Everyone knows “The Whistle Song,” or at least would recognize its tune; the current generation of clubbers might recognize it in Bob Sinclair’s “World Hold On.”
While deep house, and “The Whistle Song,” the track released in 1991 that is one of its classics, provided the soundtrack to countless cheesy lounge and underground clubs and the excesses of the 1990s, its jazz-lite roots go back to underground gay and Latino subcultures in the industrial and predominantly black neighborhoods of Chicago and Detroit, and back to one Frankie Knuckles, from South Bronx, New York City, an early house music pioneer who was associated with New York and Chicago’s dance music community in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like many of the early Chicago DJs, Knuckles, a protege of The Paradise Garage’s resident Larry Levan, began as playing soul, disco and R&B music, but he edited the tracks with a reel-to-reel tape machine specifically for his dancefloor.
He was a master of rhythm and editing: “I knew what worked on the dancefloor. I knew which bits of a song worked. I instinctively knew if the intro needed cutting or extending. … And when I say 'edits', I really do mean edits, in the old-fashioned sense: cutting up little bits of tape and sticking them back together to make a new song,” he told Music Radar, in a 2012 interview.
It was the sound of the future, combining complex rhythms, a simple bassline and sparse vocals contained within a “perpetual pleasure dome.” Knuckles later played a drum machine alongside those cuts: first a Rhythm Maker, then the Roland TB-909 — thus laying the foundations for house music. A new genre was born when labels began releasing his remixes of tracks “as played at the Warehouse,” later shortened to “the House.
Arriving in Chicago at the height of the disco era in the mid-70s, Knuckles in 1977 became resident of the Warehouse, a mainly black and Latino club and centre of the gay black community, and later opened the Power Plant in 1982 before closing it and moving back to New York after two-and-a-half years.
It was a completely different scene then: “People had to know who you were and everybody took care of one another. It's not like these raves and all kinds of festivals that you go to now where kids will eat a bunch of different tabs of molly and somebody will end up half dead or die somewhere, and nobody's there to take care of them. It was never that kind of situation,” Knuckles recalls house music’s underground days.
He continued innovating and playing to new audiences over his 40-year career, but still found himself returning to his analog ways, always reiterating in interviews his preference for collaboration over computer-assisted software music-making: “I like the idea of having all these people buzzing around me in the studio and making it possible to make my dreams that bit bigger than I can imagine they are. When I look at how everything is done now on a computer, you can work on Pro Tools in the studio and we have Ableton and all this stuff, and yes, it cuts a lot of corners and it shaves a lot of time off what can be done. I guess, in this day and age it’s all about time, but when you look at it as if time doesn’t matter then it’s kind of nice. But you can only do that with your own money, you can’t do it with anyone else’s money. But I’m lucky to be where I’m at so I can do that,” he told Resident Advisor in another interview.
He privately struggled with diabetes and associated health problems and did not speak much about it to the press — his foot was also amputated in 2008 — yet he played music right till the very end, with his final show at Ministry of Sound, London, two days before his death aged 59.After a relative lull and takeover of electronic music by arena acts and DJ superstars, contemporary electronic music artists like Loco Dice, Julio Bashmore, Disclosure and Duke Dumont are bringing about a renewed interest in deep house, but Knuckles will surely forever live on in the memories of those lucky enough to experience house music’s communal and heady days in the underground.
Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.