YOU MAY NOT KNOW who he is, and that would be just fine if you attend a party by Frederick Dunson. One half of D/E Entertainment, Frederick has been behind some of the most wonderful parties in Chicago in the last decade, rarely straying into the spotlight as he handles the behind-the-scenes business.
Working with Frankie Knuckles and business partner Dennis Evans, Frederick throws but two parties a year, with a dedication and fine attention to detail that many would be surprised by. As long as you have a good time, Frederick and Dennis are content to remain off-stage, letting the DJs, the performers and the crowd (the true stars of any House Music event) shine.
We took some time ahead of D/E’s free July 3rd party with Frankie, Craig Loftis and Kenny Bobien at Green Dolphin (2200 N. Ashland) to talk with Frederick and get an idea of what goes into creating that perfect mix of music, sound, vibe and love.
What were you doing before this became what you do – even before the Warehouse?
Back in high school, I used to out on the weekends and go back to school on Monday and tell everyone what sorts of places I’d been, clubs or what not. My brother (God rest his soul) was three years older than me – he had his group of friends, and I had my group of friends. One night my brother and his friends took me to the Warehouse.
It was like I stumbled upon this whole new world. It was afterhours, and it was so secretive and underground that it had a certain allure to it. You see, in those times, to get into the Warehouse, you had to know somebody. There was a man named Vinnie that worked at the door, and he had a hotel register with all of the names of all of the members of the club. When you went into this old building, he’d greet you, like, “How can I help you?” It was just his demeanor – he had one of the coldest demeanors, but if you knew him, then you knew he was just a sweetheart. He just opened up. So that’s what I was doing before I was doing what I’m doing now!
And what is it that you’re doing now?
For the last 13 years, I’ve been – and I hate to put titles to anything – but I have been the operational person for D/E Entertainment. And for the last 14 or 15 years, I’ve repped Frankie Knuckles here in the city. He has a manager in New York and then he has representation outside of the country, so I handle things here in Chicago.
Between then and now, I had another life as I worked at the Warehouse. I met Frankie at 555 Adams, but we became friends at 206 Jefferson. It’s a strange story how we met. We were originally introduced by a DJ named Curt Robinson, who now lives in DC. You know how people in Chicago can be – it’s very cliquey – and nobody was showing Frankie any love. When Frankie first moved here, he had no friends and had no family. We just clicked. He had become ill with a really bad bout of pneumonia, and with a friend of mine, we sort of nursed him back to health. After that, we’ve been friends ever since.
Frankie had been in New York and had worked in a couple of clubs, and he said that something had to be done to vitalize or re-vitalize everything. I talked to Robert Williams, and we kind of negotiated a position. I started doing refreshments. Then I started doing the mail, then the coat room, then I started working at the door, then I became the membership director, then the office manager, then I went back downstairs to do the juice bar, and then I left to follow my own interests.
This was right before Frankie opened the PowerPlant. I followed him there because I understood his vision and what he wanted to do. It was new and exciting, and yet unknown and kind of scary. He was offered the Riverside Club, he took it over and the rest is history.
It was called the PowerPlant because you could literally see a PowerPlant nearby, right?
You can still see the transmitters there! That’s exactly why they called it the PowerPlant.
Why throw this free party on July 3rd?
First of all, Frankie’s a very generous person. If you walked up to him and told him, “I need $45 to get a room for the night” – if it’s credible enough, he’ll pull it out of his pocket and give it to you. There is no one that knows him that will not tell you of his generosity.
This party coming up on July 3rd is a prime example of his generosity. Where else will you find someone that will give you a free party? Nobody gives anything away for free anymore. Each of the events we’ve done in the last 13 years, we’ve tried to give something away, be it a CD, a T-shirt – something. Some people appreciate that, some people don’t – you really can’t worry about those that don’t.
There’s one young lady I always think about. She’s the first person at the party, the first person on the dancefloor. She never asks for anything – she never asks to be comped, she just enjoys the music. People like that are the ones I appreciate, because they come without any baggage or attachments. They’re just open to the good time that you want to give them.
How did D/E Entertainment come about?
D/E came about because 14 years ago, Frankie was booked for a party by some promoters we knew at the Riviera. The crowd that came out was treated horribly by the owners of the Riviera. They were homophobic, rude – just downright nasty. He said that night that he was getting really sick of doing this. People were bringing him back to Chicago and making money off of him and not treating the people who came to hear him correctly. After he went back to New York, we talked about it, and he asked, “Do you think we can do something?” That one offer has lasted 13 years!
I’m the chief creative officer, chief executive officer, chief operating officer – I don’t care what you call it, I just make sure it runs! You could call D/E my baby, and I’m very, very sensitive about my baby. The D stands for Dunson and the E stands for Evans – me being Dunson and Dennis being Evans. Dennis is a co-worker of mine – we both work for the county government. He and I had become friends, and I just asked him, “Dennis do you think you’d want to do this with me?”
You traditionally only do two parties per year…
That’s enough. I have a full-time job, and I’m not looking to make D/E another full-time job (although it is my second job already!) It’s a lot. Those people who do it full-time – like those guys at The Rails. I always tell them that I take my hat off to them, because they do it every week. I don’t have the energy to do it every week. Twice a year is enough for me.
You’re also the label manager for Frankie’s label, Noice. Where is that at?
We’ve kind of been quiet. There was a record that we wanted to put out – the next single was a Ted Patterson song called “Good People” – but there were some internal problems. And when I say “internal problems,” I mean Frankie wasn’t feeling well, I had some family issues to deal with so it kind of went by the wayside. But we will get back on track with Noice. If D/E is my baby, then Noice is Frankie’s baby. The intent was to make it sort of a boutique label. Quite honestly, there’s a lot of junk out there. You know it and I know it. Not that I’m the barometer of all music, but a beat is a beat! And if it isn’t going to move on the dancefloor, there’s no sense in putting it out there.
What do you try to bring to a D/E event?
Just a good time! Just so everyone leaves saying they had a good time – that the music was great, the sound was fabulous, the people were beautiful – and I mean that they were beautiful in their vibe. You can’t please everybody, so you try to reach those who are receptive to what you’re doing, and not worry about the naysayers or the people who are always trying to get in for free. To me, the people that pay are the VIPs.
The gay community used to be dominant in House Music. Now, when you look through Boystown, there’s Cocktail and that’s about it as far as strictly House Music nights with a strong following. Could you pontificate for me on why that is?
There’s Cocktail and maybe Hydrate on a good night. Let’s put it this way. The record industry in the US has not done a service to House Music – they’ve done it a disservice. You can go anywhere in Europe or anywhere else in the world and hear House Music on a pop radio station. House Music – not hip-hop.
In America, the record industry bastardized House Music. It was always attached to the gay community, so of course they turned their shoulder on that. I think the gay community has done a disservice as well because they’re trying to assimilate. That I do not understand. Why would I want to go hear hip-hop music when they’re talking about me? I’m sorry, as an openly gay male, that is not something I want to hear.
The other part is that people won’t let go. I think we’re in the city where House Music was founded, we’re in a city that nurtured it, and unfortunately we’re in a city that’s perpetuating “Let’s do old school.” Okay, if you like it, that’s fine. For me, though, I lived through it once, I don’t need to live through it again. I probably have the record because I used to be a DJ in high school. So what do I want to hear it again for?
What was the racial make-up of the Warehouse? It’s always curious to me, because House Music, while it’s expanded to a white and straight audience, really was nurtured by a black gay crowd.
Prior to Frankie’s arrival, I would say it was 100% black with the occasional person of another persuasion venturing in. But then Frankie came, and he brought [Dave] Medusa and Medusa’s friends down. Chicago’s still very segregated, but that was one of the reasons Robert started the Warehouse. Black kids used to go up on Clark Street and get discriminated against, and this was within the gay community.
A lot of people want to forget how instrumental Robert was in this, because he is the reason Frankie came to Chicago, without a doubt. And he created the medium where we all came together. When we did the street dedication for Frankie a few years ago, the one thing I said was that we had to honor Robert, especially because it was on Jefferson at 206. If it wasn’t for Robert there wouldn’t have been a 206.
So you have a stable career, and you seem determined to live a balanced life and not let party planning take over. Why do you still spend so much energy to do these events?
Why do I do it? Maybe because there’s a lack of things to do in Chicago? And as much as I bitch and moan and groan, I actually do enjoy it. People walking out the door saying what a great time they had, and seeing people I don’t get to see more than once a year, and seeing them at their best makes it worthwhile.