Like Muddy Waters, Earl Scruggs, and other musical innovators who came to singly represent the genre of music they created and popularized, Frankie Knuckles was a living embodiment of house music, a Chicago creation that percolated from the underground party scene to transforming dance music on a global scale.
Knuckles died Monday in Chicago at age 59 from complications involving his struggle with diabetes. His last public appearance in Chicago was January 19 at a birthday tribute at Smart Bar, his spiritual home in Chicago. While too sick to perform, he looked on as multiple DJs performed music in his honor.
Although he was born in the Bronx, and performed in clubs there, Knuckles moved to Chicago in 1977 to serve as a resident DJ at the Warehouse, a gay nightclub on the near West Side at 206 S. Jefferson St. that eventually, through the music Knuckles created, developed into a scene uniting people of all colors, gender, sexual orientation and musical affiliation.
“What Frankie was doing underground was absolutely pure and important and we all knew it,” says Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro and Smart Bar, where Knuckles was invited to perform its opening weekend in 1982 and where he regularly played in the decades since. “We would go close up our bars at three, four in the morning and go to the Warehouse until seven, eight, ten in the morning to listen to what he was doing.”
At the time, dance music existed in the mainstream as disco, a genre of music widely maligned in 1979 at “Disco Demolition Night,” a record burning hosted by Stave Dahl at the former Comiskey Park. The event may have ended disco’s reign on the charts, but it pushed dance music deeper underground, where punk rockers, early hip-hoppers, and gay activists found a connection.
There, Knuckles became the architect of a sound that was far removed from the glitterball indulgence heard earlier. House was much more minimalist and smooth, combining splashy drum beats, elementary synthesizer flourishes, primitive digital effects and vocals that whispered, droned and roared with the spiritual release usually associated with gospel music but designed for total physical liberation.
In many ways, he created a new form of rhythm and blues by focusing, not just on the beat, but also on the emotional depth of the music. His re-editing of a wide source of music created an entirely new genre, one that emphasized quirky, playful sounds, and themes of transcendence.
“He could take a dance floor and take it to the choir loft: People with their shirts off, hands in the air, you felt you were at a revival, touching God at eight o’clock in the morning,” Shanahan remembers.
Last year, Knuckles told the Sun-Times that those early years represented “uncharted territory” in music.
“It was new to everyone here. We were making it up as we go along. The city didn’t know how to regulate and therefore, left us to our own devices. As long as we weren’t hurting anybody and abiding by the law, it was all good,” he said.
After his Chicago years, Knuckles entered a second phase of his career as a hitmaker and remix artist, cementing his signature sound on songs like “The Whistle Song,” “Rain Falls” and “Your Love,” and others featuring Jamie Principle, a singer-songwriter who lent smooth, falsetto vocals reminiscent of Prince. He enjoyed overseas success, especially in England where Chicago House found a welcome home and became a foundation for rave culture that that developed there involving mass gatherings of young people and an open door policy on drugs.
Knuckles did not associate with that scene, nor was he enamored with the celebrity DJ culture that exists today in EDM music as represented by Skrillex, a Lollapalooza headliner this summer, and others. To him, music was more than just possessing technical skills, and more about delivering a source of something more soulful.
“To play these large arenas where the stage is so far away from the audience, the superstar DJ can hide behind pre-recorded mix programs. Versus being in a DJ booth putting in the work, elevating the energy in the room and folks getting close enough to see you actually make all the musical transitions,” he said.
Knuckles continued to play house parties, but he also developed a name as a sought-after remix artist, tapped by a variety of major hitmakers, including Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston. He earned a Grammy in 1997 for remixer of the year, non-classical, for his work with Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxon, among others.
He also was undergoing a renaissance, having become a totem for younger artists and crate-digging producers discovering the warmth and soul of the early house sound. His 2008 remix of “Blind” by neo-disco band Hercules and Love Affair from New York City helped raise his profile among a new generation, and he became a regular on the EDM festival circuit.
“The popular sound of music in any genre ebbs and flows between styles and even though there is a harder, aggressive sound in dance music today, you can hear the influence of Frankie Knuckles in those tracks, especially if you split it down to the very basics, mixing electronic beats and melodies,” says M. Tye Comer, editor in chief of Billboard.com who has written extensively about dance music. “Even Skrillex has a debt to pay to Frankie Knuckles. He was an innovator and instigator to what has become known now as EDM.”
Knuckles said he was aware of his influence, but said he was motivated to keep house music relevant.
“I have to produce music at a level that’s not just appealing to kids but, adults and sophisticated listeners,” he said. “I represent a lot of people who really believe in this music.”