What were New York, Detroit and Chicago like in comparison to Jersey?
New York had infamous clubs. Octagon, 1018, The Red Zone, Sound Factory Bar, Sound Factory… I’m trying to think of the crazy ones. I got to play at the Garage when it was closing, back in the 80s. Shelter, of course. There were so many places. They popped up over night. New York was more like, I can’t say a fashion show but they were more upscale than we were. It was like decadence, cash, sex, drugs. All we had was hope, gospel and some kind of raw talent.
I don’t know as much about Detroit but I’ve got a lot of friends there. You can drive down the road, buy a set of guns from a pawn shop, then drive a little bit further and buy boxes of bullets. And it’s legal as long as you keep it on display. You can tote a shotgun like you’re Wyatt Earp, walking down the street. I guess they grew up with that mentality: Don’t fuck with me, or you’re gonna get fucked up. They’ve always had that edge. They had the same thing, when the economy got really bad, they turned to music and they used the best things they could get their hands on. They wanted to have fun too. Can’t blame them.
Chicago, same kind of thing: a lot of vocals, a lot of gospel but the difference is it’s cold as hell. They got the fucking Hawk to deal with! They wanted to have to fun too. They got everything there: good, bad, ugly, gospel. It’s about how you grow up in the culture around you. You make what your surroundings are.
And that really seems to inform your music.
Absolutely. Every song I’ve ever made is about my day. I think for any songwriter that’s the best way to do it. It has to be a life experience other people can relate to. I don’t just go and make tracks by numbers. The best experience I ever heard was from an interview with Quincy Jones and it made so much sense to me. He said you should think of each instrument as a voice and ask what that voice would be saying. If it’s a bassline you get a sound, a colour, a picture. If it’s a flute you think of birds or something flying. All of these things can paint a picture of the colour of your day. That’s how I’ve always been: I think of what the sound is and the mood and the tone I want it to convey, even if it’s an instrumental.
How do you think your music fits into the house scene at the moment? Deep house really seems to have come back into fashion recently. Do you think your style’s become fashionable again?
Absolutely. I’ve always thought it came back around every seven to ten years when the next generation takes over. The only direction that really changes is the instruments that you use, or the tools you use to mix things up. When I started it was just records and reel to reels. I learned to adapt and catch onto that, then I found ways of even bringing my sequencer with me when I came out to play. I was doing something that most people weren’t doing unless they were doing techno. People thought I was crazy at first, but I saw it coming. Why wouldn’t you want to bring your studio to a club? You could remix things live; why would you want to keep it to records?
I had things like effects and tape delays that you could actually put your hands on. This was back in like ’88, ’87. I set up racks and have things running back with everything. I used to use this program called Texture Live and it didn’t sound any different to me making up records on the fly. I loved doing that. That’s what I was known for, going overboard with things.
Same thing again, technology got smaller. Next thing I knew I could take my laptop, a couple of people started adapting programs. The first program I got involved with was called PCDJ and then this thing called DJ System. Then I met this guy who had a company called N2IT in Amsterdam and he made the first vinyl timecode system. This was like ’96, ’97. He sold that off to Stanton and they made Final Scratch. Traktor was still doing their thing but they didn’t have anything tactile.
People were still looking at me like I was crazy, ‘What is that? Why are you using that thing?’ ‘Because there’s about a thousand records in that thing. I can only fit 200 records here in my bag so now I don’t ever have to leave anything at home. This was around the same time as people started using CDJs and burning CDs and that was cool but it didn’t feel as tactile. I made scroll wheels and little miniature mixers.
Now it’s the same thing: the next generation are coming through and everyone’s using computers and memory sticks. They’re doing exactly what I wanted to do since 1988, it’s just now that the technology has finally caught up with what I always thought it could do.
When did your association with Pioneer begin?
From the very first CDJ. I was in Japan way back in the 90s and they gave me a prototype before the first CDJ-500 came out. I had to special order blank CDs and I bought this monster-sized Philips burner which burned at the fastest speed available, which was like times two. The first time I ever played on the CDs was at Club Yellow in Tokyo. People were looking at me like, ‘What is that? What are these boxes?’ They asked me to play more on the CDs instead of the turntables and every time I put a new CD in this guy came over with a huge camera with a light, lighting up the whole club.
And you still help with the development?
Yeah, I still help out when I’m over there. It’s like a secret society. We all get together in a room and beta test things, then at the end they’re like, ‘Don’t tell anyone you were here!’
It’s not just other people’s products that you like improving though, is it? When did you first get into modifying and building your own equipment?
I think it was more my dad’s thing at first. I always thought my dad was really cool. He always had people like Surface and Kool & the Gang round to play at the club and I’d get to go in the studio and watch them record. I just thought that was the coolest thing. Just looking at things like mixing desks I was in awe. SSLs and Neves, these things as big as a car. I was this little curious kid, running round going, ‘What is that?! What’s this thing?!’
That was a place called House of Music. A lot of records came out of there and I was lucky to see them getting made. Then when I was 14 years old I got a job interning at another studio. At 15 I got a job interning at a television studio and became production manager, then when I was 16 I went back to recording and became the head engineer. Anyway, I found myself with all these machines that people wanted to use, but none of them had MIDI, so I paid a company called Studio Electronics to add MIDI to my 808.
This was around the time they were doing their rackmount MIDI upgrades for the Minimoog, right?
Yeah. They were doing modifications before that. I called them up about the MIDI upgrade for the 808 and said, ‘You know what, I was curious – could you extend the bass and really chunk the shit out of this thing?’ I had everything done. It cost me a fucking mint. It had a couple of problems early on and they said, ‘You can send it back or you can open it up, desolder this cable and reconnect it over here.’
I didn’t think it could be too hard. I’d already been to school for it and done some smaller projects. I opened it up and I saw how they’d wired everything. That was the beginning for me right there. ‘Oh, I see, they just changed these resistors, changed this pot… I wonder what else I could do with this shit.’ I did the same thing to my 909 that they did with my 808 and that’s where my love of modifications began. People ask how I get my kick drums to sound so big. That’s what it sounds like straight out of the machine!
When you were starting out did you ever think house music would end up being a lifetime career for you?
At the time when we were doing it it was way before it was cool to be a DJ. We just wanted to have fun. We wanted an outlet, a release, a way to voice what we’d gone through. We were writing memoirs but doing it on records. That’s why I think rap is so popular because so many urban kids are growing up in that same situation. I’ve never wanted to make a record that my grandmother couldn’t listen to. That’s the only reason I didn’t stick to doing rap stuff and the reason I got into house.
I embraced it for two reasons: one was that it had more of a gospel root background and I always had faith. I was never a religious person because I’ve always seen religions make war. To me that always seemed strange. If I had to follow one it would probably be Buddhism because they’re harmonic and they don’t bother anyone. I just take what I know and leave it as that.
You weren’t trying to be superstars but a lot of you became famous as a result of house music.
I didn’t even think I’d be famous. The truth of it is that the people I’ve known the longest in the business have always been the same. We’ve always been very open-minded, very humble. I can pick up with all of my friends where we left off. If I see David Morales it’s no different to the first time I saw him.