Like the summer humidity, Frankie Knuckles's presence was felt heavily throughout Chicago. This was true even in periods of his physical absence. In my mind, our encounters were many and of great, staggering depth; in concrete terms they were a handful, and truth be told we never formally met. He knew me as he knew many people. Several times, I was one of thousands of strangers who channelled energy back to him, a single point in the feedback loop between his turntables, his hands, and the mass of dancers on the floor. We moved with devotion as his willing marionettes.
Today, house music is the lingua franca for dance music across the globe, and even in the United States in a way it wasn't a decade ago. While popular history has long celebrated the Baby Boomer coming-of-age period in the late 1960s as the defining, central moment of popular music history—a story that rotates around The Beatles et al—the late 1970s was contemporary popular music's most radical hinge, when hip-hop, house, techno, and punk all radically shifted the course of pop. And Frankie Knuckles was one of a small handful of artists located right at the nexus. He wore a number of hats as an artist—producer, remixer, radio DJ, and icon—but first and foremost he was a club DJ, whose Warehouse nightclub was the crucible of a radical new genre.
"Some of the new kids that had begun to discover what the Warehouse was all about: Farley, Jessie Saunders, Chip E, and all the rest of them. I would see them around I didn’t know who they were. And they started having different parties on their own in these different taverns and bars in Chicago. and when they’d do this they had a lot of success with it. And one day I was going out south to see my god-daughter, and we were sitting at a stop light, and on the corner there was a tavern, and in the window it had a sign that said WE PLAY HOUSE MUSIC. I asked this friend of mine ‘Now what is that all about?’ and she says ‘It’s the same stuff that you play at The Warehouse.’" —Frankie Knuckles, quoted in Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's The Record Players
Any attempt to summarize or approximate his seismic impact feels woefully inadequate. He was without peer. His devoted following expanded in time, unfolding as if by some grand plan. He maintained patience as his career took shape while others, early on in the genre's history, scrambled. His acolytes trace the globe; in the UK, he is a superstar and celebrity, whereas he could "walk down the middle of the street in Chicago and not be recognized." The entire world now listens to the music that he pioneered; as Michelangelo Matos put it in the obituary for Rolling Stone, "Nobody can agree on who invented the blues or birthed rock & roll, but there is no question that house music came from Frankie Knuckles."
When Frankie Knuckles was ascendant in Chicago, predominantly black gay nightclubs were already the vanguard of popular music. Chicago, relative to New York, was considerably more segregated, by Frankie's own testimony. The Warehouse was a gay, working class, black and hispanic nightclub, far removed from mainstream acceptance or awareness, at least within the United States. Other clubs, like the druggy Music Box, would intensify house music's intrinsic extremes: the repetition, the distortion, the mind-warping sonic world that had suddenly been revealed. Knuckles, though, was focused on the power of the song, unbending in his devotion to emotional generosity.
Knuckles' genius wasn't in taste alone, but in the way he humbly and confidently negotiated the pathway between himself and his audience. It can be difficult to comprehend today, when "taste" has become such an egocentric construct, a method of differentiating oneself through branding. Knuckles' music was shaped not just by his own whims, and not only by the broad cultural context of house, the currents of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The evolution of his sound was also molded by his particular audience, those for whom his work was a transcendent, weekly spiritual occurrence: "For most of the people that went [to the Warehouse] it was church for them. It only happened one day a week: Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon," he once said.
A producer's sound can be defined in concrete terms; in hip-hop, think of the musical signature that runs through the work of its biggest names, like Premier's drums or the Neptunes' guitars. For a DJ the common denominator is elusive, speaking as they do with songs created by others, and for an audience whose reaction helps mold the set's ebb and flow. The songs Frankie Knuckles was drawn to have an effusive quality that drew from the uplift and transcendent energy of gospel. His art was, in that sense, a continuation of tradition.
But to the aesthetic mainstream of his time, he was positioned at the extreme, and it's a tribute to his vision that much of the world soon re-centered around the approach he cultivated at the outer edge. It wasn't the sherm-addled sonic extreme of clubs like The Music Box, the atmosphere-rending sounds of acid house. It was an ideological extreme. A strain of dance that found strength in exposing sincere, un-self-conscious emotion, values inherited from disco. Frankie Knuckles was the house producer closest to that ideal: his was a confident, muscular vulnerability. It can be difficult to identify one thread that runs through his diverse and important work. But at the core of his art—evident in his DJ sets and his production alike—is a boldness, a certainty that inverts the usual dynamic, so choices typically associated with fecklessness and weakness instead feel like the strongest possible armor.
Foregrounding this kind of emotional intimacy explains the outpouring of emotion that his tragic passing has inspired. It's why my immediate reaction was to write about my own trace experiences with his art, those which feel monumentally important to my evolution as a music fan, but were not even a drop in the ocean of his influence. Affirming that his connection with me was genuine, that I understood, felt like the best way to do his art justice. His work was empathic in the extreme; to be touched by it was to feel that you knew him personally, that you understood him, and he understood something real about you.
I only brushed against Frankie Knuckles in the past decade. I came of age in post-Rave Act Chicago, when property owners and organizers could be fined $10,000 just for throwing a dance party, and hip-hop was America's dominant form of club music. But it felt like he was everywhere, even when he wasn't. Well into the 2000s, house music was played on WGCI and Power 92 alongside the hip-hop and R&B. By 2004, there was a revival of interest underway in his work and the art he'd inspired. Trax Records—the shady label among the first to sell early house music—reissued portions of its back catalog. The music was revived by house artists in Europe, where the genre had taken on a life of its own, then by trendy New York indie labels like DFA. Gramaphone records pushed a steady trade in house records, as a young generation—myself included—discovered a musical legacy that had previously seemed the soundtrack to an older generation.
In 2004 and for several years afterward—until they became overcrowded and fistfights between alleged gang members caused police to end the sets early—house music was celebrated every Wednesday, from 6 to 9 p.m., in Chicago's lakeside Grant Park. The city finally acknowledged the debt it owed to house music, its most significant cultural export since the Blues. A mobile dance floor was laid out on a piece of the park, and legendary Chicago house DJs would come through to spin on stage for a growing audience of old and new school house heads: Steve "Silk" Hurley, Joe Smooth, Green Velvet, Bad Boy Bill. In 2004, the summer led up to Frankie Knuckles, DJing August 25, the final night of the series. Mayor Daley declared the day "Frankie Knuckles Day," and a stretch of Jefferson Street by the defunct Warehouse was renamed Frankie Knuckles Way.
I had just turned 21, an age when many things seemed to happen in a compact span. It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college, and a musical worldview hardened by youth and high school had cracked open under pressure. A group of seven of us and a case of Tecate joined the massive crowd as it descended on Grant Park. It was sticky-hot and overcast, perpetually threatening to turn into a downpour which never came. Instead, rain sprinkled liberally on the muddy crowd. The stage faced South, and we faced the stage; Chicago's glowing skyline was to our left, etched against the dark clouds, and the turbulent expanse of Lake Michigan was to the right.
As Frankie DJ'd, thunder began to roll out, and it was hard to tell the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs sound system from nature's own. It feels embarrassing to mention now, but I can recall a group of us rapping the hook to "Get Low" along with the music, the more open-minded members of the crowd joining in. It may seem lightweight disrespectful now, or like a juvenile way to shield ourselves from the music's fundamental sincerity. But at the time, it struck me as a partial compliment: this music was as immediate, as vital as whatever popular songs were burning up the charts that summer.
As the party reached an apex and sweat mixed with rain water, lightning struck the Sears Tower, God's own light show sparking noise from the crowd that crested like a wave over the music. A rare moment, the city was in the throes of an overdue celebration.
According to an excitable blog post I wrote around that time, I bought Frankie Knuckles' "The Whistle Song" 12" record that weekend.