Did you grow up in Chicago?
Yes, On the west side of Chicago.
And, what sort of music did you grow up with?
Jazz and soul music.
How did you first become involved in music?
I started with local funk bands around our neighbourhood.
I read that you went to the American Conservatory of Music. Is that right?
That’s right. It’s a music school here in Chicago.
Did you have to audition to get in?
You have to go down there, and you take up jazz, theory, composition things like that.
Is it also right that you were in a band with Larry Heard?
We had a band also with Mr Lee in it. But this was before I started doing a lot of dance music. We was playing R&B. It didn’t last too long, I think we had only like a couple of rehearsals.
So how did you first become involved in house music?
My buddy, Love Child, he told me about this guy who was a DJ, named Gary Beeks . One day we met, and Gary, he was checking me out, and he said, ’There’s this guy named Jesse Saunders, he’s got this record out, I know you can do this kind of stuff.’ He played it for me, but I didn’t really take it seriously, because I was doing R&B at the time.
He kept playing me the record, which was 'On and On'. From there, I just said, ’Oh, yeah, I can do that.’ I went to the studio, and my first record was a big hit.
So how did you get involved with Trax?
There was a real big party here in Chicago. I happened to have my song, ’No Way Back’ on a cassette tape in my pocket, and the DJ was a buddy and he said he would play it. That’s how it worked in those days. Everybody just loved it. The whole place went crazy, like they’d been hearing the record all their life! Larry Sherman happened to be there too, so he walked up to me, gave me his business card, and told me to come down to the plant.
What did you think of him when you first met him?
When I first met the guy, I didn’t even take him seriously. I wasn’t even thinking about making records at that time.
Did you re-record it then to make the actual record?
No, I didn’t re-record it. Actually I was recording a lot of songs before that. Most of the songs we had already recorded them a long time ago before the record even came out. We were just stockpiling them, because in those days we were recording every other day. I finally went down to Trax. At that time it wasn’t even called Trax Records. It was called Precision Records.
Where was it?
It was on the south side of Chicago. We took the tape down there, I let them listen to it, and then I left the tape for them to listen to it some more! When I came back it was all ready to hit the record press. No contract! I walked in there, he was handing me test presses. He said, ’I just loved your tape', so he took the tape that I actually left , and made a record off it.
So what did you do after? Did your next song come out on Trax?
The next song was already on the tape too, (We’re Rocking Down The House). The reason I only did two records for Trax, is because after that I never saw any money. That’s why I never did the album. I did it, but I never gave it to him, because after those two songs, I’m like, man, you’re not paying, I’m not playing.
As a house artist, you seem to be the only one who’s done musical studies before. Was that not a problem, because house music, it’s like starting again, isn’t it? It’s like re-inventing music?
It wasn’t really a problem for me, because in jazz music you work to a point that you can actually innovate and create spontaneously. So coming from that school of thought, it was real easy for me just to make up stuff, because that’s what I do as a bass player. I used to just groove. I used to make grooves all the time. And then it’s doing, like house music..it’s a language in itself. I can understand the science of music, most people just feel it. I know what notes can sound good, I understand structure. Even though most of the songs I produce, you probably can’t even tell that I know this stuff, but I never overdid what I did. I just did what was necessary. Most people actually take all their skill, and try to throw it out on record.
Do you think there are any other Chicago artists who have the same outlook as you, or are there any that you admire?
There’s a lot of guys that people don’t really know about. I remember this guy, his name was Grant. He was a good musician. He did a couple of things from real early on, he was like Jesse Saunders keyboard player. He did a lot of stuff for like Mickey Oliver. I could relate with him. This guy named Raleigh. He was a great musician. He did some stuff with like Larry Heard, and Little Louis’ album. Then also my boy Rudy. He's the guy that actually played all my keyboard solos, on 'Move Your Body', 'Ride the Rhythm'. Most of the keyboard players are the guys that had some instruction, that understand chord structure.
So did you used to go to Ron Hardy’s club?
What was that like?
It was like stepping into another world, another dimension. When you went there, wasn’t no other club. The actual control that Ron Hardy had over the crowd, I haven’t seen any other DJ able to do that.
What’s the difference between like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy?
Night and day.
Frankie Knuckles? He just DJ, he just played music, you know? Ron Hardy was innovative. He was actually taking music. Okay, I’m going to tell you, most people don’t know nothing about Ron Hardy. What made Ron Hardy special is because he didn’t have an ego. I mean you could bring him a record, he didn’t care who the hell you were, it wasn’t about no payola, anything like that. He didn’t have to be your best friend. If the shit sounded good, he was going to play it. Ron Hardy actually made people’s careers, because he had that kind of authority and power. Another thing that makes Ron Hardy special is the actual club. It was set up like no other club, as far as the acoustics and the sound. I never heard a sound system so good. He had total control over his sound. I don’t know what he had up there, but if you would have been in that club, you would actually experience surround sound, before there was surround sound! He would control it, jump it around from speaker to speaker, it was going from the back to the front, the bottom was coming in, the high was going out He had all kinds of cues there, that dude was doing some work, man. But it was his club, though. Most other DJs are like gypsies, they were moving from club to club. He lived in The Music Box as well.
Was it all Chicago music, or was he playing stuff from before?
He played all the disco stuff too, but he’d take a record, and actually do something to it, edit it, twist it around, throw it upside down. He’d take records and put extra shit in them. When you went there, you got something special every night. It wasn’t like you’re going to hear that same old record some other DJ played. He was going to do something different to that record. Whereas, like, Frankie Knuckles didn’t do that. I mean, he said he did , but I never heard it.
So how many people would be at The Music Box?
It was packed. You had to actually wait your turn to get in. It was ridiculous then.
So what did you do after your first two records on Trax, then?
I was producing. So, you know, me and Marshall (Jefferson) was running round producing a lot of records together.
Were you friends with Marshall, already, or before?
I met Marshall when I was going down to Trax, and he was outside. He didn’t want to go in there. He actually knew something about Trax more than I did, because he was from the south side, I was from the west side. There’s not that many people from my side of town that actually make house records. So when I walked up he said, 'I don’t want to go in there I want you to go in and take this music with you, and let them hear it. But don’t tell them that it’s me, say it’s you, or something'. So I said, why? He goes, the other guys in there he thought that they would block him from getting the record out. We became friends from then.
Why did you leave Trax?
I was never attached to Track, contractually or anything like that, so I went over to DJ International, did a few tracks with them.
What was he like?
Rocky Jones? I don’t know. I didn’t really know him. I went over there, and he paid me. He actually gave me money up front. He paid me for everything I did it, so I can’t really crap on him.
And did you like producing rather than being an artist, or do you see it the same thing?
I like both. I like making records and I like to help people too, come with that group type of vibe that I used to be in. I’d rather have a bunch of buddies hanging around, smiling having a good time. Just jamming and stuff like that.
What would you say you spend most of your time doing?
I’m just spending most of my time making more music, man. I had my kids and stuff, and I had to raise them, so I had to take a break for that. Now, I don’t have to baby sit and change diapers any more!
And do you still live in Chicago?
And do you think, Chicago has it’s own musical identity? Or do you think it’s just the people?
Larry Sherman didn’t have a clue of what was happening. Most of the stuff he put out, he never was like the A & R guy. He wouldn’t give you a lot of money anyway. He could take a chance on acid. Acid would never have existed if it was up to Rocky. He’d be like, 'What the hell was that? I’m not spending no money on that shit!' But Larry Sherman was ' Get it in!' So he’d just take anything and press it up.
Did you see the records being made?
Yeah. I used to sit there and make my own records. Everybody in Chicago at that time got their education down at Trax Records. They went down there, and if you didn’t know what a pressing machine looked like, or anything like that, by the time you got through hanging around there, you knew everything. He ran his stuff real loose. You could just go in there, grab as many records as you want. When he wasn’t looking, I mean. Things like that was going on. It was real fun. People would be like, 'I can’t get my goddamn money from this bastard! I’m going to go down there and steal me some records!' They go down there and steal about 500 records, and go sell them themselves. Get their money back!! He’ll go out to lunch, everybody’s grabbing. I mean you had to do things like that just to offset your dollars, because he wasn’t going to give you any royalties.
So it was partly him and what part did the radio play as well?
It was definitely magical. Because right now? It could never happen again. The way the radios are set up now. It’s now a payola thing going. You’ve go to pay for everything. Back then, we had to pay nobody. If we wanted it, give it to WBNX, they played it, you know. But now, there’s some corporation has bought up all the radio stations, believe me.
Was it unusual for them to play these records? They must have been strange records to hear on the radio?
They actually played it every day. Like they had what they called the Lunch Mixture. The Hot Mix. They’d like squeeze it in there for like 15 minutes. Then they go back to playing regular R & B. But then people got used to that, looking forward to it. It was in in the gay clubs and stuff, I’m a straight guy, so I didn’t know nothing about it. We got introduced to it through the radio. Once the masses heard it, then everybody started jumping on it.