If you didn't understand how much Frankie Knuckles meant to people before last night, when news of the 59-year-old DJ and producer's death started spreading on social media, by now you probably do. If you need a lesson in what he meant to the world, watch the clip from the 2001 U.K. documentary about house music, Pump Up the Volume, above.
The story goes something like this: In the beginning, there was Frankie, and Frankie had a groove. Through the sharing of that groove, he improved lives. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton wrote in their 1999 history of the DJ (thus dance music), Last Night a DJ Saved My Life:
In Chicago, as the seventies became the eighties, if you were black and gay your church may well have been Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, a three-story factory building in the city's desolate west side industrial zone. Offering hope and salvation to those who had few other places to go, here you could forget your earthly troubles and escape to a better place. Like church, it promised freedom, and not even in the next life. In this club Frankie Knuckles took his congregations on journeys of redemption and discovery.
DJing begat re-editing, which Knuckles would do by chopping up and splicing his favored funky disco tracks on reel to reel tapes. Re-editing begat producing. Knuckles' early original productions like the canon-certified "Your Love" and the underrated "Waiting on My Angel" (both featuring vocalist Jamie Principle) had more in common with the icy thump of Italo disco than with the lush orchestrations typical of the American strain, but Knuckles would soon catch up with the past, as the world was catching up with the future. House music was too good an idea to stay underground, the four-on-the-floor beat too insistent to ignore. In a matter of years, house music was a global phenomenon.
By the early '90s, when house had been co-opted by the mainstream, many of its early innovators came along for the luxurious ride. Knuckles was one of the go-to mainstream remixers of the day, crafting lovely, twinkling dance songs out of existing pop tracks by the likes of Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson, and En Vogue. He signed to Virgin and released an album of his own, 1991's Beyond the Mix, which spawned the crossover hit "The Whistle Song."
House was made to get bodies moving, and a big way it does that is with tempos faster than what you generally hear in pop music. Frankie Knuckles could do high energy—some soulful house heads will argue that his remix of Sounds of Blackness' "The Pressure" is definitive Knuckles, period—but so could a lot of people. My favorite type of Frankie Knuckles track is the late-night burner that's a bit slower than house's characteristic 120 BPM and infinitely more sensual. His remixes of Lisa Stansfield's "Change" and Vanessa Williams' "The Comfort Zone" have never gone out of rotation in my life. Also in this vein and just as gorgeous are his remix of Electribe 101's "Talking With Myself" and his and David Morales' take on Inner City's cover of Stephanie Mills' "Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'."
Also see "Tears," which has a more conventional house tempo but a similar sort of welling emotion.
Frankie Knuckles kept the disco in house before "disco house" or any of the mass sub-genre-ization of house was a thing. The racist and homophobic Disco Demolition Night, held July 12, 1979, largely killed disco's mainstream cool, but Knuckles stuck with it, riding it through the '70s and well into the '90s and beyond. A maligned people had their maligned genre, and from there it grew to become a global phenomenon. Knuckles called house "disco's revenge."
Today, plenty of people listen to house music (whether via EDM or otherwise) without recognizing its roots as gay black music for gay black people. But that is what it is, and that it came to prominence at a time in which the gay community was being ravaged by AIDS, is a triumph. It's but one of several examples of the gays knowing something it would take years for the rest of the world to discover. And it might not have happened without Frankie Knuckles, certainly not in the way it did. He was one of the handful of people who've been on this earth that we could point to and say, "There. That man changed culture."
Before I ever could admit that I was gay, before I even entered my teens, I was openly and emphatically a fan of house music. Maybe the music spoke to me before I could even understand what it was saying. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But the sounds that mattered to Frankie Knuckles (and Steve "Silk" Hurley and Mark Kinchen and David Morales and Ben Liebrand and Tony Humphries, and so many other house producers from back in the day) helped uplift me as a kid, when it sometimes felt like there wasn't much else to be happy about.
My favorite remix of Frankie Knuckles is the one he did of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." Knuckles pushes the song into deep house territory, while preserving exactly what needs to be preserved from the original (chiefly, the full vocal, the strings, and that bubbly sound from the break). It's so masterfully done, with full respect for both the original composition and what listeners expect from a Frankie Knuckles remix. It's as though Knuckles were using Jackson's lyrics as his guide.
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