Frankie-Knuckles

With the recent passing of House Music’s “Godfather,” Frankie Knuckles, it does this page proud to give some perspective – some historical respect, if you will – to the man and the music/movement that Mr. Knuckles co-helmed at its “Genesis.”  House has been instrumental in spawning several generations of stars and most recently (some might say, “finally”), in an international way that has boosted its favor in Big Pop Culture.

There are some venues where it can be heard – Progressive, Soulful, House Music.  Perhaps not as plentiful as during the waning days of Disco and a little beyond the mid-1980s but they are around.  They can be bright or even outdoor, public presentations but were traditionally dimly lit affairs where dancers literally, lost themselves in an über percussive atmosphere and in what is simply called the “House Feeling” created The DJ.

This is the first in a series – all brief abstracts dedicated to what has come before and remains vibrant in clubs around the world.  It is also an examination of what, today, is engendering a great deal of interest and popularity.  There is no intention of being totally encompassing or deep (we wait patiently for Lil’ Louis’ movie, The House That Chicago Built, to do that as it promises to be the historic, definitive account of the movement).  Call this a “highlights” of this music/movement for those that may not have known much about its birth and a tease for those that have loved it since, well, forever (or at least before its grandchild, “EDM,” was given a name).

Any history begs to have its questions answered.  For example, why are the words, “movement” and “music” conjoined in conversations about House?  Those who have enjoyed this culture since its inception will commonly use one, the other, or both when talking about it.  The love for this music and its practitioners is not unlike any love for true “art” and “artist. The answers to the most obvious questions about House inevitably end with, “The DJ.”

What is House Music?  Some say, “Start with ‘4 on the floor beats’ and build from there.”  It could be as simple as a steady punch with or without vocals to lush machinations with vivid, repetitive bass lines, strings, horns, and (later) machines all played by The DJ.

When did it start?  Ask someone and then ask another person!  It may or may not have started with Disco and then morphed, as many say.  Many more argue that could never be accurate as there were and are clubs and DJs that achieved the “House feeling” on the dance floor without disco records and even without 4-on-the-floor; utilizing polyrhythms and skipped beats picked by The DJ.

And just who were these people who flocked to clubs to hear this music?  In the beginning, predominately Black and Hispanic, gay, men were its biggest fans.  At the time, certainly a culture and growing movement in need of a place to feel free and the music and the welcoming environment of the venues allowed them to get lost, if but for a few hours, from the scrutiny and criticism of the world outside.   It was the music, more than anything, which eventually brought anybody who wanted to be in the glow of this exciting new sound and culture into the clubs – The music played by The DJ.

What was the very first House record?  Check out the teaser for the aforementioned Lil’ Louis film, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jub2weyAIdo) and learn just how difficult that question is to answer. In Louis’ invitation, even the experts, including Frankie Knuckles, himself, pause to name it.  That’s probably because while there may have been a “first” on wax or “first” on tape, the movement started long before that happened.  Largely because what is known is, it was and always has been THE DJ who was able to sandwich together, Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer’s, “I Feel Love,” Eddie Kendrick’s, “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind,” Manu Dibango’s, “Soul Makossa,” Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express,” Tom Moulton/Three Degrees’, “Doctor Love” and some lesser known songs from the seventies and early eighties and transform them into a “feeling” on the dance floor.

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, legendary DJ’s like Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons in NYC, Ron Hardy in Chicago, and later “The Belleville Three” in Detroit, mastered this “feeling.” It was an idea/ideal-turned-movement wherein they, added length to songs, highlighting particular parts of them – strengthening the mix by skillfully cherry picking soulful vocal parts and breaks in the songs, to make dancers respond.   So, while the classic Jesse Saunders song, “On And On” (1984) is oft cited as the first House record that made it to wax, many like Arthur Baker, “Jelly Bean” Benitez, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Levan, Gibbons, and Knuckles, had already established the “movement” part!  These were some intuitive, visionary, progressive cats that (like others in progressive movements of any kind) were compelled to take things apart, reconsider the mechanics, and form something new, all for the sake of art.  The “super” art started when DJs began to add lines to existing songs with drum machines (specifically the Roland TR-808), sequencers, and samples to achieve the “House feeling” on the dance floor.  When they began to make their own tracks and build original songs, the landscape changed, entirely.

Which brings us to the question: “Why is Knuckles so important?”  True fans of House and any DJ worth his salt recognize him as an innovative producer creating songs like Jamie Principle’s “Baby Wants To Ride” and “Your Love,” the minimalistic, “You Can’t Hide” and later solo work like the colorful “…Whistle Song,” and soulful remixes for established pop artists.  But equally important, he, Like Hardy and Levan, was The DJ that brought the “feeling” to the dance floor.  It was at his first residency, a club in Chicago, where Knuckles established himself as the person who introduced what was “next.”  He broke songs in his sets through intuition and bravery, sometimes long before they came to the attention of other DJs and always before radio.  So common was his touch in the culture that the music/movement itself was named after the place where he played these songs and maintained that “feeling.”  The legendary club was called The WareHouse.

What has happened since that groundbreaking period has been nothing short of phenomenal: The universal acceptance that Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body” is the House “anthem;” House acts signing record deals; producers commissioned to remix popular songs; The birth of Techno in Detroit and the many sonic children born in The U.K. because of the Detroit/Chicago Acid House movement; The expansion of the sound, still more, after Northern Brits and producers and bands there got their hands on the music enjoyed at clubs in London (Leftfield) and decided to incorporate rock, dancehall, and industrial sounds to make their own wonderful brand of House practiced by The Happy Mondays and industrial outfits like The Prodigy from Essex; There’s the culture’s adoption of Ibiza, raves, and mashups of all kinds that created a pantheon of House Music lovers.

Meanwhile, back in The States, DJs/Producers in Brooklyn (Todd Terry) California (Marques Wyatt/Miguel Migs), and the Mid-Atlantic States, Miami, and Atlanta got connected to the movement. However, with the exception of a handful of traditional House DJ/Producers contributing to the current dialogue, (DJ Spinna, Knuckles, and Lil Louis Vega/MAW among them but still not as often as other producers) remixes by DJ/Producers of soulful House Music fall in and out of favor with record companies and at radio.  What Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s, “Tutti Frutti,” did for the status quo in the 1950s can be likened to what has happened to soulful house and Techno in The Millennium – tastes turned in the direction of a less “gritty” more “pop-friendly,” universally palatable version of House Music.

Tracy FortsonTracy Fortson (TraScapades.com), an arts and activism consultant living in NYC and a true participant in the movement who has traveled outside America to discover newer House scenes, says, “Beautiful, soulful dance music is still being created, sold and played despite the fact that the term “EDM” has now eclipsed ‘House.’” Further, she says, “Whenever the global explosion of EDM is discussed in popular music press, it’s disheartening to me that African American DJs who were the originators and architects of this genre are rarely mentioned – even from a historical perspective.”

We will explore this idea further with Ms. Fortson, hear from a few DJs who make this music happen, and learn where House Music in its soulful context can be enjoyed in the next segment.  In the meantime, here are a few links to some sites that expound further on this art and include the music we’ve talked about.  Oh, and keep dancing!

Chixo

Chixo Gibbs

Chixo Gibbs is a former DJ, music industry professional, and an occasional contributor to this page.  Comments can be forwarded to: motorcitychixo@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

10 Greatest Frankie Knuckles Tracks http://www.slantmagazine.com/House/2014/01/10-greatest-frankie-knuckles-tracks

Pump Up The Volume: The History of House Musichttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1HpY65cXDA

High Tech Soul – The Creation of Techno Musichttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlDMoI0ExS8

 

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