Frankie Knuckles, the legendary Godfather of House music and a Chicago icon, has died at age 59.
The following article was first published in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1990.
BY PAT SMITH
June 24, 1990
Tina, a 16-year-old South Sider, has the hard, lithe body of a athlete. But her physique owes nothing to aerobics, running or calisthenics. She’s addicted to house music.
Given half the chance, she’ll tell you about it:
“House music isn’t just what you hear comin’ out the speakers,” she said, punctuating every few words with a snap of her her fingers. “It’s a beat that crawls inside and eats its way through you. The bass becomes your heartbeat, and you just start jackin’. You just hafta start jackin’.”
“Jackin’,” for the uninitiated, is that involuntary series of jerks, twists and jumps that house music aficionados call dancing. Tied directly into the bass line, the relentless movement is not for the faint of heart.
Cardiovascular fitness is a factor, of course — but Tina insists there’s something more.
“If the DJ ain’t down, then you might as well go on home,” she said. “If he ain’t layin’ it out like Frankie Knuckles, there won’t be no party in the house.”
With two decades on the dance scene, Knuckles has become a standard by which other house-music DJs are measured. The New York native, who breathed fire into Chicago dance as a music spinner at the Warehouse during the late ‘70s, will be the main attraction at the House Music Reunion Dance Party, kicking off at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Riviera, 4746 N. Racine.
Knuckles will return to the turntables with Chicago favorites Farley Jackmaster Funk, Andre Hatchet and Ron Hardy. The reunion, sponsored by the fledgling David Joe Productions, will bring the four together for the first time. Each will take his turn spinning records, and — if all works the way it should — it will be shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor.
“These guys are the originators of house music,” said promoter David Joe. “In the late ‘70s, they were the new music. Now they’re the only way you can hear true `house.’ By bringing them together, we’re getting back to the stone cold basics. This is `house’ the way it was meant to be heard.”
House music, for those who don’t know, is that thumping, repetitive, bass-heavy, technically precise rhythm that begs to be danced to. Technotronic’s wildly popular “Pump Up the Jam” is a prime example. The lyrics are simple, the beat primitive. The bottom line of hip-hop and rap is house.
House music’s first house was Chicago. And its daddy was Frankie Knuckles.
“There are a lot of guys out there playing records who figure all they need to do is make two turntables work together,” said Knuckles in an interview from his Manhattan apartment. That’s not what it’s all about. In order for a DJ to make a difference with his audience, he has to know how to handle the sound system, know the music and know how to present it.
“Nowadays, guys play a lot of rhythm tracks all linked together. They don’t have enough songs in their format, and they’re not concerned about vocalists. You can’t get over if you’re ignoring half of your possibilities.”
Knuckles made a name for himself as an explorer of possibilities. Born in the Bronx, he was originally headed for a career in fashion design until a friend introduced him to New York’s red-hot underground dance club scene. Always addicted to music, he was offered a job as alternate DJ at Better Days, a black gay bar. He moved to a seven-day-a-week gig at the famous Continental Baths, and before he knew it, five years had passed.
“The Baths were amazing,” Knuckles said. “It was a combination bathhouse, theater and cabaret. When I was there, the cabaret was just kicking off. Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Sarah Vaughan and Patti LaBelle all did stints there. I played music for people to dance to before the shows.
“At the Baths, I had plenty of time to focus and develop my own style. Most DJs want a room of their own; they want to make it hard for anyone else to come in behind them. The money was good, and I realized that I had a real ear for what I was doing. By the time the club went bankrupt in ‘76, I knew I’d just be moving on to another club.”
Knuckles not only moved to another club, he moved to another city – Chicago. Invited to the city to play at the opening of the Warehouse, a dark, industrial bilevel that had developed a feverish cult following, Knuckles liked the atmosphere and stayed.
“I gave myself a couple of years to make it work,” he said. “In a year or so, it took off. It took off like I never imagined.”
Saturdays at the Warehouse were Knuckles’ nights to reign. Things really got hot at about 1 a.m., and not many of the club’s patrons showed up before that. The Warehouse was hot, dark and sweaty. It didn’t matter who you danced with, what you were wearing or how many people you knew. Everyone came to jack – and everyone came to see what magic Knuckles would work with the turntables.
People counted on Knuckles to blow them away with things they weren’t apt to hear on the radio. He shopped voraciously at import stores and traveled to New York at least five times a year to find new grooves. But it wasn’t just the music – he did things with his audience’s minds as well as their bodies.
“I guess I’m best known for `the train,’ “ he said. “I was playing with the balance one night and I put on the sound of an express train. I turned all the lights out, and the roar started at the back of the room and moved toward the front. Everyone thought it was a damn train moving through the place. It scared the s- – - out of people. But they came back, hoping to hear it again.”
Knuckles attributes his success at the Warehouse to the fact that he never planned or programmed his music. He still doesn’t. He plays by instinct, just as he did when there was no beat system and records weren’t designed for the dance floor.
“I’ve never been afraid to try different things with my audience,” he said. “Everything can be peaking, and I’ll just drop everything completely just to give people a chance to catch their breath. Some guys feel they have to keep 120 beats per minute going, and that they have to keep it that way all night long. That’s OK for kids, they want to jump up and down like that. Adults need to regroup.
“There’s no doubt that `house music’ originated in Chicago, at the Warehouse. The rhythm and feeling got their start there. People felt something they couldn’t feel anywhere else, and they blamed the sound for what they felt.
“I’m not trying to take credit for being the first to develop this. A lot of DJs tapped into the Warehouse style, and started putting out records before I did. Any dedicated DJ who’s playing music with energy, being adventurous and creating an atmosphere, telling a story and taking it from Point A to Point Z, any spinner who’s gettin’ off on his audience gettin’ off, is doing his own house thing.”
After a disagreement with management, Knuckles left the Warehouse, and opened a similar club called the Power Plant. By the time that club closed in 1983, he was restless.
“When the Power Plant opened, I was already involved in production. I was headed in another direction. I knew I couldn’t concentrate fully on both.”
Knuckles’ first project, producing the First Choice recording “Let No Man Put Asunder,” got his name on the street as something other than a hot DJ. Soon after, he began working with vocalist Jaime Principal. He wasn’t making much money – but he was learning. Soon, a move back to New York was in order.
“A lot of people misconstrued the move,” Knuckles said. “I wanted to produce on a large scale, and I knew I couldn’t do that in Chicago. The music industry isn’t there, it’s in California or New York.”
Since leaving Chicago, Knuckles has produced or worked with Chaka Khan, the Pet Shop Boys and Bryan Ferry. He’s beginning to develop artists of his own, and is currently working on a solo album. But he believes it’s worth coming back to Chicago to rock the house just one more time.
“There’s just no where else to hear `house’ in Chicago now,” Knuckles said. “Rap is not house. Hip-hop is not house. There’s no Warehouse, no Power Plant. Just like in the old days, you’ve got to search for the real thing.
“I’m feeling good. I’m gonna be playing. People might be walking into the place Saturday night, but I can’t guarantee they’ll be walking when they leave. There won’t be any end to the movement. I’m gonna be playing just that hard.”