BY MOIRA MCCORMICK | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
The bountiful spirit of the late DJ-producer Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music,” promises to loom large Apr. 17 over “Chicago Foundations: Heroes of House” at Metro/Smart Bar. A bevy of Knuckles’ “godchildren,” as venue owner Joe Shanahan put it – celebrated house figures DJ Sneak, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter (at Metro) and DJ Pierre, Phuture, Michael Serafini and Garrett David (at Smart Bar) – will simultaneously take over both of the prominent venues housed in Wrigleyville’s Northside Auditorium Building, honoring Chicago’s other vital, home-brewed contribution to music (besides the blues).
‘CHICAGO FOUNDATIONS: HEROES OF HOUSE’
When: 9:00 p.m. Apr. 17
Where: Metro and Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $26-$200 (21+over)
“Ticket buyers have an option to donate to The Frankie Knuckles Foundation, and sales from a commemorative screen print benefit the organization as well,” noted Smart Bar talent buyer Marea Stamper, who put “Heroes of House” together with her counterpart at Metro, Joe Carsello. The foundation is a “cultural organization dedicated to the advancement of Frankie Knuckles’ mission as the global ambassador of house music,” according to its mission statement.
Knuckles, who passed away a year ago at 59 due to complications from Type 2 diabetes, is universally acknowledged as house music’s progenitor – and as such, forefather of house’s wildly successful progeny, EDM.
Ground was broken for house’s foundation in late-1970s Chicago when Knuckles – a transplanted New York disco DJ – began spinning at a South Side dance room, the now-defunct Warehouse, drawing ever-larger and more devoted crowds with his eclectic, electrifying mixes.
As Rolling Stone’s obit for Frankie Knuckles (whom the magazine flatly pronounced “one of the dozen most important DJs of all time”) detailed, “Knuckles’ marathon sets, typically featuring his own extended edits of a wide selection of tracks from disco to post-punk, R&B to synth-heavy Eurodisco, laid the groundwork for electronic dance music culture – all of it.”
“Chicago’s house sound was developed for and in the city’s primarily queer and black clubs, mixing older disco with Italo disco, funk, hip-hop and European electro pop,” wrote Luis-Manuel Garcia in online electronica music magazine Resident Advisor. Garcia, an assistant professor of popular music at Groningen University in the Netherlands (and formerly, for seven years, a Chicagoan), continued, “Chicago house drew deeply from funk music, with a more high-energy ‘jacking’ sound that featured driving percussion and higher tempos.”
“Chicago’s a working-class city, and there’s a real working-class element to house,” observed Smart Bar’s Stamper. “Struggle all week, stay up all night. And certainly the rich fabric of the city’s African-American and Latino communities are all part of house.”
House’s godfather, notably, not only morphed into a producer, but also a hit house artist in his own right – and a prolific, sought-after remix alchemist whose client list was studded with pop-R&B royalty: Michael and Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige and many more commissioned Frankie Knuckles to work his house wizardry on their tracks. Knuckles scored a richly deserved Grammy for Remixer of the Year (Non-Classical), a then-new category, in 1997.
Metro/Smart Bar owner Shanahan, one of a clutch of producers behind a proposed film (“The Warehouse,” chronicling Knuckles’ role in the birth of house), recalled first meeting him at the destined-for-legend nightspot. “Word was getting around that there was a new sound being created in that space, called ‘house’ – derived from the name of the club,” Shanahan recounted.” As I became more regular to the Saturday night parties, Frankie began to invite me into the booth as his guest, so I was privy to the process he’d use to create that glorious sound.
“I’d never seen anything like the DJ booth he’d laid out,” Shanahan continued. “The records, reel-to-reel, effects boxes, multiple mixers and multiple turntables; I immediately knew it was ground zero for the innovative sound that filled that room. And Frankie was so kind and welcoming.”
“His music brought so much happiness,” said “Screamin’ Rachael” Cain, Chicago punk singer turned house artist, and co-owner of local independent house label Trax Records. (Trax, according to Cain, donates a portion of the royalties from sales of its Frankie Knuckles titles, via a grant program established in Knuckles’ name, to the nonprofit Youth Communication Chicago.) “There was almost something spiritual about the way he played.”
Frankie Knuckles’ life’s work, concluded Metro’s Shanahan, was all about “togetherness. A very simple message of the power of music to bring together people of all races/sexual orientations on the dance floor. We were all one body, mind and soul.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.