If you consider yourself a true house music fan, then you better be familiar with the name Frankie Knuckles. Often referred to as the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie has been DJ’ing and producing music in Chicago and across the globe since the 1970’s. In a few short weeks, Frankie will be hosting the new Heritage of House stage at Chicago’s second annual Wavefront Music Festival on Montrose Beach. We had a chance to catch up with Frankie to talk about Chicago, Wavefront and the transformation of house music over the course of his career.
What sets Chicago apart from the other dance music capitals of the US? Is there a special energy here? Something that sets Chicago fans apart from others?
Personally, I don’t think there’s a difference between Chicago and any other “dance capital” in the USA. But what makes Chicago special is the fact that Chicago is the birthplace of House Music.
What other artists are you excited to check out at Wavefront Music Festival this year?
I’m excited to check out everyone. I’m not going to single out anyone for that reason, it’s nice to have everyone playing here in my backyard, making it easy for me to welcome them all.
It seems like every 10 years or so, a new music genre rises to the top of mainstream media. 10 years ago it was rap. Today it’s dance music. 10 years from now it may be folk for all we know. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in this industry in the span of your career? Any predictions for the future?
The biggest change has to be technology and how its put everyone globally on the same page, musically. Stars in nightlife can come from anywhere in the world. But the biggest impact on the dance music world has to be House Music. Since the advent of DJ culture, from where I sit, it seems like every DJ is either trying to reinvent the wheel or create the biggest track of all time. Some may feel it’s easy for me to say this being in my position, but one has to remember where I come from this wasn’t a professional career. But through dedication, determination and longevity I’ve managed to hang in there long enough to be a part of the change. House Music was born out of the natural order of things. When ‘Disco’ was killed off in 1980, there was a void. No one was consciously trying to reinvent the wheel. But while I was experimenting with rhythm makers, drum machines and re-editing current songs to keep my audience interested in returning to The Warehouse every week, folks like David Morales were doing the same thing in Brooklyn. It’s just that the first tracks published came from Chicago. And The Warehouse was the inspiration for those tracks.
Is there one show that stands out in your mind as the moment you’d “made it” as an artist?
There have been a few moments that I can think of, but to date the one that stands out the most is playing in front of the Sydney Opera House for New Years Eve 2 years ago. Now this may seem a little strange being so recent, but in this business success comes in stages and how you define “making it.” Moving back to NYC in 1987 and landing the gig at the original Sound Factory I thought was a real success. But the real success came when I was offered Sound Factory Bar. A room with a sound system that was custom built to my specifications. And then there’s receiving the first Grammy as ‘Remixer Of The Year’ for my body of work that year. That’s making it!
What’s the latest album you purchased? When you’re not working, do you find yourself listening to a lot of EDM or do you look to other genres of music?
The last album I bought was Valerie Simpson’s latest. When I’m home, I listen to anything that’s 360 degrees away from dance music. Lots of Classical, vintage Soul and R&B. When I return home from touring, I find listening to these genres very cleansing to my ears. Bringing some normalcy back into my life.
Who is the most inspiring person you’ve met through this career?
Larry Levan. As kids, I wanted to be so much like him. We were besties. We came into this business together, and he had a style that I lived for. I found myself on many occasions seeking his approval. Success came to him early on in our careers. It only began to happen for me when I moved back to NYC in 1987. Again, another void in the industry. Paradise Garage had closed and more focus was being put on House Music. But now it wasn’t just the House Music coming out of Chicago but the House sound coming out of NYC. One of the last nights I played at Sound Factory, Larry came in. He came up to the DJ booth and everyone in the club cheered when they saw him. On this night I premiered ‘The Pressure’ by Sounds Of Blackness. As I was going to mix out of it he (Larry) leaned over and said “Let it play all the way out”. So I did and the room erupted! I turned and looked at him with the biggest smile. He grabbed me, put his arms around me and said, “That was incredible”! I guess that’s when I really realized I had made it.
What advice would you give to DJs and producers who are just starting out?
Technology has made what we do as DJs so easy that practically anyone can do it. That being said, the only way anyone is going to make it in this business is to do what the next guy isn’t doing. Challenge yourself! Don’t be afraid to not be trendy. Don’t be afraid to actually play music without all the bells and whistles and digital trickery. Don’t feel like you have to physically cheer your audience on when it comes to feeling and recognizing a good tune. If the music you play is good the crowd will recognize it by dancing to it. And most importantly, be honest with what you’re doing. Don’t play your audience for suckers by pre-recording large portions of your set and faking that you’re doing it on the fly. People are not stupid, and it’s an insult to every DJ that seriously puts in work. Every mix may not be perfect but, you’re human and that’s the best part of it. If the crowd is with you, they’re with you.
Be sure and grab your Wavefront tickets now so you can catch Frankie in action this Fourth of July weekend: http://www.wavefrontmusicfestival.com/tickets.php