Chicago by the way of New York City (Bronx stand up!) Frankie Knuckles was one of the pioneers of house music, one of the most enduring forms of electronic dance music in a genre known to shed production styles almost seasonally. Without Frankie Knuckles there would not be Disclosure, there would not be Lady Gaga, shoot, this Animal Collective song that borrows the main synth like from his song “Your Love”
Years ago my only real access to hip-hop was the radio or tapes my much older cousins used to make and trade with their friends, which I would either dub or conveniently forget to return to them. It was through these tapes that I eventually fell into house music, and one of the first songs I fell in love with was Frankie Knuckle’s “Tears”.
Tears was a simple song, simple repetitive bass line, dueling female and male vocals. But something about it haunted me with me; how smooth it was, how the melody slowly switched up around the vocals and music, and how driving the beat was. As a hip-hop head it was a revelation that dance music could still be funky with the sampled bongos in the background and how it seemed more soulful (and gospel like) than what much of popular R&B seemed to be doing at the time.
What made Frankie Knuckles special is that he bridged dance music from one generation to another. While disco died out, Frankie was finding new ways of applying the things he learned during those years. He spliced reels of tape together to locate the ‘sweet spot’ where the beat could be looped and repeated indefinately for maximum danceability.
Frankie Knuckles was a DJ at a time before it was even a thing. I remember speaking to Louis Vega a year ago and he mentioned that it was crazy to him to go from spinning rooms of 300 people to thousands on the festival circuit. In an interview for MusicRadar he mentioned as much.
“Nowadays everyone wants to be a DJ, but back then the idea of doing it to become a superstar was kinda weird. I didn’t become a DJ because I wanted to be famous and make money.I did it because it was a job. All I did was play records – I had no access to things like studios or music equipment. The idea of making my own music never even crossed my mind. I was studying fashion at the time, and that’s where I thought my future lay. I didn’t see myself as a musician or a producer. To be honest, I didn’t even own that many records. When I got offered my first DJ job at the Continental Baths, I had to borrow them. Up until that point, all I’d ever done was sit in the DJ booth!”
While electronic dance music continues its slow rise as the dominant genre of pop music of our time, we were blessed to have one of our pioneers not only still around, but still a vibrant and important performer of a genre he helped create. A few days before he died he spun a set at London’s legendary Ministry of Sound, still on the road, still doing what he loves, still spinning records and making people dance the night away at 59 years old.
Here’s a Red Bull Music Academy interview he did a few years ago that covers the span of his career. It’s a must listen to get a perspective on just how far dance music has changed since the disco era.
And to actually here the man in action and what we lost as music fans today here’s a Boiler Room set he spun a little under a year ago, showing that he can easily hang with any of the newest cats on the deck.