Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the undisputed godfather of house music Frankie Knuckles' death on 31 March, British label Junior Boy’s Own Records are to release a tribute in remembrance. Knuckles’s ‘Baby Wants to Ride’ (1987) will be remixed by two of the label’s cornerstone acts: British electronic group Underworld and Heller&Farley (Pete Heller and Terry Farley). All proceeds from the record are to go the Frankie Knuckles Fund, which is part of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
We caught up with Knuckles acquaintance and Junior Boy’s Own founder, Terry Farley to speak about the remix and the legacy of the godfather of house.
What is the tribute about?
Basically, when we started Junior Boys Own we were in a little London league. We were making records that were being made in New York but putting our kind of take on it.
And, to be honest with you, a lot of people liked them and quite a lot of people didn't. If they didn't come from New York, other DJs ignored them. Then suddenly we found out in New York that Frankie was a really big fan of us, along with other DJs like Junior Vasquez. Frankie was championing a lot of the remixes that Pete and myself made. Through his support, loads of people in England and Europe took notice of what we were doing. His patronage, so to speak, was very influential on our early success.
His legacy is house music. His legacy is a million amazing nights
Pete and I met him and he was a lovely guy. They say you never meet your heroes, but if your hero is Frankie Knuckles, I would say you needed to have met him. He was a lovely guy and he played our music, we went along to his great nights, and he was the soundtrack of our youth, our best years so to speak. So we decided that we wanted to do a tribute to him. And I know Underworld were also looking to do this, and I guess that Karl [Hyde, one of the founders of Underworld] decided that 'Baby Wants To Ride' was the track that he could do the most justice to, and to give it a Junior Boys Own feel. It's a very British take on it, and that’s why we decided to make this record and give all the profits to the Elton John Fund.
What was it like working with Underworld? Had you ever worked with them before?
I personally hadn’t but Pete had done a couple of remixes on his own with them, but to be honest with you, they did a rough demo and Steve Hall, who's my old partner and Underworld’s manager, got the vocals and we did our stuff with their vocals. Both mixes are kind of different.
How did Frankie's life influence you?
Well, with my idea of house, I am as much into the culture as I am the music. I love watching Paris is Burning, hearing stories of clubs that I never went to, and even if I lived in New York, I wouldn't have been in the demographic to have gone to them anyway. And I am very much like that, it's a very British thing that. You just have to look how people get obsessed with rockabilly or Northern soul. We are suckers for other people’s culture and way of life. For me, Frankie embodied house music. You may have heard the story of why house music is called house music? That it came from Frankie playing at the Warehouse... It may be true and it may not be true.
What’s your view on that?
I don't know and I don't care really. My view on it is, that him as an icon embodied house music, full stop. Whether the name came from the Warehouse or not, it was about the way he DJ'd, the way he carried himself and the things he represented.
House music is supposed to lift your spirit, make your soul sore and make you leave the past for a better person
He played all over the world, to people who didn't even understand the words of the records. But were all moved by the music that he played. He was the leading light of it all. I think that for me, in later years, house music and DJs have spun off into different genres were people are playing deep house and techno. He was the one person though who everyone from the splinter scenes had the utmost respect and love for – quite unique in that sense.
With the anniversary of his death coming in a few weeks, how would you describe his legacy?
His legacy is house music. His legacy is a million amazing nights. We only did what we did because of people like Frankie and the way he did things. When people say to me, what’s the best thing you guys ever did? When we started doing these parties we had a crowd of 1000 people, who were all friends, and out of that crowd there are 100 babies out there, which is down to people meeting each other at our parties. And the reason we wanted to do our parties is because we wanted to do what he was doing – it was a community.
What Boy’s Own did is certainly not unique. There are 1000 communities around the world that are directly influenced by the Frankie's culture. There are hundreds if not thousands of children around the world now as a result of that. So directly or indirectly, I think that him or people like him – you know he's not the only one – won't get the recognition that he would get, but I think his iconic status kind of holds the torch for them as well in many ways. What he represents, it isn't just about him, it's the best part of club culture, the best part of the music; house music is supposed to lift your spirit, make your soul sore and make you leave the past for a better person. And sadly, that sounds a bit naff sometimes in this day and age, when people are just making DJ records, but that’s the way it is, and the worlds a better place in that case. He represents that.
When did you first meet Frankie?
The first time Pete and me met him was in Italy, in 1991 or 1992 – in Rimini I think. We had a gig at this really big club who had loads of money. It was the first time we had been to Italy to DJ, and they took us out to dinner. We went to this really posh restaurant; there was a table for about 30 people – typical Italians, with beautiful women and guys in very expensive suits with pony tales.
Frankie was sat at the other end of the table, and I was completely starstruck. I started talking to him, and the only thing he would talk about was the records that me and Pete had made, about Junior Boys Own records and how much he loved it. And to be quite honest with you, it was pretty overwhelming. I was completely blown away by how humble he was and I could barely open my mouth to speak to him.
What other characteristic traits could you describe him by?
He was just humble and warm. When he died, you’d look on Facebook that day, that week, that month, and it was millions and millions of people who had their picture taken with them. When you have your picture taken, you do it and you smile, then you have another one taken, and it can be a bit, much.
That was the magic of Frankie and his music, he gave you some of the best nights out that you ever had in your life but also gave you something spiritual
But I can imagine with him, magnified by a million, every picture that came up, whether it was with a famous DJ or just a club bod, he had the same smile, the same warmth.
And he treated everybody the same?
Exactly, he treated everybody the same. They were all treated with the same warmth. And someone to have lived that life for so long, to still kind of have that gentleness, that kind of...
Yeah fucking hell, patience, exactly that. It was quite fantastic.
Can you tell me a little more about the proceeds from the records and the Elton John and the Frankie Knuckles Foundation?
When this idea was first thought of, it was about 6 months ago. It had come from Steve and Underworld. I think Steve had met David Furnish [Elton John’s husband] and Elton had said that he was a bit of a fan of Underworld. They were talking about Frankie and his passing, and that’s how it came about. Elton John wanted to support it and through his foundation there's this fund for Frankie to help African-American kids with AIDS-related illnesses. It seemed like a perfect thing to do. We didn't want to be doing anything that seemed to be morbid or anything commercial, so it seemed perfect to do this.
Would you say it was a natural thing to do?
Yeah it was very natural and it's nice that the tribute you can do actually does something positive as opposed to building a statue. I don't literally mean a statue, but metaphorically, and you’re actually helping kids in the now and then. And in that way, it makes it perfect.
What would you say your favourite track of Frankie Knuckles is?
My favourite track by Frankie Knuckles is his remix of the gospel R&B group Sounds Of Blackness’s song ‘The Pressure’. He had a special version that he would play at the Sound Factory, and they would turn all the lights off. It had a big long piano intro and never came out, it was a secret kind of weapon of Frankie's, which no one had. I don't actually know anyone who has it, but I head it there and then.
It's one of those records where they turn every light off, the exit lights, the bar lights and then this 2 minute a cappella with a big grand piano playing major keys would play and you'd have 2000 people screaming and stomping by the time the back drum kicked in.
That was the magic of Frankie and his music. He gave you some of the best nights out that you ever had in your life. But also gave you something spiritual, that lasts a bit longer than the time you were on the dance floor.
How would you describe the difference between your version of ‘Baby Wants to Ride’ and Frankie's original?
You cant, his version is one of the best house records ever made in the history of dance music. It's everything that a Chicago record should be. It's sleazy, it's sexy, and it's very, very Chicago. We didn't want to do that. One, because we are not sleazy Chicago kids, we are straight-up English boys, it's an old fashioned Studio Boys Own record, in the fact that it is very English, it sounds English, the vocals sound English, and the style of music harks back to the old Fire Island mixes that we used to do in the early 1990s that Frankie was such a champion of. It's just a bit of a homage really.