When Illinois’ then State Senator Barack Obama shook the hand of Frankie Knuckles on August 26th 2004, and christened the Chicago street “where the legendary Warehouse once stood…Frankie Knuckles Way”, it was almost 30 years since Frankie had put his first record on in that famous nightclub.
How different the world was back in 1977. The year that Elvis Presley died of a heart attack aged 42 and the World Trade Center in New York was completed, everyone caught Saturday Night Fever.
Those were disco days, and Frankie Knuckles, alongside fellow DJ Larry Levan, was at the centre of it all playing soul, r&b, and disco at New York City’s The Continental Baths and Better Days clubs.
But it was in an old converted warehouse in Chicago, to predominantly black and gay people, that Frankie Knuckles began experimenting with drum machine-based music in his disco and soul sets. It sounded fresh, futuristic, and well beyond ‘the hustle’. The patrons nicknamed the music that Frankie played ‘house music’, and a legend was born.
There is a reason why Frankie Knuckles is known as the ‘godfather of house’. We’re proud to have him as our second Black History Month interviewee.
What was it like during the early days of house?
By today’s standards, I guess you can say that things were a bit primitive. Today everything is digital. Back in the day everything was analog, which in truth, is my preference.
Musically, it was a collective effort that made the incredible music that has inspired and stood the test of time.
Just think of all the songs that were sampled over the past 25 years and you’ll get a pretty good idea.
As for the energy, it was just as vibrant and electric as it is today. One thing I’ve learned from traveling the world for the past 20 years, is that people really are the same all over the world.
And as much as folks are the same all over the world, people party and dance with the same energy and passion.
How would you compare those early days to today’s house music scene?
Here in Chicago and New York City the nightlife scene was pretty wide open. The cities didn’t really know how to regulate this part of the music industry so after-hour clubs flourished, not only in Greenwich Village and Soho, but in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Philadelphia, D.C., and Chicago.
There really was no comparison except, New Yorkers were always the most arrogant. It was all about New York City when it came to clubs and music. Anywhere else outside of New York rarely got recognized.
The Warehouse club that you DJ’ed at was primarily frequented by black and gay people. Why do you think that is?
I think there was a lot that the audience could relate to, lyrically. Plus, the artists that did so many of the vocal performances were raised in church. Coupled with the energy, it all just made familiar sense to the crowd.
How much of a role did drugs play in the development of house music?
Drugs are not the reason that the music took off. House music’s universal appeal comes from the energy, beauty, soulful sexiness, and gut-wrenching vocal performances that have inspired so many spin-off ideas.
I am just one of a number of DJs that pioneered the sound. However, it all began at my club, US Studios, which was later named the Warehouse. It inspired all the other guys that were climbing on the bandwagon back in the day
How was house music important for black culture?
I don’t know how to answer this. House music isn’t black or white. It just is. It feels good and it feels right. What’s wrong with that? Why is it necessary to put a colour or life style on it?
Like so many things that were born through gay culture, straight people tapped into it, embraced it, and made it their own, thereby crossing it over into the mainstream.
Sometimes it isn’t necessary to draw a picture to get someone to understand what it is. Some things that come into this world naturally find their place. House music is one of those things.
But don’t you consider it part of black history?
In the grand scheme of things I guess it is. When you look at where it was born and what audience made it popular.
You’re often referred to as the Godfather Of House. Is that a fair title?
I am just one of a number of DJs that pioneered the sound. However, it all began at my club, US Studios, which was later named the Warehouse. It inspired all the other guys that were climbing on the bandwagon back in the day.
But I think it was the crowd’s affinity for the club and personal affection for me that made them feel close enough to consider me their ‘Godfather’.
I remember all the guys back in the day that were making tracks. It’s like everybody and their mother was making house music. Not all of it was very good.
As a matter of fact, a lot of it was terrible, but it was next big thing. And like the gold rush days, everyone was trying to cash in. But I also remember sitting back and looking at the plethora of ‘would-be DJs’ and ‘half-ass producers’ that came out of the woodwork to stake their claim in the house music community and thinking to myself, ‘Let’s see how many of these guys survive the next 10 years and we’ll see exactly how viable this music scene is’.
Most of those guys – about 98% of them – are not involved in making music today. And the ones that are aren’t necessarily making house music anymore.
Before the music became known as the Warehouse music, or house music, what did you call it?
It was ‘Soul Music’. Unlike today’s house music which ranges in tempo from 126bpm to 130bpm, the music that I played, as much as every other working DJ, ranged betweem 100bpm to 120bpm, occasionally with songs that would cut through at 126 to 128bpm, which were considered peak hour songs.
What was the DJ booth like in those early days?
When I came into my own as a professional DJ, just about every system I worked on was designed by Richard Long.
Richard Long was a mentor and teacher to both me and Larry Levan. He had his own showroom and club called, SOHO. Larry eventually left me at Continental Baths to become the sole resident for SOHO.
There at SOHO Richard taught us everything about every piece of equipment that we had to work with. The inner workings of each piece and the necessity of each amp, pre-amp, how to re-cone speakers, change fuses, and more.
The power that was used was generally MacIntosh and Crown Amplifiers. The EQs and crossover networks were all custom designed by Richard Long Associates (RLA).
Speaker systems ranged from Altec Lansing and JBL, to custom speaker designs and cabinetry by RLA.
Who influenced you to get into production?
Being a working club DJ at the time with 10 years under my belt, getting involved in production seemed like the next logical step to take.
The music that made up the majority of my collection was written and produced by great producers like Thom Bell & Linda Creed, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, and Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson.
We had major record covers with liner notes. Everyone read the liner notes on any and every record. That was how you knew exactly what you had in your hands.
So many great musicians working together under great arrangers and producers, in incredible studios. Today, most house music producers do it all on their own in their bedroom studios. I guess that’s okay, but personally I miss the collaborative effort by all the musicians.
Do you think the role of the DJ has changed too over the years?
Back in the day it wasn’t enough to just be a good DJ. You had to be a damn good DJ. Nowadays it’s not enough to be a damn good DJ – you need to be a musician and producer of very successful dance music. You have to make a name for yourself. A name that will eventually get recognized worldwide.
Do you ever visit Frankie Knuckles Way?
I visit it everyday when I’m home. It’s only a few blocks away from where I live. One of my favorite restaurants to have breakfast sits on the corner of the street I live on and Frankie Knuckles Way.
I’m quite proud of this accomplishment. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career. To be thought of enough by the people of this city and, to have it presented to me by, at the time, State Senator and now The 44th President of The United States, Barrack Obama, I am extremely proud of this accomplishment.
It’s something I share with every house music DJ in the world.
Do you do anything special on July 17th, Chicago’s Pioneers of House Music Day?
I’m not usually at home in Chicago in July as I’m normally on tour in Europe. Nothing much happens in Chicago on that specific day anyway. At least nothing that I’m privy to.
Now you’ve got a street named after you, what do you want to achieve next?
Well, there are several things. My Grammy is lonely and keeps begging me for a little brother or sister. Maybe I’ll get lucky and bring home twins.
I’d also like to complete my current project, Director’s Cut ‘Double Vision’ with Jamie Principle, and collaborations with The Shapeshifters, David Morales and Eric Kupper. I also want to work on myself personally, get stronger and healthier where it matters most.
If you could visit any black man in history, who would you visit and what would you say to them?
My dad. He died when he was my age (55). It would be nice to sit with him and just have a nice chat, father to son, and ask him, “How’m I doin’, Big Frank”?