DeepSoul: Frankie Knuckles (1955-2014), An Appreciation

The "Godfather of House' pioneered the genre with this 1987 dance classic.
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EDM may have taken over America, but its origins date back to 1970s disco.  Emerging from New York gay clubs, disco gradually crossed over thanks to Saturday Night Fever and acts like the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and Chic.  Massive overexposure led to the inevitable backlash, its most visible example being Chicago DJ Steve Dahl's "Disco Demolition" rally in Comiskey Park.  In between a 1979 White Sox/Detroit Tigers double-header, Dahl blew up disco records brought by attendees, leading chants of "disco sucks!"  This event signaled the beginning of the end, with radio stations abandoning all-disco playlists, discotheques closing, and records plummeting off the charts.  While disco seemingly vanished from the mainstream, the movement was far from over in the underground.

New York clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft, headed by legendary DJs Larry Levan and David Mancuso, kept dance music alive through their long mixes and state-of-the-art sound systems.  Frankie Knuckles became part of the scene, spinning records at the Continental Baths (a launching pad for Bette Midler and Barry Manilow's careers), dancing at the Loft, and learning from friend Levan.  As the disco scene waned in the early 1980s, Knuckles relocated to Chicago, where he served as DJ in residence for the Warehouse, a now legendary club that initially attracted a primarily gay, African-American clientele.  As word spread of Knuckles' mixing skills, the crowd expanded to include straight and multi-race clubgoers.  Here in this space, with this figure towering over the lights and dancing bodies, is where house music was born.  This genre would revive dance music and transform it, reaching multi-generations and incorporating different musical styles.

House music is difficult to define, as it grew out of the ashes of disco yet differs from it.  The beats are heavier, with more bass; synthesizers also dominate, with Kraftwerk being an obvious reference.  Late 70s/early 80s New Wave fits in, as Knuckles and other DJs would mix in the B52s, Blondie, Yoko Ono, and even Frankie Goes to Hollywood in their playlists.  Throw in a soulful, gospel-tinged vocal (although some house tracks were instrumentals), and a house song emerges.

 At first, Knuckles and his contemporaries played deep disco tracks like "Is It All Over My Face" by Loose Joints or "Let No Man Put Asunder" by First Choice; "Stayin' Alive" was nowhere to be found here.  Instead of airing one track after another, Knuckles would blend them together slowly, sometimes using a drum machine to establish the beat, then gradually build on it by introducing strings, melodies, sound samples, and the lead vocal.  He created moods and ambiance rather than just a playlist, and clubgoers were hooked.  They would flock to the nearby Imports Etc. record store, asking for "House music."  At that point customers were referring to songs heard at the Warehouse, but eventually the name identified an entire genre.  

As House's popularity increased, Chicago DJs like Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Chip-E, Jesse Saunders, Steve "Silk" Hurley, and Farley Keith began moving away from relying on previously recorded material and experimented with creating original songs.  Thus local singer/songwriter Jamie Principle entered Knuckles' life in 1984, and the two would release one of the first House music singles.  Principle recorded a demo of "Your Love," the lyrics based on a poem he wrote in honor of his then-girlfriend.  After several record labels rejected the song, a mutual friend gave Principle's tape to Knuckles, who began playing it at his own club, the Power Plant.  The track became an instant hit in the club, but (true to most early House music) was not available on record.  

Two years later, a version of "Your Love" was released on a small Chicago label.  But the Knuckles-produced 1987 remix, issued on the city's legendary Trax label, became the definitive version.  A House classic, "Your Love" perfectly encapsulates the genre and exemplifies Knuckles' distinctive skills.  As Principle whispers and moans, the three-note synthesizer sequence weaves throughout the song at a dizzying tempo.  The beat throbs, enticing listeners to the dance floor, and the simple yet effective baseline adds to the tracks heavy grooves.  Female backing vocalists enhance the soulfulness of the track, the entire production radiating Prince's sexual/spiritual dichotomy.   "Your Love" is made for the club, but Knuckles' multilayered production still makes for fascinating listening.  Indeed, "Your Love" represents what the BBC documentary Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music calls "ground zero" of the genre. 

Last week Knuckles passed away from complications of diabetes.  While only 59, he leaves behind a legacy that resounds today.  Artists such as Daft Punk, Skrillex, and Deadmau5 owe a great debt to Knuckles, a true pioneer in a sound he once dubbed "disco's revenge."  Listen to "Your Love" and seek out his second collaboration with Principle,"Baby Wants to Ride;"  his own "The Whistle Song:" and his remixes of artists like Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Chaka Khan to fully appreciate why his title remains "Godfather of House Music."