Frankie Knuckles Interview (2004)
Godfather of House Frankie Knuckles doesn’t really need an introduction. His nights spinning at The Warehouse in Chicago during the late 70s and early 80s is where the term “house music” came from. Recipient of the first Grammy for remixer of the year, he has worked on just about every important soulful vocalist in the past 20 years – Diana Ross, Patti Labelle, Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, and Patti LaBelle just to name a few. With “A New Reality,” his first album of original productions in seven years, Frankie’s grooves call for unity in the house music community.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: What was you inspiration for making this new album?
Frankie Knuckles: The lack of quality dance music and the fact that here in the United States, house music is not seen as anything viable by the music industry. I figured that this might be another shot at the industry looking at the possibilities of house music and giving it a little bit more legitimacy than what they give it. It’s a host of different things, but it’s something that I needed to say musically.
RS: What vibe were you feeling as you entered the studio?
Frankie: I can’t say that I had any special vibe when it came to the album, I approached it one song at a time. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together and it’s amazing how each song managed to fit right behind one another. Normally, if we’re recording an album, the artist has to submit so many different songs, maybe fifty to a hundred songs, and the A&R director or company president whittles it down to what they think are the best twelve or fourteen songs and that becomes the album. Having the luxury of not being signed to a major label and being in complete control of this whole project, I put together the album like a jigsaw puzzle, I approached each song as special and attached it accordingly.
RS: For the songs, did you get a vibe a do a song with someone and then think this is for the album?
Frankie: Well by the time I was finished producing the song itself, it just made sense that it would be part of the project. The first track actually solidified, “Keep On Moving,” was done three years ago and I realized that I found the nucleus of what this album should be about. Everything else I already had sitting in a can, so it was a matter of finishing the production on each one.
RS: I’ve listened to this album several times and I’m trying to get a structure behind it. There’s a wide variety of styles on the album and I’m reading this as like sort of a nostalgic look back with “Bac n da Day” when there wasn’t so much segmentation in dance music. This leads to a realization that we all need to come together and embrace the diversity of dance music. Am I stoned or is that close to what you’re going for?
Frankie: Absolutely, and it’s just a matter of time before we all come together.
RS: How was putting this album together different than the last one you put together seven years ago, first with regards to being on a major versus an indie?
Frankie: Well the big difference is that I’m in control of every aspect of this one from its inception; from the first ideas of what I thought would make this album what it is and with there being no outside influences as far as record company people are concerned. No one’s telling me that I can’t do this or I can do that, every final decision with this album has been designed and completely tested with me, so that’s the biggest difference.
RS: That’s from the label perspective, in the whole house music game the way it was seven years ago versus how it is now, how has the vibe of house music affected what you’ve done on this album?
Frankie: Well technology has changed a lot of things, making it possible for just about anyone to make music. But not everybody is a songwriter, so that puts me in a completely different ballpark than the other DJs out here that are writing and producing tracks. I don’t stop at tracks, I try to complete the whole package with the song. So working at that level has put me in a completely different place.
RS: That goes back to anyone can write but it’s a matter of writing well.
Frankie: I would love to be a lot more prolific about the things I do write but I can only do the best I can with what I’ve got. Considering that I taught myself a lot of this and I have some great influences around me, when it comes to doing it, I think I’m holding my own.
RS: I think you’re doing a damn fine job, I love the album. Who are some of your influences that you’ve learned from?
Frankie: Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson are probably the biggest ones.
RS: Ashford and Simpson, I can hear that. OK, just like with house music different than what it was seven years ago versus how it is now, how has club culture, the way it was seven years ago and the way club culture is now, affected how you pursued this album project?
Frankie: Well seven years ago this wasn’t global, but it is global now. I spend more time out in the rest of the world touring, DJing everywhere, as opposed to being found in just one spot like the Sound Factory bar in New York City. Ultimately it’s changed the scope of how I approach making and writing music. When you’re doing a residency in one small club in the cities like New York, you could have several hundred people beat a path to your door every week and it’s very nice but when it comes to approaching and doing a project like that, you are limited by the things that are around you. Your scope is what is around you, but when you get out traveling throughout the world, week in and week out and seeing everything, and you’re everywhere in the world, you start seeing things from a completely different perspective. That changes the scope of what you want to say musically.
I think I’m still pretty much in the same places I’ve always been musically but my approach to it is probably a lot more sensitive than before. My perception of it all is a lot more clearer than it has ever been. But then again, that might be attributed to age as well. The older you get, you really begin to see things a little bit more clearer than you did when you were much younger. I think all those things are probably part of it.
RS: Yes, I noticed on your calendar that you recently played in Russia. When they flew you to Russia and you’re playing this club in Russia, what goes through your mind, is the crowd radically different?
Frankie: That was one of the things I was really concerned about because I had never been there before. I know a number of different UK DJs have been through there but those are all your trance/techno guys. So, of course, I’m nervous because I know what they’re used to, when it comes to all those other guys like Sasha, Digweed, and Oakenfold. I know what for the most part what they’ve been exposed to and what they’re used to. What I’m bringing to the table is a completely different scenario, and my biggest concern obviously is how well it will be received. It wouldn’t surprise me because it’s what they’ve been waiting for for a long time from what I hear, from everybody there.
RS: And how did they react?
Frankie: Enormously. They were completely over the moon about it all and they really made a big deal out of it. The kind of response I got from most of the people that were there is that, now we know what real house music is.
RS: Exactly. Well speaking about real house music, who first called you The Godfather of House Music?
Frankie: The people here in Chicago.
RS: Is there a specific person or specific event?
Frankie: No, no, not that I remember. I can’t single out any one particular person.
RS: It’s a great tagline.
Frankie: <laughing> That’s true.
RS: Well let’s go back to your album for a second, how did you choose the singers and the vocalists on the album?
Frankie: Nicki Richards is somebody that I’ve worked with for a very long time and she’s done a lot of session work for me, she’s done a lot of background vocals for me for a long time. I really wanted to do some stuff with her when the moment was right. So when I decided to finally buckle down and make this album a reality, most of the tracks were in the can but the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet. I was going through the lyrics on all the other songs and the last six songs on the album that needed to do, she had committed herself to doing. So I was really fastening all the songs with her in mind, so that part became really easy.
Jamie Principle and I go back twenty-seven years and this was the first song he and I had done in twenty years. So we’d been talking about doing some things but the opportunity was never really there. I believe that timing is everything and it’s something that we could have done probably three years ago but I don’t think it would have had the same impact that it has right now. I think the timing is perfect for this album to be out in the marketplace right now and everything else can follow through on its own.
RS: What was it like recording and working with your own vocals?
Frankie: Well I’m not crazy about the sound of my voice, so I always have serious issues with that. It was essential with the way certain songs and certain productions are done that my voice needed to be in there and thank God I work with people that have a great sense of humor and they understand what I’m trying to do. They make it easier for me.
RS: Let’s talk about some of your remixes. I have a friend who maintains with every fiber of his being that your mix of Swing Out Sister’s “Not Gonna Change” is one of the best three or four remixes ever done. Are there any interesting stories behind that particular remix?
Frankie: I agree, this is probably one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever done, I was so proud of it. Right after I had done that mix, the album had just come out and they were doing a promotional tour. They came to New York City and there was a dinner being held for them and I was invited to the dinner. I went so I could meet them and hang out, this that and the other. I turned to one of the group and I asked what they thought of the remix. She said “Remix, what remix?” I said the remix I just did for “Not Gonna Change.” She said she didn’t know there was a remix and turned to her partner and asked if he knew about the remix. Collectively, they began to get louder and louder. They didn’t know that there was a remix done and it went on from there and it just turned into a very ugly experience. I said that I didn’t mean to offend anybody and I just thought the mix came out lovely and that everyone’s responded to it really positively. She said that this was not anything against you, but it would be nice if the artist is informed when this kind of work is being done. So I was like OK, I can recognize that but I’m not the A&R person.
RS: Did they ever hear the mix and get back to you?
Frankie: Oh yes, well they heard the mix but they didn’t feel positive about any of it at that particular point. They felt like they were being shafted because the work was being done and they weren’t being informed about it in the beginning. That’s one of the messed-up things about this industry. When you’re signed to a major label, you’ve got A&R people and promoters that will make decisions on your behalf and not even consult you about it. You’d be the last one probably to find out about it, and you’re the artist which is so not fair.
RS: What about your timeless mix of Pet Shop Boys “I Want A Dog,” any stories about that one?
Frankie: Timeless? <laughing>
RS: That’s what my friend called it..
Frankie: I never thought of that mix as being timeless, I thought it was very whimsical when I did it. I had just moved back to New York City and that was one of the first professional mixes that was offered to me. I’ve always liked them, so when they asked me to do the mix I thought OK, this will be fun, it’s going to be cute. They liked what I did with it and they offered me one other mix after that, “Left To My Own Devices.” They absolutely hated what I did with “Left To My Own Devices”, so it was like oh well, you win some, you lose some.
RS: Of all the mixes you’ve done, which is your favorite mix?
Frankie: Of all the remixes, probably “Where Love Lives.”
RS: Wow, Alison Limerick – that’s a classic.
Frankie: Yes, exactly. You hear it and you feel the magic when you’re sitting in the studio working on it and then it comes out and everybody confirms it when they hear it.
RS: Speaking about that kind of timeframe and that kind of time period, just a little over ten years ago there seemed to be so much variety with the tempo in house music, whereas now everything seems to be die cut between say 125 and 130. How do you feel about this, especially since you’ve created tracks at all kinds of BPM ranges?
Frankie: Well, I think that’s one of the things that work against house music albums is that they are mostly mixed compilation albums and there is no real concept there. They are compilations, mixed CDs with a bunch of different peoples’ records and that’s basically it. It forces the marketplace here to look at it and say well this is what house music is and they don’t realize that it’s so much more than that. At the Warehouse, I played music at all different tempos, something as low as 90 beats per minute or something as fast as 130, it was a wide variety. They had a wide variety of styles that had a certain edge and a certain soulfulness. Some of the stuff was even punk or post punk but it’s something eclectic, mixtures of different stuff that I played.
But today, everyone seems to think that house music has to be anything from 128 to 130 plus beats per minute and stuff like that. DJs all dive in and that’s the way they play and I think that limits the full scope of what this is all about. This is the reason why this album is so varied, it changes directions in the middle because the sound got a little tough and I wanted it to feel like a night in the life of a certain situation. You know how you can get to the club at a certain hour or the night, like at two or three o’clock in the morning and you walk into the room and the music has the very tough and kind of aggressive feel about it. Then there is a sweet spot, in the middle of the night, where it begins to turn around and it begins to engulf you because it feels a lot warmer and the music becomes a little bit more sensitive. The voices become a lot broader and a lot more distinct and they’re singing about something could quite possibly be meaningful for someone in the room, and it just changes the full scope of it, that’s what it’s about.
RS: Wow, that’s really a nice description of how house music can move people. Talking about that sweet spot with a sentimental vocal, one of the records you did like that was your mix of Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” It seemed like it must have been difficult to work on because there are percussive finger snaps mixed with the vocals. Was that difficult for you as a remixer or was it just an interesting challenge?
Frankie: It was difficult because when Michael’s in a vocal booth, he can’t keep still, he’s clapping his hands and snapping his fingers. I guess for the original recording that it probably didn’t matter that he did all the different stuff because it played into the original production and it was in the recording, but when it came down to doing a remix, it become nothing short of a nightmare. At the same time, I tried to make it fit, because it doesn’t throw you off, but anything like that is just a little bit weird around the edges.
RS: Let me ask you this big general question, how do you define house music?
Frankie: Oh no, don’t ask me that question. <laughing> I can’t answer that question because what it means to me and what it means to most other people right now are two completely different things. It’s pointless what it means to me because nobody else is really going to agree. There’d be some people that will agree with it, and we all know who they are and they all know who they are, but for the most part, on a commercial level, everybody has their own theory and they stick by that.
RS: Well what does house music mean to you?
Frankie: It’s personal.
Frankie: I’m gonna leave it at that.
RS: OK. Are there any vocalists you would especially love to work with?
Frankie: Yes, Joss Stone and Beyonce. Justin Timberlake might be fun as well.
RS: And speaking about Justin, where do you keep your Grammy?
Frankie: Sitting on a mantelpiece right next to my television set.
RS: Very cool. Is there anything you want to say to the people out there who love dance music?
Frankie: Apart from just thanking them for always being so supportive and believing in what I do, keep on dancing.
frankie knuckles interview