Chicago legend Jamie Principle discusses collaborating with Frankie Knuckles and a lifetime of liberation on the dancefloor.
THUMP is honoring Pride Month with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here.
Jamie Principle's voice—high-pitched, slithering, sensual—is a defining one in the history of electronic music. As the singer and lyricist for some of producer Frankie Knuckles's best songs in the 1980s, he helped to create a catalogue that, for many, came to epitomize the sound of Chicago house. His first collaboration with the so-called "Godfather of House," 1984's "Your Love," is their signature: a staccato beat supplied by Knuckles that pulses and escalates, with Principle inhaling and exhaling to the instrumental until it sounds, in no small way, like he is reaching orgasmic release. It is one of the sexiest songs in the annals of electronic music, and, since Knuckles began DJing it in and around Chicago about thirty years ago, also one of the most enduring.
Principle, a Chicago native, and Knuckles, originally from New York, were part of an entire scene in Chicago that revolved around mostly gay and black nightclubs. First, there was the Warehouse—where Knuckles had a residency from 1977 to 1982, and from which the genre tag "house" is derived—and then there was the Power Plant, which Knuckles himself operated and owned. The pair went onto to create a number of hits through the 1980s—including "Waiting on My Angel," "Baby Wants to Ride," and "Bad Boy"—that, much like "Your Love," seemed to sum up the entire allure of the dance floor: romantic possibility, escape, a little bit of danger, a lot of abandon, racial and sexual diversity, and even political liberation.
Principle was particularly interested in the latter, and referenced it in songs like "Baby Wants to Ride" and "Bad Boy," with lyrics about the Reagan agenda and queer rights. Ronnie wants to ride me, because he thinks he's king/ But its hard to ride baby when you living in a fascist dream, he sings in "Baby Wants to Ride, referring to the 40th American president's hyper-conservative administration." These songs are—in the ways in which they hypnotically summon you away from the straight world and into the free and naughty space of the nightclub—rallying cries, and have been the soundtracks to countless young people's first experiences of self-actualization on the dance floor. They confirm, in sound and spirit, all that is essential about nightlife, and make dancing a downright political action.Though a misunderstanding in the latter part of the 1980s over how the songs were listed commercially—some of the vinyl releases, including "Your Love," were credited only to Knuckles and not to Principle—led to a dissolution of their collaboration, Principle continued to make music on his own. He teamed up with Steve "Silk" Hurley to record his first solo album, The Midnite Hour, in 1992, then continued to release a smattering of singles throughout the '90s and 2000s. Principle has maintained a fairly low profile throughout his career, doing few interviews, but he is releasing a new EP in tandem with producer Felix Da Housecat this June; with its vibrating beat and sexy lyrics, it's something of a tribute to Knuckles, who died two years ago due to complications from diabetes.
To celebrate Pride this weekend, we called up Principle at his home in Chicago to discuss the story behind "Your Love" and why the nightclub is—and always will be—a space of freedom.
Jamie Principle: Yeah. I had just gotten out of a bad relationship, and I decided that I was going to stop being in relationships and focus on my music for a while. I met Lisa—the girl the song is about—and at this time I had a regular job, so I would write stuff in all of my free time. When I told her I was a musician she thought that I played a trumpet or something [laughs]. It started as a poem, and then I switched it into a song that was written just for her.
How did Frankie come to be involved in producing it?
I didn't know him personally at first. I was afraid of Frankie, because I heard that if he didn't like the songs, he would just tear them up in front of you. So I was like, "Nah I'm not taking my song to Frankie." Then a close friend of mine named José Gomez, who was working with Frankie, took the song to him without me knowing. He told me that he gave my tape to Frankie and that he was going to be in touch with me after he'd listened to it.
What was Frankie like in the studio?
Very relaxed. When we did the first thing he wasn't sure about himself, [but] I was sure about Frankie. When Frankie started piecing stuff together, I never thought that [it could be an extended house song]. To me, I had just written a song. The original version of "Your Love" is three minutes. He heard the song and added all this stuff to it. I feel like the Creator put everything together and made this song work. He played it in the club and the people's response kind of validated me. Even though I felt I should be doing music, it was like God told me, "This is what you're supposed to be doing."
What is it about the finished product that's allowed it to endure as one of the most famous songs in the history of dance music?
I don't know. Maybe people can feel my actual sincerity and what I'm saying. I look at it as a love song. I never knew that it would become what it is. I can listen to it and think about why I wrote it, and I can remember where I was when I wrote it. When I hear it out, I'm just amazed at how people react to it still. I don't know if it's something that I was supposed to understand. I just know that it was something I was supposed to write.
I have mixed emotions about the song, because now that Frankie is gone, it just takes me back to when we were in the studio together. You know when they say your life flashes before your eyes? [When I hear it,] I just think about everything that Frankie and I have been through and I just think about everything. That's the bitterness of it.
Tell me about Chicago in the 1980s. How important did it feel to have nightclubs like the Warehouse and the Powerplant, as well as a large community of like-minded music fans?
During the Reagan era, the dance floor was a place to escape. You could stay out all night and not worry about what was happening here. When Frankie [Knuckles] had his Power Plant club, it was like going to church and letting yourself be free without worrying about all the craziness that was happening in the streets and in the world. The music took you away for an amount of hours. You'd get out of the Power Plant club and the sun was shining. It was a totally spiritual kind of thing.
As a lifelong club head, how you are reacting to what happened in Orlando?
The weird thing about it is that it's so crazy that it kind of makes you feel like you're not safe anywhere. That could have been anywhere, that could have been here in Chicago. It's just a shame that now you can't even go anywhere without worrying if you're going to come back. The party scene when I was coming up in it—you'd never worry about something like that. When you went to a club to dance, you were going to get away from all of the craziness that was happening in the streets and in the world. Now it seems like the craziness is coming to us.
[But] you can't be afraid. You can't let things like this stop you from you want to be, who you want to love, and where you want to go. When you do that, the people who are trying to do this have won.
I interviewed Frankie a few years back before he passed, and he said to me that while he was not particularly political, he knew you had a lot to say with your music. "Baby Wants to Ride," in particular, has pointed lyrics about the Reagan administration. Why was it important to you to inject politics onto the dancefloor?
"Baby Wants to Ride" for me is about spirituality, sexuality, and political views on certain things, like the draft and why I felt like the government wasn't accepting everyone's rights. If you were poor and in a minority, it felt like everyone was against you. I felt like I had to voice that at the time. It was just my own frustration. It was hard for me to be the individual person that I wanted to be.
In what way?
Because of the fact that I grew up in a very strict, Christian home. Dance music was considered secular music; I wasn't able to play it in the house unless I was alone. As far as how I wanted to dress and the freedom I wanted, I didn't want to be labeled as anything, I just wanted to be me. That was my main focal point for everything. Then the other side of "Baby Wants to Ride" was me dealing with the whole thing of sex before marriage; I was intertwining a lot of personal issues that I had into one song.
Do you feel comfortable talking about those personal issues? What were you working out in your own life?
Well in terms of my race, there were issues that came with being a dark-skinned black male that I had to deal with. There were certain issues I was dealing with at home. "Baby Wants to Ride" also deals with the relationship that I was in. These songs––"Your Love," "Waiting on My Angel," and "Baby Wants To Ride"––were all written around the same time. It was just trying to accept sexuality, because when you're raised in a church you're taught to abstain from sexuality. When I met this young lady [who the songs are about], all of my viewpoints of everything were changing. I was trying to figure out how I could balance the two and make myself happy without going against what I was conditioned to believe. The other things, as far as I was feeling as a black man in the 80s—everything to me was just me trying to find my center, and accept how I felt sexually as well. It was that kind of dilemma record for me.
I have to say—and I hope this doesn't sound insensitive—but I'm surprised to hear that the person who wrote and performed those songs is straight.
You know what's so funny? Frankie would always go around and tell people, "Jamie's not gay, Jamie's not gay," and they would say, "Frankie, yes he is." And he'd say, "No, I know Jamie, he's not gay!" [Laughs]. I've never been about labels. The only label I want is that I can be myself. I want my music to just be heard, and I want everyone to be able to relate to it.
People were just trying to figure out my sexuality, and I'm the type of person who has that as their privacy—just accept me for me. When Frankie started producing me, I didn't really know anything about the whole gay culture. Sometimes people say, "You were naive." And no, I'm not, I'm just a people-person who wants to be around good people. I wanted to be heard and I wanted to be accepted. It was hard being accepted by straight people.
I would go up and kiss and hug my gay friend and hold their hands. I guess I never looked at the difference. To me, love is love—I've always been an affectionate person, regardless if it's male or female. For me to be in a culture that would let me do that and not have me be afraid of who I am was beautiful, and it kind of raised me and made me start to have a sense of self.
On the song "Bad Boy," you have a lyric, You might call me a queer/ You might call me a freak, which has always made it a queer protest anthem to me.
Right, people were looking at me and saying, "Hey, are you gay?" I wasn't answering anybody; I was whatever I wanted to be. I started getting out of labels identifying me as a person. It seems like my intentions for writing it were frustration and wanting to put that in people's faces. Then, people identified with it however they wanted to identify with it.
You have a new song, "Touch Your Body," with Felix Da Housecat that is something of a tribute to Frankie and Chicago house. Why?
I was trying to work with Felix maybe 15 years ago. When Frankie passed, Felix happened to be in Chicago, and I hit him up and said, "Hey we need to do something." So he hit me up and I went down to the studio and he had the track. It was kind of how "Your Love" happened." It was kind of an homage, but we just wanted to bring about the feel of how house used to be. We just got into that old way, just laying it down. It felt good.