Frankie Knuckles, a club disc jockey, remixer and producer who was often called the “godfather of house” for helping that percussive genre of dance music spread from Chicago nightclubs to global popularity and influence, died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 59.
His death was confirmed by Maria Rotella, the assistant to his manager, Judy Weinstein. She said the cause had not been determined but that he had had health problems related to diabetes.
Mr. Knuckles, a Grammy Award winner in 1998, started his career working at various New York clubs in the 1970s. In 1977, when disco was at its peak, he moved to Chicago and began spinning at a club called the Warehouse.
He played R&B and disco standards along with a range of post-punk, reggae, funk and synthesizer-based Europop rarities. That unusual mix, he later said, came to be nicknamed house music, after the club.
By the early 1980s Mr. Knuckles had started using a reel-to-reel tape recorder to edit his favorite tracks so that he could extend the beat, keeping dancers on the floor.
He left the Warehouse in the early ’80s and soon began spinning at another Chicago club, the Power Plant. In 1984 he incorporated a drum machine into his mixes. The combination of disco or pop vocals and catchy, often electronic samples laid over a pulsating beat became the hallmark of early house, a style that many Chicago producers were beginning to adopt.
“When it comes to the foundation, the bottom end, the kick and the bass line and how they work, my theory is it should be felt and not heard,” Mr. Knuckles said in an interview for the Red Bull Music Academy, a series of workshops and festivals, in 2011.
His beat-driven version of “Your Love,” a pop song by a young singer named Jamie Principle, was released by Trax Records in 1985. It became a club hit and a local radio favorite and led to more records with Mr. Principle.
He returned to New York in 1988 to work in Manhattan clubs like the Roxy and the Sound Factory Bar. That same year, teamed with David Morales and Ms. Weinstein, he formed Def Mix Productions, which worked on elaborate house remixes for artists like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Chaka Khan. In 1991 he released his first album under his own name, “Beyond the Mix,” which included the singles “The Whistle Song” and “Workout.”
His Grammy Award in 1998 was for nonclassical remixer of the year.
Francis Nicholls was born in the Bronx on Jan. 18, 1955. (“Knuckles” was a family nickname.) He rode the subway to Manhattan with the singer Luther Vandross, a neighbor, to attend the High School of Art and Design, from which he graduated.
The renowned D.J. Larry Levan, a childhood friend, hired him to help with lighting at the Continental Baths. He learned to spin records while Mr. Levan took breaks.
Mr. Knuckles’s second album, “Welcome to the Real World,” was released in 1995. “Bac N da Day,” a track from his 2004 album, “A New Reality,” that featured Jamie Principle, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s dance chart.
He is survived by a sister and two brothers.
In recent years Mr. Knuckles continued to tour as a club D.J. and recorded with Eric Kupper, working under the name Director’s Cut. In 2011 they revived a 1980s classic by releasing a contemporary remix of “Your Love.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Tuesday that Chicago had “lost one of its most treasured cultural pioneers.”
Frankie Knuckles, house music 'godfather,' dead at 59
April 01, 2014|Greg Kot
Frankie Knuckles, seen here at the Chicago International House Music Festival at Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island in 2006, had a key role in developing house music as a DJ in the 1980s and helped to popularize house music in the 1990s, as a producer and remixer. In 2005, Knuckles was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. (Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans)
In Chicago, Frankie Knuckles was called the “godfather,” not because of any underworld connections, but because he helped build house – a style of Chicago dance music that revolutionized club culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s and still resonates around the world today.
Knuckles died Monday at the age of 59, as confirmed by his longtime business partner, Frederick Dunson. More details would be forthcoming Tuesday, Dunson said, who said in an email that Knuckles “died unexpectedly this afternoon at home.” In addition to developing the sound and culture of house music, Knuckles would go on to mix records by major artists such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode.
Knuckles learned his craft as a club DJ in New York City, then moved to Chicago in the late ‘70s and developed a reputation as one of the city’s most influential dance-music tastemakers. He arrived in Chicago just as disco was losing steam. For many, disco literally went up in flames between games of a Chicago White Sox double header at Comiskey Park, when radio deejay Steve Dahl blew up hundreds of disco albums.
"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 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.”
Knuckles was mentored by the renowned DJ Larry Levan in the early ‘70s while in New York. “We would spend entire afternoons working up ideas on how to present a record so that people would hear it in a new way and fall in love with it,” Knuckles said. “To us it was an art form.”
He brought that knowledge west with him to Chicago, where he became known as “the godfather of Chicago house music” at the Warehouse and later the Power Plant. He would extend mixes of soul and R&B records and turn them into dance tracks, introduce new singles being produced by fledgling house artists and incorporate drum machines to emphasize the beat. In addition to building dynamic ebb-and-flow sets that would keep his dancefloor filled from midnight to noon on weekends, he would create theater-of-the-mind scenarios with inventive sound and lighting. “Sometimes I’d shut down all the lights and set up a record where it would sound like a speeding train was about to crash into the club. People would lose their minds.”
Knuckles was primarily known as a DJ, but he also played a key role as a tastemaker, de facto talent scout and producer. Knuckles bought his first drum machine from a young Derrick May, one of the founders of techno music, who regularly made the trip from Detroit to see Knuckles at the Warehouse. Knuckles also had a musical partnership with Chicago artist Jamie Principle, and helped put "Your Love" and "Baby Wants to Ride" out on vinyl after these tunes had been regulars on his reel-to-reel player at the Warehouse. He also produced the house classic "Tears" with Robert Owens (of Fingers, Inc.).
House was initially cruder and less polished than disco, a reflection of its blue-collar origins. Knuckles was hardly the only innovator in the scene, as Marshall Jefferson, Ron Hardy, Steve "Silk" Hurley, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and dozens more also played key roles. By the late ‘80s, Knuckles and many of his peers were stars in Europe’s emerging rave scene.
Knuckles would often joke that he could walk down the middle of the street in Chicago and not be recognized, yet would be greeted by cheering fans when he would arrive at European airports for overseas DJ gigs.
“I wasn’t frustrated by that, not at all,” he said. “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.”
Yet he took pride in Chicago’s growing recognition over the years as the home of contemporary dance music, celebrated by such mainstream hitmakers as Daft Punk and Paul Oakenfold.
"The people I meet all around the world look at Chicago and the house scene with a new romanticism," he said. "They recognize more than ever that Chicago is the core of where it all began."
In 2004, Chicago named a street after Knuckles where the old Warehouse once stood, on Jefferson Street between Jackson Boulevard and Madison Street. It was a little slice of legitimacy for a style of music that often didn’t get much love from the city, which became notorious in the dance community around the world for passing the so-called “anti-rave ordinance” in 2000 that made property owners, promoters and deejays subject to $10,000 fines for being involved in an unlicensed dance party.
Frankie Knuckles, house music 'godfather,' dead at 59
April 01, 2014|Greg Kot
Knuckles once reflected on house music’s reputation as a soundtrack for hedonism, though much of the dance music he loved had a melancholy flavor, a yearning that evoked gospel and soul. He championed house music that wasn’t just about rhythm, but that embraced humanism and dignified struggle. It was in keeping with his belief that the dancefloor was a safe haven for the gay, African-American and Hispanic communities that first embraced him.
“God has a place on the dancefloor,” he once told the Tribune. “We wouldn’t have all the things we have if it wasn’t for God. We wouldn’t have the one thing that keeps us sane – music. It’s the one thing that calms people down.
“Even when they’re hopping up and down in a frenzy on the dancefloor, it still has their spirits calm because they’re concentrating on having a good time, loving the music, as opposed to thinking about something negative. I think dancing is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves. And it doesn’t cost anything.”
Francis Nicholls, better known by his stage name Frankie Knuckles (January 18, 1955 – March 31, 2014), was an American DJ and record producer.
Knuckles was born January 18, 1955 in The Bronx, New York; he later moved to Chicago. He played an important role in developing and popularizing house music in Chicago during the 1980s, when the genre was in its infancy. Due to his importance in the development of the genre, Knuckles was often known as "The Godfather of House Music."The city of Chicago named a stretch of street and a day after Knuckles in 2004 for this role. His accomplishments earned him a Grammy Award in 1997. Knuckles was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005 as recognition for his achievements.
While studying textile design at the FIT in New York, Knuckles began working as a DJ, playing soul, disco, and R&B at The Continental Baths with childhood friendand fellow DJ Larry Levan. In the late 1970s, Knuckles moved from New York City to Chicago, and when the Warehouse club opened in Chicago in 1977, he was invited to play on a regular basis. He continued DJing at the Warehouse until 1982, when he started his own club in Chicago, The Power Plant.DJ History'reports: "The style of music now known as house was so named after a shortened version of [Knuckles' Warehouse] club."
Knuckles bought his first drum machine from Derrick May, who regularly made the trip from Detroit to see Knuckles at the Warehouse and Ron Hardy at the Music Box, both in Chicago. Knuckles also had a musical partnership with Chicago artist Jamie Principle, and helped put "Your Love" and "Baby Wants to Ride" out on vinyl after these tunes had been regulars on his reel-to-reel player at the Warehouse for a year.
As house music was developing in Chicago, producer Chip E. took Knuckles under his tutelage and produced Knuckles' first recording, "You Can't Hide from Yourself" Then came more production work, including Jamie Principle's "Baby Wants to Ride", and later "Tears" with Robert Owens (of Fingers, Inc.) and (Knuckles' protégé and future Def Mix associate) Satoshi Tomiie.
When the Power Plant closed in 1987, Knuckles played for four months at Delirium in the United Kingdom. Chicago house artists were in high demand and having major success in the UK with this new genre of music. Knuckles also had a stint in New York, where he continued to immerse himself in producing, remixing, andrecording.
Knuckles made numerous popular Def Classic Mixes with John Poppo as sound engineer, and Knuckles partnered with David Morales on Def Mix Productions.His debut album Beyond the Mix (1991), released on Virgin Records, contained "seminal work", "The Whistle Song". The Def Classic mix of Lisa Stansfield's "Change", released in the same year, also featured the whistle-like motif. Another track from the album, "Rain Falls", featured vocals from Lisa Michaelis. Eight thousand copies of the album had sold by 2004. Other key remixes from this time include his rework of the Electribe 101 anthem "Talking With Myself" and Alison Limerick's "Where Love Lives".
Knuckles continued to work as a remixer through the 1990s and into the next decade, reworking tracks from Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, Eternaland Toni Braxton. He released several new singles, including "Keep on Movin'" and a re-issue of an earlier hit "Bac N Da Day" with Definity Records. In 1995, he released his second album titled Welcome to the Real World. By 2004, 13,000 copies had sold.
In 1997, Knuckles won the Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical. In 2004, the city of Chicago – which "became notorious in the dance community around the world for passing the so-called 'anti-rave ordinance' in 2000 that made property owners, promoters and deejays subject to $10,000 fines for being involved in an unlicensed dance party" – named a stretch of street in Chicago after Knuckles, where the old Warehouse once stood, on Jefferson Street between Jackson Boulevard and Madison Street. That stretch of street, called Frankie Knuckles Way, "was renamed when the city declared 25 August 2004 as Frankie Knuckles Day. The Illiniois state senator who helped make it happen was Barack Obama." In 2005, Knuckles was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his achievements.
Francis Nicholls, better known by his stage name Frankie Knuckles (January 18, 1955 – March 31, 2014), was an American disc jockey (DJ) and record producer.
Knuckles was born January 18, 1955 in the Bronx, New York. He later moved to Chicago. He played an important role in developing and popularizing house music in Chicago during the 1980s, when the genre was in its infancy. Due to his importance in the development of the genre, Knuckles was often known as "The Godfather of House Music."The city of Chicago named a stretch of street and a day after Knuckles in 2004 for this role. His accomplishments earned him a Grammy Award in 1997. Knuckles was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition for his achievements.