From The Warehouse to the World: How one Chicago nightclub sparked the birth of house music

The erasure of Black people in music isn't a new issue - it's been going on for decades.

Country, blues, and rock and roll can all be traced back to Black creators. That goes for house music as well.

In a FOX 32 special report, Terrence Lee looks at the origins, evolution and future of house music as we remember the rich roots of the genre, which are firmly planted in Chicago.

It’s a type of music like no other.

"To me, house music is a genre of and a hybrid of disco, R&B and funk sped up to about 118 to 120 beats per minute. A very friendly - dance floor friendly sound," said Joe Shanahan, founder of Smart Bar, Metro and Gman Tavern.

Shanahan's been a fan for a long time and said the music is all about breaking down barriers.

"The dance floor does not discriminate. That is a true statement on what house music really is, is that unification," Shanahan said.

Smart Bar’s talent buyer Alejandro Zerah described it as more of an environment than a genre.

"The environment is jubilant. It is about having fun and being free. This establishment rooted in the true history of house," Zerah said.

The genre can trace its roots back to a building at 206 South Jefferson in the West Loop neighborhood, once home to The Warehouse nightclub.

"People were calling it house music because it was The Warehouse," said Robert Williams, the original owner of the nightclub. "It was one of the first Black gay clubs of that sort, of that magnitude in the mid-70s here in Chicago."

Williams founded The Warehouse after moving from New York. The club quickly grew into the place for many young people of all different backgrounds.

"People came from the north suburbs, the west suburbs a lot of times. It was a place where you could go and feel comfortable as a youth, so they all got along. And because they all enjoyed the music and they interchanged their culture there," Williams said.

Williams saw his clientele expand as he brought in DJ Frankie Knuckles from New York, whose name quickly became synonymous with house music.

"Frankie brought a cohesiveness. He made Chicago his home. He made The Warehouse a legend that it is," Williams said.

"Basically the architect is in my opinion of that sound was Frankie Knuckles," Shanahan said.

"So he brought his own style, his own artistic flavor to that music and the application to its public," Williams said.

Frankie Knuckles also served as the first DJ to play Smart Bar and was known for pushing boundaries with his work.

"One of the things that I remember that Frankie would do was play the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during an instrumental track. That he had picked Martin Luther King gets to the point ‘I’ve seen the promised land’. I mean that dance floor just lit up."

"He would always take people on a story," said Frederick Dunson, president and executive director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation. "A good DJ tells you a story and there’s some thought that goes into what they play and how they blend it all well together. It was always an adventure."

Dunson said the development of house goes hand-in-hand with Black history in Chicago.

"Because that music came out of Black, gay parties and it was honed and cultivated in the Black experience. So yeah, it’s like celebrating Black history," Dunson said.

Knuckles passed away in 2014, but his impact and legacy live on in a big way in the Stony Island Arts Bank, home of Frankie Knuckles’ personal music collection.

"It’s definitely about preserving Black history and it’s also a demonstration that there are so many creative platforms for the celebration of those histories," said Theaster Gates, founder and artistic director of the Rebuild Foundation.

The collection is made up of nearly 6,000 albums of all different genres and is currently in the process of being digitized.

"What I hope for the future is that once the entire collection is digitized, that we’d have an opportunity to share parts of that digitization with the world," Gates said.

"For the public, the people to come in and listen to it. The programming that will revolve around all of the things to talk about what this collection means here, what it means to the city," Dunson said.

"House music was the emancipation space for not only people of color, but the queer community, the trans community. We can demonstrate the power of culture on the South Side of Chicago in Black spaces - wherever we convene," Gates said.

A big step in the preservation of house history was announced last year when The Warehouse was granted landmark status from the City of Chicago.

"I think it’s so much easier to tell a story when you have the physical place that people can go to," said Max Chavez, Director of Research and Special Projects at Preservation Chicago. "For so many people already without the landmarking, 206 South Jefferson was a mecca."

Chavez said people from all over the world came together to make it happen.

"The response was so massive. People from all over the world wanted to know how they could save the building because 206 South Jefferson is really a symbol of house music. We have so few places in America - really in the world - where you can point to a certain location where you can say a whole genre of music was birthed right in this building," Chavez said.

"I just think it’s an institution that’s well-deserving of its landmark status. Of today. It’s the only Black gay club of its kind in the city or maybe in the country," Williams said.

And as for the future of house, staff and owners at Smart Bar said it will live on with the next generation of DJs.

"We have a night called ‘Queen’, which is kind of explicitly a house night," Zerah said. "Smart Bar takes pride in our residency program, which we have all kinds of different backgrounds. All these people are historians of house as well."

"That’s very important to understand that the two are connected," Shanahan said. "Again something that happened underground. Something that becomes an internationally recognized Black History Month and house music."

"House music is a unifier. The proof is on the dance floor," Shanahan added.

If you want to check out some of the big names of house, the Chicago House Music Festival is scheduled for June 2 in Millennium Park.