“His legacy lives on in the city of Chicago, and on dance floors around the world,” said the message, sandwiched between White House letterhead and Barack and Michelle Obama’s signatures. It might seem unusual for a sitting U.S. President and First Lady to write a personal letter to the family of a famous DJ, even one who died too soon. But Barack Obama and the late Frankie Knuckles had more in common than just being young (ish – Knuckles was only 59 when he died, allegedly due to complications from diabetes), gifted and black.
Both were non-native Chicagoans who adopted the city as their home. They also lay claim to famous firsts – Knuckles is credited with a central role in the origin of house music, a style that’s synonymous with dance music in general, at the legendary Warehouse club (hence the name) in the early 1980s. There, Knuckles wove together soulful disco records, original songs made with low-budget or borrowed equipment, and hard electronic drum machine rhythms programmed on the fly, to pioneer a sound that is part of the foundation of most modern pop music. Apparently Obama was America’s first something-or-other, but I’d have to look it up.
The Warehouse is where their paths famously crossed, though not literally. It was in 2004, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley declared August 25 “Frankie Knuckles Day,” and made an honorary dedication of part of the street where the club once resided, dubbing it “Frankie Knuckles Way.” A key player in the recognition? Then-Senator Barack Obama. He likely wasn’t a house fan – his “music picks” for NPR in 2008 included Fugees, Marvin Gaye and Kanye West – but the freshman Senator can’t have missed the fact that house is Chicago’s most famous musical export. Nor can the one-time South Side have failed to notice that the patrons of the Warehouse were predominantly drawn from marginalized groups, both black and gay. House’s Martin Luther King-sermon samples, testifying divas and sweaty dance floors united by a beat, all embodied one thing to its devotees: Community.
You could, if you were so inclined, point out that America’s black and gay communities are key voting and fundraising constituencies both for Obama and for the Democrats, whose 2014 senatorial candidates are amassing war chests for a fight that could see them lose the upper chamber. But political calculations aside, the affection between Knuckles and Obama seemed real, at least to hear Knuckles tell it. The DJ mentioned his honorary street, and his meeting with the future President, in dozens of interviews. The famous photo of Frankie, Barack and Michelle was splashed across the internet time and time again, a symbol of house’s legitimacy and Obama’s cultural savvy. And in 2011, Knuckles shared a heart-warming snippet of their conversation with The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey, one that only a true political cynic could dismiss:
“He was like, ’You’re so much bigger in Chicago than I ever thought you were,’… And I said, ’You give me a lot of credit because your job’s much harder than mine!’”