Interview: Frankie Bones on Bonesbreaks and the early days of New York techno

The New York techno pioneer was the Godfather of American rave culture.

Timing is everything, and no one knows this better than Frankie Bones. Growing up in true New York fashion, breakdancing and bombing trains with his crew, Frankie grew up immersed in records and was in exactly the right place at the right time. Fast forward through the ’80s and Frankie Bones was making tracks by sampling his favourite elements in time-honored hip hop style. The frenetic blend of loops and breaks on his Bonesbreaks Volumes 1 & 2 captured the raw, raunchy energy that every DJ wanted to rock their dancefloor with.

But it was an invitation to play at Energy, the 25,000 strong rave in England in 1989, that really captured his imagination, and inspired a series of parties the likes of which New York and America had never seen before. The Storm Raves took place in various empty warehouses, and linked UK and European rave culture with US house and hip hop, creating a transatlantic feedback loop that has been resonating ever since. His tracks such as “Call It Techno,” “Just As Long As I’ve Got You,” and his Break Boys anthem “My House Is Your House,” the unofficial theme tune for Berlin’s 1991 Love Parade, set the standard for the techno template.

As well as cutting an endless supply of hands-in-the-air moments to wax, Frankie Bones alongside his brother Adam X and Heather Heart also set up the Sonic Groove record shop and label in Brooklyn, which became the headquarters for the first wave of US rave. While the East Coast has seen many dance music pioneers, few mastered the art of sampling quite like Bones, and his condensed fusion of the best bits of breakbeat, freestyle, house and rave euphoria will go down in history. In this edited and condensed version of his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Gerd Janson finds out more about his earliest days in rave.

What got you into music?

I don’t come from a musical background. Basically, my father was big on the rock thing in the ’60s during the Woodstock era, and always had lots of records around the house. So most of my history of DJing comes through records and just growing up around that. My parents were big on going to clubs during the ’70s. So it was a natural progression: Instead of having one turntable, you get two turntables and you start blending these things together.

Being a teenager in the ’80s, you couldn’t really ask for anything better than to be from New York.

It started right around 1980, before MTV. I think my timing was perfect. Being a teenager in the ’80s, you couldn’t really ask for anything better than to be from New York. We had the movies like Saturday Night Fever and The Warriors that were big New York movies. My life is pretty much like a combination of both those movies. And Beat Street, stuff like that. It was wonderful times. There was nothing else like what was going on in New York, anywhere else in the world at that time. It definitely was what shaped me to do what I’m doing today.

Frankie Bones Facebook

So you were in a gang yourself, then? Because you mentioned The Warriors.

Well, I wouldn’t quite say a gang like The Warriors. We were more like a breakdance crew, but there was kids in the crew that were definitely up to no good. You know, writing graffiti, you’re definitely doing something illegal when you’re jumping down off of train platforms and running in a tunnel to paint trains. It was always something dangerous. I almost died twice. A train pulled out while I was hiding under it from the cops. The train actually started while I was under it, and I was trying to get out. And the third rail is right there, and you can’t touch that or you’ll get electrocuted. I’m blessed to be alive after some of the stuff I’ve been through.

And when did the turntables take over the spray cans?

I don’t know if they ever did. The turntables never really overtook the spray cans or the breakdancing. I wasn’t a great breakdancer. I do come from the roller disco era; I was an excellent roller disco skater. But I think everything played a part together, like breakdancing and the culture of graffiti and the music.

The train actually started while I was under it... I’m blessed to be alive.

We had really good radio in New York in the ’70s and ’80s. You know, KISS-FM... There was all this edited stuff that you never heard before, so it was a wonderful time. That was the point where you’d take a bunch of records and you’d make a new record from it. And that concept is what really fueled me as a DJ. It was like taking the great moments from one weekend and making it into the new moments for next weekend.

I went running with that when I first started making Bonesbreaks. We had no problem sampling anybody. In fact people were like, “You know you have a hit record if Bones samples your record.” I definitely took the artists’ sampling along to the next level. That’s where my break came from, because people in Europe were starting to be receptive to it.

Bonesbreaks Vol. 1

Those Bonesbreaks seem to be kind of like house records for breakdancers.

Yeah, Bonesbreaks started off as just a bunch of loops from the hip hop era. It was just everything; we threw it in a pot and started to stir it around. It was freestyle, it was house, it was breaks, it was hip hop. It was everything that… That thing was taking things that didn’t belong together, like taking a hip hop song and putting it over a house beat, or putting a breakbeat over a straight house beat. A lot of the stuff was just scrappy stuff we didn’t use on a record. You figure, “Throw eight of these things on one record and sell it for the price of a 12-inch.” I wrote on there “By DJs for DJs” at a time when nobody did anything like that. So, for another DJ to see that another DJ did something close to them? It worked out really well. We sold lots of those.

How did you actually go on to produce those records? Was it like doing those edits live and recording to tape? Or were you using samplers?

I think the 808 is really what made it happen for us.

The way I got into recording and producing and writing, I met Omar Santana at an early age when he was just coming out doing the record labels. And I was a DJ who wanted to get records, so I would hang out with Omar and we would go to record labels and try to hustle them for promotional copies. We were still young; we were 16-year-old kids. So you’d walk up to a record label and a lot of times they would throw you out. But he was starting to get work editing and he wound up making a career out of it at an early age. They were paying him good money to do re-edits of their finished product.

So one day I’m like, “We should actually write the song ourselves. If you are taking a finished thing and making it into a recorded master after the process, why don’t we just start from the beginning?” And he was like, “How do we do that?”

I would have love letters that girls would write me at school and we’d make them rhyme and make songs out of them, never thinking I could do something like that. But when we got in the studio, you have to do something... So we got a girl to sing it. Her name was Suzy Swan, actually. And we produced our first record. After that it’s pretty much a process. The 808 drum machine really just signed it off for us, because it is just a bunch of yellow and orange buttons – you press them and things happen. I think the 808 is really what made it happen for us, which is the same way it happened for Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker when they made “Planet Rock.” You plug an 808 in and you hear that bass drum, that resonance that comes out of an 808 kick drum. I’ve set speakers on fire with it many times. It was probably one of the most amazing things in my life.

Suzy Swan - Can't Take These Lies

And that very first record, which label was it on?

It was Midnight Sun Records, which was Silvio Tancredi, who owned Fourth Floor. Fourth Floor had just started when I got involved with them. We had distribution. We had the pressing plant. I was just a guy that worked in the record pressing plant at the time. And one day I heard this track coming out of an office upstairs. I’m just the guy putting records in sleeves; it was my job. I was 18 years old. So I walked up there and asked him what it was. And they’re like, “What are you doing up here?” And I said, “I just heard this song and I think it’s really good.” They said, “We were going to pass on it, and you think it’s really good?” I’m like, “Yeah, if you press that thing up, you’d probably sell 5,000.” They didn’t believe it, but they pressed it. It was the first Masters at Work record; “Alright Alright” is what the record was called. It was Todd Terry, and they wound up selling 6,000 copies of that.

After that, they threw me in an office and said, “You want to run a record label?” I’m just going on 20 years old and I’m up there running a record label. It was really cool, actually. And the thing is, we started selling. The first Bonesbreaks sold maybe ten thousand, but when I got to the second Bonesbreaks, we were putting records in the car every day, thousands of records. I think we sold 22,000 units on that, which was at that time, for a record like that, an amazing achievement.

I’m really proud of it because it was a concept that nobody ever did. They did breakbeat records, ultimate breaks, but those were old rock songs. We were making mashups, mashing whatever it is together, throwing it on something and selling it. And it worked.

And that’s also where you met Tommy Musto?

Yeah. It’s funny. When I met Tommy Musto, we were kind of like neighborhood rivals. I got thrown out of the DJ booth. I was trying to bring him a record that Omar produced by a freestyle artist named Sa-Fire. “Don’t Break My Heart.” Silvio hired Omar to do some edits, and one day I met Tommy again and I was like, “It wasn’t really cool what you did; you threw me out of the booth.” He was like, “No I didn’t.” And I was like, “Come on, you don’t remember that?” We laughed about it and then he just took a liking to me.

The timing was the most amazing thing about it. Six months in either direction, and it might never have happened.

It was easy to go in there and take my ideas and lay them down in the studio. We did something with reel-to-reel tape where when you sampled, we would stripe tape and it would be almost like MIDI. We would have 8-tracks rather than the one. So, when we were sampling we had much more. Because back then samplers didn’t have a lot of time. You’d have maybe 30 seconds. Now we’re putting it on tape and we’re doing things nobody ever did before. It worked out really good. We could do these things really quick, really fast, and really efficient. Just putting a bunch of loops and then a Roland behind it. It’s clean, it sounded great, the mastering was good, and all of a sudden it’s like a chain of events where we have three or four records coming out every week. It’s like an assembly line.

Then all of a sudden Europe picked up on it right when the rave scene broke. The timing was the most amazing thing about it. Six months in either direction, and it might never have happened. After it wouldn’t have or before it wouldn’t have. You know, 1988. That was a real good year for that.

The Break Boys - And the Break Goes On

What was the record Europe picked up on?

The Break Boys’ “And The Break Goes On.” There were four Break Boys records. The third one was the most popular. It’s “My House Is Your House,” which became the theme of Love Parade in Berlin. It was amazing. Like I said, I’m just a kid off the street writing graffiti, and the next thing you know you’re in an office, you’re pulling in thousands and thousands of dollars every week, and this went on for two or three years. It was a wonderful time.

Just a little bit on the term freestyle. That was also a very specific New York genre, right?

They called it Latin hip hop at one point. It comes out of the “Planet Rock” era. It’s just getting a girl to sing a song. It’s like a Motown type thing. You have the Supremes singing a song, you lay down a beat with an 808 that sounds like “Planet Rock,” you write some stupid words about some girl getting her heart broken, and the next thing you know you have these records being played on radio in New York, Miami, and Chicago.

That was the beginning of producing for me. I wasn’t into house or techno at that point yet. I mean I was, per se, making music. It was easy to find a girl to sing. They didn’t have to sing well; you just get them in there, make them sing, and put these records out. The first three that I did went right on the radio. In a way it was like, “Wow!” I couldn’t believe it. But then I started getting good at doing freestyle records and they weren’t getting placed right. The best ones that I had done didn’t get any play at all. So it kind of deterred me from doing freestyle. That’s how I got into house.

Frankie Bones - Call It Techno

And then “Call It Techno” came along.

Call It Techno” I made for Europe. I got a phone call to go play in Europe in August of 1989. This was in June of 1989. I wanted to make a song that went along with the rave that I first played in London. (That party was only supposed to have 5,000 people, but wound up having 25,000.) I did “Call It Techno” kind of like the way I did freestyle, but now I was going to sing it. And I’m not a singer at all. “Call It Techno / You could feel the bass / It started in Detroit / But I had to exploit the way I hear it.” Very simple, not much to it, but in those times it was really effective.

The record wasn’t a huge hit, but people in Europe that were around know the song. R&S Records covered it. They did a cover version by Space Opera. The first time I heard that I’m like, “Wow, somebody actually would do a cover version of my own record? That’s kind of weird.” That was right when the scene started.

And you wanted to bring it back to Brooklyn?

I had a contract out on my life once... The club scene didn’t like what we were doing because they didn’t understand it.

I absolutely, in every size, shape or form wanted to bring it back to America, and had no support amongst people. Because we were already doing well with the labels. I didn’t want to be like an A&R dude. I just wanted to be a DJ. So when I started to throw house parties in New York I had no support from anybody. Everybody thought I was crazy. I actually am crazy but… I just started with a few friends. They liked the idea of it, and somehow it went from six people to 12 people next week. Then to 24 people the week after that; then to 48. It just kept doubling in numbers until we did 5,000 people in a warehouse in Brooklyn. It took about a year and a half. Everything that I witnessed in London in ’89 is what I really tried to do here in America. I sometimes don’t think that I get the credit that I deserve for it. When I brought rave here, there was nothing like it at all. It was just the club scene in New York, that’s it.

What did the club scene think of it?

Well, the club scene... I had a contract out on my life once. I got whacked out in front of my house. I got messed up. The club scene didn’t like what we were doing because they didn’t understand it. Basically, when you’re putting 5,000 people in a warehouse in Brooklyn and in Manhattan 2,000 or 3,000 people aren’t there in the club like usual, people start to wonder. Where did the crowd go that weekend? We wound up trying to do one in Manhattan, and we got shut down. I almost went to jail that night. The club scene, see… People in Manhattan really didn’t look out at the boroughs. For a while, we were okay. But once they got hip on what we were doing, everybody wanted a piece of it.

But we had a good year and a half run. I did one party where it was Sven Vath, Doc Martin, Richie Hawtin, Lenny Dee, Frankie Bones, my brother Adam X, Caspar Pound from the U.K. So we had the first real all-star lineup. The club scene always had one DJ. You didn’t have multiple DJs in a night. To go to a club and bring another DJ besides the one they already had was unheard of before 1990. It did not happen. People were like, “Oh, they’ve been doing that for years.” No, no, they haven’t. It was always one DJ in the club, and if you tried to bring another DJ or two DJs or five DJs, they would just laugh at you. I had to take it out to abandoned warehouses to get the point across. So that’s how we did it.

And what was the name of those?

Storm Rave. When it rains out, it’s a change in the atmosphere. We already had a label called Atmosphere Records, so it had to do with changing that atmosphere. If a club owner is not going to let us put DJs in a club, I’m going to have to go break into a warehouse and put those DJs in a warehouse.

How we got away with it was I’d have paperwork saying we were going to film a video. And we didn’t even know the owners of the space or anything. We would just break in. But if the police came, which they did, there’d always be paperwork saying I have video, I have insurance, these people are here as extras for the video. And it worked for a while until we got stripped down in Manhattan a year and a half later. Then they got hip on it. But yeah, we never really had a problem.

How long were you doing those Storm Raves for?

I wound up on an Amtrak train on a 16-hour journey, and made it back to this party 10 minutes before I’m supposed to play.

Storm Rave as an organization, we did probably 16 parties. Eight of them were like warehouses or like not organized at all. They called them outlaw parties. That was in 1991. In 1992, as an organization where we had a team of people and we were doing things more on a legit level, we did eight parties. The reason why Storm Rave ended in December of ’92 was we had a Nor’easter. It never snows in New York before New Year’s, but on this particular day, December 12, 1992, it snowed about two feet. I got stuck in Toronto in the airport and didn’t think I was going to make it back. I wound up on an Amtrak train on a 16-hour journey, and made it back to this party 10 minutes before I’m supposed to play. There were 2,500 people there. We were supposed to have 5,000, but the snow stopped a lot of people.

After that party I was like, “It’s got to end right here because… I don’t know, the heavens, God, or whoever is in control just really didn’t want there to be any more Storm Raves.” So dropping that kind of snow on us made me think, “You know what? I’m going to end it right here just the way it is.” People that were involved with us started their own companies around that time. So I was able to work for them throughout the ’90s. That almost extended 20 years, so I have no problem with it ending. I don’t think I ever want to do another Storm Rave. You can’t bring back those times. It’s 20 years ago.

By on January 30, 2014

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