As a kid growing up in the South Bronx, the late Frankie Knuckles (who passed away March 31 at the age of 59) never dreamed of being a DJ. In fact, he once admitted, “I got completely blindsided by it.” Born Francis Nicholls—January 18, 1955—his passion was in fashion illustration, because he wanted to create costume designs for stage and screen. “I was dreaming big,” he once said, during a 2011 visit to the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters.
“I was always sitting at the table with a sketch pad and I had the music on. When everybody else was out in the street playing, I was sitting in a house with the radio on, listening to my sister’s record collection.” The Grammy-winning producer and remixer didn’t realize until decades into his career that the music he was listening to as a youngster was ordering his steps as an adult.
EBONY: What title would you give yourself?
Frankie Knuckles: I didn’t realize I actually had one. But it depends on who you ask, I guess. On my Twitter page—which I am actually surprised that I have one because I am extremely old school, I’m of the mind that your private life is private and you don’t need to put everything out there about yourself—but on there, I describe myself as a citizen of the world, a man of music. I believe it also says that I am a friend to everyone and enemy to no one.
EBONY: How long have you been in the industry?
FK: It scares me to say it, but 40 years.
EBONY: Did you start out as a DJ?
FK: The first job I got when I was in high school was working for a department store in New York. I worked in the stockroom. That’s when I learned that I couldn’t work for anyone else, because I was spoken to in a way that I wasn’t spoken to at home. I refused to be disrespected. So, at 16, of course, I was a gentleman about it, but I told them and it cost me my job.
But I knew from that particular point on that it was going to be very difficult for me to work for anyone else. I had worked at this one club called The Gallery, but I was basically help there. I set up the fruit bar. A friend of mine that happened to be a DJ at another club actually offered me a job [as a DJ]. I didn’t think I could do it but he said, “You know all the music. You are at all the parties, and everybody knows you.”
I tried it out and did it for about six months. But then I got fired because they said there wasn’t enough people coming to support. I was a little devastated about it, but at the same time I got offered another job at Continental Baths in New York. It was a bathhouse, but it was also a major entertainment complex in New York. This is where Bette Midler got her start. I stayed there for five years. When that place went bankrupt, that’s when I was offered the opportunity to come to Chicago and play at the Warehouse. That’s how I got there.
EBONY: Tell me about the early days of The Warehouse.
FK: In the beginning, it was a predominately Black gay club. But as people began to learn about it, we started renting the place out on Friday nights for a lot of fraternity parties. Those frat brothers and sorority sisters heard about what was going on on Saturday night when we played house music. They were curious.
EBONY: Define house music?
FK: Well, it wasn’t called house music then. The music I brought with me was predominately R&B, but it was very dance-oriented. Most of the music I played came out of Philadelphia, but it was all danceable. So it had good energy.
EBONY: Were you the first to bring it to the Windy City, since Chicago is credited with birthing house music?
FK: I don’t think I was the first to bring it here. I think I was probably the first to put it in a cohesive context that made it easy for people to be attracted to it, and made it easy for people to consume, if you will. My partners, the guys that brought me out here to play, were having several different parties before I got here. By the time I came out to the Warehouse, they were ready to settle down and turn it into something legitimate.
And on the concept of what David Mancuso had done with the Loft in New York City, they basically turned it into membership. In order to get membership, you had to be recommended by three other people that were also members. No one could walk in off the street. It was very private.
And on the heels of all of that, when they started renting out the place on Friday nights to the different fraternities and sororities, those people learned about what was happening on Saturday. Of course, they wanted to come and check it out, out of curiosity. And ultimately, that is how the membership ended up falling by the wayside, and it started becoming more and more open to the public. It had all of the aspects of just going to someone’s home, even though the building was a warehouse. It didn’t look like it when you came in. It looked like you came into someone’s home.
EBONY: What are the pillars of this house music?
FK: It wasn’t what it is now. Like I said, the majority of the music I played came out of Philly, and it was all soul. It was really soul and R&B, but it just had great energy to make you want to dance. For the most part, I knew what people were used to out here, so I had to be careful how I fed them the kind of music that was being played in New York, where I came from. I couldn’t beat them over the head with it and expect them to automatically just take it. I had to bring them around to my way of thinking and feeling musically. It took about a year and a half to two years for that to happen. But when they finally got it, they couldn’t let it go.
EBONY: Now you are the Godfather of House Music.
FK: I think because of the nature of how everything was laid out and the crowd’s participation, that is where the term of endearment came from, the Godfather of House. I was in the DJ booth here and the dance floor was right there. People could walk right up and look me in the eyes while I was working. When you are that close, people begin to feel a personal affinity. So I think that’s where the term of endearment came from, because they all felt like they knew me. And to this day, no matter where I am playing at in the world, people still feel the same way. I think people trust my taste in music is basically what it is.
EBONY: What was your first remix?
FK: I got my first official professional remix in ’82/’83, which was for a group First Choice. The song was “Let No Man Put Asunder.” I played it for five years in the Warehouse before I actually got the remix. So it was already old.
EBONY: Later you started doing the remixes for people like Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan.
FK: Once I got that first official remix out in the marketplace, I was thinking that [doing remixes] is probably going to be the logical next step for me to move into production. I wasn’t about to give up playing in clubs, but it just made sense that I should move into production.
EBONY: In 2004, then Illinois Senator Barack Obama christened a street for you?
FK: It was the original Warehouse location. Some friends I have that work with city government were down in Springfield and they get Barack to walk through and sign the proclamation to make it Frankie Knuckles Day. The bonus with that was Mayor Dailey making it possible for them to name the street after me on August 26.
EBONY: Did Obama say he liked house music or your work?
FK: He knows it very well. It’s really interesting, because when it was walked through city government, I got a phone call, and it was from him, which was really, really nice. It goes to show you how the universe works, because the following year Oprah asked me to come and be the DJ for the Legends Ball. I was shocked that she called me. I was on tour in Europe.
She also asked me to stay for the Gospel Brunch that she was having on her front lawn the next morning. The event was for all of these prominent Black women, singers, performers, orators, so and so forth that inspired her to get to the station that she is in in her life. You’ve got every major Black singer out there, from Dionne Warwick to Chaka. I mean, everybody was there. And they started passing around the microphone. At that particular point, I knew that I would never see anything better than this in my life.
EBONY: Any one crowning glory in your amazing career?
FK: There was a time when I would have probably said getting the Grammy was the greatest achievement. But no. It was being on Oprah’s front lawn with all of those magnificent women that I grew up listening to, that I would love to work with. All of these magnificent Black women with killer voices were there, and to be a fly on the wall and listen to them pass that microphone from one to the other, I think that is probably the crowning achievement. To me, that was a gift. I’ve got that memory to carry with me forever. When you hear it and you see them all like that, it changes your life. It just changes your whole way of thinking.
EBONY: You have been in this industry for four decades. Is there a formula, or is the key reinvention?
FK: Reinvention probably has a lot to do with it. It’s not easy staying relevant in the marketplace. I have worked with a lot of different great people. One of the things my partner, my manager Judy Weinstein, instilled in [David] Morales and myself is that the quality goes in before the name goes home. So everything that we worked on had to go past her. She was quality control before it would get to the label. No matter whose work we were working on, she had to give it the seal of approval.
I really trusted her ears, and I learned to trust women’s ears when it comes to hearing music a lot more than other men. I think women’s ears are a lot more sensitive. Men are going to follow whatever appeals to women. I am not saying that I produced or wrote music strictly for the female audience. I’m a lot more sensitive about music, I think, than most other guys in this particular side of the business. Most of them are beat crazy and beat heavy. I’m more melody. I’m more musical than most of the other ones. I try to build on that. I’m always looking for just the right song that has something to say.
EBONY: How do you know what to play?
FK: I feel out the energy in the room. There is always a point in the party where I wouldn’t say I have people in the palm of my hands, but when there is a point in the evening… if you have been to any great party, you know when the whole room becomes one. It moves in one rhythm. For me, it’s like the music starts playing itself at that point.
EBONY: What do you want people to know?
FK: Timing is everything. It is not so much about who you know, especially now with the Internet, because anybody can become a superstar overnight. I used to tell myself when I was much younger that I didn’t want to wake up one day and be 32 years old and still playing records. It’s just not going to happen. Well, the joke is on me, because I’m 56 years old now.
But it reached a point somewhere along the way where I had to realize that the universe conspired to make this happen for me and that it’s worth it. The music is everything to me. There are two people that probably influenced me more than anybody out of all the artists out here: that’s Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I used to play all of their music early on when I was still living in New York. They are like my godparents now and we are really close. So when your life comes full circle like that…
EBONY: That’s how you know what you were meant to do?
FK: Yeah, that’s why I knew. That sealed it for me and made me realize I am definitely in the right place doing the right thing. These are the rewards.
Margena A. Christian is Senior Editor for EBONY. Follow her on Twitter @DrMargenaXan.