In Memoriam 2. Records
For the second of the ‘In Memoriam’ discussions, we’re talking record collections. The last instalment tried to get to grips with the memories of people, how we remember, or how we can mark those important individuals who have left us, famous or not. But what about the records? The documents of our culture? How do we track those?
Where do all the records go?
The following discussion goes through way in which the record collections of Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, and David Mancuso have been treated since their deaths. The differences in the ways in which the collection have been dealt with is startling. The value and lack of appreciation of that value is shocking in some instances (particularly Ron Hardy’s collection). There are two other collections that are of note; that of John Peel (over 100,000 records) that are still being meticulously catalogued and shared with the public, and that of Afrika Bambaataa slowly being archived at Cornell University (we’ll be ignoring any controversy surrounding these to individuals for the sake of this discussion, as it isn’t pertinent to the content). These two beautifully preserved collections represent the standard by which we should measure curation of the material heritage of DJs and club culture. So let’s flick through the racks and see what we find…
The first collection to explore is that of Frankie Knuckles, the so-called “Godfather of House”. Although Knuckles’ reputation and contribution is often questioned by some early house producers, his importance as a figurehead in undeniable. The Warehouse was clearly an important moment in house music, as was his previous experience with Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, and even his early years under the tutelage of David Mancuso at The Loft.
When Knuckles passed away in 2014, his record collection was bequeathed to the city of Chicago (although not exactly correct this is the quickest way to explain the very complicated story, see the Chicago Reader for a more detailed explanation). The records are now stored at Stony Island Arts Bank. The building itself is significant in many ways, and the perfect home for the collection. It was the first bank in Chicago to lend to African Americans without employing redlining maps or other restrictive policies. The archive also hosts a great deal of important writings from Black figures, as well as a full archive of original Ebony and Jet magazines.
The Frankie Knuckles Archive is held in a dedicated space. They are publicly accessible (by appointment), and held is a relative safe environment. They have become a public resource, that can be used to explore some of the most important moments in house music history. Yet, it does remain somewhat a mystery. There is no clear ordering, records were not recorded in any particular order when unpacked. No cases were maintained (as with Afrika Bambaataa’s collection). And visitors are not required to return records to their original place. When I had the pleasure of exploring this archive it was tantalisingly difficult to understand. You could sometimes see sets Knuckles had performed, duplicates held together to allow for juggling and cutting, themed records going together, sections of his personal album collection, certain remixes highlighted with Knuckles’ still not understood coding system. Worse, some records are not well cared for: piled up on their sides or lying slanted in the racks. But as it currently stands this is the best example of curation of heritage we currently have of record collections outside of Peel’s or Bambaataa’s collection.
Larry Levan’s record collection had a much different fate, but not necessarily a sad one. Upon the death of Levan his record collection was split between David DePino, Victor Rosado, and West End Records owner Mel Cheren (according to a conversation with David DePino via Facebook). Gifting records to Cheren was a particularly significant gesture, given that West End Records were instrumental in setting up the Paradise Garage in the first place. Unfortunately, Cheren also passed away and both Levan’s records, and whatever records were owned by Mel, were lost to the ether. Thankfully, two parts of Levan’s collection still survive, and may even be played by David and Victor on their infrequent DJ sets. As DJs under Levan it is fitting that the torch is passed from master to student. Although not preserved “for the public”, the records can still be accessed occasionally when the DJs elect to play them. They still have life in them. And there’s something to be said for the linearity and progression of records “in the family” as it were. Not only memories of Larry survive with those who cared for him and learned from him, his records were passed down along a family line.
Ron Hardy’s collection is not a happy tale. After much digging and research, it has become clearly that Hardy’s collection was “splattered” around. From an interview with Hardy’s nephew the story becomes apparent (see Gridface for the full interview).
Realistically, although Bill seems relatively unconcerned about the collection, it means there is likely very little left of Hardy’s vinyl. Sold off? It is too sad a thought to contemplate. Even more sad is that it is likely people have fragments of Hardy’s collection sat in their record shelves with no knowledge of just who owned it or where it was played (although many records in my own collection have that same dubious accolade). Breaking up the collection in such a distributed manner destroyed any chance of preserving it. No lists are known to survive of the records Hardy owned. If we had those lists we could make an informed decision about the thousands of bootleg tapes accredited to Hardy over the years.
DAVID MANCUSO AND MORE...
Finally, Mancuso’s collection. I was away in the states on research when Mancuso died. I travelled back to New York two days later to just stand outside the Loft. I’ve got a picture of the Loft on my wall as I write this. Arguably, Mancuso’s collection is the most important collection that has ever existed. It was the birth of an entire culture encapsulated on acetate. But since Mancuso’s death in late 2016 we’ve had no news about where the record collection will go. However, we can hope for treatment similar to Knuckles or Peel or Bambaataa, and not that of Hardy.
The disparity in the treatment of the collections of the four DJs compared here is stark. At one end of the spectrum, an attempt (albeit with issues) has been made to preserve Frankie Knuckles’ collection for posterity. The records are stored in a publicly accessible, semi-safe environment. They are certainly a resource that can be accessed by the public and provide a valuable tool to understand the work of an important figure in house music. At the opposite of the spectrum, we see Ron Hardy’s records simply sold off and distributed to the public with not even a written record of what might have been included in the collection. It’s sad to see how the documents of a culture have been so abused and forgotten. Although generally not unique (besides the odd dub plate or test pressing), these records are unique in that they contain so many additional clues as to the praxis of the four great luminaries of dance music. And where are they now? From the four DJs, we know where Knuckles collection is, and at least a part of Levan’s collection even sees regular rotation and use from David DePino and Victor Rosado. The rest were lost with the passing of Mel Cheren. Even worse Hardy’s records were sold off in some privateering that verges on desecration in my view. And Mancuso’s collection? We’ve yet to find out.
One thought keeps coming to me. Both Levan and Hardy suffered from addiction issues that lead to their deaths. Yet, I’ve yet to hear of either DJ selling records from their own collections to support their addiction. Clearly, in the case of Hardy especially, the DJ held his collection more dear than those unnamed individuals who chopped up and sold off the material culture.
Maybe you’re asking what use these collections are? What can they actually tell us about the person or the music or the culture? In answer to that I’d say have a look at the image above. This was a random record I pulled from the shelves of the Frankie Knuckles archive. A message from Teddy Douglas asking for a record to be played and passed to David Morales. Not exactly the most thrilling thing initially, but it highlights the interaction between DJs, producers, and audiences. Trading, favours, even nepotism. Not to place any judgement on the events, but rather they provide an interesting insight into the behaviour of producers and DJ. Or the below image, Frankie Knuckles original white label of the 1999 mixes of the house classic “Tears” featuring Robert Owens on vocals and the UK producers Full Intention. These records are more than a catalogue. They contain stories, narratives, and present the output of not just the DJ but so many other intertwined individuals. They’re not straight lines, they’re a web of connections beyond the musical materials. And for that web to remain intact they must be held together, stored together, and not rearranged or mis-ordered. You can’t read a book if pages are missing or if pages are in the wrong order. Our job from here is to try to reconstruct what we can from what remains of these collections.
Where do all the records go?