Maurice Chaytor, Knuckles' assistant, explains, "He could make you feel like you were the only person that he knew. It didn't matter who you were. Very gracious, very loving, very giving, very willing to help you in any way he could. And that was his whole life. All he ever really, really wanted to do was just bring love to the world. He was an earth-bound angel."
As a teen, Knuckles, along with his close friends Larry Levan and Robert Williams, was immersed in New York's early disco culture. He went to parties at Nicky Siano's The Gallery and David Mancuso's Loft, as well as lesser-known clubs. Tim Lawrence writes that Knuckles, who was studying fashion illustration, met Levan in New York's drag scene. Nicky Siano hired Knuckles and Levan in 1972, just after The Gallery opened, to help decorate the club. "Larry and I would blow up balloons, set up the food bar, prepare the punch, and give out acid," Knuckles told Lawrence. "But we also spent a lot of time hanging out in the booth, watching Nicky's every move."
Around this time, Williams and friends were moving their US (pronounced "us") Studio parties in Chicago to a new location at 206 South Jefferson Street. Williams asked Levan if he would move to Chicago to play at the club. When he declined, Williams asked Knuckles, who accepted in 1977. The club was soon nicknamed The Warehouse, and the rest is truly history.
Chaytor first found "gay heaven" at Chicago's Den One, where Ron Hardy was resident DJ. Each Saturday night after the club closed at 4 AM, Hardy and his friends would go to The Warehouse. There, Hardy introduced Chaytor to Williams and the newly arrived Knuckles. "Through their influence I got another level of cultural influence infused into me, which I'm very grateful for to this day," Chaytor says. "In all areas of life. The classics—musical, dance, social, art."
Warehouse parties would start between 11:00 and midnight on a Friday night and continue until as late as noon the following morning. "Frankie was coming back to New York and getting new music, plus he was in a pool that was shipping him music from New York," Chaytor recalls. "He was always known for playing new and fresh and inviting tunes, stuff that you just weren't hearing in the normal club circuit of the heterosexual world or any other club here. It was always a feeling of soul."
The Warehouse's crowd was as diverse as its music. "It didn't matter what your ethnic group was, your social background, your sexual orientation," Chaytor says. "[Knuckles] could bring everybody together to join in a celebration of life and spirit."
Knuckles was known for his programming as much as his song selection. "He knew how to manipulate the sound so it created dimensions, and it felt like you were traveling through different forms. His musical style was always a journey," says Chaytor. "It starts out warm and intense and depending on where he wanted to take you, [went to] uncharted lands."
"As the night progressed, the tempo progressed," Williams says. "And then at some point in the night, going towards the morning, he would bring it down, rest you out a little, and then if he felt really good, he would take it back up."
The Warehouse space was small, but it had features that created dramatic effects. "It had storm block windows that had openings in them, so that when you opened up the windows, with the heat that had been generated, a natural fog would roll in," Chaytor remembers. When the fog rolled in, Knuckles might play thunderstorm sound effects as the lights flickered before bringing in Chaka Khan's "Clouds."
"Kids would be hollering and screaming with the music, 'Jack the box!'" Chaytor says. "They would chant to him to pump the system, and drive him, and he in turn would drive the crowd. Frankie never wanted to be away from the crowd... His thing was, 'I need to feel my bottom." Describing the force of the kick drum, Chaytor says, "The room breathed."
Knuckles was always innovating. In RA's Playing Favourites, Knuckles told Stephen Titmus how he began collaborating with his friend Erasmo Rivera, a student in sound engineering, to make tape edits.
"One of the first songs I gave him was 'So Fine' by Howard Johnson. He did such an incredible job that the crowd would beg for it," Knuckles said. "The more tunes I gave him, the better he got. It really inspired me. I started cutting tape at home. I would sit all week behind my Pioneer reel-to-reel with a splicing block, a white grease pencil, next to my turntable and cut everything I could."
This led to Rivera and Knuckles re-editing First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder," sparking the interest of Salsoul Records, who re-issued the single with a Knuckles remix in 1983. It was Knuckles' first commercially released remix.
Another sound engineer who assisted Knuckles with edits was future DJ and producer Craig Loftis. Loftis recalls working on Kikrikos's "Life Is a Jungle," Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "Bad Luck," Teddy Pendergrass's "Only the Strong Survive," The Dells' "Get On Down" and Klein & MBO's "Wonderful," among others.
"Frankie was the first one that did 'I Can't Turn Around' by Isaac Hayes," says Loftis. "That was his concept." Loftis hums the horn riff. "That part was actually a very, very small section on this song by Isaac Hayes. It was not even a minute long. And Frankie heard it one day and said, 'Wow,' and he looped it, and history was made."
At the age of 27, after nearly five years at the Warehouse, Knuckles decided to strike out on his own. In November 1982, Knuckles began spinning Friday nights at the Riverside Club. A month later, it re-branded itself as the Power Plant. While Knuckles was known for his edits of classics, at the Power Plant he began experimenting with a Roland TR-909 drum machine he purchased from Derrick May. According to Loftis, DJ Greg Gray helped program some initial patterns.
"I think we were the first people in the city to connect a drum machine to our main soundsystem," Loftis says. "We could mix the 909 into what we were doing, cause it had a big, giant tempo knob on it. And then once the tracks were in there, you could just sit up there and press keys—just press each pattern that you wanted to hear."
For a time, Knuckles worked as a buyer for Importes Etc., a shop that grew out of the I.R.S. record pool. It was here that a young Jamie Principle presented Knuckles with a tape of love songs he'd written for his girlfriend, Lisa. Principle, Knuckles and Loftis began putting together different versions of the songs to play in the club.
One of the versions of "Your Love" that circulated for years was a combination of Greg Gray's raw beat patterns and Principle's sweet vocals, Loftis recalls: "[Knuckles] took the 909 and just did a recording of it with the different pattern changes that he liked and then he put an acapella of 'Your Love' on top of it. That got real big."
Knuckles took Principle into the studio to re-record "Waiting On My Angel" in higher quality. It was the first Chicago track to break into Billboard magazine's "12-Inch Single Sales" chart. The pressing plant, New York's Masterdisk, couldn't keep up. Soon afterwards, Trax Records released an unauthorized cover by Jesse Saunders.
Knuckles and Principle's follow-up single, "Your Love," wasn't as successful on the dance charts, perhaps due to the poppy mixes by Hot Tracks' Mark "Hot Rod" Trollan. Knuckles' tighter edit, later released by D.J. International, became the classic version. Again, Trax came out with its own bootleg, which Knuckles and Principle both spoke out against when they reunited in 2011.
"Jamie's stuff was just an automatic hit because it fell suit to what was happening at the Power Plant at the time," says Loftis. "The Power Plant was in its own right a dark, sleazy club—you could do whatever you wanted to do... and a couple of times you may run into that!" As at the Warehouse, Power Plant parties would continue until well into the next morning. Loftis says there would still be dancers at 11:00 on a Saturday morning, the club having been open for 12 hours.
The Power Plant lost its lease suddenly in late 1985, after which Knuckles spun on WBMX radio and at a variety of Chicago clubs, including Trianon, Medusa's, Coconuts and Gallery 21. In 1987, with house music tunes like J.M. Silk's "Music Is the Key" climbing the British pop charts, Knuckles left for London, where he had a two-month stint with Delirium at Heaven.
Returning from tour, Knuckles moved to New York, where he felt it would be easier to pursue production work. Judy Weinstein, another early attendee of Mancuso's loft parties, played an important role in his post-Chicago career. Weinstein—whose resume includes founding For The Record, a disco record pool, and booking acts for Levan's Paradise Garage—co-founded the Def Mix remix production company in 1987 with DJ David Morales, whom she was managing. Knuckles soon joined Def Mix, bringing with him "Tears," a demo that DJ and keyboard player Satoshi Tomiie had handed him in Japan.
Knuckles' 1990s New York residencies included the Roxy and the Sound Factory Bar. In an interview with Miles Simpson for Faithfanzine, Knuckles characterizes the early '90s as "a golden era in New York" club life.
In 1991, Knuckles signed with Virgin Records, collaborating with Eric Kupper on the album Beyond The Mix. He began playing "The Whistle Song" at Sound Factory, where it was an immediate hit, with demand growing for six months before Virgin officially released it.
Def Mix became a ubiquitous force on '90s dance floors, leading Knuckles and Morales to receive Grammy awards for "Remixer Of The Year, Non-Classical" in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Among the artists Knuckles remixed were Toni Braxton, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Lisa Stansfield, Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan and the Pet Shop Boys. According to the Def Mix Productions website, British pop producer Trevor Horn was a strong influence on Knuckles' "lush and expansive arrangements." Knuckles took a break from producing when his residency at the Sound Factory Bar ended in 1997.
After years of touring with New York as his base, Knuckles returned to Chicago in 2000, where his parties were managed by Frederick Dunson and Dennis Evans of D/E Entertainment. He continued to tour despite his diabetes, enjoying a monthly residency at Echoes in Riccione, Italy.
By all accounts, Knuckles was surprised by the success of his 2008 remix of "Blind" by Hercules & Love Affair, after a ten-year break from production work. Since 2011, Knuckles and Eric Kupper released updates to many of Knuckles' classic productions as Director's Cut.
The sound of Chicago house music arose from a combination of fortuitous cultural collisions: Frankie Knuckles and Robert Williams introducing the city to the spirit of New York's after-hours disco scene; WDAI and WBMX spreading hot mixes city-wide; Importes Etc. pushing Italo just as synthesizers were becoming inexpensive; middle-class black teens punking out to new wave and industrial music; Ron Hardy spinning gritty tracks at the Muzic Box—the list goes on and on. What began as a citywide phenomenon before spreading worldwide can all be connected back to Frankie Knuckles' chest-thumping beats.
Yet in recent years, Knuckles wasn't the type of DJ to fall back on classics-only sets. "I have to live and work in the here and now, or else I'm going to get pegged a retro DJ," Knuckles told Miles Simpson. "I'm not. The work I do is much too current and much too relevant, right now, to have to wear that kind of moniker round my neck."
Knuckles was always generous to his fans, making sure their experience when he played was enjoyable from the moment they stepped in the door. Asked what made Knuckles unique, Williams immediately responds, "His professionalism."
Friend and DJ Dana Powell recalls one recent night at a Chicago club when the amplifiers overheated and the sound cut out. "It was a very stressful circumstance," Powell recalls. "But he carried on as if everything in the world was there in the club and operating. And then at the end of the night, I hugged him and I told him, 'You know what? You are truly a professional. In the face of adversity you were able to carry on just like a true trooper.'"
Knuckles' passing has inspired an outpouring of remembrances in Chicago's clubs, on its radio and especially on Facebook. "Some of the solace that's helping me deal with the loss of my friend is the fact that now I know he's amongst friends that he hasn't seen in years," says Loftis. "Y'all just don't understand the party that's going on right now. You've got Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Tee Scott all in one room with a heavenly soundsystem designed by Richard Long."