10 Mixes: A Guide to Frankie Knuckles

Michaelangelo Matos provides a rough guide to the genius of the house pioneer in ten mixes.

This past Sunday was Frankie Knuckles’ 60th birthday – a bittersweet occasion, since he wasn’t around to celebrate it. When house music’s founding DJ died at home in Chicago on March 31, 2014, retirement wasn’t part of his plans; he was scheduled to appear eleven days later in San Francisco, and two months after that in London. His sudden passing was a shock – and in the midst of a cresting surge in American dance culture, a reminder of precisely how far house music had come, and how much of it had come from him.

Many people wrote wonderful things about Knuckles after he died, among them Smart Bar’s Marea Stamper (AKA The Black Madonna) and NPR’s Barry Walters, who filed the first national story about Chicago house to appear in a U.S. publication, for Spin in 1986. And Frankie told his own story eloquently many times, notably during his Chairman Jeff Mao-led lecture at RBMA Madrid in 2011.

So what follows is neither a recap of Knuckles’ history, nor a selection of his all-time greatest DJ mixes – a near-impossible task anyway for a man who played, without a script, nearly every weekend for four decades. Many of those sets were recorded, and more will undoubtedly continue to surface for years to come. Instead, these are intended as a guide to basic parameters of a titanic career, signposts as much as landmarks. (They’re also not guaranteed to stay put for long; caveat emptor.)

To properly spotlight the Godfather, I left off sets he shared with others, including a great half-and-half WBMX radio set with Bad Boy Bill from 1986, a magical 1992 back-to-back with David Morales from Italy, and a split Essential Mix with Doc Martin from 2007. And none of my picks were officially released – perhaps an unusual tack, given that Knuckles issued several licensed CD mixes, including United DJs of America 4 (Moonshine, 1995; with David Morales), the double-CDs Sessions Six (Ministry of Sound, 1996) and Choice – A Collection of Classics (Azuli, 2000), Motivation (Definity, 2001), and its sequel Motivation Too (Nervous, 2009) – all of which have reasons to recommend them. But Frankie was Frankie because he was unparalleled at creating and riding a moment for a living audience. In those moments, there was Frankie Knuckles, and then there was everybody else.

The Warehouse, 1977
Some explanation is necessary: Misdating is a hazard of old DJ mixes online, and this is no exception. Not only did Frankie himself say that he began re-editing tracks on reel-to-reel with his friend Erasmo Rivera in 1979 – the hard edits of Teddy Pendergrass’s “The More I Get, the More I Want” are clearly not on the original – this set features, near the end, Patti LaBelle’s “The Spirit’s in It,” from 1981, segued into La Pregunta’s “Shangri La,” from 1978. And it’s very lo-fi – as Peter Shapiro once wrote of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Death Mix,” it’s the aural equivalent of cave painting. Not to mention the annoying big-room a cappella intro and the occasional faded-up-and-out ID tags.

So skip past the first minute or so, learn to ignore the tags, and feast, because this is one of those cases where aural wear and tear only adds to a set’s revelatory aura. Already, Knuckles is already playing faster, harder, and looser than the run of the period’s disco DJs. (“When all those people claimed that disco was dead, it didn’t really affect me at the Warehouse,” he said in 1997.) His transitions have a finesse beyond most of his contemporaries, whether he’s teasing the a cappella of Ecstasy, Passion & Pain’s “Touch and Go” before the music blasts in, or the shift from the piano solo of Made in U.S.A.’s “Melodies” into the Jackson 5’s pitched-way-up “Forever Came Today.” The whole thing is hyped to the skies, and the selection is first-rate. No wonder he garnered a cult.

The Warehouse, August 28, 1981
Steady-state and unobtrusive, this set is representative of Knuckles’ growing sense of drama – rather than cranking like the set above, it’s more sophisticated. His more restrained touch of restraint is evident at 20:38, when he lets Modern Romance’s “Salsa Rappsody,” with its chant over heavy Latin percussion, end suddenly so he can brings in a delicate piano intro – a little something to let the room breathe. Otherwise, it never stops pumping.

The Power Plant, 1984
By the early ’80s, both Knuckles and the Warehouse were moving in different directions. Though Frankie had lived as well as worked at the club from 1977 to 1979, he began playing at other spots around Chicago, such as Carol’s Speakeasy (formerly Den One, where a young Ron Hardy had begun to make his name), 161 West (run by future Medusa’s owner Dave Shelton, who said of the place in 1990, “It was a dump, but once the crowd got in there, you didn’t notice it”), Sauer's, Smart Bar, and the Metro. In turn, Warehouse owner Robert Williams began opening the spot up beyond its initial members-only policy.

Retrospect tells us a new sound is around the corner, and it’s audible here.

Frankie didn’t like the change: “It became a free-for-all,” he said in his RBMA lecture. “People were beginning to get robbed on the dance floor at knifepoint, hideous things like that. At that point I just thought this was no longer the club that my heart was into.” When he defected at the end of 1982 to the Power Plant, he enjoyed both a safer space and a new DJ booth that acted as a mini-party within the party: “It was a relaxed environment that [was] completely controlled,” Derrick May told me. That’s also a good description of this laid-back 1984 session. The disco-heavy first half segues neatly into a more electronic-heavy groove, via an on-a-dime transition from Loleatta Holloway’s “Runaway” to Herbie Hancock’s “Stars in Your Eyes,” and it finishes with a pair of Euro grooves from Forrest and Victor. Retrospect tells us a new sound is around the corner, and it’s audible here as well.

Live at Gay Pride Day, Belmont Beach, Chicago, 1985 (side B)
Playing outdoors might have given this set even more of a jolt than usual, but the crowd’s whoops and hollers and “All right!”s festoon a selection that didn’t even need the help. The first half is full of goodies, but the shorter part two keeps reaching ridiculous peaks – in particular, a double-dose of Teddy Pendergrass (“The Love I Lost” going straight into “You Can’t Hide From Yourself”) that’s one of the most exciting, and shameless, gambits Frankie ever engineered.

WBMX-FM, Chicago, 1986
It’s one thing to know that Chicago house music descended from cult disco and Euro obscurities, but hearing it happen in real time is something else. This hour from Knuckles’ slot on the Hot Mix 5 show (full title: Saturday Night Live, Ain’t No Jive – Chicago Dance Party) is archetypal any way you slice it, from Frankie’s obvious camaraderie with his fellow DJs (around the 20-minute mark, during Cultural Vibe’s “Ma Foom Bay,” he offers a heartfelt “Happy birthday, Tony at Zanzibar”) to his easy slide back and forth between the tracks that built the house (Womack & Womack’s “Baby, I'm Scared of You,” Positive Force’s “We Got the Funk”) and their progeny (the menacing, spectral dub of Adonis’s “No Way Back” slotting into the Rude Boy Farley Keith’s “Give Your Self to Me”). And even if you don’t give a fig about history, it moves, and it’s all of a piece.

Live at the Sound Factory, New York, 1990 (XLR8R Podcast 336)
Knuckles left Chicago in 1988 after being hired for a residency at the World in New York, and it was in his hometown that he began streamlining his production style, in large part thanks to his Def Mix production partner David Morales. That’s the bailiwick of this set, a live hour from his short-lived residency at the Sound Factory. Amazingly, this mix didn’t appear anywhere for a quarter-century; Knuckles dug it out of his archive to appear on XLR8R’s podcast series. As with the 1977 set above, the date here is probably fudged: the Knuckles remix of Sounds of Blackness’ “The Pressure” came out in mid-1991.

No matter – it’s flat-out definitive, both as a time-and-place snapshot and as a showcase for Def Mix’s early peak, studded equally with classics (“The Pressure,” Trilogy’s “Love Me Forever or Love Me Not,” Frankie’s lambent set closer, “The Whistle Song”) and first-rate curiosities ranging from Shep Pettibone remixing Michael McDonald to Fast Eddie’s “Let’s Go.” But it’s equally necessary for its inclusion of Morales’ “Red Zone Mix” of Alison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives,” whose reverbed keyboard line is the ne plus ultra of house piano. Mixmag named it the greatest dance single of all time in 1996; two decades on, it’s still easy to hear why.

Soak, Corn Exchange, Leeds, August 28, 1993
No new ground broken here – if you know what house music sounded like in 1993, you have a good idea what’s in store. And if you know what house music sounded like in 1993, and who’s playing it, there’s no surprise that this is terrific top to bottom. Obvious classics aren’t the point, though the Dom T. remix of Bjork’s “Human Behaviour” pops up around minute 51. But the groove bubbles nonstop – and builds to a final half-hour that jacks like a MF.

House music in 1999 didn’t sound much like it did in 1986, but the millennium’s tip saw a surge of soulful anthems similar to its breakout year.

Essential Mix (Live from Basic, Leeds), September 5, 1999
Amazingly, it took six years for BBC Radio 1’s weekly DJ showcase to spotlight the man who put the show’s M.O. in motion – not least because host Pete Tong had been instrumental in introducing the UK to Chicago house in the first place. Tong compiled the 1986 London Records compilation The House Sound of Chicago, featuring Steve “Silk” Hurley’s eventual British number-one “Jack Your Body.” But the album collected tracks from the D.J. International catalog rather than Trax Records’, and the latter is where Knuckles’ iconic singles first appeared – which isn’t to say he wanted them to in the first place. “I don't co-sign anything on Trax,” he said in 2009. “If someone comes up to me with something that's on Trax they want me to autograph, I don't... When someone has taken something from you, you are co-signing what they have done the minute you put your signature on it.”

House music in 1999 didn’t sound much like it did in 1986, but the millennium’s tip saw a surge of soulful anthems similar to its breakout year. Knuckles’ first Essential Mix (of four total) reflects this in spades. Opening with the Messengers’ “Spread Love,” he touches down on everything from a trance remix of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog-rock epic Tubular Bells to a number of UK garage cuts (Gabrielle’s “Sunshine,” Rosie Gaines’ UK garage staple “Closer Than Close”) that he craftily refuses to treat as anything other than yet more house music. Which, of course, is precisely what they are.

Holiday Mix, Pt. 1, 2006
In 2000, Frankie moved back to Chicago, throwing parties with his managers Frederick Dunson and Dennis Evans of D/E Entertainment, and playing Echoes in Riccione, Italy, every month. His adopted home city declared August 25, 2004, Frankie Knuckles Day, coincident with Trax Records’ slew of 20th anniversary-related reissues, with the corner of South Jefferson Street where the original Warehouse stands (it’s a law office now) renamed Frankie Knuckles Way, in a ceremony presided over by then-Illinois senator Barack Obama.

He hadn’t produced in years by the time he put together this two-part set (the second half is here); the hard house surge of the late ’90s had been particularly discouraging. But instead of sounding like a retreat or a holding pattern, this set feels luxuriant – if he wasn’t going to make new records, he could damn sure still find the ones that did his legacy proud. Vocal-heavy even for Frankie, it kicks off with the spoken-word “My Light” by Scott Wozniak featuring Dirty Turk (on Deep Haven Music, the Miami label founded by Thomas Spiegel, of late ’80s Minneapolis night House Nation Under a Groove), one of those records that ought to be unlistenably corny but never steps over the line. The rest follows suit – restrained, in-the-pocket, heavily R&B tracks like the Asad Rizvi remix of Spencer Gray with Heather Johnson and Robert Owens’ “Pillow Talk.” None of it was remotely “cool” by the era’s club-cognoscenti standards – and all of it holds up far better than plenty that was.

Frankie Knuckles Boiler Room NYC DJ Set

Boiler Room New York 007 (April 4, 2013)
Engage with culture day-to-day – keep up, however nebulously – and it becomes as easy to let longtime favorites become afterthoughts, or nebulous bucket-list items, as does paying only casual attention. That’s how it felt, a little bit, going to the small warehouse near Williamsburg for this edition of Boiler Room New York, three weeks before the streaming DJ series became an official YouTube-funded partner channel.

Frankie was led in through a back door and led to a stool. A snowboarding accident in Switzerland in winter of 2000 had precipitated a number of health problems; in July 2008, his right foot had been amputated. The same year, his remix of Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind” put him back on the map, and encouraged him to start making music again. Alongside his old comrade Eric Kupper, Knuckles began re-cutting old material with a new sheen as Director’s Cut.

On crutches and a prosthetic leg, he treaded carefully to the stool where he sat as he played. Many people, a number of them younger, had exited early. It’s hard to blame them; the opening DJs weren’t very good. (In the Juan MacLean’s case, this is an exception rather than the rule.) That gave everyone a little more room – and from the second he began playing a set consisting entirely of Director’s Cut material, it was clear that everyone is going to need it. Any sense that anybody in the room was merely genuflecting to the altar of a legend lasted about a bar – instantly, this was his party, and we are his guests, in his hands. He is Frankie Knuckles because he will make you dance.

That’s certainly what he made me do. I like to dance, and I have a few decent moves. But I can recall only a few other occasions where I was as purely swept up, as inspired by a DJ, as I was that night. You know you’re in the zone when you can barely feel the ground even as you’re traversing it. I would have done backflips if I were capable; there are times I suspect I might have anyway. At no point did nostalgia enter into it. Every moment was real as life, and as crucial.

Almost exactly a year later, hundreds of people would pack into Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church to memorialize the man who started more parties than just about anybody in American history. There, a letter signed by President Obama and First Lady Michelle was read. “We were deeply saddened to learn of Frankie’s passing,” they wrote. “Frankie’s work helped open minds and bring people together . . . and his legacy lives on in the city of Chicago and on dance floors across the globe.”

By Michaelangelo Matos on January 22, 2015

On a different note