Sobriquets tend to be tossed around with abandon in the world of music—perhaps never more frequently than when nightclub aficionados get to talking about their heroes: the DJs who mix and dub and layer and spin and get a crowd’s feet moving for hours on end. Frankie Knuckles, who passed away on Monday at the age of 59, was widely referred to as “The Godfather of House,” that inimitable genre of music that has served as a soundtrack to dance floors around the world for the better part of the last three decades.
House music is a multi-tentacled beast—its offshoots include progressive, acid, happy, and deep house, among many others—and it arguably altered popular music in a more formative way than its closest relative, disco, which was fatally bruised by the swift backlash that sent it back to the underground from whence it sprung.
House—which Knuckles said he and his compatriots created in early ’80s Chicago “to fill the gap” left by disco’s swift demise—has never suffered the same reprisal. Its characteristic 4/4 beats, synthesized bass lines, percussive rhythms and playful flourishes such as piano tinkles and hi-hat cymbals still sound right whether heard in a nightclub or deckside at a swanky rooftop pool, at apartment after-parties or your local Urban Outfitters. House music can be sexy, suave, sentimental, or sobering—sometimes all of those things, all at once.
Knuckles knew this, and his brand of dance music—whether original productions of his own or masterful re-workings of other artists’ recordings—is rightly considered pioneering. Born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx in 1955, he first plied his craft alongside up-and-comers like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow—as well another trailblazing DJ, his friend and mentor Larry Levan—at New York’s notorious Continental Baths. “I didn’t want to go anywhere near [the Baths],” he admitted in the 2005 documentary Liquid Vinyl. “But it was a golden opportunity to hone my skills, concentrate on the music and build my record collection. I didn’t take it seriously.”
Around the same time, Knuckles enrolled as a textile design student at Fashion Institute of Technology. But his heart was always with the music, and before long Knuckles had made his way to Chicago, where in 1977 he became musical director of The Warehouse, a club predominantly frequented by black and Latino gay men—Knuckles himself was gay—who came to hear his early experimental mixes of disco and European electronic music. (The origin of the term house music is fuzzy, but it is generally considered to be a shortened version of the locale’s name.) The place pulsed with positive energy; Knuckles once likened it to a church, albeit one frequented by outcasts, misfits, and anyone else who just wanted to lose themselves in the ecstasy of the beat.
Two of his earliest tracks—reworked versions of Jamie Principle’s “Your Love” and “Baby Wants to Ride”—marked the emergence of Knuckles’ signature sound: a soulful, at times sleazy (but also surprisingly reflective) evolution of disco’s hands-in-the-air ethos. Knuckles stayed on at The Warehouse until 1982, a five-year residency that cemented his standing within the club community and earned him that unofficial title as paterfamilias of the dance floor.
Chicago was ground zero for the house music movement, and Knuckles, along with a clutch of fellow DJs and producers, spread its joyous rhythms far and wide throughout the latter half of the eighties. Knuckles added piano—a house first—to Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body,” a slinky 1986 track that was boldly subtitled “The House Music Anthem.” His first official recording, 1987’s “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” was a cover of a Teddy Pendergrass song, and has been called “the go-to record for any self-respecting house music DJ” by Vibe. By the end of the decade, he was in huge demand, producing, remixing, recording and traveling for gigs in his native New York and across the pond in the U.K., where “Your Love” could be heard just about anywhere you went during that country’s 1989 “summer of love.” To this day, it remains a set staple around the world.
Knuckles, like most DJs, was not an albums artist—his discography boasts just two proper full-length offerings (1991’s Beyond the Mix, 2004’s A New Reality) and a single EP (1987’s Ultimate Production). Mix featured what may be Knuckles’ best-known production, a happy-go-lucky earworm called “The Whistle Song,” which many DJs still play as a sort of breather in the midst of more high-energy mixes. But this paucity of long-running recordings hardly dims his legacy, which was built on the back of his live sets and a singles slate brimming with original productions and remixes of songs by the hugest of the huge: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Diana Ross, Depeche Mode, and Whitney Houston were among the artists whose tracks he reimagined to widespread acclaim.
Despite health problems—he battled diabetes and had a foot amputated in 2008 following a snowboarding accident—Knuckles remained busy, even as the popularity of the genre he helped to birth faded slightly. The mainstream, which had embraced house music so intensely at its zenith, has tilted toward the more raucous sounds of EDM superstars like Daft Punk, Avicii, David Guetta, and Skrillex, but no matter: Knuckles’ legacy was long ago assured. He continued producing, remixing, and making live appearances up until his death, and was slated to play at Amsterdam’s A Day at the Park festival this July.
Perhaps more than any DJ before or since, Knuckles understood exactly why people love to gather under a mirror ball. He once told The Chicago Tribune that music “is the one thing that keeps us sane … the one thing that calms people down. Even when they’re hopping up and down in a frenzy on the dance floor, it still has their spirits calm because they’re concentrating on having a good time, loving the music, as opposed to thinking about something negative.” Indeed, his legion of fans reacted with something approaching rapture when they knew he was at the decks or simply heard one of his tracks; upon learning of his death, they flooded the zone (and the Internet) with wistful appreciation, keenly aware that a genuine pioneer would no longer be around to soothe their spirits. To their relief and comfort, his recordings still are.
“The Whistle Song”
“You Can’t Hide From Yourself”
“Move Your Body”
“Where Love Lives” (Frankie Knuckles 12” Classic Mix)
“The Pressure” (Original artist: Sounds of Blackness)
“Rock With You” (Original artist: Michael Jackson)
“Blind (Frankie Knuckles Remix)” (Original artist: Hercules and Love Affair)
“Hot Stuff (Frankie Knuckles and Eric Kupper as Director’s Cut Signature Mix)” (Original artist: Donna Summer)