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Frankie Knuckles invents house music before your ears in this week’s recommended mix

Frankie Knuckles.

Frankie Knuckles. Photo courtesy of Discogs.

Like any good teenage music fanatic in the Twin Cities of 1991, I took my Christmas money straight to the record store.

Alongside a clutch new wave of decade-old new wave from Cheapo (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Clash) and the cassette of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous my godmother gave me as a gift, what stands out from that holiday’s haul is a 12-LP box set from 1988 titled The History of the House Sound of Chicago, which would eventually be superseded by a 15-disc version (see the Discogs page). The box rounded up just about every title you could think of from the music’s mid-eighties flourishing. Oar Folk had a used copy that I’d coveted for months; it was missing disc 11 and therefore only going for $50. On December 26, it was mine.

The vinyl was paper-thin, especially with 30 minutes per side, but that box was one hell of an education -- especially the first two discs, which were my favorites. These were dubbed “The Tracks That Built the House,” and as I would read in the box’s booklet, they were all played routinely by Frankie Knuckles, man whose first Chicago club, the Warehouse had given house music its name.

Those 20 tracks constitute a fully-fledged canon -- the real-deal building blocks of house music -- yet cuts like “D” Train’s “You’re the One for Me,” Martin Circus’s “Disco Circus,” Telex’s “Moskow Diskow” (I’ll stop) -- have never leapt into the wider pop-rock canon. Maybe they’re just too cultish, too freaky, too unapologetic about the groove being their first imperative. Or maybe they’re just so definitively the province of one man and the style he pioneered that even when other people play them they are, in some manner, paying homage to Frankie Knuckles, particularly after he died at age 59 on March 31, 2014.

A quarter-century after buying that box, I’ve heard a lot of Frankie Knuckles mixes -- not as many as the true believers, of course, but enough to make a reasonable top ten spanning his career a couple of years ago. And of course, freshly exhumed sets pop up online all the time. This one, for example.

Frankie Knuckles at the Power Plant, 1015 N. Halsted showed up on Chicago DJ-producer Braxton Holmes’ SoundCloud page four months ago. (It isn’t dated, but the Power Planet was open 1983-85, so right in there.) This isn't the most dramatic or peak-heavy Knuckles set -- much of its power, in fact, comes from its steady and assured groove. This is the very post-disco, R&B-leaning, floor-first style that swayed me on History of the House Sound’s first two discs, and one of them shows up early: Positive Choice’s giddy “We Got the Funk,” the exact mid-point between girl groups and early rap.

So maybe that’s why this seems definitive, the most nonstop-pleasurable Frankie set from this era that I’ve heard—because it’s him playing so many of the songs he helped define. Convertion’s “Let’s Do It,” Dynasty’s “Do Me Right,” Dee Dee Bridgewater’s “Bad for Me,” a dozen more -- on their own they sizzle, but when Knuckles gets his hands on them they’re the steak. It definitely helps that it sounds great -- doubly impressive since if I’d had this on tape I’d have worn the fucker out decades back. Yes, he nearly train wrecks his segue into the Originals’ “Down to Love Town”; back then, no one was perfect. But this comes close.

Each Thursday, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set -- often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily -- and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.