Frankie Knuckles, a legend in the world of dance music and one of the inventors of house music, a steady, beat-driven style played in nightclubs all over the world, died unexpectedly at his Chicago home on Monday. He was 59.
By the mid-1990s, house music was so mainstream that a song by Frankie Knuckles was played in a commercial for Lipton Iced Tea. But it wasn't always that way. Knuckles, born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx, started in the dance music underground. When he was just 18, he got a job as a DJ at a major destination for gay men — the Continental Baths in Manhattan. That's also where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their starts. In an interview with the BBC two years ago, Knuckles described it as a world unto itself.
"It was more than just a bath house," he said. "There was a boutique. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool. There was a theater room. There was a salon."
And a dance floor where Knuckles worked eight-hour shifts.
"A lot of people would check in on Friday night and they wouldn't check out until Monday morning," Knuckles said. "They were on their way to work."
Knuckles' signature sets were not about explosive non-stop energy. He structured them, he once said, like stories with internal logic and a certain moody momentum.
Though he got his start in New York, Knuckles became one of the faces of dance music in another city: Chicago. He moved there in his 20s and quickly began working at a new club.
"He was the main DJ — he was the only DJ — at a club called The Warehouse," says Charles Matlock, another Chicago DJ, who spoke to NPR last year about the origins of Chicago house. "That club ended up lending its name to this genre of music."
That fact is disputed by some, but what's not disputed is that Knuckles packed the place. At first, the clubgoers at The Warehouse were mostly gay and black. Within a few years, everyone who lived to dance went there. When disco fell out of fashion, Knuckles had to create new sounds by sampling music he liked — Philadelphia soul, Motown, rare European imports. He added drum effects and used a reel-to-reel tape machine in the DJ booth to edit songs so a section looped over and over, giving dancers more time on the floor.
"I did it out of necessity," he said, "because there were no more disco records being made. Nothing with any kind of real energy."
So he created songs — songs that sometimes went on for 10 minutes or more — that remain classics. "The song 'Your Love' was probably about the year zero in the history of house music," Matlock says of Knuckles' 1987 edit of a song by Jamie Principle. "It was really one of the major shots heard 'round the world."
House spread from Chicago and Detroit to Ibiza and Berlin, and helped sweep in the drug-fueled rave culture in the U.K. in the '90s. But Knuckles was never interested in hedonism. He saw the dance floor as a sacred space. The beat united everybody there. For Frankie Knuckles, the beat was a creed.