- Andrew Ryce tells the story of a spontaneous recording that became one of the ultimate Chicago house anthems.
- One day in 1986, Robert Owens showed up in Larry Heard's living room carrying notes scrawled on scraps of either paper towels or toilet paper. (The exact material depends on who you ask.) Heard played a beat that he had made, while Owens freestyled over it in that makeshift studio, hitting on a theme that would come to define the message of house music for decades: bring down the walls. Emotionally, politically, sexually. It was the entire vibe of the nascent musical genre distilled into just under six minutes of pulsating, quivering glory. Heard and Owens recorded two versions that day, pressed it up on vinyl and kickstarted a partnership that would result in some of the finest records in house music history.
Owens has a voice that has become synonymous with house. For many people, he's the face of the genre, with a decades-long career working for producers and artists across the world, and by himself. Sultry, powerful, excitable, Owens' vocals added a distinctly human and sometimes erotic touch to the mechanistic thrust of the genre's earliest records, often building with an intensity and repetition that mimics the tenor and feeling of a gospel sermon.
Like so many of the house music originators, Owens got his musical start in the church. He also came from a musical family. "I was always trying to put different people together in the family to form bands, or do a talent contest, things like that," he told me over Zoom from his current home in Berlin. "I was always that adventurous kid going around and asking people, 'Do you play the drums? Can you do something musically?' Coercing people at family gatherings. And I was always selected to pick the music at the dinner parties and the gatherings, back when there was just like one little juke box in everyone's house."
His family, recognizing his natural inclination, "pushed him" into joining the choir at the local Baptist church they attended. "But I always wanted to stay in the background," he told me with a chuckle. "I never wanted to be a lead singer. It's amazing how this whole turnaround happened—ending up as a lead singer when actually I just wanted to be a background singer."
Those who only know Owens as a singer might be surprised to hear he did quite well for himself as a DJ before he ever stepped up to a microphone. He met Larry Heard, a producer who was making a name for himself with highly musical, soulful house tracks like "Mystery Of Love," a record that Owens happened to play that night. Owens' friend Tony Harris brought Heard up to meet him, and the duo exchanged info and decided to jam together the next week.
"A day or two later I went over to Larry's house with some notes and we just chilled together," Owens explained. "I started picking words that I felt matched his musical content and that helped instantly form a relationship together... and eventually he asked me to form a band, Fingers Inc."
"We were living maybe a half a block away from each other at this particular time," Heard told me from his home studio in Memphis. "I came up with a track that I felt was pretty cool and, you know, called him up and I played the track for him. I didn't know we were actually going to record it at this moment. But he freestyled, using a little sketch out of his bag, and it just felt right. We did two takes and one take is the one you hear on the first side of the record, and the second is the one you hear on the B-side. We were just in a flow with each other."
The setup was rudimentary: a living room, a few pieces of gear, a microphone. No soundproofing. Much to their dismay, Heard's doorbell rang during the recording, and being a live, one-take thing, they couldn't edit it out. "I thought, are they going to notice this mistake?" Owens said with mock fear in his voice. "We heard that doorbell when Larry Levan played that track at the Paradise Garage!"
The doorbell sound, however, is now the stuff of legend—a flaw that actually improves the art, a snapshot of a moment in time capturing two artists in the midst of pure creativity. "It's not about perfection," Owens added. "It's about the emotion and love that you conveyed and felt in that period. It wasn't about it being some huge production, it was a love felt between two people at the time, about what they were doing."
Though Owens and Heard would go on to write many love songs together, "Bring Down The Walls" radiates a different kind of love. It's a universal love, the love for your brother, for humankind, for the world. Much has been made of house music's supposed utopian origins, and few early tracks carry that feeling like "Bring Down The Walls," where Owens repeats the phrase as if a higher spiritual power were coursing through him.
The phrase "bring down the walls" itself carries an enormous weight. Hear it on the right dance floor at the right time—or in the right state of mind—and it can feel like an epiphany, a mantra, the most genius four words you've ever heard. (I know from experience.) Something about these words and their delivery, the mixture of spirituality and sexuality, is intoxicating, as Owens tackles societal divisions, sexual inhibition and even politics all in one fell swoop—this was the peak of Reagan era, after all.
Owens sounds like a freaky preacher: "There's magic in this feeling that moves us all / Shake your body to the rhythm / Let the spirit fall," before he gets drops his voice low, giving sexy commands during the breakdown. Lowering his voice to a hiss of a whisper, he commands the dance floor to "Move / Shake," before admonishing: "That's not good enough!" "That's a little better," he says, before moaning out a "Move.. I think you're getting with it."
On paper, this might sound trite, but in execution it's a tidal wave of feeling, a mixture of sex, positivity and hope that feels unique to house music, unique to a dance floor full of sweaty bodies colliding and absorbing each other's energy. These might just be the best lyrics in house music, simple as they are.
After Heard pressed up "Bring Down The Walls" under the name Fingers Inc. for his fledging Alleviated label in 1986, it became an immediate hit with DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, cementing its status as a DJ favourite. The next year, the record was re-released under Owens' name on TRAX Records, the legendary—and notoriously sketchy—Chicago house music label that helped make it a hit across the rest of the world, including a UK market that was hungry for this new house music sound from the Midwest. Along with artists like Frankie Knuckles, Adonis and Marshall Jefferson, Owens even embarked on a tour of the UK as part of Fingers Inc, all off the back of "Bring Down The Walls" and the many Heard-Owens collaborations that came after.
"It was scary at first," Owens said of that UK tour. "I remember going to places where they were playing predominantly hip-hop and R&B, and I was like, 'They're going to kill us! I'm not sure they're going to even go for this kind of vibe.' And they had to kind of coerce me to get out there. And after finally getting up the nerve, calming my nerves and going out, the people loved it."
Owens and Heard established a strong musical partnership under the name Fingers Inc., releasing one of dance music's all-time greatest albums in Another Side, and "Bring Down The Walls" was the spark that started that beautiful partnership, made within a few minutes of their first time ever working together. It helped create a path for one of the best vocalists dance music has ever seen, who was even scoring mega-hits 15 years later with tracks like Photek's "Mine To Give."
But "Bring Down The Walls," doorbell and all, is eternal. It's a perfect house track that still sounds immense over two decades later, recorded in a living room on the spur of a moment. Few things reflect the true, DIY spirit of house music like this track. As Owens himself says towards the end of the track, "You can't fake this feeling / Don't you waste it."
"It was a beautiful moment in time," Owens told me. "For me, every experience, every opportunity you get to keep evolving… I'm grateful, because I can look back at a point when I never expected this to be a part of my life, and now it is my life."