There are few artists in the dance community that are legit pioneers, actual Grammy® winners or who have friends in every corner of the globe but for Frankie Knuckles, all those things are true and then some. Widely respected for his prolific DJ and production skills, this Bronx-born and Chicago-bred legend is also credited with creating this thing called "house" while living in his adopted, windy city hometown. Inspiring more than a few modern-era DJ/producers from Ron Trent and Georgie Porgie, to label peers David Morales or Satoshi Tomiie. An industry godfather, he still continues to challenge himself and his art form while looking forward to a phenomenal millennium. During an impromptu interview at 12 West, Frankie took us behind the scenes to see how he got his break, what it really means to be a Grammy winner, and what's next for him.
We're sitting with Frankie Knuckles, who's quite the world renowned DJ and music producer…
Frankie Knuckles: Go ahead embarrass me!
We have to Mr. Grammy winner! Let's talk about where you've been, what you've been doing, and give us a little history about who Frankie Knuckles is and where he started.
FK: I've been everywhere and I've done everything. OK, goodnight!
No, come on! The truth is, you started playing music when?
FK: 1971. My first job was at Better Days. Tee Scott gave it to me, God rest his soul.
And what was that gig like for you?
FK: Well, I was playing at Better Days on Mondays and Tuesdays – they had just decided to open up on Mondays, but Tee Scott didn't want to do it. The owners wanted him to do it, but he didn't want to because he was already playing five nights a week. He said he knew somebody that he thought it would be great for. Now mind you, I had never played records before that – I was busy working at The Gallery with Nicky [Siano] and Larry [Levan] and stuff, but I had never played records at all. But he offered me the job – he said he thought I could do it.
And here you are...
FK: 27, 28 years later - excuse me, 29 years later.
What got you open to playing music, just that chance gig?
FK: Well, I worked there for like 6 months and then I got fired. They said that the evening wasn't really picking up or doing any business when actually it was, so I went to the Continental Baths and started working with Larry there and that's what did it.
And when did you get hooked up with Def Mix, which is a very well-respected DJ collective & management company?
FK: It's a production company, as well as management. When I moved back to New York in December of '87 from Chicago, I went to For The Record to rejoin the record pool, and David [Morales] and Judy [Weinstein] were just starting Def Mix at the time. They were just beginning to come online with it. Coming from Chicago, I had a few production credits under my belt because I had worked with Jamie Principle at that point, Marshall Jefferson and everybody out of Chicago. I had that little bit of experience under my belt and it helped. There were so many different record companies and labels out of England that were looking for me to do remixes and things like that, so it helped to launch the company pretty much.
When we spoke with Ron Trent, he mentioned your name in the conversation as somebody who was making big-time noise and definitely putting it down out there and that inspired him a lot. Let's talk about the Chicago days.
FK: OK – it's a good life, I have no complaints about it. Many people ask me where am I from and I always tell them I was born in New York but got my education in Chicago. I grew up in Chicago, moved back home [to New York] and got my life here. As much as New York is my home, I think at this particular stage in my life, I'm probably a citizen of the world because I've been around the globe so many times. The world has gotten extremely small for me because I've got great friends in just about every major city and small village just about anywhere in the world, and that all comes out of the experience that I got from Chicago.
So when you became a Grammy winner – the first time the category was created – did that change your career at all? What did it mean for you?
FK: It changed it enormously. I tell you, I was very scared when it was going to happen. I was sick for three days. [I] couldn't eat, and there was a lot of pressure even though everyone around me kept saying "there's no pressure, you know you're going to get it." But when you're up for something like that, I'm the kind of person ... I try not to ever think about it. I couldn't eat for like three days and then went [to L.A.], and then it all happened... It's great, it's wonderful. Being on the outside looking in you think, "Well, OK – now everything's opening up for him and everything's going to happen," but the reality of it is that it works two-fold. It can either work out really well for you, or it could be the kiss of death. For me it was a little bit of both.
It was great because for one, it was the first award that was given out in that category which means that there can only be one, and for the history books that's going to be there. But the kiss of death was that automatically people in the industry looked at me, my career and said, "OK, he just got that Grammy and his rates just went straight through the roof." So people backed off. They said, "we can't afford him now." But nobody thought to ask if I would still work with them. They just automatically assumed that and therefore they said "everything's changed for him now, he's going to be hard to deal with, he's going to be hard for this, that and the other thing." And I mean, it took me too long to get here, and I had too many enormous influences in my life like Tee Scott and Larry Levan – people that I grew up with that helped me get here, and I've seen some devastating things happen. In my personal humble opinion, it would be a slap in the face to them if I wasn't to do right by myself, because to do right by myself, I'm doing right by them, and keeping [with] what they brought me to do.
So the thing I thought was more important to do than anything was to stay focused. To continue to travel and still continue to do the club work, even if the production work wasn't coming in. To just stick with clubs, because the last thing in the world I want to ever do is to lose my credibility as far as the street – as far as the clubs are concerned. It's where I come from, it's where I'm going to always be. At the end of the day, it's where I always end up. I don't want to lose that, and whether all the big production work came in – and believe me, a lot of work did come in. I turned down a lot of it – it was just much too commercial and it's not where I wanted to go. There's lot of people that have their opinions about what my music has done…
…The Frankie Knuckles sound?
FK: Anyone who knows anything about art or an artist knows that growth is extremely important. As you grow older, you get more mature and your style changes. The core of it is still there – the spirit of that is always there, that never changes. But stylistically, your outlook on things may change and therefore the music itself might take a certain change. The song is always at the heart of it – that meaning of things that are personal to everybody is always there, and I'm very selective that way about the stuff I choose to do.
So when did that wall come down for you? How did you get around it when people initially thought, "Oh my God, he's out of our league now"?
FK: Well, it hasn't completely come down – it hasn't. Because right before it happened, I worked with Byron Stingily – I did "Back to Paradise" on his last album, which is a tribute to Larry and the Garage. Right at the same time, people were beginning to think, you know – "he's up for this Grammy, and he's done Toni Braxton and this person and that person, and there's no way we can work with him now!" And nothing could be further from the truth. The thing that I try to make everybody understand is that in order to do what I do – and for me to do it at the level at which I CAN do it, and do it well – it costs money to do that.
If you have to rely on me to pay for it, then it'll take longer to get it done. You know it's a different thing if you've got a label behind you and that kind of support, where that funding can come from. But if it has to come out of my pocket, then it's definitely going to take a lot longer to get it done – but it doesn't mean I don't want to work with them. I have an enormous crew that works with me, and I've got some of the best musicians, tech people and engineers in New York City – if not the world, that work with me. That's the reason why those records sound as good as they do. My goal with most of the music that I work on is to make sure that whatever project I work on now sounds as fresh 50 years from now as it does today.
So let's talk a little bit about what is involved in some of the productions and remixing that you do. Is it that you get a track and you rework it, or do you actually bring in live musicians often and just rework the whole song?
FK: We start all over again from scratch is what we do. I'm usually presented with a project, I go into the office, I listen to it and if it's something I think I can work with or I hear something special about it, then I accept it. Immediately, the first thing I do is to strip away all of the original arrangement and accompaniment – all that stuff – and just keep the vocals and start all over again from scratch. As I said before, the musicians that work with me are all classically trained and they're some of the best guys in the business. They've worked with me for the past 12 years so they know me pretty well. They've helped me to develop the sound that I have. So it's easy because just guiding them or giving them the direction I want to go in, makes it fall into place quick and easy.
That's what professionalism is about.
FK: The thing I try to never do is to do the same thing for everybody. I never try to give everybody the same sound or the same thing. I listen to the spirit of whatever song it is that they give me, and then I try to draw the best of that out of it. I try to construct the best platform for that particular song and that particular artist. Sometimes they're very pleased with it, sometimes they're not – sometimes everybody wants an "Unbreak My Heart." I get a lot of that from the commercial side of things. Then everybody that's on this street/club level wants things that are done more like "Baby Wants to Ride" – the very kind of deep, ethereal kinda stuff that I used to do in the early days, with Jamie and with Fingers, Inc. But the thing I never try to do is to carbon copy anybody's one thing to the other because I think one, the artists are all original… so are the songs and the productions, and it should stay that way. I like to think that the reason that they bring it to me is because they trust me to be able to do it, and do it well.
Lets talk a little about the New York club scene… from your perspective of making the majority of your living on the road.
FK: Well for one, my last residency happened to be at this particular spot we're at… Sound Factory Bar [currently Cheetah]. I was here for six years and throughout my tenure, I was getting booked and getting offers to play everywhere in the world. I had to turn most of it down because I wouldn't leave here. I couldn't be gone that often to do it. So once the Bar closed, it opened up the market place for me. I figured I should take advantage of it and go do it, until the right thing came along. There were a few different things I tried, but they didn't pan out because my concept of what I want to do as far as a residency in a club here, and what these club owners and managers want to do, were two completely different things. Frankie doing his thang!!! I'd rather not subject my audience to that if I don't have to, and I like to think at this point I have that kind of control. I can't control anybody else's club. If you own this club, it's your club and I can't tell you what to do with it. But if you want me to come into it and bring my thing into it, then you've got to at least respect what I'm bringing.
That's the only thing I ask. Don't try to one, put a ticket on the door that's astronomically ridiculous as far as price, then jack up the price of drinks as well because come on, $5 for a bottle of water this big? That's not what I'm looking for. That's not what I'm into and of course people bitch about it, but they don't look at the owners of the club, they don't look at management, they look to me. I'm the center most point of everything that's going on, so of course they look at me. Even if they do take it to the management, management always says, "Do you know how much money we have to pay him to be here?" So no matter how you look at it, it's always your fault. So after leaving here, and trying different venues [that] didn't pan out, I just figured it's probably better to concentrate on staying on the road and doing that. I've done the occasional guest spots here and there, and they've been quite successful. I'm looking to do something a little bit more steady, but when the right room falls into place, I'll do it. It is a good thing that I've had the opportunity to go out on the road, because it's been able to keep me in touch and keep my ear to the street and to the ground.
So why are you home with us now?
FK: Normally, this time of year I'm in Asia and the South Pacific. Normally, I head out the beginning of January. I go through Europe into Italy and Germany, and then fly over into Japan, then China, Singapore and go down to Australia. But what happened was, I went to Switzerland, which was my first stop. I was there for three days. On the fourth day I went skiing, fell, and fractured my ankle. I don't care how good you think your balance is – don't do it! I fell, fractured my foot and my ankle and ended up having to have surgery on it. I've been convalescing for the past three months here at my house. But I'm good now though!
What's coming up?
FK: Well, I was going to go to Miami for the [Winter Music] Conference, but I'm not because my first single's not ready and it's going to be a little while before it's ready. I'll hopefully have that out by the end of June, just in time to kick-off summer. I'll have the second single ready by the end of summer, by the end of August. Right now, Byron Stingily is doing a duet on the album, Duane Harden is someone that I've been talking with. I'm concentrating more on men this particular trip. I've worked with so many great women – and the girls get everything, but I think it's time the boys got their props. I've been talking with Will Downing – he's a very old friend of mine. So it looks like he's going to happen probably, and various other people – a couple of new guys. There's one guy out of Italy that I've been working with for quite some time, and Jamie Principle's coming back on board. We're doing a couple of new tracks and stuff like that, as well as a new millennium version of "Baby Wants to Ride."
Thanks for hanging with us!
Interview :: donna ward II Videographer :: Jon Martin II BCAT Producer :: David Alan Poe
You hear it all the time – live your life because it's short and tomorrow is not promised. Whenever someone passes, you confront the reality of that statement. When you lose someone without warning or explanation, we relive the agony of those statements. Today we cry with the world over the passing of Frankie Knuckles – suddenly and without warning, at the age of 59 in Chicago on March 31, 2014. A truly unbelievable loss to our 'house' community. As the first announcements trickled across social media around 2pm that Monday, it wasn't until David Morales' heart-wrenching, late evening post did anyone truly believe it. The unparalleled out-pouring of global love and support moved the mainstream media to finally pick up the story en masse on the 1st – the cruelest of true April Fool's jokes. Made more real days later at Roots with David's moving tribute.
Below, a vintage chat that was taped at NYC nightclub 12West for our old Brooklyn Cable Access TV (BCAT) program – GrooveTV. Funny, engaging and gracious – we remember him as the powerfully gentle giant, who loved to tell a tale and never failed to make you feel special just being sat next to him. Though we'll have his musical legacy forever, I'll especially miss the hugs just like everyone else. RIP...