In an era when DJs are declared superstars because they look good on fashion ads and have a huge Twitter following, it’s important to remember the true pioneers of the craft.
American DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died on Monday at the age of 59, was one of the great names in dance music’s history. House, the music style he played, produced, encouraged, distilled and eventually took across the Atlantic and beyond, was named after the Warehouse, his club in early 1980s Chicago, and its influence, after splintering and evolving into innumerable styles and scenes, has been profound.
After conquering Britain in the summers of 1988 and ’89, when it was the musical driving force of the rave movement with its huge illegal outdoor events, house became the lingua franca of dance floors worldwide, with only the U.S. stubbornly resistant. Now even America has fallen in love with house — which it rechristened EDM (electronic dance music) to disguise the fact that it was so late to the party — and its global dominance is complete.
Dance fans know Frankie Knuckles respectfully as the “Godfather of House.” It’s a perfect description of his role: As well as making some of the most sublime records in house music, he raised the genre under his roof and gave it spiritual guidance as it grew. Along with his friendly rival Ron Hardy, Knuckles was the DJ who steered the energy of his city’s young DJs and music makers in the right direction. He inspired Chicago, created an underground scene there and showed the city how much creativity was possible for a DJ.
The true inventors of house music were the scores of young clubbers raised on his dance floor who took advantage of cheap electronics to make their own homemade dance music. When machines like the Roland 909 drum machine first put electronic production in reach of the masses, the result was a flood of stripped-down rhythm tracks with simple bass lines and brief snatches of melody, often stolen from old disco records. To a musician these were mere doodles — some early house tracks were literally just recordings of drum machines — but to young Chicago clubbers keen to dance all night in a steamy basement, they were the ecstatic sound of the future.
The music that had inspired all this was Knuckles’ beloved disco, especially its funkier, more soulful side, which he stubbornly carried on playing long after the commercial music world had moved on. By the start of the ’80s, the music industry, having overinvested in disco in the wake of the huge crossover success of the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” was keen to call time on it. To keep it alive, Knuckles, like many of the DJs back in his hometown, New York, started making re-edits of older records on a reel-to-reel recorder. “By ’81 they had declared that disco is dead, so there were no more uptempo dance records,” he explained. “That’s when I realized I had to start changing things in order to keep feeding my dance floor.” His editing made these songs more insistent and more repetitive, and he sometimes accentuated this by mixing a drum machine under his DJ'ing. It was this aesthetic that house music took as its starting point. As he once told me, “I view house as disco’s revenge.”
Born in the Bronx as Frankie Nicholls, Knuckles took his first clubland steps on the early disco scene with his childhood friend Larry Levan, another DJ destined for a big place in music history. Their first job was blowing up balloons and spiking the punch with acid at a club called the Gallery. After a shared DJ residency at the disco bacchanal of New York’s Continental Baths, a grandiose and debauched gay members’ spa in the basement of a hotel and on the scale of a country club, both Knuckles and Levan went on to residencies that loom large in dance music: Levan at the Paradise Garage, Knuckles at Chicago’s Warehouse.
After over a decade in Chicago, in the early ’90s he returned to New York and played at the city’s mighty Sound Factory for a year, followed by a glorious residency at the Roxy, a huge former roller disco that held over 2,000 dancers. He was one of the first Chicago DJs to play in the U.K., at the early acid house club Shoom, and continued traveling and playing internationally right up to his death.
As Chicago’s musical godfather, Knuckles produced some of the first house records, including “Your Love” and “Baby Wants to Ride,” and a considerable number of its finest. The Nightwriters’ “Let the Music Use You,” a poignant symphony of optimism conjured from a bare minimum of notes, is one of few records from that era that have in no way dated. It sounds bittersweet today, especially in the company of the now-50-year-olds of the rave generation. As with many DJs in the ’90s, the industry struggled to market Knuckles as a recording artist, although his debut album provided a personal favorite in “Rain Falls (David’s Soakin Wet Mix).” More significant has been his long output of peerless re-edits and remixes for everyone from Diana Ross to the Pet Shop Boys; picking just two I’d suggest his “Hallucinogenic Version” of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” or, more recently, his mixes of Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.”
Godfather is also apt to describe Knuckles the man. Softly spoken, thoughtful and courteous, he personified the generous spirit of the dance floor, the inclusiveness of the generation that came of age during the liberating time of disco and went on to believe that the uplifting equality of house music could take us to a better place. The music he fostered certainly had a deep and lasting effect on Britain’s cultural and social fabric. To hear of his passing, from complications of diabetes, at such an implausibly young age, is sad indeed.
I’ll never forget his years at the rococo palace of New York’s Roxy, where he played from dusk till dawn to a swirling, pumping, voguing, catwalking mass of humanity. Especially the night he finished with some delicate sweeping orchestral disco while a spindly ballet dancer in his 60s pirouetted like a gazelle round the empty dance floor, oblivious to whether anyone was watching, lost completely in Mr. Nicholls’ beautiful music.
Frank Broughton is a founder of DJhistory.com and co-author of “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey.”