Kirk Degiorgio looks back on a classic techno record that baffled DJs—and ravers—upon its release.
Three decades later, House Of God still sounds like nothing else. It was an EP by an elusive British artist that seemingly came out of nowhere, recorded in Chicago and released on a fledging New Jersey label. Even with countless reissues and remixes over the years, the power of the original hasn't waned.
In late 1990, as the UK's house and techno DJs lined up at record stores to snap up the latest US imports on trusted labels such as Nu Groove, Fourth Floor and Strictly Rhythm, an unusual EP appeared. It stood out visually—rather than the generic shrink-wrapped plain sleeve of US imports of the time, it had a picture sleeve. The lo-fi design featured little toy soldiers, four yellow and black vintage microphones and the words Dimensional Holofonic Sound proclaiming the artist name. The rear had a stick drawing of a chapel with a cross and the words THE HOUSE OF GOD in horror-movie style handwritten text. It was only on the record's inner circle label that the label name, Hangman, was apparent. (There was also drawing a of a gallows and a hanging stickman.) The artist name was shortened to DHS, the producer credited as Benjamin "Phicus" Stokes.
Stokes was from the UK but recorded the EP at the Voodoo Spiral Studios in Chicago in 1989. Hangman Records was a subsidiary of Rough Trade. It had released a couple of EPs earlier in 1990, but they went very much under the radar. Hangman was the brainchild of a New York DJ named Behavior and took its influence from synthwave, new beat and EBM as much as contemporary house music.
"House Of God was something I first heard from Hangman Records in 1990," Frankie Bones, a legendary New York DJ, told me over Facebook. "The record instantly became a hit. Behavior was a DJ in Manhattan who played at clubs such as Palladium, The Roxy, Mars and Limelight."
Behavior released EPs as B.M.Ø. and Delta 12, but he seems to have dropped out of the scene by the mid-'90s, so his legacy is not well known outside of Manhattan DJ circles. Hangman Records also stopped releasing original material after 1993.
House Of God's release style was also odd. A single-vinyl edition was followed swiftly by a double-vinyl version with three bonus tracks. I recall both editions being offered by record stores at the same time, but this review will focus on the single-vinyl edition.
The A-side had three different versions of "House Of God." All variations (the "$50 Mix," "Holy Mix" and "Unholy Mix") were barely three minutes long. That's very unusual for club tracks, yet the short duration made them no less effective. Each version is carried by vocal snippets from an American preacher—"Isn't that powerful," "Fifty dollars or mo'," "I am excited!"—laid over a sparse beat consisting of kick drum, castanet-like percussion and saturated, reverberating congas that resonate their own melody in place of a conventional bassline. Most DJs, including myself, had two copies to extend the tracks beyond their short length.
Grant Wilson-Claridge, the cofounder of Rephlex Records, remembers hearing House Of God for the first time. "It was at the Bowgie Club in Crantock" he told me. (Crantock is a village in Cornwall, UK.) "A small circle of Cornish DJs made enough train trips to London to keep us all up to date. The stripped-down track and talking was really different and unique. I was surprised to find out later it was made by a Brit."
I recall the track being played at the legendary Dungeons raves in 1990. Matthew B, better known as Bushwacka!, was a resident at that time. "The first time I heard this, it crossed my mind that maybe this was just a step too far for the acid house ravers," he told me. "That vocal might convince the LSD crew that they were actually in a church, not a warehouse party."
It certainly made an impression at Dungeons, a maze of interconnecting, sparsely lit tunnels and no-nonsense clientele.
A few years later, a Birmingham techno night took the name House Of God in homage to the track. I asked Surgeon, a regular and resident at the party, about this via email. "I remember being with Chris Wishart, promoter of the House Of God club night in his room in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in 1992," he told me. "We were talking about an event that he was organising and thinking about a name for. It seemed like a good idea to name it after his favourite record at that time, which of course was House Of God by DHS.
Benjamin Stokes went on to make official videos for updated versions of "House Of God" in the mid-'90s. But rather than focus solely on music, he went into creative visual arts, collaborating with artists such as Jack Dangers and Luke Vibert.
"The EP was impossibly influential," Vibert told me. "Loved by everyone who heard it—absolutely banging but clever too. It actually reminded me of [the band] Negativland but with tough dance floor vibes. "#9 Bad Acid" was caned by Aphex in the Cornwall days. I met Ben a couple of years later. Such a humble, low-key dude who refused to believe how influential he actually was."
Homages, imitations and identikit interpretations of popular tracks proliferate electronic music. House Of God EP is a timeless reminder that it's often the releases that stand out among everything around them that become classics.