Marshall Jefferson Talks
You know how excited we get over here at R$N towers when we get the chance to interview the true pioneers – a phrase banded around all too lightly these days – so when you get the chance to interview Mr Marshall Jefferson you get pretty hot under the collar/excited/all those other things that raise the adrenalin levels. You get even more excited when the legend in his own right Mr Miles Simpson agrees to conduct said interview. We could go on here with a whole potted history of Mr Jefferson's incredible productions, shout up the fact he's playing Hacienda 30 next weekend but it's always nicer to get down to the nitty gritty of talking and find out that way…
Okay. Thanks for taking the time to speak to me. I thought we’d start back in the very early days because a lot of people are interested in that historical element of Chicago house and kind of work through that. Does that sound reasonable?
That sounds very reasonable.
Good stuff. How long have we got, have you gotta get off anywhere?
Nah, I’m fine. Check this out, what the hell is this? I’m steaming some cabbage. Isn’t that the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen in your life?
Looks great! Where are you?
I’m at home in Manchester.
So have you got friends up there?
Alright, I’ll come onto that later! Is the cabbage safe? It’s not boiling over?
Yeah the cabbage is safe, it’s on a timer, there’s four minutes left.
Okay, well we can have a cabbage break if you need that?
I don’t need no break man.
So, you were considering as one of the first real stars of house music, international stars of house music anyway. I was just wondering how you got into house music originally?
Urm, okay, well I got into house music from listening to the Hot Mix 5 on the radio, seeing various house DJs like Lil Remix Roy and Lil John and Lil Louis and Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.
I started making house music when I drove my friend, who was a guitar player, to a guitar store, The Guitar Centre in Chicago. And the salesman tried to sell us this thing, it was a sequencer right? He said, “With this sequencer you can play keyboards like Stevie Wonder even if you don’t know how to play.” So my friend was like, “You can’t do that man, you gotta take lessons, you gotta practice…” Ya know. But, I listened to him and believe him right, so I said. “I wanna buy it”, I said, “How much?” He said 3,000. And I was like “I dunno man, that’s a lot of money”. He said, “Well you gotta job?”, I say, “Yeah”, he says, “Where?”, I say, “Post office”. So he says, “Lemme try and get you a line of credit”. So he gets me a line of credit, $10,000! I said, “Oh man I’m gonna buy it!” My friend was like, “Why you gonna buy that”, and I said, “Man I wanna play keyboards like Stevie Wonder”. So, bought that right? So the salesman says to me, “You don’t wanna have this sequencer without the keyboard do you?”, and I says, “No”. So I bought the keyboard. And then he says, “You don’t want the sequencer and the keyboard without the drum machine do you?”. So I says, “Ah yeah, you’re right”. So I bought the drum machine. He says, “You don’t wanna have the sequencer, keyboard and drum machine and not have a mixer to play it all through do you?”. And I was like, “Oh yeah, you’re right!”. So I bought a mixer, right? I bought a TB-303. And I bought an amp and I bought a 4-track recorder. You know, bought all kinds of cool stuff.
A whole studio?
Yeah! I run up 9,000 on the tab, right? So, I took it all home and about an hour later all my friends are over looking at all the stuff I bought. And man, they really took the piss out of me man. They really wound me up about it and made me feel two inches tall through with me. “What kind fool buys all this stuff without even knowing how to play it? AAAAARGH!”. You know, man. I wrote my first song two days later and the next year, hand on my heart, DJs all over the world starting hiring keyboard players and telling them to play keyboards like Marshall Jefferson. That’s the truth.
Had you made music before that? Because also, some of your productions are probably a little bit more musical than some of the other early Chicago house productions. So, were you making music beforehand or was this your introduction to making music?
That was my introduction into making music.
And, you know, basically, what the sales guy explained to me with the sequencer like that, out of playing stuff out of like 40 bpms and when I sped it up to 120, it sound like I was Elton John man! I mean, the power that I had was, uhhh, intoxicating. I was slowing this stuff down then speeding it up and I was sounding brilliant at keyboards! Oh man, I mean, it was great. A lot of my friends, I guess I’m not the most threatening guy in the world, so a lot of my friends saw me playing keyboards and slowing stuff down and speeding it up and they played it too, right?
It was this whole, “I’m smarter than Marshall, I can do better than that” you know? A lot of them started doing the same thing and it was, to this day, most of the early Chicago guys played all of their own keyboards. We couldn’t afford keyboard players because we didn’t have the big budget like the New York guys and stuff. That’s cool, everyone had their own sound and their own style and you could tell the difference between a Marshall Jefferson record and a Steve Silk Hurley record and you could tell the difference between a Steve Silk Hurley record and an Adonis record and you could tell the difference between a Jamie Principle record and a Larry Heard record. It was distinct! You could tell between all of us, it was wonderful really.
And everyone was doing the same thing then really? Playing things at a lower speed and then ramping it up?
I think everyone was doing it except for probably Larry Heard. I mean, Larry Heard was a real musician. Larry Heard could play all this stuff real speed, but the rest of us? We were all slowing the stuff down and speeding it up. But the thing is, we were all really confident in ourselves too. I tell people all the time with today’s technology they can play all their own instruments and do all that stuff and they STILL don’t believe me. You know what I mean? That’s confidence. I guess we all had big egos back then.
Was there like a kind of sense of community as producers? You were all going to the same clubs and were part of the same scene, were you mutually supportive?
We were all like brothers man. Fighting and stuff. You know, we loved each other, like brothers. We’re like brothers to this day.
Are you still in touch with all those guys?
I’m in touch with everyone man. I’m still in touch with all those guys, they’re all still like my brothers. I gave all of ‘em work when I was working with the majors and stuff, so you know, it all worked out pretty good I think.
There was a discussion on Resident Advisor over the weekend about Lil Louis, was that you waded in there? In defense?
That was me man, of course! Somebody trying to destroy Lil Louis man, I say get outta here. He didn’t miss that gig on purpose man.
That looked like some fairly unprofessional promoters, some strange stuff going on there… But you’re still sticking together after all these years?
Yeah, I’ve had arguments with Lil Louis too, but he’s another one of my brothers. He used to live a couple of blocks away from me, Fast Eddie was right between me and him, two doors down from me. Yeah, yeah man. I gotta defend him, even if Lil Louis won’t defend himself because it’s a pretty good thing he’s defending himself as well because he’s pretty arrogant. They’ll tear him a new asshole [on Resident Advisor], I’m serious. He’s a good friend, but oh man. Some of the things he says has me laughing for weeks. People with egos they defend some people, they make me laugh, but people with egos, he’ll say one wrong thing on there and, man… It’ll be heaven.
Isn’t there a story behind Lil Louis’ track Video Clash? Didn’t you have something to do with that?
Ah yeah, I co-produced that with him. And that’s all I’m gonna say about it!
Okay, cool, we’ll leave that one there! A lot of your tracks have broken through in the clubs of Chicago, as opposed to you being signed up by labels and promoted that way, you actually promoted via tape directly via DJs. Were you going to the clubs and hanging out in the clubs back then?
Yeah, a little bit. I would hang out at The Music Box for music, The Copper Box for sex.
What was the music scene like in Chicago then? Was it varied, was it competitive amongst the clubs? Was there a sense of competition about who had the hottest unreleased tracks?
I don’t know… When I was [Marshall tastes the cabbage] ooooh I put too much pepper on that… I don’t know! I had like 15 songs or so playing in the club and it there wasn’t really much competition, until the records came out. But in terms of having unreleased stuff in the club? That was pretty much monopolised by me and Jamie Principle I think.
You mentioned there about when the records came out, obviously things really blew up for you with House Music Anthem. Isn’t there a story about how long that took to come out? Wasn’t that doing the rounds off tape for quite some time before you finally got it out on vinyl?
That shit got all the way out to England and stuff man. Ron Hardy he played it six times in a row after first hearing it. And from there…
And that was off tape?
That was off tape. I gave him a cassette tape and he listened to it in the booth and was like, “Oh shit!” and I was like, “Alright! I’m gonna be a star, this is gonna be huge!”. Larry Sherman refused to put it out for me even after I gave him $1,500 to press up 1000 copies for me, he just didn’t like it. He thought it was house music and it wasn’t going to make any money. So, in the meantime, Ron Hardy had about a three month exclusive on it, hottest song in this club. Everytime he played it, it was like a stampede to the dancefloor. I had a friend Sleazy D and he used to get in the Music Box all the time, and everyone was like, “Hey Sleazy!”, you know. Sleazy wanted to get in Frankie Knuckles’ club The Powder Plant for free, so he gave Frankie Knuckles a copy of it, so Frankie started playing it. Somehow, it just so happened that Frankie Knuckle’s best friend was Larry Levan in New York, who played in The Paradise Garage, so Larry Levan started playing it. Somehow Alfredo from Ibiza got a copy and he started playing it in Ibiza. From there, somehow some British DJs got a copy of it, I believe the guy was Jazzy M, another man Oakenfold, maybe Rampling or Pickering, one of those, they started playing it in England, in the UK right?
And next thing I know, I’m getting calls about house music from England. Of course, I’m hearing an English accent and I think it’s one of my friends taking the piss. Man, they all flew to Chicago, everybody! Melody Maker, Mixmag, you know? All these magazines flew to Chicago to interview people about house music. So, one day, Larry Sherman’s bragging and all that, “I know all about house music, I’ll take you to house music clubs in Chicago”, and he didn’t know nothing like that. So he took a bunch of reporters to as many house clubs he knew, and every single club, they played Move Your Body and people went crazy. They played Move Your Body off cassette. So, what happened next, the very next day, he pressed up Move Your Body on Trax Records, and that was that.
Was it originally meant to come out your own label? Is that right?
Yeah, it was meant to come out on my own label, Other Side Records, and it was meant to be OS002. He scratched out that label and added his label, which was TX117. To this day, you can still get copies, somebody has copies, where he scratched out my label and added his label in the wax.
That sounds like a typical Larry Sherman story. He’s developed quite a reputation as being a bit of a character and I’ve heard quite a lot of people speaking in not too glowing terms about him. I’ve also heard Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders behind Virgo Four saying that actually, he was instrumental, because, even though he wasn’t shy of pulling a few fast moves, he put out music for people. He’d give people a little bit of money and actually, that’s what fuelled the scene. How did you find him? Did you have a good relationship with him?
Urrrrrm. Yeah I think so. I mean, he allowed me to do the A & R process for a good year. I got Mr Fingers – Can You Feel It out and Adonis – No Way Back and Phuture Acid Tracks and Jungle One stuff. So, you know, he let me pick out a lot of songs for him, so I would say so.
He kind of underpinned a lot of what was going on but not actually getting put out on vinyl?
Oh yeah, a lot of that stuff wouldn’t of that stuff wouldn’t have got put out on any record label on the planet. He definitely deserves credit for that.
I heard a bit of a story as well about Boo Williams sitting in the basement of Trax, banging out the centres of old disco records so he could melt them down with sneakers and stuff to get those records out?
Hey, whatever it took. But he got those records out.
So, what was your first production? Was that the Virgo record on Other Side, was that Mechanically Replayed?
Nah, Virgo – Go Wild Rhythm Trax, that became Mechanically Replayed, I didn’t play the keyboard on that. Go Wild Rhythm Trax was something I played keyboards over, but I think it might have been David Cope, I’m not sure.
Vince Lawrence was involved in that wasn’t he?
Yeah, he handed me off. That was like a full album with instrumentals and stuff and he took off all the keyboards.
Yeah man, see Vince was, at that time, Vince knew how easy house music was to make. Him and Dempsey were the first you see. And Vince knew. So everybody that comes up trying to make a record, Vince would hand them off and make it seem like making a record was the most difficult thing in the world. I mean, with that record, he was telling me that you’ve got to have the right amount of dust on the console, you can’t have too much and you can’t have too little. Shit like that. He put so much shit on my head that I didn’t know up from down when he got through with me. I was about to quit the music business and give it all up.
So, what made you change your mind?
I went to The Music Box and I saw Ron Hardy play I’ve Lost Control and saw everybody lose control and I said, “Hey, I can do this”.
It sounds like back then Chicago was almost like the Wild West of house music, like that final frontier with a lot of stuff going on?
Yeah! It was wild, but it was still a family. But yeah, there was a lot of wild stuff going on.
Okay, well you’re back over in England for the Hacienda Thirty parties, but you first came to the UK for the House Music Tour in 1987, is that right?
Was that your first experience of the acid house culture phenomenon in England?
In 1987? There was no acid house then. The first time we went it was people in suits and ties man.
Yeah, the only places that got us, for the most part, people being like, “What the fuck is this?”, you know? In their suits and ties and stuff. The only place, the only club, that really got where were coming from was the Hacienda. And there was another place. Our best gig was at this place called Rock City in Nottingham. That wasn’t even a proper club, but man those were the people that got us.
So a very different vibe in England from what was going on in Chicago at the time?
Right, but when I came back 6 months later after Acid Trax had come out, that’s when we found our place, T-shirts and all that shit. And I was like, “What the fuck is going on here?”. Aciiiiiied Aciiiiiied!
So in Chicago, no-one was aware that acid house had caught on in the UK and had exploded?
Man, they caught on pretty quick when they found out money was coming in, everybody started making acid tracks, and I was like, “I don’t wanna make any more”. I sold my TB-303 for $1000, I only paid 150 for it so that was a good deal.
Do you feel at that point your sound developed in a different way. It was around that time you started to produce for more major labels on the east coast, is that right?
Yeah, that’s when I started working with Ce Ce Rogers and Ten City and Kym Mazelle, and you know, that’s when I really got deep into the live instruments.
So was that a big transition production-wise to go from home studios to, I imagine, quite big fully-blown studios.
Well it wasn’t as big of a transition as you’d think. I’d played this stuff on my keyboard and these new instruments felt like playing what I played. It wasn’t difficult at all, it was a natural transition.
When you were over here in the UK on the House Music Tour, when you came back six months later were you DJing at that point, or were you coming over as a performing artist?
I came over as a performing artist, I came over with Ce Ce Rogers and Kym Mazelle. Matter of fact, Kym Mazelle just rang me, I can do a three way call with her if you want. Right now.
Kym Mazelle, I think, is one of the first few house records I bought I think, I’m Useless? Is that right?
Yeah, you wanna talk to her real quick? She’s a lovely, lovely lady.
Yeah, if you want!
Let me see if I can do it on here… No… That’s not it… Ah no, I can’t do it on my iPad. Ahhhh shit.
I was hoping I could get her to dish a bit of dirt on you there Marshall.
Ah man, it would be difficult to get her to dish any dirt on me, lovely person.
When did you start getting into DJing as well as producing? Were you always doing that or was it something that came later?
Yeah I was DJing first before I started making music. Like I said, that was the Hot Mix, Frankie Knuckles, Lil Remix Roy and Kenny Jammin Jason and Ralphy Rosario and Farley.
Were you DJing in the clubs in Chicago or kind of at parties, or?
Nah man, I wasn’t big enough until my records came out, then I started doing it. But I was the world’s greatest bedroom DJ.
I thought that was me!
You shoulda seen me in my bedroom man doing all those tricks. Man, I was SENSATIONAL.
So did you find that that kind of grounding in DJing kind of set you up for dance music production? Because some people find that sometimes DJs don’t always make great producers and great producers don’t always make great DJs, even though some of the basic principles are the same, making people dance you know?
Right, I think you either have an ear or you don’t. I’ve seen guys with rock ears man, they can’t hear shit. Don’t know what’s going on, can’t feel the crowd, I think it’s something you’re born with.
Production-wise, have you got much in the pipeline at the moment? Or are you concentrating on DJing at the moment?
Pretty much DJing at the moment, I don’t have shit in the pipeline. I don’t have shit happening. I have my little funky label, Open House Recordings, and I put something out on there every three months or so, but mostly I DJ and I pick up some cheques from songs I did 25 years ago soon. That’s all I do.
That pays the bills?
That pays the bills.
You don’t live in Chicago any more do you?
I just came from Chicago, but I don’t really live there. I go back and forth from the States to England. I live in Manchester, New Jersey and Chicago. Although my house in Jersey was completely destroyed by the hurricaine, Sandy.
Yeah, so right now it’s Chicago and England.
Sorry to hear about your house. I’ve got some friends in New Jersey and their house is flooded out in Jersey City. Their house is kind of okay but the basement is full of water.
Tell them that they’ve really got to contact FEMA, because FEMA’s really on it man. They’re really very, very helpful. If they just call them and let them come over and see the damage they’ll send a cheque right over.
I’ll let them know!
I mean, they’re really on it man. I don’t know what it’ll be like know if they’ve waited too long or whatever, but as soon as it happened, my girl got right on it and she got help.
That’s good advice, thank you! Earlier you were talking about the close-knit sense of community amongst Chicago house producers back in the day. Do you think that’s gone in Chicago now? There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of house music coming out of Chicago at the moment. Off the top of my head, the only label that’s really prolific is Jamal Moss’ Mathematics, there doesn’t seem to be a lot coming out. Is that because people have moved on? What’s happening in Chicago these days?
Well a lot of music is still coming out, it’s just that nobody’s hearing it. It’s extremely crowded now, if Move Your Body came out today, nobody would hear it. I wouldn’t make it if it came out today. If I did an extremely hot record that’s better than Move Your Body, I’d have a hard time getting it played because it’s so crowded. When I first started there were 20-25 new dance records a week coming out, now there’s like 30-50,000 new dance records coming out a week because everybody can make it. So you have that really long jam of new artists making music and I’m not so sure that I’m better than everybody else. You know what I mean?
Yes, well maybe not, but… There’s a lot of competition.
Yeah, there’s a lot of competition. So, that’s a problem. Just imagine what a brand new artists that nobody’s heard of has to go through to get his stuff listened to.
Are there labels still putting stuff out in Chicago that we’re not aware of then? I know that Gene Hunt is still doing stuff, but he’s putting stuff out in Europe and some of the stuff on Mathematics, that’s from Europe. Are people just not really putting out records in Chicago any more? Or is it just that competition thing?
It’s that competition thing man, 100%. Everybody’s putting out records, it’s just too crowded.
So, you mentioned the Hacienda way back when you first visited it, did you go back there more? Do you play there more regularly over the years?
Fuck yeah man, that was like my home away from home.
Didn’t you live in England for a bit as well, during the 90s?
I lived in England maybe 15, 16 years.
Was that in Manchester?
It was in London originally, then I moved to Manchester because the rent was like 5 times cheaper.
Is it good to be back in England, or do you feel like you’ve never been away?
A little bit of both. I’m glad of being back in England because I don’t have to dodge bullets. Chicago you have to dodge bullets.
Ahhhh man, it’s rough in Chicago. One of the highest murder rates in the United States.
Sounds like a reason to be in the UK. Have you got anything special planned for the Hacienda parties? What should people expect?
Well at any Hacienda party, you got some really sensational DJs playing a really big variety. It’s not just house music. You can hear like New Order and Man Parish and Freeze and all these great, great dance records. Not necessarily house and it’s not formatted, so you can play everything you want. I mean, I played Kraftwerk 2 nights ago at the Hacienda party right? I played Trans-Europe Express and I had to blend it with Kraftwerk – Numbers for a good four minutes and I was trying to show people where Planet Rock came from. Because what used to happen back in the day was the Hot Mix Five used to do these DJ battles with Grandmaster Flash in there from New York and Kenny Jammin Jason whipped out that blend of Numbers and Trans-Europe Express and the crowd just went nuts. Every DJ in the city tried to do that mix, Numbers and Trans-Europe Express, and low and behold shortly after that Bambaataa came out with Planet Rock, which was Numbers and Trans-Europe Express.
So Chicago was responsible for Planet Rock?
Yeah! Think deeply now about just how many original ideas that group came up with. Just think.
People were going crazy for that radio show back then weren’t they? I’ve heard stories about people skipping work and skipping school to record it.
It was the best mixed show in history. Those boys man, they would do scratching, back-spinning, phasing, just all kinds of cutting and all that stuff that you would never hear in a New York mix. It was absolutely the most brilliant mixing I’ve ever heard.
You think that the Chicago style was a little more energetic than the New York style of DJing. You think there’s a different style from the cities?
Well, a typical Hot Mix vibe mix would be forty songs per hour. If I was to listen to Shep Pettibone or Timmy Regisford, they’d get maybe 15 songs max in an hour. The Hot Mix Five would have duplicates of every song and they would do all kinds of tricks and in that minute and a half that each song had, it was unbelievable. You could get some of those long pieces out, you don’t hear anything like that any more.
You say you don’t hear anything like that any more, why do you think that happens? Because there’s a lot of discussion about technology in DJing, is that detracting from the skill of DJs or is it just things have moved on and people are less imaginative?
Part of it is, a lot of people how to get a lot of the things they did. I’m not saying there’s not good DJs now, because the DJs now combined with the technology, there’s some brilliant DJs out there now. I’m just saying that a lot of things they did, it’s a lost art. Things that just aren’t being done any more, like the phasing and having two copies of every record. Now, if a DJ does cricks, he’s got to do it with one copy of the record, not two because he doesn’t need it, because the decks have samplers on them and all that kind of stuff. So you can basically do with one record what they used to do with two. You know, the DJs are working with what they have. I don’t expect a DJ to play with vinyl because it sucks now, it sounds bad over a digital sound system, so they shouldn’t learn how to play vinyl, they should learn today’s technology and deal with that. It can be every bit as innovative as the old timers used to be.
Do you think that happens though? Because you mentioned that everyone’s making records now because technology has allowed everyone to make records. DJing technology allows anyone, if they’ve got the money for the right equipment, to be a DJ now. They might not be a good DJ, but anyone can be a DJ. Do you think that that technology, is it a force for good, or a force for mediocre DJing?
Both man. The good thing about it is you have a wider DJ pool than you used to have. A much bigger DJ pool. Out of that much bigger DJ pool you’re gonna have more good DJs. Somebody who would’ve played guitar 30 years ago is DJing now. Somebody who would’ve played drums 30 years ago is DJing now because it’s more accessible. You’re gonna have that big pool of talented people coming out, so bring ‘em on.
Is there anyone out there that’s particularly exciting you, or has caught your ear?
Man, I got a big ego man, I don’t wanna think of better people. There are a couple of DJs that I saw, Eats Everything at The Lighthouse, I really enjoyed listening to him. Virus J out of Lithuania, I really like listening to him. I’m not saying they’re the only DJs that are good, but there are so many good DJs that it’s hard to pick one out.
Are you utilising new technology yourself these days?
There’s not much else to say about technology. There’s people who use stuff like Traktor and Serato and they’ll know much more about it than me.
So what do you use?
I use CDs, I just don’t know how to utilise the performance aspect with computers yet. If I find out how to give a great performance playing with a computer, I’ll do it. I’m just not good enough at it yet.
So where will people be able to catch you playing on the Hacienda 30 tour? What’s next up?
Koko in London on the 15th!
That’s a great club, you might remember it as the Camden Palace many years ago.
I kinda remember that…
The Camden Palace was one of the first acid house clubs that I went to, 22 years ago, so I’ve got a soft spot for it in my house.
Well it’s nothing like that now, it’s the same building but it’s a lot nicer now. You'll have a great time.
I might come along and check you out. I think that is just about it Marshall, so thank you very much for your time.
Alright, thank you, take care!
Marshall Jefferson plays Hacienda 30 next weekend Saturday 15th December alongside Todd Terry & Mike Pickering. Full details and tickets here.
With love and thanks to Mr Miles Simspson for the always excellent interview and to Patrick Henderson for the tireless hours of transcription. A sterling effort on both behalves. Thank you as always. R$N x
Remember to always check Miles' excellent Beyond The Stars blog… frequently!