There’s a reason why so many of house music’s early releases have endured over the decades. The best of them have a quality that defies logic. Early house records like Heard's own "Washing Machine," or the "No Way Back" by Adonis, still have the power to stun listeners and drive clubs wild. They sound alien and beautiful, simultaneously ingrained within us and so unlike everything that followed. And few sound as beautiful, or as alien, as "Can You Feel It."
By 1986, Heard—who was born and bred in Chicago and been playing in bands as a drummer—had already proved to the world that he was a master of poignant, enthralling house. The previous year’s elegant “Mystery of Love,” originally released on Alleviated Records, had featured an insistent ascending bassline repeating under a plaintive, swooning analog synth, with a gentle, conga-led rhythm setting the pace. It was soon rerecorded in a slightly more fleshed-out style, this time featuring frequent collaborator Robert Owens on vocals—”There’s a moment in our lives when we all must try the mystery of love”—and rereleased on D.J. International.
The song helped to set the Larry Heard template: A hollowed-out bass underlies percolating percussion, while a deceptively spare instrumentation lays out a wistful, yearning melody, all blanketed with ethereal ambience. But “Can You Feel It,” released by Trax Records the next year on an EP that also boasts the equally dreamy “Washing Machine,” took that mold and refined it into exquisite, crystalline form. As with most house of the era—the components of “Can You Feel It” are few. There’s a throbbing kick, tuned so loosely as to make it feel like the head’s in danger of falling from the drum; cascading hi-hats, shivering and shimmering; a three-chord synth pattern that flirts with melancholy; occasional distant pads and crisp countermelody; and most of all, that angular, acidic low-end. With this track, along with “Washing Machine,” Heard had perfected his signature bass sound: an alien signal, caving in upon itself, that’s simultaneously soothing and a little bit disconcerting. In 1986, it seemed like a beacon from the farthest reaches of the galaxy; even today, it’s one of the most identifiable tones in electronic music.
Heard himself has claimed to have little distinct memory of making “Can You Feel It,” saying it was merely the result of fooling around with some newly acquired gear. But apparently, “Can You Feel It” was first laid down on tape in 1984; the same session yielded a much slower, 110-BPM prototype of “Mystery of Love.” Roland’s Juno-60 polyphonic synthesizer provided the bass and melody, while the drums were courtesy of a TR-909. A friend came up with the song’s title; Heard has admitted in interviews that he’s not adept at naming his own work. The track ended up in the hands of the influential Chicago DJs of the era—Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, et al—and eventually made its way to Trax Records’ Vince Lawrence. A few years later, alternate versions of “Can You Feel It” surfaced; many of these with Vocals Samples that detracted from something that was already graceful and full of feeling. And really, how could anything improve upon the transcendent ‘86 Trax release, a song that feels like a blissful caress?