Frank Dukes

Frank Dukes
Photo: Ashlea Wessel
Before entering Toronto producer Frank Dukes' Little Italy studio in Toronto, visitors must pass through a backyard reminiscent of a slasher film set. Walk through thick wooden gates, squeeze through a narrow alley and knock on an unmarked door. Suddenly the studio tourist is surrounded by mounds of vintage tape machines, keyboards and records.

Wood panelling and Persian rugs shape the feeling of a '70s rec room. Turns out, that's an accurate assessment — the space was originally owned by a sound designer in the '70s, who fully soundproofed the space before handing it over to the Cowboy Junkies, who owned it for 12 years before Dukes took over. Though he's only owned this studio for a year, Dukes has already made it his own. The studio possesses a sense of ambience and dusty comfort, from the MacBook Pro hooked up to a disco-era mixing board, to the worn copy of Gravity's Rainbow on the amp.

Dukes cut his teeth as a crate digger in the vein of his beat heroes DJ Premier, Pete Rock and RZA. Starting in high school, Dukes bought a drum machine and began banging out beats in his parents' basement. Though he no longer samples other artists' work for production, every conceivable nook and cranny of the studio is bursting records obscure and recognizable, from Korean psych-rock to David Axelrod. These records drove Dukes to craft his own sound with live instrumentation.

With zero formal training, Dukes taught himself to play guitar, bass, drums and piano. He studied his record collection, trying to figure out how the musicians produced the sound. "It's not about 'How can I steal that?' it's about 'How can I take that, make it my own and do something cool with it?,'" he clarifies. His own inability to perfect what he hears at 33 RPM inspired him to produce original music, somewhere between his own creative impulses and the gap in his knowledge.

It all started with one sample. In 2009, Dukes sampled throwback funk act Menahan Street Band for a 50 Cent mixtape cut; mutual admiration led to chemistry and work at the band's New York studio. The move from solo production to collaboration with musicians was a natural transition, especially for someone wired to dig for the perfect loop. "I was always looking for records with the tastiest parts, so when I worked with musicians, I ended up being pretty proficient and able to get good takes out of them, because I already knew what I wanted to hear. My ears were trained by listening to good records," he explains. The first project with Menahan was a cover of Nirvana's "Stay Away," sung by Daptone wailer Charles Bradley. That session marked Dukes' transition from beatmaker to producer.

Dukes now shares the studio space with Toronto avant-jazz trio Badbadnotgood. Together, they've recently collaborated on production for artists like Danny Brown, as well as RZA's soundtrack for The Man With The Iron Fists. Their equipment rests in the back room near a frayed grand piano, itself likely old enough to qualify for a pension.

Dukes praises his studio first and foremost for its lack of neighbours: "That's a constant issue. I definitely couldn't make the amount of noise that I make here in a normal house," he says. Not to mention the studio's value as storage for Dukes' stockpile of antique studio equipment. He likes the grit of the analog equipment, which provides "infinite inspiration because there's a lot of unique-sounding organs, synthesizers and guitar amps. Just turn on the organ and start playing."

His studio mates play a big role as well. "Just having musicians like Badbadnotgood around to collaborate with, it's inspiring because everyone at the studio really brings something to the table."

Sick of sacrificing his publishing checks for clearance, Dukes now effectively samples himself, as well as directing Badbadnotgood in sessions. This work has given him a new hustle: Dukes now creates original "samples" for producers like Jake One, Cardiak and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League to manipulate at their will. The producer explains the process as being similar to working with a band: "I bring [a riff] to the table, and there may be something creative in mind that say, DJ Dahi, would do an amazing job with, adding drums and bass. Then he puts his twist on it, transforming it into something greater than either of us would have done on our own."

Dukes has a packed calendar. He's working on Badbadnotgood's debut, consisting of all original compositions, as well as a full album with buzzing Chitown rapper Tree. Dukes and the band are also working on a record with a legendary New York rapper, though both parties have remained tight-lipped on the details. Finally, Dukes and Menahan Street Band/Sharon Jones drummer Homer Steinweiss are joining forces for Silver and Gold, a homage to '80s boogie, disco and funk, a sound his vintage gear is sure to fit.