The music industry has been liberally fuelled by wave upon wave of unsuspecting storytellers. As the alleged godfather of House music and a legend whose every action has defined the genre’s golden age appeal, a few tedious clichés and four decades of adoration have been the least of the powers bestowed upon the New York born enthusiast turned Chicago House innovator Frankie Knuckles. But amid one of American Dance music’s timeless tales, there is a sense that this story of seamless innovation, spiritual revolution and untimely decay of Disco is still being written in the positive musical movements of this esteemed producer. Like a phoenix, Frankie has risen from the ashes of House music’s golden age with a full flame of ambition and a clear message at hand: real House music is here to stay.
From the return of ‘that Chicago House sound’ courtesy of a little enthusiasm from Hercules and the Love Affair to an unexpected revisit of ‘Your Love’ alongside Jamie Principle for Nocturnal Groove, Frankie Knuckles’ return to the forefront of real House music may not have taken the States by storm, but European market has certainly lapped it up amid what some have dubbed its golden Renaissance. With an increasing live presence and a steady output of solid gold club cuts still making their way through, his redefinition may not have been natural, but in the age of consumerist agendas and talent show horror stories, you cannot help but commend the rigid structure his return to the high times has taken.
Preparing to sign off after a hard nights work at his studio in Chicago, Frankie and I quickly establish that we aren’t here to reel off the oversubscribed trivia that has surrounded his inauguration into the history books for our impromptu video call. With a pleasant hint of surprise, Frankie is relieved to see me dig into the present day, though he doesn’t deny that his past is still at the forefront of people’s minds. ‘Sometimes you see the same questions and you struggle to give a fresh or relevant answer that doesn’t repeat yourself – but I have to talk about the beginning because it was such a big part of who I am and what the genre is,’ he explains, laughing at the suggestion I will return to write a potted biography of the definition of ‘House’ music – a popular favourite amid Frankie’s FAQs.
But when Frankie Knuckles disappeared off the face of the earth having pioneered a genre that some have associated as the American House revolution, many aficionados noted the fateful end of this beautiful genre that found its feet within the death of Disco. Hercules and the Love Affair, however, had different ideas. As affectionate fans of the Chicago House sound, the group remained positive that the world was on the same track; they just didn’t know it yet. After keeping them waiting for sometime, his remix of ‘Blind’ not only fulfilled the groups lust to bring Knuckles out of hiding, but showed Frankie that the world had far from forgotten his timeless floor-filling persuasions.
Absence certainly made the heart grow stronger, but his disappearing act had certainly left room for some invariably tedious music elsewhere. Where the genre had once shone a light for solid studio ethics and warm floor-filling accolades, the realms of bedroom producers and overly fashionable activity had left a gaping hole in the industry only those cut from a certain cloth could fill. Alongside long serving Def Mix ally and producer Eric Kupper, an efficient moniker was established to bring back the heartfelt grassroots of a genre that didn’t need saving so much as awakening. ‘It is difficult to reinvent yourself and it is something I never thought I would have to do. The fact that I have been able to keep up with the technology and make the sound I produce relevant again is a true blessing, but it took a lot of getting used to at first. I wanted to prove I could still be relevant while maintaining that old school attitude that made the music stick.’
Amid his return, Knuckles was not out to rely solely on the nostalgia of his rich Chicago roots, but more bring its positive flare to an industry severely lacking the decade’s timeless and heartfelt charm. Having struck a positive note alongside The Shapeshifters for ‘The Ones You Love’ at the outset of his familial relationship with their Nocturnal Groove imprint, the way forward was one of positive enthusiasm on the label’s behalf and the potent charm of Frankie’s Chicago roots. ‘One of the main objectives is to fuel the industry with something that is missing,’ explained Frankie. ‘It is a certain style and quality – the kind of music you can sink your teeth into. I hear a lot of music now and it misses that spark.’
Choosing to house the project’s promising output at the dignified imprint of Simon Marlin and Max Reich, it was not long before the surge of interest beckoned Frankie to formally attribute his name to Director’s Cut. ‘People recognised the sound but just don’t know who we are. They identified with the classic New York vibes but it came to a point where we realised we had to unearth ourselves.’
With Kupper and Frankie’s Def Mix roots and longstanding relationship at the helm of some of the genres most sought after musical moments, there is an old school mentality encapsulated within their movements that ousts that of the stereotypical modern producer. ‘These aren’t just tracks, they are working songs. Everything we do can be performed live as well as on record and that is something that the modern industry severely lacks. It is all so brief and disposable.’
His inaugural release for 2012, ‘Get Over U’, reigns testament to the depth Knuckles has implemented within his untimely reincarnation. Calling upon the ousted Gospel talent Brian Slade – a troubled talent who was ousted by the church for openly accepting his homosexuality – its melodic resonance and good time attitude marks the end of an uphill struggle not only for Slade, but the sound that had become somewhat lost within the modern market. ‘Actually working with real singers and musicians brings a certain legitimacy to the music, because it is real music with real people dealing with real life stuff. I am glad that Brian chose to live with the truth and the fact is that he is a force to be reckoned with both in the studio and on stage. The second I heard his voice I said “Who is this guy, where can we find him and when can we do a track?” The finished product really speaks for itself!’
In the same vain as Slade’s trials and tribulations, Director’s Cut has proven a unique journey for all those involved, including the bonafide New Yorker and his Midwestern legacy. At a time where it was make or break, his disappearance, however tough, was enough it seems to leave the world gaping for the next chapter in a story that may have already made history, but is still miles from finding an end. ‘With thirty years of production and forty years in the industry all told, taking time out was the smartest thing I could have done. It gave people time to miss that sound and all the things that were glorious about the early days.’
Glory intact, the upward motions of Frankie and his gang of like-minded enthusiasts remain imminently promising. Suggesting that a second Grammy would not go a miss, Frankie admits that despite the countless achievements, there is everything to prove second time around. ‘I really have had some landmarks and ideal moments within my career. However, I feel like the USA no longer recognises what we did; the focus comes almost solely from Europe. I would like to hope that one day they will see what we did and show a little more pride for our work.’
As a once relinquished master of the Chicago House commonwealth, Frankie is a dreamer that couldn’t be more proud of the modest steps Dance music has taken since he made his first dignified footsteps.He explained: ‘As kids when we daydreamed, the world looked so much bigger than it does now. There’s no way you can conceive something like this can happen on such a grand scale. Most of us are content in our own little corner of the world. Then all of a sudden, the planet shifts. Things change. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. I personally could not be prouder.’
Some inherit the status of legend, while others leave the globe with little choice other than such an association. Where the world has spent several decades committing the birth of Chicago House to the history books and a series of invariable cliches, such enthusiastic authors may live to regret writing of the magic before the magician’s finale. Knuckles’ club worthy charm is no trick, but rather a musical reality that has taken four decades to settle.