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In Praise Of: Frankie Knuckles

April 2, 2014

As you have no doubt already heard, Frankie Knuckles died on Monday. I’m not going to try and add to the many fine obituaries alread written, but a few years ago I was lucky enough to talk to the big man, so I thought I’d share that conversation as a small tribute. The article went up on the also deceased Rivmixx website back in 2009 when he was promoting his Motivation Too mix CD, part of his mission to promote love, peace and positive change through the house music that he was so instrumental in creating. Here’s the full text:

Frankie Knuckles House Legend Rivmixx

Frankie Knuckles IS the godfather of house. His experiments with looping and extending disco records at his Chicago Warehouse parties in the early 80s gave the genre its name and helped make Frankie one of the most celebrated and respected DJ’s ever.

But it’s been more than thirty years since he started spinning, and despite remixing everyone from Michael Jackson to the Pet Shop Boys, taking his place in the Dance Music Hall of Fame, and having both a street and day named after him in Chicago, his legendary status and immeasurable influence are lost on the majority of today’s house music fans.

It is perhaps a tribute to his original vinyl manipulations that the genre he created has evolved and mutated into so many different sub-genres, but conversely the type of soulful, emotive, vocal led dance music that he helped produce and promote seems to be one genre that has been left behind.

“It’s been a real chore for me to find music that inspires me and help me to stay current.  I like some minimal, some maximal, some electronica etc.  But unless a song is being sung, and a story is being told to bring some cohesion to the evening, it’s just a lot of pots and pans being banged around inside of some very loud speakers as far as I’m concerned.  It bores me to no end.”

Clearly the godfather still watches over his baby carefully, and it is this disaffection with certain trends in dance music, along with the demoralising effects of the current economic and social climate, that has inspired him to release ‘Motivation Too’. A follow up to 2001’s ‘Motivation’ mix, which he created as a reaction to the horrific events of 9/11, this latest instalment represents his first major release in over six years, and once again seeks to motivate people through the power of music.

This use of music as a tool to promote love, peace and positive change, is something that stems from the original Chicago/New York house party vibe, where young, predominantly black and gay men, would free themselves from the worries of inner city life through the uplifting music spun by the likes of Frankie, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy and David Mancuso. (For a further history lesson on this fascinating and fertile time for dance music read Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’) Increasingly, and inevitably, this time of carefree clubbing has been lost, often replaced by the capitalist attitude of many promoters and club owners.

Frankie back in the Warehouse days

Frankie back in the Warehouse days

“Clubs and dance parties have become so commercialised and homogenised because it’s big business, most promoters and club owners will have so many headline DJs playing in one evening that no real focus can be put on musical direction.  So, the crowds change and shift throughout the course of the evening.  But you can always tell which promoters know what their doing.  They only book a set of DJs that musically compliment each other, therefore having an evening of music that cohesively makes sense.”

One of the most interesting trends in the history of dance music is the fact that despite giving birth and fostering the early years of both house and techno, American DJ’s/producers and American audiences were soon dwarfed by the popularity of the genres in Europe and the rest of the world, driven by exponential increases in the amount of DJ’s, producers, clubs and clubbers. For a number of reasons the legendary clubs that housed the house revolution – The Warehouse, Paradise Garage, Studio 54, The Power Plant, etc – were all forced to close, leaving the superstar DJ’s to aid the dance music craze sweeping through Europe in 89’s summer of love, whilst the US scene stagnated amidst dwindling popularity and numbers of DJ’s and producers. Frankie admits that America has never really caught back up in terms of house music, “Here in the USA it’s been a sad state of affairs.  But in Europe, Asia, South America and pretty much the rest of the world, it’s a commercial success.  Technology has made it possible for just about anyone to become a DJ or make music.  However, you can have it all together (technically) but, if you have no real heart for the music and no character to deliver it consistently perhaps you should continue to play in your bedroom and spare the rest of the world.”

Unsurprisingly Frankie is a staunch supporter of vinyl, but even he has had to concede to the ease of CD’s, “It’s sad that vinyl has all but disappeared.  I held onto mine as long as I could but, it reached a point where it just wasn’t smart to travel with all those records.  Especially if you wanted to keep them.”

But whilst Frankie may lament many of the new trends in dance music, he’s certainly not resting on his laurels, and instead of putting together a mix of classic house from his heyday, ‘Motivation Too’ seeks to keep things as up to date as possible whilst sticking to the style that has served him so well all these years. Even at the grand old age of 54 he has barely slowed down from his production peak, which has led to him remixing more tracks than he can remember (well over 200), working with some of the great artists of the last half century, and even winning a Grammy for his troubles.

“The best part of working with these artists is the personal relationship I developed with them all.  Except Michael (Jackson).  But Michael knew me well enough to have me mix four of his songs and approve each one.  Luther (Vandross) and I grew up together in the Bronx; we lived across the street from one another and used to ride the subway to school every day. The day he came into the studio he was all alone.  No entourage.  Just him and his ‘Daytime Diamonds’.  When I was asked to mix Diana Ross, for me that was ‘revelation complete’.” 

These star collaborations have continued in recent years, with remixes of Depeche Mode’s ‘Wrong’, Hercules and Love Affair’s ‘Blind’, and just in the last few months, Whitney Houston’s ‘Million Dollar Bill’ and The Jackson 5’s ‘Forever Came Today’. If that wasn’t enough he’s still busy producing; currently working on his next artist project with long time collaborator Jamie Principle, entitled ‘The Directors Cut’, featuring friends David Morales, The Shapeshifters and Lil’ Louis Vega.

Of course he now has the luxury of picking his dates and playing less regularly than he used to, but when he does get behind the decks he is as committed to the music as ever. Like many of his older contemporaries, the insistence of some promoters to fill bills and reduce set times, is something he finds annoying, “Club owners and promoters don’t have the patience or vision to understand what it means to have one DJ deliver the goods in one evening.  That’s a New York thing.  Philly, Baltimore & DC also; totally East coast.  In Europe they don’t quite get it. And with the advent of The European Superstar DJs, it’s their fault that DJs are only playing two hour sets.  They along with current promoters don’t want you to play any longer than that.”

For a man who has seen it all and has every right to a rich and reclusive existence, his continued passion for not only dance music, but the fundamental principles that were such a part of the early days, is truly inspirational. When asked about dance music and clubbing being the great leveler, especially in terms of race, he is full of the same fervor he felt as a young, gay black man in America, “If you’ve ever partied at The Loft, The Gallery, Paradise Garage, or Sound Factory you’d automatically know the answer.  Today there are many bars and a few clubs that try to emulate that feeling but, racism is so prevalent in this country that the only places you’ll ever be able to experience this kind of harmony is in the inner cities like NYC, L.A., DC, Miami, even Chicago.  For most young people today the color-lines have blurred, it’s exactly like this in Europe, but this country still has a lot of growing up to do.”

Obama and Knuckles #BFF

Obama and Knuckles #BFF

His MySpace profile picture sees him happily stood next to President Obama, a man and a movement that he sees as a great step forward, “I still think he’s one of the greatest things to happen to this country in the last 200 years.  It’s unfortunate that the bigots and racist idiots (and we all know a few) will be the downfall of this country ever getting back to its original greatness, but he gives us hope for change.”

And it is with this positive attitude that has emanated from the man and his music for over three decades that we should regard his latest release, a refreshingly affirmative reason for making a mix CD. As he puts it, “With the current situation we’re all living in now; the economic downturn, the increased poverty, homelessness and job loss.  Folks are losing faith and running out of ideas, I just thought it was time again to get ‘MOTIVATED’.

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