Traxbox Sleevenotes: Part 1
Trax Records sits at the very summit of House music’s history – the mother of them all, Larry Sherman’s shady empire was the vehicle through which House music was pushed out beyond the confines of Chicago and into the ears of the rest of the world. With a hugely comprehensive 75 track compilation (made up of the first 75 releases on the label) out now, we’ve been granted permission to serialise the equally comprehensive sleeve notes. First up are Bill Brewster’s superb intro notes, tracing the story from the very beginnings of house history…
THE STORY OF TRAX AND HOUSE MUSIC
The street finds its own uses for things. William Gibson
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clarke
In the beginning there was disco and disco had a groove. And from this groove came the groove of all grooves. The groove was called house.
House music began, like all modern dance music, from disco. Without disco there would have been no Chicago dance scene, no Den One, no Warehouse, no Powerplant, no Music Box and certainly no house. In fact, for a few years, the music they called house in Chicago was actually disco rather than anything Jesse Saunders or Jamie Principle produced. Mel Cheren, the man behind West End Records, described house simply as, disco on a budget, and nowhere was that budget put to better use than the bedrooms and makeshift studios of the Southside in Chicago.
House music was a product of a particularly fertile club scene, especially the friendly rivalry between Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles (and not forgetting the radio jocks the Hot Mix 5), as well as affordable technology in the early 1980s you could pick up a Roland TB-303 for a couple of hundred bucks. Driven by needy dancefloors and a fiercely competitive DJ circuit, jocks looked to drum machines, edits and secret exclusives to steal a march on their adversaries. It was this spirited rivalry that gave birth to house music.
Our story, the story of Trax Records, is inextricably bound up in the story of house. It was there at its birth. Although the first house record to make it on to wax Jesse Saunders On & On was originally released on Mitchbal, it was Saunders forays in the studio that gave birth to Trax Records.
And this story has now become one of global significance. The final resistance to house music the United States has finally succumbed to its charms even if it thinks its called EDM and probably has little idea it originated in Chicago rather than London or Berlin. When we fill the floor in a nightclub anywhere in the world today, we are essentially dancing to the march of a Chicago drum machine and quite possibly one on Trax Records.
RON HARDY AND FRANKIE KNUCKLES
Everyone thinks this thing started with Frankie but it didnt, asserts Jesse Saunders. It started with Ron. He was the person who started playing that style of music long before Frankie got to Chicago.
Ron Hardys residency at Den One in the mid-70s made him a star of the Chicago underground. Jesse Saunders stepbrother Wayne Williams, a key figure in bringing Hardys sound to a wider audience, was one of the few straight kids to dance at Den One. Party promoter Craig Thompson gave a party at Den One and when I heard the DJ spinnin, Id never heard music like that before, and I was like, Damn this musics got so much energy in it. So I went upstairs to ask Ron where he got his music from and he told me it was from a record store called Sounds Good.
By 1977, Hardy had taken up a new gig at a club in Los Angeles, leaving the city until his return in 1982 to the Music Box. Frankie arrived from New York shortly after Rons departure to start at the newly opened Warehouse on South Jefferson Street. It was predominantly black, predominantly gay, age probably between 18 and maybe 35, reminiscences Frankie. It was very soulful, very spiritual which is amazing in the mid-west because you have those corn-fed mid-western folk that are very down to earth. And I think those types of parties we were having at The Warehouse, I know they were something completely new to them, and they didnt know exactly what to expect. So it took them a few minutes to grow into it, but once they latched onto it, it spread like wildfire through the city. In the early days of between 77 and 81 the parties were very intense they were always intense but the feeling that was going on, I think, was very pure.
Everyone got together at midnight, says Chez Damier. Midnight you woke up, so by the time we got down to the club at 12.30, theres a line. Youd enter on the second floor at the Warehouse. You can slightly hear the vibes from the music. Everybody was looking fabulous, and wed go up into the party. And you partied. You partied literally until 12 noon. And when we left out from the club it was daylight and you didnt have any idea what was going on in the outside.
Frankie Knuckles grew up in the middle of the burgeoning disco scene in New York. One of Larry Levans best friends Luther Vandross was another buddy from the neighbourhood Knuckles first experience of the New York club scene was as a helper at Nicky Sianos Gallery, where he would blow up balloons or help with the punch as the dancers arrived. After stints at Better Days at the invitation of Tee Scott and working the lights for Larry Levan at Continental Baths, the opportunity to stamp his personality on a new club in Chicago was too much to resist.
As he recalls it now, it was something that not only brought him to a new city, but it brought him the sense of identity that hed sought but never found in New York. When I was a kid, I wouldnt say I was a loner, but Id say I was somewhat shy, he confesses. One thing that most children want is to belong. The first day you go to school and you see a bunch of kids hanging out and you dont know any of them and a part of wants to be a part of that. You know how much you like music and you enjoy what you do but you wanna be a part of something. By the time I moved to Chicago and I got things started at the club, I really felt that I became a part of something and that I belonged somewhere. I had worked for five years before I got there and those were great times and all that but I didnt get the same thing at the Continental as I did the Warehouse. Growing up with Larry and David Mancuso and all the rest of them, I felt like a belonged to a clique, yeah. They were my friends and my colleagues and these were the people that inspired me and I aspired to be so much like. But the clubs that I worked at, I didnt get the same thing from. I got here to Chicago and started building the Warehouse I got the same thing that David Mancuso got from the Loft and Larry got from the Garage: you knew it was yours. Everything you put into it and every time you opened your mouth, you know, we need to do this, we need to put that in. It was always being heard and recognised and adhered to.
In the beginning, Knuckles playlist differed little from his contemporaries in New York. He served up underground disco, from indie labels like West End, Prelude, Salsoul, with a smattering off oddities that had always been a staple of the discerning club DJ, but as the decade wore out and moved into the 80s, the abundance of new vinyl dried up. By 81 they declared that disco was dead, explains Knuckles. All the record labels were getting rid of their dance departments, so there was no more uptempo dance records; everything was downtempo. Thats when I realised I had to start changing certain things in order to keep feeding my dancefloor. Or else we would have had to end up closing the club. So I would take different records like Walk The Night by the Skatt Brothers or stuff like A Little Bit Of Jazz by Nick Straker or Double Journey and just completely re-edit them to make them work better for my dancefloor. Even stuff like Im Every Woman by Chaka Khan and Aint Nobody, just things like that, completely re-edit them, to give my dancefloor an extra boost. Id re-arrange them and extend them.
Frankies tape edits, assisted by his friend Erasmo Riviera, began to take on an extra dimension as he added production to these songs, with added drum programming, so the tracks began morphing into something else entirely. I actually sold Frankie Knuckles his 909, chuckles Derrick May. Everybody was producing music in Chicago but nobody had a 909 and I had an extra one.
At the polar opposite end of the personality spectrum to Frankie Knuckles was Ron Hardy. If Frankie was slightly reserved and elegant, something that was reflected in his DJ style, Ron Hardy was excitable, frenetic and spontaneous.
The first time I ran across dance parties was late 82, and that was when I stumbled across the Music Box, recalls clubber Cedric Neal. We were driving along and were wondering why all these people were standing outside. One oclock in the morning, and they kept talking about this guy Ron Hardy. We decided to stand in line with everybody else, and that was the point which changed my life. Because that was the first time I saw him spin. And it was… it was amazing. Id never been to a party where the DJ had control over the people where they would dance and scream, and at some points cry, and depending on how high you were, they were passing out from pure excitement. It was the energy that was there. Back then, if you couldnt stand to be around gays you didnt party in the city of Chicago. You either accepted this is how people were… The most important thing was the music and following the DJ of the time. For me it was Ron Hardy. I was a loyal follower.
By the time Hardy had returned to his home city to take the reins at Music Box, Knuckles had moved over to his own club the Powerplant and the pair would slug it out for city dominance. Despite gossip to the contrary, the pair had mutual respect for each other: I believe Frankie offered Ron a position with him at the Powerplant, claims original Warehouse owner Robert Williams, but Ron was lured by the fact that he would have his own club.
People thought that they were rivals, but they really were good friends, says Chip E. For instance, they really didnt compete much, Powerplant was a Friday night crowd, Music Box was Saturday. On Friday you might find Ronnie hanging out at the Powerplant and on Saturday Frankie at the Music Box. They were great friends.
Chez Damier sums up the difference between the two clubs thus: The Music Box was more like the ghetto version of the party. It was real banjy. Kids pulling out their shit on the dancefloor; it was just really nasty, but I liked it. That was the balance. We had Music Box on one night and Powerplant on the other night. But Powerplant is where you had your best skirt on. And you had your best facial and your best haircut. Music Box was more or less for when you wanted to go and release all the madness out of you.
When Derrick Mays mom moved to Chicago, he discovered the thriving music scene almost instantly via the WBMX lunchtime mixes by fabled city jocks the Hot Mix 5. He soon ventured out into the clubs, first at the Powerplant and, finally, to see Ron Hardy play. When I finally went to hear Ronnie, I couldnt believe it. Youd walk in and look left, and there were these two gigantic speakers and in the middle was Ronnie, in this little hole in the wall. There was this vent pumping out hot air outside the club it was full of steam and it was just white. It looked like the place was on fire. But it was just peoples heat. It was unbelievable. The Music Box was kids from the Southside, younger kids, athletic and young girls, willing to let you put your hands on them when you danced. It was straight-up ghetto.
Everything he played was uptempo. He played Stevie Wonders As, but played it at plus eight and he would add effects to it and drums, or hed re-edit it, just keep the dramatic part of it going over and over again. And they would just go nuts. It changed my life, man.
Cedric Neal notes Hardys ability to communicate to his crowd without even speaking. The way Ron spinned you could tell how he was feeling, remembers Neal. The way he played records, the sequence he played them, how long he played them. You could tell if he was depressed, because him and his loverman had had a fight. You could know if he was up and happy or you could know if he was just high, out of his mind because of the drugs. And the sex that you would have! It was what we called the Big Speaker. The Big Speaker was located all the way in the back of the club, so if you just could think of an 8000 square foot space and the main speaker was probably ten feet tall, and you could crawl under the stage behind the main speaker. And we had girls back there. You could get a blow job, get you a quickie. It was amazing behind the Big Speaker. In the girls bathroom they had pillows, you know so you go past thered be guys in there, getting high, having sex.
DJ Pierre was another wannabe DJ in a city full of them, when his friend Spanky played a record hed heard Ron Hardy spin at the Music Box. He brought Chocolate Chip over by Isaac Hayes. I was like, I cant play this old stuff. Damn its going fast here and slow there, and I couldnt mix it. He said, You just gotta go to the Music Box. Youll see. Youll see the real deal. So he took me down there one night and it just really blew my mind. I heard all that old stuff and I heard house music. I got goosebumps. So after that I knew that was the real deal. The way people were screaming Ron Hardys name, I had never seen that before. I had DJed a few parties and I seen famous DJs playing, but they never got that reaction, cos they never played that kind of music. I seen how soulful everybody was.
Although Ron Hardys appeal was limited to his devoted followers at the Music Box, he was an enormous cult figure in the Chicago underground. It was something that would seriously piss some of his peers off. Say you have a party and Ron Hardy made a rare guest appearance? explains Marshall Jefferson. And you had Farley at the same party. People said, [less than excited] OK, Farley, because hes a radio DJ. Hardy come on [whoops and hollers], play the exact same records, and Farley, that used to get on Farley bad really man, Really, It would really piss him off something horrible. Cos he would be like [grumpy deep voice] Maaan, millions of motherfuckers listen to me, man., that motherfucker got one motherfuckin club, 400 motherfuckers in there.
Even though hes not here with us, hes here in spirit and as long as Im alive, hes alive, Adonis told Jonathan Fleming. When Ron played, he played to take you to some place. He didnt play just to make some money. For him it was a way of life, it was an art form and every night he put his soul into it. I can imagine him praying before he put on his turntables. It was no plug it up, lets do it, it was spiritual and thats why I put him as my number one.
If you want to get a sense of what made the house genome so unique and different from, say, New York or London, you need look no further than the influence of Italo-disco on Chicago. Some of these songs were being played in clubs all over the world, but Chicago in particular had something in its DNA that found this bouncy confectionery so enticing. In fact, the formula for house could be roughly reduced to: Italo-house + cheap technology.
Inspired by Giorgio Moroder and the Eurodisco boom, Italo-disco was all four-to-the-floor Linn and Roland drum machines, absurdist lyrics and Yamaha DX-7 synthesisers the greatest selling synthesiser in the world. It was the sound of Majorcan nightclubs: Europes answer to the UKs synthpop explosion.
In Britain, its arguable that house music hit us with such irresistible force because we hadnt been paying attention to most of the music that had been feeding the hungry dancefloors of the Windy City. The Italo-disco boom, mainly centred around Italy (obviously), but also Germany and Holland and even Canada had been ignored in the UK, apart from the gay scene, so when house did arrive, it sounded like nothing on earth wed heard before.
In Chicago, they loved it. You dont have to look far for the house blueprint. Its there in the basslines for Electras Feels Good (stealthily purloined for Jamie/Frankies Your Love) or Chip Es MB Dance, a direct lift from Klein & MBOs MBO Theme or even in the groove of On & On by Mach, itself a mash-up of various disco and Italo tunes that inspired Jesse Saunders own version and the birth of house music.
There is something patently ridiculous about Italo-disco that is a large part of its appeal. The garish sleeves usually peopled by either pneumatic ladies or identikit European Andrew Ridgeleys, the hilarious English-as-a-third-language lyrics and, of course, those juicy DX-7 toplines.
By 1980 in the United States, disco had died and in its place was a vacuum. In the UK disco moved seamlessly into jazz-funk and later go-go, electro and hip hop. In Chicago, it was filled by a mania for Italo-disco and its many and various derivatives, such as productions by the aforementioned Klein & MBO (whose Dirty Talk was also huge in places like Manchester, providing a template for New Orders Blue Monday), Alexander Robotnicks A Love Supreme and Problmes DAmour. Italo-disco was so huge in Italy, even rock bands like Gaz Nevada and N.O.I.A. joined the fray with their own version of the style with IG Love Affair and The Rule To Survive, the latter mixed by Tony Carrasco one of the brains behind Klein & MBO. The sound spread across Europe and was eventually codified into a genre when Bernhard Milkulski of Germanys ZYX began releasing compilations under the same name.
On mainland Europe Italo-disco was massive, in both discos and on radio, but in the English-speaking world and especially in the UK (possibly because of its lyrical delivery) it never took off, outside the odd novelty crossover such as Baltimoras vaguely absurd and insanely catchy Tarzan Boy or Ryan Paris Dolce Vita. But it did get spins on the gay scene and was clearly a significant influence on the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. The impact of house in the UK was partly the result of Italo-disco almost entirely passing by unnoticed by a straight dance scene that, during the eighties, had become fixated on soul music and African-American authenticity.
In Chicago, however, it was all-pervasive and Chip E believes theres a simple reason why it became so big. The Hot Mix 5 were some of the first DJs in the country beatmatching and the Italo-disco records, because they were so synthesised, were really easy to mix. Anything that came out, it was almost like a system. Youd put them on the decks and they just worked. By 1981, disco had died out, but you still had Claudio Simonetti, Doctors Cat and Klein & MBO. They were taking disco and turning it into electronic music. So what we did was take it to the next phase. So its disco, Italo-disco and then house.
Derrick May vividly recalls the impact of this music on his first visit to Chicago after his mother had moved there. It was an amazing visit. I remember getting off the train, and the first thing I heard, the very first thing I heard on the radio and this is at midday mid-fuckin-day. Its low, casual volume, nothing big. Feel The Drive by Doctors Cat is playing . I never heard that motherfucker before. You must feel the drive [hums it]. For a time in Chicago, Italo-disco was the sound of the city.
HOT MIX 5
My older sister moved to Chicago so I would go over there frequently to visit her. Wed go record shopping and I would tape the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX and bring all that stuff back. We were all influenced by it. Jeff Mills
When house music started coming forward in Chicago, we were probably the main influence, because we were on the radio, in a position to make it mass appeal. House started very underground: Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Lil Louis, they were playing some great music but it wasnt mass appeal at all. We brought it to the forefront by radio; thats how house mania started. Im not saying it wouldnt have got popular, but it would have taken a lot longer. Julian Jumpin Perez
There many DJs who championed the sound of Italo-disco in Chicago, so its impossible to lay the credit on one person, but among its keenest proponents were a group of DJs that hosted a mixshow on Chicago radio called the Hot Mix 5.
The Hot Mix 5 Farley Jackmaster Funk (n Farley Funkin Keith), Kenny Jammin Jason, Ralphi Rosario, Scott Smokin Silz and Mickey Mixin Oliver made their name with a Saturday night show on the now defunct WBMX called Saturday Night Live Aint No Jive. But their popularity swiftly mushroomed until they also hosted a Friday night show and daily lunchtime mixes. It was their midday stint that introduced Derrick May to the joys of Doctors Cat
If you were young or straight, the chances are your first brush with underground dance music would have been through the evangelising work of the Hot Mix 5, whose impact on the city eclipsed that of its underground heroes Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. The Hot Mix 5 just took over because they were the first guys who were really beat-matching, claims Chip E. Farley who just had an incredible style with scratching and all these tricks of the time like triples, phasing and back-spinning. And the whole city was tuned into the Hot Mix 5s show and if you had to go out you made sure somebody was taping it for you. Id say that four of the five, Kenny Jason, Ralphi Rosario, Scott Silz and Mickey Oliver, werent too influenced by anything other than what was sold at the store. They were looking for Italo-disco. Farley being the only Southside and black member was more influenced by and understood the importance of clubs like Music Box, Powerplant and the Warehouse. He was the one who would play more of the older disco tunes. The other guys would play mainly Italo, with some Philly and maybe some New York sounds.
Marshall Jefferson agrees with Chips assessment of their playlists.
The Hot Mix 5 would play like more commercial stuff, a lot more European stuff, like Falco, Klein & MBO and Doctors Cats Feel The Drive. And if you went by straight up mixing ability, the Hot Mix 5 would mix circles around fuckin Ron Hardy.
In fact, the second wave of Chicago DJs and producers probably owe more of a debt to this pioneering quintet than the DJing exploits of Knuckles and Hardy. Curtis Jones aka Cajmere recalls his first brush with the nascent house scene, which also chimes with Chip Es early experiences. The first time I heard this music was on the radio. I used to listen to the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX: Farley Jackmaster Funk was the biggest of the DJs back in that time. Thats how we would listen to a lot of the music. Wed record the mixes. In fact, Ive still got the ones I recorded.
The Hot Mix 5 managed to bring together Chicago, which is one of the most segregated cities in the world, Farley Jackmaster Funk boasted to Jonathan Fleming. We did it through our radio show, by reaching out to each one of our crowd making us heroes to the people. From that house music became the music of the people, and we became more poplar than the mayor of our own city. There were times when we couldnt even walk down the street without getting knocked over. That aint no bigheadedness. Its just facts.
THEY CALL IT HOUSE
The term house to describe a style of music or genre was in circulation in Chicago well before Jesse Saunders made his first tentative steps into production. The origins of it are murky and no one knows for certain from where it came.
In an interview conducted by Jonathan Fleming in the mid 1990s, DJ Pierre thought it came from the fact that Jesse Saunders had made his first song in his house (not actually true), while Sheryl Garratt, in her seminal 1986 piece for the Face, had been told it came from the many house parties thrown in the Cabrini Green area. Farley Jackmaster Funk has always credited Leonard Remix Rroy with its name. In 1982, I was DJing at a club called The Playground and there was this kid named Leonard Remix Rroy who was a DJ at a rival club called The Rink. He came over to my club one night and into the DJ booth and said to me, Ive got the gimmick thats gonna take all the people our of your club and into mine its called house music.
Rroy slipped off the radar for a number of years, primarily because he enlisted in the army just as house was taking off. But Rroy claims it came off the top of his head: I got the name from my mother, he claims. I was playing edits at The Bitter End and the owner asked me what I was playing… In a knee jerk answer I said house music, after my mother had suggested I play some of the music from the basement in our house.
This does not entirely with conflict with Knuckles version of events, since the Bitter End was a corner tavern. One day I was going out south to see my god-daughter, recalls Frankie. And we were sitting at a stop light and on the corner there was a tavern. In the window it had a sign that said WE PLAY HOUSE MUSIC. I asked this friend of mine Now what is that all about? and she says Its the same stuff that you play at The Warehouse.
More plausible is the suggestion that the name is a simple truncation of Warehouse. Kids were coming in looking for older disco music, theyd say, I want some of that music played at the Warehouse, remembers Chip E, then an employee at the citys most influential record store, Imports Etc. So we found that if we put up signs that said, As Heard At The Warehouse, the records would fly out the racks. Eventually that got cut down to just The House. That became the vernacular. But we were talking about disco records. Its basically myself, Farley, Steve Hurley and Jesse Saunders and we said, You know what, all you gotta do is make a record and put house on it and its gonna fly off the shelves.
JESSE SAUNDERS & VINCE LAWRENCE
Even today, Jesse Saunders is not slow to let you know about his prowess. Ron Hardy was experimental, innovative and he touched my spirit. He felt the same way about me and my DJing. Born with the natural gift of the salesman, it was Saunders chutzpah that helped make him one of the biggest DJ stars in Chicago, before he signed to Geffen and moved to LA.
Jesse Saunders DJ induction was through his stepbrother Wayne Williams. In fact, most of straight southsides introduction to underground dance music came via bro Wayne, too. Williams had discovered Ron Hardy at Den One in the mid 1970s and began to track down the records and introduce them at his neighbourhood parties. While his contemporaries were content to spin the current dance hits by Earth, Wind &7 Fire and the Emotions, Williams resolved to introduce them to the disco records that were anthems in Den One and the Warehouse. When I first started playing these type of disco records, the floor cleared and I was like, Oh, wow. He told Jonathan Fleming. But Im a leader, not a follower and I kept on playin and playin them until more and more people started dancing to it. I became more and more popular and totally different to any of the other DJs on the Southside because I was the only one playin disco. As Williams popularity grew, he began recruiting a team around him, including Tony Hatchett, Alan King and his younger stepbrother Jesse Saunders. They called themselves The Chosen Few. Prior to joining I was making my own tapes to play on my boombox, recalls Saunders. Started doing my little pause button remixes of songs. He heard them and decided hed approach me. Thats why he recruited me.
Chip Es first ever party was one thrown by the Chosen Few. There was a guy by the name of Eric Bradshaw who was throwing parties at the Loft, which was on 14th and Michigan. Their preferred DJs were the Chosen Few. I was 11 or 12 the first night I went in there. I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was packed full of people, it was a proper loft and the floor was moving up and down because there were way too many people in there. The musics pounding and theyre playing Martin Circus Disco Circus. There was all these people sweating and dancing and having fun and I thought, Wow, this is something I really wanna be a part of. From that point on I was hooked.
By 1982, Saunders had progressed to become resident at one of the citys biggest clubs, a teen disco called The Playground, with a capacity not far south of 2,000. Vince Lawrence used to come to the Playground. He said that he was trying to make music like I played at the Playground. Anyway he brought the Z Factor record to me at the Playground and I did play some new wave records in my set. We played electronic stuff like Italo-disco, from Kraftwerk to Alexander Robotnick and I was playing the Go-Gos, B-52s and Men Without Hats. At that time I didnt know anybody else who had made a record so to me it was an honour and I tried to work out a way of making this fit so Id play it every now and then.
The man behind Z Factors (I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars, Vince Lawrence, had been born into the music industry via his father, who worked with Eddie Thomas, Curtis Mayfields partner in Curtom Records. Lawrences father had his own small label Mitchbal and wanted to show his son the inner workings of record production, which became Vinces debut single by Z Factor. Fast Cars combined his love for synthesisers and new wave then fashionable among black youth via Herb Kents influential Punk Out show on WBMX. I was really fond of that record, says Lawrence. I really wanted to capture the essence of the parties I was going to, like First Impressions, The Loft and, ultimately, The Playground and The Rink.
Vince got a job at the club working the lights and the pair became friendly, along with another Playground employee Duane Buford, who also happened to be a better keyboard player than either of them. Jesse briefly joined Vinces band Z Factor. But the impetus to release his own material came from the theft of one of Jesses treasured records: Machs On & On. Tucked away on the B-side of a megamix 12-inch on Remix Records, On & On was a Frankensteins disco record comprised of the beep beep from Donna Summer, the bassline from Players Space Invaders plus assorted bits from Lipps Inc and Munich Machine. It was Saunders anthem, the song he always opened his sets with, the identity of which remained a secret to everyone but Jesse. But then it was stolen. I wish I could trace the origins of that record, sighs Saunders. Nobody knows where that came from. That used to be my signature record. Most people didnt even know it was because I didnt tell anybody. So I decided to make my own version of it, but with a twist, using a Roland 808, TB-303 and a Korg Poly 61.
If the opportunity to produce a track had been presented by Lawrence, then the impetus came from Frank Sells at Imports Etc, who used to play Saunders Playground sets in the store. They asked me about the tracks Id done and I said, Oh those are the ones I created, says Saunders. So Frank, who was the main buyer there, said, Man if you can get your hands on some records we could sell 100 if not thousands of it. So thats how we ended up meeting Larry Sherman. He was the only pressing plant in town.
THE FIRST HOUSE RECORD
Jesse Saunders is behind every thing, states Marshall Jefferson. He did the first house record and the significance behind that, right, is it got non-musicians into making music. Everything came from that. Every single thing thats happening now you can trace back to Jesse Saunders. He actually put out a record. Thats what got me started in house music. Thats what got everybody started in house music.
Jesse Saunders On & On was an instant hit in Chicago. A phenomenon, even. It sold like hot cakes in Imports Etc and was even playlisted on Chicagos WBMX, back in the days when a small indie record could shift five figure sums in one city alone. It opened the floodgates. But, according to Marshall Jefferson, it was its primitive production sound that gave people hope. There had been other productions made in the city that had been getting spins in the clubs, in particular Your Love by Jamie Principle, a record so good, in fact, that everyone assumed it must have been made in Europe. On & On, by contrast, was rough, ready and patently made by a kid from the Southside. It was ON.
Jesse made everybody want to go and get a drum machine and start making records, because, Jesses shit wasnt that good, laughs Jefferson. You know what Im saying? It made it more accessible. Everybody says, Fuck! I could do better than that! when Jesse did his stuff. When Jamie [Principle]s stuff was played in the clubs, everybody was like Fuck thats too good! I cant do anything like that. But when Jesse did it everybody started making music.
Adonis, who was equally underwhelmed by what he heard, also shared this view. My friend Gary played On & On and I was not impressed because all it was just some beat tracks created by a Roland 808 drum machine, he explained to Jonathan Fleming. So I said to him: Thats a record? And he said, Yeah man, this records sellin, its popular and everybodys got this record. All the DJs are playin this record. This guy is like famous. Jesse was the first guy that everybody could relate to. He was this guy you could touch and feel that lived on the Southside of Chicago and not just this big image in fancy clothes.
Screamin Rachael Cain shares Jeffersons view of Saunders achievements largely because of his and Lawrences work ethic. Vince Lawrence was such a go-getter, he used to just shop the records out of the trunk of his car, she says. In one day, you could go to the studio, make a track, take it out to the club, because Ron Hardy was very co-operative, and he would play it, and you could figure out then and there, Is this gonna work? And at one time Larry even had his own lathe, so he could cut an acetate, and we could do it all in one day. Larry had everything we needed. But Vince and Jesse, they were just visionaries and I think that they dont get enough credit for what they have done.
Its by no means the best, but On & On was the first house record. It was the catalyst for everything that followed. As Grandmaster Flash always says: I dont care whos better or whos worse. My contribution is first. Because first is forever.
LARRY SHERMAN & TRAX RECORDS
Eccentrics, mavericks or geniuses drive most great labels. Labels like Factory or Mute were reflections of their owners desires or whims. Berry Gordys Motown was a factory production line, only one run by a musical visionary, while Atlantics Ertegun brothers and Jerry Wexler had exquisite ears for winkling out talent. Zes Michael Zilkha had an unconventional approach that was reflected in his often wilfully anti-commercial (yet no less brilliant) signings.
But there has never been another label like Trax Records. Trax had almost no A&R direction, no aims or values, and little direction beyond what was coming out the following week. Trax Records was a happy accident, stumbling upon house music as it passed by Larry Shermans line of vision. (That said, its worth noting that Marshall Jefferson, rather than Sherman, effectively picked some of its most successful releases.)
Notoriously interview-shy, theres an ocean of myth and speculation that engulfs Larry Sherman. Over the years, and any number of interviews, the stories about Sherman Ive accumulated as fact would make the Sopranos look like the Waltons. And despite the movie maxim, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, they are all unprintable and largely unverifiable. And probably untrue.
Larry Sherman certainly had no idea how lucky he was when he bought the Musical Products pressing plant in Bridgeport, on the Southside of Chicago in the early 80s. Sherman was a jukebox collector and had only bought the plant because he was sick of the limited range of 45s. I got tired of listening to the Andrews Sisters and Tommy Dorsey, so I decided to do things the hard way, he told Mark Guarino. Within a few months hed received his first order of 12-inch singles from Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence, whod spotted a sign on the highway.
Prior to going in there and pressing On & On, recalls Jesse Saunders, the only records he was pressing were more or less polka records for little bands here and there. He hadnt a clue what was going on [in the clubs]. I ordered 500 copies from him. Once we sold those and came back two days later and ordered a thousand more thats when his interest was piqued. He was like, Where you selling this stuff? You know what Id like to get in on the action. Ill press the records and be your partner. This is how he got his personal license to press and manufacture whatever he wanted when he wanted. Thats how the legend of Larry Sherman came about.
Larry Sherman didnt have a clue of what was happening, Adonis told Soul Jazz. Most of the stuff he put out, he never was like the A&R guy. He wouldnt give you a lot of money anyway. He could take a chance on acid. Acid would never have existed if it was up to Rocky [Jones from DJ International]. Hed be like, What the hell was that? Im not spending no money on that shit! But Larry was, Get it in! So hed just take anything and press it up.
Although its mainly credited to Larry Sherman, the birth of Trax is inextricably bound up in the tangled relationships of Sherman, Screamin Rachael, Saunders and Vince Lawrence. Saunders states baldly, Trax was originally my label and Vince designed the logo. The name, according to Lawrence, was his idea, inspired by his love of industrial music and the Chicago-based Wax Trax! (Its eminently believable, given the similarity between the logos).
In a rare interview Sherman gave to the British cult dance magazine Soul Underground in 1989, theres a certain lack of authority in his explanation for the birth of house music. Trax Records began early 83 out of the need to have an identification for the Chicago sound that was really exciting. House music didnt really exist in 83. It was a spontaneous kinda thing that happened, a second generation response to people going to places like Paradise Garage. In Chicago, this type of music was only played in places that Frankie Knuckles worked at; they had access to the music. Then the DJs who heard these records, tried to get them and if they couldnt, they tried to recreate their own type of music to equal that record; thats really how I recall it started.
But there was another side to Sherman, the man who Saunders describes as a jovial, playful crack-jokes kind of a guy. Larry Heard is sanguine about his encounters with him now. He was an average guy. But you have to remember this was a whole new world for me. You know, I was doing my day job a desk job and this was all new. My attitude was he can circulate more records than I could with my little label. It wasnt that bad for me, so many of these people disappeared and Im still making a living from music. You learn from each of these experiences in life. I still get my publishing royalties. Or, as Marshall Jefferson bluntly told Soul Underground: Larry is referred to as Stinky by all the house artists, cos he never washes and you can smell him a mile away!
The duo behind the seminal Virgo Four releases on Trax, Merwyn Saunders and Eric Lewis, often socialised with him. On a personal level, we actually got along great with Larry, Merywn told HHV magazine. He would help Eric with college tuition or have me do something over at Trax to make a little cash when I was in college. We would hang out at his house and play Nintendo. He knew something about everything, not sure if he was right all the time of course, but we would ask him about things and we would learn a little something. I remember when we signed with him. He made a point to sit down with us and go over doing clearance forms for publishing. I later thought, as shady as he seems sometimes and with what everybody else says also, he could have not offered that help and just said later that we should have known that, but he didnt. Eric even bought a building from Larry. So personally we were cool.
CHICAGO MAKES RECORDS
While house music eventually went on to conquer the world, whats startling about these early years is the lowly aspirations of its DJs and producers, who wanted nothing more than for Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles to play their tracks. There were no Boy Georges dreaming of world pop domination. No putative Xenomania or Max Martin with an ear for a Number One. Most dreams never went beyond the boundaries of a big record at the Powerplant or Music Box or the acknowledgement of their peers in Chicago. It probably goes some way to explaining how nave some were about the wiles and ways of the murkier side of the music industry.
There was another house record that predated even Saunders On & On though it was certainly released later. Produced by a sensitive young Chicagoan from a church background called Byron Walton, his friend Jose Gomez gave a copy to Frankie Knuckles who began playing this demo version. Your Love was an instant hit in Chicago and everybody tried to get a copy, as it passed from cassette to cassette. The bassline hook was based around the Italo tune Feels Good by Electra, but the rest of it was all Byrons work. He called himself Jamie Principle.
Principle then joined forces with Frankie to produce what would become the final version (which also explains why this song has been released under both names at different times). Your Love was the song Marshall Jefferson heard that was so good he thought it had been made in Europe. Yet it was this tune that inspired Steve Hurley to start buying musical equipment: That record was the anthem, recalls Hurley. If you could get a copy of this cassette you were God as a DJ. So I managed to get my filthy hands on a copy and when I played it, people would lose their minds. Jamie became the inspiration for me to start doing music myself.
The drum machine Frankie Knuckles bought from Derrick May was used on early version of the song. I told him I didnt know the first thing about programming them, smiles Frankie. He said its easy, Ill show you. So he came down that weekend and he brought it. The first time I used it, I used it on a version of Your Love that I did with Jamie Principle. But I would also use it live in the club. I would programme different patterns into it throughout the week, and then use it throughout the course of a night, running it live.
Marshall Jefferson was a regular Post Office joe until he was introduced to the Music Box via a girl he fancied at work. I hated dance music. I thought it was wimpy! laughs Jefferson (hes still a big fan of Yes and Genesis). Inspired by Saunders, he went into the local music store to buy himself some audio production gear. We went to a music store, me and a friend of mine, who played guitar. This guy at the music store showed us a sequencer. He said, With this thing you can play keyboards like a real keyboard player.
And my friend said, Thats bullshit, you gotta take lessons.
I was like, No, man, I believe him. Im gonna buy it.
The only reason I bought it was I thought that must be what Jesse Saunders is using. I didnt know he had a keyboard player playing all his shit.
He said, Wait a minute, you dont want this sequencer and not have a keyboard to play, do you?
Oh yeah, youre right. So I bought the keyboard too.
Then he said, Hey, you dont want to have this sequencer and this keyboard and not have a drum machine to play with them?
This went on until Jefferson left the store $9,000 poorer.
That night, his friends came over and had a good old laugh at Marshalls spending spree. Stupid motherfucker bought all this shit and dont even know how to play nothin. What a stupid motherfucker!
By the following year, Marshall Jefferson had released the first of many singles. When Move Your Body came out, they started hiring keyboard players to play the piano lines like Marshall. Move Your Body was at 122bpm, right? I mustve recorded those keyboards at 40, 45 beats per minute. [Imitates the keyboard line really slowly] Dumm dum DER DER DUM bombombnom. Then I speeded it up!
DJ Pierres entrance into the world of production was entirely down to his friend Spanky, who was determined to make a record. Pierre admits he was only along for the ride. He asked me, You know how they make those, dont you? They buy this thing called a drum machine and it has those drum sounds in it. You punch a button and they play.
I was saying, They have drum sounds in a box?
I just couldnt comprehend. One day he came by my house and said, I got it. I got the drum machine. And then he played some beats and I was like, That was nice.
From such improbable starts came Acid Tracks, one of the defining tunes of the era, a disorienting squall so different and strange that it alienated and attracted in equal measure. DJ Pierre, inspired and pushed by his chum Spanky had spent the whole of 1985 trying to make something good enough for his heroes Farley and Ron Hardy to play. When they eventually happened upon a winner with Acid Tracks, it was purely by accident. A literal ghost in the machine. Pierre explains. We didnt know how to work the damn 303 and then putting a beat behind a track that was already in the 303. We didnt programme that track. When we bought the 303, it was in it and whenever the batteries went and you would put new ones in, it was in it again. You could erase it and programme something different, but once the batteries went dead and the memory went away, Acid Tracks would be back up in there.
The process for getting music out there was simple. You dubbed it on to a cassette tape and you took it to either the Powerplant or Music Box and tried to pluck up the courage to give it to either Frankie or Ronnie and hope theyd play it. So it was natural for Pierre and co to take their new production down to the Music Box for Ron Hardy. If Ron Hardy said he didnt like it, it would have been the end of acid, states Pierre. But Hardy did like it. First time he played it, the floor cleared. Then he waited until the floor got real full and he played it again. The people didnt clear the floor, and they thought, Its that track again. Then, at peak time, he dropped it again, and then they were like, Fuck, what is this damn track? He played it again, like about four in the morning. Then they just went ballistic. People were dancing upside this guy was on his back, kicking his legs in the air! The rumours about this new sensation started almost immediately. Nobody knew the name of the track, so it swiftly became Ron Hardys Acid Track (Phuture had originally called it In My Mind).
Marshall Jefferson had a similar experience. This is what I did, he explains. I would take the cassette down. I would put it on the DJ booth. Ron Hardy wouldnt even see me come up there and Id leave. So I had this mysterious thing about me. But you know, Hardy would play everything. He wouldnt care what kind of quality you were. If it rocked the crowd then he would play it. Eventually, I had to stop going to the Music Box because I was on the graveyard shift. So my friend Sleezy started taking the tapes. And of course he told everybody down there he did it. Because Lost Control wasnt the only song. But it was the biggest hit out of all of all the songs I did. But Ron played all of them.
Having found themselves with a minor hit on their hands Phuture wanted to approach Marshall Jefferson to ask how he made it on to vinyl. We was running around trying to ask people, How do you make a record? Who do you go see? Marshall was doing Move Your Body at the Powerplant. I wrote my name and number down. It said: My name is DJ Pierre, Im in a group called Phuture, and we did a track called Acid Tracks, and Ron Hardy has been playing this track off a reel. Could you help us make a record? Then I wrote my number, and I gave it to Curtis McClain. And then he gave it to Marshall who called me the next day. So that goes to show you how much we knew about making records, let alone getting royalties and stuff like that.
There have been rumours and discussions over the yeas about unique mixes that were played at either the Music Box or Powerplant that never came out, either because they were early demos or they simply never made the cut. He had special mixes from all the kids, claims Derrick May. Marshall Jefferson would take stuff down to Ronnie and he was apt to play it. Ronnie had a special mix of Time Marches On by Jungle Wonz and he played the fuck out of it. And I never heard it anywhere in my life. I bet you when Ronnie died it died with him. It was this version that was just this bassline, with these really creepy hi-hats, and it was just going, it would just go. Thats where I learned how to use the EQ. He just would bust up an EQ, just BOOM. I brought Darryl Wynn there, I brought my friend Rick Mosely there. I brought Kevin Saunderson there and Kevin even made a record dedicated to the Music Box called Bounce Your Body To The Box.
While its true, that a play on WBMX with its area-wide reach – by the Hot Mix 5 could blow a record open in Chicago, the hype for any hot record started at the ground up and usually via the dynamic duo of Ron and Frankie. Chip E detected a slightly different approach by these key DJs: These guys were pretty open, but Frankie not as much as Ronnie. Frankie you really had to be in the inner circle to get something played. I was very fortunate because I worked at Imports Etc so he was one of my customers. They really did play similarly, but Ronnie would take more chances. I could go on a Friday night and take a tape to Frankie and he might wait around for two or three hours and listen to it in the headphones and say, I think I can fit it in here. Whereas Ronnie, I could take him a tape and within ten to fifteen minutes he had it on and banging it and then playing it several times a night. He was much more courageous from his style of playing.
Once it left the tape decks of the Powerplant and Music Box it was on to the record pressing plant and out into the world. A world desperate for a new beat.
THE WORLD DISCOVERS HOUSE
Once house music made it to vinyl, it was only a matter of time before these 12-inch calling cards would make their way through to New York, London, Milan and out into the wider world. Chicago was ill prepared for the whirlwind of interest that hit them as each successive record signalled to the rest of the world that something serious was happening in the Windy City. Chez Damier believes it was inevitable: It was time for the secret to be blown if you ask me. That stuff that we made at that time was not stuff that we considered legendary here. So what you guys did was take stuff that was going on only in the basements and blew it up into something that was more of a reality. You guys picked up the Trax Records and blew it up.
One of the early champions of house music outside of Chicago was Bruce Forest, who then had one of the major residencies in New York. Thanks to a relationship nurtured with Steve Hurley, who hed initially met via DJ Lesley Doyle, Forest had been playing early Hurley tracks like an edit of Isaac Hayes I Cant Turn Around as well as Music Is The Key. I played it the first night and they went nuts, recalls Forest. From that day on there was nothing I couldnt play in house music. I started to get very friendly with Steve and with Farley; then Rocky Jones came, Chip E showed up and eventually it became that all these house guys started to hang out at my club. And they would always bring me stuff. House music took over Better Days immediately because everything I was playing was proto-house anyway. I mean it isnt a big jump from Martin Circus to Jack Your Body. Were talking about bass-heavy four on the floor disco music.
Hurley invited Forest over to Chicago to collaborate on some music and while he was there, he naturally took the New York jock to see Ron Hardy play. I went into the booth and met Ron who was off his face and I dont think he knew who I was, remembers Forest. I sat in a corner for about four hours listening to Ron thinking this guys amazing. After that visit I really focused more on playing house music. I stopped looking for music coming from New York and started looking for music coming from Chicago.
Outside the United States, house music was slowly beginning to win believers. Though it wasnt the same story in the south-east, in the north of England house slotted in seamlessly with playlists already dominated by electronically-driven productions. Klein & MBO, remember, had been unusually pervasive in the north-west, and northern bands like Soft Cell and Cabaret Voltaire had helped smooth the path for the house musics soft landing. Many had discovered it through Stu Allens radio show. By 1986, he was playing house almost exclusively. Danny Dwayre, then a young clubber at the Haienda, remembers the changing of the guard. Stu just started playing all this weird music from Chicago, he recalls. Incredible. However, in the Haienda, for at least two years, there was never more than 150-200 people in there. Distant Planet and Bring Down The Walls are, to me, the ultimate, early Haienda records: quite stark, slow and really dark. Electronic music was massive in the mid-eighties and the Haienda had always championed Cabaret Voltaire and bands like that, but I think its popularity was just because it was the latest black music from America and, at that time, they made all the best music.
There were a number of DJs playing house from its very early arrival. Graeme Park at the Garage in Nottingham, DJ Parrot and Winston Hazell in Sheffield, Colin Curtis at Berlin and the Playpen, Jonathan Woodliffe and Rhythm Doctor at the all-dayers, and Mike Pickering and associates at the Haienda. Even DJs based in the south were often being introduced to it via their more northerly comrades. I was going to the Ritz all-dayers and Berlins in Manchester, says Ashley Beedle. The first time I heard Graeme Park was at the Roadmenders in Northampton, which is also the first time I heard a house record, which was Adonis. And I was like what the fuck is this? DJ Parrot remembers having exactly the same reaction: Youd be buying these Chip E records thinking, what the fuck is this? but it seemed to fit perfectly with the vibe of Cabs records.
A young wannabe producer called Gerald Simpson had the same reaction when he heard Stu Allan playing acid house. The first time I heard something was on radio, and I was like, Oh my god!. They were using the same bass machine that I had but were totally tweaking it out. There were a lot of people in the electro world using 808s and SH101s and 303s, so I knew it from that but it was used pretty straight. It was never bent out. So hearing it like that for the first time, I was just like, wow. I could do that. So I sent in a lot of demos to Stu Allen and he started playing them on his demo shows. A Guy Called Gerald was born.
We started playing it around 1985 or 86, reminisces Mike Pickering, then resident at the Ha. It worked for us, because we had a lot of old northern soul boys cos it was all 4/4 and quite pacy. I used to do a swap in London at a club called Fever run by Simon Gough at the Astoria. I got booed off. There were a lot of black guys there, and they were shoving notes into my face saying, Stop playing this fucking homo music. But at the Haienda it was a really black night until ecstasy swept in later.
Chris Long (aka the Rhythm Doctor), a regular DJ on the all-dayer circuit in the Midlands, remembers attending the first house music tour. It was at Rock City in Nottingham. It didnt seem like a different type of music to me. I remember Robert Owens doing a PA and I remember Larry Sherman throwing records into the crowds. But we were already quite up on it. The midlands people really liked that music. It was played alongside Mantronix or boogie tracks. It was obviously faster, but it wasnt seen as something different. People didnt mind if you played house or slower tracks.
But I always remember Kid Bachelor telling me, Youve got to decide, are you going to play house or hip hop?
I said, Ill play whatever I like. In the end he was right. It happened I had to play house.
In the south of England, despite the adverse reaction that Pickering got, there were pockets of enthusiasts who flew the flag. There was Eddie Richards at the Camden Palace, Kid Bachelor and friends, the Watson brothers at Delirium, Jazzy M on LWR and Mark Moore. Moore was running a club night at Heaven called Pyramid, which he laughingly describes as the black sheep of the gay scene. We played house music very early on, he claims. We didnt know we were playing it. It was just another electronic thing that we were playing along with Koto and the Italo-disco stuff. Wed play Yellos Vicious Games and Hipnosis and Klein & MBO alongside it. We were playing a lot of industrial stuff like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb and then the more poppy stuff like Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Soft Cell It was a while before we realised, wait a minute theres loads of this stuff coming out!. We actually had Jamie Principle down to play as early as 1987.
Eddie Richards had one of the biggest clubs in London in the Camden Palace, with a set-up modelled on Richard Longs sound systems. But, somehow, Richards managed to gradually programme house music into his sets. I started playing stuff from Trax in 1985 and 86 and mixing them together, he explains. I was into new music, and because I was playing gay disco and stuff like Human League, which came from that sound, it was natural for me to play house music, because it came from the same place. People would say, Why are you playing this shit, its just beats? But I could get away with it at this place.
As well as Stu Allan in the north, there was a show in London that also helped galvanise the pro-house forces. It was broadcast on LWR, a predominantly reggae station, hosted by Jazzy M (aka Michael Schiniou). It was where subsequent house luminaries like Darren Emerson got their first taste of the music and where Kent band Orbital were discovered. As the house music kept coming in, it would take up an hour of the show. Then it took up two hours until eventually it was the whole show. The Tuesday show was so popular we added a Thursday night. When I first heard things like No Way Back by Adonis and Sleezy D, that was when it changed. I remember getting a lot of flak: What are you playing this gay music for? I wanna dance with my girl. But as it went on, they changed their minds. But it took a long time. Them early years were great fun, but they were rough.
Irish brother Noel and Maurice Watson were among the leading DJs in London in the mid-eighties. Their club Delirium had been an oasis of cutting edge hip hop until Maurice returned from a trip to New York armed with a box full of house records. Their experiences mirrored those of Jazzy Ms. There was a negative reaction to it. People didnt want to dance it. It cleared the floor. Youd have people like Andy Weatherall and Phil Asher there sitting on the stairs listening what we were doing. Maurice was like, Theyre going to have to learn to dance to this and theyre going to have to learn what this music is and were gonna have to be the ones who break this because its cutting edge. We were the top DJs in London at that stage. We played all the trendiest parties, all the best clubs, we were booked for all the top events and it caused a lot of grief with a lot of other DJs, so many people were jealous. But we were getting those gigs because we were cutting edge. You have to be cutting edge or there is no point in doing it. It wasnt an easy ride. The reaction from hardcore hip hop fans was so severe, the club had to build protection for the DJs. They built a cage around us because we were getting so much abuse. They were throwing things at us, like bottles and cans, to stop them hitting us and the decks.
Dave Dorrell was one of its few adherents in London. He recalls buying three 12-inches on the same day, among them Phutures Acid Tracks. It was just a new language. It was like a caveman with a spaceship. There were no direction signs. It was like: where did this come from? It’s just landed from Mars. That evening, he was playing at Raw in the YMCA and sequenced them back-to-back and for 30 minutes they kept the dancefloor clear. There was just this huge build up of people on the border, not going on the dancefloor for 30 minutes, to the point where the pressure broke and I had to play, ‘Across The Tracks’, and they ran on the dancefloor. This is a really serious fucking reaction and there was no denying the power of those records.
In Europe, house music was often greeted with the same hostility. Eddy De Clercq, who was instrumental in introducing house to the Dutch, opened Club Roxy in 1986 precisely to champion the music. The reaction of the clubbers was aggressive, he recalls. People hated it. Even our own staff was against it. It took two years before the music was accepted and popular among clubbers. In those years directly after the opening I booked Fingers Inc. from Chicago to play a club filled with 50 people! Their performance that night was quite unique since all three members sang live for the first time.
Arguably the most influential of all European DJs was Alfredo, who was then resident at Amnesia, a club in Ibiza which the Argentinian exile had built its reputation off the back of smorgasbord of glittering pop, oddball dance records and US house. The first time I heard house music was in Madrid in 1985, he remembers. There was a black guy from America who used to bring records over for DJs because there wasnt much importation of records. He used to be a basketball player but he got married to a Spanish woman in Madrid and he used to rent a room in a hotel and the DJs would go there to listen to the music and buy the records from him.
Trevor Fung, a London-based DJ was a regular visitor to Ibiza, watched as the island changed from what he describes as the old Ibiza to the new. Alfredo was instrumental in the change. Ibiza mainly started with the working people, he explains. And the house thing was completely different. When you hear something like Frankie Knuckles Your Love, just the beginning bit, everyone on E. God almighty, everyone used to go mad to that record. It was a mixture of things; being out there; listening this new music.
A scene in Belgium had also mushroomed during the 80s, based largely around electronic music, in clubs like the Mirano in Brussels and The Ancienne Belgique in Antwerp, where Fat Ronny presided. These were the foundations of what became known as new beat, blended from many of the same ingredients as Chicago house, but with a distinct European flavour. It all came together at the legendary Boccaccio club in Ghent. Eric Beysens was the resident at Boccaccio. I discovered Larry Heard in 1986, just I started at Boccaccio. I put that in my set but for people this was new beat. In England overnight it changed. Here we played house, the Cramps and James Brown, really freestyle.
Former Boccaccio clubber Dirk De Ruyck, remembers how well it all fitted together. We had Snowy Red with Hiroshima, which was a big anthem. Then you had Front 242, Neon Judgement as well. When acid house came here, it all mixed up very nicely. They played Adonis The Poke between new beat records but it went so easily and so smoothly with the other records that you didnt notice.
RISKY BUSINESS: TRAX OF MY TEARS
As house music left its city of birth, business got big and it got messy. The maxim, Where theres a hit, theres a writ, was never truer than in Chicago where dubious business practices were by no means unusual. Even now, nearly 30 years after its first release, there are still artists who refuse to talk to anyone connected to Trax Records (we were turned down for an interview for this reason).
While most of the artists signed to Trax Records were young and inexperienced, although Larry Sherman was older he had little more experience than his stable of artists. The artists, also, were not blameless. Knowing they would likely not receive royalty statements or royalties, they still returned time after time, happy to receive one-off payments or gifts in exchange for delivering master recordings. Reading books like Frederic Dannens The Hit Men or, in particular, William Knoedelseders Stiffed: A True Story Of MCA, The Music Business & The Mafia, you could argue that the Trax story is also the story of the American recording industry.
It was not as though the artists were completely unaware of how things were at Trax. Adonis told Soul Jazz this salutary story. Everybody in Chicago at that time got their education down at Trax Records. They went down there, and if you didnt know what a pressing machine looked like, or anything like that, by the time you got through hanging around there, you knew everything. He ran his stuff real loose. You could just go in there, grab as many records as you want. When he wasnt looking. People would be like, I cant get my goddamn money from this bastard! Im going to go down there and steal me some records!’ They go down there and steal about 500 records, and go sell them themselves. Get their money back! Hell go out to lunch, everybodys grabbing. I mean you had to do things like that just to offset your dollars, because he wasnt going to give you any royalties.
Larry Sherman tried to explain it from his perspective to Paul Ablett in Soul Underground. Theres a lot of disloyalty in our underground scene. I cannot blame the artists, because record sales are not that big. So if I give a $3,000 advance to do a tune and costs him $1,500 to use a studio, that leaves him $1,500 to live on till he can produce another tune, because the reality is that we have to sell at least 15,000 records to pay back his advance and generally all his records will do is 10-15,000 units. When they get to the UK and they get on a compilation, the compilation may do up to 15,000 units. Even so because it is one of the 15 tracks on the record, the revenue will be so low that the advance is not recouped. They think of themselves as artists and that they shouldnt do a 9-to-5 job but since they dont have enough money to support themselves, the whole underground scene becomes self-defeating. They get a bunch of money and spend it right away. They dont budget and so constantly find themselves broke. I could tell you some stories!
Sherman also wholly misunderstood the role of the producer in a studio. They are not musicians and they dont necessarily need to be. You dont need to be able to drive to direct traffic, yet he was scathing in his assessment of Chicagos young talent. They dont behave like long-term artists because they arent really artists, he said. People like Farley and Marshall and Hurley cant really play a note they dont have the tools to be successful commercially.
But as Virgo Fours Eric Lewis states, We got advances on record sales. Im sure it didnt work to our advantage. But Larry would help us out financially.
House music changed the world. It provided the world with a lingua franca that can be now heard in everything from boshing Eurotrance to Algerian electronic rai. Todays EDM is yesterdays Trax classic. After those amazing early days in the Powerplant and the Music Box and on WBMX, house music and the Trax catalogue left Chicago and took over the world. And, although Chicagos DNA is buried deep within each and every house tune, it never really came back. Its the sound of catwalk shows in Milan. Its the sound of a Starbucks branch in Manila. Its the sound of commercial radio in Munich and pirate radio in Peckham. Its the sound of the streets and the sound of an Ibizan sunset. And its the sound of Saturday night just about anywhere in the world.
The most significant thing to me about house was you didn’t have live musicians any more, suggests Franois K. You had people programming boxes. So it had a sound of its own. When it came out it was so special; so raw. Primitive, yet very compelling. It was the start of that refining process where, instead of music having all these flourishes, you just had raw, to-the-bone, simplistic, dancefloor-only oriented music. The people that made house music weren’t interested in anything other than having the maximum amount of impact on the dancefloor. So when those first tracks came out there was an enormous explosion. But then, retrospectively, no matter how much of it has aged very gracefully Mr. Fingers, Jungle Wonz, Virgo some other things sound disgracefully bad. There are a number of tracks that do stand out today as being exceptional music.
Trax would have hit the mainstream if anyone knew what the heck they were doing, including myself, Larry Sherman stated. If a record sold 20,000 copies it did because they were very good records, not because there was a political push. By the time we learned (about the business), the music had moved on. If I knew today, then, I would be a mega millionaire. Perhaps its best that way. Maybe its just as well nobody got rich from Trax Records. The Trax catalogue we recall now is one of hidden gems, all-time classics and some of the rawest machine-music ever committed to wax. The Trax we remember is full of flaws but flaws are cornerstones of great art.
Amazing it all started with a mom-and-pop pressing plant on the Southside of Chicago.
Additional research by Frank Broughton
Marshall Jefferson, DJ Pierre, Cedric Neal, Chez Damier and Derrick Carter interviews all conducted by Frank Broughton.
Next week, part 2…
Traxbox HUTBOX003 is available now from all good retailers.