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Frankie Knuckles: Hail and farewell to the godfather of house

The actual music produced and released as pop singles by the legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles – who died suddenly on Monday – is surprisingly saccharine and low-energy when you hear it now, in an age of booming dance beats and soaring machined vocals. There's a gentle beat, a mellow, seductive vocal, maybe some flutes. It sounds a lot like disco, which is what Knuckles first brought to the gay clubs and bathhouses of Chicago and New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It does not sound anything like the smashing, booming, stadium-filling hysteria of contemporary electronic dance music. And yet there is a direct line between the giant suburban spectacle of a Deadmau5 show and the early risks that Frankie Knuckles took, the innovations he speared, and the romance around the dance club that he and his contemporaries bravely created.

A raft of reverential tributes by music producers have appeared this week. All my life I have been reading interviews with DJs who speak almost mystically of the inspiration or direct influence that Frankie Knuckles gave them, even if they were in diapers in the days of early house. Obituaries universally describe him as the "godfather" of house. Most histories of techno ascribe the origin of the phrase "house music" to the Warehouse, the Chicago gay club where Knuckles was music director from 1977 to 1982.

This etymology is by no means proven and in fact I find it unconvincing, as the word spread far beyond Chicago almost instantaneously. It seems more likely that people started distinguishing between the music mixed by "in-house" DJs and that of visiting live acts by referring to the club's own product as its house music. But people really want to believe the Warehouse story, perhaps because it is a way of bestowing an honour on that otherwise unrecognized place. There are no official awards for being early adopters of some cultural trend. This is the citation we have agreed to give the Warehouse.

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At any rate, the style of upbeat, happy music, linked by a seamless steady beat, that Knuckles popularized in that place, spread to gay clubs in New York, then quickly to straight discos and then to popular music as a whole. But it wasn't just musical texture or even a style of mixing – the synchronizing of two turntables and the use of backing beats from drum machines was a key component of house music – that made the Warehouse mythical. It was a vibe. This was the beginning of the club culture that the media would start to notice – with alarmist reports of drug use – only 10 years later.

The Warehouse was the blueprint for the underground club. A small, unmarked space in an industrial part of town. You had to know where to find it. And the key ingredient: massive sound. People who were there reported "three or four big huge seven-foot subwoofers." You could hear it thumping from across the street. And the only thing to do there was dance. The point wasn't as much the music as the party. Knuckles recalled in an interview, "Nobody had an ugly thought." Here is the peace-and-love ethos that later informed the rave.

The people inside the Warehouse were marginalized in more than one way. They were mostly gay and almost all black (the ones who weren't black were Latino). Knuckles himself – whose real name was Francis Nicholls – grew up in the Bronx.

House came out of experimenting with Philadelphia funk and rhythm and blues and adding European electronica. It was an entirely African-American project until it was discovered by London club-owners in the mid-eighties. It caught on among European youth before it was known to white Americans. So, just as with rock 'n' roll 30 years before, an African-American musical style was not accepted in the United States until it was represented by white faces. There is resentment about this in Chicago and Detroit to this day.

Frankie Knuckles's passing cannot be said to be the end of an era: His era ended a generation ago. The social and political United States in which he made his name is a foreign country. Remember the idea of the "inner city," as applied to Manhattan? Large areas of what is now a dense and exclusive concentration of fabulous wealth were at that time crime-ridden. There were actual slums on the Bowery. Frankie Knuckles said he first used a drum machine on stage with vinyl records in 1983. Bernie Goetz, the subway vigilante, was acquitted in the shooting of four young black men who threatened him in 1984.

Before he started at the Warehouse, Knuckles was a resident DJ at New York's notorious Continental Baths, a job he started in 1972. This sprawling place contained a pool and bars and shops and was open 24 hours. It was raided several times by police. It closed in 1976, and was reanimated as a hetero swingers' club, Plato's Retreat. That was closed by the city for "health violations" in 1985.

This pre-AIDS culture, a time of hedonism and abandon and danger, is what Frankie Knuckles came out of and why he, and house, seem so glamorous and so distant. He was only 59 when he died, but he and his style of music had not been in the limelight for some years. I would have guessed he was much older.

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