How Frankie Knuckles Became The Godfather Of House Music

Frankie Knuckles, known as the godfather of house music, passed away earlier this week. The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot talks about Knuckles' impact on electronic dance music.

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Now we'd like to take a moment to remember a pioneer in the world of music. You may not know Frankie Knuckles by name, but if you like to dance or if you've been to a dance club in the last couple of decades or so, then you know his sound. To his fans he was known simply as the godfather of house music. He was born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx, and he began visiting clubs in New York as a teenager. When he moved to Chicago, he began his career as a DJ and producer. The style of music he helped create and promote in the 1970s and '80s still has influence to this day. Here's a clip from his song "Your Love," which was a collaboration with the singer Jamie Principle.


MARTIN: We wanted to tell you more about Frankie Nicholls and why he has such a big footprint in the world of music, so we've called upon Greg Kot. He is the Chicago Tribune's music critic and co-host of the public radio show Sound Opinions. Greg, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

GREG KOT: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So for people who've never heard the term, what is house music? I mean, it sounds like something you play in your house?

KOT: Well, it was loosely named after the Warehouse, which was the club in Chicago where Frankie Knuckles got his start, and basically a form of dance music, disco - an offshoot of disco and incorporating soul, R&B, gospel, even British new wave and synthpop. Kind of blending all these styles together created a sort of a foundation for what became the biggest dance music in the world. It influenced European rave culture in the late '80s and now what we call EDM - electronic dance music. You can trace its roots back to what Frankie Knuckles was doing at the Warehouse in Chicago in 1977, '78, '79.

MARTIN: Why do we say that Frankie Knuckles was the godfather of house music? When we say that, what are we talking about? What did he actually do 'cause it wasn't like he played the instruments, right, or he didn't compose the music? What did he actually do?

KOT: You know, he did do some extensive mixing and producing. The track you just played by Jamie Principle was produced by Knuckles. So he was sort of a behind-the-scenes figure, but it was as a DJ that he earned his reputation as the godfather. The way he would play deeper cuts, you know. He wasn't playing, like say, Donna Summer and Bee Gees' records at the height of disco. He was going much deeper than that - going for some really deep cuts from the Philly soul catalog or gospel music or blending in Martin Luther King speeches. He was making people hear the music in a new way. It's hard to quantify taste-making and, you know, the whole notion of being sort of a father figure to a bunch of young DJs in Chicago.

I mean, all of them went to see Frankie spin. Silk Hurley and Farley Funk and Marshall Jefferson - all these music makers were inspired by seeing Frankie Knuckles. And, you know, he became a key figure in inspiring an entire scene. So from that little club on the south side of Chicago, that scene really mushroomed out in Chicago and then eventually became huge in the world. By, you know, a decade later Frankie Knuckles was a superstar in England. And they still talk about it to this day.

MARTIN: Well, you know, he talked about that in an interview. I don't know if it was with you or - he talked about the fact that he would get off the plane in, you know, in England or elsewhere in Europe and there would be huge crowds to greet him. And then he could walk around his own hometown and, you know, apparently people would barely know him. It was kind of a strange thing.

KOT: Right.

MARTIN: One other thing I wanted to quote from your piece - you wrote that he championed house music that wasn't just about rhythm but that embraced humanism and dignified struggle. It was in keeping with his belief that the dance floor was a safe haven for the gay, African-American and Hispanic communities that first embraced it. Could you just tell us - we only have about a minute left. Could you tell us just a little bit more about what drove him, what made him tick?

KOT: I think he, you know, he was an African-American gay man, and, you know, he was - I think this music was kind of for him a sanctuary. The dance floor was a place where we could all be ourselves, you know. He embraced the misfits, the outsiders in society and created a safe haven for them on the dance floor. And, you know, that was a difficult thing to do in the late '70s. That was not something that everybody did. He will always be remembered and revered for that alone. And to take that and turn it into a mainstream thing - truly a great accomplishment.

MARTIN: Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune's music critic and co-host of the public radio show Sound Opinions. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Greg, thanks so much for joining us to tell us about this behind-the-scenes but very important figure. We really appreciate it.

KOT: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And as we go out today, we're going to go out on Frankie Knuckles' remix of the Jackson Five's "Forever Came Today."


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