“I’ll kill you, you pussy ass white muthafucka, I’ll beat cho’ ass!” the guy screamed, hurling a fist at the doorman. “I’m from the old school! You don’t know nothin’ ’bout house, nothin! You wouldn’t have a muthafuckin’ job if it wasn’t for me!” Four years ago at the Crobar in Chicago, the mob outside desperately wanted in: The indignant old school had come to pay homage to Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of House. But they weren’t accustomed to Crobar’s New York–-style velvet ropes; showing up with open liquor bottles and six-packs in hand, the veterans quickly discovered that house music and club culture had become very different animals than their badass Warehouse days of yore, where Knuckles, determined to match the renegade pulse of the crowd, created a sound that would make him and the underground nightspot legendary.
“People used to scream Frankie Knuckles’ name out,” recalls DJ Pierre, who frequented the Warehouse in the early ’80s. “They’d be in his club crying — tears coming out of their eyes.”
Skip back a few years to NYC’s tight-knit underground dance community of the Bee Gee ’70s, when a posse of jocks such as Nick Siano, Tee Scott, David Mancuso, Walter Gibbons and David Rodriguez served as Knuckles’ inspirations and, together with an obsessive need to control the impact of their music, created the beat mix, the slip cue, the remix, the mix tape, the record pool and the 12-inch, and set the â standards for today’s club sound systems. “Part of our job description was spiking the punch,” Knuckles recalls of his teenage clubbing days at DJ Nick Siano’s Gallery, when he and his best friend Larry Levan put up decorations, set out the buffet and popped acid blotters into the mouths of arriving guests. Eventually both Knuckles and Levan would land jobs as DJs — Knuckles at the black gay club Better Days, Levan at the Continental Baths, where a young Bette Midler — along with her pianist, Barry Manilow — performed regularly for the bathhouse patrons; Levan shortly afterward assumed the role of main DJ, while Knuckles moved over and served as his warm-up jock. It was during this three-year stint in the DJ booth at the Continental that Knuckles honed his craft. Meanwhile, his buddy Levan opened up a club called Reade Street, closed it, and opened another, the mythic Paradise Garage.
After being lured to the Windy City from New York’s formidable club scene to man the turntables at the newly opened Warehouse in the mid-’70s, Knuckles found over a period of time that the records coming out of New York were too mid-tempo for the black gay clientele who frequented the club. Urban black gays had become a cultural force in the underground club scene following the popularity of gospel-trained icons like Sylvester and the Weather Girls during the disco era. Though favoring the heavy gospel sounds of these artists, black gays were also embracing the high-energy Euro-beat of electronic artists such as Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and Kraftwerk. Spending hours at the Warehouse before his gigs, Knuckles would experiment and re-edit tracks, making them longer, faster and punchier. The propulsive rhythms that resulted from Knuckles’ remixes — a basic recipe of simple bass lines, driving four-to-the-floor percussion and textured keyboard lines — would go on to revolutionize electronic music and redefine club culture worldwide.
Though Knuckles is credited as the Godfather of House, in its formative years the genre had a host of exceptional creators. While Knuckles thumped them into delirium at the Warehouse, the rest of Chicago’s hotbed of DJ talent jacked the house recipe to even higher levels of rhythmic dementia. Farley Keith had ’em stompin’ the Playground, and the late Ron Hardy, who spun at the Music Box, became the backbone of the Chicago house scene by consistently breaking in new records. Like Knuckles, Hardy was a magician at the turntables, but while Knuckles stayed closer to his R&B and disco roots, Hardy went for the raw, reckless and tribal.
After spinning at the Warehouse for five years, Knuckles, his mission accomplished, packed his bags and headed back to the East Coast. Now a producer and top remix doctor, he deejays 10 months out of the year all over the world. And after 30 years at the ’tables, his music has become a sweet, soulful, song-crafted affair where love is a sensuous, spiritual high, a silky rapture. While Knuckles’ sound relies on the beat, it’s the deep lusts and yearning cries of house that remain his specialty — he doesn’t pound, he wafts.
“A lot of club stuff today, it’s dub-oriented,” he says. “Me, I’m sticking to songs forever. When you hear a bunch of tracks with no vocals, it sounds kind of stale, doesn’t it?”
You bet, Knuckles.
Frankie Knuckles spins at Vynyl on Sunday, July 16.