Remembering the life and legacy of the man who birthed every aspect of electronic dance music culture
Nobody can agree on who invented the blues or birthed rock & roll, but there is no question that house music came from Frankie Knuckles, who died Monday afternoon of as-yet-undisclosed causes at age 59. One of the Eighties and Nineties' most prolific house music producers and remixers, Knuckles is, hands down, one of the dozen most important DJs of all time. At his Chicago clubs the Warehouse (1977-82) and Power Plant (1983-85), Knuckles’ marathon sets, typically featuring his own extended edits of a wide selection of tracks from disco to post-punk, R&B to synth-heavy Eurodisco, laid the groundwork for electronic dance music culture—all of it.
Knuckles made an abundant number of dance classics, including early Jamie Principle collaborations "Your Love"(1986) and "Baby Wants to Ride"(1987); "Tears"(1989), with Satoshi Tomiiee and Robert Owens; "The Whistle Song"(1991); and his remixes of Chaka Khan’s "Ain’t Nobody"(1989), Sounds of Blackness’s "The Pressure" (1992), and Hercules and Love Affair’s "Blind" (2008).
Born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx on January 18, 1955, Knuckles began hitting New York’s after-hours spots such as the Loft, the Sanctuary, Better Days, and Tamburlaine—the clubs where disco was born—as a teenager, along with his best friend, Larry Philpot. By the mid-Seventies, both of them were DJs themselves, and Philpot had changed his surname to Levan. The duo worked together at two of the most important early discos: the Gallery (presided over by Nicky Siano, whose smooth on-beat mixing style was enormously influential) and the Continental Baths, a multi-room gay bathhouse on Manhattan’s West Seventy-fourth Street. (Two other entertainers got their start there: Bette Midler and her pianist, Barry Manilow.)
By 1977, both started their own clubs in difference cities. While Levan (who died in 1992) helmed the Paradise Garage in Soho, Knuckles moved to Chicago, where Robert Williams, an old friend of both, was opening what became the Warehouse. A narrow building with oblong windows at 206 South Jefferson St. (today it’s a law office), the Warehouse was where Knuckles began honing his sound and style—"a wide cross-section of music," as he told The Guardian in 2011. His mélange of disco classics, weird indie-label soul curiosities, the occasional rock track, European synth-disco and all manner of rarities would eventually be codified (at Importes, Etc., the record shop where Knuckles bought much of his music) as "House Music"—short, of course, for the Warehouse. (In 2004, the block where the Warehouse stood was renamed Honorary Frankie Knuckles Way.)