What Can DJs Learn From Frankie Knuckles’ Legacy?

If you’re even a passing fan of electronic music, it’s likely that you know that one of its icons, DJ and producer Frankie Knuckles, died earlier this week at the age of 59 from complications related to type 2 diabetes. The “godfather of house music” was a true legend, the kind of artist to whom one could point as a real cultural lynchpin; without his influence, dance music in 2014 would likely be an entirely different beast. Having given birth to house music in Chicago in the late ’70s and early ’80s via his clubs the Warehouse and later the Power Plant, Knuckles (born Francis Nicholls in New York City) was a dedicated craftsman and inventor, honing his skills as a DJ by playing marathon sets to open-minded audiences and helping to make the remix its own art form by constructing extended versions of classic soul and disco tunes with a pair of reel-to-reel tape decks and a 909.

Beyond his monumental legacy and discography, which includes tracks like “Your Love” and “The Whistle Song,” there is a lot for DJs to learn from Frankie Knuckles’ DIY approach to production, performance, community-building, and career longevity. We teased out a few of those nuggets for you to consider in your own pursuit of DJing greatness.


First and foremost, Knuckles was a cratedigger with a profound love of soul, R&B, and disco records. But when he started DJing, people weren’t exactly lining up to offer him gigs. So, when he was just 18, he got his start running lights for his friend Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in New York City. (Coincidentally, lounge singers Bette Midler and Barry Manilow also got their start there.) When Levan couldn’t play, or needed a break, Knuckles was there to fill in and take over, giving him ample opportunity to earn his stripes infront of an up-for-anything crowd.

Read more: Get DJ gigs in unlikely places


It was more than just a bathhouse,” Knuckles told the BBC about the Continental Baths. “There was a boutique, there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, there was a theater room, there was a salon.”

Naturally, there was also a dance floor, and it’s where Knuckles honed his craft, often playing eight-hour marathon sets that would require all sorts of pacing and track selection, which, back in ’70s and ’80s, didn’t mean a library full of MP3s—it meant lugging stacks and stacks of wax with you. “A lot of people would check in on Friday night and they wouldn’t check out until Monday morning,” he said in the same interview. During those sets, Knuckles would regularly combine disco and R&B with post-punk and synth-heavy pop.

Read more: How to play a super-long set


When faced with an epic-length set, or even a short one, most DJs have their work cut out when it comes to keeping a crowd rapt. Knuckles’ solution? Take standard tracks and extend or edit them for maximum impact. Knuckles and Co. didn’t have Ableton at their disposal—12″ vinyl singles were only just starting to show up in record stores—so they did it the real old-fashioned way: with reel-to-reel tape decks. By looping sections and breaks from his old soul and disco records, Knuckles was able to draw out the songs’ best moments and keep revelers in an extended state of trance.

I did it out of necessity, because there were no more disco records being made, nothing with any kind of energy,” he told the BBC.

Even crazier, he often had those reel-to-reel decks in the booth, manually editing sections of 45s on the fly.

Knuckles’ friend Derrick May—long before he became the Detroit techno legend that he is now—gave him a Roland TR-909 drum machine, and Knuckles employed it to extend his live sets by rolling drum patterns beneath the mix. This newly discovered pastiche approach to making tracks would eventually give birth to some of Knuckles’ most well-known productions, including Jamie Principle’s “Your Love,” which was re-produced by Knuckles in a proper studio after the original demo showed so much promise in the club, and his 1983 extended mix of Philly soul band First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder,” which put a more formal stamp on the process of remixing for generations to come.

Read more: Make custom edits of classic tracks


Knuckles really gave birth to a scene, but it wasn’t just the house scene as we’ve come to know it—it was a community for gay, usually black and Latino men in the late ’70s when there wasn’t much of one to engage with. In their extensive look at early DJ culture entitled Last Night a DJ Saved My Life authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton wrote:

In Chicago, as the seventies became the eighties, if you were black and gay, your church may well have been Frankie Knuckles’ Warehouse, a three-story factory building in the city’s desolate west side industrial zone. Offering hope and salvation to those who had few other places to go, here you could forget your earthly troubles and escape to a better place. Like church, it promised freedom, and not even in the next life. In this club, Frankie Knuckles took his congregations on journeys of redemption and discovery.”

Read more: Knuckles’ pal DJ Pierre talks about he formation of the Chicago scene


The truth is, Chicago house could’ve just as easily been credited to Knuckles’ friend Larry Levan. But in 1977, Levan turned down a residency at the newly minted Chicago club the Warehouse, because NYC’s Paradise Garage was being built just for him, and Knuckles was next in line. At just 20 years of age, Knuckles was offered equity in the Warehouse to do his part, so he moved from New York to Chicago to hold down the decks at the club, from which “house music” would take its name. The rest is history.


Ever since the beginning, Knuckles was the consummate collaborator. This philosophy came from the way his favorite albums were originally made—band efforts, in which everyone played a part of the greater whole. Levan helped Knuckles get his first gigs, Knuckles helped Jamie Principle’s voice become one of house music’s most enduring ones, and of course, Knuckles’ remixes and collabs with some of pop music’s biggest names (Michael Jackson, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Lisa Stansfield, and plenty more) helped their songs cross over into the club world.

When Knuckles was well into his 50s—that’s already more than 30 years of DJing—he was still working hard as a DJ and remixer, playing all around the world and teaming up with the younger generation of producers who were just discovering the style. House revivalists Hercules & Love Affair tapped the master for a remix of their hit “Blind,” and it further cemented his legendary status amidst the current crop of newer producers and DJs.

Read more: Build your team of collaborators

Did you learn something special from Frankie that we didn’t include? Tell us in the comments.

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Comments (18)
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  • Nemoi Trex

    I’m a lover of music regardless of genre. If It moves me I roll with it,
    however, House is by far the style that binds closest rhythmically with
    my mind, body and spirit . In retrospect, being a Chicago native I’m
    not sure what I would have done or would do if there was no House Music.
    Thank You Frankie.

  • Guest

    I’m a lover of music regardless of genre. If It moves me I roll with it, however, House is by far the style that binds closest rhythmically with my mind, body and spirit . In retrospect, being a Chicago native I’m not sure what I would have done or would do if there was no House Music. Thank You Frankie for paving the way.

  • soketch

    nice tribute. I felt I could pay my respects here from Johannesburg, South Africa

  • DJ_ForcedHand

    Oddly enough, this is how I started (being taught how to mix by techno DJs in the ’90s with my own MIDI gear and turntables), but I hadn’t (until I read “Last night the DJ saved my life”) known the origin of using the “tape loops and drum machines”, so thanks to these pioneers for that.

    The scene I was in back in the ’90s (a cross between Techno and Rock) *H-A-T-E-D* that I did anything other than spin their Top 40 Studio Tracks, on Vinyl or CD. The majority of people in the scene thought using a computer was cheating and actively avoided Computer DJs, even though what I did sounded good, and I showed them what I was doing with the gear, they thought the computer did all the work for me, and it required no skill. So, I guess I caved-in to what my local scene wanted to avoid the hassle and only brought in my own remix tracks on CD (which is probably why I didn’t try to bring back the gear that felt was so much more fun to use sooner because… I guess I got hand-shy).

    I love the “more than what you know” feel of adding great, well-placed, grooves and fills on top of the music people love, but that can’t always be done with a studio remixed track. Over time, I just kept feeling like I had to bring in the gear again, so I chose the underground parties and have loved that scene ever since. I guess it’s something you just feel once you groove songs in your head, complimenting existing beats, riffs and voice-overs with known or remixed tracks.

  • Mr. V

    Nice Write Up Guys… For the record, Knuckles stayed true to the
    artform and had his own signature sound that wasn’t emulated by anyone,
    the records he spun were in some ways unique and he knew exactly how to
    deliver them WITHOUT losing a room, another reason why he will be sorely


  • DJ Rapture

    The one thing I learned from Frankie – don’t be afraid to incorporate some instruments into your DJ setup. Running a TR 909 alongside the reel-to-reel decks was ingenious!

  • Damien Sirkis

    To be fair, one of the main reasons Frankie was still working hard and touring as a DJ was the cost of healthcare during his first bout with diabetes in 2004. He also had to stay off work for a while and ate thru his savings.

    I’m sure he would have kept playing regardless, but probably wouldn’t have toured as much as he did.

    It’s a shame the true pioneers of our scene like Frankie, Larry Levan, Nick Siano or David Mancuso never really got to reap the rewards that others did later on…

  • calgarc

    a legend

  • Fatlimey

    Damn fine article, DJTT.

  • djayclay

    Chicago is hurting right now but there is comfort in knowing the rest of the world gets this great mans contribution. Thanks for the write up & RIP Frankie!

  • Ztronical

    You ask what can we learn… I just hear a beat a strong and growing beat that was started. And it makes everyone eventually move and dance. Even if the dance is mental and personally enjoyed. So I guess the lesson is never restrain the music or the people.
    Thank you…

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    i read about this a couple days ago, what a shame. He will be missed, RIP Frankie.

  • heron

    About time djtech tools! Well done great piece.

  • deejae snafu

    Rip one of the greats, we will miss you.

  • killmedj

    What a beautiful guy. Sad to lose him so soon.