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Frankie Knuckles's vinyl gets a permanent public home

Theaster Gates's Rebuild Foundation is about to open the Stony Island Arts Bank, whose collections will include 5,000 records the Godfather of House used in his world-changing mixes.

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On the third floor of the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank Building, a 17,000-square-foot neoclassical edifice in South Shore, roughly 5,000 vinyl records sit on rows of shelves salvaged from a defunct hardware store. There's not much about the collection that suggests a museum, but these records are a cultural treasure far more valuable than the music in their grooves—their presence here, in the newly christened Stony Island Arts Bank, is intended to preserve them and make them accessible to the public. They belonged to the late Francis Nicholls, better known as Frankie Knuckles, who died at age 59 on March 31, 2014. Beginning with a late-70s gig DJing at short-lived West Loop nightclub the Warehouse, which gave house music its name, Frankie spun ecstatic live sets that would define the genre for decades—a genre that's reshaped dance and pop music perhaps more profoundly than any other.

Chicago artist and urban planner Theaster Gates bought the bank building from the city as a dilapidated hulk for $1 in 2012. He set about rehabbing the bank under the auspices of his Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit that attempts to invigorate blighted communities by turning under­used spaces into cultural centers. The renovations aren't merely restorations—often they also transform the buildings into pieces of art in their own right.

Gates's Dorchester Projects, for instance, consist of two buildings just south and west of the Arts Bank; the Listening House, a former candy store, contains the leftover inventory from Hyde Park record shop Dr. Wax, which closed in 2010, and the Archive House has held a collection of 60,000 photographic lantern slides rescued from the University of Chicago, among other things. (The slides have since been moved to the Arts Bank.) On August 11, ARTnews magazine wrote about the opening of the Arts Bank on Saturday, October 3, when it will host the kickoff event for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. The story mentioned a few of the collections on the premises, including Frankie's vinyl. Within a day, several music sites—among them Fact, Beatport, and Pitchfork—had reposted the news.

The amount of attention the collection attracted came as a bit of a surprise to Frederick Dunson, a longtime friend of Frankie's who also serves as executive director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation and a member of its advisory board. But he took it as a ratification of the foundation's decision to place the records in the Arts Bank. "I'm like, 'Yeah yeah yeah yeah,' trying to be cool and calm about it, where on the inside I'm going, 'Ahhh!,'" Dunson says. "I sent a note to some of the board members: 'This was the right thing to do!'"

While he was alive, Frankie spent some time thinking about what would become of his records after his death. Entertainment attorney Randy Crumpton, who represents Frankie's estate and helped establish the foundation, brought up the subject after Frankie's diabetes forced him to miss a performance at Green Dolphin Street in July 2008. "The car pulled up with him in it, and the car pulled off with him in it—he was so ill he was not able to come in to spin that night," Crumpton says. "That just made me start thinking, 'God forbid, something happens, we need to archive this history. We need to be able to tell the history of house music—and he being the godfather, what better way than through him.'"

Crumpton's instincts were right: Frankie's death inspired not just tributes to his greatness but also a fair amount of reflection on house music in general. In spring 2014 the Artistic Bombing Crew made a graffiti mural of Frankie, which sat level with passing Blue Line trains near the California stop (it came down in July). In June of last year, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events held a tribute concert in Millennium Park, and the size of the crowd helped grease the wheels for "Move Your Body," the Chicago Cultural Center's summer 2015 exhibit on the history of house.

Frederick Dunson, executive director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, checks out a 1979 promotional copy of the Ish single "Don't Stop" from his old friend's collection. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Frederick Dunson, executive director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, checks out a 1979 promotional copy of the Ish single "Don't Stop" from his old friend's collection.

Frankie began looking into what to do with his record collection about a year and a half before his death, though at that point he was in talks with Columbia College's Center for Black Music Research. "I think he just wanted it to be accessible. I don't know if he thought about programming around it or conversations about it," Dunson says. "I think he just wanted something to happen to it." Frankie also knew the vinyl wasn't the whole story. "Frankie had mentioned, 'If you get the records, you probably want the bags that I carried them in, because the bags have the stamps from the various countries I've been to,'" Crumpton says.

Frankie never reached an agreement with Columbia, and when he died, the records and their traveling cases still hadn't gone anywhere. Crumpton says he got the idea to reach out to Theaster Gates in June 2014. They'd met in April 2013, after Crumpton threw his birthday party at Gates's Black Cinema House. Crumpton had also seen Gates's 2013 MCA exhibit, "13th Ballad," which documented the artist's rehabilitation of a 19th-century home built by migrant laborers in Kassel, Germany; the rehab work used material from the Dorchester Projects. Crumpton thought Gates might be interested in assembling a traveling exhibit of Frankie's record cases. "When I contacted Theaster, he contacted me right back and said that he would be interested in the record collection as well," he says.

Crumpton set up a meeting between Gates and Dunson, who was impressed with the artist. "He knew who Frankie was. He knows house music; he loves house music," Dunson says. And the vinyl medium is well suited to Gates, considering his history of working with discarded objects. "Theaster made this comment that DJing was a lost art on kids in the sense of 'true DJing,'" Dunson says. "You plug your computer in, and there's no feeling like vinyl." Working out a plan to bring Frankie's records to Gates was the easy part, according to Dunson. "It took us a couple months," he says. The bigger job would be actually moving the vinyl—and then cataloging it and figuring out how to make it accessible to the public.

The Rebuild Foundation has been renovating the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank Building for the past year, after placing it on the National Register of Historic Places in December 2013. Frankie's records made the move to their new home earlier this year, and they share a room with a trove of racist memorabilia from collectors Edward J. and Ana J. Williams. "This is the most secure space in the building," says Kate Hadley Toftness, Rebuild's manager of archival collections and public engagement. "We really wanted to make sure that we were good stewards of the collection and that we'd be able to protect it and to keep it in good shape."

As with Rebuild's other sites, the Arts Bank and its contents are designed to be used by the community. Preparing Frankie's records for that role is an ongoing concern—Rebuild and the Frankie Knuckles Foundation still aren't certain what sort of access they'll be able to permit without risking harm to the vinyl, and the logistics aren't all in place yet either. "We're taking it one step at a time to make sure that when people do access these things, they'll be doing it the right way and won't be damaging anything," Toftness says. "Our first step was to do that full inventory, to make sure that we have the proper insurance and security for this collection. Over the next year we'll be creating the real catalog that you'll be able to search when you visit."

Toftness and Dunson say the inventory process took a couple months. Dunson found a former record-store owner who helped catalog the vinyl by genre, determined artists for unlabeled discs, and noted the quality and condition of every record. "He listened to each record, I do believe," Dunson says. "He had a little turntable and he came in and listened just about to each record."

Frankie Knuckles live at Pride, Belmont Beach (1985)

Holiday Mix, part one (2006)

The process has been revealing for Dunson. "I didn't realize his body of work was as large as it is—it just made me realize the span of time," he says. "There were a couple surprises—like a dead snake in one of the record bags." The jazz records are a reminder of another part of Frankie's life as well. "His mom died when he was fairly young—his sister raised him, and she raised him on jazz music," Dunson explains. "He could appreciate jazz, so you may find some easy-listening stuff, you may find some pop stuff in here."

The records are organized in what Toftness describes as a hybrid system. The part of the collection that appeared to be already archived is arranged alphabetically by artist and grouped into one of ten genres; the rest is divided into 30 small numbered batches, which correspond to the traveling cases Frankie kept them in. "Some of them were clearly just packed for storage, but others retain this feeling of having been packed for some kind of gig," she says. "In order to look at that more closely, we've preserved which records were in which boxes to see that proximity between them, and how they might've been mixed."

Other aspects of the collection remain a mystery—like the colored dot stickers Frankie placed on many of the records. "To us it means nothing, but to him it meant something—where [the sticker] was positioned [and] the color," Dunson says. "In the dark, he could tell what this was or what he was going to play. Don't ask me—he had his own system." Toftness has developed a few theories. "There are certain things where it seems like, 'Oh, he put that on the side of the record that he preferred—like if there's one version or another version,'" she says. "Then some records, it's interesting, they have multiple colors—so some have two blue dots, some have a red dot and a blue dot. Someone can decipher this one day, maybe."

A master list of the vinyl will be made available in the Arts Bank's library; so far, the database includes artist, title, label, and catalog number. Anyone who wants a closer look at the records—or any of the other collections in the building—will have to complete a free orientation to learn the protocols for handling the materials. At least one person from the neighborhood has already gotten an intimate look at Frankie's stash: Gaylord Minett, a 20-year-old Cornell junior who's interned for Rebuild and used to live near the bank in Greater Grand Crossing.

Minett is majoring in urban planning, which is what brought him to Rebuild in summer 2014. When he resumed his internship this past summer, he worked as Toftness's assistant, and the Knuckles collection interested him the most. "I was raised on house music. My dad was raised on house, and I love house to this day," he says. He helped alphabetize and organize the records, and he'd find letters—some handwritten, some typed—tucked into their sleeves. Sometimes someone had scrawled a note on an actual LP jacket.

"Some of the cooler things I found kind of prove to me that Frankie wasn't just an icon for this underground house music. House music was a universal, worldwide genre that everybody vibed to, and I found this out when I saw letters from people—letters from different artists, in France, and in Korea, and in Germany, thanking Frankie Knuckles for his influence on the musical genre, on house music, and on music," Minett says. He also discovered a somewhat more down-to-earth message written in Sharpie on the sleeve of a Janet Jackson record. "It was very vulgar," he says. "It said, 'Frankie please put that big thing in my mouth' or something, and then for the 'i' it was a little sketch of a penis."

Nobody's entirely sure what Frankie meant by the colored dot stickers he put on some of his center labels. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Nobody's entirely sure what Frankie meant by the colored dot stickers he put on some of his center labels.

Minett believes the collection can abet Rebuild's mission to engage creatively with people in the neighborhood. "For it to be in that community, for people to be able to see and listen to his stuff, and for people to see his legacy be idolized like that, can inspire so many people. I know it inspired me," he says. "It could ignite a positive revolution for new artists who are exposed, who get to engage in that collection to make positive music like Frankie Knuckles did."

Actually touching the records was almost surreal for Minett. "I couldn't believe that I actually had the honor of handling the records," he says. I found the aura of history radiating from these ordinary-looking objects similarly heady, even a little intimidating. The knowledge that Frankie handled these records, and that he used at least some of them at the Warehouse and later at the Power Plant (a Chicago club he established himself), gives them immeasurable value. When I went to see the collection earlier this month, I couldn't bear to touch a single record. Even though I know people other than Frankie have already handled them, I was afraid my hands would somehow destroy one of his Italo-disco singles or smudge his fingerprints on the sleeve of a Front 242 LP.

Chosen Few DJ Alan King, who's also a Frankie Knuckles advisory board member, performed a DJ set using Frankie's records this past weekend at the Arts Bank's preopening gala, and even he isn't immune to awe. "I was nervous picking up a record or two," he says of his first visit to the collection. King knew Frankie personally, like every advisory board member, and he was selected to talk about him during DCASE's Millennium Park tribute show. Seeing his friend's old records was bittersweet for him. "Frankie was not only a close friend but a mentor and really a role model for all of us as DJs," King says, "both in the way he practiced the art and also just in the humble and classy way that he carried himself and interacted with others."

King guesses that the last time he DJed with vinyl in public was in 2008, so he had to get his groove back on real live turntables. When I spoke to him before the gala, he was still facing the challenge of selecting records from Frankie's collection that he thought would best pay tribute to the Godfather of House. "What I'm gonna try to do is pick out some things that I think that he would want to represent his collection and his legacy, and in knowing him as I did, that's not gonna be all classic stuff. Obviously the early years and the Warehouse era were very important, but he had moved on from that, and a lot of his best production work, arguably, was in more recent years," King says. "He was always on the vanguard, so I'm gonna try to play a variety of older and newer music."

Frankie's records will get another workout at the Arts Bank's opening party on October 3, though organizers aren't saying yet who the DJ will be. And Dunson already has his eye on future collaborations with Gates. "Theaster has this other property, and we were thinking about 'The House of House,'" he says. A house-music museum is definitely on the table, but as Dunson acknowledges, "Theaster's got 60 different things going on at one time—the last thing he needs is, you know, another museum." Still, their partnership has been a great fit so far. "I've been surrounded by angels," says Dunson. "I could feel Frankie tapping me on my shoulder going, 'Good job, good job, good job.'"  v

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