On the Beaten Track

When you have been designated a handle as profound as The Godfather of House, you have automatic tenure. Back in the early '80s, Frankie Knuckles helped
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When you have been designated a handle as profound as The Godfather of House, you have automatic tenure. Back in the early '80s, Frankie Knuckles helped

When you have been designated a handle as profound as “The Godfather of House,” you have automatic tenure. Back in the early '80s, Frankie Knuckles helped usher in a sound that left Chicago, London and many other parts of the world mesmerized by and addicted to the four-on-the-floor beat. “When the whole house movement came about, it seemed like everybody and their grandmother in Chicago were making house records,” Knuckles says. When the UK caught on to Chicago house, many journalists were keen to fully investigate the scene to get to the bottom of the culture. Knuckles was happy to act as ambassador, taking the press around and introducing them to all of the key players.

“One journalist asked me, ‘Where do you see all of this and all of these people making house records 20 years from now?’” Knuckles recalls. “And I said, ‘I see 80 to 90 percent of them falling by the wayside. I don't see them all surviving it.’ You can pretty much tell who is going to shine out of all of this and who is going to move on and who is just not going to be able to make it. There are certain people who are just in it for the moment. You can tell the ones who are serious songwriters and producers.” Trends come and go, and house music was not exempt from the wrath of the ever-inevitable backlash. Many of those artists indeed fell by the wayside.

After almost nine years working on music for other people — remixing such giant artists as Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Diana Ross — Knuckles has finally released his third artist album, A New Reality (Definity/Def Jam, 2004). Knuckles dropped Beyond the Mix (1991) and Welcome to the Real World (1995) on Virgin before being dropped by the label. Nevertheless, Knuckles endured. In 1997, he was the first recipient of a Grammy Award for Best Remixer of the Year. It may have helped that he served as governor and trustee for the New York City chapter of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences. But with a year chock-full of remix hits, including Braxton's “Unbreak My Heart,” the title was by no means undeserved.


Knuckles began remixing before most. You might remember the genesis of the remix as an extended version of a song with parts rearranged and extra beats thrown on top. Knuckles jumped in the game as the art of the remix began to get more defined. “It wasn't enough to just go in and work with the existing tracks,” he says. “It was time to start overdubbing and turning things around slightly. By the time [David] Morales and I started [the] Def Mix [production company], that was the order of the day. You'd go in, completely rewrite the music and turn it into something else even though it was still the same song.”

Morales and Knuckles were at first a remixing team, each complementing the other's strengths and weaknesses in the studio. “We were kind of like each other's alter egos,” Knuckles says. “He was the dark, heavy, percussive side of everything. And I was the light, more musical, harmonic side. So he always took the top end of the board when we were in the studio, where all of the percussions, the bass line, all the very heavy rhythmic things were going on. I took the bottom end of the console, where all the orchestration, the pianos, the beautiful sounds were. And then, we would shape everything as we were working together and then meet in the middle of the console.” While they were working on their own sides, they'd also keep an eye on what the other was doing until, eventually, each went solo.

Although Morales and Knuckles' remixes were no cut-and-splice extensions of the original tunes, they did hold on to a more old-school approach. “Now when they say remix, they expect you to just take the vocals and rewrite the whole track to it,” Knuckles says. “I think we're actually the last vestiges of remix producers who give respect to the original songs and the artists themselves; the song and the performer are paramount to what you're doing. [With] most of these different producers, the performer and the song are secondary; their track comes first.”

When Knuckles won the Grammy Award for Best Remixer, it was assumed that he'd be booked solid for the next year. Oddly enough, the opposite was true. “There was this guy sitting behind me when we were at the awards [show] who said, ‘Well, his rates just went through the roof!’” Knuckles says. “And that haunted me after that. It was more of a kiss of death because the remixes stopped coming in. I'm not going to say it didn't bother me at first. It did to a certain degree. I had to remember, ‘Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.’” Also daunted by the fact that he didn't get to keep the publishing rights for his remixes in the United States (he did get some publishing for remixes released in the UK), Knuckles took a break. Finally, after a couple of years of noodling around with some old tracks, he decided to hunker down and finish his next artist album.


For A New Reality, Knuckles dusted off tracks that he wrote as long as 14 years ago. For example, he penned the opening track — “Hit the Floor,” an old-school bang-up house track with familiar dancefloor-themed lyrics and vocal gymnastics by Ce Ce Rogers — with Satoshi Tomiie in 1995. The genesis of “What's Goin' On,” featuring singers Nicki Richards and Danny Madden, came in 1990 through a collaboration between Knuckles and friend Terri Lin. The midtempo, adult-contemporary-style track is pleasant — with bouncing, melodic synth bass; staccato guitar; and restrained piano — if an obvious time warp. “‘What's Going On’ should have been on my first album, but it wasn't,” Knuckles says. “It wasn't on the second album, either. It didn't lend itself to the direction I was going in. I thought the track was always strong, so I readdressed it and completely changed the sounds.”

Another new track that also sounds like a blast from the past is “Gimme, Gimme,” which takes you back with a guitar riff reminiscent of Paul Simon's 1986 song “Graceland.” Knuckles says that riff is no sample. “I had this idea for doing something that felt sort of country, just throwing something against the wall to see if it sticks,” he says. “I wanted to do something that had sort of a Southern, country feel to it and marry that with something that felt African-like. We ultimately came up with that lick that feels like ‘Graceland.’ As we were doing it, I kept thinking, ‘This feels really familiar.’ And when I began to realize what it was, my first thought was to abandon it. And then I was like, ‘No, I can't do that. I've just got to feel this thing all the way out.’

“We were in the studio playing around, and the thought that was running in my head was this dirty old man running around saying, ‘Gimme, gimme!’ I'm sitting back on the couch in the dark in the studio, listening to the track. And I'm seeing things like the Serengeti and the African landscape, animals chasing one another. At the same time, I'm seeing this little girl sitting by the roadside or sitting on the beach by the shore with little pigtails and a little sundress. And all of a sudden, we got this guitar thing happening and these harmonicas. It began to feel like a hootenanny. But I just got really excited. Because in the beginning, the track was bumping, but as all these things started appearing in midair, I just grabbed them and started going with it.”

Whereas “Gimme, Gimme” has a far-reaching yet down-home flavor, “Journey” is something altogether different. The solid thump is made for the dancefloor, but the synths and Nicki Richards' vocals were founded in fantasy far from sweaty clubs. “When I first wrote that track with a friend of mine, Alec Shantzis, I climbed inside of my mind, and the pads of the song — that haunting, soothing pad — I could just feel myself cushioning myself with them,” Knuckles says. “It's so thick that you can just fall into it. It feels light, and it feels like summer. At that particular time, the world was really getting ugly with the whole 9/11 thing and the impending war. The only thing I kept thinking was, ‘I just want to get away from here.’ I just couldn't see myself saying anything beyond that because that was enough. And considering the kind of environment that it would be played in, it's haunting to the point where you can just fall back into the track, just completely relax. Even in a cold hotel room, you can let your eyes close and just completely drift.”


Knuckles' biggest songwriting influences, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, better known as Ashford & Simpson (remember the hit “Solid”?), have written hits for artists ranging from Diana Ross and Ray Charles to Chaka Khan and Marvin Gaye. As both Ashford and Simpson are actually friends of Knuckles, he's fortunate to get songwriting advice from them firsthand. “One thing that they always tell me to do is just write from experience,” Knuckles says. “And don't try to be catchy about it; just be sincere. You can have a feeling about something that you want to say, but you don't have to be necessarily wordy about it.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has a songwriting mentor. “Since technology's changed and ushered in Pro Tools, some guys have built their studios in their bedrooms,” Knuckles says. “Well, that's fine. I think it's great that they have the ability to do this in their homes. However, many bedroom producers are really concentrating more on building tracks as opposed to writing songs, so they're not songwriters. And it's fine if you're trying to teach yourself in the beginning and learn your footing about production and writing music. But a lot of times, these guys come up short because they get in that mode, and they don't grow beyond it. To grow beyond it, they need to learn about songwriting, even if they need to find songwriters to work with and vocal producers to help them start developing these songs and take them to that third level.

“Just building these tracks in their bedrooms on their Pro Tools systems, as great as a lot of them sound, they're still just two-dimensional. A lot of times, they're not even two-dimensional, so they don't move beyond a certain sphere. I only just hope and pray that if they're planning on sustaining themselves in this business, they can see beyond that, because they're going to really need to. You know how the industry works in the United States — you can't sell these instrumental tracks on the radio.”

But getting on the radio is a matter that even Knuckles struggles with nowadays, given that there's only room in rotation for the most “marketable” stars. Several of the tracks on A New Reality — such as the gospel closer, “I Had Enough” — hark back to the radio age of the '80s. “Back N da Day” actually has sirens in it (thankfully, just in one part). It doesn't exactly sound new. According to Knuckles, major-label marketing heads don't do much to help artists. “Most of the people who work in marketing, first of all, don't even go out,” he says. “They just barely go to their local neighborhood bar. And you would think because they work in a record company, they really hear music. Well, most of them really don't. It's a job for them. They get pulled into a marketing meeting, and all they know is that this is the product that they have to sell.”

Where Knuckles has an extra edge above many bedroom producers is access to big studio consoles, something many bedroom producers blow off as unnecessary. “That's why everything sounds so much broader and so much bigger,” Knuckles says about A New Reality. “Most of my contemporaries don't go anywhere near a production facility anymore because they don't feel they have to. Okay, that's fine. But you limit yourself and the dynamics of your production by just relying on exactly what you have in your bedroom.”


His productions and remixes aside, Knuckles has long been able to rely on DJing. Although an accident while on tour in Australia put him out of commission for almost four months, Knuckles is back to business as usual. Recently, he played catch-up with several makeup dates, hopping from Los Angeles to Montreal to New York (for a benefit for the Harvey Milk School, a high school for gay students) to his hometown of Chicago. After 32 years of DJing house and disco, Knuckles is no dilettante at the decks, and he looks at DJing much in the same way that he looks at songwriting: Telling a story includes conflict and resolution.

Knuckles got accustomed to playing long eight-hour-plus sets early in his career. But times have changed. “So many clubs now are doing more than one DJ in the evening, and they might be doing three- or four-hour sets each, but they're all going in there trying to bang it out at one time at 130 beats per minute,” Knuckles says. “Therefore, the evening just goes full speed at 130 bpm and never lets up. There's no dynamics; there's no real structure; there's no clarity or definition to the evening. They don't turn the beat around. They don't change directions. You have to be completely focused on the energy that you've got going on in the room. I come from a school where you have the whole evening to tell a story. You start at point A. When you get in a car and turn the engine on, you don't shoot out of your parking space at 130 miles per hour, so why would you go into a room and start your first records at 130 beats per minute? It makes no sense.”

When Knuckles does hit a peak, he might ride it out for a while, hitting the club with one monster track after another, but, eventually, he lets up. “I'll work them like that for a little while, but then I'll change directions,” he says. “There might be someone in the room who would be like, ‘Ah, man, what are you doing?’ And I'm like, ‘You just walked in the door. You obviously haven't been here. You just got on this train. This train left out of the station five hours ago. And as long as I'm conducting this, I can drive this train however the hell I want to. I kindly suggest you sit back and strap yourself in because this isn't over yet.’”


AKG C 414 (5), C 451 (2), C 12, D 12 mics
AMS Neve 1073 EQs (4)
AMS Neve DMX delay
Antares Auto-Tune plug-in
Apple Mac G3, G4 computers
Crown Macro-Tech 600, 1200 (2), 2400 amps
dbx 160, 165 gate/limiters
dbx 902 de-esser
Digidesign 888 I/O
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system
Digidesign Pro Tools TDM software
Drawmer gates
Dynamite gates
Electro-Voice 655C, 666R, PL5, RE15 (2), RE20 (3) mics
Emagic Logic Audio software
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Lexicon 480L, PCM 70, PCM 90 reverbs
Lexicon PCM 42 (3), Primetime II delays
Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in
Neumann KM 84 (3), KM 85, M 49 (2), TLM 103 (2), TLM 193 (2), U 47, U 48, U 67 (4), U 87 mics
Purple Audio MC76 compressor/limiters (2)
RCA 77D mics (3)
Roland Dimension D effects unit
Roland JV-1080 synth module
Roland MBD-1 Bass 'n' Drum, MKS-80 Super Jupiter, MSE-1 String Ensemble synth modules
Sennheiser MD 421 mics (11)
Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in
Shure SM57 (10), SM81 mics
Solid State Logic SL4000 G+ 96-input console
Sony Acid Pro software
Summit Audio DCL-200 compressor/limiter
Tannoy System 600A 6.5-inch, System 800A 8-inch monitors
TC Electronic TC 2290 Dynamic Digital Delay
Tube-Tech PE-1C EQs (2)
Universal Audio LA-2A compressor/limiters (2)
Univox Mini-Korg synth
UREI 813 monitors
Waves Platinum plug-in bundle
Yamaha NS10 monitors
Yamaha REV7, SPX90, SPX90II reverbs
Yamaha S80 synth w/expansion


The bottom end: Knuckles still loves the Roland TR-909 kick sound, but he doesn't want to hear all of it. “I'm of the mind-set that kicks should be felt, not heard,” he says. “I don't like the sound of my kick to have any top to it at all. To me, that's more indicative of a harder sound. I [roll off EQ] because I want you to actually feel it. You can actually sit on it, and it doesn't hurt. It thumps, but you don't hear it. So when a bass line is working along with it, it just makes it that much thicker, but anything else that's on top of it is all gravy. And castanets, tambourines, anything that will sparkle on top of that will do just exactly that: They'll sparkle.”

Time stretching rule of thumb: For a remix of Chanté Moore's “This Time,” Knuckles had a challenge he didn't know how to solve: an original song at 83 bpm that needed to end up at around 124. “I figured if I could double-time it, it would be okay, but in double-timing it, she began to sound like Minnie Mouse. I was working with engineer John Poppo at the time. So I'm at the point where I'm about to give up, but he took her vocals and slowed her down [to 62 bpm] but kept her locked in her key with the Lexicon 2400. So as opposed to speeding her up and locking her in, he slowed her down and locked her in. So what she ends up doing is floating across the track. She never loses it.”