Frankie Knuckles, who died Monday at age 59 in Chicago, was not just the "godfather" of Chicago house music. He was a pioneer in the way he cultivated a culture, a sound and a community around dance music that decades later encompasses the world.
Now DJs such as Skrillex, Tiesto, Deadmau5 and Afrojack can fill stadiums internationally as part of the EDM (or electronic dance music) movement. Whether they know it or not, they all owe a debt to Knuckles, the DJ who essentially launched their scene in the late '70s from the Warehouse, a narrow club on Jefferson Street that was a sanctuary for Chicago's gay community.
It could be plausibly argued that Knuckles was as important to the birth of contemporary dance music as James Brown was to soul or Chuck Berry to rock 'n' roll. And like those innovators, Knuckles helped nurture a deceptively sophisticated sound that celebrated and embraced outsiders and misfits — in Knuckles' case, the gay African-American and Hispanic communities.
He may have been more popularly known for his '80s and '90s remixes of hits by Whitney Houston, Depeche Mode, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. As recently as 2008, he had a significant club track with his remix of Hercules and Love Affair's "Blind." But he was revered around the world for his pioneering mixes and early production work on Chicago's nascent house scene.
Patrick Hatley, DJ Pat of Physical Heat Music, said he first experienced Knuckles' music at Medusa's nightclub in Chicago after a long-ago post-Gay Pride Parade, and he was transformed. "It took me away," Hatley said. "You can't duplicate what he has done on the dance floor as a DJ. (His death is) almost like losing Chicago. It's on that magnitude."
Describing Knuckles as a private person who would open up in a conversation, Hatley said he last saw the DJ at the 2012 Chosen Few Picnic, a South Side house-music festival. At that time Knuckles was walking with assistance from friends, having had his right foot amputated in 2008 following, as he explained in a blog post, an injury to the foot and a subsequent battle with bone disease.
Smart Bar/Metro owner Joe Shanahan, who booked Knuckles as Smart Bar’s first DJ when it opened in Wrigleyville in 1982, recalled being one of the few North Side white males who would regularly attend Knuckles’ sets at his Warehouse club.
“I saw the purity in what he was doing and was like a moth to the flame with this guy because he knew how to throw a party, he knew how to treat people,” Shanahan said, noting that his friendship with Knuckles spanned 35 years. “He could take a dance floor and make it dark and make it sexy and then take you to church and make you feel like you’d been baptized.”
Shanahan said he spoke Tuesday with Bernard Sumner of New Order, and the singer/guitarist told him the British dance band would be dedicating its Buenos Aires set that night to Knuckles. “Frankie was the first real superstar DJ out of Chicago,” Shanahan said. “He was doing London. He was doing Paris. He was doing Rome. He made handsome money being this global emissary of something he invented.”
Shanahan said although Knuckles’ health had caused him to scale back his work in recent years, he still DJ’d sets at Smart Bar and was scheduled to perform on a program dedicated to his birthday this past Jan. 19. But Shanahan said as the night grew late, Knuckles, still sitting in the green room upstairs from the club, said he wasn’t feeling up for performing and wound up being serenaded with a robust “Happy Birthday” from the crowd downstairs.
“He was very moved because all his friends were there,” Shanahan said.
Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson paid tribute on Twitter: "Frankie Knuckles was so under-appreciated. He was the DJ that DJs aspired to be. True dance pioneer."
And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement: "Over his long career Frankie made his way into the ranks of those artists and innovators who came to this city not just to contribute to a musical genre, but to create one themselves. In doing so, he also made his way into the hearts of those who knew him and the many more who followed his work. While the stretch of Jefferson Street between Monroe and Van Buren is officially known as 'Frankie Knuckles Way,' all those who are part of the house music genre, no matter where they are from, walk along the path Frankie created."
Chicago tourism officials had turned to Knuckles to provide a distinctive taste of Chicago at a key trade show coming to town April 5-9. He had been scheduled to perform at the closing night party of the U.S. Travel Association's annual international market show, here for the first time in 16 years. It is expected to draw 6,000 international travel planners and journalists.Knuckles died Monday evening at his home, according to his business partner, Frederick Dunson. Knuckles had diabetes, but the cause of death was not immediately known. He had just returned from a DJ gig Saturday in London.
Knuckles split his time over the last few decades between Chicago and New York, where he was born Francis Nicholls in 1955. He learned his craft in New York during the early '70s while still a teenager, working alongside the renowned DJ Larry Levan. "We would spend entire afternoons working up ideas on how to present a record so that people would hear it in a new way and fall in love with it," Knuckles once told the Tribune. "To us it was an art form."
Hugo Hutchinson, a.k.a. DJ Hugo H, recalled Knuckles as a generous mentor who put music before ego.
“He never was one of those DJ’s who was like ‘Look at me play, look at me spin,’” Hutchinson said. “His interest was the movement on the dance floor.”
Hutchinson also said Knuckles served as “the peacemaker” when conflict arose on the scene. “If you turned it into a ‘what would Frankie do’ situation, it would defuse the situation,” Hutchinson said. “He had that aura around him. You wanted to be at your best when Frankie was around.”
Even though disco was ascendant as mainstream pop music, Levan and Knuckles took pride in digging further, finding deep album tracks drenched in gospel-soul feeling, a blend of deep emotion and lush orchestration with a more pronounced dance beat. Knuckles brought that knowledge and taste with him west to Chicago in 1977, after Levan turned down a gig at the fledgling Warehouse at 206 S. Jefferson St. Instead, Levan recommended Knuckles for the job, and the club soon was ground zero for what would later become Chicago house music. (Knuckles moved a few years later to another club, the Power Plant, which became nearly as celebrated in Chicago house lore.)
Two years after Knuckles arrived in Chicago, disco was sinking fast. In July 1979, between games of a Chicago White Sox double-header at Comiskey Park, radio disc jockey Steve Dahl blew up hundreds of disco albums.
"I witnessed that caper that Steve Dahl pulled at Disco Demolition Night, and it didn't mean a thing to me or my crowd," Knuckles told the Tribune. "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."
Knuckles' sets weaved together deep R&B, soul, gospel and club favorites by artists such as First Choice, Candido and Shirley Horn with British new wave and synth pop from New Order, the Human League and Depeche Mode. Sometimes he'd top off his mixes with snippets of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers. He would extend soul and R&B records and turn them into dance tracks, introduce new singles being produced by fledgling house artists and incorporate drum machines to emphasize the beat. In addition to building dynamic ebb-and-flow sets that would keep his dance floor filled from midnight to noon on weekends, he would create theater-of-the-mind scenarios with inventive sound and lighting. "Sometimes I'd shut down all the lights and set up a record where it would sound like a speeding train was about to crash into the club. People would lose their minds," Knuckles told the Tribune.
Primarily known as a DJ, Knuckles also played a key role as a tastemaker, de facto talent scout and producer. Knuckles bought his first drum machine from a young Derrick May, one of the founders of techno music, who regularly made the trip from Detroit to see Knuckles at the Warehouse. Knuckles helped sculpt and popularize classic house tracks such as "Tears," with Robert Owens, and Jamie Principle's "Your Love" and "Baby Wants to Ride."
In the early '80s, "I was listening to Depeche Mode, the B-52s, David Bowie, Devo," Principle once told the Tribune. "I was singing and drumming at a Baptist church. Then I recorded 'Baby Wants to Ride' in my bedroom on a reel-to-reel tape deck a friend of mine borrowed from Frankie Knuckles. I did it in about an hour because I had to finish before my parents got home. They weren't big fans of secular music. I didn't know what house music was. Next thing I know, Frankie was playing my songs at his club, and the crowd was reacting to them."
House was initially cruder and less polished than disco, a reflection of its blue-collar origins. Knuckles was hardly the only innovator in the scene, as Marshall Jefferson, Ron Hardy, Steve "Silk" Hurley, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and dozens more also played key roles. By the late '80s, Knuckles and many of his peers were stars in Europe's emerging rave scene.
Knuckles would often joke that he could walk down the middle of the street in Chicago and not be recognized, yet would be greeted by cheering fans when he would arrive at European airports for overseas DJ gigs.
"I wasn't frustrated by that, not at all," he said. "I'm not the kind of person that lives for fame and glory. If I've got a nice, clean home and can put a meal on my table and can entertain my friends, I'm fine. I don't need to see my face plastered everywhere."
Yet he took pride in Chicago's growing recognition over the years as the home of contemporary dance music, celebrated by such mainstream hit-makers as Daft Punk, Disclosure and Afrojack.
"The people I meet all around the world look at Chicago and the house scene with a new romanticism," he said. "They recognize more than ever that Chicago is the core of where it all began."
In 2004, when Chicago named that stretch of South Jefferson Street after Knuckles, it was a little slice of legitimacy for a style of music that often didn't get much love from the city. Chicago became notorious in the dance community around the world for passing the so-called "anti-rave ordinance" in 2000 that made property owners, promoters and DJs subject to $10,000 fines for being involved in an unlicensed dance party.
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 dance floor was a safe haven for the gay, African-American and Hispanic communities that first embraced him.
"God has a place on the dance floor," he once told the Tribune. "We wouldn't have all the things we have if it wasn't for God. We wouldn't have the one thing that keeps us sane — music. It's 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. I think dancing is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves. And it doesn't cost anything."
Mark Caro contributed.