Culture  The home of house at McGill

A conversation with the co-president of McGill’s Our House Music

McGill Frosh usually celebrates its final night with a concert. In recent years, the headliner has invariably been an up-and-coming electronic DJ. With the rise of electronic dance music (EDM) festivals and stadium DJs like Calvin Harris and Avicii (who played Frosh in 2012) in the past five years, as well as the crossover of British house hits by such acts as Disclosure and Clean Bandit, house music has become arguably the most popular genre of music for young people – McGill students included. The rise (or return) of house music in North America has seen the development of a vibrant house community in Montreal and at McGill. Our House Music (OHM) is McGill’s resident house collective, an epicentre of the McGill house community. The Daily sat down to talk with OHM co-president Alex Sheaf about the phenomenon that is house music, and what that means in McGill and Montreal.

House music began in Chicago in the mid-eighties as the heir to disco, and has since spawned a plethora of sibling genres and subgenres. Today, EDM (an umbrella term for dance music including house, techno, et cetera) is inescapable, from gigantic music festivals like Coachella to McGill dorms. While this might seem to signal a new surge in popularity for the genre, Sheaf says that’s not the whole story. “Some of the biggest chart hits of the eighties, nineties, and 2000s were straight-up house records,” he says. “Off the top of my head, [there was] Inner City’s ‘Good Life,’ Madonna’s ‘Vogue,’ Nightcrawlers’ ‘Push the Feeling On,’ and then the various strains of house that came out of France: Daft Punk, Modjo, et cetera.”

Sheaf does agree that a change is taking place, stating that “[house] vinyl sales have increased dramatically in the past five years relative to the decade before that, and more and more [event] nights seem to be starting up all over the place.” But the change is not a sudden discovery of house music so much as its evolution and reappearance in the mainstream. “Dance floor-oriented music – which in essence is what house music is – has always been in our collective cultural consciousness, pretty much since the seventies, in its current incarnation,” he says.

So where does OHM fit into the generations of house? Sheaf describes OHM as “a group of people with a shared like and interest in non-commercial forms of dance music, mainly house and techno, who get together and put on parties at venues around Montreal.” OHM is one part of a thriving underground scene in Montreal that has been driving this buzz in the past five years.

Sheaf is careful, however, about using the word ‘scene,’ claiming that the reality is much more fragmented. The multiple subgenres and massive popularity of house make it hard to speak of it as a scene; instead, various underground styles of house music, as Sheaf says, “bring together like-minded [people].” Sheaf admits all the same that, at McGill, OHM and the McGill DJ Collective – another student-run network for house artists – do constitute “something resembling a scene.” The McGill community is a part of the larger Montreal context, where clubs such as Bleury Bar, Salon Daomé, and Stereo Bar, along with regular DJ-organized dance events like Raw Feelings, Psychic Drive, and Morning Fever bring a “friendly regular group of attendees” into a “tightly [k]nit, strong community.” OHM itself has done parties at venues around the city such as Stereo Bar, Espace des Arts, and various loft spaces, for over five years.

As dance music, house is inherently social, and Sheaf sees the kind of parties OHM puts on as part of what makes house so appealing. “When attending nights you get to meet like-minded people […] in a neutral, ‘hair down’ context […] that you would never get the chance to in everyday life. […] In essence, there’s no better party music.” The community that house music offers is more or less unique. “Dance floors are places of immense social cohesion which few other situations we experience in our everyday lives can claim to offer.” It is perhaps for this reason that house music has gained so much popularity; dancing to house is a good time for sure, but it also fosters a rare spirit of togetherness that is almost unparalleled in the age of neoliberal individuality. House music offers the community today what the hippie counterculture of the sixties provided back then – EDM festivals are the new Woodstock.

The underground in particular, however, displays an “adventurous, even punk spirit,” according to Sheaf. He seems to believe that the primary division in EDM is not between the subgenres but between mainstream and underground. Mainstream house is so vast that it results in a homogenization of the music; the underground has more of a sense of community and acceptance of musical variety. Sheaf points to Ben UFO, who coined the recent subgenre “outsider house,” as an example of a great DJ who is “at ease playing a techno record or a grime record within a set that still maintains a house aesthetic.”

Sheaf’s own taste reflects this adventurousness; he names record labels that release mainly deep house and/or “outsider house” such as Mood Hut, Wild Oats, and L.I.E.S. as current favourites. Sheaf also suggests checking out techno label PAN, dubstep label Hessle Audio, UK bass label Livity Sound, and the recently-founded ambient label Johns Kingdom for a more diverse listening experience.

This cross-pollinating between various underground scenes and sounds makes for an exciting and innovative musical climate. It was this sort of freedom that allowed house music to arise in the first place. “From its inception, the scope of what ‘house music’ can be and has always been incredibly broad,” Sheaf explains. “Back in the [late seventies and eighties], house pioneers Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles used to mix disco […] post-punk, and new wave records along with the more drum-based music which would morph into ‘house.’”

Today, another component has been added to the mix: the internet. The internet has made it much easier for underground scenes around the world to reach out and influence one another. Sites like Bandcamp make it possible for labels around the world – like Johns’ Kingdom, which is based in Moscow – to reach house fans they would not have had easy access to even a decade ago. All of these factors – the tight-knit communities, the widespread eclecticism, and the accessibility of the internet – have helped foster house scenes in Montreal. As house moves more and more into the mainstream, small grassroots groups of house enthusiasts like OHM are working to maintain house’s underground subcultures, while also welcoming newcomers and wider support. While no one can tell where this house revival will end up, OHM is making the most of the moment and cultivating a vibrant scene for McGill students, whether they’re die-hard house aficionados or just dying to dance.

The DJs of OHM are playing at  The Blue Dog Motel on Saturday, October 18 at 10 p.m.