Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music, has died in his apartment aged 59, reportedly due to complications owing to Type II diabetes. Tributes have poured in from artists and performers around the world, paying homage to the legacy that Knuckles has left behind. He was widely regarded as the leading figure in the genesis and evolution of house music on both sides of the Atlantic in the 80s.
A world famous DJ, Knuckles also produced some of the greatest house tracks the genre has ever seen, most notably "Your Love", "Tears" and "The Whistle Song". Just three days ago, he DJ-ed in London at Ministry Of Sound.
I am devastated to write that my dear friend Frankie Knuckles has passed away today. Can't write anymore than this at the moment. I'm sorry.— David Morales (@DJDavidMorales) April 1, 2014
Knuckles was Bronx-born and raised, before moving to Chicago in the late 70s to play in Robert Williams' club Warehouse – "the place that house music got its name". The records that Knuckles and his peers were spinning in Warehouse at that time became so popular that club goers would go to record stores and say, "Hey man, you got any 'house music'?" The name stuck, and so did Frankie.
At first, Chicago wasn't sure about him; its citizens had a we-don't–wanna–hear–that–New–York-shit attitude, but eventually Knuckles won them round – he says that there was a gap to be filled there. In 1979, radio DJ Steve Dahl organised a famous demolition of disco records in protest at its growing popularity and the lessening room for rock music in the mainstream. 50,000 people turned up at the Chicago White Sox stadium, each with a disco record to break. The vinyl demolition was said by critics to be expressive of a deep-rooted racism and homophobia that helped accelerate the decline of disco.
"I witnessed that caper that Steve Dahl pulled at Disco Demolition Night and it didn't mean a thing to me or my crowd," Knuckles told the Chicago Tribune. "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.”
The three–storey Warehouse became a haven for hedonism, hearing new music and finding love. Parties would spin on for days, but eventually Knuckles outgrew the scene and in 1983 he opened his own club, the Power Plant.
Soon enough, he began making forays into the world of production and one night at The Power Plant in 1985, he bought a drum machine from Detroit-born techno veteran Derrick May.
"Derrick came up to me and said this is a Roland 909 drum machine, and it's going to take us to the future", Knuckles told Music Radar. "It will be the foundation of music for the next ten years... I took this thing home, sat in my room and started playing with it. He was right. It did point to the future. After a few days programming, I took it into the club and wired it up to the mixer. Let me tell you, every record I played that night had a 909 running underneath it. I loved that machine!"
Knuckles released his debut record "You Can't Hide" in 1986. He went on to redefine electronic music as we know it and by the late 80s, Knuckles and his contemporaries were stars of the European club scene. In 1997 he won a Grammy for "Remixer of the Year".
It is not only his music he leaves behind, but the memory of a humble and gracious personality – a man who felt truly blessed to work on his art for a living. Discussing how he could easily walk through the streets of Chicago without being recognised, he said: "I wasn’t frustrated by that, not at all. I’m not the kind of person that lives for fame and glory. If I’ve got a nice, clean home and can put a meal on my table and can entertain my friends, I’m fine. I don’t need to see my face plastered everywhere.”
At a Red Bull Music Academy lecture, he reinforced the idea that throughout his life he felt nothing but love and had nothing but admiration for the people who came to dance with him. "Every DJ has his own audience and you're lucky if you have your own audience," he said. "No matter how great or how small, the people that follow you and believe in you are all the people in the world. Or should be all the people in the world. All you need is believers and people who understand what you’re trying to do and that’s enough."
RIP Frankie Knuckles. Your dancefloor legacy truly will live on forever.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot