Monday, March 15, 2010

Frankie Knuckles - His Greatest From Trax Records (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $6.99

Trax Records: Cat. # CTX-CD-5007
Released 2004

Track List:
1. The Night Writers - Let The Music Use You (7:55)
2. Marshall Jefferson - Move Your Body (6:43)
3. Jamie Principle - Waiting On My Angel (4:01)
4. Kevin Irving - Children Of The Night (3:53)
5. Frankie Knuckles - Your Love (6:43)
6. Screamin’ Rachael - La Vie (3:56)
7. Frankie Knuckles - Baby Wants To Ride (8:34)
8. Dezz - Boom Boom (7:45)
9. Frankie Knuckles - It’s A Cold World (5:43)
10. Frankie Knuckles with Jamie Principle - Your Love (You Got The Love Remix) (6:26)
11. Frankie Knuckles - Bad Boy (6:15)

(2010 Update:
Timing can be everything. Just a couple weeks before writing this review, I'd finished reading the excellent book
Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, which provided quite an insight in the 80s gay house scene. I can honestly say I'd not have understood the context of the music on this CD without reading that book first.

Also, this review features possibly one of the best concluding paragraphs I've ever written. At least, I think so!)

IN BRIEF: A soul thing, a spiritual thing... and sometimes even a gay thing.

I am not gay. The thought of another man in a sexual manner does nothing for me. While I don’t find the notion of two men being intimate with each other as something abnormal (to each their own, right?), neither do I find it arousing. The gay lifestyle is as foreign a concept to me as a woman’s. Simply put, I am way hetero.

That all said, after listening to Frankie Knuckles Presents, I have to admit the notion of being gay sure sounds a hell of a lot of fun.

In what should be a bit of unexpected info to no one, the Godfather of house music is indeed gay, played to predominately gay audiences (most of which were black as well), and produced music that would undoubtedly appeal to such a crowd. This compilation features nearly all the songs Knuckles had a hand in that were released on Trax Records, a label that gained acclaim for tons of house classics and notoriety for dodgy business practices.

Okay, a good chunk of the music on here could be construed as being ambiguous for its target audience twenty years on. However, when you envision this stuff playing to dancefloors filled with sweaty, gyrating gay men on uplifting drugs, it just makes more sense that way, especially when vocalist Jamie Principle is present (nearly half of this compilation).

The disc opens with a pair of tracks that many equate to the classic Chicago house sound: Let The Music Use You by The Night Writers (a Knuckles pseudonym) and Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body (which Knuckles produced). The production is fiercely raw and simple, yet there’s something irresistible about it nonetheless, and you couldn’t picture these tracks having the same hold on you if they were re-done with modern equipment, as many, many lukewarm ‘9x and ‘0x remixes can attest to. The vocal prowess of Ricky Dillard in Let The Music Use You lifts you up as Knuckles’ production accommodates him to keep building this track with soulful energy. And when the main rhythm and piano loop starts in Move Your Body, it is quite possibly one of the defining moments in house history. Even if the track does nothing more than alternate between various drum, string, piano, and vocal loops from there on out, the energy from that first drop carries over to the very end.

However, these two tracks aren’t a good indication of what to expect on this release. Rather, Waiting For My Angel is more indicative of the Knuckles sound on Trax. With its bubbly bass, analogue synths, tinny percussion and vocals washed in reverb, the sound is unmistakingly 80s. It conjures up that seedy, decadently sinful inner city neon flavor that was the decade’s clubbing calling card. Of interesting note on this particular track is Jamie Principle’s performance: save a few breathy moans and effeminate giggles late in the track, he sings far more ‘straight’ than we will hear later on.

Kevin Irving’s Children Of The Night is one of the few tracks here that stretches the Knuckles association a bit thin; he’s merely credited as the mixer, certainly an integral part of the studio process but hardly one that normally goes recognized. While having this slice of housey-italo blend is nice, it unfortunately does showcase one of the big problems Trax Records was known for: sketchy producing. Granted, everything on here does contain some really rough sound but we tend to overlook that much in the same way we overlook the rough sound quality of 60s rock music -the music manages to still move you in spite of this. However, Children Of The Night is poor even for Trax Records. There’s just no resonance to be had, and the song comes out sounding incredibly flat. It’s not I.F.O.R. piss-poor, but glaringly obvious in this case.

Moving on, we come to Your Love. You may know this track as the original backing to You Got The Love (also included on this disc, though under a different name). The lush pad work, catchy bassline and arpeggio hook are all here, though in far rawer incarnations. Also, Jamie Principle has the vocal duties on this one, elegantly crooning between heavy sighs. Your Love, above all else, is incredibly stirring, especially at the apex of the track when the backing pads rise to their highest note with the female chorus. As the track ends with a bit of choir backing and Jamie erotically moans, “I can’t let go”, the lush, tender nature of Your Love will fully embrace you, even if the sexual orientation seems ambiguous.

Screamin’ Rachael’s La Vie is another song merely mixed by the Knuckler, and it shows as this track doesn’t hold much similarity to the ones bearing his name alone on here. Rather, La Vie is more italo in nature, although it does contain some funky slap bass guitar to complement the stuttery synths.

Baby Wants To Ride. Hoo, boy. You may want to hold onto your hats if Jamie’s moans and giggles in the earlier tracks were too gay for you. Here, he breathily speaks about various things while Frankie’s funky bass and sinister synths drone in the background. What starts out as some sort of commune with God turns into a reflection of a sexual encounter with some gal, playfully delivered with all the sexy slyness Prince was known for; prudes’ll probably blush at some of his moaning, heh. When some extra percussion is added mid-way through (the rhythm is pretty sparse), Jamie goes into some odd political tangents. Ultimately, the general gist of it is America’s double-standard of claiming to be a free country, yet discriminating gays. All in all, it’s a pretty cool sounding track but seems to wander aimlessly at points.

Boom Boom from Dezz (Knuckles again only credited as the mixer) is an example of early acid house: big, cavernous rhythms, some associated lyrics, and the TB-303 getting a simple workout. While nowhere near as complex as the little acid box would later get, there are some interesting tricks pulled on Boom Boom, especially when it gets a bit distorted near the end. Nothing sequenced here, just raw, improvised knob-tweaking over a backing beat. It is even more aimless than Baby Wants To Ride, though, and at nearly eight minutes in length, you may lose interest since Boom Boom really is sparse. Pretty much one of those songs that makes better sense on a dancefloor.

Another Frankie & Jamie collaboration is next in the form of It’s A Cold World, a somber, reflective song that probably spoke to several gays coming to grips with their sexuality. Knuckles doesn’t miss a chance to play off of Principle’s lyrics, making use of an eerie synth pad towards the end to complement the song’s themes. Sadly, the mastering of It’s A Cold World isn’t the best, as you do hear some unfortunate frapping of the bass and distortion of the lyrics at points.

I guess when the original bootleg of You Got The Love first cropped up, Frankie took it upon himself to make an ‘official remix’ and release it commercially legit. That’s what we get here, although I wonder why Jamie Principle is credited but not Candi Staton on this CD’s tracklist? He only provides a bit of backing vocals here. Oh, how is the song? Well, my associate critic J’ already covered all the details in his review of the latest re-release of You Got The Love, so you can check that one out if you want. As for my personal opinion, this is a decent bit of diva house, and probably the ‘cleanest’ sounding track to be had here (mainly because it was produced a few years later than the others). And you still can’t beat the moment when the backing pads hit that high note, even if they aren’t as prominent here as they are in the original Your Love.

And finally, at the end, we get the absolutely unabashedly gay song Bad Boy. Very happy, very fey, and very quirky, it’s a cute track, but I wouldn’t dare play it to a homophobic frat party. The track list credits this to Knuckles, but this is a Jamie Principle song. Every single vinyl that has had Bad Boy on it has had Principle’s name on it. Why credit it to Knuckles and Knuckles alone here? Hnn... it seems the sketchy labeling of Trax Records continues, even in retrospectives such as these.

For that matter, despite the choice tracks to be had on Frankie Knuckles Presents, the overall presentation leaves a bit to be desired. This is hardly the entire Frankie story, as we’re only getting a slice of his discography. Mind, that’s to be expected since this is only the material that came out on Trax but those seeking a more comprehensive collection may have to wait a little longer. The other gripe I have is the sound quality on some of these. Yes, I know house veterans would be screaming ‘sacrilege’ if anyone tampered with the original masters, but let’s be fair here. Many of them were kind of shoddy to begin with and, in this day of digital marvels, wouldn’t it be nice to perhaps give these classics a proper sound treatment so we can enjoy them in their full glory? I’m not asking for a “Greedo shoots first” kind of change, just an “eliminate that pink blob under the landspeeder” kind of change.

Still, this release is a decent enough introduction to the house sound of the mid-80s. A vibrant, hedonistic, sexual energy runs through these songs, capturing the carefree days when a gay man could escape the torment of prejudice in the world and lose himself in house music. The tragic breakout of AIDS sadly cut short those years, and, like any scene that sprouts from innocent intents, it will never occur again. This is the soundtrack to those times and, no matter your sexual orientation, you can’t help but get lost in the moment as well.

Score: 7/10

Marshall Jefferson - Move Your Body
Jamie Principle - Waiting On My Angel
Frankie Knuckles - Your Love

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for © All rights reserved.

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