TWO YEARS AGO, Frankie Knuckles graced one of the earliest issues of 5 Magazine, and needless to say we are ecstatic to have him back.

One Saturday afternoon, he invited me over to his beautiful home for an interview. Over a delicious home-cooked dinner complements of the fabulous Frederick Dunson (his manager and co-founder of D/E Entertainment) and FK himself, we chatted about everything from his views on greedy promoters, his bi-annual parties to counteract them, and the value of a really good song.

First of all let me say that I loved you at Smartbar! I’ve been going to your parties for a real long time and maybe I saw a few of your regulars, but the rest were these young kids and I thought that was so awesome! Tell me what you thought about that party.

The whole thing came together last minute. Red Bull was in Chicago and at the very last minute they called to see if I was going to be in town. They’ve been trying to get me to do it for the last ten years, but I was never available. After everything had been set up they said, “Who would you like to play with you?” and I was like “Ralphi [Rosario].”

They called my office to ask me the Wednesday before, everything was confirmed on Friday, they did a blast over the course of the weekend and text messages on Monday, and that place was packed on Wednesday!

“I like being close, because I like being close to the energy and being in it. I think when I’m most effective is when I’m right under it just like everyone else.”

Wasn’t that such a blast?

It was great! I totally enjoyed it! Joe Shanahan and I are very old friends, I remember when he first opened that place.

Have you ever played there before?

Yeah, I played there when it first opened!

It just felt like such a different vibe seeing a whole different crowd enjoy you.

Well I’m going to tell you there was nothing but silhouettes in front of me from what I saw, so it’s not like a party of my own where I make sure I’m at least able to see people’s faces.

And do you like that? Being able to see people’s faces?

Well yeah, I like being close to the crowd. But it’s not the kind of thing where I want people to include me in everything that they’re doing. Some people think, “Well just because he’s there I’ll hold a conversation with him!”… “You know, sweetheart, I’m working.” [laughs] I like being close, because I like being close to the energy and being in it. I think when I’m most effective is when I’m right under it just like everyone else. Maybe not the average person that comes to parties of mine, but some people that are not used to being in the same room that I’m playing in don’t know what that is when I’m that close to the audience. So of course they just want to mosey on up and just hold an in-depth conversation about absolutely nothing, which completely breaks my concentration. I’m not rude and I don’t like to tell people, “Look! I can’t talk to you! Leave me alone!”

When you hold your bi-annual parties on July 4th and Thanksgiving, do you keep yourself from being booked by other Chicago promoters just to keep those two dates special?

Absolutely. To this day I try to remain some exclusivity here in this city. You have to remember that when I lived here before, I worked for a lot of different people. And the biggest problem I had wasn’t so much for me, but for how the crowd was treated. That’s the reason why we have these parties. Every promoter that I worked for, they gave the crowd absolutely no respect whatsoever. Basically they just wanted their money, they get herded in and herded out… And when people pay good money to come and see me, they shouldn’t be treated that way.

And I think that’s part of the charm of what happens at my parties, because people feel comfortable. “Frankie’s there, we know everything’s going to be okay.” They know I care enough about them and their environment that I’m going to make sure no funky shit’s going to jump off!

How do you ensure that with the venue?

When we go into any of these venues and do our thing, they just step aside, leave us alone and let us run it.

“When these club owners and promoters ask me to play, I say that I would sooner stand in front of your club and set up my own sound system and play for people on the street to keep them from having to go through all that again. In this life and in this business, you only get one opportunity to show yourself right.”

Even the bouncers?

Well I usually have to have a talk with them. It’s a very simple talk. I tell the them, “Look, you guys don’t have to exercise any kind of muscle with this crowd because these people only have one focus coming through that door and that’s what’s coming out of those speakers. They’re not here to hurt nobody, they’re not looking for any bullshit – it’s not that kind of party. These people are all of the same mindset when they come in. You guys are big and menacing enough as it is, you don’t have to throw your weight around nor get ugly and mean, you can just relax! This is going to be the easiest night you ever had!”

Some clubs you go to the bouncers are ugly at the door and they’re ugly all throughout the party! I don’t call it a party when you have to go through all that bullshit just to get inside, and then even more when you’re there. And then they want to take your money from you, too!

When these club owners and promoters ask me to play, I say that I would sooner stand in front of your club and set up my own sound system and play for people on the street to keep them from having to go through all that again. In this life and in this business, you only get one opportunity to show yourself right. You can’t ask people to spend that kind of money and treat them like that. It’s not fair and it’s not right!

I like going to your parties. I like that you personally greet people at the door, I like that Frederick is greeting people at the door. You guys give t-shirts away – it’s very personable.

Well, you know we don’t make money from these events. It’s never about us making money. Frederick would ask, “Why are we giving this stuff away?!” And I would say “Because we can!” Then he’ll be like, “Okay!” [laughs]

Frankie Knuckles Frederick Dunson
Frankie Knuckles and Frederick Dunson.

Let’s talk about what you’re working on currently. You’re doing something with Terisa Griffin?

I just did a remix on “Sunshine” and we did a party together last night. We’re getting ready to do an album together.

What is going on with Noice Music right now?

Well I had to suspend everything for a little while because of being ill, and I couldn’t focus on it because I just had too many personal problems that I had to deal with. But it’s about to bounce back because I’ve been working on new stuff already. I’m going to finally finish Jamie [Principle]’s album and get that done, and this stuff with Terisa as well. I also have this song I just finished doing with the Shapeshifters called “The Ones You Love” and it’s probably going out on Defected.

I’ve got some people that I’m bringing in to run Noice – some seasoned A&R people. The approach I want with this label is that I want it to be the way old-school labels used to operate, where there actually was artist development. As opposed to taking a full roster of people, I’d rather take one artist at a time and just put all the focus into them. Today, the only way you can have any real success is if they come almost prepackaged. But there’s so much other raw talent out here that doesn’t know how to do that or doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“If I find a piece of music that really appeals to me, then it lives in my record case for a very long time. I hang onto it because good songs are hard to come by – that’s the bottom line.”

What are your thoughts about the music industry’s changing face? Songs don’t have any longevity anymore. How do you think this keeps producers motivated to create new music when it’s here today and gone tomorrow?

I try not to think or put myself into that kind of mindset. If I find a piece of music that really appeals to me, then it lives in my record case for a very long time. I hang onto it because good songs are hard to come by – that’s the bottom line. I don’t care about people saying, “Oh that record’s so old and he’s still playing it.” Well, then you play something for me that’s better than this! Because other DJs are saying this shit anyway, and I’m sorry, DJs don’t pay to get into clubs and DJs don’t dance in front of me… I’m not playing for them! I’m playing for the room. Don’t sit back and critique me or the next DJ… Do your job!

It’s not enough just to be current, because I can’t play disposable music. I come from a school where songs lived a long time, they had at least nine months of a lifespan. And right after that they turned into classics. I’m not saying that it has to be played everytime you play, but what’s wrong with carrying it with you?

Like with all these classics parties that everybody has, and people hearing all this old-school stuff… It’s not attractive when you hear it all the time. It’s just mundane. It’s a bunch of old records being played all the time. But when you’re at a party and you’ve got music that’s current and groovy and it’s happening, the vibe is really there. And then all of a sudden… PING! Out of nowhere, you play something that’s completely old school but it’s great, it just completely blindsides you and you get the whole room go up at the same time. It’s a rush! And that’s what it’s supposed to do! Even a great song that came out last summer or three summers ago can still do the same thing.

Except for “Mirror Dance”!

Oh don’t worry about it, I don’t play “Mirror Dance”! I understand the attraction to it though… especially when you’re high.

A lot of DJs were still playing that in Miami this year, can you believe that?

When you’ve got these events in Miami and you’ve got a bunch of different DJs playing in one particular party, they’re all competing against one another now. They’re not playing with each other. I don’t think the camaraderie is there.

“It’s moved everything from what was simple and magical about going out and clubbing into a much bigger stratosphere that is so beyond anybody being able to handle it.”

Really? Did you used to think like that?

My mindset is that I think we’re all performers, just like singers. If you go to a show and see Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin… You don’t expect Gladys to do Aretha, you expect them to do their own repertoire. It’s them being themselves! For as long as I’ve been in this business, I’ve managed to amass a repertoire of my own. Stylistically, people know exactly what they’re going to get. However I still have to read the room the best way I know how. I never second-guess my audience, I’m never complacent and it would be a lousy thing for me to pull on the crowd. It basically says that I’m not working, I’m just going through the motions.

Do you think the cult of the superstar DJ is over?

I hope! Seriously, I hope. I think it’s just blown this whole thing completely out of proportion. It’s moved everything from what was simple and magical about going out and clubbing into a much bigger stratosphere that is so beyond anybody being able to handle it. It’s big business.

I’m sure you feel that there’s an expectation of how you’re supposed to sound.

Absolutely. All the time! I know what’s expected of me here in Chicago, but it’s a struggle for me to butt up against it everytime I play. Bottom line, people who have followed me for years expect nothing but old school. And therefore a lot of them will always complain, “I’m not going to see him because he doesn’t play any old school – he plays all that new shit!” But they forget all that “old school” I was playing for them back then was new at the time! Nothing about what I do has changed. I’ve always tried to stay ahead of myself just to remain in it.

I left here in ’87, and this city got locked into everything I did before that and stayed there, from 1977-1987. But here’s the interesting thing… When I played at Smartbar, those kids didn’t know and those kids didn’t care. All they knew is that I was there and they were enjoying what I was doing! But if it had been event of my own, there would have been a contingent in that room that just would not have been happy.

Czarina Mirani & Frankie Knuckles at the Chosen Few Picnic (From 5 Magazine's archives)
Czarina Mirani & Frankie Knuckles at the Chosen Few Picnic (From 5 Magazine’s archives)

How do you know?!

Baby, I know! And believe me, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to being judgmental about what I do. There’s nothing anybody can say about what I do that can make me feel worse than what I can say about it. Because at the end of the day, I have a conscience and I have to completely reflect on what I’ve just done.

Are you hard on yourself?

I think I am. It’s not worth it if I’m not. Believe me, I know when it’s good or when it’s over the top. I know when it’s better than best. And then I know when I could have done better!

I bet you get a lot of stalkers, huh?

Hmm… I get a lot of them in Italy. They’re very pro-Frankie over there! [laughs] I love the Italian people, they’re very passionate. They’re very event-oriented. Every meal is an event. Fashion is an event. Like when you’re ready to go out? Nobody steps out not looking like they stepped out of the pages of a magazine. Food, dancing, music – everything is all done in such a big way and when they know what they like, they hang on it.

Do you still have your residency there?

Yes, in the city of Riccione. I’m doing it again this year, once a month.

Speaking of residencies, why don’t you tell me about when you did Sundays at Hydrate? I used to be there every week, and everyone was so surprised that you were going to do this small club on Halsted Street!

I wanted to do that more than anything just because it really took me back to basics. It’s nice being able to be in a small room like that and be so close to everybody. There’s no fluff! It’s a little neighborhood bar, and it got to be something special. But the people who owned the place didn’t quite understand what they had. There were a lot of different things that were involved that kind of worked against it.

Would you ever do it again?

I would love to do it again! I’ve completely restructured my traveling schedule and, actually, I’m looking for a residency here.

Oh my God, once this article comes out your Facebook inbox will be full! Well before we wrap up, is there anything else that you’d like to tell the folks?

You know, I’ve never tried to be unapproachable, because the job I do is just not that serious. The only thing I ask people to do is to at least allow me to do my job when I’m doing it and respect the job that I have to do. If I can’t just hold an in-depth conversation with you about absolutely nothing when you’re on your job, well then give me the same respect. Just because I say it’s not that big of a deal doesn’t mean that it’s not important. It’s very important to the people I have to play for!