Boo Williams’ history in dance music goes way back. He grew up in Chicago and started DJing back in 81. He lived through the heady days on the Chicago club scene at the end of the 80s and into the early 90s but it was when he teamed up with long term brother in arms Glenn Underground and started writing tracks together that he really cemented his place in house music history. His discography is as long as your arm but it was with the rerelease of his seminal “Mortal Trance” track on the “Residual EP” on Rush Hour back in 2010 that his name became known to the younger generation of house music devotees. As Boo is heading over to London on the 24th to play Need2Soul I took this opportunity to speak to one of my musical heroes;
So you're over here in London for the 24th for Need2Soul with your buddy Glenn Underground and Omar, what can we expect from you guys that night?
You can expect quality and just plain old good music! Me and Glenn together are real serious about how we play music but we’re also fun when we play music so it’s just really about educating people on good music compared to what people are playing now, it used to be really soulful so I guess at some point it got away from that. We just bring a soulful sound to it and hope people enjoy it, it’s all about education and just playing good music so London is actually a big treat. Not only am I excited because Omar is playing live - I can’t believe he’s playing live, that’s what makes this party very special because you’re getting an education. You don’t want to miss this party!
Do you feel that’s something that we’ve really stepped away from? You’ve done a lot of records over the years and a lot of different stuff but there’s always been a raw energy to it, a soulful part of it. Do you think nowadays producers are missing out that soul element?
I think what it is now is that, to me, everything is kind of commercial - we’ve crossed over to the commercial era and that’s not what this music that we were brought up on was about. That’s different. I think people should go back to the old, simple stuff that made house music where it used to be. It’s a new era but it’s in a different format.
You’ve got stuff like EDM which for me is a completely different ball game but do you think there’s always got to be an element of the commercial side? Without the commercial side does no-one get paid and fly around and do gigs, but if it gets too commercial then it’s not true to what it once was. How do you keep that together?
You have so many DJs now so now there are DJs in abundance. A lot of times people really just don’t pay attention to what’s really going on out here, everybody is just accepting it. That’s cool but I always know that it’ll always go back around and it’s coming back around again. I just wait and I just try to maintain what I fit in. I’ll come with the test of the times, I’ll come with the new times but I’ll still keep it original, I’ll still keep my roots from how me and Glenn would do music. From Larry Heard, that was really the sound that we loved so much. When we played music, we try to incorporate it like that. There’s a lot of old Chicago producers that had a big influence on me in terms of where this house music started before it branched out. It’s just a little bit different. People that used to play deep house music they probably play a little bit different now because they’re trying to stay relevant because if they don’t, they might as well stop doing what they’re doing. You don’t have to necessarily do that, just keep doing good music. That’s what I’ve thought always prevails, no matter what.
It’s really interesting what you’re saying because a lot of the younger generation of people who are into house music were put onto your music by reissues of your older stuff. I thought when Mortal Trance got re-released, it was 12 years old at that time, it still sounded fresh and exciting. Is that something about good house music, that it’s timeless but also futuristic?
Well all the producers in Chicago had a certain style and one thing about the Chicago sound, I don’t care what anybody says, it just can’t be duplicated. Even when I did more trance/house music they call it techno - now everybody is putting names on things but it’s house music. The stuff that we do is timeless, tracks that I’d done in ’94/’95 if you hear now you’d think they’re new because they just stand the test of time and there was a lot of love put into it. It was just about house music, just for the dance floor to make people move.
With the atmosphere that was around Chicago when house first started coming out there was a massive melting pot of music but what really made house music was the equipment, everyone had this cheap equipment and that really fed the sound that you guys were making. There was disco and stuff coming over from the UK, the new wave stuff, but it was really a change in technology that ignited that sound, as well as all the producers at the time. Maybe things, technically, haven’t changed much since then which is perhaps why things haven’t moved on so much.
It has changed but people don’t want to see that it has changed. It has definitely changed, when you listened in the ‘90s that was the more pure side of it. It started changing towards 2000, I started seeing a little change and I said ‘Oh, I see where this is going now’. It’s a new generation of kids. You should always remember your roots and where you come from and people sometimes diss house music and I hear it and say ‘If it wasn’t for house music you wouldn’t have this’. You’d have none of this, house music is another form of disco or r’n’b but in a more meaningful way. All the producers grew up listening to stuff in the 70s and they listened to the 80s so when 90 came it took that extra twist. I LOVE the 90s, people were more creative. There was so much good stuff going out. I used to buy a load of stuff from the UK - places like Nuphonic put out really good soulful stuff. When the music went out, people gathered. What they were doing was soulful still but then some people incorporated live bands into it so it took a really good turn. Then it went futuristic, like it’s on another planet. Now I feel like I better just keep doing what I’m doing and making sure that the people that support me and love my music, I keep them going with what I’m doing.
It’s funny that you mention buying stuff from the UK and that you were really buzzing off that stuff. Are there people around now, from anywhere in the world, that you’re hearing that are inspiring you?
I’m hearing a lot! I’m the opposite of what everybody else plays, I was into Agent K, 4hero, Frankie Valentine, I could go on and on. People still are making good music and everything, Kerri Chandler is another one of my big favourites - I give a lot of these producers credit because that’s what keeps everything going, people doing all different styles of music but they’re still representing one.
Going back to you coming over to the UK, I noticed that you’re also playing in Berlin shortly after and Belgium after that, is that right? Are you doing a mini-tour or are you flying back in between?
Yeah, I’ll be in Berlin so when I do my tours I tour from Berlin so that I don’t have to keep coming back to the States. I’m there just chilling until it’s time for me to come back. This is just a little short one, I did another short one in Berlin, Paris and Croatia. Before that I was going for three weeks or so.
How does life on the road treat you?
It’s not as easy as people think because it takes a lot of patience to be able to fly to another country, deal with the airport and all types of stuff. Once you get there you’ve got to prepare yourself for the party - the party is the easy part, it’s just getting there. There have been times where I’m at the airport and something happens and there’s a delay for 6 hours. I do what I do out of love and people don’t know the hardships that producers go through to get to where they want to go to perform this music.
A lot of people from the States, due to how big the house and techno music is over here, have relocated - obviously Berlin is the big one, have you ever thought of doing that? It seems as though you play as much, if not more, over here than you do in the US.
I don’t play in the United States! I did play Saturday at The Metro but I might play 2 times a year in the States, everything else is in Europe and I love it that way!
What’s the difference in crowd and vibe? I know mainstream culture hasn’t embraced underground house music as much as it has over here, what’s the reaction like when you play in the States compared to what it is in Europe?
A lot of people don’t know that the United States is hard to play for because it depends on what city it is. In Chicago, when you come in you have to really be on your game and play because people are real picky. I think over in Europe they have a more open mind to music because they’re dancing and enjoying it. It’s just different over here, it’s different now. It wasn’t like that at first.
When you say picky, is that in a good way as in they expect the best or picky as in being closed off to stuff?
I mean picky like they’ll bring a DJ over there that they want to hear and he’ll get scared and try to play a Chicago format and that’ll mess with his whole set-up. He should just play his set and stop trying to cater to what he thinks Chicago might like. Chicago is educated on the music, even when you play disco or classics you’ve got to really know your classics because everybody knows those classics. It’s different, that’s what I mean by being picky.
Going back to you and Glenn, you’ve lived together and worked together, you did a record together in ’95. How did you guys meet? You seem like you’ve been pretty close the whole way through?
Well I didn’t want to really go into this because it would take a lot of time but I’ll give you a short version - it’s better to say it than to write it down. We met on the party scene, going to a lot of the same parties like Musicbox and Little Louis parties. We would talk when we saw each other at the parties in this dance club called The Ambassadors, they used to do good dance and stuff. Everybody knew them on the scene, that was the Chicago culture. We met at parties and one day he was like ‘we’ve got to get together and do some stuff, I’ve heard some of your tracks’. One day I just decided I wanted to go over to Glenn’s house, we were at the warehouse and I was giving him a ride home and he was like ‘this is where I live, whenever you want to you can come over and we can do some stuff together’. One day I went over there, he looked out the window, saw me and came down and from there it’s just history. That was ’91 or ’92, after that he had his set-up from everything he had been doing and we started doing stuff together. He showed me a lot of stuff on the music side too. I give him credit because he showed me a great deal on how to enhance my sound and how to get better. Back then we were doing tracks all day, we wouldn’t go to any parties. We would just turn the drum machines on and I would hear his mother yelling ‘TURN THE MUSIC DOWN!’ I would stay over there all night, sometime I would be over there for a week and not even know it. We took tracks down to Cajual Records and they wanted to do some stuff with us and came by the house to watch us do the tracks. We just formed right away, I guess it was just meant for us to be together musically and we’re still there. We’re brothers.
What were you guys using back then? What was your sound?
A little drum machine by Roland... The baby one... It came in a case. The real old one we used to use, it came in a case. We had the Alesis XT whatever (DAT machines), the ones that sync up, we had two of those. After that we got a 909 but we were using a lot of analogue stuff like Yamaha keyboards, stuff like that. We’d MIDI stuff through the 909 and make tracks. That’s what Chicago was, good producers would make tracks just for the weekend. Ron Hardy would get it first, he would play it and it went everywhere. To be able to do that was beautiful. I enjoy when me and Glenn do stuff together because it’s fun, it’s a beautiful thing.
How has your approach changed? Maybe you’re using different equipment but do you approach music in the same way?
I use a computer now, I use Reason 5. A lot of time people are like ‘Oh, you’re using Reason?’ But whatever you use, you’ve got to make the best of what you’re using. Back in the studio we use a computer but it’s analogue - the MPC16 runs everything and we still have all the analogue keyboards, all the Roland drum machines. I haven’t been over there in a while, I mean a really long time to mix stuff. We’re trying to do a Strictly Jaz Unit album and it’s going to be like a lot of our old stuff.
You did some albums a while ago but I was going to ask if you were going to think about doing some full length album stuff again but it sounds like that’s already on the cards?
Yeah, we’re going to be doing that as soon as I take myself over there! Glenn’s been asking me but I’ve been doing a few of the pre-tracks here before I take them over there. I still have to go over so we can do some together. Everything in its due time but that’s what’s next.
How do you approach doing an album as opposed to doing individual tracks? Maybe you and Glenn have already spoken, do you have an idea of what you want to achieve or do you just see how it feels?
This is just an album because the first two albums we did back on Defender, The Parables Of SJU - which featured me, Glenn and Tim Harper and was one of the original Strictly Jaz Unit. The second one was Future Parables and we had Big Lavender so this one now is strictly me and Glenn. It’s just a matter of me and him because that’s who is left of Strictly Jaz Unit - Tim left, he had his thing and Big Lavender really wasn’t in the group, he was just cool with us. When someone wants to join the group, we had to really consider it and talk about it, We let him be a part of it but we don’t say that he’s a full member of the group.
When did Strictly Jaz Unit first come about?
I think it started really with Glenn and Tim because before me and Glenn used to hang together he used to hang with Tim, they were friends. They started the Strictly Jaz Unit and came up with that idea, then I came around and Tim was kind of leaving and Glenn was going to do Blue Room but their name was already out so we just stuck with the original name. Now it’s just me and him, as far as the people that are doing the music. This is a special kind of album we’re going to do. it’s just going to be really nice.
How did it feel coming in when Glenn had started with Tim and you replaced Tim? How did it feel to join once the project was already going? Did it just fit naturally?
No, it was just basically Tim wanted to do other things so after that he started coming around less and we didn’t see him much so Glenn was like ‘we might as well just go ahead and do what we have to do because it’s just me and you now’. It still was fun, I remember us all just tracking. That’s all we would do, every day, all day at Glenn’s house. Making tracks just to woo the crowd, not knowing that it was going to make noise the way that it did. That’s the shocker of it.
You mention how much fun that was, you’ve been doing this for a long time - do you still have that element of fun? How do you stop it from being just a job?
Well I think that when I moved to Dallas in 2004 and moved back to Chicago in 2009. I only did maybe one track on the new label when we started Strictly Jaz Music and I was going through a rough period but Glenn helped me get back. I had almost 2 years when I wasn’t really putting out music because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. Glenn made me realise what was so important and he gave me Reason 5 and showed me how to use it. 3 or 4 days later I made a track and then it was like starting over again. It inspired me so much that it just started me making a lot of music again. I’m enjoying what I’m doing.
I’ve felt that myself, you start feeling a bit jaded about what you’re doing then all it takes is one thing to work right and you feel like you’re 15 years old again, bouncing around in the studio.
What it is is your wake up call. Everybody’s got a wake up call; you’ve just got to wake up to the call. That’s why it’s called a wake up call! It touched me in a way because I was really going through a bad period but it just made me realise what was relevant at the time and once I got back to that pattern it felt so good. I felt like a kid again. I was doing it from ’94 again, that’s what made it so special. Now I enjoy what I do, doing a lot of remix work and just doing what I love.
Just to wrap up, I know a lot of people don’t really think this far in the future but in 5 years time, where are you going to be and what are you going to be doing?
Hopefully the world will be over with and I’ll be becoming God! And that’s serious. Until that time, I’m going to keep doing music to the best of my knowledge and trying to give people quality music and still travelling until I can’t travel no more. I just want to say that I love what I do and I love the music scene and I know it’s the way it is but it’s the music scene so eventually it’ll get back to where it’s supposed to be.
Boo Williams plays Need2Soul this weekend.