Frankie Knuckles passed away earlier this month (RIP). Sadly I don’t think I ever caught him live, but I was well aware of his legacy and impact. I enjoyed reading all of the tributes written about him – many from fans and fellow DJs whose lives he changed forever. Even major news outlets like USA Today and The Economist showed their respects to the house music icon, which was genuinely surprising to me. Never before had the history of house been discussed like this in mass media. Chances are it won’t happen again.
The dance music world may have paused momentarily to honor Frankie, but soon the knowledge and appreciation of house’s storied roots will continue to erode at its usual brisk pace due to fading memories, generational turnover, and mortality.
Unlike hip hop, dance music doesn’t have built in acknowledgement. Through name dropping, resurrected rhyme schemes, sampling, and even recycled fashion and iconography, even a casual rap fan will eventually discover the likes of Run DMC, the Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. Thanks to rock n roll’s integral role in American culture, any modern rock fan could converse at length about the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan.
House music is different. Its story remains largely untold.
While Frankie Knuckles rightfully earned legendary status, many of his deserving peers did not. Ron Hardy, Arthur Russell and Walter Gibbons all died young and have already faded into obscurity, their life’s work completely unknown to the hundreds of millions who currently dance to music they helped create. Others are still alive, but have been relegated to obscurity regardless. Jesse Saunders and Farley Keith will not be having CNN – or even a Grantland – tribute articles written about them.
I remember watching a documentary on house music and learning that a teenaged Paul Oakenfold used to frequent the Paradise Garage and danced to sets by Larry Levan. If it wasn’t for that rare interview, I would have had no idea about the connection between European rave culture and the OG American disco clubs. I was a fan of both artists and a huge music nerd, but even that fact was unknown to me until recently. These days, does your average Ultra or EDC attendee even know who Oakenfold is? Would they even care to learn?
Maybe by its own design, house isn’t meant to be documented or remembered. Cross generational continuity is difficult to maintain in a youth driven dance movement. It didn’t help that many of those early DJs and dancers lived on the fringes of society: black, Latin, gay, and inner city. Seldom do these groups get to write history, and furthermore countless were lost to the AIDS epidemic and drug addiction back in the 80s.
Also, they often say that people dance to forget. As is the case today, to say that those early days of house music were hedonistic (and thus hazy) would be an understatement. That doesn’t mean that the magic that a great house DJ creates on the dance floor is any less real, but just like magic, those moments are fleeting and ethereal. House music blew up and overtook the world, but left precious little standing in its wake.
It’s a revolution that forgot its revolutionists.
Post by Roger Jao