Frankie Knuckles wasn't necessarily the first house music artist (Jesse Saunders usually gets the credit), but he was irreplaceable in connecting electronic dance music's narrative to disco, dance-floor counterculture, and the unprecedented creative uprisings of the 1970s.
For nearly all intents and purposes the history of dance music's transition from soul to disco to the earliest seedlings of rave culture runs through one man – Knuckles.
Today's purveyors of “house” music – Avicii, Daft Punk, Swedish House Mafia, Afrojack, David Guetta – can all eventually trace their heritage (and millions of dollars in income) to the Brooklyn-bred DJ, who called Chicago home and died on Monday.
“Most young guys playing now think house music is supposed to be all four-to-the-floor, 130bpm, hands-in?the-air,” Knuckles told an interviewer a few years ago. “And it really isn't. It's a wide cross?section of music.”
Listening to Knuckles work, however, doesn't always make self-evident the historic continuum he helped create by mixing divergent music . How Avicii's “Levels” or Swedish House Mafia's “Leave the World Behind” have anything to do with “The Whistle Song” (below) or “Tears” can be hard to see on the surface.
The Cook County Office of Medical Examiner confirmed to us that Knuckles passed away Monday at the age of 59. He reportedly died from complications of diabetes, which had caused doctors to remove one of his feet years ago.
He wasn't a rave DJ at all, and he wasn't known on the lasers-and-bass EDM festival circuit.
Los Angeles house music pioneer Marques Wyatt says Knuckles first came to perform in L.A. in 1997 at his Saturday afterhours party Does Your Mama Know?, which started at 3 a.m. at a Hollywood venue last known as XIV.
“I do feel like today's DJs have to respect the fact that he opened the door for what they're doing,” Wyatt says. “He literally put this music on the map globally. He used to tell me he was going to places I had never heard of.”
In an early club scene known for its black-walled discos and after-hours bacchanalia, Knuckles brought dignity, elegance and class to music that was otherwise about the bottom end.
“The authenticity he was able to maintain throughout his career is a good blueprint for artists to follow,” notes Wyatt, who says he first met Knuckles in New York in 1986. “His productions were just flawless. He didn't settle for the dirty Chicago sound. He allowed this music to be taken seriously because he added that quality to the production.”
Any listen to his remixes (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Hercules and Love Affair) will demonstrate how subtly composed his music was. Wyatt thinks that his musicianship in a world of thumping kick drums led to Knuckles becoming one of the first American house music artists to be signed to a major label, Virgin. Knuckles said this in 2011:
All the musicians and programmers I've worked with have all been classically trained, that's the reason my music sounds the way it does.
It was as if Knuckles was channeling the lush, orchestral proto-disco of Philadelphia International Records for the new underground. Perhaps Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune put it best in his piece yesterday on Knuckles' death:
Knuckles once reflected on house music's reputation as a soundtrack for hedonism, though much of the dance music he loved had a melancholy flavor, a yearning that evoked gospel and soul. He championed house music that wasn't just about rhythm, but that embraced humanism and dignified struggle. It was in keeping with his belief that the dancefloor was a safe haven for the gay, African-American and Hispanic communities that first embraced him.
His sound, and that of Chicago cohorts such as Jesse Saunders, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Marshall Jefferson, Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley, was adopted by Brits who went to Ibiza, dropped ecstasy, and created a new, tie-dyed counterculture known as rave.
Knuckles' springtime piano keys fit well with the physical, happy high of ecstasy, as did the optimistic sounds of Detroit techno's pioneers, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. The Chicago DJ bought his first drum machine from May. Knuckles' thread throughout EDM history is arguably just as cultural as it is musical.
He attended David Mancuso's New York Loft, which opened in 1970 and featured a post-hippie mix of soul records and street kids, and he learned the art form of building up to a momentous track and using lighting and other production effects from none other than DJ Larry Levan of the Paradise Garage.
In fact, Knuckles and Levan used to sneak into a club together as underage teens in New York, according to the seminal Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970 – 1979.
One of Knuckles' first gigs was at the gay hideaway known as the Continental Baths in mid-'70s New York. He did the lights while Levan DJed, although Knuckles would also eventually find his way onto the decks. That's important because, until nearly the 1990s, what we now know as EDM culture was a cult of the oppressed, a tribe of squeezed-out people seeking spaces and sounds of their own in order to be free, if only for a night.
Early on, and even into the 1980s, it wasn't always easy to fit analog dance music into a continuous, multi-hour set, but Knuckles helped pioneer the contemporary DJ's journey by using dubs, remixes and reel-to-reel tape, as Levan had.
When he opened a new club called the Warehouse in Chicago in 1977, Robert Williams tried to recruit Levan, with no luck. So he turned to Knuckles, enticing him to come to the Windy City, a move that would forever make Chicago the capital of house music. (Knuckles' first record at the venue was said to be Odyssey's “Native New Yorker”).
Soon, his thumping but melodic sets became known as house music. And once again, he was at a crucial juncture of pop music history.
In 1979 Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl hosted a “Disco Sucks” stunt in which hundreds of disco albums were blown up on the field during a break between a Chicago White Sox double header at Comiskey Park. The display ended in anarchy as long-haired fans rioted on the diamond. The antics, now seen as homophobic and perhaps even racist, marked the official end of disco.
But, as students of EDM history know, it was really the beginning of house music.
Knuckles says he witnessed the chaos, though it's not clear if he did so on television or in the stands:
I witnessed that caper that Steve Dahl pulled at Disco Demolition Night and it didn't mean a thing to me or my crowd. But it scared the record companies, so they stopped signing disco artists and making disco records. So we created our own thing in Chicago to fill the gap.
Disco lost its white suits, velvet ropes and star-studded Studio 54 cocaine sessions and went underground. But, like he said, it was a familiar place. Perhaps it was even liberating to be away from the “Disco Sucks” goons.
We have to be careful not to put too much on Knuckles' shoulders, though. He didn't like to dwell in the past. And he never held himself up as a warrior against cultural oppression. He was an artist, to be sure. In fact, after he took home the Grammy Awards' inaugural Best Remix trophy in 1997, he “became disillusioned and largely quit production,” says the Guardian.
Wyatt thinks that Knuckles was disappointed in the record industry. He had an award. But true house music saw little support among the major labels. His influence, then, was rarely reflected on the charts.
When Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway went to the Spanish party isle of Ibiza in 1987 and put 2 and 2 together – namely ecstasy and house music – creating rave's British summer of love the next year, they were creating, using Knuckles' own term, their “own thing.”
When ex-pats fled the crime of Manchester, England's late-'80s gangster raves and created California's first EDM parties in 1989, sometimes breaking into warehouses to do so, it was also their “own thing.”
When young ravers started going to gay clubs in the '90s because they were the only place to feel house music, it was their “own thing.”
When Chicagoans who had been raised on Knuckles' sound – Mark Farina, Colette, and others – moved to California and helped create a new West Coast sound for house music in the mid-1990s, they were doing their “own thing.”
See also: We Used To Dance
And when Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival grew into mega festivals featuring stadium DJs in the '00s, it was, for a new generation, their “own thing.”
Paying more than $100 to see a guy like Avicii wear a baseball cap backwards and play 12 of his own radio hits for a largely white crowd of bros and candy ravers might not seem like anything connected to a club in 1970s Chicago, but one man, without speaking, has demonstrated otherwise.
“Today's DJs don't have to be Frankie Knuckles,” said Wyatt. “It's a new generation, and they want something to call their own. But I definitely feel like they have to tip their hats to Frankie for opening up the doors.”