Between the city's roiling punk scene and the birth of house, 1984 marked a pivotal year for Chicago music.
In June of 1984, Chicago hosted a pair of gatherings that emphasized pop’s bright digital future. Early that month at the Westin Hotel-O’Hare, some 1,000 engineers from around the world attended the International Conference on Consumer Electronics to hear over 100 presentations on the latest in computer, video, and communications gear. Two weeks later, McCormick Place hosted the largest edition yet of the NAMM International Music & Sound Expo, an instrument-dealers’ exhibition featuring 437 booths—up 10 percent over the previous year—whose panels included "The Use of Computers in Music Education," "Computer Bits That Don't Bite," and "Selling Digital Keyboard Technology in the 1980s." Machines blanketed the year, but in Chicago’s punk and dance undergrounds, drum machines and synthesizers were used not for big-bucks sheen but as DIY tools.
When Steve Albini, a Missoula, Montana native who’d moved to Chicago to study journalism at Northwestern University, began playing bass for short-lived post-punks Stations, their rhythm box made an impression on him: “[It] was the first time I realized that the drum machine could have its own personality—it could be a strong voice in the band,” he told Seattle’s EMP Museum. The first band in town he really fell for was Naked Raygun, who “totally blew me away,” he told EMP. They had a big impact on the music Albini began to make as Big Black, particularly once Raygun’s Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango joined the band. Big Black’s other major member was “Roland,” aka the cheap Roland TR-606 Albini had purchased after leaving Stations.