Where to begin with Frankie Knuckles? As resident DJ in the late ’70s and early ’80s at Chicago club The Warehouse—hence “house music”—then across a long and wonderful career as a producer, Knuckles has done more to create, nurture and popularize house music, and electronic music in general, than pretty much anyone on the planet. On classics like “Baby Wants To Ride,” “Tears,” and Your Love,” you can hear him laying a perfectly executed foundation for so much music that we’ve loved and appreciated since, pulling electronic music past disco and into a universe where it could be at once skillfully intellectual, full of deep feelings, completely sensual and just balls-to-the-wall fun to sweat to. Today, Knuckles is as active as he’s ever been, playing a few recent shows in New York as well as a gig in July at Chicago’s Wavefront Music Festival and an upcoming date this June for NYC Gay Pride. We were beyond psyched that Knuckles agreed to create a mix for us and answer a few of our questions. Of course, just like his work always has, it’s had us dancing for days.
Download: Frankie Knuckles’ FADER Mix
How did you first get started DJing and producing? Completely by accident. A friend and popular DJ at the time, Tee Scott offered me my first gig as a DJ. I was in high school at the time and working for Nicky Siano on the weekends at The Gallery, although I really didn’t have any desire to DJ. Larry Levan also worked with me at The Gallery and he was more interested in being a DJ. But at the time Tee was playing 5 nights a week at the legendary Better Days bar and the place was having such great success that they were expanding to seven nights, incorporating Monday and Tuesday. Tee didn’t want to play the extra nights so he offered the job to me. I didn’t have any records so he allowed me to use his. From working so closely with Nicky he assumed I knew all the music therefore the rest was easy. The job lasted 6 months and I was fired due to poor attendance. I called Larry who was working as a light man at Continental Baths crying about being let go. He invited me up there to hangout with him. It was the July 4th weekend. I went to hangout that Friday night and left the place two weeks later. In that time the resident DJ at Continental Baths quit, Larry inherited his job and I inherited Larry’s job as light man. That’s how it started.
What were some of your favorite music growing up that inspired you and got you interested in music? Lots of the early Philly Soul, pre-Philadelphia International. The psychedelic/ecological period of Motown, pre-Disco and lots of hippy rock. This was the hippy era and post Woodstock, so lots of blue-eyed soul and rock based R&B by groups like War and Osibisa.
What was the first song that you produced that you felt like was really good, that you had come in to your own as a musician? Do you have favorites of your own work? “Waiting On My Angel” by [longtime collaborator] Jamie Principle was the first production that made me realize I could do this. But “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice is what really wet my appetite for production, a remix I did 2 years before my first collaboration with Jamie.
What’s been some of your favorite musical equipment to work with? The grand piano and a full string orchestra.
You’ve worked in both Chicago and New York: How do those two cities and scenes differ? The scenes are no different. At one point New York had more to offer when it came to nightlife and clubbing. New York used to be Mecca for the newest and best dance music and where some of the best DJs and clubs could be found. But since 9/11, it’s all changed. But organically Chicago had the most spirited and passionate scene. The city didn’t have as many clubs as New York but with the few clubs that were banging were making some serious noise.
I always think of a lot of your ’80s work during the Reagan era of being political in some senses, and dance music has already brought lots of different people of lots of different races and ethnicities. Was there a politics implicit or explicit to your music? Not to my music but to Jamie’s: yes. I’m all about the music. I don’t believe politics has any place on the dance floor. But I was producing Jamie Principle and sometimes he felt the need to express his political views.
Do you feel that your music is gay, or speaks specifically to a gay audience? There may have been a time that my music spoke loudly to a gay audience but not so much these days. I don’t think I’ve lost any supporters from the gay community over the years but when the whole gay hip-hop scene emerged and the New York Hard House scene was ushered in at the end of the ’90s, I found a wider acceptance in the straight community. Some folks in the gay community had issues with the straight folks that were showing up on my dance floor and some of the venues I began to play in after the closing of Sound Factory Bar. But my feeling is I go where I’m wanted and play for who loves my music.
Would you agree that sex is also a big part of your music? Lots of people have met on the dance floor to a Frankie Knuckles song and then had a great night! This is a first for hearing this. I know some of the music I make has a very sexy sound and feel to it. But evoking and playing a big part: wow! I never thought about this.
How do you feel about electronic music entering mainstream pop radio with people like Rihanna and Skrillex? Do you like any of it? Pay attention? I have no negative feelings about EDM entering mainstream pop arena. I just wish sonically it was all produced better. The sounds that are used and the level of how the music is produced is poor.
A lot of people call you the inventor of house music. Is this something you identify with? Or do you not worry and think about labels and categories like this? I learned long ago that folks need an image to identify with in order to understand and recognize a sound. I’m not so much thought of as the inventor as I am “The Godfather Of House Music,” a term of endearment that give folks a sense of close camaraderie with me. It makes them feel close to me which makes them comfortable at any venue I play.
Crystallize (Director’s Cut UnMarked Dub) – Art Department
Blind (Frankie’s Unreleased Dub) – Hercules & The Love Affair
Bring Me Joy (Director’s Cut Signature Mix) – The Layabouts
Not This Time (Director’s Cut Signature Mix) – Kathy Brown
Right Now (A Director’s Cut Master Exclusive) – Inaya Day feat. Robin S.
Fable (Director’s Cut Dubreprise) – Lil Louis feat. Chinah Blac
Good People (A Director’s Cut Master Exclusive) – Marko Militano
Secret Life Of Us (Director’s Cut Classic Mix) – Joey Negro & The Sunburst Band
Bring It Back (Fuck It’s House Edit) – Furniture Crew
Let Yourself Go (Joey Negro Vocal Mix) – Director’s Cut feat. Sybil
My Melody (Morillo & Romero Dirty Mix) – Eric Morillo
Disco Revenge (White Label Promo) – KUPPER