The comparison has been made many times. Club as church, DJ as musical preacher. Yet alongside the undoubted parallels lies the glaring contradiction, the hedonism of Saturday night standing in such stark contrast to the repentance of Sunday morning. However, over the years, house music has frequently proved that it can be at its gloriously uplifting best when paired with gospel. Spirituality is the shared currency, and whatever belief system guides you, we defy you not to come away both moved and inspired from the harvest-like feast we have served up for you here.
Where else could we start? Promised Land by Joe Smooth dropped on Chicago’s DJ International label in 1987 and was instantly acclaimed, its longevity ensured by the way it went on to capture perfectly the spirit of the 1988/89 summers of love (in 1989 Paul Weller covered the track with The Style Council, a move which divided his fanbase but certainly helped further shine the spotlight on the original version). There is probably not a lyric in house music that has been sung along to more often and more joyously than “When the angels from above / Fall down and spread their wings like doves / And we walk hand in hand / Sisters, brothers, we'll make it to the Promised Land.”
In the early 1990s, the Basement Boys production team was hot property, helming the mixing desk for many of the scene’s leading vocalists (most notably Ultra Nate) and releasing tracks under various pseudonyms. Major label CBS / Columbia snapped up their gospel-infused Mass Order project and all looked good when initial single Lift Every Voice (with its cheeky Yazoo and Loleatta Holloway samples) began to circulate on promo to very favourable reactions. However, word then came out that due to that buzz, the track had been bootlegged in large quantities. A rumour then circulated that the label themselves, trying to reinforce the buzz, were behind the bootleg (which they strenuously denied) – either way, it took the wind out of the single’s sails, and the project was ill-fated from thereon. Lift Every Voice, however, remains a stone cold classic which helped pave the way for many more gospel-infused house tracks; and the Basement Boys went on to record numerous floorfillers.
Chicago born Roy Davis Jr. was a face on the early house scene in his hometown, worked with both Phuture and Marshall Jefferson, and released records throughout the early 1990s, most notably on Strictly Rhythm (for whom he also doubled up as A&R scout), helping DJ Pierre develop the ‘wild pitch’ sound. However, it would be fair to say he was very much an artist for the heads until Gabriel (aka Gabrielle). Originally released on US label Large Records, the Live Garage mix blew up big time on the nascent UK Garage scene, and the subsequent UK release via XL Recordings saw the track become a pop hit. The trumpet hook and soulful vocal courtesy of Peven Everett were infectious – and led to a dispute between Everett and Davis as to who had contributed most to the track’s creation and how it should be billed. Suffice it to say there was no follow up. The debates regarding both credits and genre have rumbled on, but have not prevented Gabriel attaining classic status – it features here as the lyrics, often overlooked, are about the archangel of love, and dedicating your life to the spirit.
At the heart of gospel music is a great voice - or in the case of Sounds of Blackness, a couple of dozen great voices. SoB have been around in various guises for several decades, but are best remembered as the first signing to legendary 1980s/90s production team Jam & Lewis’s Perspective label. Whilst Jam & Lewis are best known for their slick downtempo sound, a bevy of leading remixers such as David Morales, CJ Mackintosh and Frankie Knuckles saw tracks like Optimistic, I Believe, Testify and our pick, The Pressure, top club charts worldwide.
With a background singing gospel from a young age, followed by a stint on Broadway, Michelle Weeks has been an in-demand singer on the house scene for some two decades. Our selection is one of her signature tunes, The Light. Lyrically an unashamed paean to God, that has never stopped it slaying dancefloors to this day.
Candi Staton is one of that rare breed, a singer whose career spans some six decades. Early success with her take on the southern soul sound was eclipsed by the phenomenon that was Young Hearts Run Free, a timeless disco classic (and a track frequently played at weddings despite Candi exhorting listeners not to risk ending up “another lost and lonely wife”). A house hero due to the Source remix of one of her most powerful vocal performances, You Got The Love, Candi then returned to her roots, recording primarily gospel albums. However, in 2012 Defected brought her back to the dancefloor. At a time when quality vocal house tracks were in limited supply, especially stripped back gospel ones, it was going out on a limb – but proved well worth the risk. Hallelujah Anyway is a stupendous record – dropped at the right time, it can transform any room.
Under the radar
As with any genre, gospel house has produced some underrated songs whose moment in the limelight has been all too brief. Allow us to point you in the direction of a couple…
In 1992, US label Ace Beat quietly slipped out Call Him Up by Voices of 6thAvenue. Fledgling UK label Stress picked it up and unleashed a couple of heavyweight remixers on the massed voices. Brothers in Rhythm delivered a full on UK vocal mix; whilst Glaswegians Slam delivered one of their earliest mixes, a pounding dub version that still kept the vocal hook intact and received widespread DJ support. However here we highlight the often-overlooked original version, gospel house at its finest.
Big Brooklyn Red (Brooklyn born but resident in Miami) is first and foremost a popular live performer, and as a recording artist is better known for soul-based tracks. However, he has added his distinctive vocals to some luscious gospel house tracks – including our pick, the powerful He Moves.
Shawn Christopher is another vocalist whose name adds kudos to any release. However, our selection here, whilst under her name, barely features Shawn. B’s Preacher Man mix of You Can Make It (a Brian Tappert-mixed Soulfuric release from 2005) sees the aforementioned preacher summon up the healing powers of music, whilst intoning “if you believe like I believe you can make it through any storm”. In this case, the music undoubtedly makes you feel just that.
Music history is peppered with artists who have shared recording studio and pulpit – they include soul legend Al Green; rap star Run from Run DMC; and disco pioneer Carl Bean (Born This Way). It is a path that has also been trodden by several house and techno artists.
Vocalist Kenny Bobien boasts an impressive CV which includes tracks produced or mixed by the likes of Masters At Work, Dennis Ferrer and Kerri Chandler. He is also a songwriter and producer, his striking falsetto has been much demand as a backing singer to the stars…and he has been long time pastor at his local church. Kenny has been at the forefront of gospel house for nigh on 20 years – here is one of his finest moments:
Like Bobien, Detroit-born house master Terrence Parker has also long balanced his storied DJing and production career with ministerial duties. Gospel-based tracks frequently form the foundation of both his DJ sets and albums, such as 2014’s magnum opus Life On The Back 9, initially released on Carl Craig’s Planet E imprint, then later issued in much-expanded form on Defected.
As a founding member of Underground Resistance and global ambassador for the Detroit sound, Robert Hood is techno royalty. Like his fellow Detroit luminary Parker, he is also an ordained minister. His side project, the more house-orientated Floorplan, arguably gives him more scope than techno to join the dots between his two passions. He does so magnificently on the truly epic We Magnify His Name. It does feature a preacher-esque male lead vocal, a sampled female choir backing, and some nifty keys work – yet it still sounds like nothing else on this list. It is a tour de force of a record, one that arguably marries peak time Saturday night dancefloor and peak time Sunday morning service better than any other…indeed Hood has often played it so late in sets that it is already well into Sunday morning, and he has waxed lyrical in interviews about the church-like effect it has had on audiences at venues such as Berlin’s Berghain.
In recent months, the Defected family of labels has been proudly flying the gospel house flag. Our final salvation selection kicks off with Sophie Lloyd’s joyous Calling Out Your Name, released last year on Classic, and featuring the vocal power of Dames Brown. So delicately is the balance struck here that the track would be equally as at home in church as it is on the dancefloor. A soul-stirring video perfectly augments the music.
This summer has seen Glitterbox pick up the baton with Londoner Alan Dixon’s Bless Me Today. As much gospel-fired funky disco as it is gospel house, it has an irresistible ‘brand new retro’ vibe.
Finally, hot off the press, we conclude with the long-awaited follow up from Sophie Lloyd & Dames Brown, the sheer euphoria of Raise Me Up.
Keep the faith.
Download and stream Sophie Lloyd featuring Dames Brown - Raise Me Up here.
For some more gospel goodness check out our 4 To The Floor playlist on Spotify: