We were lucky enough to catch up with Kerri Chandler, incredible DJ, house music pioneer, technical genius, for a chat during his recent stopover in London. We touched on everything from the state of the music industry, music education in schools, his introduction to house music and DJing on milk crates as a thirteen year old…
Hi Kerri. Lets go back to the start: Your father was a DJ who used to take you to gigs, what kind of stuff was he playing and what was your initial feeling around the whole world of nightclubbing?
I always thought my dad was really really cool, just like any other kid – if your dad’s cool you wanna be just like him. It wasn’t just him in the club, it was his friends and also most of my family – cousins, uncles – they’re all dj’s – it was like a family business in a way and it just fell right into place, it almost came as second nature to me.
You, yourself, began to DJ incredibly early – what was it aged thirteen? – when you started a residency at the Rally Racquet Club in NJ? How was that?
Funny thing is I started even earlier than that at home, but I started playing out at thirteen. Like I said before, when my dad was away I’d sneak onto his turntables and mess around, he busted me one day and heard me play and had me warming up at the club after that. It was incredible – I was so short at the time that they’d have to put me on a crate in front of the turntables, and they’d just pass me records back and forth and I’d mix them. I was so young I just wanted to mix, I didn’t really know the records well as I’d just started but I was so enthusiastic about mixing records. I’d ride disco records, which was interesting because everything had different timing – I found out where the breaks were, the timing – the drum rolls would get faster so I’d pitch it down and bring it back and I found ways to have things really smooth with certain records. Then I found out how to extend things – back then it was really, really incredibly technical because we didn’t have 1200s at the club we had 1800s – you had to pitch them and play with the little cue nobs – but I wouldn’t change a thing, I have wonderful memories of that place.
What kind of stuff did you play when you first started out and who/what initially introduced you to house music for the very first time?
At Rally Racquet club it was disco and soulful stuff, more like a disco movement – my dad and uncle played everywhere and that’s what I listened to and was influenced by – there was also a lot of local artists around like Surface, War, Kool and the Gang and my Dad knew all of these guys – they were regulars at the club. Seeing them in the studio was like ‘wow’ this is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. It felt so normal. I loved just being behind a mixing desk, just watching. They all took me in, it all fell into place for me that way. The house music part just progressed from disco. The first time I actually really paid attention to a house track was the song called Find A Way by Russ Brown. I actually saw Russ playing it off a Reel to Reel at Rally Racquet and I was like ‘what is that?’ it sounded like it was coming from a Casio drum machine and I heard it had been remixed by Tee Scott. I’d never heard stuff quite like it, my Dad and his partner at the time brought in drum machines and a lot of artists played them over the top of records when they were mixing. I kinda just progreesed on from there and did the same thing – it just made sense to me – to this day I’m doing the same thing – ‘carrying the torch’ as my Dad says.
There’s been a real resurgence of the ‘New Jersey’ sound recently, with acts like Bicep becoming very popular in the UK with a sound heavily indebted to that which you helped create. What would you say goes into the New Jersey sound, as distinct to the house of NY or Chicago?
The thing is with the NY sound is it was very fashionable, upscale and sophisticated. It was a sophisticated, expensive sound. New Jersey was always a gospel sound, we were really trying to release. Not that they werent trying to release in NY, but it was more of a fashionable thing there. At Studio 54 you might get picked at the door, you might not. New Jersey, everyone was invited – it was more like a gospel reunion, everyone had an expression of trying to release and let go. We had Tony Humphries just breaking all of us, all the acts, at Zanzibar. That was the hub for all the artists and people coming together and making something positive happen. Tony was at the forefront of that and the sound there, which he absolutely pioneered. It was an outlet for us and we all found our way, it was like going to church in a way.
I read that the title of your LP KAOZ 6.23, relates to a run of bad luck you experienced always on or around June 23rd. Is that right and if so, has it ceased?
No, it hasn’t ceased. I always notice something happens around that time of year. I thought I’d actually got away with it this year, but that morning I had to rush my daughter to the hospital as she was having some heart issues. She’s Ok now. It happens every year, it could be fights, I’ve had a few people die that same day my grandmother, my uncle my cousin the day after each other. I’ve had places broken into – I cant begin to tell you how many times, it just seems that everyone has a good or bad time of year, my just fall around June. My daughters first birthday party, on June 6th, there was pretty much a gunfight at her grandmothers house in East Orange! I just kept noticing, every year the same kinda thing. I always try to be very aware. The 23rd June just seems to be when it peaks. I’m not really a superstitious person, I just kept noticing the trend.
I’ve seen some footage of you playing the laser harp live, it’s a pretty sci fi instrument – how did you get into that, who introduced you to the instrument for the first time?
I actually built that instrument myself years ago. I saw Jean Michelle Jarre using something like it, and was fascinated by how it worked. I wanted a hybrid I could actually take on the road – I made various versions of it but my final version was with my friend Jerome Barbe who actually did work with J MJ and my understanding of it is mine actually works, JMJ’s didnt, it’s just for show and I didn’t realise that at the time. So it goes to show, if your persistent woith something – its the same as Star Treck – they had Ipads before they existed, but now they do! When I was a kid I was fascinated with things like that. I’m an engineer by trade and I like building gear, I actually built the laser harp in the early nineties and it just kept progressing. Jerome actually helped make the midi interface for it, I just kept the same idea designs and sent him over schematics for what I wanted and he made it all midi. The man is like my right arm when it comes to building or fixing things, I bounce a lot of ideas of him for mixers and other studio gear. Its just one of those ongoing things, I built touchscreens way before the whole thing came up – I design so many things that I take on the road with me to play in clubs and just have fun with.
You picked up the upright bass and were taught to play classical piano at school, do you think this musical grounding at an early age has been part of the secret to your longevity as a musician and DJ?
I absolutely believe that if you get into making music you should learn how to play an instrument. When I began making music you actually had to make music it wasnt all these computers around, you had to rent studio time out you had to have musicians around. It wasnt as easy as it is now – now I can pick up an ipad and just make up things fast. I call it the ‘Ableton Generation’ right now, but you used to have to have a whole room of gear to do production. House music started with a few pieces and a recording machine. At the early age of any of it I believe you kind of had to have a musical background when you started. Now you can take pieces of anything and as long as you make them match it kinda works. I’d hate to see the artistry of musicians disappear, because I really believe that’s an important skill set. They don’t even teach music in school like they used to – when we were growing up you had to play an instrument at school, everyone played an instrument, it was part of the curriculum. I was really sad to see that go. In New Jersey I’m part of a programme putting music back into schools, donating instruments to schools and even going into schools and teaching certain things.
A lot of people don't realise there’s a budget in the school system (which no one ever tells you about) which is allocated to music. Someone actually has to initiate it, going into a music store and ask about it and you can get a budget for instruments for schools. Then they just need someone to teach the actual lessons. Most schools have around a 20k budget but you know, mums the word, so god knows what the schools actually do with that money. If there’s anyone out there that wants to help get music back into schools they can enquire with schools and find out what the budget is and get involved. The reason I took up the upright bass was because that was the only instrument left to play in the band. No one wanted to take that big thing home! It was either that or the violin and I was like ‘I’m not playing the violin!’. So I picked up the bass and had to take it home with me everyday, it had one big wheel on it and I was dragging it back and forth, the thing was bigger than me. But I don’t regret it and I’ve had a wonderful time learning how to play it and had some incredible gigs playing the upright bass and til this day I still play it. In terms of my longevity I just try to be consistent with everything I do and stick to my guns with what I feel sounds good.
How’s everything going with Madhouse records, how have you found running a label in the last few years with all the change around the industry with downloads/falling physical sales etc? Would you say that things are back on the up within the industry generally?
I think that in this point in time its really about promotion before sales, because you’re a dj and you need people playing your material in order to stay out there. Physical sales as far as vinyl and all that, I don’t think thats ever going to be the same again – people love sharing music and thats never going to stop. Did it kill the business in regard to physical sales? Yeah. But I think a lot of it has to do with the record business – they found a way to be so greedy with it that people weren’t having it anymore and rebelled against it. They shot themselves in the foot. I found out from my friend Jerome that these companies were dumping pressing plant machines in the middle of the ocean and then they wanted to get greedy with cd’s. When people started sharing files it was bizarre to me that these companies wanted to start pressing vinyl again and holding on for dear life! The music industry is very well, but the Record industry destroyed it. Its interesting that now everyone can have a record label and share music but I believe you still need a tone of quality – if you do it properly you can have longevity. Ive never been in it to make money, I do it because its something I enjoy doing. The money comes from everything else – when I go on tour or whatever. A big part of it now is the publishing aspect, people should be looking at revenue streams coming from that. Its still a matter of quality though.
Who of the new wave of house producers have you been most excited by in recent years, and are there particular labels you follow religiously?
Ive never followed anyone in particular, I follow the music. I buy music and find out who it is later, honestly. If I hear something I like, I play it. It could be the guy that just made something in his apartment or some big thing that everyone knows. I just like music and I don’t care where it comes from. There are some people who are very consistent that I love hearing but that’s a way bigger list than I’ve got time to go into! I don’t care who made it, where its come from. I just love good music. I really believe there are some really interesting people coming up in the new generation, thats why I started Mad Tech. When I was starting I had a really hard time beginning, working out how to get my stuff out. Then I had a few big breaks – one was from my greatest inspiration – Mel Medalie at Champion who took me under his wing, then the same thing with Atlantic – I got really lucky early on. I felt I’d do the same thing for people who I felt really had a talent and could develop into something wonderful. That’s why I started Mad Tech – it’s what I really love to do – bring the next generation through. I’m really a big fan of new work and people developing the sound and keeping it going for years to come.
Finally, have you got any new releases/material planned for the near future which we can look forward to getting our ears around?
I’m working on Basement Red Light Volume 3, if I finally ever get off touring! I’m doing a lot of production on mad tech, a lot of remix stuff. I’ve just finished my studio off again – I think I’ve got it to the point where I can work really cleverly, streamlining the way I get things done. I’m one of these people that likes doing things the hard way, I’ve got all these hybrid really bizarre machines, I call it ‘Chandlerizing’ – I rebuild everything, I don’t like anything simple or ‘stock’. It some ways its like my own little Frankesnteins monster, when the monster’s cool he’s very, very cool. It’s just my way of being forward thinking, having my own little laboratory as I like to say. There’s so much stuff I’m looking forward to in the future, I feel blessed to keep going and doing this as long as I have and I appreciate everyone supporting me the way they have, so thanks to everyone for that too.
Thanks Kerri, much appreciated.
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