Looking through the history of house music, time and time again you will see the same name. They may argue who made rock’n’roll and the blues, but there is no questioning who started this musical revolution. There is no arguing that because of his relentless and pioneering hard work, house music now saturates the airwaves; his work is the reason why you are reading from this website now.
It all began almost 30 years ago, when both American and European electronic music was forming the basis for house music. This new music was widely popular with the young people; its popularity resulted from a club which had broken down the segregations of race and sexuality. This club was Chicago’s now legendary Warehouse. In a heavily segregated city, Frankie Knuckles had had his work set out against him; to put it simply, ‘the white kids didn’t want to dance with the black kids.’ Up until then, (and long after, it took a long time for the barriers to be broken), society’s ideal was for black, hispanic, white, straight and gay people to keep to themselves. But the Warehouse however, opened in 1977 and carried a strong emphasis on only the music. Nothing else.
Because DJs like Frankie knew that disco was dead in the early 80s. Everyone knew it. “All of the records coming out of New York had been either mid or down tempo, and the kids in Chicago wouldn’t do that all night long, they needed more energy,” Frankie had commented after he had moved to Chicago. He saw the segregation and the lack of upbeat music which the youth craved. So, with his Roland TR-909 drum machine and rhythm maker (and sometimes making it up on the fly), Frankie re-edited old disco classics for his DJ sets. Everyone from Chaka Khan to Powerline and Michael Jackson to the Nick Straker Band got the Warehouse treatment. As far as the Chicago crowd were aware this had never been done before, and they would head straight to the record shops after a night out, looking for these new upbeat versions of old disco tracks.
It comes as a sobering surprise that Frankie said he couldn’t pinpoint the exact ‘birth’ of house music. In around 1980/1981 he was visiting his goddaughter and upon seeing a club, he happened to look in the window. There was a sign declaring, “WE PLAY HOUSE MUSIC.” He asked what the sign meant and his goddaughter simply replied,”It’s the same stuff that you play at the Warehouse.”
But it was around 1985/1986, that Frankie knew house music was here to stay. Upon flying into New York for the New Music Seminar, he was swarmed by the British press, who were all desperate to get the story on house music. Time and time again, his name kept coming up because they knew who had the right story of it all. In one interview he was asked where he saw the whole house movement going. “This music’s gonna be around for while. It’s gonna take it a long time for it to get to where it needs to be at, but it’ll be around for a long time. The only shame about it – (some are) in it for the fame or notoriety. It’s a shame because not all of them will survive.”
Nearly 30 years on, it turns out he was right. Surely, you and I are proof of that. Having only being born in 1992, my first experience of listening to Frankie Knuckles was zipping around, waiting for Your Love to play on SF-UR. His music and everything he stood for, could no doubt endure for another 30 years.
But after the swarm of tributes and the brief Twitter trend, it appears that his death is more tragic than you think. Frankie’s almost utopian vision of clubland is still an unreality and has meandered from his original hard work and graft. DJs constantly bicker and fall out, one scandal follows another scandal, snobbery grows rampant among the many different groups within EDM and DJs happily earn thousands from the backs of others. Whatever happened to the days when everyone made music? What happened to the all-inclusive ‘can-do’ spirit of house? Why can’t it just be about the plain and simple music?
It appears that Jack built one nation under a groove but the groove is wearing thin.
In other words, Frankie Knuckles left clubland in a different state from the one he pioneered. But there’s solace to be had yet. Look again at the picture at the top. That is a picture of Frankie’s last ever DJ set, taken about a week before he died, at the Ministry of Sound. Even with his complications with diabetes, his amputation and deteriorating health, DJ Frankie Knuckles still took to the decks to play the music he loved.
If there’s anything we should learn from this true musical pioneer, it’s that the beat goes on and on. So we should enjoy every heart-pumping, hair-raising second while we can.