Dance Music History 101: Larry Heard, The Godfather Of Deep House


When you think of the genre “deep house,” what artists come to mind? Some would mention acts like Lane 8 and Nora En Pure, others would point to Maya Jane Coles or Jamie Jones. The term encompasses a wide ranging sound of house music that focuses on melodies and feelings as much as it does with dancefloor energy. But where did it come from? Who inspired such a sound that so many channel in modern-day music? Today, we’re going to go back to the 80’s to learn how a man by the name of Larry Heard would go on to inspire an immeasurable amount of artists.

At the time, “house” music was coined by folks who were referring to the type of music Frankie Knuckles would play at his parties at The Warehouse, a night club in Chicago. The Warehouse was one of the go-to spots for the Black American LGBT community at the time, and the music there was as forward-thinking as the club’s ethos. Frankie had essentially created a new genre of music by looping disco and funk tracks in a unique way, giving them that repetitive groove that people would lock into and dance to for hours. Producers like Jesse Saunders and Marshall Jefferson emulated this style of music that was being played at “the house” (referring to The Warehouse), and thus, house music began to take over the underground.

If you try and connect the dots, virtually all of house music could be traced back to this movement that was happening in Chicago. There was one man, however, who was doing it differently than everybody else, and that man was Larry Heard.

House music, during it’s emergence, was made for one reason: to dance. The Warehouse was a safe place for people of all colors, sexual orientations, and creeds to come together and escape the harsh realities of the outside world. Larry Heard added a different edge to this brand new genre, realizing that house music could make people feel just as well as it could make people dance. To understand what led him to this realization, we have to go back a few years further.

When Larry was growing up, although his parents were pushing him to become an architect, he wanted to be in a band more than anything. So much so, that he bluffed his way into one by claiming he was a drummer when he heard that some people from the neighborhood were putting a band together. Larry was not a drummer, but between that moment and the time of his audition for the band, he bought a drum kit and had taught himself the basics to make good on his bluff. This neighborhood outfit mainly covered famous rock groups like Genesis and Rush. Over time, Larry found himself drumming in an R&B band that was actually writing original music, and his creativity began to blossom.

As a drummer however, Larry’s own creative ideas were being stifled: “In the last band I was in … I guess it wasn’t customary for the drummer to have musical ideas, so that kinda kept me confined for a minute … I ended up having to buy my own synthesizer and a drum machine to keep the time since I wasn’t going to be able to hold the sticks and do [the] keyboard parts,” Larry remembers in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy.

On the first day of owning his new synthesizer, a Roland Jupiter 6, Larry recorded his first track, “Mystery Of Love.” He recorded this very first session on a cassette deck. Larry describes himself in that moment with an intense creative longing, and now that he had his own set up, the original music began to flow instantly. He submitted “Mystery Of Love” to record labels, but they weren’t ready for it and turned down, forcing him to publish the song on his own. Although this didn’t exactly exemplify the deep house sound that Larry Heard would become famous for, it was still a very forward thinking track that Chicago DJs wanted to play.

“Mystery Of Love” went on to be sampled by fellow Chicagoan and musical innovator Kanye West in 2016 on his track “Fade” with Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone. 

At that time, which was around 1984, a neighborhood friend of Larry’s, who was more in touch with the underground club scene, connected Larry with a man named Robert Owens. Robert was an essential character not only to Larry, but to the house movement as whole. He was a DJ who played at the clubs, but was a singer as well, and began working with Larry on music after their introduction. With now direct access to the clubs and their platform, Larry began to attend. He became inspired and intrigued by what he was hearing for the first time.

It wasn’t long after this moment when Larry created the first ever deep house track. The song was called “Can You Feel It?” and it was an absolute game changer. At first, it sounds very similar to “Mystery Of Love,” but Larry introduces chords around the 25 second mark that had never been used in house music before. The vocals on the track beckon the listener, “can you feel it?” The answer is yes, we can, and it’s that moment that spawned an entirely new sound. This was pure innovation.

Like many innovators, Larry Heard’s new ideas weren’t fully embraced by everyone. He and Robert Owens were becoming celebrated figures in the house scene with their new project titled Fingers Inc., but the movement was still in the shadow of musicians like Earth, Wind, & Fire, who had the full Chicago spotlight at that time. Larry was still able to garner enough notoriety to be signed to his own record deal with MCA under his new pseudonym, Mr. Fingers. He then released his first album in 1989, Amnesia, with “Can You Feel It?” as the lead track.

The UK was much more welcoming of the sound than in the United States (in fact, Larry is also credited with his creative use of the squelching sounds of the Roland TB-303, the most dire component of the massive acid house movement that swept the UK in the late 80’s), which was why he was signed through MCA’s London office. Instead of championing his new innovative sound, the label stateside kept trying to push a more “accessible” version of Mr. Fingers. MCA decided to release a short compilation of jazzy, soul, and R&B sounding songs from him in a release titled Quiet Storms, a project that Larry had virtually nothing to do with. His career, although thriving locally, never really took off the way he expected it to alongside a label like MCA.

Although a new style of dance music was being pioneered on our own soil, not many labels new exactly what to do with it.

Larry then decided to abandon the Mr. Fingers pseudonym and move on from the label all together, in what was generally an unsuccessful experience. He was destined to be an innovator, and he continued to innovate. With a bit more money in the bank, he pushed ahead with his forward-thinking sound, buying new synths and drum machines.  Piece by piece, his studio came together, and he was back in action, pumping out tracks for his Sceneries Not Songs albums, which came out in 1994 and 1995. These albums are a perfect example of how Larry Heard embraced feelings in his music, instead of formulaic approaches that would guarantee a hit.

Throughout his 35+ year career, Larry Heard only scored one No. 1 placement on Billboard, but the risks that he took paved the way for other creatively motivated artists to explore these new sonic realms in house and techno music. Thanks to Larry Heard’s creative integrity and eclectic musical background, the genre of deep house exists. The genre has since moved into the mainstream. The term “deep house” is so widespread that it can refer to a dozen different subgenres. This just goes to show how important Larry Heard’s groundbreaking techniques influenced an entire wave of sounds that we all can easily recognize today.