Fans of house music are mourning the loss today of legendary producer Frankie Knuckles, who died unexpectedly yesterday at age 59. He was considered the “godfather of house music.” That’s a style that started in Chicago in the late 1970s.
Knuckles founded his own club in Chicago called The Power Plant, where he would remix artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandros. One of his most iconic clubs songs is “Waiting on My Angel” with artist Jamie Principle.
Charles Matlock, a Chicago house DJ and longtime friend of Frankie Knuckles, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to remember his friend and listen to some of his music.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And fans of house music are mourning the loss today of legendary producer Frankie Knuckles who died unexpectedly yesterday at age 59. He was considered the godfather of house music. That's a style that started in Chicago in the late '70s. In his career, Frankie Knuckles played at numerous Chicago clubs like the Warehouse or the Power Plant, which he opened in 1982. He remixed Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross. But one of his most iconic club songs is "Waiting on My Angel" with artist Jamie Principle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING ON MY ANGEL")
HOBSON: The Frankie Knuckles remix of "Waiting on My Angel." And for more on the legacy of Frankie Knuckles, we're joined now from Chicago by Charles Matlock, a house DJ and longtime friend of Frankie Knuckles. Charles, he was also your mentor. We're so sorry for your loss.
CHARLES MATLOCK: Thank you. The world has suffered a tremendous loss today.
HOBSON: Well, tell us a little bit about what you learned from him.
MATLOCK: Frankie really taught me to kind of love music and showed me the power of it. Listening to him play at the Power Plant, there were certain songs that he would play on that amazing sound system that he put together that the bass would hit and I would think that I'd never heard anything so awe-inspiring except a clap of thunder. And when you'd compare things to nature, it's a pretty, pretty powerful thing.
HOBSON: And what about his legacy around the world? He was well-known by DJs all over the world. And I saw today that Questlove said: This was the DJ that DJs aspired to be.
MATLOCK: That's really accurate as well. I mean, he exemplified being a DJ. The genuine power that the DJ booth can supply and the ability to be a true tastemaker and have a real-time experience and connection with people on a dance floor, you get the immediate feedback of are you doing a good job or are you not, and he always did. It was amazing.
HOBSON: Let's listen to another remix of his. This is the Frankie Knuckles remix of "Million Dollar Bill" by Whitney Houston.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILLION DOLLAR BILL")
WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) Came in the door, checked in my coat, and who I'm looking for is staring in my face, oh. They played our song, we hit the floor, he held me strong, and we danced the night away, oh. I can see the way that he's making me feel this way about his love. I've been looking for something like this. I'm singing, oh. If he make you feel like a million dollar bill, say oh, oh, say oh, oh. Makes you go left, right...
HOBSON: What is he doing there, to that song?
MATLOCK: He put a great beat behind it and really made it pop. And that was one of the other things that Frankie brought to the table, is he would take projects that sometimes were already very good and he would really, really make them hum. He just had like a Midas touch.
HOBSON: One of the songs that people may remember very well listening to this that he remixed and one of his most famous was Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody." Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOBODY (REMIX)")
HOBSON: Wow. That is an extremely memorable version of that song.
MATLOCK: Yeah. He loved her stuff. And he had been playing it for years. He just - he really knew how to put things together. That was one of his true gifts.
HOBSON: Let's talk about him. He grew up in the Bronx. He spent a lot of time in disco clubs there. In the '70s, he moved to Chicago and started working at a new club that became known as the Warehouse on Jefferson Street. How did he help start this genre of house music?
MATLOCK: Well, he was playing a lot of soul, Teddy Pendergrass stuff and First Choice stuff. But he would also play a lot of electronica, you know Kraftwerk stuff and stuff by Yellow. And that is kind of what became house music, this fusion of a soulful, funky sound with all that the industry can offer as far as technological advances. And his musical experiments in the late '70s and the early '80s really laid the backdrop for most popular music and definitely all dance music today.
HOBSON: And how was his style different than the styles of other DJs that go in and remix songs that are already existing? I'm thinking of people like DJ Tiesto or David Guetta.
MATLOCK: Well, the way that I would differentiate him from them or really anybody else is that he wasn't as much a contributor to this craft as much as he was an architect of this craft. He helped build and lay the foundations that everybody else contributes to.
HOBSON: Well, and he had some of his own singles as well. Let's listen here to his song, "The Whistle Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WHISTLE SONG")
HOBSON: Charles Matlock, it turns out that the Warehouse club on Jefferson Street, which has been named Frankie Knuckles Way, is not there anymore. And it is a reminder that house music is not as popular as it once was. Where is it now?
MATLOCK: I think it's actually doing well. It's kind of rebounding from, you know, a couple years of being battered. But the EDM scene that has sprung up everywhere and the love that kids have for that and more and more people doing dance music remixes, I think that shows that house music is truly on the comeback trail and is getting a lot of love from popular sources.
It's, you know, getting a larger and larger presence at Lavapalooza's dance stage. There's tons of festivals in America and definitely worldwide. But that is one thing I will say is that it does experience a more popular appeal in some other countries than America. It's still coming back, but in other places you can't go in a cafe or get in a taxi and not hear some house music being played.
HOBSON: What's your favorite Frankie Knuckles remix?
MATLOCK: That's a really tough one. One that comes to mind - and I think I'm going to go home and play it as soon as I get done with this - is a song called "Walking" he did with mutual friend Ricky Dillard, talking about walking with the Lord. And so it's kind of appropriate right now.
HOBSON: Well, Charles Matlock, thank you so much. We're so sorry again for your loss.
MATLOCK: Thanks. Thank you.
HOBSON: And a lot of people are remembering Frankie Knuckles today. Chicago DJ Vince Lawrence wrote on his Facebook page: A legend has fallen. Tim Burgess tweets: I am dancing to "The Whistle Song" and reminiscing. RIP Frankie Knuckles. What is your Frankie Knuckles favorite remix? Tell us at hereandnow.org. And we're going to hear now some of Charles Matlock's favorite. This is "I'm Walking" by Adeva, the Frankie Knuckles mix. From NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service, this is HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.