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Frankie Knuckles comes to town.

By Michael Freedberg

APRIL 6, 1998:  This is Frankie Knuckles' 25th year as a club DJ. Which gives him the opportunity to bill his current calendar of performances at great discos all around the world as a "25th Anniversary Tour." This Friday, the 25th Year of Frankie Knuckles comes to Boston, to Avalon, where he last played in 1990. Knuckles learned his DJing during disco's improvisational years, when the DJ used records and nothing but records, in sequence and combination, to move a crowd. That's his style, polished now to perfection.

"It'll be an all-night performance," he says, "of records of my own choosing. Just like in 1990." No tape edits, no pre-programmed orchestration, no recondite samples. "I don't rehearse. I listen to new material all the time. If it sounds good to me, then I take it into the club and I decide right there what I'm going to do with it. Improvisation? You bet. Off the top of my head. Two turntables, or three. No tape decks."

When he produces, Knuckles' sound is a sweet, soulful, songcrafted affair in which love becomes a sensuous, spiritual high, a silky rapture. His songs sing, like an Ashford & Simpson duet; the acme of his style was his two CD collaborations with the diva vocalist Adeva. In the club Knuckles' sound relies more on the beat, on the deep lusts of house specialty. Even here, at the decks, he doesn't pound. He wafts.

It may not answer the flex needs of gym kids, but Knuckles' richly melodic songs with a love story in 'em certainly seem to conquer the rest of the world. "I'm going everywhere," he says. "So far this year, I was in Italy on New Year's Eve, then Germany and France, then back to Italy, on to South Africa, Australia -- I did Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne. Got a Grammy for Remixer of the Year. Then to Italy again, then Greece, Turkey, and now home again." In addition to scooping up a ton of frequent-flier miles, Knuckles has practically put down roots in Italy. "I do a residency in this club right outside of Florence," he tells me. Actually, he's been doing this "residency" there for many years. But mostly he travels, bringing the soul sound of spur-of-the-moment ecstasies to Japan, England, Malaysia, South America, Indonesia. It's almost a rock star's schedule that he keeps, a Michael Jackson or Depeche Mode bill. "I DJ four or five days a week, on the road nine to 10 months a year."

Somehow he keeps his ears tuned. "Out on the road, promo guys bring me stuff. A lot of times they bring me a sound system to play it on, right there. And yes, sometimes I shop. Mostly in England, Japan, Italy."

The Avalon audience won't, of course, see the studio side of Frankie, but this part of his artistry is as active as it's ever been. "I'm writing new projects for myself. Lots of remixes in the works. Soon to appear is my version of 'A Lot like You' by Taja Sevelle. Is a Frankie Knuckles CD coming? Not sure exactly. It's an EP right now."

That begs the question: if rival DJ Junior Vasquez has his own label, and DJs Danny Tenaglia, Sneak, and Armand Van Helden have the run of the labels that sponsor them, why not Frankie? "My own label?" he responds. "I'm thinking of going in that direction. But the US is the last place I'm looking at as a market. Europe and the rest of the world, that's it." Here he parts company with guys like Vasquez and Tenaglia, just as his spiritual disco steps aside from their gym workouts and slambang glamshows. "It's hard to get heard here. A lot of the club stuff today, it's dub-oriented. A&R people are looking for dub tracks. Forget the fact that the song can be good, forget somebody who can realize how important a song really is. There's a whole marketplace they're all missing out there, people age 25 to 35, who are still into songs. When you hear nothing but a bunch of banging tracks with no vocals, it sounds kind of sterile, doesn't it?

"I'm not targeting the US. My record'll come back here as an import, and if it makes any noise the labels can always pick it up. The rest of the world is booming! Here the people behind the scenes are looking for the next Puff Daddy! The A&R guys, the VPs, they don't go out to clubs. They don't know what's happening. They don't think that clubs sell records. If they really believed that, then they wouldn't be releasing club mixes and compilations. But they do. Only they keep forgetting the Louie Vegas, the Todd Terrys, who make actual songs. Me, I'm going to stick to songs. Forever."


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