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Interview

Frankie Knuckles on his new compilation, Larry Levan, and how every church needs a pastor

By Angie Terrell
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In the late ’70s, The Warehouse was the place that Chicago club-goers called their “church”—and Frankie Knuckles was their pastor, delivering the congregation to freedom. Often credited as the godfather of house music, Knuckles transformed disco into a new sound that changed the face of electronic music forever.

Knuckles is one of the few DJs that has continued to influence dance music to this day, winning the first Grammy for Remixer of the Year and working with just about every soulful vocalist of the past 20 years, from Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Whitney Houston, to newer acts like Hercules and Love Affair. Just last week, he released Tales From Beyond the Tone Arm, a huge compilation of classics and new, exclusive tracks. The first half of the album, The Classic Side, consists of quintessential tunes from the early ’90s. Knuckles has re-cut and re-edited these classics under his Director’s Cut moniker along with his production partner, Eric Kupper. The second half of the album, The Soultronic Side, consists of all new tracks featuring collaborations with the likes of Inaya Day & Robin S, Sybil, and the legendary Yoko Ono.

With so much to discuss, Knuckles sat down with us for a few words about the compilation, his dear friend Larry Levan, and what’s on the horizon for him and his label, Def Mix.

Firstly, tell us how Tales From Beyond the Tone Arm came about.

A few years back, when I felt strong enough to get back to work, I began making myself available to a number of different artists purely to sharpen my skills and learn a new way of doing things production-wise. My last real production was back in 2005 with “A New Reality,” completely recorded at Quad Recording Studio, the facility that was the home of DefMix’s productions. So, when getting back to work, I no longer had the room to stretch out, to lay out my work and make it breathe the way it did in analog. However, with my genius partner, Eric Kupper, and the sound library we amassed over the years, I learned how to do the same work that years ago I would’ve done strapped to a 72-track SSL console. [And now] I can do it online, on the move, or in the privacy of my home studio, and produce the same result.

Can you explain the choice of the name for the compilation?

Up until 2003, I lived and worked in an analog world. From that point to today, everything I do—we all do—is digital. The music I played back in the ’80s and ’90s was delivered through a stylus attached to a tone arm on turntables. Today, the music I produce and play is “beyond the tone arm.” Hence, the songs included in this compilation are Tales From Beyond the Tone Arm.

There are a lot of classics on this album that have been re-edited by you as Director’s Cut, like “The Whistle Song” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Can you explain the choices you made to bring these songs forward to the present? For example, were you thinking about today’s clubs?

I did think about today’s audience and how the lack of quality tunes like these needed to be re-introduced to them. Instead of just playing the old ones that sonically don’t fit today’s digital soundsystems, to reproduce these gems and give them the same respect digitally that they received through analog made sense.

How is the name Director’s Cut different from Frankie Knuckles? Is this moniker an alter-ego? Or is it simply a literal description of Frankie as Director?

Frankie Knuckles is who I am and the name I was given at birth. I developed the moniker Director’s Cut to hide behind when I first got back into production. I didn’t want my new sound to be pre-judged by who I am. The industry has a bad habit of pigeonholing an artist or DJ/producer, making it sometimes impossible to grow beyond the talent the world is familiar with. Doing all the new remixes and productions brought focus to the work without my larger-than-life name over-shadowing what was paramount: the music. Plus, if the production didn’t work, I could always quietly slip back into my private life.

There are many amazing collaborations and reworks on this compilation, but tell us how the Yoko Ono treatment came about. Ono used to go to Paradise Garage back in the day, and Larry Levan was known to play “Walking on Thin Ice.” How did you come to work on “I’m Movin’ On,” and can you explain your choice to include this on the album?

I use to play “Walking On Thin Ice” at The Warehouse, also. But the Ono project came one afternoon while I was on the road and Eric called alerting me to the request coming in for a remix. The rest, as they say, is history.

When it came to including it on the album, the majority of the Director’s Cut productions were either done on spec or pro bono. Most were demos, but I asked each artist for permission to use the tracks whether they got or had a deal with another label. Everyone was very generous in making the tunes available for me. But this album wasn’t in development or even a possibility, so when the idea presented itself, everything worked out perfectly.

Speaking of Larry… it’s been 20 years since he passed away. From your friendship and experience with Larry, what do you miss most about him?

His silliness. His spirit. The essence of his greatness when he’d be playing. After knowing him for so long and working with him early on, there was a certain uniqueness in his approach to putting music together. He had the spirit of a butterfly. The kind that would land on your shoulder and captivate you with his beauty. There will never be another person in my life, on this planet, that can inspire his artistry. He was a sound genius!

What legacy did Larry leave behind in the music industry?

He set the tone. He laid the groundwork that is the art form, [the] remix. Paradise Garage set the tone for dance clubs worldwide. There are many that have come and gone over the past 25, 26 years since the Garage has faded into history. But there will never be a greater nightclub.

Larry notoriously played music his way, playing Loleatta Holloway, Blondie, and Pat Benatar all in the same set. Do you think DJs can get away with that these days?

Absolutely! The question is, are there any clubs or DJs brave enough to be that free and expressive, instead of following the conventional ways of running a nightclub? You must remember the way we grew up as DJs in NYC back in the ’70s—one DJ controlled the evening. And sometimes that one DJ played five days a week. Today, clubs put two-to-three DJs on in an evening.

You’ve described The Warehouse as a church and a place where everyone joined in communion together. The Paradise Garage is also characterized in these otherworldly ways. Are there any places that exist like that today? Or do you think that was something inherent to the time?

In NYC, Danny Krivit’s 718 Sessions and Body & Soul are about the closest thing to what he had as church back in the day. In LA, Marques Wyatt’s Deep Sessions creates the same feeling. But as a rule, you don’t see it much. Most clubs are alcohol establishments—waterholes for the masses. DJs are byproducts of what the clubs feature. And because of all the different DJs presented, there’s never enough of a clear music focus to deliver that kind of spirit. In every church there’s usually only one pastor delivering the word.

Tell us a little bit about what Def Mix is up to now and the artists you are working with.

Def Mix is home. Everything is lovely. We have two new members: DJ Meme, from Brazil, and Quentin Harris. With them coming on board, it’s like a new spice has been added to the mix. I love these guys and what they bring to the table. As for new artist/projects, there are a few in various stages of development, but there’s also new songs by Jamie Principle and B. Slade.

What new producers are you listening to these days? Who excites you?

I’m a big fan of Sean McCabe’s work. I like Dbow and Sonny Fodera. So many new and exciting people making great music. Keeps me motivated.

You have said that developing a sound is so important, and also that songwriting is somewhat of a lost art form in dance music. What advice do you have for young producers?

The main reason why dance music and disco did so well back in the ’70s is because of the great songs that were written and the artists that back-up these songs in performance. Today’s dance music is DJ-based. Lyrical content is not paramount in the production, as a rule. [It's] mostly samples. Over the years I’ve collaborated with so many different songwriters and lyricists. I think if some of these DJs or producers began to collaborate with lyricists and songwriters, it would change the dimension of house music and how the industry looks at it.

This compilation is soulful, smooth, funky, and technically flawless. What do you hope people will take away from this collection of old and new tracks?

I just want folks to enjoy it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Immediately on the horizon is my 2013 World Tour in support of the album. Plus, I have several different remixes waiting to be completed.

Finally, when you’re on your way home from a gig and trying to “come down,” what do you listen to?

The sounds from the evening bouncing around inside my head.