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XLR8R - Backissues - #16 - Knuckles

Related: Frankie Knuckles - house music

What is House?

Frankie Knuckles helps us uncover one of life's great mysteries.

By Andrew Rawnsley

Today I ask you -the loyal XLR8R reader, the new XLR8R reader, the sober reader, the fucked-up reader, for whatever reason your eyes are glancing across these inky pages -I ask you, what is House?

I remember the first time I asked myself that question. It was a statement at the beginning of a record I'd just bought by these guys called LFO. They asked "What is House?" I'd listened to a lot of house music before, but never questioned its intent, its existence. And it is a question I have not yet found the answer to. All I know is that ever since that day, every time I play records, every time I go out, every time I review promos, hear a mixtape, that question and that feeling is with me. I feel house, but I still don't really know what it is.

Through his musical endevours and attitude, Frankie Knuckles probably comes closer to answering that question than anybody. Even though obviously tired and "talked out," Frankie took the time during the Billboard Dance Music Summit where he was a keynote speaker, to chat with me. He is a soft spoken man, with a laid-back, honest and very intimate demeanor, which is something a lot of people in the business could learn from. As Frankie himself said "You can get the work done just as quickly, and just as effectively by being nice."

And that whole sentiment in itself has more to do with House than any of the larger than life, lazer-ridden, mega-huge world domination monstrosities that the house movement has seemed, for the most part, to have turned into. Mega-promoters selling bad product to a bunch of 15 year olds on bad ecstacy is not what house is about; that has more to do with rock and roll bravura than the soul of house.

The truth is, House is about an attitude; self-experience, participation and sharing moods and ideas. Witness the feeling of a truly intimate night, where you feel at one with the music, the vibe and the atmosphere, and you'll know what I mean. It's a feeling of timelessness. People have often described the religious-like experience of Frankie's sets, and the connections between gospel music and house music in their devotional nature and the almost fanatical fervor with which both forms are greeted, are obvious. It's no co-incidence.

TIMEWARP: Chicago, 1978. The Windy City is not exactly a dance music mecca. Like the majority of American cities still are today, Chicago was a rock and blues town. Plenty of live music and beer swilling bars, but not much in the way of dancing or clubs. A young DJ, newly arrived from New York, opens a club named The Warehouse, and will unwittingly change the lives of thousands of people in the late 80's and early '90s. That DJ was Frankie Knuckles.

However influential he and the style of music he pioneered have become, the intent behind The Warehouse was very different from the entrepreneurial desires of most of what we now lovingly term "rave" promoters. Frankie puts the whole thing in perspective:

"With a lot of the promoters, both here and in Europe, their concept of a warehouse party is not the same as the warehouse parties we had in Chicago. When we opened up The Warehouse, we were looking for a space that was industrial, in an industrial area so that there were no residents nearby. We could go in there and construct the kind of environment that would be most conducive to what we wanted to do as a club. We took this loft space and actually turned it into our home, and invited people in to have a party once a week. We weren't looking at it from a commercial standpoint. It wasn't like the warehouse parties today where it's just a one-off thing."

It's interesting that Frankie's concept of the club was that it was their home first, and a club second, and that people were invited in. True intimacy in comfortable surroundings, the environment was essential to the vibe. That really is in stark contrast to the impersonal way of clubbing in the '90s. Unfortunately, the problem with anything good is that everybody wants in, which usually results in ruining what was good in the first place: the feeling of friendship and the vibe.

"To start with we had a limited membership, we had newsletters and it was very much among ourselves, for socializing. When other people starting discovering our parties by themselves, we just invited them in. But by 1983 it had gotten out of hand. Some of the people I was working with became more interested in the money than the quality of the (club) environment, so it was time for me to move on."

This is something that happens all the time, of course. Truly creative people are quick to spot the bullshit that detracts from the real substance, the music. The Warehouse was a club where the focus was first and foremost on the music, unlike alot of clubs today, where the music is merely a soundtrack for cruising or drug taking. Like most DJs of the era, Frankie's chosen medium was the real dance music of the time, underground disco, the real seeds of house music. It's important to remember that at the time, New York was the only place where underground club music was really available, so The Warehouse was a really major development in Chicago musical history. (Note: the other major underground club was the Music Box, where Chicago's other early pioneer Ron Hardy was resident.)

With the demise of disco at the hands of the major labels and gross commercialism, the supply of records dwindled as real dance music was not released. And it is here that house music's form really takes shape as Frankie begins to change soul records, making them dance friendly.

"When we first opened in '78, I was playing a lot of the East Coast records, the Philly stuff, Salsoul. By '80/81, when that stuff was all over with, I started working a lot of the soul that was coming out. I had to re-construct the records to work for my dancefloor, to keep the dancefloor happy, as there was no dance music coming out! I'd take the existing songs, change the tempo, layer different bits of percussion over them, to make them more conducive for the dancefloor."

At the same time as Frankie was reworking records for his dancefloor, in New York another radical DJ was working his magic at a club called the Paradise Garage. Larry Levan was a close friend of Knuckles and their musical impulses were on a similar course. Levan has the distinction of being the first DJ to remix a record, and that is something which is of utmost importance in the mix-obsessed '90s.

"My new album is dedicated to Larry Levan. He and I grew up together, we got into the business together, our lives ran so parallel. He died a couple of years ago. He's such an important person, if it wasn't for him a lot of people in dance music probably wouldn't be doing what they're doing. I think we all owe him a lot. Something needs to be documented, something needs to be given back to him, and so I dedicated the album to him. Larry was the first person to remix a record, working with existing tracks, and made the whole remixing thing an artform. He remained being a DJ and he set it up so that remixing became the next logical step for any club DJ to do, if they really wanted to pursue their career."

Indeed today it does seem a very natural thing for DJs to move into production or remix work after spinning. Which is exactly what Knuckles did, releasing tracks on Chicago labels such as the infamous Trax and the not-so-famous Danica (The Nightwriters "Let the Music Use You"), and working with Chicago producers such as Jamie Principle and Marshall Jefferson. Then came work with Robert Owens (the classic "Tears") and with David Morales (the Def Mix production team), and the ensuing record deal with Virgin, the label which Frankie is still signed to. In 1992 the album "Beyond The Mix" was released (the very name suggests something special) and the single "The Whistle Song" from that album.

Frankie has a new album out in April of this year, this time working exclusively with singer Adeva. They have obviously struck up a lasting friendship as well as a working relationship, and Frankie's philosophy of sharing what he knows has very much been extended to Adeva, with whom he is committed to working with for the foreseeable future. As mentioned earlier, the project is dedicated to Larry Levan. Yes, this is an album of songs.

"For me it had to be that. There aren't enough good songs being written. I wanted to make it a song oriented album, and the songs had to be strong. I knew that with a voice like Adeva has, with the strength in her voice, the songs had to say something, they had to mean something. I wanted to write these songs for her, so she could sing them straight from the heart. We achieved that. Of the music that came out between '78 and '83, the music that influenced me most was the stuff written and produced by Ashford and Simpson. They had big, full-bodied production. I remember promising myself that if I ever had the opportunity to write anything, I'm going to do it like that or I'd rather not do it at all. If you listen to the new music I've done, you can hear the influence. You can hear the production influence, you can hear the musical influence.

"Lyrically we're coming from a lot of personal places.

In doing that, it was important to me that the right things were said. None of the lyrics are overcomplicated, it's just simple things. It's all very soulful, though the dance is in there, but it's not your typical house project. The whole thing is done with a spirit, dedicated to Larry. However, I'm sure that most people have lost somebody that inspired them or that was close to them, and will be able to listen to this album and bring their own experience to it or from it."

But will America notice? Will America care? Given the recent history of dance music in the US, the album will probably receive critical acclaim in the informed press and industry, but fail to make much of a mark on the Garth Brooks/Green Day sales figures. Does it matter? Well, Frankie doesn't seem to mind too much. His work is, after all, well received and anticipated in the European market, where quality dance music and soul are appreciated for what they are.

"A lot of it has to do with the size of the country. But the particular style of music that we make is basically pop music in the UK. In the US the whole system is run by old fogeys, an old machine. In the UK and Europe, there's a lot more fresh blood in the industry. They know what's going on with the music we make here (in the US), which is underground here, is pop music there. Until the machine changes here it's gonna stay that way. To me it doesn't matter, as long as we're appreciated somewhere. It used to get to me that we weren't appreciated here, but it doesn't matter anymore. When you know where you're audience is, you know where your base is. As long as I know that somebody out there appreciates the music that I make, that's enough for me. (With the US) the focus is on having a hit record. The problem is that you spend all your energy on trying to have a hit record, and it never happens! If you dispel all that and just make music, and I think that's what we've done with this album, it comes out right."

A producer or musician's personal outlook is obviously going to reflect in the music that they make, just as it does in the daily life that you lead. On the decks playing records or in the studio making records, surely the first priority is to have a mood conducive to making music.

"To me it's very important to have a very relaxed atmosphere. There's no clock watching, I'm not standing over anybody's shoulders. We all come together in the studio, we know what has to get done, things fall into place. We just keep it very relaxed. I've sat in on a lot of recording sessions where the producers were tyrants, cracking whips and talking down to everybody, treating everybody like shit. I never saw why it had to be like that. I always promised myself that if I ever got in that position, I would strip away all that bullshit because I don't think it's necessary. You can get the work done just as quickly, and just as effectively by being nice. I guess I'm not insecure about who I am, I know what I'm about."

With all Frankie's production and remix skills in demand, you might think that DJing has fallen by the wayside. But you'd be wrong. In keeping with his positive outlook Frankie sees maintaining his DJing as an integral part of his life, and has some very insightful things to say on the subject.

"I play once a week, Friday's at the Sound Factory Bar. It's mostly a house night and a gay club on Friday nights. In fact the club's open six nights a week, and five of those it's gay. Friday's have an excellent energy, because people come there for the music. DJ'ing is still really important to me. It's what I do first, and what I do best. As long as there's an audience that wants me to do it, why should I stop."

Having played clubs all over the world, and having more real experience than just about any working DJ still playing on a regular basis, what are Frankie's thoughts on the Sound Factory Bar, a relatively small club?

"We put a lot of time into the sound in that room. It's not the biggest or the smallest room, but it's definitely the most comfortable and intimate room. I think people are more interested in intimacy than in large rooms. There was a time with places like the Roxy, The Sound Factory, when it was about that. In general, people tend to have a whole lot more fun when things are more controlled. When things are intimate it's easier for us to control the room, it's easier for people to control themselves and not get lost, not just feel like they're one of the masses. When I used to play at Roxy, they used to do between three and six thousand on Saturday night. That's a lot of people! You could get lost. It's one thing to stand and watch, but a completely different thing when you're out there. It gets a little tiresome after a while. With large things you lose the natural rhythm and feel for how the room should work. With a room like Sound Factory Bar, people have a much easier time getting involved in everything that's going on."

Stop and think about what Frankie just said for a moment. If the music is the focus, and the room is right -intimate, controlled- then you are probably going to experience house music in the right setting, no? That's back to the days of The Warehouse, a more intimate, friendly environment. We've grown so accustommed to hearing house music in large settings, with huge sound systems and light shows, that when you finally hear it in the right setting again, you are immediately struck by how great this music is. The size and volume of the sound system is not the issue, it's the clarity and the depth of the sound system that matter. It's not the "big" records that a DJ plays, it's the way the whole set, the whole musical journey fits together over the course of the night. It's not the number of people, it's the involvement, comfort and warmth of the people that matter. Maybe we are getting to the bottom of this "What is House?" thing.

Perhaps the point is that House is essentially a personal thing, something with which to be at ease with oneself. Once you have established comfort with oneself, then you are going to be in a far better position to interact with others, kind of like that saying about loving yourself before you can love anybody else. To be comfortable with yourself, far from being selfish, is ultimately an act of sharing. In the end you bring to house music your own experiences, and house music is the medium through which you can share those experiences. Frankie's sheer openess about sharing his musical experience with others is a shining example for others:

"Some people get really insecure about their own thing, and that's because they don't trust themselves. I think that anytime you have a gift that people get off on, you're supposed to spread that around, you're supposed to share that with other people. I've never seen any artform, or anything that comes naturally from the heart, as a competitive sport. I mean, no one singer is greater than the next one. Everyone has their own style, their own way of delivering things. No one songwriter is better than another, everyone has their own way of doing things. I think that it's people on the outside looking in who want to turn it into a competitive sport. That's when it gets ugly and that's not what it's about. People do that because they don't understand what realism is. I try to not surround myself with people like that. I have to keep positive all the time: there's too many negative things going on. There's enough fucked up shit going on in the world. I have to keep a positive face."

This positivity thing? Yeah, this is starting to make sense. I think Frankie may have partly answered my question "What is House?"

"As long as I keep my spirit up and the spirits around me in the right place, nothing but good can come. If your goal everyday is to keep your head in the right place and to do something to keep your spirit just right, everything moves in the proper direction." p> Thanks Frankie.

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