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Frankie Knuckles: Death of the original Superstar DJ

Frankie Knuckles provided the soundtrack to my youth, and for many gay club bunnies like me. He played an important role in developing and popularizing house music in Chicago during the 1980s when the genre was being created. At the news of his death last night from complications caused by diabetes, the web has gone into overdrive.

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So how does one become the Godfather of House? The answer is simple:

Create it.

While studying textile design at FIT in New York, Knuckles began working as a DJ, playing soul, disco and R&B at The Continental Baths with fellow DJ Larry Levan. He 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.

Knuckles bought his first drum machine from a young 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. He also had a musical partnership with Chicago artist Jamie Principle, and helped put “Your Love” and “Baby Wants to Ride” out on vinyl after they had been regulars on his reel-to-reel player at the Warehouse for a year.

As house music was being innovated in Chicago, producer Chip E. took Knuckles under his tutelage and produced Knuckle’s first recording, “You Can’t Hide”, featuring vocalist Ricky Dillard. 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.
In 1983, Knuckles left the Warehouse to start his own club, The Power Plant. When the Power Plant closed in 1987, he DJ’d for 4 months at Delirium in the UK.

Chicago house artists were in high demand and having major success in the UK with this new genre of music. Knuckles was the featured resident DJ at The World, and also had numerous other residencies. He also had a stint in New York, where he continued to immerse himself in producing, remixing, and recording.

Knuckles did a number of popular Def Classic Mixes with John Poppo as sound engineer. He partnered with David Morales on Def Mix Productions. With several important original productions and remixes to his name, by the early 1990s, Knuckles was becoming a well-known name in the increasingly popular genre.

In ‘91, his debut album Beyond the Mix, released on Virgin Records, contained his biggest hit to date, “The Whistle Song”, The Def Classic Mix of “Change” by Lisa Stansfield done around this period also featured the whistle like motif. Another track from the album, “Rain Falls” featured vocals from Lisa Michaelis.

Key tunes from this time include his rework of the Electribe 101 anthem “Talking With Myself” and “Where Love Lives” by Alison Limerick.

When Junior Vasquez took a sabbatical from Manhattan’s The Sound Factory, Knuckles took over and launched a successful run as resident DJ until Vasquez made his return, at which point Frankie became the resident DJ at The Sound Factory Bar. While there, he remained part of the underground scene.
In1997, he won the Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical.

Knuckles continued to work as a remixer through the 1990s and into the next decade, reworking tracks from Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, Eternal and 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.

In 2004, he released a thirteen track album of original material – his first in over a decade, entitled A New Reality, which was critically acclaimed. In October 2004 “Your Love” appeared in the videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, playing on house music radio station, SF-UR.

On 19 September 2005, Knuckles was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievement as a DJ.

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