Roy Davis JR Talks
Whilst best known for the seminal 'Gabriel', Roy Davis Jr's story weaves in and out of the history of house music – from being a member of Chicago Bad Boys and Phuture, to djing at the Bismark alongside Steve Pointdexter and A&Ring for Strictly Rhythm. Our man in the field, Mr Miles Simpson, sat down for a wide ranging chat with the man himself to talk everything from his current work as a remixer for the likes of Disclosure, his relationship with Peven Everett, sudden success and a return to the raw for his forthcoming album, 'Destroy and Rebuild'…
Youre from Chicago but how did you get into house music originally?
Yeah, well I got into house music from people like Farley Jackmaster Funk and listening to the hot mix five on the radio and going to hotel parties by Lil Louis, I actually lived round the corner from DJ Pierre . So its like, Chicago house music was the culture. Before I got into house music I was going breakdance music and also Italian disco and once house music had kinda took over in Chicago I jumped right on it. Got me a little drum machine and a 909 and started making beats one by one until somebody actually was interested in my talents that I had. So I was also doing songwriting so the first song I did was 20 below with DJ Pierre and then I moved on from that, working with Marshall Jefferson and the rest was history! I just kept moving and networking with different people. I was also a member of Chicago Bad Boys.
I kept dealin with those guys and started making tracks and my first group that was signed was Umosia with Marshall Jefferson in the early 90s. It went from that to different situations on production to remixes and so forth, until today, where Im a world travelling DJ and producer working on my 7th album – its called Destroy And Rebuild, and that album is featuring a few Chicago artists and also Los Angeles vocalist Terry Dexter, whos an RnB vocalist and has featured on my last couple of albums. Ive just finished remixing Rudimental, one of their singles for their album. And before that, a couple of weeks ago I just finished up Disclosure and one of their remixes. So at the moment Im just staying current and keeping up with the sounds that are changing but also trying to keep that original Chicago house sound involved in what Im doing today.
You mentioned the Chicago Bad Boys, Im actually sitting in my little record room and Ive just pulled one of those records out. Great record, and its on a Gherkin Records offshoot yeah?
Yeah, yeah, thats a flashback right there! (Laughs) Even I dont have copies of that stuff! Back then I was like the home base studio where Steve Poindexter would come and Armando would come to my mums basement cos she didnt mind me playing the music loud, so back then thats actually where we were putting those records together.
Yeah, thats a great record. Didnt you used to go and party at the Lil Louis things in like the Continental Hotel and Bismarck and places like that?
Yeah, I went to his Bismarck hotel parties and he also did a couple of Navy Pier parties and I was mostly a dancer back then but at the same time I was just up and coming on the production. I was always DJing but I was more about the dancing and checking out the vibes back then. You know, schmoozing with everybody and youre just feeling the groove.
So did the DJing kind of come before the production or did they go hand in hand?
They kinda went hand in hand. I grew up in a musical family and my mum played keys and my dad played the saxophone and my uncle played for Roberta Flack. So he was always round music. Drums were my first instrument, then keys, and then the DJing thing, when that came in all of my focus was on that. But you know, it all really kinda merged itself together at the same time. I never gave one of them more love than the next. Because I mean, in order to create music, the kind of music I was creating was just hip-hop beats, and just raw beats, when I first started. You know? And then the whole house thing was just a little branch off the italian disco to me so it was just cool. It was just like the next thing to do. It just became so much of a culture here, theres why we have a million DJs here in Chicago. (Laughs) Its not a fad, its not the next thing to do lets do it! It became the culture and it still is.
Part of life.
But you also got a DJing break at the Bismarck? Is that right?
Yeah, that was my first big gig. I was doing my neighborhood gigs and stuff but Armando, rest in peace, gave me my first big gig with Steve Poindexter at the Bismarck hotel.
What were those parties like?
Oh they were totally insane. It was like a mixed crowd of different races with different genres of music being played, from disco to Chicago tracks which some people call techno now but its not, its just Chicago tracks to us. (Laughs) You know? But, yeah it was just like good music and back then guys would wear like flat t-shirts and bold pants with padded shoes or padded leather boots. It was a fashion statement back then. And it was just a good place to see every culture, from latins to many different cultures to just join together and dance in one room. Thats why I liked going to the Bismarck hotel, but here was a lot of different spots like Sawyers and Hummingbird, it was so many different things and places to go to, just like it still is today.
Pretty wild parties then?
Yeah, good quality parties.
So you mentioned Umosia, and the first Umosia record really blew up didnt it. I remember it getting licensed over here and it was on Big Beat in the US wasnt it?
Yeah, yeah, it was on Big Beats label outta New York and Marshall Jefferson helped me get that signed and then went on to Polydor Records and the guy who took care of that whole deal was the guy who runs Atlantic records now.
So was that a bit of an experience going from making music in the garage with your friends to being on a major international label?
Yeah it was weird! (Laughs) It kind of happened like I was supposed to be there. You know, like it was supposed to happen. It was a little easy with certain things, like connecting with Phuture as they lived around the corner. But to actually write songs to get them picked up by a major, took a lot of time. It took a lot of time to actually, you know not work your job and focus on lyrics. Marshall heard the first demo and he was like Man, oh yeah. Lets hook up and we hooked up really fast. Like the very next day he heard the demo and the next thing I know I was getting picked up in limousines to go to universal studio. It was just fast! (laughs)
Marshalls a very shrewd guy and he knows his music doesnt he, so he can really spot something?
He taught me a lot man, because during those days we all made tracks, but in order to compose a song, and to use Chicago symphony orchestra in your song, I think I was probably 18 at the time, you know to actually be a part of all of that taught me a lot. It taught me to carry a track from a track to a song you know what I mean? Just put as many elements as you want in it. I just learnt so much being around Marshall, he was most definitely a great mentor.
You also got involved as part of Phuture at some point too, didnt you?
At that time, Pierre was on Jive Records and Phuture, they werent broke up but, he didnt have the time to put into them as a group. So at that time I was still doing Umosia but also would help out with Phuture and my first song for them was Rise From Your Grave. And I remember when I made it from a sample, like a little Rise From Your Grave from a Sega Genesis game and then I told Spanky that we should put in what we called at the time the cocaine voice because it was so deep and Spanky got that name from the first original Phuture record, then when he first heard it he was like oh man oh this be great this be great. So they took the record and everybody at the label thought it was weird. They were like this is a weird record but next thing you know it blew up and everybody loved it. I stayed with the group for a while and we toured all over the world and I always knew that Phuture would be my home base as they were my friends and my connections and my buddies but I also knew that Roy Davis had something else inside of him and something else to share with the world as a writer.
I remember hearing Rise From Your Grave for the first time and it completely blew me away. It kinda set the scene for a lot of music that followed that wild pitch sound as that developed. I think a lot of people associate it with Pierre but if you look at a lot of the really key wild pitch records, you were involved with those records – you made or mixed them. So you played just as key role as Pierre in that sound. Was that conscious or was it just something that evolved from what you were doing before?
I think that that was kind of a neighborhood sound that we had. I really give Pierre the credit for that sound and then, being big friends and music partners we kind of grew as musicians and track makers from that sound. And we all made tracks but it came to a point when me and Pierre became wild pitch brothers, you know, so we just built on the sound and kept it going. Thats kind of like what I did with the new Disclosure bits. I brought back the Rise From Your Grave heavy bassline sound and something just a little bit more energetic .
You mentioned Felix there. You guys, you Felix and Pierre, you all had records out on Guerilla Records in London. I think that was one of your first solo releases?
Yeah, Mind Power. Ill never forget that record.
I mean, how did that happen? Guerilla Records had a very distinct sound in London, it was a very English progressive sound and then all of a sudden this series of amazing records came out on them from America and everyone was like whats happening here? I loved all of them, Ive got this record just here actually too.
Oh wow! (Laughs) Well, that particular moment in time, Pierre was like hey, lets go to Europe and do a few gigs. Pierre was very open to teaching me and Felix the business and opening that door. So me and Felix both hopped on that plane with Pierre came to the UK, and that happened to be one of the tracks that was made there, Mind Power. I cant remember what Felixs track was
I think it was Nu-World?
Yeah, I remember Pierres track was Atom Bomb (laughs) I remember that because it was just so crazy! So yeah, we met up with the guys behind the Guerilla record label and they heard the tracks and were like yeah we wanna buy them on the spot, so they got excited and took it from there and rest was history. I made my first mark in the UK.
Another big record in the UK, that I think almost got signed to a UK label was The Believers, Who Dares To Believe.
Yeah, that got licensed to the Ministry of Sound. But that was on Strictly at first.
Theres a little story about that though, right?
Yeah, that was almost going to be on Azuli Records because when I made it I was out in the UK and the guy who owned the label and the store at the time heard it and thought it needed something extra. He was right! (Laughs) I went back to New York and then since I was working at Strictly at the time, when you work for these labels, Strictly really have the right for first refusal over a lot of my projects so what I would do is I would let them hear something before it went somewhere else. So that happened to be one of those records. I added saxophone by Steve Graber and made it a hit record for the underground scene.
You put out a lot of music on Strictly and quite a bit on Power Music as well. Were you living in New York then or were you just working in Chicago?
Well at the time I lived in New York for a little bit with Pierre whilst working at Strictly and staying up late hours to edit records and get them ready for the next release, because back then Strictly was releasing records so fast and so needed some help on certain things so I went out and helped on that for a while and developed my own label which was Red Cat records and took that back to Chicago and thats when I was doing some of the A&R for Strictly under the Red Cat alias logo.
Umosia was the first record on Red Cat as well wasnt it?
Yeah yeah, Umosia. Then I had a DJ Skull record, Oasis of Soul and a few other records in there. And then at the same time, shortly after, I did a little bit more work with Duke from Power Music. He had the same mentality as Strictly. As fast as you can make a track, let me have it. I didnt have time to do my own tracks when I was doing them for DJ Duke all day! (Laughs) But it was cool because he liked the raw Chicago tracks
Personally, my favourite records that you made were probably on Power Music. Like the Wild Life EP, the mix you did of Nate Williams that was brilliant. Ive got two copies of it because I wore one out!
Nate Williams was another one of our buddies with us as well.
And I think that Lost Voyage is one of the most underrated acid records ever. Its interesting that Duke kind of let you develop that rawer edge.
He was like just go in there and make tracks. Back then we also had different equipment and things were a little just, raw and dirty and easier to do I think. So you know, now stuff just seems a little bit clean. So I kinda actually went back just because I still wanna make raw stuff. I mean I will always have stuff polished but with that rough edge.
I know people that have gone back to using Akai Samplers and stuff because of the sound, rather than sampling on a computer because of the way it sounds. A lot of people are longing for that less clinical sterile sound that you sometimes get with software I think. Are you using that now in your new mixes?
Yeah I use some analogue pieces. The Juno 106, the Jupiter, and then the rest of the stuff is inside of the computer. But I had to make sure I had that stuff, it was like man I need some dirt.
So, a record that youre probably always asked about is Gabriel. Peven Everett has to be one of the strongest house vocalists ever. He has an amazing voice. Hes a Chicago native as well, how did you hook up with him?
Yes yes, uhh I hooked up with him, me and Felix were actually going to Germany and we went shopping and went to a local mall and a buddy of Pevens was working in the shoe store where me and Felix were shopping and said hey do you guys need a trumpet player? and felix said I dont use trumpets but roy does, holla at him. So the guy came up to me and hes like hey, can you get this guy who uses trumpet? and I said that when I come back off tour Id give him a show. So when I came back from Germany a couple of months later, it was actually me and Mondo and Mike Dunn at the time, I was like lets see whats up, so I called this guy and at the time Peven was living in new york and I didnt have any work at the time so I hooked him up with Duke thinking he could play on one of dukes horn tracks or something and I was talking to him on the phone and he said that he was going to be moving back home. He was from a local town called Harvey in Illinois which is where, when I first moved back from California, I used to live as a kid. And then he decided to come over and the first thing I got him to do was play a couple of horn tracks and at the time he wasnt singing he was just a hired trumpet player, but he knew how to play other instruments and stuff, but all of us in the crew didnt know he did all of that and then as time went on we started making records like Angora and then we did Gabriel and then we did a bunch of records that didnt even come out, like Disco Man and a couple other things. Gabriel was something we did in the studio together on the same day, probably took 3 days to actually mix and for me to make all the different remixes that I did. This one stirred up a lot of trouble from the fact that Peven wasnt a singer or a writer at the time and then he started singing and I felt like I was the guy that was inspiring him to do that. Throughout time lets just say that I couldnt work with him any longer due to certain situations. It was just a headache, a thorn in my side that I normally dont talk about. So once I moved on from that I dont even look back to be honest. When youre feeding people and you treat them right theres no reason for them to treat you wrong or make up lies about you. So what I did, I decided that, okay, cut it off and keep it moving because Im still Roy Davis regardless, Ill make records with and without anybody. That was a tough thing to go through because I thought that was a person I loved and due to a person not being able to handle the music business it would cause issues every time wed do a performance and there was a problem there.
This is stuff Ive never talked about. It was just so much a problem that promoters were like if you dont get rid of this person then we cant book you anymore. You know, when it starts to get like that you have to step back and you have to communicate with that person on a mature level.
The production of that record, Gabriel, was quite different to what had come before and it made a real impact over in Britain and developed what eventually became the UK garage scene and the UK garage sound. I was wondering, when did you realize what an impact that production had made?
Probably like a few months after it came out. The actual record that the UK got was the garage mix, it was a remix. That wasnt the original. All of the original mixes came out on large records but they didnt take any of those other mixes, so they took that mix which was the garage mix, which when I decided to make, I listened to Funkanova and so thats why the beat sounded the way that it did. I wasnt thinking it was gonna be some big garage thing or anything like that, to me it was going to be a Chicago soul record. (Laughs) So the beat I guess transcended to the garage scene and it picked up from there and all of a sudden on a pile of radio stations and I was getting all these crazy letters from everywhere. Just like the same thing that happened when the believers came out. Next thing you know I had to sit down and make a decision what we were gonna do with the record as we had so many offers on it when it came through on large records. So me, Jeff and Peven sat down and decided what it was gonna go on. And it was getting bid on by like every single major. XL seemed like they had the best deal on the table at the time and with my understanding of it now I would have done that situation a little bit different. I would have made sure we had a proper album deal out of that but it was only a single with the option for an album. So thats why there was never an album follow up. We made the songs but it wasnt something that the label was looking for. So we just kept it moving and I was still doing my thing and at the time Peven was doing his band stuff, because we were doing band stuff together at one point and then we split off and he was doing his thing and I was doing mine. I just wanted to keep music going, I didnt want to be sitting around waiting for a major to say yes or no.
During that period your records became a lot more soulful, compared to stuff you were doing for Power Music and compared to the Wild Pitch stuff.
The thing is that if you go back to like the Umosia days it was all soul music and it was all soul house and there was probably about 20 songs that were done in that time period that didnt even see the light of day because we never released them. So that was kind of rough on me, spending a lot of time writing songs and then the majors holding them up. (laughs) And also at that time Craig Kallman was leaving and he went to Atlantic Records to run Atlantic and there was a lot of stuff in between when my more vocal tracks didnt get a chance to see the light of day.
One of your records, Inside of Me on King Street, thats got quite a big Skull Snaps sample in it which was a great soul record, so was the music like that, kinda Detroit soul, a big influence on you? Were you a big soul fan?
I was just a music fan. Period. Its like from soul music to rock music to dance music I was just a bit of everything and I still am that way and sometimes it makes it hard when people might know me for the record I did, like the Phuture stuff and then people might know me for what I did with daft punk. And then they might know me for what I did with Peven. So sometimes it begins to get a bit confusing on the fan base. But Im just a music lover. I make hip-hop too, I mean I produce my brother J Noise as he does hip-hop too and I mean I just consider myself a producer. And you know as an artist I like to give whatever I have. But it does make it difficult sometimes for certain fans who are like oh we just want to hear your deep stuff but now Im just comfortable where Im at and how to play as a DJ and a lot of the time Im a lot more energetic DJ than I am record producer. But Ive found a way to fit all my styles into a set now and just make it happen and keep my fans happy. The last couple of years have just been great.
So what have you been up to in the last few years? You mentioned youre remixing Disclosure and working on your album Destroy and Rebuild and it sounds like youve been busy on the DJ front as well. Whats been happening?
Well Ive been playing all of the festivals in the Us mostly from Coachella to the outdoors festivals and a lot of different stuff in America. Im constantly playing. As far as productions go, just you know working with everybody that I can. Also with Zed Bias, bringing back something we started and joining together, Ive got a single on his record and we have plenty of songs in the can. And just really staying current with music and loving it and being a part of everything that I can that I can soak my hands into as a creator. Just enjoying life and creating and thats how I find most of my happiness is being able to create and being able to play, no matter what style Im creating for that day or no matter how I feel and just expressing myself. You know?
A lot of guys they are like okay this guys just house you know, but deep inside some of those guys are more than house music. So you have to see, and Im one of those guys that likes to do just more than house. I just create whatever I feel like.
Whats next for you then? You said youve got an album coming out, Destroy and Rebuild is there something behind that name?
Yes, destroying certain things thats like messing up the original sound of house and dance music that we like from Chicago and kind of merging it with a current sound. Just destroying the whole mentality of what EDM is and that kind of stuff. I was just like, Im tired of all that kind of stuff and trash lets just make some music and make good music. Lets just make what we started out doing from day one. So I went back, I got like707 drum machines, got samplers to bring back the raw sample sound. Everything still had that little electronic twist, you know, I dont have as deep, deep soulful tracks like I normally would have on my last two or three albums, I wanted the sound to be more about fun and energy, more about teaching. You know, the sounds we used back in the day. Its very simple too, its not crowded with a bunch of instruments. Its very simple and bass heavy.
Raw dance music.
Yeah, yeah. Ive got simple tracks on there, I dont really have anything thats super-duper complicated because at one point when I was doing that Chicago Forever album I was like oh Im gonna have that and Im gonna do that and Im going to bring in this and I started bringing in too much stuff and you lose the groove so basically, this album is about the groove. The simplicity of the groove.
When will people be able to hear that?
We should have a single out some time soon, within the next month or so and I have a single with Robert Owens and a song with Terry Dexter. The label havent decided which single is going to be the first one so we have to wait on that and were getting remixes form a lot of different people.
Youre coming to the UK to DJ soon arent you? You looking forward to that?
Yes, most definitely. That like connecting all of the UK garage guys together, just to revitalize it as the kids are starting to recognize it. I feel like its a good thing to do and its a good time to piece the puzzles together and do a proper tour with good sounding music.
Great, well Im going to ask you one last question and its been a pleasure speaking to you. You had a record called Michael out on Euphonic records quite a while ago, whos Michael?
Hes another archangel. There was gonna be a series of them. People for some reason thought it was Michael Jackson! (Laughs)
I loved the record but I just didnt know who Michael was and Ive always wanted to know!
Yeah, there was certain angels who had power and Michael was one of them.
Right, and you said there was going to be a series of those records?
Yah there was and all of sudden I was like okay, Im gonna keep overloading people with this. I made one called Raphael but I just stuck it in the can so Ill be out of here by time thats released (Laughs) Thats one of the things my kids can keep in the can and show their kids thats what my daddy did.
Well, thanks for your time Roy, I really appreciate it.
Thank you, nothing but love man. Cheers.
Roy Davis Jr will be playing a number of gigs across the UK as part of the Sound History Tour. Get tickets for the London leg on 18th October here.