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The Dialectics Of Dance Music: A Death In The Family

For every movement, there is a mover. For every revolution, a revolutionary. It’s a burdensome responsibility, and those who take it on often accept the job reluctantly. Who would risk the comfort of the status quo for the vulnerability that comes with taking on a world unwilling to accept change? The recent passing of House Music pioneer and all-around great person Frankie Knuckles at the age of 59 hit the Dance Music scene particularly hard this week, and some great writers provided some key insight as to why.

Lauren Martin of Thump put together a solid piece, writing: 

"It would be hard to overstate the gargantuan influence of Frankie Knuckles on dance music as we know it today. After beginning his DJ career proper alongside Paradise Garage's Larry Levan in New York, he went onto become a regular at Chicago's now equally legendary The Warehouse - the venue that birthed the term "house", no less - and produced seminal records such as 'Your Love', 'Baby Wants To Ride' and 'Tears'. He was a prolific DJ right up until his passing, and held in immensely high regard across a wide spectrum of fans, producers, DJs - pretty much a full house of love and respect for a career that spanned two generations of dance music."

The Economist generously placed Frankie Knuckles in the same category as Jazz innovator Buddy Bolden. “Just as Buddy Bolden can be considered year-zero in the life of jazz, so Frankie Knuckles, who died unexpectedly on March 31st, was the man most commonly credited as the godfather of house music.”

Writing for NPR, Neta Ulaby, tracks Knuckle’s career as an 18 year old DJ playing music at the Continental Baths in Manhattan, a popular destination for gay men, to his Godfather status as the inventor of House Music. Ulaby sums up her assessment of the man nicely. “Knuckles was never interested in hedonism,” she wrote. “He saw the dance floor as a sacred space. The beat united everybody there. For Frankie Knuckles, the beat was a creed.”

Ulaby is right, of course. One of the most ubiquitous metaphors used when describing the ineffable House Music experience is that the dance floor is a church, and those gathered together in the name of House Music are its congregation. What takes place is no less sublime than a religious conversion. But where organized religion was resistant and often violent towards those who found themselves on the margins of an intolerant society, House Music accepted them. Frankie Knuckles understood this more than anyone. He understood it to his core. He became the embodiment of a new attitude, one that fought against the hatred that permeated every strata of society by creating a space where all were welcome, equal, loved, respected, and unified under the laws of House Music.

It’s almost fitting that Frankie Knuckles' tragic passing occurred as North America’s most famous dance music festival, Ultra, had just finished. It is not a stretch to say that without Frankie’s courage to fight the status quo, to work tirelessly to pave the path we all now follow, Ultra would not exist. EDC would not exist. Indeed, the most powerful promoters in the business, from Pasquale Rotella to Gary Richards, are simply implementing a model made possible by a man who refused to exclude anyone from his congregation. As the late David Foster Wallace said, “We all Worship”. It is a human impulse to seek the divine, wherever we may find it. Frankie’s gift to us is his willingness to take on the responsibility, willingly or unwillingly, to be the Mover, the preacher, the revolutionary, the guy in the DJ booth moving us to tears. He sacrificed his life to build our House. Let’s make sure we take care of it. We owe that to him.

Frankie Knuckles

1955-2014 

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