Frankie Knuckles in 2007—RIP.
  • Claire Greenway/Getty Images
  • Frankie Knuckles in 2007—RIP.

At its best, disco music combines the extremes of opulence and brute force. It flaunts the ostentatiousness of classical music, some of the musical interplay of jazz, the warmth of soul-music singing, and the rhythmic directness of early R&B and rock; it borrows the best of everything without wearing its complexity or musicianship on its sleeve. Frankie Knuckles emerged out of the New York disco scene of the early-to-mid 70s, but his genius came from his ability to see past disco’s ornamentation and pinpoint its essence—namely, rhythm. Like James Brown, he was able to envision how each component of a piece of music had its own rhythmic role, what the writer Frank Kogan describes as, “no instrumental part replicating another, each tumbling over the others in a perpetual-motion machine.” And like George Clinton, he placed music within both a worldly and otherworldly context—you could hear the Detroit of Parliament-Funkadelic’s space-funk, the Germany of Kraftwerk‘s robodance, and the warps and cranks of a spaceship’s engine.

My favorite house-music album is the 1996 compilation The House That Trax Built. It features two contributions by Knuckles, “Your Love” and “Baby Wants to Ride,” collaborations with Jamie Principle that are possibly Knuckles’s most lasting songs. “Your Love” shatters any expectations of what house music sounds like. Its needly synth line, loose drumming, spooky keyboard textures, and breathy vocals sound like some alien combination of Giorgio Moroder, Arthur Russell, Twin Peaks, and Prince recorded on Teo Macero‘s reel-to-reel. It’s the kind of music that’s conjured out of the ether, with no presence in anything remotely corporeal.

Knuckles is also one of the few artists to be as recognized for what he did with other people’s music as what he did with his own. His remix work is justly praised for its transformative power—most famously for Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” but also for recent artists like Hercules & Love Affair (Knuckles’s remix of “Blind” might well be better than the original). Even when his contributions were minimal they had huge effects on a song’s outcome. On the Pet Shop Boys’ “I Want a Dog,” off of their 1988 album Introspective, Knuckles’s off-kilter piano playing provides the song with an airy, bubbly feeling that the album sorely needs. And his talents as a DJ are unmatched, both for how long his career endured and for his technical proficiency. “Your Love” was already being played in his sets before it was ever released on vinyl, a testament to the precedence Knuckles placed on his DJing. I was fortunate to see Knuckles DJ at Smart Bar on Thanksgiving eve a little over three years ago—few musical experiences compare. He played everything from Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” to David Joseph’s “You Can’t Hide Your Love” to Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” to any number of hard-hitting house tracks with names I can’t remember. The crowd was an incomparably diverse mix of age, race, and gender, everyone enjoying a late night listening to great music before spending a long day with families and friends. More than anything, that’s what I’ll remember Knuckles for—his music and musicianship is inclusive, and it has a way of providing people with joy in a sometimes painful world. Few people like him come along in this lifetime or any other.

For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, I’m including embeds of some of the work I mentioned above, plus a 1981 DJ set from the Warehouse. I tried to narrow my choices down to one track, but that’s not enough to commemorate the man’s body of work. Rest in peace.

Frankie Knuckles Live @ The Warehouse – 28-08-1981 by R_Co on Mixcloud