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3 black gay men created house music. Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and Ron Hardy pioneered the house music genre in Chicago and New York City. They laid the foundations for modern DJing, sampling, remixes, and EDM/Dance music.
History shows us that when people of color have created anything, even outside of music, the credit seems to end up in our white counterparts’ hands. Even when we do get the credit, the monetary gains from that creation tend to be a story of atomization. Just like blues and rock n roll, house music was created by a marginalized black community that is now dominated by the heteronormative mainstream. Katie Bain inserts, “While underground LGBTQ-oriented clubs continue trendsetting in major cities, in the most visible and lucrative incarnations of the scene they created, gay and black artists are in the minority.”
Today we celebrate three pioneers of the House Music scene that have been overlooked by history.
Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music”, was born in Bronx, New York in 1955. In 1972, Knuckles and childhood friend Larry Levan first worked together at The Gallery, a New York City dance club. When Levan left to work at Continental Baths in 1973, Knuckles followed to work as his alternate DJ. In March of 1977, Knuckles played the opening night of Chicago’s private after hours club US Studio – The Warehouse. He DJed a mix of deep dance music including soul, disco, disco-rap and early electronic vibes. The ‘house’ in The Warehouse is what gave the genre its name.
At the time, nobody else was doing what Knuckles was doing. This allowed for him to not be effected by the death of disco, aka Disco Demolition Night, in 1979. This was when Knuckles began to get involved with more post-production work and create his own tracks. In 1983, a 12-inch single of his Warehouse classic “Let No Man Put Asunder” was released on the Salsoul label. The song went on to become a house classic. Frankie produced songs for local Chicago vocalists and wrote tracks such as “Baby Wants To Ride,” “Bad Boy,” “Cold World” and “Your Love,” which was a breakthrough hit for Chicago native Jamie Principle. He released a hit with “You Can’t Hide” in 1986. Knuckles continued to make a name for himself in the music business until his untimely death in 2014.
Larry Levan, born Lawrence Philpot in Brooklyn, New York in 1954, was the first superstar DJ. The first to really show the world that DJing was more than just playing one record after another. Levan’s style was greatly influenced by that of dance music pioneer, Nicky Siano, of The Gallery. For 10 years from 1977 to 1987, Levan was the star attraction at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, writing himself into clubbing history with stylish DJ sets that took in minimal underground disco, funky rock, dub and synth-pop, which foreshadowed the house music revolution. Levan kept the crowd raving with his effortless ability to mix and tweak records creating high emotional impact.
Eventually, as with Knuckles, Levan also expanded into music production and mixing in order to create the sounds he wanted to hear in the club. His unique approach helped make stars of singers like Taana Gardner and Gwen Guthrie, and his encompassing yet futuristic productions for the likes of Man Friday and the Peech Boys remain hugely influential in underground dance circles. Levan died in 1992.
Ron Hardy, born in 1958, was an instrumental figure and dj in the development of house music. In 1974, he began his career in Chicago at Den One, a gay club, and at the end of 1982, Ron Hardy began to DJ at Warehouse.
Like most Djs, Hardy began playing music with two turntables and a mixer, but one notable addition to his tool set was a reel-to-reel tape deck, which was rare. Stylistically, Ron was less technical than DJs like Frankie Knuckles. To Hardy, it was more about energy and what “felt right.” He had less regard for sound quality and would play with a manic energy, mixing everything from classic Philadelphia Disco classics and Italo disco imports to new wave, mutant disco and rock tracks. Hardy also pitched records up way more than was normal. Techno artist Derrick May remembers hearing Ron playing a Stevie Wonder cut with the speed at +8.
Due to Hardy’s early death, in 1991, his legacy began to fade off. Newer and younger fans of this underground sound only learned about the still vibrant house music poster-child Frankie Knuckles.
We can’t rewrite history, but we can learn from it. Creatives have the power and always will. We just have to remember that at all times. Do your due diligence & research those who came before us. Always give props to the originators, and never let mainstream media dictate what you know.
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