I’m not talking about religion, because while I haven’t been to church for anything other than a wedding or funeral in decades, I’ve worshipped at the altar of high fidelity as recently as this morning.
As such, I can say that I hold music and the mediums I play it on as sacred – in particular the medium of vinyl records. No other single vessal for the storage and playback of recorded music elicits so much positivity within me.
There’s something visceral, tactile and wholly satisfying about dropping a stylus into the groove. A solid CD transport closing and spinning up aint bad, and browsing an iPad through Roon is as close to a tip-on gatefold jacket as you can get – virtually speaking – but when I need to commune with the higher power of music it’s my collection of vinyl that I reach for.
Every person who interacts with the collection, from myself, to our digitizers, to our DJs in residence, has a strong opinion about how the collection should be organized.
Julie Yost, Director of Programming for Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation
Imagine my reverence when I learned that the decades-spanning curation of roughly 5,000 albums that make up Francis Warren Nicholls’ collection – aka Frankie Knuckles, 1997 Grammy Award winner and the Godfather of House music – had been carefully preserved, cataloged and made publicly accessible in 2015 by the Stony Island Arts Bank in South Chicago following his death at the age of 59 the year previously from diabetic complications.
The Arts Bank is the brainchild of American artist and musician Theaster Gates (through his Rebuild Foundation) whose architectural restorations within his childhood neighbourhoods have helped galvanize a cultural and art renaissance over the past several years on Chicago’s South Side. Housing the Knuckles’ collection came about through Nicholls’ estate attorney Randy Crumpton who felt that something needed to be done to preserve the historic house-music legacy.
Crumpton had met with Gates in 2013 and following a series of connecting-the-dots moments he reached out again to Gates to discuss what to do with the LP collection. Prior to his death, Knuckles had been in talks with Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research, but failed to finalize an agreement with them before passing away.
The significance of the vinyl collection cannot be understated, as it is quite literally a chronicle of the birth, adolescence and maturity of what became known as House music, monikered after the Warehouse club where Nicholls had initially started gigging his dance-music sets in 1977 with a mix of Euro synth, disco classics, eclectic indie-label soul and a pastiche of rare vinyl.
For the next three decades Nicholls would continue to be a major influencer in the dance-music world, opening a night club, gigging around the world and taking up as resident DJ at prominent nightclubs like The Sound Factory in Manhattan. All the while continuing to hone his skills remixing the likes of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and Toni Braxton.
The idea that Knuckles’ entire collection – along with their flight cases – are cataloged and housed under one roof and didn’t end up being scattered to the four winds after his death is testimony to the power of his legacy and the enduring appeal of House music in general. Despite coming up through continuing decades of disposable culture, influential touchstones such as Knuckles grooves – like a black hole – still manage to bend the light of curiosity around them like few other physical manifestations of music can. Dance music, in particular, is a holy pilgrimage of sorts that is universal to those believers who recognize the power of a good beat and the influence a DJ can have on not only a dance floor, but generations of music lovers.
House music wasn’t built in a day, but thanks to architects of the genre like Nicholls, it is built to last, and I plan to pay my respect for years to come. Hopefully, once this pandemic has passed I’ll be able to worship at the alter of this collection in person. In the meantime I was able to catch up with Julie Yost, Director of Programming for Rebuild Foundation, who very kindly took time out for this Q&A.
Resistor Mag: The Frankie Knuckles record collection is a perfect example of physical media possessed of cultural and historical significance. In this case, related to the story of house music development in the ‘80s and ‘90s. How did these albums come into the care of the Stony Island Arts Bank? What’s the back story?
Stony Island Arts Bank: After Frankie’s untimely passing, his estate – managed by the Frankie Knuckles Foundation – recognized the significance of the collection, and wanted to house them somewhere to eventually become accessible to the public.
The time coincided with the rehabilitation of the Stony Island Arts Bank from a vacant bank into the hybrid archive, gallery and cultural center that it is today. An entertainment lawyer close to the estate, Randy Crump, introduced Frederick Duncan – Frankie’s business partner, manager, and now the Executive Director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation – to Theaster Gates, our Founder and Executive Director. The rest, as they say, is house history.
The records joined three permanent collections housed at the Arts Bank: books and design objects from Johnson Publishing Company, the Ed J. Williams collection of “Negrobilia,” which features over 4,000 depictions of African Americans, many of them racist stereotypes, and a collection of Glass Lantern Slides from the University of Chicago’s Art History department. The Arts Bank also stewards the Tamir Rice Gazebo from Cleveland, Ohio, where 12-year old Rice was murdered by the police in 2014. The vast majority of the objects in our care are directly tied to Black history, and hold a sacred significance, whether representing Black excellence, or as a reclaimed object of trauma. In this regard, the Frankie collection represents the spiritual, liberatory possibility of House music, as it sets free so many people, and emerged from a doubly marginalized, Black, queer culture in Chicago.
Resistor Mag: Five thousand vinyl records is a substantial number of LPs to organize. How did the Arts Bank end up organizing the records?
Stony Island Arts Bank: The estate had the collection fully catalogued and inventoried by a House expert when it came to the Arts Bank for safekeeping. We have enlisted contract archival and music scholars throughout our digitization process, and we will continue to rely on these experts as we make the collection more and more publicly accessible. As far as how the LPs are organized, they have currently been arranged alphabetically by genre (as it is listed from that original inventory). Every person who interacts with the collection, from myself, to our digitizers, to our DJs in residence, has a strong opinion about how the collection should be organized, and whether the genres listed are correct. House is such a personal experience for each individual, so it is highly unlikely that this will ever be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. One recommendation we got from a dear friend and former collaborator of Frankie’s was to organize the collection by year, which might allow us to forgo the genre question altogether.
Resistor Mag: I understand that when the collection was originally transferred to the Arts Bank many of the LPs were still in flight cases, last touched and organized by Nicholls before his death in 2014. Are these LPs tagged in some separate way?
Stony Island Arts Bank: We do have all of the crates themselves, as well as the record of where each album was stored. Frankie designated two crates for acetates, for instance, and had four or five for white labels and test pressings. There are also a couple of crates labeled as “special,” that house some of his own albums, as well as ones we presume to be in regular rotation for him, or favorites. As the albums are fully digitized, this info will definitely be used to contextualize the collection for the public. Another key that Frankie left behind is his dot system. As told to us by one of Frankie’s friends and collaborators, Frankie built a special carousel to hold his albums in his DJ booth. He developed a system of colored dots – Red, Yellow, or Blue, that indicate the vibe of the track (five red dots would be the hottest track ever, for instance), so he could easily amp up, sway or cool the crowd. You can imagine the opportunities this system presents for public engagement, even just the story behind the dots, alone, reveals Frankie’s thought process on his influential role in the booth.
Resistor Mag: How are the albums stored? Is the collection presented as a whole? Is it directly accessible to the public? For example, is playback allowed on turntables by visitors, or is it overseen by someone familiar with vinyl – like reference titles in a library?
Stony Island Arts Bank: In order to best preserve the collection, the records themselves are not publicly accessible. Our ongoing digitization of the collection has enabled us to make it much more available, however, both passively, and actively. For instance, when the Arts Bank has public hours, we are usually digitizing the collection for all to hear through our sound system. Our DJ in residence Duane Powell, himself a house music scholar, often incorporates selections from the collection into his regular sets at the Arts Bank. We celebrated Frankie’s birthday this past January with a lecture by Powell, followed by a massive dance party, solely with newly-digitized music from the collection. Our goal is eventually to make the full collection publicly viewable and listenable at the Stony Island Arts Bank. One of my favorite things about the collection is how visually rich it is, the album covers are fun to sort through, but more than that, there are hundreds of notes to Frankie. His own handwriting is super unique and fun, and then, of course, there are the dots. Even if you don’t know much about House music, looking at this collection gives a sense of dimensionality to both the culture and to Frankie’s life. So, while we have a long ways to go before the full collection is viewable to anyone who walks in the door, we incorporate images and audio of the collection into our space regularly.
Resistor Mag: The Arts Bank is currently in the process of digitizing the collection for online accessibility, what does this process look like?Will the collection be available for online playback or because of copyright issues will only short samples be made available?
Stony Island Arts Bank: We worked with scholars, researchers, and archivists to develop our digitization methodology and system, which abides by best practices set by international standards for digitization. The digitized collection will not ever be available online, due to copyright. It’s possible that a version of the completed database could be made accessible online, however, so Frankie fans and researchers could at least search the collection, even if they might have to travel here to hear it. The digitized music will eventually be fully publicly accessible within the Arts Bank. As I mentioned previously, during our ongoing efforts, we do our best to introduce the public to our process, and give visitors to the Bank a peek into the treasures of this special collection.