Frankie Knuckles: An extended chat with the Godfather Of House
There aren’t many DJs who can lay claim to a legacy such as that of Frankie Knuckles. Having been there at the birth of house music, rising up with his friend Larry Levan to help build the legendary Paradise Garage, producing some of the genre’s all-time classic tracks and maintaining a fruitful career for almost three decades – Frankie is, to many, a living legend.
Despite his achievements, he remains a humble and modest man, continuing to travel the world and play to his loyal followers from New York to Japan. I met up with Frankie for a chat during his recent visit to London and this is the resulting interview…
Tell me about your first visit to London in 1987, do you have a distinct memory of that trip?
Anytime you dream about a place like this for so long, then you get to come here for the first time… Have you ever been to New York? Do you remember thinking how everything was bigger than you thought it was?
Yeah, bigger, brighter, louder…
Exactly, non-stop! It was pretty much like that when I came here. Musically though, the UK was going through its James Brown phase, everything was James Brown. Anything that was to do with James Brown, that’s what the music was – the club wasn’t right unless it was playing James Brown, and then here I come… I’m not playing anything to do with James Brown, maybe Give It Up, Turn It Loose, or Sex Machine. But here, you guys were playing anything that that man ever made.
That’s interesting to know, I had no idea about that.
A lot of people forgot about that.
So what was the general reaction to your music because I guess you were brought over because people knew who you were and what you were about?
Well, not in the beginning no. Not everybody knew what was going on, I guess your hipsters of the day knew and pretty much every major rag covered it from i-D to New Music Express but I guess when you’re out there in the trenches you really begin to realise who’s paying attention and who isn’t and most of the clubs I went to, they weren’t paying attention [laughs]. I was only supposed to stay for two weeks and I ended up staying four months with a residency at Heaven on a Thursday night with this group called Delirium. I stayed until the end of September, and I had the choice of going back to New York City for the closing of Paradise Garage or coming here… I blew off the closing of Paradise Garage to come here. Do I regret it? Not really.
There isn’t much point regretting what you can’t change.
It was really a blessing in disguise coming here because the relationship I’ve had with people here in the UK, it’s been ongoing and it’s been great. I have nothing to complain about here, the love and respect I get here is really, really a big thing.
And who was it who was the first person to initiate you coming here?
There was a guy named Robin King, he lives in Paris now, he was the man behind Delirium at Heaven and he was the one who reached out to me to come here. It was my first time travelling outside of the United States so I come with a foot locker full of records! Not a permit or working paper to my name… and I get to immigration and they ask me why I’m here, so I tell them and of course there are no papers, so they hold me there and I’m like, “Uh oh…”. But Robin was waiting out in the lobby, so they found him, he worked it out and they let me in. From that point onwards I was like, “Wherever you go, make sure you have your permit!” because they made me sit there for five hours. And that’s a lot of luggage to travel with, I couldn’t carry it by myself. I had help, one of the baggage claim guys helped me load it onto a trolley, immigration are just staring at it like, “What the hell is this?!”. In terms of excess baggage, I don’t remember having to pay anything.
God bless the eighties. It’s nice to think that you could get away with things like that.
Well I was young, naïve and a bit stupid round the edges – here’s your first opportunity to go to London so I’m like, “I’m taking everything I can take.” Because I figured if I’m coming here, I’m coming to play all night long anyway – I didn’t realise I’d be up against all these DJs that basically only had the repertoire of a two-hour set and that’s where it was. I’m thinking I can go and relax and stretch out and do my thing and… no, two hours is all I got.
Yeah, this is one of the things that came up on your Def Mix panel at ADE, the reduction in the length of DJ sets. You guys were all used to playing all night and then you come here and you get to play for maybe one or two hours, was that a shock to the system for you?
It was a major adjustment and it’s still a major adjustment because when you’re raised to think and act and work and present yourself in a certain way, it’s hard to break that. No matter how many years go on, it’s hard to break that and still keep the quality it is of what you do on point. I understand how things work now, technology has made it possible for anybody to do this but what technology didn’t do is make it possible for anybody to do it well. Big difference. I try to be respectful with other DJs, no matter how great or small they may be perceived to be, I don’t necessarily get the same respect in return. I can adapt the attitude, “Hey, I’m already paid, I don’t care what you think”, but I try to give the respect I would expect in return to anyone I share the DJ booth with. I don’t try to overstay my welcome or forget they’re even there and that they have to play too, I do what I’m there to do and it’s not my fault if the crowd want me to play longer, that’s something the promoter should have considered before they booked me, as opposed to putting on 15 million DJs. Most promoters and club owners don’t recognise the fact that, if you’re going to have someone like me headline, then limit how many guys you’re going to have play because at least yur audience is going to have more than their money’s worth. If you’re coming just to see me, you may not even care about who else is playing and, if I come and I only play for two hours and you just spent £50, it’s like, “No”. Promoters and club owners don’t always think in those terms and to me that’s really essential, it’s disappointing. I have people running up to me every now and then saying how much they loved seeing me, but they’re disppointed my set was so short. Then I tell them, “Take that up with the promoter”. We were just in Germany and a guy I know came up to me and said, “Why are you playing here? You should be playing at Cocoon”, and I’m like “Cocoon didn’t book me, these people did and because they did they’re going to get the best of what I can give them”. At least they thought of me enough to book me.
It’s having that respect to book someone based not just on how many people they can bring in or who’s the coolest but who can do a good job…
I could play in a hole in the wall, and I have played a few in my day. The darkest, dingiest, most dangerous places that literally have holes in the wall and the floor… but have a killer sound system and the right people.
That’s all you need. It’s really frustrating seeing the DJ or the club put before the music and attracting a good crowd of people.
It’s really a shame when the DJ buys into that. I’ll say this to any DJ, “The minute you think you’re greater than the music, you’re finished”. Because your day is going come to an end sometime and the music will live on, you won’t. You wouldn’t have made that much of a difference that you’re going to live on as long as the music does.
And it’s the music that’s got that person into that position in the first place.
Well exactly, I’ve always said this – I think us as DJs, we’re the conduits, we’re the go-between for where the music comes from and getting it to the people to enjoy it the most. The minute you place yourself above that and beyond that, you are no longer a part of what’s happening, you’re something that belongs somewhere else. Everybody dances the same way, everyone hears what affects them the most and if you happen to be the one person in a group of people that can facilitate that, your job is to do the best you possibly can with it. It’s not your job to stand there and say, “Glorify me and love me” because anybody can do that, there are any number of big name DJs out there now doing that. Standing there with their hands in the air, but it’s our opinion as to whether the music they’re playing is the best – it maybe the best for you in this arena of 15,000 people but I’m that one person in the back of the room that it doesn’t matter to.
So…The Whistle Song, it’s coming back – can you give me some insight as to how it came about in the first place and why it’s back?
It depends on how you want to look at it. Sometimes I look at it like, my grandparents used to look at my brother and say he’s like a bad penny, everytime you turn around he’s there. But The Whistle Song is anything but a bad penny. It came about when I recorded my first album, with my partner Eric Kupper, 22 years ago and while we were in the process of making it I got the offer to go and play at Sound Factory because Junior Vasquez walked out. So I’m thinking I need something really precious to make the evening sparkle, I was going to play the usual stuff but I needed something to prick up everybody’s ears. I thought that The Whistle Song would be a good track to do it, but you know… in your own head you think one thing. I’m not that arrogant that I thought, “This is going to blow up!” That’s not my persona at all, I just hoped that people would be like, “Oh, this is really nice” and get into it, then the evening would continue on. I didn’t realise people would take to it like they did. All of a sudden, it was the talk all over New York the next day – on Monday word had got back to me, everybody was like, “Frankie Knuckles played at Sound Factory, he played this whistle song thing” and everybody was scrambling to find it.
We were still working on the album, so it took about another six months before it came out because the label (Virgin Records) didn’t want to release it early and they weren’t sure how to handle it when it came out. People were running around trying to get it and I’m doing mix shows on the radio… then I realised I should stop doing them because people were recording the shows, bootlegging The Whistle Song and it was turning up for sale in record shops. Eventually the label put it out but they screwed it up in the United States because they only released 500 copies to begin with and 300 of those were in Philadelphia, another 100 were in Ohio and the other 100 were in New York.
That makes perfect sense doesn’t it.
Perfect sense! So people were trying to find it, at Def Mix we’re calling all over to get those copies to New York and for Virgin to press and ship more. It could have killed it, fortunately it didn’t and here we are 22 years later and it’s still the one record out of everything that I’ve played over those two decades that has stayed in my record box. It’s one of those things, I don’t think of myself like Stevie Wonder or anyone like that, but you go to see a certain artist and there are certain signature songs that belong to them and you expect them to do it. There were a couple of times I tried not to play it and believe me I got a lot of shit for it, so it’s stayed in my box ever since.
People often associate specific tracks with specific DJs, especially if they made it of course, and it makes it really special for them if they go to a club and that person plays their own track.
Absolutely, the lines are pretty much blurred between what DJs do and what live recording artists do. If you’ve been at it as long as I have you’ve built up a repertoire of music and there are certain songs within that repertoire that people expect to hear. Then you can surprise people with things throughout the night too, I would never suggest having as much music as I’ve done and playing all your own stuff all night long, I don’t think I could handle it. I’ve heard DJs play their back catalogue all night long and it’s been interesting at best but not… I just don’t see me doing that kind of thing. If I’ve got a four or five hour set, I can surprise people with certain things and then at the end of the night of course you’ve never played enough of your own stuff, but that’s fine because I think you need to keep people wanting. “I may not have played it all tonight but hey… come see me tomorrow, maybe I’ll play it all then”. That’s what you’re supposed to do because that’s what keeps the party exciting. One, they don’t expect it and two, it sparks everything and gives everybody a rush. It’s like when people play these so-called ‘classic’ parties, especially in New York, and they all play the same shit, it’s like come on there were so many other great records that came out back then and you guys aren’t even scratching the surface and that’s why I refuse to play those parties now.
Now The Whistle Song is back and it’s been reworked.
It’s a completely new production. We’ve slowed it down a bit and made it a bit more sultry, added some breakbeats here and are. Just changed the direction very slightly, added a little extra spice but the body of the track is still the same, the essence is still there.
And you’ve got a compilation on the way, too?
Yeah Tales From Beyond The Tone Arm, it started out as a collection of different projects I’d been helping some friends with and, when I got asked to do the compilation for Nocturnal, I wanted it to be a bit different to any garden variety compilation. As I began to put this whole thing together, it took me a while to put the tracks together in a way that actually made sense, musical sense and the key that the songs were travelling in – as I put them together, I started to hear the story that was really being told and it’s told in two parts, the classic side and the what I call the ‘Soultronic’ side, which is very sultry electronica. By the time I finished it, I immediately connected with it, I heard the story that was there and that’s a concept. Some of the greatest albums that have been produced are concept albums. For example, Snoop’s first album The Dogg Pound, from beginning to end you get it. You’re so hooked into it from the start, this album’s the same thing – it’s not what Snoop did, but the concept’s there. As much as it’s a dance album, it’s something you can listen to and get something out of it.
I was always think it’s funny how the young people who are making music now, their key references are usually straight up electronic music and, for the most part, instrumentals. Whereas two decades ago or more, songs, real instrumentation and lyrics were so much more prevalent and influential. There’s a lot less emphasis on songs now and it’s an odd situation…
It’s interesting and it’s scary. I was reading this article on Facebook the other day about this project that’s going around universities in the States, Richie Hawtin’s CNTRL tour, and they sent an invitation to my office for me to come and join the program. I told my manager, “I don’t think I’m interested in being a part of that” and she asked me why. So I told her, from where I sit this is what it looks like – EDM is a huge thing in the United States and EDM has cast a large shadow over what people like Richie Hawtin and the rest of them do, musically. So they probably feel a little slighted by what’s going on and have to get on their soap box – I could be wrong in saying this and I take full responsibility for that – but from where I sit, it looks like they feel the need to get on a soap box to preach to this generation that’s so into EDM that that’s not what it’s all about, this is where it started and this is where it came from, we’re the ones that created it etc… Now I remember in the late eighties being at the New Music Seminar in New York when people like Farley Jackmaster Funk and Steve Hurley and they climbed on soap boxes saying it’s not all about Garage and it’s just about house and us and what we do. I just sat there at the back thinking, “Really?”, at the end of the day who cares? EDM is what that audience are into, just like the music that Richie Hawtin and those guys play, they have their audience – just be happy with what you have. Why do you need to blow something else, that’s new, off the map? Why do you have to deflect attention away from them and onto yourself? What’s the point? I can’t see myself being a part of that. I know my place, I know what works for me, God bless the rest of them. The minute you have to start challenging someone else for what they do, you’re trying to blow out their candle so yours can shine brighter. That may not necessarily be their objective, but that’s how it looks to me. That’s why I couldn’t be a part of it and besides, where do I fit in? Where do I fit in with the techno crew? I’d be sticking out like a sore thumb and people would be asking, “Why’s Frankie here?”.
But even I fall into that habit of being angry at people for liking music that I view as being rubbish… you have to take a step back sometimes and realise it’s fine for people not to like the same music as you.
You have the right to like what you want to like and not everybody is supposed to be into what it is you’re into. I get very afraid of DJs that have that problem, that everybody is supposed to be on their dancefloor. I’ve had encounters with many DJs who had that streak through them, that evil ugliness and what it turned out to be was jealousy, they shouldn’t have to share with anyone. Sweetheart, as long as there are people of different colours, different sexual persuasions, whatever the case there’s always going to be a difference and people are allowed to relate to whatever is good for them. Just because people like what I do, it doesn’t mean they can’t like you too – but if you think you’re supposed to have them all, that’s a problem. It’s the ego speaking.
I do have this problem with EDM, in the fact that some facts have been twisted and people are being placed under the EDM umbrella when they’re nothing to do with it.
It’s not your fault though and it’s not their fault. I’m not into it, it doesn’t do anything for – but there’s nothing wrong with it, it has its audience. It’s the same thing when techno blew up, it wasn’t my thing but obviously there’s some people listening to it so more power to them. Even with trance and all the rest of it, it’s not my thing but I figured in order for me to be successful at what I’m doing, I need to hear it all – you don’t have to like it, but as long as you hear it and you can put it into context and ultimately have a greater understanding of it, as a producer you’d be surprised at how some of those elements can creep into what you do. Look at what we did with I’ll Take You There last year, that one hook like in there that was very techno, nobody could imagine something like that working with an RnB tune, it just seeped in and occurred naturally and fit. But when you cut yourself off and call yourself a purist, like all these guys running around only playing vinyl – most of them are like 12/13 years old, please! Vinyl went out of style 20 years ago, you’re talking about being a purist, what does that make me? Vinyl VS digital and all that… unless you’ve had an education in sound, I think you should shut up. You’re entitled to like what it is you like, but don’t make out that it’s better than the next guy because you strictly play vinyl. Obviously you don’t have a job where you have to travel the world and you’re carrying your records with you, I’ve done that and lost a lot of vinyl in the process. The way I play is convenient for me, I can put my USB sticks in my pocket and go about my business, if I’ve got to schlep a crate of records around with me… one, there are not many clubs that can accommodate that and they’re not trying to. Not every situation allows that to happen, plus most sound systems in clubs these days are digital, you play analogue records on a digital system, it sounds bad.
So, looking forward to the future, any firm plans?
One day at a time! I’m looking forward to the album coming out and that being everywhere. But I’m living in the moment.
Has that always been your way?
Yes and no. Growing up with somebody like Larry Levan, everything happened for him early on when we were kids and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t sit back [at the time] and think, “Well, it’s happening for him but why not for me?”. I got up and left for Chicago when things were really kicking off for him, but I was there in the beginning and helped build the Garage and all the rest of the good stuff, but I could only concentrate on what I had to do – go to Chicago, get the club up and running and make it a success. But then, after being in Chicago for ten years, I moved back to New York City and saw everything blow up. I’m happy it happened when it did because I don’t think I would have been able to handle it [earlier] looking back on it now. It didn’t happen to me the same way it happened to Larry, he handled it the best he could being at such a young age – his attitude was always… “Please!” There was a certain innocence about that that’s great, when you’re a kid and you’re surrounded by the greatest sound engineers who build you the greatest sound system in the greatest club that will probably ever exist… and you’ve got everybody from Diana Ross to Mick Jagger all coming to hang out in the booth because this is the place to be, life doesn’t prepare you for that but you handle it the best way you know how. My prolonged success came 10 or 15 years later, but at least I was mature enough to handle what was coming my way.
You’re based in Chicago, but do you still keep tabs on the nightlife in New York?
I do, there’s not much. It’s not what it used to be, there was a time when New York was like the Mecca of it all. Then between ‘88 and probably ‘93, New York and London shared that – they became the places to be, if you’re making music or you want to be involved, come to New York or London. But, after 9/11, no pun intended, it killed off the industry in New York but I could see it starting to die off just before then anyway. When the whole New York hard house… that’s what was happening in the United States, if you stepped back and looked at where the music was going there wasn’t much you could sink your teeth into. It seemed like everything was progressively getting worse. Right around 2004/2005 it started to come back around…
And what about Chicago these days?
Chicago’s holding its own, I did a remix for Marshall Jefferson a few years ago and it sparked all these old school guys to come out of the woodwork asking me to remix their stuff. But, I don’t want to be pigeonholed, there’s no challenge in that…
Frankie Knuckles remix of ‘The Whistle Song’ Re Directed and new album ‘Tales from Beyond The Tone Arm’ are out now on Nocturnal Groove.Tagged in: Frankie Knuckles, Godfather Of House, Larry Levan, Paradise Garage
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