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Tuesday, April 01, 2014 

So many tears: Frankie Knuckles, 1955 - 2014.

For all the deserved plaudits rock and pop stars receive, few will end up being remembered as having inspired an entirely new genre, while even fewer could plausibly be described as helping to tranform popular music as a whole. Despite this, plenty of people this morning will have responded to news of the death of Frankie Knuckles with "who?"

Not that Frankie cared the slightest about his relative anonymity. Had he wanted to he could have played the superstar DJ game, or been the David Guetta of his day. About the closest he got to mainstream fame in his home country was when he won the inaugural best remixed recording Grammy in 1998, or more recently when a certain Barack Obama recognised his contribution to Chicago, renaming the street where the Warehouse had once stood after him. Instead he kept true to the sound he and others in the city had pioneered, first adding drum breaks and loops into the mix during live DJ sets, later along with Jamie Principle and David Morales among others producing the template from which so much of contemporary dance music and indeed pop in general takes its cue. There were of course other influences, as well as offshoots from the outset, most notably Detroit techno, with house progressing into acid house, but if rave culture as we know it can be traced back to anywhere, it's to the Warehouse and Frankie Knuckles.

Proud as we are (or at least should be) of the hardcore continuum, and with how it was this country more than any other that popularised house, it didn't begin at Shoom, with MDMA or illegal raves, but with tunes like Your Love.  Your Love was in fact produced by Jamie Principle, but credited to Knuckles.  Those he did produce, often with others, are no less seminal.  Under the alias Nightwriters he released Let the Music Use You, its riff since sampled and reused countless times, while the opening to Baby Wants to Ride is one of the most recognisable in all of house music.  Alongside Promised Land by Joe Smooth and Strings of Life by Rhythim is Rhythim (aka Derrick May), two other tracks stand up as being the very pinnacle of house, almost certainly never to be bettered.  Tears, produced with Satoshi Tomiie and featuring Robert Owens on vocals is simply an incredible piece of music, while Knuckles and Morales' Classic Mix of Alison Limerick's Where Love Lives is one of the greatest club tracks of all time, appearing repeatedly in top 5 lists.

As Alexis Petridis writes, despite the apparent contradictions in being a gay man and playing to what were at first predominantly gay crowds, there is a gospel influence to be heard in Knuckles' oeuvre, and in much early house music, just as there had been in disco.  The aforementioned Promised Land made it overt, carrying both a spiritual and emancipatory message, but it's also there in Where Love Lives and Knuckles' transformation of Toni Braxton's Unbreak My Heart.  This came full circle in 2008 with his gorgeous remix of Hercules and Love Affair's Blind, vocalled by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons.

Apart from his own music, Knuckles' ultimate gift has been house.  Without house, there wouldn't have been hardcore.  Or trance. Without hardcore, there wouldn't have been jungle.  No jungle, no UK garage, no drum and bass. No UK garage, no grime or dubstep, and arguably, considering its debt to "purple" grime and dubstep, no trap.  Naturally, without house we would also have been spared the Guetta Euro-dance sound that has dominated the past few years, yet all things considered it's been a small price to pay.  More than that, Knuckles remained consistent to the very end, never deviating, at one point stepping back from production as harder styles not to his liking took popular preference.  Fashions may change, but just as disco has seen a resurgence, so house will always come back.  Frankie, thank you.

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arguably, considering its debt to "purple" grime and dubstep, no trap

"Trap"??? I have no idea what you're talking about. However, I have got a copy of The House Sound of Chicago Volume III, and I know how much of a difference this stuff made to the sound of music - in terms of my generation it's as if we'd just lost Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones as well as Malcolm McLaren. RIP Frankie.

Two words: Harlem Shake. Although anything by these guys https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=TNGHT is probably nearer what the purists think of as trap, if there is such a thing as a trap purist. Probably isn't. But yes, it is a massive loss, and it's incredible how much impact one man and those he knew and helped have had on so much of music as we've known it since.

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