Interview: Frankie Knuckles | The Don

House music’s Godfather gives us a history lesson

By Joshua P. Ferguson

Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine: 10.08.09

TOC | Frankie Knuckles

At 54, Frankie Knuckles is a living history of house music, which, as he’ll readily tell you, is about more than the homogeneous 4/4 beats blasting out of clubs now. Knuckles came of age in New York City in the early ’70s, witnessing the growth of DJ-driven culture firsthand. Alongside the equally legendary Larry Levan—a childhood friend and club personality who gained fame as resident jock for the Paradise Garage—Knuckles took NYC by storm before he moved to Chicago to become the debut resident DJ for the Warehouse Club, the sanctuary for gay and minority partygoers. With a new installment of his soulful house mix-CD series Motivation dropping Tuesday 13, we rang Knuckles at his South Side loft to hear his thoughts…

…on his early days

“As a kid, I had the reputation that, if I was at the party, it was the best place to be. At one point, I started working at the Gallery hosting the parties. Before you knew it, somebody offered me a job playing records. It wasn’t something I thought I could do, but I needed the money. It just snowballed after that. I used to say, ‘I’m not going to wake up one day and be 33 years old and still playing records.’ Be careful what you say you’re not going to do.”

…on Chicago

“Coming here in 1977 was the best decision I ever made. As my hobby became a profession, it was already big business everywhere else, so I happened to be perched in just the right spot. The original Warehouse was at 206 South Jefferson Street, and that was my club. I lived there in the building for about three years. This was when it was not fashionable to live in [the West Loop]. It was pretty much like Death Valley around here.”

…on the Warehouse

“We started renting the club to fraternities on Fridays. Slowly, they started filtering in on Saturday night. Of course, they wouldn’t tell each other they were going, but they’d all bump into each other. At this point, it was fashionable to act gay if you were straight just so you could be at the party. The minute people heard it was a gay party, they thought it was sexual, but it wasn’t. It was really about dancing.”

…on house

“Musically, I played everything, because when you go to a good house party, that’s pretty much what you hear: disco, James Brown, jazz, postpunk, all of it. The crowd that’s hanging out now, I think they misunderstand what house music is. Once people got in there and heard the music, they began to spread the word, and it all took off. That’s when they ended up giving [the club] the name the House and [called the music] house music.”

…on Frankie Knuckles Day

“The best thing about it is that Barack gave it to me. He was still a senator at the time. I have a number of friends that used to hang out at the original Warehouse that now work in government in Springfield. Obama and a couple of other people—including Mayor Daley—proclaimed the day [August 25, 2004] and gave me a street. The street where the original Warehouse sat is now Frankie Knuckles Way.”

…on the Motivation mix series

“It came on the heels of the events of 9/11. I felt like I needed to do something, but what do you do? I thought I should just do the best thing I can, so I went into the studio. I put that first mix together in just one afternoon. Now here we are, facing another [dark time], which is the economic downturn. So this particular mix is to help lift people up and get them motivated again.”

Frankie Knuckles Motivation Too is out now on Nervous Records.

Myspace | Frankie Knuckles


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