He wasn’t, sadly, the currently best-known or most celebrated house music act around. So when the great Frankie Knuckles finally started trending on Twitter last night, it was too late and for too sad a reason. This absolute legend of house music—a genre ostensibly celebrated during all of last week's debauchery in Miami—passed away unexpectedly yesterday afternoon at age 59, as confirmed by his business partner to the Chicago Tribune.
(Scoop credit where it’s due: The web site 5Chicago.com first posted the news around 10:30 p.m. EST, but without further confirmation until later.)
In our primer to electronic dance music genres published last week, we briefly summed up the history of house music—one that can’t be told without Chicago, and one that can’t be told without Frankie Knuckles. The exact birth of house music is hotly contested; most credit for the first-ever proper “house” record goes to Jesse Saunders and his 1984 jam “On and On.”
But Saunders himself wouldn’t even have gotten to that point without Frankie Knuckles, a fact he acknowledged on Facebook soon after the news hit the internet:
Knuckles, born Frankie Nicholls, bridged the important musical transition gap between disco and house. Disco—which Knuckles spun at clubs in his native New York—set forth the four/four dance beat. But Knuckles was one of the first DJs who took his disco records and started blending in the new mash-up of soul, synth-pop, and then-futuristic music that formed the house sound.
Knuckles, after all, boasted one of the most popular DJ residencies at the Chicago club the Warehouse, from which the genre took its name.
Insofar as that basically every following electronic music genre links back to house at some point – every rave, festival, club party, and everything else related owes it all to Frankie Knuckles. Despite the constant slavering over the so-called “EDM bubble,” the fact that mass media is only now acknowledging that fact is probably the biggest bummer of this entire story.
Appropriately enough, here’s Knuckles’ collab with Robert Owens and Satoshi Tomiie, “Tears,” a soul-drenched slow-burner from 1989. Rest in peace.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.