The Kids Call It House Music

Frankie Knuckles is a DJ whose story is so interwoven into the fabric of modern clubland that music history can’t be told without him. Weaving a line through Philly soul, new wave, disco, and funk, Frankie’s work as a producer, selector and DJ has paved the way for a sonic template that dancers have come to understand the world over. In celebration of Frankie’s headlining slot during the Academy’s House Classics night last week at Coco on, our very own disco connoisseur Gerd Janson spoke to the man himself about the essential roots of the sound…

Gerd Janson: You left New York after having spent some time at places like The Loft, Nicky Siano’s Gallery and most of all Continental Baths with Larry Levan, in order to go to Chicago on behalf of Robert Williams and his Warehouse. What did you find when you arrived there? Was the city on par with New York or did you feel like a missionary?

Frankie Knuckles: A missionary? Not at all. You have to remember this was 1977. Chicago was a growing city but it was nothing at all like New York City. As much of a major metropolitan city as it was at the time, the attitude of the city was very small town. The fact that Robert Williams brought the concept of after-hours to Chicago is a testament to how far behind the nightlife scene was at that time. Most of the dance clubs in the city were bars on the North Side of the city. They catered to a predominantly white gay audience. They had rude, restricted door policies only allowing 1% of blacks in. All of the DJs were white and a black DJ couldn’t catch a break. There was only one black gay bar at a commercial level and that was Our Den/Den One, where Ronnie Hardy was the resident DJ. So, the field was wide-open for an after-hours club/juice bar. The concept was new. The music I brought from New York with me was new and we were creating something new on an idea that had already been tried, tested and found true.

The Warehouse circa 1977
The Warehouse circa 1977

Gerd: The term “house music”. There are as many stories about its genesis as there are records that fall into that “genre”. It seems logical that the name comes from the “Warehouse” as much as garage refers to “Paradise Garage.”

Frankie: Ha! The people that used to hang out at The Warehouse coined the phrase “House Music”. At the time I was the only DJ in the city playing a sound that they heard nowhere else. So, when dance parties and regional DJs began popping up on the South Side of the city, to attract the same kind of audience that I had at The Warehouse, they would shop at the same record stores I worked at and shopped in. They would advertise that they played “HOUSE MUSIC”. The first time I saw a sign in the window of a tavern on the South Side of the city that said, “We Play HOUSE MUSIC”, I had to ask my friend, "What is “House Music?”, he answered, "It’s the same music you play at The Warehouse. It’s just the kids call it “House Music”."

Gerd: Can you please describe a typical night at The Warehouse? The way you programmed it and the dynamics of it?

Frankie: One of the crucial lessons I learnt about being a club DJ, growing up in NYC is that it’s essential to tell a story throughout the evening. You had to create a journey. It didn’t matter if the bulk of the audience didn’t show up until well past midnight, the train pulled out of the station at midnight and picked up passengers along the way as the night progressed. So the first song I might play would be “Land Of Make Believe” by Chuck Mangione or “Street Life” by The Crusaders, and the evening would take off from there.

Gerd: How did you come up with the idea to incorporate drum machines into your sets?

Frankie: When disco was declared dead in 1980 the course of energetic dance music began to disappear. Discos and clubs that played dance music either played r&b or country & western. The record labels abandoned the idea of making any kind of music that remotely sounded like disco. Disco music made up about 35-40% of the music I played. Most of my music was very r&b based, from Philly soul to James Brown/p-funk and some post-punk. In order to keep my crowd interested in coming to the club every week I began playing with an [EKO] Rhythmaker while mixing at The Warehouse. Once I moved onto The Powerplant, Derrick May gave me my first Roland 909 drum machine. I would program different break beats and use them as segues between songs and additional beats.

Gerd: What was your connection with Ron Hardy and the Muzic Box? According to local history and recurring stories, he is always referred to as the mad punk DJ, while your style is described as more suave and even majestic, if I may say so.

Frankie: I met Ronnie the first time I went to Den One, the club where he was resident while I was at The Warehouse. For the most part we were the only two black gay DJs making any significant noise on the club scene. Ronnie was quite content at Den One with where things were as far as clientele and club policy. For me, being from NYC I grew up in this business with dancing and playing with all kinds of people on my dancefloor i.e. black, white, gay, straight, Latino, Asian, European, whatever. So now being at The Warehouse where I’m playing for a predominantly black gay club that was pretty much settled in its own format, I wanted the club to grow beyond that. When I finally moved to Chicago, The Warehouse had lost what audience it had to either Den One or another after-hours that had just opened, called The Bowery. I knew the only way I would be able to bring an audience back to The Warehouse was to get out and see how the other half lived. Perhaps get another job at one of the other clubs in the city, preferably one of the white gay clubs. But the management of those clubs and their residents weren’t having it. Ronnie and I grew closer. We talked shop all the time. Traded music. I’d hang out at The Den and he would come to The Warehouse when he’d finished playing. Apart from Larry [Levan] he was the closest DJ friend I had at the time. Ronnie was radically different from me as a DJ. But so was Larry. They were almost two sides of the same coin. The songs that fuelled them and the energy as well came from a completely different place than I did. But their taste turned me on and helped shape me musically.

Gerd: You still play as a DJ to this day. How do you keep motivated to do so? You must have “been there, seen that, done that” by now. Obviously, it is very impressive to see you still blessed with a passion for it.

Frankie: Music is what keeps me motivated. Period. The music is what does it. Clubs are the same all over the world. Some are great. Some are not so great. But what makes a great party is the person that’s responsible for the music and entertainment. The place can be a dump but if you put the right sound system in it and the right person behind that sound system, the party will rock!

By on November 1, 2011

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