The title of Frankie Bones' latest artist/mix CD, Army of One (System, 2002), alludes to the mentality of one techno soldier against the world, doing it the only way this innovative DJ knows how. Regularly called the godfather of the U.S. rave scene, Bones (aka Frankie Mitchell) has been spinning wax since the late 1980s. Long before DJs were as common as Nikes, Bones was working the trenches at such legendary New York clubs as Limelight, Mars, Palladium and Vinyl, eventually taking his gritty style to the UK. That formula fills Army of One, on which old-school technology and deep sounds meet Bones' unique mixing style. Bones wrote the music and then mixed the tracks as he would for a live set.
“I am the first one to actually make my own tracks to specifically mix them as a DJ would mix other tracks,” he says. “I am sure some people have done it, like Nervous Records and Little Louie [Vega], but I don't think anyone has mixed their own stuff. I am not trying to put a face to the mix — I am not trying to be Moby. I am keeping my roots, being a DJ and playing good party music.” With his non-computer approach, Bones' music sounds organic and warm, moving through breakbeat, techno, house and even a touch of big beat. Bones refuses to be pigeonholed, citing the old saw “There are only two kinds of records: good and bad.”
Originally a graffiti punk, Bones got his name because he spent all of his money on records instead of food. After wowing European crowds in the late '80s, Bones returned to New York and established his STORMrave warehouse parties in abandoned buildings. Bones began producing in 1987 with Tommy Musto as Musto & Bones. Their remixes and original tracks for Nu Groove Records turned the duo into a cash cow while the label became home to some of the city's most popular productions. In 1990, the pair released “All I Want Is to Get Away,” which became a dancefloor smash. Bones' fame led to his becoming one of the hottest international DJs and remixers of the '90s; despite his whirlwind schedule, he typically churned out three records a year.
Bones was featured in the rave-scene documentaries Better Living Through Circuitry and Modulations, but that exposure came long after such seminal records as his Diary of a Raving Lunatic (Hot, 1995), Houseloop (Smile, 1996) and Technolo-G (Deep Blue, 1998). Bones went on to play at massive events such as Berlin's Love Parade, 1994's Ravestock/Woodstock, Energy in the UK and many others. With his personal and public cachet at a peak, Bones opened Sonic Groove in Greenwich Village, which has remained one of the city's premier independent record shops since 1990.
After parking his shiny black Lexus near Sonic Groove, Bones arrived and immediately began discussing — in his thick Brooklyn accent — the traffic changes that have occurred since 9/11, a day that comes up often for Bones.
“At 4:45 a.m. on September 11, I shut my studio down, and my album for the UK called No Escape was done,” he recalls. “My phone rang from 9 to 9:30 in the morning, and I had only been sleeping for four hours. I woke up and tried to call people back but could not get a line. I put the TV on, and not believing it, I hop on my bike and go to Forest Park. From the high part of the park you can see the whole city. All I see are two plumes of smoke. Where are the towers? They had already collapsed. It was gonna be a normal day, but in an instant, it all changed. It was a scary day for me. It was like Night of the Living Dead — we were all zombies. It makes you value every day.”
Although electronic music sometimes has a reputation for being rigid and robotic, Bones is not stingy with his emotions. He is surprisingly candid with his opinions about life and music, whether discussing the Internet (against it), Paul Oakenfold (not a fan), computers (ditto), remixes (dislikes them, too) or medium-rare hamburgers (sends them back). This army of one isn't afraid to speak his mind.
You have been spinning for years. Are there things that make the process easier?
Back when I started playing the clubs in Manhattan, I never thought you had to be black, white, gay, straight — anyone with talent will make it. I figured the best way for me to get out there was to make records and write songs, which I did. My first three records went right to radio back when freestyle was big. After that, I went to Miami and started working with producers down there. I learned in an era before you could buy all of this gear. Back in '89, you still paid $3,000 for a Roland TR-909.
Do you use all of the contemporary gear now?
I don't even use a computer in my studio. I like the big board; I like punching out mutes — I am kind of obsolete. I can do anything that anyone could do with something like Final Scratch with two Akai samplers, my turntables and a mixer. The computer screen takes away from the art. When you are looking at a screen, you are seeing, not hearing. When you are doing analog stuff, you are not focusing on a screen and moving a mouse. Some people make music in a way that I can never perceive and in a way I don't want to perceive. I don't want to look; I want to hear.
Some of the sounds on your record are more organic.
They don't sound programmed. People ask me, “What if I tweak something the wrong way?” I am running a DAT for 90 minutes, taking the best section for 15. Sometimes, it will take me 15 tries to get it the way I want it. And I don't go right to CD-R; I go to DAT first. DAT sounds cleaner than CD-R. It doesn't sound so cold and digital.
Can you tell me about your gear?
By 1995, I started collecting all of the vintage pieces. I have all the Rolands: 101, 202, 203, 505, 606, 626, 727, 808, 909. I collect drum machines. I have two E-mu SP-12s, a couple of Akai Remix 16 DJ samplers. I probably have every groovebox ever made; I collect them as toys. I got the Technics Limited Edition 1200s with Shure carts. They hug the record the best. I use a Mackie 1604 mixing desk — nothing spectacular, but it gets the job done. I have some older keyboards, like a Korg Mono/Poly and a Roland SH-101, and I like the Akai S20 phrase samplers. They chop the loops up for you, so if you loop something, you can pull it out and put a snare where a kick is, for example. They are very easy to work. My whole studio is using MIDI timecode. You hit Start on the 909, and every machine locks to it. In a 16-track mix, I'll have 40 sounds running. I don't separate every sound. That is why my stuff doesn't sound so clean.
Do you use a standard tracking weight on your turntables?
I never understood why they take the counterweight off the back and turn it around. I just push it up as far as it goes, and I set the antiskating somewhere in the middle, though they say zero is the best place to keep it when you are spinning. Straight tonearms hug the records better. I notice it with the Stantons — the needle never leaves the records.
Are there any DJ mixing tips you can divulge?
Most of the venues that you play at, the turntables are jumpy. But if you know how to play at 133 beats per minute, if the needle jumps, it will jump into a groove and stay at the same tempo. You won't lose the beat; it will always be on time. So it might scratch, but it won't do the horse trot. A lot of these loop records are just one loop on a record at 133 bpm. The loop on the record loops because that tempo is the cycle speed. So it will stay on the beat even if it skips. It may sound like it is scratching, but as long as it is scratching to the beat, no one will break their legs on the dancefloor. I don't know why; it is like the theory of pi.
I've read that you don't plan your sets?
That would be a lie, but I only travel with 30 records. I never go to another party with the same bag of records. I don't program the set because I will go record shopping and get 15 records that I have never heard before and play them out that night. I have been doing this for so many years. It's like a skateboarding guy — he is going to want to go higher, faster, jump up. It is a challenge for people who are good at what they do to take it to another level.
Is there still such a thing as playing different music for different locales?
Sometimes, but I don't go by geographics; I go by demographics. Trance is still the biggest thing in all the clubs. I will play Sasha and Digweed, but they should have stopped at Northern Exposure, vol. 1. They didn't know how to mix back then. They let the ambient wash out the tracks. I always look at the name, like Paul Oakenfold's album is Bunkka. Bunk — ka. He has a passion for not taking his records out of his box until he gets to the next show where he can wave his hands in the air. I have worked for Paul on Perfecto, with Hardcore DJs Take Control. When you are in a record company — you're an A&R bigwig type — all it takes is money. Anyone can make a record. If you have a love for music, great, but some of these guys don't. With me, everything you hear is coming out of my head.
Can young DJs learn the same way you did?
No, because of the Internet. The Internet has opened so many doors for kids that it becomes like communication breakdown. You are more apt to analyze snippets of music on the Internet than actually enjoy them. If you are coming up, you need to go to all of the record stores in your area. If I am out of a hot record, I will go to Vinylmania or Satellite, buy it there and sell it at Sonic Groove. I will take a loss on it just to have it.
What is your attitude toward remixes these days?
I don't believe in them. Why don't you just get it right the first time? It's a marketing ploy. Say you get a call from Warner Bros., and they want a 2003 version of Prince's “Controversy.” They got Green Velvet and Todd Terry and Kenny Dope, and they want a mix from me. That is my biggest nightmare. Who is going to make the standout mix? But then, your mix won't even be on there because Danny Tenaglia will put his late-edition remix in. I got paid $2,500 once for them not to put my mix on there.
On “Inner Freak Style” from Army of One, how are you filtering the vocals?
That is an 8-bit sample out of my SP-12. The vocoder on there is a sample with a flange effect. I sometimes do the vocals myself, pitch them down an octave, then do another sample and pitch it up an octave so it is nice and full. And I use the [Boss VT-1] Voice Transformer. It can make you sound like a little kid.
On “Bounce Skate Roll,” the drums sound like they are made of Jell-O.
Those drums are out of a Yamaha RX-1. I tweaked them; then, I have a 909 going. I could have six drum machines going at once. I find the balance of what I like.
In “Break It Down,” the vocals sound like Earth, Wind & Fire.
That vocal is from an Underground Resistance record. I chopped each word and bounced it all over. That was a lot of phrase sampling, stopping and going. It is very primitive, but I always think the key root to all music is the primal element. All the samples in that song are loops, but I am not sampling the full bar, so when it stops, it loops. The vocal was choppy on purpose.
How did you create all the morphing vocals in “What's Up, Shut Up”?
That is just a lot of heavy, wet reverb, opening the sound really quick so it is auditorium-size. I will take one sample, pan it to the left and take the same sample and pan it to the right. It gives it this 3-D-type sound.
Army of One is a very individual record that is sure to please old fans and broaden your base. At this point, do you feel that you have been successful?
My career spans 20 years. I don't want to say I am successful. I guess there are always new hurdles. They call me the godfather of rave, but I am not the godfather of rave. You are inviting a federal investigation to call me that. But I am still here, my store is up the block, and I am still doing what I want. With every rung of the ladder, there are new problems that present themselves. I think waking up every day is a challenge.