Friday, April 04, 2014

The creator of the groove of all grooves

Frankie Knuckles passed away, reportedly after complications from diabetes, this week. It was a sad moment of pause for anyone who has been remotely involved in dance music culture since the Big Bang at the end of the 1980s. Of course in a culture spanning four decades there have been other notable deaths – Kemistry was a big loss at an early stage for the jungle scene, The Shamen suffered bass player Will Sinnott’s drowning in the Canaries, the hard dance world mourned Tony De Vit’s death, Drexciya’s James Stinson, Jam & Spoon’s Mark Spoon, vocalist/producer Romanthony and French producer and label chief DJ Mehdi are others that spring to mind. None was close to the reach and influence of Knuckles. Indeed, the only DJ / producer of comparable influence was Frankie’s buddy Larry Levan. But he passed away in 1992, too early for the British-led ‘Balearic network’ to pay tribute by putting him on the burgeoning circuit and leaving his overall influence more firmly stamped on disco rather than house (though Knuckles would proudly say the latter was 'disco's revenge'.

Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago after a few years in the late 70s New York disco scene (helping Nicky Siano out at the Gallery, doing Larry’s shifts at the Continental Baths) and it was in the Windy City where he first experimented with reel-to-reel dubs then studio remixes of his disco favourites and helmed two clubs central to the birth of house, the Warehouse and the Power Plant. Rave had barely started as a populist movement in Europe when Frankie’s foremost achievements were complete: seminal productions such as Baby Wants to Ride and the teasing out of the best elements of Jamie Principle’s Your Love (which of course kickstarted the never ending Candi Station reissue circus); the advent of ‘DJ culture’ and a format for nightclub music that would set the tone for the next 30 years and beyond.

I don’t remember ever seeing Knuckles play out, yet his influence has been a constant since the rave explosion. As house took harder turns and came to depend on a certain type of predictable formula (how successive micro-generations have not got bored of this yet I’m not entirely sure but the all-enveloping computerised culture must help in some way to keep it alive), Knuckles’ tunes and mixes would remind us that subtlety and invention were still possible around the relentless 4/4. The Whistle Song and Tears proved mellow counterpoints in 90s Mediterranean holidays, Your Love and Baby Wants To Ride perfect nocturnal grooves to keep the back-to-mines going as I shifted more into a house scene, his Choice: A Collection of Classics a compilation I regularly mine for disco and 80s dance inspiration. As I cycled home from work down Southwark Bridge Road last Friday, I saw the biggest queue I’d seen in a while outside Ministry. Many of these late teens and 20 somethings would have been there just for Frankie Knuckles, in what turned out to be his last ever gig.

Knuckles seemed happy to keep playing out, to spread the gospel, to stay on top of the scene. He didn’t seem bitter about not getting his due from Trax (and if you want to make his passing with a purchase buy here as he backed the site) at the time or from the endless dodgy reissues of his main moments.

And this is [still] fresh

House is still going stronger than ever, thanks to hordes of young producers not born in the mid 80s seeking to emulate the stripped back yet emotive style Frankie pioneered. Whether he and the other early innovators, developing an emancipatory and revelatory style of music for groups prejudiced by mainstream US culture, knew they were setting in train something that would still be here 30 years on is debatable. But that the wider lifestyle revolution it engendered clings on is partly due to the power of productions and DJ performances such as those by Knuckles. When house music and rave culture does fade away, and it eventually will, his contribution to musical history should be as well regarded then as it is now. Pioneer of the dance.

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