Frankie Knuckles, RIP
by Cornelius Washington
Frankie Knuckles, the Father of House Music and the Master of the Remix, died last week at 59. In the world of music, more change came in the past 50 years than in the preceding 150. The man who merged all the popular genres into a timeless art-form was Frankie Knuckles. With his partner in perfection DJ Larry Levan, he was the creator of house music, a dance-driven, definitively black and gay celebration of sound, style and attitude. It was the platform for his international acclaim and recognition as the remixer.
"I wanted to know some technical aspects of spinning, so I worked up the courage to reach out to him, and that sweet, humble man contacted me immediately," said DJ Robbie Martin. "He gave me the best advice. A lot of DJs, remixers and artists go on and on about their beats, but you can get any 10-year-old to get on a computer and get a beat. But there are no melodic remixers. To create a melody requires knowledge and wisdom. No one in the industry today who calls himself a DJ and remixer has either the technical ability or the desire to create melodies. That's why it all sounds like clanging pots and pans. Frankie would remix entire string sections in his work. Who do you know who's willing to do that, now that he's gone? He created a standard of excellence. He was the best. He was the Godfather."
Knuckles' client list included icons of pop music we all know on a first-name basis: Diana, Michael, Janet, Whitney, Luther, Toni, Chaka and Madonna. His versatility is evident in his work with Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. His appreciation for the obscure and hip is evident in his work with Hercules & Love Affair and Alison Limerick. The respect of his music industry peers was evident in his DanceStar Lifetime Achievement Award, his induction into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, and his 1997 Grammy Award for Best Remix Recording, Non-Classical.
"To me, because he played piano, he didn't approach his work as a DJ or remixer. He approached it as a musician. That brought an elegance and sensitivity to his work. Obviously, he was influenced by the legends of the Baby Boomer generation, so now the DJs and remixers are greatly influenced by him. Truly, he is the Godfather." – remixer Robert Eisenbaum.
In his decades-spanning career, Knuckles was one of the truly "beautiful people" who was beloved both inside and out of the industry. My personal experience with him came in 2005, for the anniversary of the dance event Fag Fridays at the legendary End Up club, for this newspaper. He was extremely late, and I was aggravated. That feeling dissipated as soon as he came in. He was apologetic and nervous that he had offended me, aware of the presence the B.A.R. has in the LGBT community. His shy, beautiful smile radiated before my camera throughout our entire session. He took his time answering questions about desired future collaborations (Jennifer Hudson, Mary Wilson); the history of the End Up, one of Knuckles' favorite venues; and fashion. He was impressed with my Armani suit. I replied, "I simply dress up when I meet legends." Asked which of his remixes was my favorite, I told him it was his remix of Diana Ross' 1976 disco classic, "Love Hangover." He said that he used that track to begin all of his sessions, and that he would dedicate the song to me. I asked him instead to "create the magic." On Knuckles' way to the DJ booth, the evening's MC announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, Fag Fridays and the legendary End Up club present The Father of House Music, Mr. Frankie Knuckles." Applause erupted as he began his set, taking the microphone and saying, "This is for the little lanky guy in the Armani suit. His name is Cornelius Washington, from the Bay Area Reporter newspaper. This song is for him." I felt like a king and queen simultaneously as the magic began. I danced into the early morning hours.
A few months later, at Gay Pride, the African American stage's DJ began his set with Knuckles' remix of "Love Hangover," and I laughed and danced from my very soul. Weeks later, I spoke with my mother in New Orleans. She'd seen me on national television during a news channel's coverage of Gay Pride. The next year, the same footage, using Knuckles' "Love Hangover" remix, was used again.
"He was so very inspirational. A true master. I know that there must be a great house party going on upstairs now!" – Michael Brandon, adult-film star, director and co-producer of the Forsaken dance event, where Knuckles often DJed.
Rest in peace, Mr. Knuckles. Your magic endures.