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Frankie Knuckles Honored by the Grammys as Dance Music Gets Brushed Aside

The night's biggest winner arrived on the scene with a club track, but during the broadcast there wasn't a DJ in sight.
February 9, 2015, 8:01pm

By the time Diplo and Madonna strutted across the red carpet before yesterday's Grammy Awards, the three dance-related trophies had already been handed out. Tiësto, Clean Bandit and an in-absentia Aphex Twin each won their categories, mostly as expected. Officially, that was it for electronic and dance artists on "music's biggest night." Hours later, however, the smiling face of the late Frankie Knuckles appeared on screen, barely for a second, as part of the In Memoriam tribute to artists who passed away in the last year, as Knuckles did at age 59.

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Knuckles was the first-ever recipient of the Remixer of the Year award in 1998, then given to a producer for a body of work, rather than a single record, as it is now for Best Remixed Recording. Several of last night's nominees—including Kaskade, Disclosure and Deadmau5—have been vocal about the influence Knuckles has had on their work. As the "godfather of house," and the genre's originator, his impact can't be overstated. To have his face and name appear on the estimated 25-30 million television screens is a worthy, albeit insufficient honor.

Like most award shows, the Grammys are in a constant battle for their own relevance. This year's primetime broadcast featured a series of performances that alluded to grappling with social issues (Katy Perry, Eric Church, John Legend and Common), displayed quasi-religious imagery of heaven or hell (Madonna, AC/DC, Hozier), and featured an on-stage church-like choir (Sam Smith, Beyoncé, Legend and Common). Politics aside, and Annie Lennox's arresting performance notwithstanding, as Crystal Waters posted on Twitter during the show, "Too much slow singin for me. Y'all need a DJ."

They easily could have had one. Despite the fact that last year's Album of the Year, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, also won Best Dance/Electronica Album, the category was still relegated to the pre-telecast, streamed only to the internet amid awards for Album Notes and Tropical Latin Album. The night's big winner, Sam Smith, was first introduced to the world by two-time nominee Disclosure on their breakout first single, "Latch," but the Grammys would have none of that. Even though Mary J. Blige was nominated for her feature on Disclosure's "F For You," her powerful performance with Smith was far more Sunday morning than Saturday night.

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For producers like Tourist and Jimmy Napes to appear on stage with Smith as their tune, "Stay With Me," won Song of the Year and later Record of the Year is a big deal for dance music. It proves, once again, how indelible the genre's mark is on the culture at large, even if the Academy doesn't fully understand that yet.

Wow I won 4 Grammys tonight truly can't believe it

A photo posted by Jimmy Napes (@jimmynapes) on Feb 8, 2015 at 10:01pm PST

For any creative endeavor, competition is an ancillary if not silly post-facto part of the process. Still, as members of an audience, we enjoy the narrative aspect of award shows; in the end, there will be a winner. It compels us to watch, thus empowering the platform of the show and the value of its massive audience that much more. Having artists and music we care about in the race affirms our participation. At the Grammys, dance and electronic artists are still treated like background performers. Anybody who saw Tiësto in his Balmain suit or Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne give their acceptance speech would have no concerns about these artists fitting in amid the pop and rock stars of primetime.

It's a shame that Frankie Knuckles did not live to see his face on television. Still, when a DJ eventually appears on the broadcast to accept his or her Best Dance Recording or Dance/Electronic Album Grammy for all the world to see, it will be because of the work he did in his lifetime. Those of us who have been cheering loudly from the cheap seats hope to hear his name in the list of that winner's thank yous.