Today marks one year since I heard the news that Frankie Knuckles passed away, and I still feel the sting of that information. It’s made all the more profound because in some ways, I had almost forgotten about Frankie for a good decade.
That’s not to say that Frankie’s influence on me, dance music, and music in general had disappeared. If anything, imagine your eccentric uncle flying to Europe and loving it so much he stayed for a decade or so, because that’s what basically happened with House music. Its homeland of the United States may have given up on it like its predecessor disco, but Europe took up the House call and helped it evolve in different directions. And then, as with many other classic sounds, it returned with a vengeance.
My first contact with Frankie’s music came in college working at radio stations that had dance shows on the weekend. When Frankie dropped “The Whistle Song,” I was instantly taken. “Rain Falls,” “It’s Hard Sometimes,” “Workout”…his first album Beyond the Mix is a BEAST! This was also one of the first times I was aware that a DJ could actually be considered a musician as well. That’s a naive assumption in this day and age of David Guetta and Calvin Harris, but at the time it rocked my world.
While Frankie’s original music is the stuff of legends, a case could be made that his remixes will always be the strongest part of his legacy. I remember moments in my life when a Frankie Knuckles remix moved me: the first time I heard the Def Mix of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” being stopped dead in my tracks as the opening a capella of perhaps his best remix “The Pressure” evolved into a full-fledged gospel house explosion, and the moment that I started healing from a painful breakup thanks to being on the dance floor as his interpretation of “Unbreak My Heart” rocked me to my core. I was ravenous, finding remixes as varied as Loose Ends, Lisa Stansfield, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and the Pet Shop Boys.
Soul music has been a passion of mine as long as I can remember, dating all the way back to hearing my mom’s Barry White’s Greatest Hits on a Saturday morning in our third-floor apartment in Syracuse. The tone, the depth, the contrasting hard and soft elements…all of it resonates with me deeply. As the 80s progressed, I got into more than just the crossover R&B tracks, discovering artists like Luther Vandross, Rene & Angela, Chaka Khan, Five Star and Freddie Jackson, with Michael Jackson acting as a gateway melody for my eager ears to follow. All of this lead me to House, and along with elements of Techno and Eurodance in the 90s, I soaked it all up.
As the 90s ended, I drifted…the Frankie mixes surfaced less frequently, leading me to take up the torch for collectives like Thunderpuss and Soul Solution. But all it would take was an older remix to pop up and I was reminiscing. Still, it wasn’t until around 2010 that I really re-introduced Frankie into my personal rotation, but I made up for lost time. If there was a compilation, I was on it. Then he dropped “Get Over U,” and I was stunned. Frankie had created a jam that not only was an instant classic in my eyes, but if given a chance should have been an International pop/dance hit. In fact, I named “Get Over U” my number six song of 2012.
I learned about Frankie’s death on Twitter, and I was heartbroken. He was actively traveling around the world for DJ gigs, he was back in the remix game (Ariana Grande’s “Baby I,” Mapei’s “Don’t Wait”), and the thought of him being gone was unimaginable for me at that moment. My mind raced to all of those listed moments he helped define, and the kinship I felt with a man I never met, and the sorrow was surprisingly deep. It probably took a few weeks for me to not think about his passing on a daily basis, and that shook me. I have only had that reaction to two other musicians passing: Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. Michael lifted my spirits, Luther comforted me in my lonely hours, and Frankie spoke to my soul.
To honor his memory and raise funds for the Frankie Knuckles Fund, Defected Records is releasing a 2 CD compilation of tracks that Frankie had started compiling prior to his passing. It’s a solid track listing, and comes with a t-shirt of Frankie that was created specifically for this fundraiser. I’m hoping a US online shop carries it, as the shipping is a bit steep, but I’m on board. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play his continuous mixes and shuffle through my House playlist on my iPod, picturing the Godfather of House behind the decks, mixing tracks and releasing demons all in one shot.