Attack editor Greg Scarth meets deep house legend Kerri Chandler for an interview which covers everything from modified drum machines to New Jersey gun culture.
With an impeccable discography of house classics stretching all the way back to the late 80s, Kerri Chandler has truly earned the right to be described by that much-misused term, legend. The New Jersey producer’s take on dance music has played a key role in defining the classic deep house sound.
We caught up with Kerri in London as he made a flying visit to play an extraordinary seven hour DJ set at Loft Studios. Dragging himself out of bed the following day to meet us in the bar of his hotel, Kerri was as gracious, humble and generous as any artist or DJ we’ve ever met. Despite only running on a couple of hours’ sleep, he was genuinely excited to chat about everything from his musical influences to his thoughts on the current dance music scene.
In what we think is probably one of the deepest, most revealing interviews Kerri has ever given, we focused our discussion on the events and people who have inspired his music, the characteristics which separate the Jersey scene from its New York and Chicago counterparts, and the relentless hunger for technological innovation which has driven his approach to production and DJing.
Attack: Let’s start by talking about the way you got into house music. You’ve spoken before about growing up around music and how you began DJing in the early 80s, when you were 13 years old, but you didn’t start releasing records in your own name until around 1992. What were you doing in the intervening period?
Kerri Chandler: I was interning in studios from when I was 14 years old. People would come in off the street to rent studio time, but it was just the average Joe who thinks he can make a record and has no idea of the process. A lot of rappers and a lot of R&B singers. We didn’t have too many musicians coming in. They didn’t have a producer, didn’t have a track…
Being a kid, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll make you something.’ After a while I found myself producing for people. They’d bring in a record that they wanted to sound like and I knew the sound so well because I’d actually watched people like Kool & The Gang in the studio and I knew exactly what they used. I was only supposed to be an engineer but I found myself being more of a producer. Eventually I thought, OK, if I’m doing all this I might as well make a few things for myself. I had another job on the weekend DJing at Club America, so I’d make edits and records to play there.
What kind of music was this?
This is like ’86, ’87, so it was disco and early house music. I never really got into the R&B stuff and we never really played rap music at the club. We just played rap stuff around at parties.
What was the breakthrough for you in terms of getting serious with house music?
Around ’88 I made an edit and one of the singers gave a copy of it to Tony Humphries. I didn’t know Tony well but he started playing things I’d done on the radio. I realised there was a buzz around it and everything started to fall into place. I met Merlin Bobb who I was a long-time fan of for doing stuff on BLS along with Naeem Johnson. I didn’t realise that he was the head of A&R for Atlantic. When I went to Merlin’s office I met another person who’d go on to become a long-time friend, Jerome Sydenham. Jerome was Merlin’s assistant at the time and we instantly hit it off like brothers. The first time I went there me and Jerome were wearing the same exact clothes – same colours, same shoes. Someone said, ‘Is this your cousin?’ I just laughed and said, ‘Yeah.’ Ever since then we’ve been inseparable. It’s just been an ongoing ride since then, and that’s where the whole Jersey thing comes in.
Jersey is obviously an important part of the story. Explain the significance of the New Jersey scene at the time you were breaking through.
That was the springboard. Tony was kind of the voice of all of us at the time. I guess Frankie Knuckles was Chicago’s voice for those guys. We had Tony and David Morales. Once I met one person and they knew what songs I made, everyone welcomed me in. I guess I was the kid and a lot of people thought I was going to be a flash in the pan. That was a fun part for me, trying to make it understood that I wanted to be around for a long time.
People like to pigeonhole those early dance music scenes, so we look for these common trends in Chicago house, Detroit techno, New York garage, New Jersey house and so on. Were those differences apparent to you at the time?
I can tell you from Jersey’s standpoint that they were obvious. In East Orange where we grew up there was nothing to do. I guess it was the same way in Detroit. We did what we could with music. Our attitude was, rather than going out and shooting someone or robbing someone, let’s make some music and have some parties.
All of us were inspired by each other and there were a lot of people making music. We all knew each other. Whitney was the older kid that we’d all hang out with and go and get candy with. There was Naughty By Nature, who were known as The New Style back then. Latifah – Dana – used to come to the club all the time. Biz Markie always used to be around. Mtume lived just down the block. My mother used to babysit for Steve Arrington from Slave. Pic Conley from Surface was my dad’s friend; he was there at the house every day. Bernie Worrell was my best friend’s uncle. Lauryn Hill was like the next generation. I had all these influences and people around me who were making music and if I needed to talk to someone they were there.
Do you think there’s anything in particular that all those artists had in common?
There’s only one. Every year on the fourth of July the whole city would come together and we’d watch the fireworks in the stadium. There’d be bands on and we’d get to see all of them. New Edition would be there all the time – and it’s pretty obvious why that was now because of Bobby. Bobby and Whitney was years in the making. I hate to say it but they’d always come to some place like McDonald’s and the girls would go crazy then the guys would come and beat their asses. They’d still come back to East Orange and we could never figure out why.
The New Jersey music scene was always a gospel-based thing. When you were a kid you had to go to church. In that whole area, all you had was faith. There’s a saying I think Treach made famous: If you make it out of East Orange without getting shot or stabbed, you’ll be alright. That’s the truth. We’ve always had it. I’ve always been in places where somebody has a gun, somebody’s getting shot and we’re running. It’s daily. There’d be a war every night. The minute you heard something, everybody got on the ground. It’s routine. The cops would never come while this was happening, they’d just come to pick up the bodies. That’s where we grew up.
So East Orange was pretty tough?
One time a doctor who lived nearby went to get groceries and a gang broke into his house, beat up his wife and murdered her. When he arrived home with the groceries they saw him, ran outside and ran him over with his own car. That was a typical night in East Orange. And that’s the nice side of town.
When did you get out?
I left for good after my daughter’s first birthday and swore I’d never go back. We were having a birthday party outside her grandparents’ house. My friend Chino XL had a new truck, a Lexus or something, so we were sitting in the truck planning what to do the next day – I think it was the Puerto Rican Day Parade – and the next thing I know two guys in ski masks come up with TEC-9 machine guns. They shout at me to get out of the car. I looked over and I thought it was a fake gun, so I’m like, ‘OK, you got that. I’ll get out the car, whatever.’
Chino told me he could see it in their eyes that they didn’t want the car, they wanted him. I’m trying to sneak back and I’m thinking, ‘Chino, get the hell out of here.’ They told my girlfriend’s brother to get down on the ground and they walked over him. Chino tries to peel out and they just start shooting the car up. I’m like, ‘Oh shit! This is crazy. I’m never coming back here.’ That’s how I left it.
I’m not surprised.
That’s only one story. There’s another one from Zanzibar, actually. My girlfriend Tracy at the time, her birthday was September 1st. I don’t know what it is about birthdays. We’d been going out for maybe three years and we were planning to be married. Her ex-boyfriend didn’t like the idea of us being together at all. This night Tracy was going to stop at Zanzibar first then meet me at Club America. He was at Zanzibar that night and saw her in the club, walked out with her I guess, raped her behind the club, bashed her head open with a rock, stuck a stick up inside of her, then dragged her behind the bushes outside and left her for dead. It was a few days before he confessed to what he did and what happened.
I’m so sorry. That’s a tragic story.
That was typical, people with that kind of mentality like it’s do or die, a day at a time. The only escape was drugs or music. I always picked the latter of the two…