|Frankie Knuckles: I'll take you there
Stephen Titmus spends time with the godfather of house music.
"How would you feel if you had to tell your life story to everyone you met?" asked Frankie Knuckles before our interview in London. It's a fair question, but when you're speaking to a man who helped define house music, it's almost impossible not to talk about his legacy. And he's certainly not unwilling to talk about his past. In fact, the opposite was true: our conversation touched on legendary clubs like The Loft and The Sound Factory and his fraught relationship with his former label, Trax. But Knuckles was also keen to let us know that he's still active in the here and now, working with his long-time production partner Eric Kupper as Director's Cut. (If you're in Amsterdam during ADE, they play together at Baut on Friday 18th.) He's been involved with dance music for almost four decades, but it doesn't seem like Frankie Knuckles is stopping any time soon.
It feels like you've released more music in 2013 than you have in previous years. Have you been sitting on works that you've produced and not released?
Well, I'm not just sitting, let's say. That's the reason why there's more music available now. Plus, you know, finding a home at Nocturnal Groove has made it easier for the world to see. It's given me an outlet. No longer do I get those kind of questions like, "Where can I find your music?" You can find it anywhere and everywhere now.
I noticed you've been working with Eric Kupper, a man you've collaborated with many times with before. What does Eric bring to the table?
Well, Eric is the other half of Director's Cut. I like to think probably the most talented side of it all. I bring probably the projects and the inspirations to the table. He brings the talent. He's the real talent.
That's quite a statement.
It takes nothing away from me: who I am and what I do. When credit is due to someone you should give it to them.
I've also seen a fair amount of re-issues of your back catalogue this year. Is that something that you've actively been involved with?
I have nothing whatsoever to do with those re-issues. You're probably talking about Trax Records. I have no relationship with Trax Records. Anytime I got some new product coming out they try and piggyback on whatever that it is that I'm doing to try and make whatever they can make off of it. They're barnacles.
Is that possible to challenge from a legal perspective? Or have you just let that ship sail now?
They do it because they know that it would end up costing me more to try and legally make an issue out of it.
Yeah, so you're in a lose-lose—
It's a lose-lose, exactly. I can't let them cramp my style and what I'm trying to do. It's a good thing that I've travelled around the world and I meet people on a one-to-one, and I try to make them understand, "Listen, I have nothing whatsoever to do with Trax Records. Nothing." Don't ask me to sign anything that they put out because that means that I'm cosigning what they're doing, and I don't, you know what I mean.
I'm with Nocturnal Groove, I'm still with Def Mix—this is real. If you follow me on a day-to-day basis then you know exactly what it is that I'm doing and what I'm not doing. I never speak about Trax; this is the most I've ever spoken about Trax, period. I'm not giving them any kind of credibility whatsoever. I refuse to do it.
That's absolutely fascinating. I had no idea.
I'm not fascinated by it. I'm glad that you are but I'm not.
No well I guess you wouldn't be if it's been happening for 20 years.
Put yourself in my shoes. You're trying to be creative and you're trying to live your life and you're trying to do the things. You're trying to be right and you've got somebody that's constantly attaching themselves to you every time you try to put a release out, just so that they can get a little bit of something out of it as well. They don't have to spend a dime promoting anything because people come looking for the new material and then what pops up? All this old bullshit from Trax. It's not like they improve anything.
I would argue those tracks can't be improved.
Exactly! And the thing about it is that the buying public will not blame Trax for the quality of their product. They'll blame me, because my name is on it and that's what they recognize. So it puts me in a bad situation.
"When you create something out of nothing it's the most thrilling thing."
What's Chicago like today? Smart Bar still seems to be doing well.
Yeah, Smart Bar is doing very well.
But there also seem to be a lot of bottle service-style places. Is that something that's prevalent over there?
There's still a lot of bottle service places. You know, I can't diss any of them. I've gone and hung out with friends of mine when different DJs are coming to town and of course I get a booth. The minute they bring the bottles over and set it all up—all of a sudden these women come out of nowhere and they're hanging around that particular booth because the alcohol is there, and they'll drink it all up and then when it's all gone they'll disappear. I mean, I'm not trying to entertain any of them in any kind of way, but at the same time when I'm working in most of these clubs, as much as they like to do all these set-ups, I don't ask for them, because I know exactly what it's going to do. It's going to attract a certain element that's hanging out in the club that I don't necessarily want to be bothered with. Listen, if the club decides they want to set all that up, that's up to them. But I'm not going to take responsibility for it. It's not my thing.
It feels removed from the spirit of house music, if there is such a thing. Something like the Sound Factory, where you often played. A dark room, a DJ…
Well, it's a little bit more than just a dark room with a DJ. You know, a watering hole is a watering hole, where people go to drink. The Sound Factory was never that kind of club and neither was the Garage or the Warehouse. They weren't watering holes. People would probably call them juice bars because you couldn't get alcohol. You know, bars where they have bottle service and stuff like that—those kinds of clubs—those are watering holes.
You have to remember it's two completely different animals. You have your watering holes and then you have your afterhours clubs that are basically juice bars. People that hang out in bars shouldn't hang out at places like The Loft or Sound Factory and afterhours clubs like that. I don't think they should because they've been drinking alcohol and alcohol is a completely different kind of drug that puts people in the wrong frame of mind. They bring that bad energy with them when they come into a place like The Loft or Sound Factory or the Warehouse. The energy that's in a place like the Warehouse or the Loft or something like that is so completely different. People are warm and loving and closer to one another and vibing on one particular level. Whereas if you threw a bunch of drunks in there, what's going to happen? They're looking for more alcohol. They can't get it and they're going to take it out on everybody else that's in the room.
So do you still get the same thrill from playing gigs today like you did back from doing all these legendary clubs?
Well, no of course I don't get the same thrill because not all of the same people are around anymore. I still get excited about the work that I do because it's creating something new every time. I wake up in the morning with an idea about a particular song and I go in the studio and start working on it. Being able to introduce that to a room full of people is just as exciting. So I still get the thrill from that, but it's not the same as it used to be with so many people in the business that I grew up with that are no longer around.
You've been doing this perhaps longer than anyone, but it's not like you rely heavily on golden oldies. How have you managed that?
I refuse to get pigeonholed into that. There are a lot of people that would prefer that I did play a lot of the golden oldies all the time, and stuff like that, and play a lot of classic sets, if you want to call it that. There are lots of people in Chicago who would rather have me locked into one particular thing where I'm just basically playing those same old records over and over again. I have to remind people—listen, I played those records when they were new and nobody knew what they were. They're just old records now.
I'm trying to create some new stuff. And I honestly believe if I wasn't able to do what I'm doing now, I think house music as we know it probably would have slowed down or almost ceased to exist as we know it, just because there's nothing new being created. There's no new classics being created. It's necessary that you have to keep feeding this animal.
But house is still going after 25 years and it still feels like people are innovating. Did you, when you were first working on records like "Baby Wants To Ride," think, "Yeah, this has got the staying power to outlast other things"?
No. I don't think anyone that works in a creative process ever knows that. And even if they do they never speak on it because it's not the thing to do. You're busy trying to live in the moment. That's always been my thing. When you create something out of nothing it's the most thrilling thing. I mean, I don't know if you have any children?
I'm not saying that children come from nothing, but the minute you give birth to something, that's really, really personal. It changes your whole perspective on how you see the world around you and the people that you deal with, because you took something from nothing and created something beautiful out of it.
Even if you don't have children it helps you to better understand why your parents feel the way they do about you, because they bring you into this world and they have to release you into it. They can't hold onto you forever. They have to prepare you for this world and the minute you get out in it, they're hoping that you will contribute something to it that's going to make it even more beautiful or just as substantial.
So to further to that father/child analogy: your child (house music) is pretty much grown up. It's touched every area of the world but it's also been co-opted by some of the world's biggest pop stars. Do you feel like a proud father?
I'm very proud of the work that I do, absolutely.
I was talking more of the case of where house music has—
I can't take responsibility for all of it! I can't take responsibility for the worst side of it. I refuse to take responsibility for the shit music that comes out. That's the main reason I got back in the studio and started producing music again. I think after a while it just reached a point where there was so much disposable bullshit music coming out that this whole genre of dance music was almost subject to disappearing because it was so disposable.
Obviously your illness is a very personal thing and I know you're a very private person, but did that also inspire you to make more music?
It was a very serious time for me. When you're forced to face your own mortality and you feel like you haven't done enough, or you haven't finished what you started out to do, you don't want to leave things undone. "Why should I care? I'm not going to be here," somebody might say, but I am passionate about the music and I am passionate about this whole house music thing.
I think there are a lot of people that still don't understand exactly what this is. Why are they questioning it is what bothers me. You don't question rock & roll. You don't question hip-hop. With all the ugly shit that goes on with hip-hop, nobody questions it. House music has been put under the microscope so many different times.
But the worst enemies to it are the DJs themselves that are killing it off because they're basically blowing out my candle so that theirs can shine brighter. That makes no sense because we're supposed to be in this together, and therefore we're supposed to be helping each other out and helping each other along and holding each other up.
Do you think dance music has been a force for good in America? Specifically has it been a force for social change?
I think it always has been because it has brought people together. It's put all kinds of different people in one room or on one dance floor, connected into the same thing, and that's the music. Everybody speaks and understands that language. Everybody reacts to that in the same way. It's not about ego. It's not about any of those kinds of things that say hip-hop offers up.
That's a story that doesn't necessarily get told a lot when people are talking about dance music.
Because it sounds boring. I mean, I'm almost boring myself saying it but that's how people look at it. It's not as exciting to them. In a great club like David Mancuso's Loft—that was his home, but you really felt like you belonged some place special when you were there because of the people that were around you and the fact that you were in his house and it took a lot to get in there. You couldn't be somebody that just walked in off the street. People had to know who you were and everybody took care of one another. It's not like these raves and all kinds of festivals that you go to now where kids will eat a bunch of different tabs of molly and somebody will end up half dead or die somewhere, and nobody's there to take care of them. It was never that kind of situation.
It was community. That's what I come from.
Have you seen anything like that today or even in the last ten years?
No. It doesn't exist. It no longer exists. I think the reason why it doesn't exist is because today's party promoters don't know what it is and therefore they don't know how to present it in a social situation. They don't come from it therefore they don't know what it is. When you're working with some of these other promoters and these clubs around the world, everybody has their own idea of what's right and what's wrong. You cannot tell them—their egos won't allow you to tell them what they're doing wrong.
Can you tell me about the most recent releases you've been working on?
Well, what's coming next? Let's see, there's the much hyped about Love To Love You Donna album, which is the Donna Summer retrospective. I've got one tune on there. We redid "Hot Stuff" from the collection. I've got that coming. Plus I have a couple of new projects of Director's Cut that are coming as well.
How do you approach tackling a record like Donna Summer?
Carefully. Very, very carefully.
Yeah, there has to be respect I would have imagined.
It was her biggest commercial single and because of that you have to be very, very careful. And because it's me, I really have to be very careful because people will be like, "Oh Frankie's doing Donna Summer—we know what he's going to do."
People are going to be expecting a certain level.
They have a certain level of expectation about what they think it's going to sound like, and when it doesn't meet that it's disastrous for me as well as the project. So I took it in a direction that I thought would best work for it, and I think it's turned out really well.
The current single that I have out now is "Let's Stay Home" with Inaya Day, which has done really well. We kind of brought the tempo down, which is something I wanted to do for a while now anyway. Just try and get things back to a little bit more easy living on the dance floor, if you will. A little more soulful.
I've always been a big fan of things like your Hallucinogenic mix of "Ain't Nobody." That slower tempo is really under represented in the dance community. Are you looking to do more of that kind of thing?
I don't know if I'm looking to do more of it but I would definitely like to have—I think there should be more of that alternative in the marketplace for people to be able to enjoy. When everything is up around 128 and 130 BPM all night long it creates monotony and it creates a certain drone. Unless the tempo changes once in a while—once the tempo changes, everything about the sound and the music will change as well, and your sensibilities change and how you react to what's going on. Along with a couple of colleagues of mine, we had been talking about changing the tempo, bringing it back down, making it a little bit easier, to give the dance floor a chance to breathe.
Published / Wednesday, 09 October 2013
Photo credits / DJing - Ian Ramsey
DJ booth - Tasya Menaker