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Forgotten Genres: Handbag House

Published On 25/05/2016 | Series

Tamagotchis, yo-yos, dreams of becoming a healthy, functioning adult… like a grown-up child clearing out the attic of their parental home in search of abandoned but formerly beloved things, we’re delving into the dusty annals of dance music history to dig out the once-cherished genres that time and iTunes forgot.

What: Handbag House / Diva House
Where: UK, USA (New York especially)
When: Late 80s – mid 90s

As the old story goes, in the glorious years before the Great Dance Music Schism, there was but one House music that lovingly embraced and encompassed all. And then came the moment of rupture, sometime in the very early nineties, whereupon the popularised (and increasingly commercialised) monolith of rave music fragmented and splintered into an infinity of ever-more obscure and fiercely policed sub-genres. Many of these sought to define themselves explicitly against the commercial mainstream with its uncomplicated hedonism and fearlessly feelgood sound.

One such subgenre that was unmistakably mainstream and unapologetically feelgood was ‘diva’ or ‘handbag’ house. Believe us, you’ll know it – even if you don’t recognise the term. Some of the biggest chart-smashing, floor-flooding, airwave saturating hits of the late 80s and early to mid-90s were, whether they self-consciously adopted the moniker or not, diva house all the way. And most of them continue to be played – in clubs, bedrooms, studios and literally any other place where sounds happen – to this day.

Soaringly soulful (probably female) vocals? Long piano breaks? Uplifting chord progressions? Regular four to the floor kick drum? You’ve got yourself a diva house banger there mate. Think Cece Peniston, Ultra Naté, M People, Robin S, Black Box, Jocelyn Brown, Crystal Waters, Barbara Tucker, Robert Owens… think Frankie Knuckles, Roger Sanchez, Larry Heard, David Morales and Masters at Work… and you get the idea. Seriously, even if you’re still drawing a blank, just listen to the tracks below. You definitely know them. And there’s no way in hell you can resist them.

Black Box – Ride On Time, 1990

CeCe Peniston – Finally, 1991

Robin S – Show Me Love, 1993

Accused of being asinine and bombastic by its detractors, loved for being anthemic and booming by its devotees, the style hinged on powerful vocal samples, either directly recorded or taken from soul, disco and gospel recordings, layered over the skeleton of a classic house drum pattern and fleshed out with typically upbeat piano chords.

Hugely popular in gay clubs, in the US and New York particularly, ‘diva house’ captured the euphoric energy and fierce attitude of the queer party scene – the more commercial side of it at least. Though its exact origins are unclear, the term is often cited as first pitching up in the popular cultural lexicon when Billboard magazine termed “What Are We Doin” by Dee Dee Simone as “iron-lunged diva-house” in 1992.

Dee Dee Simone – What Are We Doin, 1992

Over in the UK, the term ‘handbag house’ started to come into use, initially in a pejorative sense, to denote a kind of music that was snobbishly associated (by the self-proclaimed dance music connoisseurs at any rate) with women – and especially with working class party girls, the name in question referring snidely to the familiar (and thoroughly practical) practice of women dancing protectively around their handbags.

Having peaked in popularity in about the mid-90s, the style fell out of favour as hardcore and minimalism came to the fore in the late 90s and early 00s – though for a while (not long enough!?), an improbable musical lovechild between hardcore and handbag house was born, majestically named ‘hardbag’.

No, it’s true. Look it up.

Nonetheless, the spirit of diva and handbag house still lives on – even if no longer in name. Artists such as Duke Dumont, Disclosure and Flashmob have all charted big tracks featuring the same kind of dramatic vocals and stripped-back buoyant basslines that characterised the original tracks. Meanwhile, swept up in the tide of 90s nostalgia that’s come to dominate our cultural zeitgeist, the original tracks themselves are back on popular rotation – and, by the looks of things, they’re here to stay.

Disclosure feat. Mary J Blige – F For You, 2014

by Sonia Williams

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