1986: Clubbing In Chicago With Frankie Knuckles & Ron Hardy

In July 1986, having talked i-D Magazine into letting me cover the nascent Chicago house scene for them, I found myself in the Windy City with no photographer, no hotel and no money...
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In July 1986, having talked i-D Magazine into letting me cover the nascent Chicago house scene for them, I found myself in the Windy City with no photographer, no hotel and no money...

What I did have though was a great set of contacts, and things began to look up most merrily when - after tracking down the music's movers and shakers - I hooked up with Frankie Knuckles, who took me under his wing for an eye-opening tour of the scene.

For all the hype, the House scene in Chicago was surprisingly small and, at club level, ruled by two legendary DJs, Frankie Knuckles - Larry Levan's erstwhile deejaying partner at New York's Continental Baths, who had moved to Chicago in 1977 - and Ron Hardy, a gentle junkie whose sweet demeanour belied the low-down and dirty sounds he marshalled for a devoted crowd. Frankie was the more famous - Steve Hurley and Farley Keith had coined the term 'House' to associate themselves with the music he played at the Warehouse - but, in 1986, Ron Hardy's Music Box was the best club in town.

Frankie knew that - he was in between clubs that met his standards, deejaying at C.O.D.s to keep his hand in - and was gracious enough to take me to the Music Box, one of the sweatiest, most intense dance dives I've ever had the joy of checking out. Disarmingly, neither of their clubs served alcohol - the very raison d'être for nightclubs in Europe - but there were, ahem, other compensations. Let's just say that sachets of powder don't taste quite so bad in cream soda.

The local scene yielded two other big surprises. As a funk-loving Brit with a track record of writing about black American subcultures, I was blind-sided by the enthusiasm black Chicagoans showed for The Art Of Noise and Depeche Mode. Jamie Principle, the first artist ever to record House, was gagging to talk about New Order, and my giveaway London accent invariably provoked the burning questions "Do you know Frankie Goes To Hollywood personally?" and "Is Boy George really dying?". It's a funny old world, but I shouldn't really have been surprised. It was, after all, Chicago's black radio stations that broke both Kraftwerk's 'Trans Europe Express' and Frankie's 'Two Tribes' in America. With all those speaker-shredding gospel singers around, I guess Luther Vandross just didn't seem very exotic.

There were, ahem, other compensations. Let's just say that sachets of powder don't taste quite so bad in cream soda.

The other shock was that, while London's dance nutters were busy checking out import shops every other day for the latest vinyl from New York, Chicago's house kids barely seemed interested in the decade we were in at all.

Maybe I should have seen that coming. The two recent House records to hit big in London clubs,  'Jack Your Body' and 'Love Can't Turn Around' were covers of 'Let No Man Put Asunder' by First Intention and 'I Can't Turn Around' off Isaac Hayes' Chocolate Chip' LP. But it was weird, going to clubs where the turntable wizardry assaulted you with entirely new soundscapes, and then realising afterwards that all the building blocks dated back to the 1970s. At the Musicbox, the only 80s record I heard all night was 'Maureen' by Sade. The early state of Chicago House recordings was obviously a part of it, but still....

Before I left town, I got Frankie and Ron to scribble down a few top tens for me, presented here as a snapshot of the musical runnings at Chicago's best clubs at the time of house music's international coming out.

FRANKIE KNUCKLES' HOUSE CLASSICS

1) Love Is The Message MFSB (P.I.R.)

2) Disco Circus Martin Circus (Prelude)

3) Love Hangover/No One Gets The Prize Diana Ross (Motown)

4) Hit And Run Loleatta Holloway (Goldmine)

5) The Sound Of Brooklyn Master Jay (T.S.O.B.)

6) A Little Bit Of Jazz Nick Straker (Prelude)

7) Can You Handle It Sharon Redd (Prelude)

8) Dirty Talk Klein MBO (Atlantic)

9) Let's Go Dancing Sparque (West End)

10) Billy Who? Billy Frazier (Biljima)

FRANKIE KNUCKLES' NEW HOUSE HITS

1) Your Love Jamie Principle (tape version)

2) Time To Jack Chip E

3) I Can't Turn Around Steve Hurley

4) Move Your Body Marshall Jefferson

5) Mysteries Of Love/The Path Fingers Inc.

6) Godfather Of House Chip E

7) Lost Control Sleezy D

8) Waiting On My Angel Jamie Principle

9) No Way Back Adonis

10) Rockin Down The House Marshall Jefferson

RON HARDY'S MUSIC BOX CLASSICS

1) Bad Luck - Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes

2) Welcome To The Club - Blue Magic

3) Peace Pipe - BT Express

4) Are You Ready For This - Revelation

5) All the Way Down - Brenda & The Tabulations.

6) Deeper - New Birth

7) Respect/Rocksteady - Aretha Franklin

8) Let's Get Together - Pam Todd & Love

9) Love Bug - Bumble Bee Unlimited

10) Girl You Need A Change A Mind - Eddie Kendricks