Anyone with even a passing knowledge of dancefloor history knows Frankie Knuckles respectfully as the ‘Godfather of House’. Together with his childhood friend Larry Levan he ran wild on the early disco scene: his first job was spiking the punch at Nicky Siano’s Gallery. Transplanted to Chicago after a residency at the bacchanal of New York’s Continental Baths, it was Frankie’s sets of ballsy older disco at the Warehouse that ignited this polite midwestern city and gave house music its name. This interview was conducted just after the shock closure of New York’s Sound Factory, another great room that Mr Nicholls had (briefly) made his own.
I started spinning at the Continental Baths in July 1972. As well as the club area, there was an olympic size swimming pool and a TV room at the very end. Alongside the pool was a sauna and a shower room, then there was like boutiques and restaurants and bars, and back into an area where there was apartments and private rooms.
I was scheduled to play Mondays and Tuesdays, and Larry played from Wednesday to Sunday and on the nights he played I found myself playing at the beginning of the evening, or playing before he woke up… IF he woke up. I mean Fridays and Saturdays he was generally OK, but Wednesdays and Thursdays he wouldn’t get started till very late, so…
I played different other clubs around the city, this one after-hours called Tomorrow. Larry eventually left Continental and went to work at a club called Soho, which was owned by Richard Long, who was the premier sound engineer, he was the one who taught us everything about sound.
The Continental went bankrupt and closed in ’76. I worked a couple of other places here in the city, but I was looking for something a little bit more than just a job. I figured I’d already put five years in one club and it had gone bankrupt, so if I was to go and work at a particular club at this point I wanted more of an incentive. If you give me a piece of what’s going on then I wouldn’t have a problem applying myself and working hard to make everything work. Or else to me it just wasn’t worth it. To just go and play records and collect a pay cheque.
Originally they wanted Larry in Chicago, but Larry didn’t want to leave New York, and besides, the club Soho was beginning to take off — no, as a matter of fact, he had left Soho and they were already at Reed (SP?) street which was what Paradise garage came from. They were already building that and he didn’t see himself leaving. They had pretty much already had their ideas for what they wanted to do with that. He had no intention of leaving the city, so they came to me second and asked me to do it. I went out to play for the opening and stuff and I was there for about two weeks, and I really liked the city a lot. I only played twice because the club was only open one day a week: on a Saturday. But on both those nights it worked really really well.
They offered me the job at that particular point and I gave them my terms, how I felt about it. They offered me a piece of the business. So at that point I realised I had to think about what I wanted to do. If I really wanted to uproot from New York City and move there. Then actually when I looked at it I didn’t have anything holding me here. I figured what the hell. I gave myself five years and if I couldn’t make it in five years then I could always come back home.
Describe walking into the Warehouse
It’s such a long time ago. I look at a lot of different parties and stuff that I play for, when we go out on the road like the Def Mix tour, playing over in England and things like that, and I look at the energy of the crowd and the stuff like that, and the energy is the same. The energy is most definitely the same. The feeling, the feedback that you get from the room, from the people in the room, is very very spiritual. The Warehouse was a lot like that. For most of the people that went there it was church for them. It only happened one day a week: Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon.
Was that the first time you’d experienced that sort of energy?
No, because it was the same thing here. I mean you know a lot of these kids that are hanging out and doing all these parties and running around all these different clubs in England — not so much here in the United States because it’s a much more surefire thing in England I guess it’s pop so that’s the reason why — A lot of them think what they’re doing and the type of fun they’re having in clubs is something new. It’s not. I’m here to tell them that it’s not. This is something that’s been going on a very long time. What they’re doing is actually nothing new, what they’re doing is carrying on a tradition. Which I think is great.
The Warehouse: It was predominantly black, predominantly gay, age probably between 18 and maybe 35. Very soulful, very spiritual, very… which is amazing in the mid-west because you have those corn-fed mid-western folk that are very down to earth. Their hearts are always in the right place, even though their minds might not always be. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. And I think those type of parties we were having at The Warehouse, I know they were something completely new to them, and they didn’t know exactly what to expect. So it took them a few minutes to grow into it, but once they latched onto it it spread like wildfire through the city.
And in the early days of between ’77 and ’80, ’81 the parties were very intense — they were always intense — but the feeling that was going on, I think, was very pure. And a lot of that changed between ’82 and ’83, which is why I left there. There was a lot more hard-edged straight kids that were trying to infiltrate what was going on there, and for the most part they didn’t have any respect for what was going on.
So it was a black gay scene?
Who else was involved?
Just a lot of outsiders.
Some people have said there was quite a merging of the alternative, punk scene.
Not with what we were doing. When punk came about they had other clubs like Neo’s, places like that where those punk kids went to.
Chicago, believe me, it was very segregated, very much like it is now. The white kids didn’t party with the black kids. What really tripped me out was when I first moved there… growing up in New York City, all kinds of people grow up around each other, it’s pretty much like you see it, to me here it’s not that big of a deal; race and colour is not that big of a deal. There, when I got there, it was. You had the black folks living on the South side of Chicago, and on the immediate west of the city. And the only place where you find people who were different coloured people living together, was on the north side of Chicago like Newtown, that type of area, which is where I lived at. It bothered me at first, when I didn’t see enough white or other races on the dancefloor at the beginning, and then I realised I had my job cut out for me because I had to set out and try and change that.
And then when I found that the black gay kids didn’t want to party with the white gay kids, and the white gay kids weren’t gonna let the black gay kids hang out in their clubs, I was like, everybody’s rocking in the same boat but nobody wants to… everybody wants to play this game and it made no sense to me. we’re all living the same lifestyle here. we’re rocking in the same boat but you don’t want me playing in your clubs because you don’t want my crowd following me in. It made no sense to me.
When you go out in the gay clubs in Chicago now, it’s changed a lot. But while I was there it didn’t change at all.
What were the drugs that were driving the scene at the time?
Probably a lot of acid. A lot of acid.
What was the club scene like when you arrived in Chicago?
By the time I got to Chicago the disco craze had pretty much already kicked in. the difference between what was happening with music then and music now is that songs lasted a lot longer then than they do now. I don’t mean as far as length wise, but songs lived in people’s consciousness a lot longer than they do now. So a lot of the stuff that came out in the early ’70s on Philly International. I was playing a lot of stuff like that, that was still working pretty strong, in ’77 when I moved to Chicago. And a lot of the popular RnB club stuff and dance stuff that was, disco records that were coming out then. Salsoul stuff, Philly International.
When did you start doing edits?
I didn’t actually start doing things like that until like 1980, ’81. A lot of the stuff I was doing early on I didn’t even bother playing in the club, becasuse I was busy trying to get my feet wet and just learn the craft. But by ’81 when they had declared that disco is dead, all the record labels were getting rid of their dance departments, or their disco departments, so there was no more uptempo dance records, everything was downtempo. That’s when I realised I had to start changing certain things in order to keep feeding my dancefloor. Or else we would have had to end up closing the club. So Iwould take different records like Walk The Night by the Skatt Brothers or…stuff like A Little Bit Of Jazz by Nick Straker, Double Journey and things like that, and just completely re-edit them. To make them work better for my dancefloor. Even stuff like I’m Every Woman by Chaka Khan, and Ain’t Nobody, just things like that, completely re-edit them, to give my dancefloor an extra boost. I’d re-arrange them, extend them and re-arrange them.
Was that a revolutionary thing to do?
No, I’m sure there was other people that was doing it, but to my audience it was revolutionary. But it had been done. It was already being done, before I moved to Chicago. When I was still here [NY] there were people that were doing it here. It was just a matter of time before I could learn how to do it myself.
And it was all on reel-to-reel.
Yes. And by the time I did get to around to start doing it. It might not have been revolutionary to anyone else within the industry, from the DJ side of it, butas far as the crowd in Chicago, it was revolutionary to them because they had never heard it before. They went for it immmediately. And they would rush to the record stores the next day looking for that particular version. And never find it. It used to drive the record stores crazy.
Did you ever do the same things live?
That’s how I used to do it before I started editing. Once I learnt how to edit, and I started changing things around like that it wasn’t necessary for me to play like that in a club any more. I could do it all ahead of time and pre-record it.
What about the extra beats that people would lay over songs. When did that start to happen?
The first time I started doing some of that might have been in ’83 because I had a rhythm maker then.
A rhythm maker is what they have with organs chik chik chok ka ka. You just set what particular rhythm you want. I would just set the rhythm that way and play it underneath what ever I was doing.
Had anyone done that before?
I don’t know. I didn’t finally get my first drum machine until 1984 I think. I got it from Derrick May. It was a 909. A Roland TR 909. Somehow he had two of them, and he called me from Detroit to tell me he was coming down. At this point I was at the Powerplant, I had my own club open. I left the Warehouse in spring of ’83. I opened the Powerplant in the fall of ’83. Anyhow, he had called me up and said he had these two drum machines and he wanted to sell me one. And I told him I didn’t know the first thing about programming them. He said it’s easy, I’ll show you. So he came down that weekend and he brought it.
The first time I used it, I used it on a version of Your Love that I did with Jamie Principle. And I would use it live in the club. I would program different patterns into it throughout the week, and then use it throughout the course of a night, running it live. depending on the song and playing it underneath, or using it to segué between something.
Jessie Saunders is credited with making the first beat track…
Well they would come and hear me play and then go back to their clubs, The Playground, and they would do the same thing. And they started putting together their own beat tracks. Which is OK but I’ve never been one to sit back and play a bunch of beat tracks. They called themselves having the same kind of parties at The Playground that we were having at the Warehouse or the Powerplant, but they really weren’t. because they were into playing a lot of beat tracks all night long, and to me that’s all they were, were a bunch of beat tracks.
And they didn’t overlay them with songs?
No not necessarily, no. They would play a bunch of beat tracks all night. And the type of crowd I played for was much more sophisticated than that. They wanted to hear songs. Granted I can break it up here and there a little bit, but for the most part they wanted to hear songs. And if didn’t play enough of them then they had a problem. The audience I had were very true, very loyal and they would never come down on me about it, but I knew exactly what they wanted. I could read them really really well. I couldn’t stand there and play beat tracks all night long.
What were the other differences between the clubs?
The Music Box was a heavy drug crowd. And they were more into like the Angel Dust, those dark scary drugs. I’m not saying they didn’t do drugs at the Powerplant because they did, but the kind of drugs the kids did at The Powerplant were more like MDA and ecstasy.
How important was ecstasy to the scene?
Ecstasy wasn’t around. I mean it was but it was MDA. But I don’t want you to say that it was revolving around the drugs, whatever they were, because the main focus was the music and the dancefloor. The drugs that people took, recreationally, or why ever they took them. I mean I know why: they took them because it was a part of the evening. But I didn’t have people walking out of there and years later ending up in rehab. It wasn’t like that at all. The audience that I had was a working class crowd, and on the weekend this is what they did, to hang out, it was part of their evening.
But were there enough people taking ecstasy, with its empathetic qualities, for it to make a difference to the atmosphere?
Yeah, there was enough that it made a difference. Yeah sure. But then you had that other half of people on the outskirts of the crowd, that was doing stuff like cocaine. When they can’t… those people that wanted to smoke Sherman sticks, or happy sticks [joints dipped in PCP], as dust as Angel Dust. Sherman sticks were those Sherman cigarettes dipped in something like Formaldehyde. I mean I wouldn’t allow those type of things to happen in my club. But the crowd that went to The Music Box they got into that.
How was the music different over there?
Ronnie was doing a lot of his own edits as well, and a lot of his edits were very repetitious. very high energy and very repetitious. He would take a song and take a certain part of the song, and he’d run that for ten minutes, before the song even played. And then he’d go into the song or go back to another ten minutes and just play one particular part. But The Music Box, the whole atmosphere was a lot darker than what we had.
What was the Powerplant like physically?
It was about 9000 square feet. You first came into it you came up these stairs and there was a big lobby area where we had like our kitchen set up and coatroom area. Couches and bankette seats where people can actually sit back, and chill, things like that. Nice venetian blinds on the windows, that whole thing. And you came around this corner into where the dancefloor was, this big open area. And at the end the booth was slightly raised at the back. I guess it was kind of a T-shaped room. We kept it the colour scheme of the place was very muted: charcoal grey, exposed wood floors, and we really just concentrated on the sound. The sound to me was the most important.
When did people realise that they were creating something new; that this music was something that wasn’t just old soulful underground disco?
They didn’t. they didn’t know what they had until it was gone. As much as I loved the Powerplant and as much as I tried to give it I was also beginning to move into production, which was something I really wanted to do. And all of a sudden the crowd began to change a bit, and then it began to slack off. And for me, I looked at it as this has to be a blessing in disguise. things slacked off, I can close the club down, this’ll give me more time to do the things I want to do, for me.
I closed it in September of ’86. And there were all sorts of rumours flying around, that we were busted by the city because of drugs, which wasn’t true, that the IRS shut me down for tax evasion, which was not true. Just all kinds of weird rumours. And these rumours got started by people from the Music Box.
There was no competition. The Music Box is what the Warehouse turned into after I left it. See there was no competition. I had already been there. I had already worked that room.
So it was the Warehouse crowd that moved on to the Music Box
No it had changed. It had changed drastically. It was a completely different crowd. I mean the first time a marathon was played at the Warehouse, I did that, I instrumented that. Ron Hardy was still in LA. He didn’t know what the fuck that was. By the time I was leaving there they were trying to get him to come over there and play. He came to me and asked me how did I feel about it. I told him I really think you should go ahead and do it. But go in there with your eyes open and your mind sharp, and don’t let them offer you things you can get yourself. Go in there, make sure that when it comes to everything it takes to make you comfortable in there they give you. Don’t work with a half-assed sound system. Don’t have them offer you drugs and this that and the other when you can just as easily go out and buy your own. tell them this is what you want and this is how much money you want and this is what you need in order to do your job here. This was my advice to Ron, so they would never have him in a position where they can have him over a barrel. I saw that happen to too many friends of mine.
Who else was important to the scene in like ’84, ’85 How important was the radio, the Hot Mix 5?
Well OK I was a part of the Hot Mix 5 too, and I didn’t necesasarily like it. I was with them for about a year. everybody that was on that team, they had egos beyond, beyond out there. It was ridiculous. everybody’s head was so big. And it was alright, I mean they were all riding around in their fancy cars and they had their gold jewels dripped all over them and all of this. And that’s fine.
They wanted me to be a part of the team that in all actuality I had nothing in common with. I mean the four of them Farley and Julian, Frankie Hollywood, and who else? not Ralphie, but… But anyway I had nothing in common with them. I had probably the most successful underground club in the city; the only underground club in the city to be honest with you, and it was the most successful. And with me being a part of that team and making tapes and being on the radio it lent a lot of credibility to the show.
Was it easier to break records from the radio or from the club?
It’s easier to break them from the club, but anybody who’s making records wanted their song to be on the radio. So automatically with those guys, they played all these one off gigs all over the city, and with the exposure from the radio station, there was always a lot of hype behind those guys wherever they go. So it drew a lot of people out there. I wasn’t interested in that. I had the Warehouse, I had the Powerplant. I had my own club, so anytime I would get booked out to play anywhere else it would usually bring out more paople than anyone expected. But I didn’t run myslef around like that all the time.
So I used to get accused of not being a team player. And when I broke it down to them I said ‘look I don’t have anything in common with you guys.’ I mean plus out of all of them being the only one that’s gay, didn’t help matters any. But none of them would attack me to my face. None of them were man enough to attack me to my face. They would say stuff behind my back about my lifestyle and my being gay, but they’d never come to me and say it.
In your opinion what were the things that came together to create house music?
I’m not exactly sure. And I’m being absolutely sincere. I’m not exactly sure. Because when it looked like things were about to take off, I guess in ’85, ’86 I came her to New York with Rocky Jones and the whole DJ International thing. And for that New Music Seminar that summer. And there were a lot of British press that were here, trying to chase down the story of the whole house music boom. And my name kept popping up. And when I came here that summer for the conference all of a sudden I was being chased down by all these journalists. they said well we know you got the right story.
It really freaked me out at first and I wouldn’t talk to that many people. So eventually what happened was they followed us back to Chicago. They got in town and I would take them out and show them around, show them everywhere and what was happening and who was doing what. Whereas everybody else wasn’t that readily interested or available. And that was Rocky’s game plan, to try and keep some kind of mystique, or some type of mystery. Oh please!!
When they came up to Chicago I would take them round, show them where the Warehouse was, and they’d come to the Powerplant and hang out. I took them to the Music Box. I took them everywhere. But there was always a lot of conflict going on. You had people like Rocky Jones and Larry Sherman, who was capitalizing on the music of all these young kids, and not giving them a cent.
When I was working with Jamie, his whole thing was to have something out there quick, but I wanted to have something out there quick. I knew producing would do the right thing for me, but I also knew we had to take our time if we wanted to do this. because see I’m not in this for the moment, I’m in this for the long haul, and if you don’t have the patience to sit there and wait well you should just go ahead and do what you gotta do. And then what eventually happened was, with all the stuff that I worked on with him, he eventually just kind of jumped ship with me and ran and got together with this management company Freddie Rodriguo (?) and those people, and they filled his head with all kinds of foolishness that I was out to use him, and take advantage of him, and not do anything to help him. And he believed all that. Him and Stevie Hurley, and all the rest of them. Which is how he managed to suck all of them in.
But I happened to see how they were dealing with all the artists. I saw how they used Marshall Jefferson and On The House, after those guys had been on tour for like three months, and gave them not a dime. They were out there working every night and he gave them not a dime.
Now that’s not gonna happen to me. So they caught themselves trying to blacklist me in Chicago, and tell me that I will never play in Chicago again. This is the end of ’86, beginning of ’87. I was like ‘you people don’t have the power to do that. You can believe it if you want but you don’t have the power to do that. You can tell people what the hell you want to tell them. I know who my crowd is.
What was your best night in Chicago?
I had a lot of them.
Describe a really incredible night at the Powerplant.
That’s really hard to do because I get completely immersed in what I do. And what I’m doing, when it comes to having to play for my crowd. And every night was spectacular. All these nights would run about twelve hours each, it’s hard to pick out any particular moment. It’s not like someone onstage performing. I’m so involved in what I’m doing that not every night was perfect, but I’d say that 98% of them was as smooth as glass.
When did people start using the word ‘house’?
I think in ’80, ’81.
As early as that?
And where did that come from?
The kids that were hanging out at the Warehouse. Some of the new kids that had begun to discover what the Warehouse was all about: Farley, Jessie Saunders, Chip E, and all the rest of them. I would see them around I didn’t know who they were. And they started having different parties on their own in these different taverns and bars in Chicago. and when they’d do this they had a lot of success with it. And one day I was going out south to see my god-daughter, and we were sitting at a stop light, and on the corner there was a tavern, and in the window it had a sign that said WE PLAY HOUSE MUSIC. I asked this friend of mine ‘Now what is that all about?’ and she says ‘It’s the same stuff that you play at The Warehouse.’
What about ‘jack’?
That was the kids at the Warehouse. And that was round about when I first moved there in ’77.
What came together to create the music?
People like Steve Hurley and Jamie Principle. Farley Keith even. There were so many people that were making music back then, and I remeber being interviewed by a journalist in ’86 [Sheryl Garratt] and they had asked me where did I see this all going and what did I think was going to happen. And I remember telling her this music’s gonna be around for a while. It’s gonna take it a long time for it to get to where it needs to be at, but it’ll be around for a long time. the only shame about it — because there were so many people making music, and some of them were good — but their intentions were wrong. They were in it for the fame and the notoriety. And I told her it was a shame because not all these guys were gonna survive.
I knew I was gonna survive, because I know what I’m doing. I’m not in that much of a rush to get there. I think timing is everything about anything that’s worth having or worth doing. I wouldn’t say I necessarily had a gameplan but this is a growth process. Moving back to New York City and joining Def Mix and working with the different guys that I’ve been able to work with over the past 7 years I’ve been back here. Being able to gain the studio knowledge that I have, and all of the remix knowledge that I learnt in Chicago before I came back here. I made no money off the music I worked on in Chicago, not a dime, but I learnt a lot about moving around a studio. And plus all of those underground records that I had worked on. they were big records here [NYC], but they were nothing in Chicago. I mean stuff like Your Love and Baby Wants To Ride, and sdtuff that I did with Marshall Jefferson. They were bigger here and they were bigger in England.
When I moved back here and joined Def Mix I already had a name here and didn’t even know it. So timing was perfect. the market was really opening up, and people were beginning to look at house. This is ’87, ’88. I was really at that point where I felt there was nothing else I could do in Chicago. I was having parties and playing for different people. But I needed to broaden my own horizons and do something for me. Probably if I was going to succeed as a producer I needed to be here. I had a choice of moving here or moving to London. So I came back to New York and began playing The World.
Tell me about the Roxy.
In the beginning working there I thought it was wonderful, that those guys wanted me to come over there and play for that crowd in that room. That was like the premier gay crowd in the city. I figure if I can capture this crowd then I’m in there. I started in about 1991. So within that first six months to a year it was fine. But they weren’t fixing things and it became more work than pleasure.
When did you play the Sound Factory?
In ’90 to ’91. I played for a year. Junior had left, there was some type of dispute about ownership. And the rumour was going around that he quit and then they pulled me in there afterwards. And there was another rumour saying I had taken his job. Nothing could be further from the truth. because Junior owned part of that building. When he walked out that was on him. There’s no way I could take his job.
What memories do you have from that time?
I think that was probably one of the best years I’ve ever had playing records. For one for hooking up with Phil Smith the person that brought me in there. He has his own sound company, so the sound system came from his company, the sound system belonged to them, him and Steve Nash. We chatted and hung out for about a year, and he never let on to me that they were having problems with Junior or Junior was gonna leave. It was all of a sudden he called me and I was in the studio working on my first album, and he called me on Monday. ‘I need to talk to you. Junior just left. And he’s not coming back. Are you available to play?’ And I was like yes, cos all I had been doing was playing around the world.
It gave me an opportunity to show New york City exactly what I could do. When you have a room that size, and you have a sound system that enormous, and that pristine, my first thought was going in to play on the first night: you’re only gonna get one chance to do this right. Either it’s gonna work for you or it’s gonna work against you.
Phil and his partners loved the way I handled the sound system, the music I played over it, and the crowd really got off on it. The first time I played there I think was the first time I played the whistle song for anybody. And the room really got off on it. I went in there with a number of different things working in my favour, and it turned out really really well.
How do you feel about the club’s passing?
I think it’s sad. It’s really sad. I stopped hanging out at the Sound Factory, once I stopped working there. I would drop by on Junior’s birthday or something like that. But it’s really amazing because the night that they closed, I was there. And I got there about 4, 4.30 in the morning and I hung out there until 8. But there was no word. Apparently they told him at around 11 or 12 o’clock in the morning. It seemed like normal.
He came on the dancefloor and danced with everybody, crying.
I feel really really bad about it because that was the last great room like that, of that calibre. Of the old school calibre. Even though his music didn’t reflect the old school, that was the last great room of that calibre. Of the old school calibre, that was left in the city. And there’s not gonna be anywhere like that. A lot of people seem to be under the impression that there will be, but there won’t. Because the way Guiliani has restructured the system of things here, for one they won’t give out any new licenses to go beyond 2 o’clock in the morning.
Interviewed in NYC by Frank Broughton, 1995