IN MEMORIAM: Frankie Knuckles, 1955-2014

Image via Frankie Knuckles Fan Page on Facebook
Image via Frankie Knuckles Fan Page on Facebook

The Jungle Brothers once wanted us to hear “house music all night long.” Well, Frankie Knuckles passed last night. Now, we should all want to hear house music forever.

I suppose the easiest way to begin the task of unpacking feelings about the importance of Frankie Knuckles as a DJ, producer, and man is to say that I don’t think that there’s a person alive that in some way doesn’t like soul music. As well, if we all stop and think about it, music is the single most powerful force in the world in fostering community, togetherness, and family. Thus, when someone like Frankie Knuckles passes away, the planet Earth has lost a father. If a true fan of house music (or its permutations like dubstep, drum & bass, rap, electro and so many more), Frankie Knuckles created music so soulful that it literally allowed you to feel the Earth move. If that’s the case, when you heard that Frankie passed, you felt the world stop spinning for a moment to note that this force, this man who created something so intrinsic to the essence of global community, had passed on.

Soul is the son of the blues and is the cousin of rock and roll. Thus, when soul begat disco, it’s entirely possible that if you loved rock and roll, soul music or the blues that disco wasn’t going to be your thing. See, disco is the point when music went wild forever. Whereas music was once easily classified by so many cultures and genres staying in their own lanes, disco is when music stopped (on the popular side) being black and white. Instead, music became white and brown, red and black, yellow and orange, so on and so forth. However, when disco begat house, the wild branches that disco represented re-connected with blues and soul’s family tree, and music was improved forever. Unlike all other parts of the family tree, we can actually pinpoint the man who brought disco back home, and it’s Frankie Knuckles.

Soul music isn’t just rhythm and blues, it’s representative of a vibe. The same soul that’s in Led Zeppelin is in Al Green, B.B. King, Thelma Houston and yes, Jamie Principle singing “Your Love.” See, disco had to exist because when blues and soul (and its direct descendents) mainstreamed, global culture was at a place where racism, sexism, and classism were altogether too pervasive in society. Thus, those who were outliers needed a sound that created an emotional space in which they could express the same freedoms felt by mainstream society. Intriguingly, by the time that Frankie Knuckles had evolved from doing back-to-back DJ sets with Larry Levan at New York’s Continental Baths to being a headliner at the Warehouse in Chicago, disco had pushed the envelope so far in culture that Knuckles’ remix of First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” was able to wedge open the space in culture where disco and soul could merge. When those two musical styles (and the cultures they created) could commingle, the emotional release it rendered more-than-certainly allowed for the fostering of the mood that foreshadowed the slow dissolution of cultural and ethnic strife worldwide.

For me, the Debussy-style piano that introduces Frankie Knuckles’ remix of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” carries the combined emotional impact of modern jams like Zedd‘s “Clarity,” James Blake‘s “Limit to Your Love,” Disclosure‘s “White Noise” and A Tribe Called Red‘s “Native Puppy Love.” Knuckles’ remix is the predecessor of where that variant of soul meeting dance comes from for me, and there’s absolutely no other way to say it. Jamie Principle’s “Your Love?” Well, everything from The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” to Danny Daze and Louisahhh‘s “Your Everything” to, hell, even Drake and Rihanna‘s “Take Care” feels like it owes something to the space opened by that Knuckles production. If you play “six degrees of EDM” and use the creation of house music as a starting point, all roads inevitably lead back to Frankie Knuckles.

If you love Daft Punk and now can’t get enough of Giorgio Moroder, well, Frankie’s one of the DJs that was key in breaking his sound into the mainstream consciousness by being bold enough to play Italo disco in American nightclubs. If you’re a fan of Skrillex and in listening to Recess think that he’s the most daring producer you’ve ever heard? Skrillex’s ability to break out of dubstep and become arguably greater than the genre itself (and then able to lead a generation that grew to love him down all of the indie rabbit holes) is informed by the same type of style Knuckles had when finding records to pair with his new “house” productions in his essential early 80s DJ sets. Did you shed a tear when the Swedish House Mafia broke up?  Imagine being in New York as the global dance mecca in 1977 and realizing that Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan were no longer going to rule the roost together, as Frankie was moving to Chicago. A fan of techno? Well, once Knuckles moved to Chicago, thank Derrick May for selling Frankie Knuckles a drum machine and that ultimately being the thing that put house over the top and maybe even pulled techno further into the mainstream fold.

At a time when the world needed to come together, in creating house, Frankie Knuckles created the kind of music that made that happen. For 40 years, the world has really been an incredible place. Yes, we’ve had hiccups along the way (and I’m certain there will be plenty more), but let it be said that a world that was separated for so long is now learning how to live and work together largely because of Frankie Knuckles and because of house music. In being the most connective and progressive form of soul music ever created, Frankie Knuckles isn’t just a legend of music, he’s a legend of life.

Every time you see a racial and cultural barrier broken in this world, imagine Frankie Knuckles’ smiling face in the background. Insofar as how that translates musically? Listen closely and truly feel the work of those who create sounds that are (knowingly or un-knowingly) guided by Frankie Knuckles’ essence and standard. Then, head to a nightclub or festival and look out in the crowd of those jumping, dancing and grooving to those sets. When you see black, white, red, yellow and brown all represented, know that Knuckles is a man whose brilliance lives on forever.