'I Watched in Awe:' A Frankie Knuckles Remembrance

Frankie Knuckles
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DJ Frankie Knuckles plays at the Def Mix 20th Anniversary Weekender at Turnmills nightclub on May 6, 2007 in London, England. The Weekender marked the start of the world tour celebrating 20 years of the legendary New York based House music label with DJs Satoshi Tomiie, Hector Romero, David Morales and Danny Rampling set to play during the tour.

I first saw Frankie Knuckles play records — on what I now recognize as an epic, life-changing night of adventure in the fall of 1984 at the newly opened nightclub Smart Bar on the fourth floor of a run down former vaudeville house in the shadow of Chicago’s Wrigley Field — by happy accident. Me: 15 years old but already a veteran record store rat, on my first solo excursion to the city to see a “21 and over” “sold-out gig” at a “rock club,” secreted through the back door, sticker slapped to my shirt and stashed in one of the balcony’s dark corners by the venue’s owner, despite the very real risk to his liquor license by my presence, and told to exit through the alley door as soon as the band walked off stage.

Instead, after the show I went up the stairs not down, following music I heard from a room at the end of a dark hall and discovering the sticker on my chest granted unquestioned access from the door’s guard. I opened a door and entered a bubble — a small sliver of space within an ocean of moving people, protected only by a border of folding wooden tables. One table sat atop a low riser, its legs reinforced with cinder blocks and sandbags. On the table were three turntables, a mixing board, a milk crate filled with records, and a flashing electronic box that I could not identify. I watched in awe as a man stood on the riser manipulating the music in synchronicity with the dancing mass of people in his face, trying to match the movements of his fingers with continuous flow of sound. It was all about the hands.

I learned later that the DJ was Frankie Knuckles, the same guy whose Friday night mixes I would obsessively record off 102.7 FM WBMX's Friday Night Jams and study, already the Godfather of House Music in Chicago but not yet the international pop star he would soon become. I’ve been hanging out in DJ booths ever since, still entranced and mystified by those who make music with records. That night was the first of countless I spent in that building — both at Metro and later in the basement where Smart Bar landed and remains — absorbing a singular, spectacular education in popular music that sustains my life to this day and learning to be as comfortable behind the decks as on the dance floor. The owner who snuck me in that night, Joe Shanahan, my friend and mentor ever since, remains the most dedicated music fan I know. In 2004, Shanahan was in the audience as the City of Chicago officially recognized Knuckles unique artistic achievements, renaming the street where the original Warehouse stood in his honor, the culmination of a successful charge by the city’s music community and local pols like Illinois State Rep. Ken Dunkin and then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama.

Chicago House Street: Frankie Knuckles Way located on Jefferson Street where the Warehouse once stood.

As anyone who has fallen under the spell of house music and consequently commits him or herself to its perseverance and preservation can attest, the sound’s history is constantly being reexamined, reinterpreted, and rewritten by its DJs and devotees. An aural tradition — transmitted “in the mix,” received on dance floors in nearly every corner of the globe — its narrative can be traced along an uninterrupted continuum, roots in the 1960s, with peaks and valleys of cultural dominance every decade since. From disco to techno, rave to EDM, its heartbeat pulses to the four on the floor.

Frankie Knuckles, who died yesterday in Chicago at the age of 59, was rightfully recognized as a pioneer and living legend during his lifetime. His early recordings, several done solely with a Roland TR-909 drum machine (on loan from Detroit friend Derrick May), stripped disco and its Paradise Garage offshoot to the barest of essentials and set a template for the “Chicago sound” that continues to convert new legions of followers every successive generation.

Knuckles mastered the art of remixing not on computer or even turntables but reel to reel tape, sliced and diced by hand one measure at a time, winning the first ever Grammy awarded for remixing in 1998, entrusted with master tapes by Michael Jackson, Chaka Kahn, Pet Shop Boys and Donna Summer among many others. “The Whistle Song” and “Rain Falls,” the first two singles from Knuckles’ 1991 Virgin Records debut “Beyond the Mix,” each hit Number 1 on the Billboard Dance Chart.

But Knuckles made his biggest impact in the DJ booth, and his embrace of the turntable as instrument and means of artistic expression gave him an early, one-of-a-kind glimpse at how technology would interconnect the globe and fundamentally reshape the way music is produced, recorded, distributed and experienced. The type of live nightclub mixing that Knuckles helped invent — as an apprentice first to Gallery promoter and DJ Nicky Siano and later with childhood friend Larry Levan (as teenagers, Knuckles and Levan would take the subway from the Bronx to lower Broadway for David Mancuso’s original Loft parties) — is an increasingly rareified art form, digital music, computer and apps making easy and accessible what seemed then nothing less than musical alchemy.

Knuckles did his time deep in the mines, almost literally; his first regular gig playing records was at the Continental Baths, a notorious sauna club and hub of Manhattan’s gay social scene during the heady pre-AIDS late 1970s bacchanal. Once, he didn’t leave for a two week stretch. In “Love Saves the Day,” the detailed, invaluable history of dance music in 1970s New York by Tim Lawrence, Knuckles first emerges as a friend of 15-year-old Larry Levan, with whom he shares a nocturnal existence exploring New York nightlife in drag, dressed head-to toe in hand-made beaded gowns and sporting nose-to-ceiling feathered headdresses. The two developed together as DJs, helping each other get gigs, but in 1977 as Levan begins to emerge as the force behind the Paradise Garage, Knuckles moves to Chicago and takes his own dancefloor, first at a club called the Warehouse and later at the Power Plant, in a different direction, forging a path for house music to follow.

David Prince is a former Billboard.com News Editor and speaker hugger who deals plugs online at earlove.net.