The tragic news of Frankie Knuckles’ passing on March 31 dealt a painful blow to dance music lovers all around the world. Here, we dig deeper into the crate of the Godfather of house’s memory for 10 lesser-known facts about the legend.
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‘Your Love’ (1987)
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Although he relocated to Chicago, the artist born Francis Nicholls in January 1955 originated from the Bronx, New York, where he dodged gang culture, initially nursing ambitions to become a costume designer. He was designing menswear by high school but, when he became strapped for cash, landed a DJ gig.
Luther Vandross grew up right across the road from Frankie, and they used to ride the subway down to Manhattan together to school. Knuckles attended the High School of Art & Design while Vandross went to the School of Music. When they reached 59th Street they would part ways, but always meet up to go back home.
Frankie’s first ever job was blowing up balloons, spiking the punch and handing out acid at Nicky Siano’s Gallery. “I hired Frankie on the spot,” Siano said. “He was in love with the club, and I could see that his motives were to help make it the best party in New York.”
Along with childhood friend DJ Larry Levan, Frankie was once arrested by the police for stealing doughnuts after a night out clubbing when the pair were underage. They were sent to a juvenile delinquent camp in the South Bronx, where their counsellor was none other than Robert Williams, who would go on to open the legendary Warehouse.
Knuckles bought a Roland TR-808 from Derrick May as a percussive tool to be used underneath disco records. Although the term ‘house’ is a reference to the Warehouse club, it also points to the changes in music technology: a growing home-recording industry. Implementing local producers’ reel-to-reel recordings, Knuckles “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.”
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‘The Whistle Song’ (1991)
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Ever the innovator, he was also pioneering in his use of sound effect records, making it feel as though, for example, a steam engine was roaring across the middle of the dancefloor. “Everyone thought it was a damn train moving through the place,” said Knuckles. “It scared the shit out of people. But they came back, hoping to hear it again.”
‘Baby Wants To Ride / Your Love’ was released in 1987 on Trax Records, but in his later years Frankie experienced a bad time with the label, stating in an interview that he had “no relationship with Trax. Anytime I got some new product coming out they try and piggyback on whatever that it is that I’m doing to try and make whatever they can off of it... it would end up costing me more to try and legally make an issue.”
Despite inhabiting clubs for the majority of his life, the DJ/producer disliked people drinking inside them, saying “alcohol is a completely different kind of drug that puts people in the wrong frame of mind. They bring that bad energy in there.”
After a snowboarding accident in Switzerland, Frankie developed a bone disease in his right foot. Against doctors’ orders, he continued to DJ, and had to have his foot amputated in 2008. “When I saw it was gone I had a good cry, but when I woke up the next morning I felt 1,000% better,” he said. “I didn’t realise how much pain I’d been in until it was gone. It was like all of a sudden the sun came out.”
Frankie once laid into David Guetta, albeit after mistakenly believing a spoof article that had been circulating online, calling him “a popstar of the Milli Vanilli variety. If nothing else at the end of my life it will never be said that I was a fake or a charlatan.” You can say that again, Frankie.
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‘Baby Wants To Ride’ (1987)
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Words: Felicity Martin
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