It was about 10 years ago and the skeleton crew of 5 Magazine staffers were meeting for lunch at a cafe on Chicago’s North Side.
Two people not at the meeting had recently had a falling out, and to be honest had never liked each other much to begin with. The whole thing seemed remarkably obscure and petty to me until one of our elder statesmen cleared his throat in preparation of what was going to be a long soliloquy.
“These guys are old school househeads,” he said. “What you have to remember is that it wasn’t all fun and games and everyone liking each other back then.”
“So these guys hate each other because of something that happened 30 years ago?” I asked.
“It goes deeper than that,” he said. “You see, back then there were ‘Frankie People’ and there were ‘Ronnie People.’ Even more than the records, even more than just ‘being House,’ being a Frankie Person said something about who you were as a Househead and as a DJ. And just like that, being a Ronnie Person said something about who you were as a Househead and as a DJ.”
“Which one were you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t get a chance. A man who had been standing in line at the cash register waiting to pay his tab stormed over to our table. Without even glancing around, he perched on the end of our table with his fists and leaned in.
“THAT IS EXACTLY RIGHT,” he said. “There were Frankie People and there were Ronnie People. Frankie Knuckles! Ron Hardy! You were the Box or you were the Plant! Music Box! Power Plant! I lost my BEST FRIEND! He was a Frankie Person, he wanted to go to the Plant for his birthday but I was going to see Ron that night. You see, I was a Ronnie Person! And I STILL AM!”
Just to make this clear: none of us knew this guy or had ever seen him before. We had no notion he was eavesdropping, or even that there had been anything for him to eavesdrop over. This was 2007, not 1987. The Music Box and the Power Plant were memories, not real places anymore. But he was so inflamed two decades later that he couldn’t help himself.
Nine years later, it still matters. This is how I explain the old school househeads who have been raging (mostly on Facebook, thank God) about Unsung, the episode that aired on November 30, 2016 featuring Frankie Knuckles. They’re not upset by what’s in it as much as what’s not.
And what’s not is Ron Hardy.
The story of Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and the relationship between them is a fascinating one. It’s been addressed before – and it’s addressed again every time someone interviews Robert Williams. Because Robert Williams is the connection between them and always will be: the mortar of House Music, the founder of The Warehouse and the Music Box, the man who brought Frankie to Chicago from New York after he himself arrived and is still with us today, after both of his proteges found fame on their own and passed on.
Listening to Frankie put a set together was like watching an artist with a chisel carve a block of marble into a Renaissance sculpture.
Frankie Knuckles means a lot of things to people, aside from the person that he was. “Frankie People” (even if they don’t use this kind of jargon) were, and to the extent they identify this way still are, defined by style and taste. Frankie wasn’t a magician with a turntable, using a tone arm to bend reality like some kind of wizard’s wand. But there was never anyone with better taste. Nobody knew better what record should follow another. If you believe in things like “vibe” and “mood” (and if you’re reading this you probably do), Frankie’s mastery of them was stat maxed. Listening to Frankie put a set together was like watching an artist with a chisel carve a block of marble into a Renaissance sculpture. But a better comparison is Homer – the storyteller par excellence and the one that all other storytellers are descended from.
DJing was also a matter of style for Ron Hardy – the “style” of a man playing music with his hair on fire. Ron Hardy was a magician with a tonearm, and had an almost savant-like genius when it came to music. A few of his peers over the years have discussed how Ron would edit music while he was holding a conversation – just casually, like a man talking about his workday while shuffling a deck of cards. He knew the crazy New Wave song that went after “Acid Tracks,” and he knew he should play it four times to get people amped into a frenzy, but not five.
You can see why this is seductive, and why there is a group of people, some of whom weren’t even born when Ron Hardy died, who consider themselves children of the Box.
Ronnie People often have a chip on their shoulder, in that they feel that Ron never got the credit he deserved. And they’re mostly correct about that: he doesn’t.
For one, Ron Hardy didn’t jump from DJing to making the music to any significant degree. Chip E. has told the story many times about persuading Ron to come to record for DJ International. But there wasn’t much of it. If you think about most of the great DJs, nearly all of them have some body of recorded work – a hit or two or a dozen – that elevated their profile. It’s pretty hard to set up a career without a record propelling it, even now when record sales have never been more meaningless. It shouldn’t be that way but it is.
But really the main reason is that Ron Hardy passed away before this music blew up. The “circuit” as it existed then was pretty small, fairly insular and largely driven by the always important “New York connection,” which unlocked access to new music and to the largest clubs. Many of the people we think of as pioneers of the whole DJ/producer concept today – Pierre, Marshall Jefferson, Steve “Silk” Hurley – first achieved success as part of a “band,” which was one way that the industry could process House Music in the 1980s. Ron missed that, as well as the years when things blew up and Chicago DJs began to spend more time in clubs and airports than at home.
The only two places you’re guaranteed to have your picture published is in your high school yearbook and your jail mugshot. Everything else is up to you.
There’s some righteous indignation behind being part of the Ronnie People, and like I said, it’s actually pretty justified. The problem is that fame, renown, notoriety, awareness, whatever you want to call it isn’t a limited quantity. Attention doesn’t have to come at the expense of neglecting someone else. It usually doesn’t. There should be books and documentaries about Ron Hardy. But you know what? There aren’t very many books and documentaries about anyone in dance music. For the last 10 years, people have mainly written books and made movies about the genre – Yet Another House Music Documentary, which features all of the same people in the other House Music documentaries, plus four more. Much of what people seem to want in a documentary about Chicago in the 1980s, Chip E. covered in The Unusual Suspects. It still hasn’t been surpassed in those terms. But again, that was about a group of people, not a man. It’s a history, not necessarily a story.
We’re all still at a very rudimentary stage, even with dance music being such a big, vast industry. You can’t write about a fucking record anymore without a publicist having preordained this and ticked a box next to your name in a gigantic Excel spreadsheet on a laptop in London. And dance music has become much more of an “industry,” like the movie industry and the industry that makes TV documentaries. Series like “Unsung” aren’t really interested in people’s childhoods or grand movements. They want to tell a compelling story and have less than an hour to do it. They’ll bend it if they have to (I’m not claiming they did) because when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of viewers, relatively few of them are tuning in to check the fucking footnotes.
Lucian Carr, a legendary editor, once told his reporters to write copy that would “Make me horny or make me cry.” That’s what TV is aiming for. It’s not there to hand out participation trophies or to validate anyone’s (authentic and real) experiences. There was a documentary about Frankie because someone thought up and could package a documentary about Frankie. It’s unclear if people could sell a documentary about Ron Hardy on this level. It’s possible, but I don’t think so, for the reasons stated above.
But there almost definitely won’t be room in this Ron Hardy documentary for some other guy who made a record but has nothing to add to the story. That’s how storytelling works. That’s how stories are told. Documentaries are not encyclopedias, and even encyclopedias aren’t really encyclopedias, not in the way you think they should be. The only two places you’re guaranteed to have your picture published is in your high school yearbook and your jail mugshot. Everything else is up to you.
Let’s not forget however how far we’ve come. We had Alan King on the cover of Issue #6 of 5 Magazine. Andre Hatchett was on the cover of Issue #12. There weren’t many magazines interested in these people and their stories. We’re at the point now where people are hopefully becoming interested in a Ron Hardy, or an Armando, a Farley, an Alan King or a Chez Damier – guys who have a history and a compelling story. Because it’s all about the story. “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species,” Reynolds Price once wrote, “second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.”
Because you know what’s going to happen now? I’m going to get braced by the “Lil Louis People” for not including them here with the Frankie People and the Ronnie People. Even though he’s already decided to make his own documentary too.
Originally published in 5 Magazine Issue 141, featuring Sumsuch on Kiko Navarro, Paris’ legendary soulful mecca Djoon, Rondell Adams & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.