An Acid History: Dj Pierre & Spanky Talk
Pierre has spoken about the creation of Acid Tracks before, but it's rare to catch him in conversation with Spanky, his co-creator in Phuture. We sat down with the two of them over a Skype conference call to talk about Chicago back in the day, the power of Ron Hardy, the feeling of birthing acid, and their disturbance at how people are now trying to re-write the history of a genre they created…
Okay, so today we are going to talk about Acid Tracks, although I feel that Acid Tracks has been covered so much…
Pierre: I agree too. There’s a couple of titbits that I could probably add to it as far explaining the understanding of what Acid is and what made Acid a term…
So what do you think you could add to it?
Pierre: So, one statement that I wanted to make about Acid House is that now that a lot of people understand the term Acid House, what it is and what it means and the pieces of gear that you use to make it. Acid is so unique that you can’t truly make Acid on anything besides a 303 or something that’s emulating a 303. So they try to go back in time now and say, ‘wait a minute this guy used a 303.’
Like, the group Newcleus used a 303 for Jam On It, or this Indian guy made it in the 80s, so now, people are saying that anyone who ever touched a 303 are making Acid.
Pierre: I’m saying that’s ludicrous. I would just like someone, somewhere to point out the fact that just because you had a 303 and used it, it doesn’t mean you were making Acid. People want to discredit us, and truly what Acid is, is the manipulation of the knobs and recording those moves. That’s originally what Acid was. That never happened until I touched a 303 and Phuture put that track out. It never happened. Listen to anything before that track and you’ll hear that it had never happened. Then, further more, we created the identity for the sound and what that sound was. That name had never been placed with that sound before but now it’s up in the stratosphere and we have Acid House.
Thirdly, it wasn’t a mistake. People say it was made by mistake. No, we just listened to what we were doing and decided that it sounded good, and then recorded it, as we knew people would like it. It sounded like good music that people could dance too. We identified the sound sounding good and we made a conscious decision to do it. It wasn’t a mistake to twist the knobs. I didn’t trip and fall onto the 303 and hit a knob then go, ‘Wow, what’s that?!’
It was a conscious decision to walk up there and see what the different knobs did and how they affected the sound. Then once I’d done that I decided it sounded good. Someone must have twisted the knobs before us though, surely. They must have just thought it sounded like crap. We were the ones to say that it sounded good and thought that it could be something. People don’t think about the fact that that sound got recorded. Up until that point, no one would have ever imagined that that would be what music sounded like. So we’d done that and we recorded and gave it to our favourite DJ to see what happened. These are the things that people need to look at before they start pointing the finger beyond us for the appreciation of this sound as it’s absolutely not true and sometimes I’m actually offended by that.
We’ve done this sound, we’ve given it to the world and it’s gone by storm. Now you want to go backwards and claim that anyone using a 303 was making Acid. For some reason now, anything created on a 303 is considered Acid. It’s got to the point where that’s the Acid box. Anything you make with that box is Acid. I’m fine with that though, but don’t make it seem like that was the case for us.
You mentioned the Indian guy, and I can only assume you mean the Ragas to a Disco Beat record. What do you think of that record? Have you listened to it
Pierre: I’ve heard it before and it’s just that he has the 303 going in the background kind of like a bit of pattern, a bit like someone might have a high-hat or something. He’s not tweaking the knobs though. It’s funny that you brought him up though.
Well, to be fair, you brought him up-
I wonder why no one ever brings up Newcleus. Newcleus did it before the Indian guy, but no one claims that Newcleus did it. So, why are they singling this guy out? Sometimes it just ends up taking credit away from American Black Culture from Chicago or whatever. Sometimes the credit has to go somewhere else and it should really have gone to Newcleus as he made Jam On It way before anyone else. So as many people, you could say, used the 303 first, but none of them created a sound with it that could be connected to Acid.
I’m interested in trying to put across what the vibe was like in Chicago in the mid-80’s because I think that’s quite important to the creation of Acid. What’s your memory of Chicago at the time?
Pierre: Spanky and I were talking earlier and we were talking about the Music Box and how Ron Hardy played some crazy stuff. He didn’t play it safe. He wasn’t like Frankie Knuckles or whatever, he played some really crazy out there stuff which I believe enabled us to unlock our minds and definitely think outside the box. Spanky was going to the Music box before I was, so he experienced this before I did. Then I had the other side of things, I was listening to a lot of out there stuff but it was more Italo Disco and a lot of strange stuff in that direction. Kraftwerk and all that stuff. I believe that when we came together, we were just so open about what we wanted and we didn’t want to walk on anybody else’s footsteps. We listened to other people’s music, but we were also trying to create our own path and our own way. We were saying like, ‘okay, all these people have done these different kinds of music, we want to be different and unique and come out with our own sound.’
I think that’s why we were so open to making something that different. What do you think Spank?
Spanky: I totally agree with what you’re saying. We did think outside the box as we wanted to be different and have an abstract sound, because that’s what Ron Hardy was giving us. I was always looking at Ron Hardy as our teacher. Ron was the one that made us think outside the box and do something different. When we were working on it, we knew Ron Hardy would play it as he was the one that had the curves to play something different. Like Pierre said, the other guys would stay in a certain place as if they ventured out too much they didn’t know how people would react to that. Someone like Frankie Knuckles, he played a lot of stuff with vocals in it. He played it safe, but Hardy was totally different.
As far as the 303 is concerned, we have to give credit where credit is due but what we did was different and it was for Phuture, nobody else.
Do you remember the first time that you went to Music Box?
Pierre: Um, I was in California at the time and Herb wrote me a letter that told me to come back home to listen to this guy, as prior to that we used to go to The Playground and we used to go to another place called Sawyers, and we were listening to mixes all the time and we were really hung up on that. So whilst I was in Cali, Herb wrote me a letter to tell me to come home, as I had to come and listen to this other guy who was different. So when I went back home, that was the first place we went. I didn’t know the Music Box, the party, who was playing or anything, I just remember that the first track I heard when I walked in was Womack & Womack. I remember thinking to myself, ‘how is he playing that? That’s the type of stuff that my mother would listen too.’
But the more I listened whilst I was there and watching the way that people were reacting to that song, it started getting into me.
Spanky: You really weren’t even into that before you went to the Music Box.
Pierre: Exactly. It took a lot of persuasion to get me to switch over from the Italo Disco to the stuff he was playing, no disrespect to that type of music, as that’s what I grew up listening to. I listened to Ron Hardy, and he made me grow up in terms of the music I listened to.
Spanky: It was like a baptism. He was like, ‘Spanky, I can’t understand why they’re playing this kind of music.’ I was just like he was, but I was in a new environment when I first heard those tracks and I was just like, ‘who likes this?’
Spanky: Once I had gone to the Music Box though, I got it straight away. You’ve just got to go, someone can’t tell you. You’ve got to be there and experience it. People were calling his name and everything, they were really crazy for this stuff.
Pierre: I’d been a DJ for a while at this point and I’d never got that kind of reaction before. He just really brought the soul. It was like a spiritual experience.
Was he playing quite a few records that were unknown to you?
Pierre: All the time. So much different stuff, he was really mixing it up. You know how DJ’s don’t’ do today, they don’t mix up genres, he was mixing crazy tracks. Disco, House, Beats and he’d even drop a Slick Rick up in there. He was just really crazy. He was like the Black Sheep of DJs. He played things faster, he didn’t play things at normal speed. He’d pitch it up, so there was a lot of energy going on up in there. The way he worked, taking the bass out and all that sort of stuff. It was crazy.
So it must have been quite expensive to get all the kit, like the 303 and the 909, at the time. What inspired you guys to put your money behind these relatively untested pieces of equipment?
Pierre: Spanky was the guy that wanted to make a group. He was like, ‘Pierre, we can make this kind of music! We can do this! All we need to do is get this thing called a drum machine a stuff like that.’
I was just like, ‘Uh okay, but what’s a drum machine?’
Then he said, ‘It’s a box that has beats and drum sounds in it.’
I was lying up at night trying to make sense of it. A box with drum sounds in it? I played drums and the clarinet and I read music so I know that side of it, yet I’d never heard of any box, but that was because it wasn’t really out there like it is now. So I would lay up at night and envision this box, thinking that it must be a big box! It must have been huge, because I just couldn’t fathom it. Then Spanky just called me one day to say that he’d got it.
Spanky: So Pierre used to play the beats and blend it in with the records that he was playing and that made us stand out from everyone else as, again, we were the first ones to do that. I wasn’t a DJ, so I just wanted to get in on it as I was intrigued by DJ’s and Pierre was the local DJ and I though that he was the best out of all the guys that I knew that DJ’d. That meant he was the one that I’d call when I got it and then we learnt how to use it and pitch it so that you could get it on beat with what you were playing. People would go crazy. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember this time that we were at the skating rink and people were just going nuts and even talking about it days afterwards. Pierre threw down though.
Pierre: I started playing acapella’s with fake beats and people didn’t actually realise that Spanky on the drum machine was an absolute master. I wasn’t really making any beats at that time, I was still just DJing. The beats were really hyped and really incredible and it really made people think that something special was going on. Spank did all the drum programming on our tracks.
Times were quite tough in Chicago in this period- the Chicago Police Force were notoriously bad in the late 80s, do you think that people had more of an urge to party to get away from the pressures of day to day life?
Pierre: Well, I think that’s always been part of our culture. We’ve always had it hard in the U.S., especially being a minority. The music has really been an escape for us, even if you go back to Jazz and even to times of slavery. Just being able to sing Gospel songs and praise songs, it’s always been an outlet and I imagine it always will be even through the house music genre.
Obviously in America recently there’s been this big explosion of EDM, but it seems to me that it’s exploded without really acknowledging the contribution that Black Americans have made to dance music. Do you sometimes feel that there’s this strange version history that’s sometimes told over there where the originators are forgotten or ignored?
Pierre: I just think they don’t know it. It’s just ignorance, they don’t’ have the information because to be honest, and I think Spanky will agree, there was never really an Acid House scene in America. In the 80’s there wasn’t loads of Acid house parties. The tracks would get dropped at different parties but there weren’t any just dedicated to Acid. So as far as Acid being a real scene goes, that’s the UK. Really, we have to give you guys credit for really laying that sound down.
We love it.
Pierre: In the UK it was very much a youth movement and I believe it was that youth movement that ushered in rave culture. Not that we didn’t have big rave parties in Chicago. We had massive parties, like 20,000 people, but they were House parties, they weren’t called raves and they weren’t like secret parties, but I believe that the rave culture was ushered in from the UK. You guys had to secretly throw these Acid parties and once it became a movement it spread across Europe. That whole festival and rave culture came about because of the need to find places to throw Acid House parties in the UK. So really, it is connected to Acid House and in particular the rave culture.
So you moved to New York in the 90’s, is that right?
A lot of DJ’s have moved to Europe as well, was that something that you’d ever considered?
Pierre: I thought about maybe moving to Europe for the summer months but I haven’t thought about totally moving on a serious level. The thoughts have crossed my mind about what it would be like though. I know Spanky thought about it and still thinks about it sometimes.
Spanky: It’s easier said than done, especially when you have a family. You can’t just pack up and go. The guys that I used to live with went by themselves and they didn’t take their family. But when you’ve got kids, you can’t just move. I guess you can, but it’s just a little difficult.
Are you still in Chicago Spanky?
Spanky: Yes, I’m still in Chicago, but with the hopes of leaving Chicago.
Have you got any awareness of the Footwork scene that’s going on there?
Spanky: Yeah, I hear about it. I don’t participate though.
Pierre: We were saying though, that Footwork is kind of just like Acid though and there are a few tracks from back in the day that were all just like todays Footwork stuff. I don’t’ really think it’s a new scene as it’s really similar to something that’s happened before and its just been repackaged.
It seems to me that there is a lineage that goes right through from before you guys and then onwards as well in terms of dancing and electronic music. When you actually made Acid Tracks were you totally blown away by it?
Spanky: I was, absolutely. Our goal was to have something played at the Music Box, we weren’t thinking Amsterdam or New York or anything like that.
Pierre: Acid Tracks was going fast. They were going 128. That was really fast for that time and that year. You’ve got to think that nothing else was really going that fast in the 80’s. People at the Music Box were used to listening to stuff faster anyway, so we kind of just made it even faster.
What was the reaction to your first track? I’m assuming you were there when Ron Hardy first dropped it.
Pierre: You tell him Spanks.
Spanky: Let me back up. When we went, we got there early and we waited outside in the cold for Ron Hardy to get there. Then Pierre went up to him and talked to him and asked him if he’d play our track. He said that if he got to it he’d play it.
Pierre: I just thought to myself, he’s not going to play it. But he did, he played it. It was early though, about 1.30, and there wasn’t that many people there. There was no reaction at all when he first played it. So he waited maybe an hour, then he played it again as at this point people were starting to vibe. But still, nobody went crazy about it. The third time he played it though, they were dancing. They were dancing and they were doing more than just bobbing their heads.
Spanky: The forth time he played it, the club was packed and everyone went crazy for it. I specifically remember a guy in the corner on his hands dancing and screaming at the top of his lungs. So now, they understand it.
Pierre: Hardy knew they had to understand it and wrap their heads around it and so he knew that they had to get familiar with it. Who plays a track four times in one evening?
Pierre: So you know, people were giving Ron leeway and letting him do what ever he wanted to do and people would just stick it out until the next track. So like Spanky said, by time the fourth time rolled around people were just like, ‘what is this track he keeps playing?!’ People didn’t even know how to dance to it because if you think about it, the feeling you get from Acid Tracks is totally different to anything you get from hearing nay other type of music, especially around that time. So you don’t even know how to move to it, that’s why people were just going crazy and dancing in ways they hadn’t even experienced before.
Were you telling people in the club that it was your jam when he was playing it?
Pierre: Uh, did we do that?
Spanky: Nah, you can’t talk in the Music Box because it was so loud.
Pierre: People were just talking to each other and going crazy.
Spanky: You’d just give each other five or shake hands. So that’s what we were doing as we were just excited. I remember going home afterwards and I couldn’t even sleep.
Pierre: We’d never felt so good before.
There was quite a long gap between when you wrote it and when Trax released it wasn’t there?
What was your experience like with Trax, as obviously people have had different experiences with them.
Pierre: Most people have had the same experience with Trax. They don’t like it! Haha!
I was trying to be diplomatic.
Pierre: It’s just to what degree it was! The thing is Larry Sherman, you’ve got to think that back then, first of all Europe and England. No one thinks about that unless you’re at school and in history. So we didn’t think about anyone in the UK or Europe hearing our music. It was just about Detroit, Chicago and New York. We knew that our music would get there fairly easily. We just thought about it as a small underground thing. We didn’t do it for any mass appeal; we were just really doing it for fun and thinking that only people around here would really be hearing it. We had no idea about Europe and that only came because the journalists started travelling to Chicago to find out what was going on with this music scene that was coming out of this city and affecting their scene.
Does it ever feel strange to think about the fact that this track you wrote, just for your local thing, went on to spark off a massive movement? Over here, it changed people’s lives. That must be quite an odd thing to think about.
Pierre: It’s amazing. It’s hard to grasp on a certain level though. I know for myself, I don’t carry it with me on a daily basis because I think if someone were to do that their head would this big and they would be very arrogant or conceded. I just feel that to be part of this movement is amazing and to have made the track that spurred it on is an honour and a blessing. It was meant to be. Things like that don’t just happened if there wasn’t a purpose behind it. Everybody had had a part in it. From making the track to Ron Hardy playing it and sticking it on four times and making everyone in Chicago want to know what the track was, and then them naming the track Acid Track, well they called it Ron Hardy’s Acid Track, so we were just like, ‘lets just drop the Ron Hardy off and just call it Acid Tracks.’
So that track, that gave it its name, and then gave the name to whole genre of music, it’s incredible. Then there was the fact that it was done at the right time for a whole movement to come of it. But the thing is, so many different things came together at once that we can’t fully take credit for the whole movement. I think the UK gets a lot of credit for making it a movement into the rest of Europe. It’s something that we certainly didn’t think about, and it’s a blessing to be honest with you. We’re humbled by it.
Spanky: Acid Tracks was the birth of Acid really. Pierre’s pretty humble about it, but it was a divine intervention really. Just because of the simple fact that if you think about how everything flowed together. Me, Pierre and Herb all just got together to make music to be played at the Music Box and we weren’t successful at first, the music didn’t sound right. Pierre told me one day that he’d heard the 303 and we went out and we purchased it.
Pierre: I remember trying to make a bassline because we liked how Fingers Inc basslines sounded, and I was like, ‘that’s the kind of bass sound that we need.’ After we got it we started to explore it and that’s when we came upon tweaking the knobs and creating the sound that we loved and hadn’t heard before. But one thing that’s interesting, have you ever heard of Propellor Head software?
Pierre: I was at their head office in Sweden, this was about 10 years ago, and I was meeting this guy that was one of their executives and he said, ‘you know Pierre, the whole reason we started this company was because of you guys and your group.’
I said, ‘What do you mean?’
And he said, ‘when you guys made Acid Tracks, it changed our life and when we got older we were trying to recreate this sound and instead of using a 303 we wanted to make it as a software, and the first one was called Rebirth and we made that with the guy that made Cubase.’
I just thought it was so crazy that someone had made a company because of that. Then he also said,’ Pierre, think about it. You’ve got all forms of music. You’ve got Rock and Roll, Jazz, Classical, RnB, Hip-hop. You’ve got all of these and not one of them you could trace back to one group. This is the only form known that you can trace the whole genre backwards to one group and a couple of guys in that one group who had also given that genre the name.’
I just said, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of that before.’
And that’s something to think about. It’s kind of crazy.
DJ Pierre will play Groovefest in the Dominican Republic, taking place between Sept 6th-13th.