UNSUNG…FRANKIE KNUCKLES AND THE ROOTS OF HOUSE MUSIC
“House music is love. House music is a sound and it’s a spirit,”- house pioneer Wayne Williams
This past Weds night, househeads tuned in to watch a piece of our history told to a national audience. TV One’s series Unsung, told the story of Frankie Knuckles and the Roots of House Music. The docuseries was ambitious considering Chicago House history is rich, layered and full of so many stories of music, parties and creativity. I applaud TV One for telling a portion of the history of house music and a portion of the life and career of Frankie Knuckles.
Frankie Knuckles is such a beloved figure in Chicago and across the globe. The universally recognized “Godfather of House” music’s story is such an integral piece of our history and culture. House pioneer, Robert Williams asked Frankie to come to Chicago to run the legendary club, The Warehouse. Frankie was adamant about the quality of the sound at the warehouse and insisted on Richard Long, a legendary sound man, to design the sound system for the Warehouse. Wayne Williams remembers “Frankie had the best sound system in Chicago”. The music played at the warehouse was called “Warehouse Music” and eventually called “House Music”. The parties at the Warehouse united different people from different backgrounds. Frankie brilliantly created an environment where everyone felt comfortable to just enjoy music and dance. The music was the great unifier. “Frankie knew what to play; he was the coldest DJ on the planet…” Marshall Jefferson remembers. That’s not easy to do in a city as segregated as Chicago. His discography is the soundtrack to a generation. As the winner of the Grammy for Mixer of the year, he is the reason so many DJ’s have been able to break through as producers and remixers to some of the world’s best known musical artists. The Unsung documentary covered just a few highlights in his career, including his Grammy win, some of his classic hits such as the “Whistle Song” , the street naming ceremony in his honor and his impact on the culture and music from those who worked with him and those who were influenced by him. His untimely death came as such a shock to many in the music community and left a hole in the hearts of those who knew him, loved him and heard him play. I remember the day he died and the days following his death, the clubs were overflowing with people who wanted to come out to honor him and his legacy. I remember the celebration of his life at Millennium Park that was packed with so many people from every race who showed up to celebrate his legacy. As Chosen Few DJ and House Pioneer, Jesse Saunders, so eloquently stated, “He’s the greatest part of our genre; he’s the one we get our inspiration from”. I thought that was such a touching statement as it speaks to who Frankie Knuckles was as a person, an artist and a mentor to so many.
With little musical knowledge or equipment, I’m amazed at how creative the early pioneers of house were. They were innovative, taking existing records, and changing their sound . They eventually evolved past manipulating sounds on records to creating their own music and making their own records. That is nothing short of outstanding when you really think about it. For many who were of age during the early stages of house, the Unsung docuseries was a trip down memory lane to the parties, the music, the style of dress and a moment in time that so many hold dear. As someone who was in grade school during the inception of house music, I found the Unsung special captivating. Watching the story of how young African American kids created a genre that has grown to the levels it has today made me so proud to be from this city and to be part of the greater house music family today.
As with any documentary, not all aspects of house history were covered. Many Chicagoans’ bristled at the omission of Ron Hardy, who is a legend and innovator in house music. Those who were fortunate to know him or hear him play were outraged at his exclusion. While understandable, there are other documentaries that cover Ron Hardy’s legacy, DJ style and innovation, such as the Pump it Up documentary and others. Chicago House people are passionate about this music and there were so many DJ’s, artists, and party spots that could have been mentioned but that would have taken much longer than 40 minutes. Even the Unsung producers agreed, stating, “House is more than deserving of books, docuseries and documentaries. For now, however, Frankie Knuckles is the gateway for this story.” The debates have been ongoing from passionate Chicagoans on social media who were there during that time and those who wanted to be. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “Only in Chicago”, Chicago House people are extremely vocal about house music and on any given night at any party or on social media, debates about Chicago House history are plentiful. We are proud of what was created here and what is still being created to this day. Hopefully, many who voiced concerns on social media will be inspired to tell their own stories in books, film, docuseries, etc. However, 40 minutes will never be enough time to truly tell the story of genre of music that has spanned 30+ years. I take pride in our story being told to a national audience with the hope that our stories continue to be told and preserved by those who were instrumental in its creation and those who were active participants. If there is anything that I’ve learned in writing this piece and my piece on Sauer’s is that our history needs to be told and preserved so we can pass it down to generations. So many house people have photos, flyers, pluggers, mixtapes and other memorabilia from those days. The future generations will not be able to search social media posts to learn our history, we must continue to write, document and share it. This is how we preserve and protect the culture!!
I took great pride in hearing the stories of how some of my favorite house tracks were created by the ones who actually made them. The music they made is timeless, which is why you can still hear these songs played in clubs all around the city on any given night and watch the crowd lose their minds. Listening to Jesse Saunders describe how having his records stolen made him decide to “recreate” his signature song, which eventually became the first house track sold on vinyl on Trax Records showed me how pioneering these young people were. Mr. Fingers “Can you feel it” is one of my favorite house tracks of all time and I still play it on a regular basis. House music legends like Jamie Principle, who was so accurately described as the “Prince” of this scene, describing the awkward phase during the teenage and young adult years when you are still discovering your sexuality and coming to terms with it was so relatable for me. He created music that was so sexy and made you want to do things you had been told were “naughty” on a dance floor. Watch a dancer when Jamie’s songs are played and you will see the “sex appeal” go up a few notches on the dance floor guaranteed! There is still that piece of house music that taps into your sexuality and sensuality and it is reflected in how we dance. Learning that Marshall Jefferson came up with the music for the house music anthem, “Move your Body” while working in the post office with Curtis McClain was mind-blowing. The anthem that is still played and sung today was formed in theory at the post office! WOW!!! These young men were creating sounds and music that would impact a generation! Steve “Silk” Hurley describing how he made the song “Jack your Body” took me back to the basement parties my friends had in grammar school. I remember kids “jacking” each other up on the walls while trying to hide from the watchful eyes of chaperones! Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and the Hot Mix Five took me right back to my bedroom as a young girl in Catholic School. I wasn’t old enough to go out to parties at the Warehouse, Powerplant, the Playground and others back then. My parents were very strict so I had no choice but to get my house music fix from WBMX. I remember listening to them with my blank cassette tapes ready to record their shows from beginning to end on my new boom box that my parents bought me for Christmas. Watching this Unsung show brought back memories of a childhood filled with music that made me dance, even if it was just in my bedroom or friends basement! LOL. My favorite part of the series was the footage from the old parties. I loved watching the dancers. The clothing, the hairstyles, and the energy of these parties was something I could never accurately describe because I had never been. I could only imagine what it was like inside some of these legendary parties. What a time to be alive! I remember so vividly wishing I was older. I remember the arguments I’d have with my parents for not allowing me to go to some of the “high school” parties while I was in grade school. I would see pluggers and flyers around the Southside advertising parties that I knew would have the “older and cuter boys” that I desperately wanted to meet! !
Chosen Few DJ, Wayne Williams made a great point in mentioning the spiritual connection of Singer, DJ and Dancer. This is the trifecta that perfectly describes the house scene. We draw off one another’s energy and that is what makes the music and the parties so memorable. We are connected. Dancers are equally invested in the music as the artists who create it and the singers who sing it. These dancers grew up with some of these DJ’s and artists. Everyone was learning, partying and growing together under this musical umbrella. The young DJ’s and artists that helped create a genre of music are now world renowned artists traveling the world and working in the music business as artists, producers and remixers and executives. They are constantly “in demand” for parties, festivals and events all around the world. These are “OUR DJ’s”; shaped, molded, and trained in Chicago clubs. They are our “home grown” heroes. We are proud to call them “OURS”. Many have expanded their brands and have their own record labels and production companies. Following in the footsteps of Frankie Knuckles, many of them are Grammy award winners and Grammy award nominees as well.
The culture gave birth to so many great talents, including The Chosen Few DJ’s, who were also mentioned in the docuseries. The Unsung docuseries mentions the Chosen Few Festival and a special message from President Obama to househeads during the 25th anniversary celebration. The Chosen Few Festival is a staple in the Chicago House Scene. A picnic that started with just a couple of friends getting together is now 2 day festival where people come from all over the world to celebrate this music we call “House”. That was definitely worth mentioning, especially since many of the founding members were around from the very beginning. One of my favorite memories from the picnic that year will always be the message from our President at the end of the evening. I remember looking up at the jumbotron screen and seeing our first black president acknowledge house music and house people! My friends and I were in our tent high fiving each other and saying how dope it was that the president and first lady were househeads!!! As Chosen Few DJ, Terry Hunter stated, “can you get any higher than that…?”
The Unsung docuseries was just a snapshot into how far this genre has come. House music is now played in clubs all around the world; house music producers and remixers are sought after by the top musical acts across all genres, crowds fill stadiums to dance to the music that was created by a few creative kids on the Southside of Chicago who just wanted to party and dance. The DJ’s of yesterday are now the legends of today and the future of house music is still being written and created with the incredible amount of new talent coming out of Chicago. Chicago is still creating, innovating and breaking boundaries in this genre. In short, Chicago “house-history” is still being written.
Overall, the show took me down memory lane, gave me a short history lesson and reminded me of the true spirit of this music. The music unified black and white, straight and gay, north and south. People partied in peace. It kept kids off the streets and out of trouble. It gave young kids a place to call home. It allowed young people a space to be creative and express themselves. It gave young kids opportunities that would have been unimaginable to some coming out inner cities on the south side. It gave birth to legends, innovators, artists and creatives and the music inspired a generation. That’s something special and definitely something to be proud of and the beauty of it all is that….the story isn’t over! There’s so much more to come!!
The Unsung special made me so proud to be a Chicago House Head.
Until we meet again….
©Black Widow 2016