While he may not have been a household name, Frankie Knuckles, “the Godfather of House Music,” had an undeniable impact on the world of dance music, and popular music in general. The 59-year-old DJ and producer died unexpectedly in his Chicago home earlier this week. Known for pioneering the style of house music in the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York City and Chicago, his tracks like “The Whistle Song” and “Your Love,” along with remixes of big names like Michael Jackson, made an indelible mark on music fans, and generations of DJs alike.
We asked a few DJs with Boston roots, including friends, contemporaries, and younger acolytes, to reflect on Knuckles’s passing, and his influence on their music.
DJ, operations manager at Gay Mafia Boston, Chris Haris Presents
In 1988, I was looking for my break into DJing in New York City and Frankie put me under his wing and got me my first big gig at The Limelight. He was there at the beginning of dance music, doing something that very few were doing. It was all new and he was a part of its invention in Chicago, where house music started, and then in New York City, where his flavor of house was everything in the late ’80s and ’90s. His sound touched the underground and influenced popular music with remixes from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Toni Braxton. . . . He was a very sweet and accessible man. He was a superstar in the DJ world yet made the time for everyone. . . . It didn’t matter if 5,000 people were out there on the dance floor, he always made the time to greet everyone and give them a hug. It was the best DJ etiquette I had ever experienced and he was a master at it. He knew how to make everyone feel welcome, both on the dance floor and in his life. There are so many [memorable tracks] but if I had to pick one it would be “The Pressure” by the Sounds of Blackness. After remixing it and before it was released, he used to play it off of a reel to reel tape at The Sound Factory in New York City, and I’ve seen him let it fade out and end at peak hour. While the crowd was clapping, he would rewind the reel to reel and play it again to the same or bigger response. It was amazing to see this.
Jorge Galvez A.k.A. Cruzz
DJ, graphic designer, photographer
His legacy is as important as [seminal club DJ] Larry Levan’s legacy. Frankie Knuckles was that free and creative when it came to experimenting with new sounds. I actually saw him play at one of the very first Winter Music Conferences in ’85 or ’86 on Española Way in South Beach Miami [and at] Boston Pride Weekend in ’95 or ’96. “The Whistle Song” and “Tears” are two of my very favorite Frankie Knuckles tracks by far.
Club Cafe manager and resident DJ
Frankie Knuckles was one of the pioneers to keep dance music alive after the “death of disco.” He and a few others in Chicago took the 4/4 beat to the underground where it transformed over the years to what dance music in nightclubs is today. . . . I used to go out to dance clubs six nights a week when I first got in to DJing 20 years ago. One DJ that was a huge inspiration to me was DJ Bruno. Since we didn’t have Shazam back then I got the idea to bring in a mini-cassette recorder with me to the club and record specific songs I wanted the records to. The next day I’d show up at the record shop where Bruno worked, play him the cuts, and he’d pull the records for me. One of the very first records he pulled was a white label that had a sample from the piano intro to “Move Your Body” a track written by Marshal Jefferson presented by Frankie Knuckles. This would be the first time I’d ever heard of him. I still have that record and would have no problem playing it in one of my sets today. . . . Unfortunately, I never met him. Though, I did see and hear him several times as we shared the same bill on a few events we both DJ’ed at in the past. He was a phenomenal DJ. I always heard nothing but awesome things about him from people that knew him. How much of positive uplifting person he was and how he was always smiling. . . . ”The Whistle Song” would stand out the most for me. I had come across several remixes of it over the years but nothing touches the original.
Publicist, booker, and DJ with the Boston Housemusic Coalition
I truly believe that he was one of the most powerful, as well as influential, people on the planet, not only for house music but dance music in general. Most people don’t actually realize that house music was around all the while. It was mostly all danceable R&B, disco, jazz, rock, Latin, Afro-Cuban, and funk tracks orchestrated and mixed by great “music appreciators” that were DJs, and he was one of them. I first heard and started playing his tracks in the mid- to late-’80s and I got “Your Love” with Jamie Principle from Jerry’s Record Shop in East Boston and almost played the grooves out of the record. I have in my will that “Soon I Will Be Done” will be played at my funeral.
DJ, Social Studies, Gallery
He was the main DJ at a club called The Warehouse that opened in Chicago in the late ’70s. Knuckles’s signature style of disco, funk, R&B, and electronic music became known as “house” music, mainly because of the club he played at, the name was merely truncated. He was also an integral part of getting a lot of the early, rudimentary and “proto-house” pressed to vinyl. A lot of those first records were only on reel-to-reel tape and Frankie got a lot stuff pressed up for new artists in the burgeoning scene. It was not only the music he played but the way he played it that help to inspire and influence those early house records. I believe that house music and the legend of Frankie Knuckles and [legendary Chicago club] The Warehouse is as crucial a part of the story of modern dance music and music in general as much as James Brown and funk or David Mancuso and disco is for that matter. . . . If I had to pick three, I’d say “Bad Boy,” “It’s a Cold World,” and “Baby Wants to Ride,” which were all collaborations with singer-songwriter Jamie Principle, another early Chicago house luminary. Some argue that those are Jamie’s tunes, but Frankie broke all of those cuts live at the Warehouse, got them all pressed to wax, remixed, and made different version of them all.
Label head of Supply Records, resident DJ at Make It New
When I woke up this morning I felt like a big part of house music had died. . . . When I first started getting into house music about 10 years ago he was one of the first artists I discovered, his seminal releases. I remember playing “It’s a Cold World” world featuring Jamie Principle at the Goodlife one of the first times I played there. . . . I didn’t know Frankie Knuckles but I’m sure of his legacy, talent, and influence, and I admire him. You look at that smile and you know that most people don’t have a smile like that.
Resident DJ, Make It New
For me Frankie Knuckles along with Ron Hardy were house music. Frankie was the peace, love, and unity, and Ron was the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Frankie’s legacy should be more than being known as the Godfather of House. He is a man that did so much, not only for African-Americans, but for the gay community as well. Especially the gay community. Millions of people celebrate house music every day worldwide and it’s because of Frankie Knuckles. I first heard Frankie’s music being played by DJ Bruno at the Loft around 1993. The crowd would always react once they recognized it in the mix. Man, would they get down.
DJ at Machine, Club Cafe, and Pubb 47 Central
Dance music may not have ever evolved beyond the “death of disco” taunts had he not taken that death notice, and out of sheer necessity, made something new out of it. I started playing his music in the late ’80s/early ’90s, when he was hitting his major label peak with “The Whistle Song,” “Workout,” and his mixes for Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, and Chaka Khan. I heard him play here twice, at Avalon and Chaps. . . . His mix of Diana Ross’s “Someday We’ll Be Together” is quintessential Frankie, with generous keyboards and strings combined with his darker off kilter impulses during the breaks, all in the service of great song.
Luke O’Neil can be reached at email@example.com.