and house have assumed a binary opposition in the popular imagination: house and techno, Chicago and Detroit, yin and yang. (Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey get left out of the origin story.) But the coexistence of those two comps offers a useful reminder of the way that, at the time, stylistic divisions were hardly so clear-cut as they seem now. The names of the subgenres were, in large part, a matter of marketing. Both styles were part of the lineage of African-American disco and European synth pop; both balanced a dreamer's brand of techno-futurism with the sweaty business of the right-here-right-now.
A visit to Chicago, in fact, had a major impact on a young Derrick May. In Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels, he describes his first experience hearing Frankie Knuckles at the city's Power Plant nightclub. "Frankie was really a turning point in my life…. When I heard him play, and I saw the way people reacted, danced, and sang to the song—and fall in love with each other [to the music]—I knew this was something special." He continued, "This vision of making a moment this euphoric… it changed me."
Of all the possible descriptions for "Strings of Life", "euphoric" couldn't be more apt. All of the song's elements contribute to that giddy, heart-in-mouth, eyes-wide feeling: the pistoning piano chords, played by his friend Michael James, that never resolve quite as you expect them to; the rushing TR-909 drum programming, pushed dangerously into the red; and, above all, the sandpapered string stabs, harsh and percussive, their timing dangerously uneven. Today, you'll hear people who encountered the song for the first time in a field or a hangar in the late '80s or early '90s describe the experience in rapturous terms, and the same goes for people who heard it a decade later. Surely, the song's almost elemental title hasn't hurt its renown. There are people who, pre-YouTube, knew only of the existence of the song until, one fateful night, they heard a DJ play it and thought to themselves, "So this must be 'Strings of Life'," only to discover that they were right.
In the Chicago box set, "Strings of Life" is included on a disc subtitled "House – The Future". (This was hardly the only place you could get May's 1987 single, which was the fourth 12'' single on his Transmat label; it turns up on scads of contemporaneous compilations with names like Jack Trax and Warehouse Raves.) Twenty-seven years later, and 28 since the single itself, it still sounds like the future. Not space ships and hovercars, maybe, not the teleportation devices that May's Transmat label was named after—but utopia, rapture, deliverance. Every time it is played on a packed dance floor, all these years later, it offers a brief, transcendent glimpse of the promised land. —Philip Sherburne
See also: Virgo: "Never Want to Lose You"