The Godfather of House

by Jesse Garrick June 2014 Read in PDF format N1/2014
KNUCKLES “From my particular end of it, it’s like church. Because, when you’ve got three thousand people in front of you, that’s three thousand different personalities. And when those three thousand personalities become one personality, it’s the most amazing thing.” FRANKIE KNUCKLES, 1955 - 2014

rankie Knuckles was born Francis Nicholls in January, 1955. He grew up in South Bronx, New York, and reached maturity at a time when the Big Apple was on the verge of financial crisis. South Bronx was hit badly by the economic downturn: local crime and unemployment figures were high, and it is estimated that 40% of the area’s tenements were either affected by arson or abandoned between 1970 and 1980. These aren’t times on which he reflected to any great extent in public forums; in fact, for a man so historically significant in his own lifetime, he was often ahistorical in interviews. He would readily discuss the past, but appeared to prefer to focus on the music, rather than sift through memories which predated his musical career. In spite of this occasional unwillingness to reminisce, on more than one occasion he credited an element of the adversity that he saw growing up in South Bronx, as well as in New York generally, with the birth of that focus on creating music – the kind of music that made people feel good, and the kind of music that brought people together. A collaborative spirit is evident throughout his work and career. He often made the case that people are better and more creative in pairs or groups than by themselves. He also clearly felt that a connection to his audience and crowd was crucial – that the ‘feeling good’ element of his music pivoted on the extent to which that symbiotic relationship was ‘there’ or not. His musical lifeline, as he saw it, became and continues to be a musical life-giver for many people around the world, particularly house music lovers. As a DJ, he mastered everything from reel to reel tape recorders and turntables to software-based mixing solutions over the course of four decades. In that time, he retained an uncommonly consistent passion for his work and, equally, received uncommonly consistent high praise for it. The production side of his legacy is just as impressive, in fact inextricably tied to his success as a DJ: from tracks such as ‘Tears’ in collaboration with Satoshi Tomiie, to ‘Baby Wants To Ride’ and ‘Your Love’ in collaboration with Jaime Principle, Knuckles created tracks that will remain ingrained in the pop-ular imagination for a long time to come. Knuckles began DJing to critical acclaim alongside childhood friend Larry Levan at Steve Ostrow’s Continental Baths, a legendary bathhouse and LGBT mecca, situated in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side of New York. The Continental Baths has been celebrated as a bacchanalian triumph for sexuality, and more importantly as a bastion for LGBT rights in the US – even to a greater extent than Stonewall. The Baths took its influences, somewhat nostalgically, from the glory days of the Roman Empire, with fountains, saunas, orgy rooms and live performances, all situated around the largest indoor swimming pool in the world at that time. When the Baths closed in 1976, Knuckles decided to move to the American Midwest city of Chicago upon being offered a residency that Levan had previously declined. The spot was called The Warehouse, which opened in 1977 and was owned by Robert Williams. It was there that Knuckles made history and transitioned from an eclectic mix of R&B, soul, disco and post-punk to house, in part on account of a need to make new dance records because major record labels had begun to give up on them, but also on account of technological advancements of the time, such as the introduction of drum machines. The drum machine, together with the sampler, allowed Knuckles to breathe new life into his sound and take it into a new direction, thereby ensuring its longevity. He would loop drum sequences beneath and between vocal tracks to create fluid transitions between songs, giving rise to the notion of the musical ‘journey’ that you so often hear mentioned in relation to the longer DJ set today. To add depth to his sessions, he would also punctuate the music with out-of-this-world samples, such as the sound of a train approaching, much to the delight of the happy-go-lucky Warehouse crowd. The sound he developed at the Warehouse became the reference point for ‘house music’, which is a testament both to his originality and his perseverance. After the Warehouse closed, Knuckles left and started his own club, The Powerplant, which he ran for a couple of years before concentrating on music production. He moved back to New York and reached production stardom working at Def Mix alongside manager Judy Weinstein and co-remixers David Morales, Hector Romero and Satoshi Tomiie. Collectively, they re-worked a host of international hits, and in 1997 Knuckles won a Grammy for non-classical remixer of the year.





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