pay your respects to the godfather of house, frankie knuckles
As the sad news breaks that iconic Chicago house DJ Frankie Knuckles has passed away, we look back to i-D's interview and review of his debut album Beyond The Mix in The World One Issue, No. 95, August 1991.
36 year old Frankie Knuckles sits chewing gum in his management company's offices just off Union Square in Manhattan. After nine long months, nine months wracked with indecision, worries and 48 hour sessions in the studio, he is sitting back for the first time listening to his debut album, Beyond the Mix.
A veritable legend, responsible for breaking the house of Chicago in the mid-80s, Knuckles has taken his time reaching this point. 20 years of DJing under his belt, remixing credits from Inner City to Alison Limerick and an aborted album for DJ International behind him, Knuckles can't help smiling now. He knows there's still a way to go, but as tracks unfurl out of the speakers it becomes increasingly apparent that Frankie Knuckles is armed with the material to become so very much more than a house DJ.
I just wanted to make an album that makes you feel good.
Virgin records is apparently planning on marketing him as some sort of new Quincy Jones, which, over-the-top as it may sound, is actually quite apt. Beyond the Mix certainly bears all the distinctive markings of Knuckles' sound, from the luscious melancholy of Rainfalls to the subdued instrumental seduction of the first single, The Whistle Song.
And yet, Knuckles has also moved on, "matured," as he puts it, beyond the boundaries of house. The Right Thing is an out-and-out pop track, albeit with a serious house mix coming soon, Party at my Hosue is a hip house thumper replete with ghostly graveyard noises, Workout is a glorious stormer with major diva action and It's Hard Sometimes is the kind of smooth R&B track that holy Americans can really pull off. But the point is that Knuckles' role has chiefly been that of arranger, producer, musician and songwriter, it's not him who's up front belting out the lyrics. It may be his vision and he may have been the catalyst, but as with Quincy Jones' last Back on the Block album the main man is nowhere to be heard.
What with fellow New York DJs David Cole and Robert Clivilles (aka C&C Music Factory) and Jellybean having released similarly conceived albums already this year, Knuckles' LP is only the latest in the logical extension of the remix phenomenon. What's surprising about Knuckles' effort however, is the extent to which the album hangs together. This despite using four very different vocalists, rapper Roast Beef, diva Roberta Gilliam, deep soulster Shelton Becton and slinky Lisa Michaelis.
As the gold-coloured, metal master disc spins on the turntable, Knuckles astonishingly admits that his initial temptation however was to make a bossa nova album. Commercial reality bumped him down to earth and the approach changed. Aiming to "make each song sound as big as possible," he's ended up with an album that soars and dives, chops and changes its pace, but still always manages to uplift.
The album closes with a choral negro spiritual. Inspirational in the way it acknowledges and yet refuses to accept adversity, Knuckles has dedicated it to friends he's lost to AIDS. "They were the ones who inspired me to get this far," he says. "I felt I owed them something." Warm, emotional and a self-confessed day-dreamer, Knuckles manages to find beauty with his music even here in this darkest moments.
"I just wanted to make an album," he says later, during one of his amiable rambles, "that makes you feel good." Beyond the Mix does a lot more than that. IT proves you don't have to be in a club at one o'clock in the morning to appreciate Frankie Knuckles. Although it still helps.
Text David Davies