"Stay on those motherfuckers, and if they look like they going to faint, hit them harder."
- Ron Hardy
For the men that were there, any mention of the space immediately takes them to a time and place where the dance floor provided refuge from the grim realities outside its walls. In its early incarnation, The Warehouse catered to a membership-only clientele made up primarily of Black gay men. The man who people came to see, DJ Frankie Knuckles, was the master conductor of many a legendary night. Knuckles once described the Warehouse as “a church for people who have fallen from grace.” Knuckles, a Black, gay native New Yorker, established himself as a tastemaker in Chicago. A pioneer who manually created extensions of rare groove records with a blade, he laid the foundation for an entirely new genre of music: House.
After Knuckles departed The Warehouse in 1982, owner Robert Williams created a new club; this time made up primarily of straight clientele called The Music Box (sometimes spelled “Muzic”) with a new resident DJ, Ron Hardy. If Knuckles played like fine, smooth whiskey, Hardy played like the strongest, hardest tequila. Hardy - a Black gay man - honed his skills playing in Black gay clubs in the city and brought that experience to the straight patrons looking for new rhythms at the Box. According to Williams, Hardy’s intense and loud style was attributed to his heroin addiction. “He played real fast. That’s because he was high on heroin, and things were kind of sounding slow to him. So, he’d speed it up. In doing so, he’d speed the party up.” If Knuckles laid the foundation for House music, Hardy gave people just enough doses of “fuck it!” for them to create it.
Operating during the same time as The Warehouse and The Music Box, DJ Larry Levan played relentlessly to a membership-only clientele of primarily Black and Latino gay men at New York City’s Paradise Garage (aka The Garage). Levan and Knuckles were childhood friends. Fate intervened when Warehouse owner, Robert Williams, initially approached Levan (not Knuckles) to move to Chicago to open The Warehouse. Already hard at work preparing to DJ at The Garage, Levan declined.
Larry Levan had his own style and, like Knuckles and Hardy, was Black and gay. Known for creating his own remixes of songs, Levan also became notorious for breaking new material as well as introducing sometimes familiar, non-traditional dance records in a new context. Unconcerned with the perfect blend and beat matching, Levan cared for storytelling and taking his crowd on a journey. “Frankie Crocker, the programmer for WBLS [at the time], he would come there and suddenly he would pick up on one of these songs.” He would say “I heard this last night at the Garage.” That was the Larry Levan effect.
In the background, the toll of the AIDS epidemic impacted the Black gay community and other vulnerable communities in the 80’s and early 90’s. Black gay men often flocked to a sacred space - the dancefloor - if only for a few hours. Safer than the sex they were often afraid to have, they could move, sweat, laugh, cry, relinquish, replenish and take a trip with the pulsating beat of the club as soundtrack.
The end was near. On December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre released The Chronic, and Black culture shifted significantly. Our architects had already become casualties of the time. Ron Hardy and Larry Levan died that same year prior to its release. Both were long-term drug users and had been diagnosed with HIV. The Chronic became a fork in the road for music. It introduced rap music to the mainstream audience, and it marked a turn away from more party-oriented records to a darker sound dubbed “gangsta rap.” Black gay clubs would begin to institute “thug” nights and more rap music would move to the main rooms of the club. House and disco music would begin to be pushed out completely. Frankie Knuckles continued to DJ and produce until his death in 2014.
All three are revered as gods among DJs. They set dance floors on fire night after night, broke songs into the mainstream and created timeless music of their own. They did this all while playing from a solidly Black gay tradition. More than DJs, they were Black gay cultural ambassadors who invented the way we party today. #ArtIsResilience
Johnnie Kornegay is the Director of Digital Strategy and Stakeholder Engagement for the Counter Narrative Project.