With all the incredible tributes that have been pouring out for Frankie Knuckles since his death this past Monday, I'm not sure I can really add all that much to the many eloquent, heartfelt ones out there - from Michaelangelo Matos in Rolling Stone, Alexis Petridis in the Guardian, Rich Juzwiak at Gawker, Barry Walters at NPR, his old friend and mentor Nicky Siano at Thump/Vice, to name some of the best ones that I've read so far. I'm perhaps one of the least qualified to write about him now, I obviously never knew him personally, nor would I ever profess to be the biggest of househeads. Granted, while there are classic house records that I do love (some of them directly attributed to Frankie), my introduction to Frankie had less to do with "Your Love," "The Whistle Song" or "Tears," classics that they are, but moreso when he became just about everyone's go-to remixer (his mixes of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," Alison Limerick's "Where Love Lives," Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and a different "Your Love," for the 1992 Chic reunion are firm favourites). Still, when it comes to exploring dance music, my focus had always been and still remains largely tied to disco. Even with that, I couldn't possibly go on here without acknowledging not only Frankie Knuckles' roots in disco, but his importance as a seminal figure who until his death, had been that living link between disco and house, to their origins (and indeed their survival) in the black and gay communities. With a musical lineage that went beyond The Warehouse, all the way back to David Mancuso's Loft, to Better Days, to Nicky Siano's Gallery, to the Continental Baths with his old friend Larry Levan, to Salsoul, which released his first mix - (of First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder" in 1983, which had been relegated to the B-side of Shep Pettibone's remix), those were disco roots than ran deep and wide. Speaking to house and disco's ties to gay culture, as Rich Juzwiak had pointed out in his Gawker article, it's something that at the very least, feels both far removed and taken for granted in the current EDM music culture, but Frankie was someone who was not only there, but right at the forefront.
As he recalled in his 2011 BBC 6 Mix interview with Dave Pearce (hear it below, or on Youtube, or on BBC 6 where they'll re-broadcast it this Friday April 4th), what was called house was largely just a term for what he played at The Warehouse, which by the early 80's largely consisted of older disco and R&B records and newer imports. Even though the backlash had little impact on him or his audience, as Frankie recalled, the major labels in the US had already backed off of disco and the pool of records was beginning to dry up, "there were no more disco records being made, nothing with any real kind of energy, other than what was coming out of Europe and out of Canada...It wasn't anything that was premeditated, or trying to create something.. it all came from me, just basically trying to keep my dancefloor interested in coming to that club every week after disco was declared dead... I figured I would do well to just work with what I knew. There was a lot of music that I was already playing, which was a lot of philly soul, I was beginning to learn how to edit and cut tape.."
A listen to his "Choice: A Collection of Classics" (2000, Azuli) set as well as the many archived recordings of his early 80's Warehouse and Power Plant sets at Gridface and The Deep House Page are proof enough of the heavy disco presence in his mixes, even as late as the mid 80's. Some recently unearthed footage from the 1986 opening of the Power House (including a brief interview with a young Frankie) emphasizes that disco link even further.
Frankie Knuckles at Power House club, 1986 opening night
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While re-editing had been a part of disco and DJ culture well before and well after (as the current proliferation of disco re-edits indicates); even if it was far from the only musical branch to come out of the influence (and to a certain extent, the manipulation of) disco, house remains perhaps one of the most potent and lasting examples of its influence. Perhaps also one of the many testaments to how culture is often created at the margins, in this case, both out of a marginalized people, (thinking about the layers of marginalization in being both black and gay in the already segregated racial climate of Chicago) and out of the cultural scraps (read: disco, post-backlash, in the very city that declared it dead) that no longer carried any currency or supposed "relevance," until they're eventually reevaluated, recontextualized and given value again, as the cycle goes. "Disco's revenge." as Frankie had famously put it.
Aside from the BBC 6 interview, his lecture from the 2011 Red Bull Music Academy with Jeff Mao is another one that I've given a lot of play to recently. I always had the impression, coming from some of his earlier interviews, that he was completely over all of the constant questions about the past - the 70's, his youth with Larry Levan, The Warehouse etc.. Perhaps it's the effect of both seeing and hearing him, or the setting - having an audience before him and being the storyteller, but once he gets going, whatever initial hesitation he may have had seems to fade completely as he gets deeper into the conversation. Now that he's no longer around to personally go over the finer points of his history anymore, both of these interviews are even more valuable in their candid, detailed, (and especially in the case of the BBC 6 interview), animated recollections.
Red Bull Music Academy (Madrid 2011) - Lecture: Frankie Knuckles
I love listening to these not only for the music and memories, but also for the wisdom he imparts and the class and grace he displays. There's no false modesty there, yet no egotism either. I suspect if you could have got him in private, he could have kiki'd for ages and spilt plenty of tea in the process.. I know that I would have loved to have had the chance.
While 59 still feels too young to die, it's remarkable to think that Frankie had remained active for what must have been about 40 years in total, right up until the very end. Whether as Nicky Siano mentions, that may have had as much to with survival as with inspiration, it's nonetheless an incredible feat to have remained active and present the way he has for as long as he has. If all the love pouring out with his passing is even just a small reflection of the love he cultivated while he was alive, his legacy in life and in music is one with few equals.
Rest in peace, Frankie Knuckles. Godfather of House.
npr - the record: where love lives: frankie knuckles and the dance floor (by barry walters) (april 2, 2014)
new york times: frankie knuckles, 59, house pioneer d.j., dies (by daniel e. slotnik) (april 2, 2014)
thump: "frankie was one of the kindest, gentlest people i've ever known" (by nicky siano) (april 2, 2014)
gawker: frankie knuckles, disco's revenge, and gay black music's triumph (by rich juzwiak) (april 2, 2014)
rolling stone: frankie knuckles 'godfather of house music,' dead at 59 (by michaelangelo matos) (april 1, 2014)
the guardian: frankie knuckles: godfather of house, priest of the dancefloor (by alexis petridis) (april 1, 2014)
los angeles times: remembering a house music legend: why frankie knuckles mattered (by randall roberts) (april 1, 2014)
chicago tribune: frankie knuckles, house music 'godfather' dead at 59 (by greg kot) (april 1, 2014)
joe.my.god - frankie knuckles dies at age 59 (april 1, 2014)
chicago sun-times: chicago icon, 'godfather of house music' frankie knuckles dead at 59 (march 31, 2014)
facebook: frankie knuckles official fan page
facebook: def mix productions
gridface: frankie knuckles mixes
deep house page: frankie knuckles mixes
media burn independent video archive: house music in chicago (1986 mini-documentary)
red bull music academy - madrid 2011: lecture: frankie knuckles
bbc - 6 mix: frankie knuckles meets dave pearce (may 15, 2011)
djhistory: frankie knuckles interview
defected: interview - frankie knuckles (january 4, 2014)
xlr8r: podcast 336 - frankie knuckles (march 25, 2014)
resident advisor - features: the warehouse: the place where house got its name (may 16, 2012)
boiler room: frankie knuckles 60 minute mix (may 12, 2013)
discomusic.com: frankie knuckles interview (by dayna newman)
red bull music academy: the kids call it house music (frankie knuckles interview) (by jerd janson) (january 11, 2011)
faithfanzine: frankie knuckles interview (april 19, 2011)
the couch sessions: interview: godfather of house music frankie knuckles (december 9, 2010)
disco-disco.com: interview with frankie knuckles
CATEGORIES: IN MEMORIAM..