• Ernest Collins
  • Frankie Knuckles

House-music legend Frankie Knuckles died yesterday at the age of 59. Along with fellow pioneers such as Larry Levan and Ron Hardy, Frankie helped strip disco’s 4/4 bass thump from its pop setting and refined it into an entirely new genre that emphasized rhythm over melody in a way that American music never had before, and in the process permanently altered the nightclub landscape.

At the same time, Knuckles and his collaborators were inventing DJing as we know it, moving it from the club’s periphery to the center of attention and elevating it to a postmodern art form by deconstructing records and reassembling them into new, more beat-focused versions of themselves that they’d run in hypnotic loops, manipulating the dynamics to produce massive build-and-release patterns that drove audiences insane. When I interviewed Matt Warren, an early Chicago house DJ and producer, for a Reader article last year, he described a typical gig from back in the day:

I went to the Power Plant one night because I had heard this guy Frankie Knuckles, who I didn’t even know at the time, was a hot DJ. This was an after-hours place where they played the house stuff. We all went down there one night after our nightclub closed, and I remember just walking in and seeing this scene that I’d never witnessed before. He was playing these old disco tracks and he a had a 909 going live and he would blend that in, and just people were going nuts. And he was doing this thing where he’d just drop out all the bass in the system, and their system was so big that after a couple songs you wouldn’t really notice it anymore. Then all of a sudden the crowd’d start screaming up to Frankie, saying “Bang the box, Frankie! Bang the box, Frankie!” And out of nowhere he’d just take the bass and go “Ka-boom! Ka-boom! Ka-boom!” and they’d just lose their frickin’ minds.

Knuckles was also one of house music’s most enthusiastic advocates, and he could take a lot of the credit for selling the genre to major labels that at the time were deeply skeptical of the style and its commercial potential. His remixes of songs by pop and R&B artists, especially the ones he did for Michael Jackson, introduced house music to a mainstream audience and covertly indoctrinated an entire generation of future house fans through B-side remixes to popular singles. The cheery, good-naturedly energetic style of drum programming that he developed pretty much defined house in the 90s, and his influence on dance music has never waned, even during the periods where his approach was out of fashion.

Knuckles was fortunate to live long enough to see house blossom into a global phenomenon and one of the primary foundations of modern pop music, touching billions of listeners and influencing innumerable musicians in the process. Music fans are fortunate that the DJ booth at the Warehouse back when he was spinning there was equipped with a tape deck that allowed DJs to record their sets. It’s hard to imagine a better way of paying tribute to Frankie Knuckles than by enjoying this performance from 1977, full of deconstructions, reconstructions, heavy beats, and a joyous energy that hasn’t faded in the least:

Listen to some choice cuts from Frankie Knuckles’s career.