Dance music moves pretty fast, and unlike genres like rock or jazz, can lack a solid connection to its past someitmes. I guess that’s to be expected from a genre that’s all about living in the now, pushing things forward, the shock of the new, etc. All these things are great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it would benefit us to stop and appreciate where we have come from as we move relentlessly forward.
Frankie Knuckles passed away on Tuesday, a sad day for house music, and indeed, electronic dance music in general. Knuckles was known as “the Godfather of House”, and for good reason. There is perhaps no other figure who has had as much influence on the electronic music we dance to, and how and where we dance to it. There have been a couple of “who?” style comments about Knuckles since his passing, so Generation Bass asked me to put together a little something about the Godfather of House for the GB site. It’s gonna be hard to sum up in words how important Frankie Knuckles is to this culture, but I’m going to give it a shot.
OK, let’s start with the basics. Have you ever wondered why “house music” is called “house” music? Yes, the word sounds cool, but where does the term comes from? It comes from Knuckles, and his time as resident DJ at Chicago’s Warehouse club in the late 70s/early 80s. “Warehouse” was shortened to “house”, and the term was used to refer to the music Knuckles played at the club.
All good, but what about house music? It’s one thing to give a genre a name, but what about its trademark sounds? Again, you can thank Knuckles. He established the early Chicago house aesthetic not just with his unique dj mixes of electronic disco and synth-pop/new wave, but his early experiments cutting up well known tracks over a 909 drum machine beat (live, right there in the club) set the template for Chicago house and a technique still being used by producers to this day. And that’s not even mention his real production work and remixing, most notably his work with the vocalist Jamie Principle. Your Love, Baby Wants To Ride, Bad Boy – this records might be nearly 30 years old, but they set the benchmark for raw, sensual, funky house music and still sound immaculate and dance floor destroying to this day. These were also some of the first ever crossover house “hits”, taking the sound from the Chicago underground out into the big, wide world.
OK, so, we all know house music is not just a sound or a word, it’s a full-on culture, a way of life. But where did this way of life come from? Look, I’m gonna pull out the big guns here. The following is made up of two transcript from the book Love Saves The Day by Tim Lawrence, a book about the roots and birth of dance culture that I highly encourage anyone interested in music to read:
Over in Chicago, meanwhile, Frankie Knuckles was looking for some change to come from without. “By the middle of 1978 I was thinking “We’ve got to get some more people around here.” says the DJ. “I was born and raised in New York City and was used to a much more diverse mixture on the dance floor, so I started hanging out at some other clubs and a few people began to trickle down.” Around the same time the predominantly white gay Carol’s Speakeasy offered the Manhattan DJ a weekly spot, and before long he was playing four nights a week, including Saturdays. “I was thinking if this takes off, I can get these people to follow me down to the Warehouse, too. Eventually they did.” In an unlikely twist, college fraternity boys also began to flock to hear Knuckles. “We rented out the space on Friday nights, and college fraternities were always having parties there. Some of the guys started to come by on Saturday nights and check thugs out. Initially they were appalled but they always came back.”
The straight college contingent was re-enforced when Jesse Saunders and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk. two DJs from a mass-advertised party called The Playground, started to take their student crowd to the Warehouse after their own gatherings wound up for the night at 1:30am, and it continued to grow when the punk oriented clique Medusa’s and the new wavers form the Space Place started to dance at the South Jefferson venue in 1980. “I had a 45” out called “Bad Influence” and someone told me that Frankie Knuckles had done a mix of it,” says Screamin’ Rachel, one of the organisers of the Space Place, which was situated two blocks away from the Warehouse. “I went to find out what was going on, and it opened a whole new door for me. It was a cathartic, wild, tribal experience. People were stripping off their clothes and jacking their bodies. It was like being in bed standing up.”
Robert Williams was relaxed about the shift in demographics. “At some opine in the beginning the Warehouse was a black, gay party, but by the late 70s it had become really mixed. People were travelling from all over the Midwest, and I didn’t mind who was coming as long as they were having a good time.” The mogul’s decision to convert the previously disused basement into a lounge and refreshment area significantly expanded the club’s capacity, which now ran across three floors. “We were getting fifteen hundred into the club at any one point, although two to three thousand might pass through the door on any one night.” The parties nevertheless managed to retain a level of intimacy that, according to Williams, was second only to the Loft. “Everyone knew everyone at the Warehouse, which wasn’t the case at the Paradise Garage. I started to go to the Garage during this period, and I thought it was kind of commercial. You would be in there and you might only know ten people, whereas at the Warehouse it was much more family-orientated. Anyone who was not a regular was nicknamed a visitor or a tourist.”
Having given himself five years to get the Warehouse off the ground, Knuckles was able to congratulate himself on completing the job in two. “Everybody was saying “Are you going to the house” – the Warehouse – “on the weekend?” says Knuckles. “The Warehouse became the thing to do for all these high school kids.” Their integration was relatively smooth. “It was a little difficult seeing men dance together, but then again, there were all sorts,” says Andre Halmon, who first went to the club in 1979. “It was dark in the club and you could lose your sense of time. You could never tell if it was gay or straight. It was very hard to say who was who.” The music programmed the dancers to transcend conventional experiences of sexuality. “I was swept away by the music. I already knew people in the industry so I was familiar with some things. But it was also really underground. The music made everyone bisexual.” Club kid Byron Stingley agrees. “I always thought it would be strictly gay, but in reality it became a place to break down homophobic barriers. No one really cared about sexuality. everyone was just into having a good time.”
Knuckles watched Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition rally from the comfort of his own front room. “I watched it on television, and I remember it being pretty intense. He just blew up these records, and then they said “That’s the end of disco!” People were telling me “I guess you’re going to be out of work now!” and I said “No-ooo!” It didn’t affect the Warehouse because the Warehouse was not a mainstream discotheque. It was an underground club.” Williams was equally unflustered. “You couldn’t call the music Frankie played “disco” ” he says “If you went to the Warehouse and then to a bar it would be a completely different experience. We were dealing with grassroots music and grassroots people. The Warehouse was completely void of the disco stigma and because of this we bypassed the disco era. As a matter of fact we thought Steve Dahl was hilarious.” The American judiciary, media, radio and suburbs might have conspired to write disco’s death notice, but the mixed urban crowd kept on dancing, and, in a strange twist of history, the Warehouse took off at the very moment disco was supposed to have died. “It all kicked in around 1980,” says Knuckles. “Enough new people had discovered it and were turning new people onto it. The Warehouse became the next big thing.”
Knuckles began to work some old connections in order to supply his dance floor with fresh sounds – and stay one step ahead of his Chicago rivals. “I used to fly back to New York every two or three months. I would do my record shopping on Thursday and Friday then hang out at the Garage on Saturday.” The visits provided him with advanced access to the hottest new vinyl. “There might have been eight killer records that were buzzing on the underground. I managed to get my hands on all that stuff cos everybody would be at the Garage. They were bringing acetates and promos to Larry and they would give them to me as well.” Assuming the role of the good godfather, Knuckles also started to re-edit existing material on a reel-to-reel in order to feed his kids. “I taught myself how to edit. I would rerecord, reedit and extend existing records. I would take the break section and make a new intro with it. I would re-structure the song in the middle, change the break around a little bit, and up the tempo via the pitch control.” Knuckles was driven by a general fall in the output of dance music – especially by the major labels. “It was the only alternative I had. There wasn’t enough stuff coming out to keep the dance floor interested and for the most part what did come out was downtempo. The crowd was still coming to the Warehouse, but I had to give them something to latch onto.”
Halmon latched on right away. “It was only when I tried to buy the records Frankie was playing I released I had heard an edit,” he says. Frankie would mix, but editing became his signature. He was really into reconstructing records. He would cut out the boring parts. It was all reel-to-reel. I remember he did one that started off with the opening bars of Shannon Redd’s “Beat The Street”. It really got the crowd going.” The response of the dancers was accentuated by the paucity of club life in the city. “There were so many venues to choose from in New York,” add Halmon, “but in Chicago we weren’t getting anything, so there was a real sense of urgency.” Williams, who had once wondered if Chicagoans would be too conservative to adopt Knuckles, was taken aback. “It was a new thing to them and they just went wild. Frankie and I were like “Hmmmm can you believe this?” Sometimes he would accidentally take the arms off the record that was playing, and they would go mad because they thought it was a sound effect. We would laugh.” Knuckles made the most of the situation. “There was double the energy at the Warehouse. In New York everybody was pretty much educated about the music and the sound. They would give you an air of “well, we know!” whereas in Chicago everybody’s approach was “it’s new, it’s great, it’s fun, let’s make the most of it!” New York had the better sound systems, but the energy and the crowd were definitely better outside of New York City, and this was what was going on at the Warehouse. It was the newest thing.”
… the DJ’s huge influence on the Chicago scene was unofficially recognised when his musical selections were given the unique label – house (short for Warehouse) music. Knuckles traces the designation to the turn of the decade. “I was going with a friend of mine to his house on the south side of Chicago, and we left the expressway at the 95th Street exit” he says ” We came to this stoplight, and there was a bar on the corner with a sign in the window saying “We play house music” so I asked “What’s that?” My friend said, “All the stuff that you play at the Warehouse!” I said “Reeeeally?” he said “Everybody goes to the Warehouse on the weekends, and these kids are saying that they play the same music as you.” I was like “OK.” This was in 1980, 1981.”
But it wasn’t just Chicago in the 80s that Knuckles helped influence. He was right there at the birth of disco culture in New York in the 70s, too. Best friends with Paradise Garage’s legendary Larry Levan, Knuckles got his break after learning from legendary first generation DJs like Nicky Siano and Tee Scott:
“Larry [Levan] and I would blow up the balloons, set up the food bar, prepare the punch, and give out acid, but we also spent a lot of time hanging out in the booth, watching Nicky [Siano]’s every move,” says Frankie Knuckles. “He pretty much taught us what he was doing.”
Biding his time, Levan eventually persuaded Knuckles to hang with him at the [Continental Baths]. “He was always trying to get me to go down, and I refused to go,” says Knuckles. “I finally decided to go for the Fourth of July weekend and ended up staying for what I thought was three or four days.” With no natural light, the bathhouse had played tricks with time. “It was only when I went outside I realised I’d been there for two weeks.” During this and subsequent stays the duo made quite an impression. “Larry was hanging out on a regular basis as a customer, and then Frankie started to come along too,” says La Torre. “I remember them sharing a room and sleeping there. In fact they practically lived in the Baths, to be honest. I don’t know if they didn’t have a place to live or what, but they would come for days on end.”
The aspiring DJs created a good impression. “They were very nice and very friendly, and I had gotten to like them because they had spent so much time at the Baths as customers,” adds La Torre. “I just thought they were people who loved to party, and I liked the way in which they were into music.” Eventually the defacto dance floor manager gave Levan and Knuckles a chance to play. “The Baths was open twenty-four hours a day, and it was usually quiet in the afternoon. The people who stayed there overnight usually checked out int he morning, and the people who were going to come in the evening usually didn’t arrive till four or five, so there was a period in the day when there was hardly anyone around, and that was when I let Frankie and Larry practice on the soundsystem.”
“I felt kind of used by Larry [Levan],” [Nicky Siano] says. I’d introduced him to my record company contacts, and when he got the job at the Continental Baths he went behind my back and used my name in order to put together a collection. He never came to me for help. I would have helped him, but he obviously had other ideas. Franki never did that. Frnakie was the exact opposite in that respect.”
Knuckles got his break djing behind the turntables thanks to Levan. “IT was just Larry at the beginning, but sometimes he would play part of the night and then he would give Frnakie a chance,” says La Torre. “He would would ask us if it was ok to Frankie play and we would say ‘Yes’. Larry had proved himself, and it made us feel more comfortable about letting Frnakie have a go.” Knuckles was subsequently offered a start of the week slot at Better Days. I kind of knew Frankie through various channels, but we became friends during this club boom, and Frankie was trying to play at the Continental Baths,” Tee Scott told Daniel Wang. “So one night I saw him sitting there with his head in his hands, and I said “I’m overworked with seven nights a week over at Better Days, so why don’t you have two of my nights there?” Knuckles told Scott that he wouldn’t – couldn’t – play, but he was persuading nobody. “Tee told me “Look you’re in this booth with Nicky every week, what do you mean you can’t do it?” He let me use his records, and I gradually built up a clientele of about four or five hundred. The run was short-lived. “Six months into the job I was told they were shutting the night down because they weren’t making any money. I thought it was doing well, but that’s what I was told.”
Luckily for Knuckles, Levan handed him his start of the week nights. “I played Mondays and Tuesdays” says Knuckles. “Larry played Wednesday through to Sunday.” The slow afternoon, however, remained the most important slot of all. “For the most part nobody was paying any attention to the dance floor, so we would just turn off the main system and use the monitors in the booth. We’d be in there smoking a joint, just playing records, feeding off each other.” Influences began to materialise. “Larry’s style was more David [Mancuso] and I was more Nicky [Siano]. I was into the mix, just like Nicky, whereas Larry went for the atmosphere and the feeling, which was more like David. Larry’s main focus was creating moods.”
Having learned their trade form the Italian-American pioneers of the early seventies, African American DJs were beginning to make an impact. “We were like a brethren back then,” says Knuckles ” There weren’t that many black DJs playing in New York City, let alone black gay ones, and you could pretty well count us on one hand. There was me, Larry, Tee Scott and David Todd. I guess we were like the second generation. We were the next wave.”
There you have it. You don’t have to take my word for it, it is literally in the history books. What Frankie Knuckles achieved in his life, and the influence he had on others, was immense. Your favourite genre? Wouldn’t be the same without Knuckles. Your favourite DJ? Wouldn’t be the same without Knuckles. Your favourite club? Ditto. Dance music culture in general? Ditto.
The next time you dance to a song you could categorise as “house”, or even the next time you dance to an electronic beat, give a little thanks to Frankie Knuckles. The next time you go to your favourite nightclub or discotheque to hear those beats, the next time you turn and raise your hand to the DJ, the next time you sing your heart out on the dance floor or share sweaty hugs with your friends, old and new, give a little thanks to Frankie. The next time you think “clubbing is so good” or “clubbing is my life”, give a little thanks to Knuckles. He drew up the blueprints, he laid the foundations, and he built up this world we know and love so much. May he rest in peace!