The Rich Legacy Of Frankie Knuckles

The pioneering house DJ and producer has died suddenly, aged 59. MOJO pays tribute.

The Rich Legacy Of Frankie Knuckles

THE IGNOBLE ANTI-DANCE music campaign of the late-’70s culminated in the July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Derby – a public record burning at a baseball game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. One commentator was unimpressed. “It didn't mean a thing to me or my crowd,” DJ Frankie Knuckles reflected to the Chicago Tribune newspaper. “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.”

“He began to innovate with a drum machine purchased, legend has it, from Derrick May.”

The “thing” to which he casually referred was, in fact, the future of dance music, with soul and R&B tracks re-structured, lengthened and refined for maximum, unbridled dancefloor efficiency via technology, soul and the inspiration that this real-time remixing demanded.

The Bronx-born Knuckles, who grew up listening to jazz and studied textile design, had begun his career as a DJ in New York before moving to Chicago in 1977. With necessity the mother of invention, he began to innovate with mixes augmented by a drum machine purchased, legend has it, from Detroit techno mover Derrick May. After the Warehouse club where he played, the new, wide-ranging form was named ‘house’; one such track, which Knuckles played out on a reel-to-reel tape machine, was Jamie Principle’s hypnotic 1986 12” Your Love. Knuckles would release his epochal version the following year.

His credits, particularly prized by the European fanbase taught to idolize him in the late-’80s and beyond, also included such elegant yet propulsive tracks as Baby Wants To Ride and 1989’s Tears, recorded with Fingers Inc.’s Robert Owens and Satoshi Tomiie.

Thereafter he would record solo and provide a series of celebrated remixes for Pet Shop Boys, Electribe 101 and more, including his 2008 return to remixing after a decade-long lull: Blind by Hercules & Love Affair with Antony Hegarty.

Throughout, his career as a DJ never faltered, spreading the Chicago house message whether playing alongside other veterans like Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, at festivals across the world or in the clubs. Among his honours were a remix Grammy in 1997 and election to the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2004, meanwhile, a stretch of the Chicago street where the Warehouse stood was renamed Frankie Knuckles Way, and that August 25 was declared Frankie Knuckles Day. Both initiatives were supported by then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama.

A diabetes sufferer who had his right foot amputated in 2008 after complications from a snowboarding accident, the tireless DJ passed away on March 31, just two days after playing London’s Ministry Of Sound. Online tributes followed from admirers including Questlove, The Chemical Brothers and A Guy Called Gerald, who wrote, “House fam we lost one of the best. But we have his guidance for all time. I would be nothing if it wasn't For Frankie.”

PHOTO: Alamy