Cultural Critic Terrence Chappell Breaks Down the Legacy of Frankie Knuckles
Written by Vocalo Radio on January 28, 2020
This month marks what would have been Frankie Knuckles’s 65th birthday.
As we look back on the Godfather of House music’s legacy, we cannot ignore the fact that an important part of it was Frankie’s creation of sanctuaries for the marginalized … especially black and brown folks in the LGBTQ community.
Everyone deserves a safe place to dance. Writer and cultural critic Terrence Chappell chatted with Jill Hopkins about Frankie and the foundations of inclusivity.
Jill Hopkins: Let’s go back to the nightlife scene that existed in Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As house music was beginning to take hold in the clubs, can you paint me a picture of that scene?
Terrence Chappell: Well, Frankie Knuckles truly is the godfather of House music. Chicago is the birthplace of House. It really began at The Warehouse, and of course Frankie Knuckles was its musical director. The Warehouse really became this sanctuary for marginalized communities, in particular LGBTQ+ people generally, and certainly gay Black men, who were kicked out of the communities or disowned from their families for their sexuality. It started 1977 and it was located at 206 S. Jefferson, in the South Loop, which was not what it is today. That neighborhood was a little shady… you maybe didn’t want to be there after dark.
TC: What was going on at the time is that LGBT people of color were shut out of the more mainstream clubs. They had to show multiple forms of ID. They were often denied entrance, and if they were granted entrance they were not treated very well. So The Warehouse really became this hub where people can get in, live and love authentically, really be themselves, without that fear of being condemned.
JH: It can be hard to imagine that now in 2020 when we see how much queer folks and people of color contribute to the arts scene …
TC: We’re the ones that drive the culture! Frankie Knuckles just wanted to make great music and want to share with the community … but because of his identity, other people felt felt very comfortable to go there and be themselves. So it really became the spot, where people could gather together and live their truth.
JH: What was it about The Warehouse that made it so legendary and so welcoming to a diverse group of folks?
TC: First and foremost, Frankie led with his passion. Anytime you lead an endeavor with your passion it automatically creates a space where people feel like they can be themselves. I mean the music was the great thing about The Warehouse. The music was amazing. Though he was the main musical director there, they did have other people that would come in, that was his show completely 100% … Although it was a safe space for gay Black man and marginalized communities, anyone was welcome! White people were there! As Frankie said … house music isn’t white or Black, it’s just music. So it may not have even been his deliberate intention to create a safe space. But that’s what it became.
Boys Town and many of the more mainstream on gay establishments are still overwhelmingly white. And it and that does take a toll on your psyche, but you still need the safe spaces, because despite the progress that we can celebrate as a community, Black and Brown folks are still discriminated against. These safe spaces are still needed, a place for people to come without fear of being condemned or not accepted, and safe spaces are where history is stored.
JH: Do you think Frankie saw himself as a house music “house mother” of sorts, or was that put on him after the fact?
TC: That’s a really good question. I think he just wanted to make good music. And I think he just wanted to do something different. When you look at history makers who are legends or icons,they never set out to be famous, they never set out to change the culture. I think he wanted to make the community a better place through music. It’s a classic example of if you build it, they will come. I think he just welcomed all people in. Because of his own identity and because he was so great with passion and his drive he became the safe space.
I’m trying to think if there are any current places like The Warehouse and there’s not that many. Historically, gay Black clubs back then became meeting spots for Black men to meet and discuss HIV and AIDS epidemic. I know in South Shore there’s Jeffrey Pub and Club Escape.
I mean, Queen has historical ties to what to what The Warehouse was back then. But now, although it is fun, it’s become very … I will say transcultural. Which is not always a bad thing. However, a lot of times when that happens, people forget its historical ties and like who engineered this scene, which is Black folks.
JH: You’ve written that authentic customs and cultural symbols and identities are often weakened and devalued as gentrification rises, social media making culture more accessible and fluid and the scale of transculturalism.
Tell me more about that statement …
TC: You have to have something to offer to lead, and I think you see that in Frankie Knuckles. The Warehouse was this safe space and that was what was so important about it, it’s so important that folks understand where that came from. Rebuild Foundation at Stony Island Arts Bank has Frankie Knuckles’s record collection. To celebrate this past weekend they had Duane Powell DJing from that collection.
You need institutions like Rebuild Foundation, like Frankie Knuckles Foundation, to really propagate what House music is about and what it created historically.
Audio Producer: Fyodor Sakhnovski
Interview edited for length and clarity by Seamus Doheny
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