The Architect: How Frankie Knuckles helped lay the foundations of contemporary DJ culture

-- photo by Deep Stereo
Knuckles’ body of work has had a resounding impact on contemporary music. — photo via Deep Stereo

At first, I thought it was some kind of tasteless April Fool’s joke when I learned that Francis Warren Nicholls, better known as the pioneering house music DJ and producer “Frankie Knuckles,” died on March 31 of this year.

I discovered this sad news via a Facebook post of a good friend in Antwerp, Belgium. As many people do, he and I share and comment on music that moves us over social media. In the wee hours of April 1, I saw that my friend posted one of Knuckles’ signature tracks, “Your Love,” on his news feed. I immediately responded with a 50-minute set Frankie played for the online underground music channel Boiler Room. “You know he passed, right?” my friend wrote in response to the session I posted. “I’m afraid he’s played his final beat.” I was reminiscing so much over a man who’s work was part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years that I missed the caption accompanying my friend’s post: “Dankie, Frankie.”

Thanks, Frankie indeed. It would do the man a disservice to say that he simply provided an inspiration for the myriad DJs who followed his lead; it’d be more accurate to say that Frankie Knuckles’ legacy is a significant part of the blueprint from which today’s DJ culture is built.

Born in the Bronx in 1955, Frankie Knuckles plied his trade playing disco in New York dance clubs in the ‘70s. He was mentored by Larry Levan — a DJ legend in his own right, renowned for the sets he played for over a decade at the Paradise Garage in Hudson Square.

Knuckles brought his talents west to Chicago in the late ‘70s, making his mark as a producer and tastemaker at underground clubs The Warehouse and The Power Plant. He honed his aesthetic at these venues, weaving together snippets of soul, R&B and gospel into hypnotic extended dance tracks. A Chicago Tribune obituary piece describes Knuckles’ sound as a “theater-of-the-mind” where club goers could lose themselves in a rapture of sound and light. Knuckles once explained his approach to moving his audience thus: “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.”

Frankie Knuckles’ rise to prominence is creditable because he came into his own just as disco’s popularity was waning. An event called “Disco Demolition Night,” was a formative moment for Knuckles and his emerging crew. In between games of a Chicago White Sox double-header, radio personality Steve Dahl destroyed hundreds of disco records in protest of what he thought was a vacuous musical form. “[I]t didn’t mean a thing to me and my crowd,” Knuckles once 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.”

It was in this void that Knuckles produced an influential body of work. “Your Love,” a 1986 collaboration with fellow house music pioneer Jamie Principle, set the tone for much of Knuckles’ work for Trax Records. With his help, the Chicago based-label became a haven for artists the disco era left behind. “Your Love” is a quintessential Frankie Knuckles track in which a creole of synth arpeggios, a snap-to-crash drumbeat and a guttural bass line underscores Principle’s brooding lyrics.

That same year, Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson, another Chi-town based producer, paired up for what would become house music’s anthem, “Move Your Body.” On this song you can hear how Knuckles mined a rich and complex musical aesthetic from the fading remnants of disco. “Move Your Body” and its hissing hi-hat groove, punctuated by bursts of sampled piano and string arrangements, became ground zero for Chicago house music’s signature sound.

For 1989’s “Tears,” Knuckles joined forces with Finger’s Inc. vocalist Robert Owens and Japanese producer Satoshi Tomiie to create a more polished sound. Clave-inspired rhythms accentuated by piano and xylophone progressions became the Godfather’s new stocks-in-trade. His collaboration with Tomiie on this track helped make Chicago house a mainstay of DJ music fans and producers on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the time “The Whistle Song” was released by Virgin Records in 1991, Knuckles had earned himself and Chicago house a revered place in contemporary dance music. But for all of his talent, he doesn’t merit singular praise in this regard; Frankie Knuckles was one of a cohort of talented house DJs and music producers such as Lil’ Louis, Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk whose residencies at underground clubs provided the grist for Europe’s blossoming rave culture in the ’90s.

Though he wasn’t the only house music innovator, it was Knuckles’ star that seemed to burn the brightest and have the biggest influence. In 1998, he won the inaugural Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical–a category that marked DJ-produced music’s influence on popular culture. As part of David Morales’ Def Mix Crew, Knuckles helped raise house music to an internationally recognized and practiced form of art. On his own, the Godfather of Chicago house did mixes for top-level talents such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Depeche Mode.

But even with the inroads Knuckles made on mainstream culture, it’s his indelible influence on genres of DJ produced dance music such as deep house, drum and bass, jungle, and trip-hop that will prove to be his legacy. Just as James Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield provided the beats that became the DNA of hip-hop music, Frankie Knuckles’ production skills are a muse for today’s remix artists. His stamp can be found on the Jungle Brothers’ 1988 release “I’ll House You,” which features a sample of “Move Your Body.” “Your Love” was the basis for The Source’s hit “You’ve Got the Love,” which appeared in the season finale of the TV series Sex and the City, and was in turn covered by Florence and the Machine. The song was also sampled on Baltimore psychedelic band Animal Collective’s “My Girls” in 2009. And while Daft Punk’s latest album, Random Access Memories, pays due homage to Italian electro-dance innovator Giorgio Moroder, its difficult to imagine what the French outfit’s comeback hit “Get Lucky” would sound like if it hadn’t been for Knuckles’ contribution to DJ culture.

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So thanks, Frankie Knuckles. I’m sure heaven is now the jam with you and J Dilla spinning the beats.