House music is one of the defining genres of my life time. It was started by one DJ, at one night club, in Chicago’s West Loop district.
The late 1970s was a time of radical innovation in popular music.
The 1960s had been dominated by classic rock (The Beatles, The Stones) and folk (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell), which had been ground breaking in their day, but which were running out of steam.
In a less idealistic era, the early 70s ushered in new musical styles; the up-tempo decadence of disco (Donna Summer, The Bee Gees), and the stomping bluster of heavy rock (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin). The latter part of the decade continued this trend, with the rise of punk (Ramones, The Sex Pistols).
All of these new styles quickly became established and continue, in one form or another, to the present day.
And in the black neighbourhoods of New York City, one final musical revolution was brewing.
The Bronx is the northernmost of New York’s five boroughs, northeast of Manhattan, across the Harlem River.
Now long into the transition to gentrification, in the 1970s it was a downmarket area, populated by working class black families, and immigrants; new arrivals from Latin America and the Caribbean living alongside local families.
Popular in the Bronx were ‘block parties’, where a city block would be closed down and turned into a street party venue for the local neighbourhood. The entertainment at these parties was usually supplied by a large PA, pumping out music from a turntable.
Reflecting the multicultural flavour of the area, the music that was played was diverse; everything from disco to soul, rock, gospel, blues, reggae, jazz, anything.
The popularity of block parties lead to a new kind of musical performer: the DJ.
Previously a term applied to radio hosts who selected tracks to play on the air, in a live context, the DJ was someone bringing the music to the party. Dipping into their own, often vast, record collections, the DJ was on the lookout for exotic tracks, new music, things that people hadn’t heard before. And fun, up tempo stuff, to get the dancefloor moving.
And as they sought to distinguish themselves, they also began to innovate. Adding a second turntable meant that DJs could mix tracks together on the fly, creating entirely new tunes out of existing ones.
Early New York DJs like Africa Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, and Kool Herc began to get followings of their own, and were hired to play at parties, and then local night clubs.
These simple origins would eventually evolve into a variety of new musical styles; rap, hip hop, and the whole repertoire of electronic dance music.
In the late 1970s, Chicago was a city struggling through a difficult transition.
The post World War II boom had given way to an exodus to the suburbs, which had left the inner city neglected, and in a poor state of repair. The 1960s had also seen racial violence and rioting, exacerbated by the city’s relatively high proportion of black residents.
Chicago had previously been a city built around heavy industry, which was also on the move to cheaper, less volatile locations. These changes left a lot of empty real estate, downtown.
Robert Williams was a New York born entrepreneur, who moved to Chicago sensing opportunity.
In 1977 he took the lease on an abandoned, three storey warehouse in the unfashionable ‘West Loop’ district, in downtown Chicago. It was an unprepossessing building; narrow, dark, with high ceilings.
Nevertheless, Williams thought it a good spot for a nightclub. The rent was cheap and he did not have much money for refurbishment; he simply hoped the existing industrial aesthetic would play as hip. He dubbed his new venue ‘Warehouse’.
He also needed a resident DJ. And for this, he turned to a friend from New York.
Francis Nicholls was born in the Bronx on 18 January, 1955.
As a teenager, he began attending block parties, and then the nightclubs where DJs would spin tracks late into the night. A music obsessive, by the mid 70s Nicholls was a DJ himself, often performing in tandem with his friend Larry Philpott.
As he began to build a fanbase he adopted a stage name; DJ Frankie Knuckles. In 1977, Williams contacted Knuckles and offered him a residency at his new club in Chicago.
‘Warehouse’ was originally conceived as a members only club.
Its initial clientele was gay, black men, who were without a dedicated club in Chicago, and who were often unwelcome at other local venues.
The wild card in this business plan was DJ Frankie Knuckles, who proved to be an immediate drawcard. Mixing mainstream hits with obscure curiosities from around the world,
Knuckles made an immediate impact on the local scene:
‘Knuckles favored the music’s weirdoes and rebels. He spun tracks on independent labels like Salsoul and cheesy-exotic synth-disco from Italy.
His mélange of disco classics, weird indie-label soul curiosities, the occasional rock track, European synth-disco and all manner of rarities… was enormously influential.’
- Rolling Stone magazine
This was something quite new.
Knuckles’ DJ sets were recorded on tape and played on local radio stations. They called his signature style ‘House music’, after the ‘Warehouse’ where he worked.
He was so popular that Williams soon opened the club up to all-comers, and white college kids joined the enthusiastic crowds, dancing the night away.
In 1982, Knuckles left the Warehouse to start his own club, ‘Power Plant’.
His epic, all night sets became the stuff of legend. Other DJs from around America would come to watch him work, and later mimic his style (listen to an excerpt of one of his sets here). Many of his tracks were sampled and used by other DJs, some of them were even released as singles by small record labels, ignoring Knuckle’s propriety.
As the popularity of House music continued to grow, American DJs began to export it overseas.
He started working at The Warehouse in 1981, and was heavily influenced by Frankie Knuckles. Later, Jackmaster Funk would work successfully at a number of other Chicago clubs, and had a regular radio spot on WBMX-FM, a local dance station.
In 1985, in conjunction with singer Daryl Pandy, he produced ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, a propulsive dance floor filler with an arresting beat (see clip above, you wont be sorry). While it was a modest success in America, it blew up in the UK, hitting the top ten. It was the first House record to chart in Europe, and the style instantly caught on.
English DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling immediately picked up on the new style, and added it to their own signature sound. House music quickly morphed into a dozen different sub genres, and became enormously popular.
Raves, Ecstasy and mainstream crossover were the logical next steps. House music had arrived.
‘This music’s gonna to be around for a while.’
- DJ Frankie Knuckles.
But the man who started the party mainly eschewed the limelight.
While House music became a global phenomenon, DJ Frankie Knuckles stuck mostly to his roots, playing epic sets in Chicago and New York clubs.
He started his own small label, Def Mix Productions, that mostly nurtured rising talent, with himself serving as producer and mentor.
Later, he embraced his role as the ‘Godfather of House’, and played dance festivals to huge crowds, many of whom had not been born when the style was created.
In the mid 2000s, Knuckles developed Type II diabetes. After a snowboarding accident in 2008 he developed osteomyelitis, and eventually had to have one of his feet amputated.
Knuckles died on March 31, 2014, from complications from diabetes. He was only 59 years old.
By this time, the building that had been ‘Warehouse’ had long been demolished. The stretch of street where the club had stood was renamed ‘Frankie Knuckles Way’. The name change was sponsored by Barack Obama.