Ron Hardy, Chicago Legend
If Frankie Knuckles is the Godfather of House, Ron Hardy was its Baron Frankenstein
It’s odd how, nearly nine years after his death in 1992, we are more interested in Ron Hardy now than we ever have been. Perhaps it’s to do with the over-commercialisation of dance music and a genuine desire to search for something more substantial, more genuine than the ever-shifting ephemera that passes for DJ culture. There’s also the endless search for the roots of house and those decades of club culture we missed out on because we were too busy dancing to Frank Wilson in pants the size of a haberdasher’s warehouse. Maybe it’s more simple than that, though. Ron Hardy – like Detroit’s Ken Collier – died before the days of the jet-setting American jock and so no British clubber has ever had the imagined sounds of Hardy’s take on black Chicago sullied by the truth. He’s the greatest DJ we never saw.
Even today, however, thanks to the joys of modern technology and the obsessive nature of the average dance music aficionado, we can still get to hear Ron Hardy playing, his ghostly presence transmitted down the years and over the internet. What’s amazing about these recordings – rough and ready as they are – is just how surprisingly good some of them still sound. More technically adept than Larry Levan and with a style that incorporated new wave, disco, proto-house and heavy, heavy, HEAVY on the Italian disco.
Ron Hardy had been a DJ since way back when. He cut his teeth in Chicago at Den One, before being lured out to California. In his absence (roughly from 1977 to 1982), a young New York DJ called Frankie Knuckles turned the Warehouse into the hottest space in the midwest, in the process formulating a new music that kids in Chi-town called ’house. Ron Hardy returned after being offered a gig in Frankie’s old space. "The Music Box is what the Warehouse turned into after I left it," recalls Knuckles. "See there was no competition. I had already been there. I had already worked that room. It was a completely different crowd. It had changed drastically. By the time I was leaving there they were trying to get him to come over there and play. He came to me and asked me how did I feel about it. I told him: ‘I really think you should go ahead and do it. But go in there with your eyes open and your mind sharp, and don’t let them offer you things you can get yourself. Go in there, make sure that when it comes to everything it takes to make you comfortable in there they give you. Don’t work with a half-assed sound system. Don’t have them offer you drugs and this that and the other when you can just as easily go out and buy your own. Tell them this is what you want and this is how much money you want and this is what you need in order to do your job here.’ This was my advice to Ron, so they would never have him in a position where they can have him over a barrel. I saw that happen to too many friends of mine.
"For somebody to follow Frankie Knuckles was quite a feat," reflects Marshall Jefferson. "Because of course they’re gonna have this rivalry thing, right? You know like all of Frankie’s people say, ‘Oh they’re opening a new club but they don’t have Frankie.’ They had Ron Hardy. Man, for him to make the Music Box like it was, it’s quite a feat. ’Cos Frankie was ruling the roost. They were calling it house music now, and that was because of Frankie. And for Ron Hardy to come in there and steal like Frankie’s thunder, it’s really something. People still liked Frankie, but see the thing is it split off into two different crowds. The people that really liked wild ass music. The people who liked really loud music. And Frankie’s crowd turned into the kids with a more distinctive, like a higher class of musical… taste.
Veteran Chicago clubber Cedric Neal remembers his first encounter with the underground dance scene. "The first time I ran across dance parties was late ’82 and that was when I stumbled across the Music Box," he says. "We were just driving along and we were wondering why all these people were standing outside. One o’clock in the morning, and they kept talking about this guy Ron Hardy. So then we decided to stand in line with everybody else, and that was the point which more or less - quote unquote - changed my life. Because that was the first time I saw him spin. And it was... it was amazing.
Marshall Jefferson experienced a similarly Damascene conversion. "I wasn’t even into dance music before I went to the Music Box," he laughs. "I was into rock and roll. We would get drunk and listen to rock and roll. We didn’t give a fuck, we were like ‘Disco Sucks!’ and all that. I hated dance music ’cos I couldn’t dance. I thought dance music was kind of wimpy, until I heard it at like Music Box volume. Oh, the volume. The way Ron Hardy played, man. I had never heard music at that volume since. It was really amazing. And like 15 years I have not heard a single club that even came close to that volume, and the reason being is, I would suspect, is there would be loads of lawsuits from damaging your hearing. Because the Music Box was so loud anywhere in the club, not just on the dancefloor, anywhere in the club, the bass would physically move you.
DJ Pierre, another jock inspired by Hardy’s Music Box sessions, recalls his baptism. "[My friend] Spanky was like, ‘You just gotta go to the Music Box, you’ll see, you’ll see the real deal.’ So he took me down there one night. Snuck me in the place and basically it just really blew my mind. I heard all that old stuff and I heard house music. There was tracks by Larry Heard. Real house tracks, made with drum machines and stuff, and after that I was like baptised or something. I got goosebumps. I was like ‘Oh man, this is crazy’. So after that I knew that was the real deal. The way people were screaming Ron Hardy’s name, I had never seen that before. And I had DJed a few parties, and I seen famous DJs playing, but they never got that reaction ’cos they never played that kind of music. I seen how soulful everybody was.
What characterised Ron Hardy’s style could be summed up in one word: energy. It was like voltage flowing through the needles. "He was energetic," chuckles Pierre. "Real energetic. He played classics and tracks and vocals, all in one set, and everything was real energetic. And when he took you down, it was real moody soulful. Like you would feel love. People were literally doing the nasty on the dancefloor. You know, it was dark. He didn’t have all these lights that clubs have. You know how lights have a bunch of different lights? The only lights he had was strobe lights.
Marshall Jefferson also remembers the energy, as well as the re-edits for which Hardy became famous in Chicago (as did Knuckles). "He played stuff like ‘It’s My Life’ by Talk Talk, the ABC stuff, Eurythmics, all that," says Jefferson. "Frankie wouldn’t play none of that shit. Even like ‘Frequency 7’ by Visage. You ever heard that? Frankie wouldn’t play it. Frankie would play like more straight disco; the black disco stuff, but Ron Hardy would play it all, man. And at really high speeds. Hardy was like busier with the records, too. He would fuck with the EQ more. Frankie would just mess with the bass occasionally, but Hardy would mess with every fuckin thing. I would watch Hardy sometimes like editing songs, man, and he would do it with just a cassette player He would play the record, ssst pause and then whmp play it again, the same part and pause whmm then do it again."
"He did editing," agrees Pierre. "You know ‘Bad Luck’? He would make a part just keep going. He’d loop it on a reel and keep one part just keep on and on again. Like ‘It’s Not Over’, he looped that beat – dmm dmm kdm-kdm, dmm dmm kdm-kdm – and it would run a long time, and everybody be there, just dancing off that one beat. Then, finally, he’ll let the rest of the song go, and everybody just explode." "Ronnie was doing a lot of his own edits as well, and a lot of his edits were very repetitious," says Knuckles, of the differences in approach between the pair. "Very high energy and very repetitious. He would take a song and take a certain part of the song, and he’d run that for ten minutes, before the song even played. And then he’d go into the song or go back to another ten minutes and just play one particular part. But the Music Box, the whole atmosphere was a lot darker than what we had.
Chez Damier characterises the difference between Frankie’s and Hardy’s crowds as essentially one of class. "The thing is, the Music Box is more like the ghetto version of the party. It was real banjy. Kids pulling out their shit on the dancefloor. Or probably in the corner somewhere, it was just really nasty, but I liked it. That was the balance. We had Music Box on one night and Power Plant on the other night." "For some reason it made me think of junkies," squeals Derrick Carter of his memories of the Music Box. "It was just like... junkies. It was a mixed crowd but you’d get people dancing on just... air. If Ronnie would play something like Eddie Kendricks’ ‘Going Up In Smoke’, and everybody would be going up in smoke. It would just lift everybody off the ground, and people would be crying, and just freak out and get so charged. Just like junkies getting a fix. And then they’d settle down. And then the next track would come on there was people freaking out. It was very very wild."
As Chicago moved from being a consumer of other people’s music and began to be a producer, both Knuckles and Hardy assiduously established relationships with different producers. Knuckles was close to Jamie Principle and was playing ‘Your Love’ years before it eventually surfaced on Trax. And if Principle’s slick Prince-influenced sound suited the mellifluous style of Knuckles, then the rawness of Marshall Jefferson and DJ Pierre’s productions perfectly suited Hardy. "We gave the track to Ron Hardy," reflects Pierre of the Phuture (and future) classic. "And if Ron Hardy said he didn’t like it, it would have been the end of acid. Because he was the man, it was like, if he said he loved something, that was it. If we’d have went up there and he said ‘I don’t like it’ we’d have thought, ‘Oh well, back to the drawing board’."
As luck would have it, Hardy did indeed like it. "Then after that all these rumours started coming out: Ron Hardy’s ‘Acid Tracks’. Everybody was buzzin’ about this new track and we was like ‘what’s this new track, what’s this new track?’ Then someone said, ‘I got it on tape’ and when I heard it all I said, ‘Man, that (italics)is(italics) our track, that ain’t Ron Hardy’s track. He said, ‘Man, people going crazy over this track.’ I said, ‘they called it Ron Hardy’s ‘Acid Tracks’?’ (We’d called it ‘In Your Mind’, whatever that means.) Well if everybody’s calling it ‘Acid Tracks’, it would be stupid to come out under a different name..."
There is an easy parallel to make with a certain New York DJ: Larry Levan. Both black, gay and with a certain unique energy in the DJ booth. Both, sadly, with spiralling drug problems and an all-too-predictable end. "Hardy did every single drug known to man," says Marshall Jefferson of his hero. "How the fuck you gonna programme that? He didn’t give a fuck about programming or none of that. When I saw Larry Levan later, right, I wasn’t impressed, because I’d already seen Ron Hardy. Same type of DJ, but Larry Levan passed out while he was playing. Ron Hardy never passed out while he was playing. As high as he got, he never passed out, ’cos he was so pumped up. Shit man, Hardy would do shit plus six, plus eight, you know, fast as he could play it. The energy man, the energy. Since Larry Levan played everything at the proper speed, there’s no way he could duplicate Ron Hardy’s energy."
Towards the end, Hardy wasn’t even DJing that much. His great gigs an increasingly distant memory, his habit increasingly voracious. He was often spotted doing oddjobs out at Trax, in Larry Sherman’s warehouse (which is a bit like Paul Oakenfold ending up as Pete Waterman’s cleaner). "Towards the end he got worse with the drugs," says Cedric Neal. "He started shooting up. I’m not sure the drug of choice that he was doing, and not to defame his name, because he was one of the best DJs in the world. But he got caught in that turmoil, and by the time he got down to the Powerhouse he hated spinning. I talked to him a couple of times and he was like, ‘I got to feed myself I got to pay my bills’. And when he was at the party in the early 80s when I used to talk to him, his attitude was, ‘this is what I live for: to spin’."
When he died, in 1992, there was hardly a mention of him anywhere outside of the right-knit circle of Chicago devotees who’d grown up listening to him in their youth. There were no obituaries, no memorials and, unlike Larry Levan, there is no party each year to commemorate and celebrate his life. "Even though he’s not here with us, he’s here in spirit and as long as I’m alive, he’s alive," Adonis told Jonathan Fleming. "When Ron played, he played to take you to some place. He didn’t play just to make some money. For him it was a way of life, it was an art-form and every night he put his soul into it. I can imagine him praying before he put on his turntables. It was no ‘plug it up, let’s do it’, it was spiritual and that’s why I put him as my number one."
© Bill Brewster
Originally pubished in Faith, 2004
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