Rolling Stone reports that the Chicago house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles died yesterday afternoon of undisclosed causes. (According to some reports, he was suffering from complications from diabetes.) Knuckles was 59, and he is one of a small handful of people who have had a seismic impact on music as we know it today.
Knuckles was born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx, and when he was studying textile design at FIT, he and his best friend Larry Levan were frequenting some of the most important venues on the early disco scene, when disco was just starting to become its own thing. The two quickly became DJs themselves, and they worked in venues like Nicky Siano’s Gallery. In the late ’70s, Knuckles moved to Chicago and opened a club called the Warehouse. At the Gallery, Knuckles figured out his whole DJing aesthetic, pulling from a wide range of genres (disco, soul, the early electronic Italo-disco tracks), blurring them all together until they felt connected. House music, as a genre, gets its name from the Warehouse.
Sometime in the early ’80s, after Knuckles had left the Warehouse and started a second venue called the Power Plant, he met a young DJ called Derrick May, who’d go on to help invent techno in Detroit. May, who would make the drive from Detroit to Chicago to hear Knuckles DJ, sold Knuckles his first drum machine, and Knuckles began making tracks with the singer Jamie Principle. The local label Trax began releasing the music they were making, and even though Knuckles claims that he never gave Trax permission to release the records, those singles became enormously influential.
Those tracks were especially popular in England, and British producers were soon essentially working in the style that Knuckles had developed. After the Power Plant closed in 1987, Knuckles spent months DJing in England, where rave culture was beginning to take shape around his music and the music of his contemporaries. Soon, though, he returned to New York and worked a number of high-profile DJ gigs. He continued to DJ throughout his life, working as a producer and remixer as well, and watching as the sound he arguably created went on to conquer the world. In 2008, Knuckles’s foot was amputated because of problems with diabetes and with a lingering injury from a snowboarding accident. But even after the amputation, he still played long and jubilant DJ sets around the world. Below, listen to a few of his tracks, and know that those are only a tiny splinter of the iceberg.