A monthly feature exploring the lives, challenges and success stories of Chicago's African-American community, starting with the premise that before we were straight or gay, we were Black.
The power of music to raise our spirits, to excite, to soothe or to simply make us laugh as we remember what we were doing 'when that song was popular,' is amazing. Sometimes choosing the most appropriate song for a given event can make all the difference. Consider the challenge before Grammy Award-winning DJ Frankie Knuckles who spins the sounds for audiences all over the world. He has influenced many young people who aspire to be great disc jockeys and make their name known in the industry. But some people, young or old, come out just to hear Knuckles perform his wizardry on the mixer. 'I'm now 48 years old and it's still sometimes difficult to believe the impact that my music has on other people's lives,' he said. 'The whole deejay thing—making music and keeping it going—it's not who I am, it's just what I do. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when I disappear off the scene. I mean there will certainly still be deejays, but the kind of music they'll be spinning—that's another thing.'
What kind of music does Knuckles prefer to produce? He says he can't put a label on it, but he has been doing it for years.
'I can't tell you what kind of music it is,' he said. 'The media tends to try to categorize us. It's still the music that I used to do back in the day—at the Warehouse, which still didn't have a name then, just R & B. You could say that with no real name, no real title or handle, the kids started to call the club the 'house' and my work was called the 'house music.''
OK, Frankie, but even without a title, when people hear you're doing the party, 'they represent.' Why is that?
'That's a great question because when I select the music for a party I operate from the seat of my pants. I've been doing this though since I was 18—that's 30 years. And I have developed a reputation. People know what they can expect when they hear my name. They know they're going to hear something they've never heard before—but that what they hear will remind them of something they've always known. And they know my mixing is sophisticated—it's a superior sound to other clubs or dance floors. It's always about the music for me, with beats and vocals—not just a lot of beats.'
Knuckles was born in the Bronx (New York) and first became interested in spinning records at parties when he was offered a job at a popular gay bar. He had hung out there before but had not imagined that one day he would be the main attraction.
'I was offered working on Monday and Tuesday—the days that the club was normally closed,' he said. 'The first month things were slow, but a few began to come out regularly. It was good for me because I got to listen closely to the music. Six months later the club was packed and I was out of a job. The owner said things were going well, but I knew what that was all about.
'But what a wonderful experience. I was having fun and I realized that I could have done it for free. And all of the money I was making was going to buying records. I was hooked.'
Knuckles, who says he has been influenced by and/or worked with industry leaders like Larry Levan, Nicky Siano and David Morales (who was one of the guest deejays at his Jan. 19 birthday party), had a particularly good year in 1997. His work appeared on recordings by Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Rosie Gaines.
'It's really picked up since the Grammy [1997 Remixer of the Year],' he said. 'In the beginning I was travelling maybe three or four months a year. Then it went into double overdrive—12 months a year. Now I have to refuse to do any November or December events. And we're always producing our Thanksgiving party here during that time I take off.'
Knuckles says one of the things that makes him unique is his growing up in the ghettoes of the Bronx. It's there that he became accustomed to all kinds of people—and their music.
'Everyday the sides changed in the fights,' he said. 'But we were actually all friends—Blacks, Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Japanese—we all lived together and went to school together. I can't imagine the world being any kind of way. I like all kinds of music because I know all kinds of people—I mean really know them.'
This year as Knuckles celebrates his birthday in Chicago—spinning the sounds at a local club—it's the first time he's done so since 1986. So why this year?
'We've heard complaints about how little there is to do around New Year's Eve and especially after,' he said. 'This year our production company will celebrate 10 years in Chicago and while we like to space the events out, we thought we would try the birthday party rather than an Easter time event. Then it's the 4th of July and we really intend for that to be a big event this year. We just like giving the people what they want and they keep coming back for more.'
Knuckles gets a little more support this year with a new deejay having recently started working with him—Elbert Phillipps. 'He's great to work with and we've been doing parties together now for about one year,' he said. 'I see enormous potential in him and while he has his own style he just seems to naturally complement my own. He sets the party up great and warms up the crowd so I can take my time. And he looks at how his music and mine will together make up the entire evening. He's good and he'll get his chance—and he'll be ready, too.'
But Knuckles had one negative note regarding some of Chicago's North Side gay clubs.
'So many have special nights—music for this night, singers on that night, but you know, there are so few places that encourage the kind of music that Black gay and lesbian dancers want to hear. They like our money but they don't try to do anything special to make sure we'll enjoy ourselves too. We still need more of our own clubs.'
New Year's Magic and Steppin' at Club Escape—The Hottest Trends for Sistahs and Brothers
Since hanging out on New Year's Eve with Karen (Sexy K) Phillips and her partner, DJ Sheron, I have been exposed to a whole new way of partying. These women like to have a good time and they want to make sure their guests are satisfied as well.
Sexy K pushed for a community-wide New Year's Eve event at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Unfortunately the gathering was small. But it was a first time for several of the couples to be able to celebrate the holiday in public and not be concerned about the event being a 'straight' party. In fact the couples were gay and straight and everyone had a great time.
Norma Ramirez and Nancy Marrero saw an ad that prompted them to attend the event.
'I was so excited to see that something was going on that would make us feel welcome,' Ramirez said. 'This is a first for us but we hope Karen will keep this tradition going.'
DJ Sheron, like Knuckles, is a tradition in Black LGBT Chicago. She's been spinning sounds for 30 years and met the love of her life—Sexy K—while doing a party at Club Escape. They've been together now for over two years. Incidentally, there's something else very special that has quietly taken off over at Club Escape (1530 E. 75th Street). Zina and DJ Wilma, along with club sweethearts Sandra and Sandra, started hosting an event called Steppin' on Sundays—an event that takes place every Sunday at Club Escape from 3 to 9 p.m.—that has continued to increase in popularity. The admission price is $7 and steppin' lessons are available bi-monthly for an additional fee. One patron said she enjoyed the set because she didn't know how to step and wanted to learn. She said she was not alone and the lessons were a great bonus.
One couple, Monique and Joanie, said they come because it's a laid-back crowd and the music is the kind that they enjoy. Many of the women attending, like Barbara and Jackie, were coming out to support Zina and Wilma. And that's one of the amazing elements within the Black lesbian community—they support one another's events. Of course, sometimes there are so many things happening at once that it can become overly competitive. But Zina's idea—to let gay and lesbian couples enjoy steppin' with one another—is catching on.
'While we have had steppers' sets before with DJ Sheron, it has never been on Sunday afternoons,' said Frank Dean, owner. 'This was something new we thought we'd try when Zina came up with the idea. And now, people are asking for it. We have a lot of women coming out now because they have told one another, but you can bet the brothers will be here in equal numbers soon.'
Brian Patterson is one of the two instructors who patiently works with experienced and novice steppers.
'I started teaching about three years ago, and you have to come to Chicago to really get this—it's a Chicago dance,' he said. 'We want to make Chicago steppin' as popular and as much performed as the hustle or the Salsa. I even do private lesson out of my home. The desire to learn is there.'
Patterson's not gay—but he's still wonderful to look at [on the dance floor, that is]. And he's available for lessons too ([email protected]).