From The Whistle Song to Director’s Cut, Eric Kupper probably made more records with Frankie Knuckles than any other man or woman alive.
He’s produced more than 2000 records in his own right (including work on more than 100 Billboard #1 Dance Records), but it’s Eric Kupper’s collaborations with Frankie Knuckles that I wanted to write about. No artist in this genre’s history had a heavier burden of expectations than Frankie Knuckles every time he walked behind the tables, worked on a remix or released a new track. Yet many of these records and remixes aren’t just the equal of Frankie’s legendary tracks from the ’80s. These more recent records by Eric and Frankie should be regarded as some of the finest House Music records ever made.
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I think it became better known in the last two years of his life that Frankie was “Director’s Cut.” In terms of publicity, though, not as many people understood that Director’s Cut was a collaboration between the two of you.
Yeah, that’s true. He really did try his hardest to make that better known, too. His name just had so much behind it that it was sort of blinding. I mean, I have my own fanbase and my own career, but his was just on another level beyond the rest of us.
The idea came about because we’d been musical partners and collaborators for many years already, and he suggested that under the name Director’s Cut we could be truly partners and it would bring about a new life for both of us.
I was going to ask when you first met…
I first met Frankie when I was hired as a keyboardist by Def Mix – that would have been for David Morales’ remix of “Tears.” This was at Shakedown Studios, owned by Arthur Baker and one of those places where everyone seemed to meet everyone else in those days. That was a really significant part of music history.
More than a year ago, I was going through all of the stories that had been published and really wanted to talk to you about your collaboration with Frankie. I mean just as “Director’s Cut” I think you had the longest collaboration together – but it goes back much longer…
Oh yeah. We’re talking about 1989 here, so we had twenty-five years of working together when he passed away. “The Whistle Song” was my composition. To pin down when “Director’s Cut” actually started… I’m at my computer so I’m going to look this up… Okay, it was the remix of Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill” and that was 2009. That was the first official “Director’s Cut” record, though I think they put the name as “Frankie Knuckles’ Director’s Cut” and mentioned us both as “Director’s Cut (Frankie Knuckles and Eric Kupper)” further down. He told them not to list it that way but you know how it is. By the time it got to marketing they probably couldn’t resist listing his name. The first “unofficial” record would have been the remix of “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair.
At the time we’re talking about, he’d had surgery on his foot and it was a question of how we could work together remotely and make it work as it had in the past. Times were different for him now and we had to find a different way to collaborate.
I was going to ask about that. How did you collaborate remotely on so much material over such a long period of time? Wasn’t that ever difficult compared to being in the same room?
Actually it worked better, I think, because we came to “work” more prepared. We might start out by chatting for a bit which was the same as how it was before. In the old days, see, he would give a general direction for me to get started on, and then he’d say okay, you’re on the right track. Do your thing! And I’d work on it some more and he’d come back with comments and some ideas for changes. Really it wasn’t that different working remotely. Thanks to the good old internet, I guess.
It’s been an interesting thing for me, to find out how people with taste react to things that they don’t like. And Frankie was a nice person, and I can’t imagine him saying, “Eric, this sucks…” When dealing with records that weren’t up to snuff, what was his approach? I asked this of Robert Hood once, and he said he borrowed the approach that Jeff Mills used to take with him. Jeff would pause and tell him, “The cake is not quite done.”
That’s a good one! You know, I don’t ever remember us getting to the point where he’d say, “Nu uh, I’m not feeling that. Try this.” And that’s probably how he would have said it: “I’m not feeling that. Try this.”
But our musical vision was so united, we rarely got to that point. I think a good example is our remix of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” The version that you can hear on the record is the same, just the BPMs are slower and it had more natural instruments and fewer electronic ones. Really it came down to making productive suggestions.
Is there a song that stands out to you as the quintessential Director’s Cut track or representing the sound?
That’s a good question. It’s difficult to answer, though. We didn’t nail it down to a specific sound but I think there were a few things in common to all Director’s Cut records – a certain way we did the beats, for instance. There was also a “largeness” to the sound – we could have a very minimal approach but it still sounded loud. But I’m really the worst person to ask about this. I’ve done 2,000 records and I sometimes can’t even remember them.
How much material is left in the vaults? There was the record that Joe Smooth put out recently – is there a good deal of unreleased Director’s Cut material in the pipeline?
There’s not as much as you would think. We have a few things we did with Inaya and I think those will be released at a rate of one or two a year. We have the “Good People” record by Marko Militano that is still unreleased.
There’s one that we did as a collaboration between Frankie, Kenny Summit and myself with Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find.” We did it really raw, with the original recording, no parts or multitracks or anything. It’s a really wonderful record, and he really loved it. It was actually the last record he ever played, at Ministry of Sound. Sony will be releasing it.
There are a few unfinished things that I want to wrap up, but our approach was very much just to make them and put them out. We weren’t sitting on a lot of material when he died. Most of it’s come out.
What about compilations, kind of gathering the material together?
The House Masters record came out earlier this year, and that was a nice compilation of material. The original music for Director’s Cut was on Nocturnal Groove, and there’s talk they might release some of that but it’s too early to say.
There were a lot of people who really clung to the classic records Frankie made, as well as that whole period of time. I mean I assume any successful artist has that as they accumulate years in the industry – you do too. How do you deal with that?
They say you’re only as good as your last record. They’re right. You constantly have to up your game and reinvent yourself. And the truth is that you never know what is going to be a hit. Kenny and I did a record that was #1 on Traxsource for two weeks and we had no idea when we released it that anyone would play it. “The Whistle Song” is a classic example of that. We had no idea it was going to become what it did. We thought it was kind of cute.
How do you feel about the work you’ve done together?
The influence is going to be there forever. I just want to take the sound we had as Director’s Cut to the next level and keep pushing it and having it evolve. I feel like I have some guidance from above – I constantly find myself asking, “What would Frankie think about this?” Like I’m checking myself to see if what I’m doing will measure up. But pushing forward was what Frankie was about. He’d want to hear the sound going and progressing and not just focus on the records made ten or twenty years ago.
Published first in 5 Mag Issue #127. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music and save 60%!