He’s gone—another legend now knows the secret. And this one’s a dear mentor to the many children who would grow up and grow inspired by his prowess in the studio, in the club, behind the 1s and 2s. Bronx native Francis Nicholls, known worldwide as Frankie Knuckles, is widely considered, if not the founder, the unequivocal godfather of House music. He passed last Monday at 59, seemingly after a struggle with Type II diabetes.
It seems unlikely that he knew it, but when Knuckles moved out to Chicago after studying textile design at FIT and spinning alongside Larry Levan at the infamous Continental Baths, he would alter the path of popular dance music through residencies at a couple clubs: The Warehouse (a legendary dance club from which the genre got its name, thanks to him), then at his own Power Plant. He became wildly popular. All the biggest clubs in the world would throb and sweat from Knuckles’ 4:4 beats and unrelenting bass lines.
Most, if not all, of those storied venues are closed and have since been converted into markets, department stores, apartments, gyms and Starbucks. But they represented a golden age of the nightclub: a place where folks of all walks of life, colors and sexualities went to straight-up let loose, see and be seen and leave their problems on the packed dance floor. Knuckles wasn’t famous for music videos, for an Instagram account or for spinning with a shirtless, rippling torso. He had an incomparable knack for making music that made bodies move, period. That’s it—and that’s enough. His classic compositions, for himself and others, speak for themselves.
The artists that’ve taken notes from the master are too many to list. Certainly a few popular favorites with rabid fan bases would have a hard time denying Knuckles’ influence upon listening to “You Got The Love” (especially with Candi Staton’s iconic inflection), “Tears” or “Your Love/Baby Wants to Ride.” Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Hercules and Love Affair and Small Black are the young’ns that come to mind. His House remixes for hot singles by Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson and Sounds of Blackness took those respective records—and the scores of club kids who twirled to them—to unimaginable heights. And if you push it a little further, Grace Jones, Erasure and Pet Shop Boys would be nowhere without him. And then there are cats like Skrillex, Martin Solveig and Calvin Harris, who’ve damn near bastardized the genre.
Tonight’s “Philly Loves Frankie Knuckles” tribute party—of which 100-percent of the proceeds benefit the American Diabetes Association—is all about life-celebrating and homage-paying, courtesy of Philadelphia DJ luminaries who’ve been influenced by the man, among them Rich Medina, Rob Paine and Sundae don Lee Jones. “[Knuckles’] style was timeless, allowing him to take bits and pieces from the past and present and serve them as a musical feast to the hungry masses,” Jones told PW. “His sets were never pre-planned. They were always different because each crowd was different. He showed me how to connect with the crowd, from the fiercest drag queen to the well-dressed suit—how to ebb and flow with my dance floor.”
Mr. Sonny James from the IllVibe Collective credits Knuckles with the artistic foresight to set trends dozens of years in advance. “The decades he spent playing House music for large crowds around the world certainly helped shape dance and pop music as we know it now,” he said, calling his later recordings “really soulful takes on modern electronic music.” He put Knuckles’ legacy bluntly: “Without him, I’m not sure there would be a David Guetta, Bingo Players, Disclosure or Calvin Harris all over Billboard.”
King Britt, a contemporary who helped disseminate the Knuckles gospel at Silk City throughout much of the ‘90s, was deeply moved by his passing. “It affected me deeply because not only was he an awesome dude, but he provided some really unforgettable music moments when I would club in NYC with DJ Dozia and Lee Jones,” said Britt. But “the greatest memory was at Sound Factory when he dropped ‘The Whistle Song’ off of a reel-to-reel. It was what it must sound like in heaven.”
Knuckles won all kinds of awards, naturally, including a Grammy and accepting induction into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. President Obama’s adopted hometown correctly acknowledged the musical genius a decade ago by naming a stretch of Jefferson Street (between Jackson Blvd. and Madison St.) Frankie Knuckles Way and declaring August 25 Frankie Knuckles Day. That’s some presidential recognition—and Obama made it happen as an Illinois state senator.
So, whether you hit up The Dolphin or not for “Philly Loves Frankie Knuckles,” promise to dance and sweat your worries out soon in his mighty memory. And if there is a heaven, let’s hope there’s some turntables set up with a drum machine—and he’ll be behind ‘em when we get there.
Wed., April 9, 9pm. $10. With Rich Medina, Lee Jones + Rob Paine. Dolphin Tavern, 1539 S. Broad St. 215.278.7950. dolphinphilly.com
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014