This interview was originally published in April 2004.
House music is what you make of it. Purity and consistency can only dirty things up. After all, house grew out of a junked-up, soulful eclecticism that resonated throughout clubs like the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage. It was a time, as Frankie Knuckles puts it, “where it was fashionable for straight men to act gay.” It was about flava. On his latest album, A New Reality, Frankie Knuckles plays tour guide through the peaks and valleys of an old-school night out. In the space below, he spreads a bit of love on the years he spent looking for—and eventually finding—the perfect beat.
“That’s the whole thing about underground music. Sometimes, some of the people that are involved in it do the most detriment to it.”
In about four seconds, a teacher will begin to speak…
I’m not interested in talking about the history of house music. I’ve been there and I’ve done that, and it’s been documented; and it’s been documented more than 100 times. Let’s sit down and have a conversation, and what you garner from it, you can take and put in your article.
With the first two albums I did on Virgin, if I was left to my own devices to really write and produce what I wanted to write and produce, I think it would have been a lot like this particular album.
But having to deal with a corporate company, you’ve got all these different people tugging and pulling at you, telling you what you should be doing. They’re not bad albums, but with this particular project, I had nobody to control me in this but me. I’m following my own heart and mind with this. I don’t care whether they get it or not. Somebody will, and that’s the beauty of being able to do it all your damn self.
It went from house to acid house, from acid house to techno, from techno to drum & bass, from drum & bass to jungle. There’s always somebody trying to reinvent the wheel.
As Boy George once said, “Techno was pretty much designed for white boys who can’t dance.”
All the musicians and programmers I’ve worked with have all been classically trained; that’s the reason my music sounds the way it does. These guys have taught me how to read music and how to understand it, whereas most DJs can’t hear when a vocal is rubbing against a track. Thank god I started working with all these guys early on.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how, but after being interviewed by thousands and thousands of journalists at this particular point, I learned how to conduct myself in interviews. I learned how to make it work for both of us. I don’t need the press that bad. I’m not about to put myself out there like that anymore.
When these guys get a little bit older and they’re trying to find a nice girl they can hang out with, they realize all the really hot, beautiful girls are gravitating to the music that I’m playing. They’re not even about to go back to these trance parties. It was fine for what it was, and it worked when it did, but do you really see anybody pulling that stuff out 20 years from now and being nostalgic about it? I mean, really.
“I cook a lot of soul food. If it’s a Sunday meal, I could roast the hen, I could barbecue something. There’ll be macaroni & cheese and greens. But you can’t eat it everyday. You’ll blow up as big as a house if you’re not careful. Believe me; I’ve been down that road.”
When you’re living in Manhattan or Chelsea of SoHo or anything like that, you’re living among a lot of very pretentious people, and I understand where that comes from. Everybody’s doing stunts and putting on shows, because they’re trying to be seen in a completely different light. In Chicago, people are the way they always are. They keep it real.
The main thing I wanted to make sure this album had is, for lack of a better description, flava—which is something that you don’t necessary associate with house music. You hear style and you hear vibe, but you don’t necessarily get flava.
I probably didn’t see it so much then, but even when I look back on it now, I was protected a lot as best [my family] could. Being a softie when I was a kid, and I guess everybody knowing that I was going to grow up and be gay, or whatever the case is, people tried to protect me as best they could. Then they realized I could very well take care of myself.
L.A. was always six months to a year behind the East Coast.
Pop, and what comes to my mind, is anything you hear being forced on the public by radio and television, because that’s the medium controlling pop. Whatever MTV is feeding, whatever every commercial radio is forcing on the public, is pop.
That’s the whole thing about underground music. Sometimes, some of the people that are involved in it do the most detriment to it. There’s nothing wrong with you being underground, but come on. If that track of yours is so slammin’ and so fierce that the public wants it by and large, and there’s a record company that will offer you a million bucks to buy it so they can have the rights to put it out, you gonna tell them no? I don’t think so.
If I’m uncomfortable, you can tell I’m uncomfortable. You know what I mean?
When it came to clubs like the Garage and the Warehouse, you were hearing stuff that wasn’t being played on radio, but radio caught it at the Garage. [Radio DJ] Frankie Crocker is hangin’ out because he wants to hear what Larry [Levan] has discovered. If Larry played that record five or six times throughout the course of the night, you’d better believe on Frankie Crocker’s show on Monday, that record is going to be the one he’s pushing on everyone. Records were broken very quickly at a place like the Garage, because you had someone like Frankie Crocker hangin’ out. But we didn’t have that in Chicago. By the time the whole mix show came out, it still didn’t control radio in that format, but radio tried to control us. I was accused of not being a team player, because I wasn’t going along with the way. When it comes to music, I don’t believe in the way corporate runs radio. It’s all a buy-and-sell thing.
Janet exposing one of her breasts with a cap on it? Please. She’s not showing anything that anybody else hasn’t already seen. Everybody’s suckled up to a nipple at one time in their life. It’s not that big of a deal. So somebody’s offended, turn the damn TV off. This is the real world we’re livin’ in.
The long and short of it is this: Who’s surviving in this business? There were so many guys back then that were so critical about me and everything I was doing that are not even around doing shit anymore today. I’m not sitting in judgment of myself or anybody else, and if I have an opinion, I keep it to myself, because that’s what gentlemen do.
If you want to trace it back, trust me: In Gaffney, South Carolina, half the population’s last name is Knuckles.
Do whatever you want to do; just be good at it.
RIP Frankie Knuckles.