The late great Frankie Knuckles is without doubt one of the greatest and most innovative deejays ever.
When talking about history of house music coming out if Chicago, certain names always come to the fore. However speaking on behalf of myself Matt Warren is one whose history I found very educational. He was unbeknown to me previously but I felt as though with his story I should have been more aware. His career stared way back in the late 1970s as a teenage DJ who progressed by 1985 to making music. With like minded individuals he embraced the evolving dance music that became known as house and has had a foothold in its evolution to this very day. He had an album ‘Music Is My Life which chronicles his journey and he speaks to the magazine of music and life in Chicago.
When were you born, what artist were you listening to and how was life growing up in the Windy City of Chicago as a kid, with its musical gene pool that included pioneers like Curtis Mayfield and The Stairsteps ?
I was born in 1966, which was a great year for music, with The Beatles’ ‘Revolver,’ Otis Redding’s ‘The Soul Album,’ The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds.’ ‘The Supremes A’ Go-Go,’ ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett,’ James Brown’s ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ and Cream’s ‘Fresh Cream’ all being released. These were all albums I would hear as I grew up in a music loving home and then later I went on to own in my record collection. Growing up in Chicago I was well aware that I was living in a special city with an incredible musical heritage. Chicago has been home to labels like Chess, Curtom, Delmark and Vee-Jay Records. Listening to records released by these labels was a part of my musical education, especially with Chicago artists like the late great Terry Callier, Curtis Mayfield and Leroy Hutson. By then, Curtis Mayfield was probably one of the most influential soul singers of his generation and his politically conscious music spoke to my friends and I, who admired not just the music, but his determination to make a difference. However much of the music I was listening to, including the soul, funk and disco was made outside of Chicago. One of my favourites was, and still is, James Brown the ‘Godfather of Funk’, who produced Soul Sister #1 Marva Whitney. Other favourites were P-Funk pioneers Parliament and Funkadelic with their groundbreaking new sound. Then there was the Philly Soul produced by the Mighty Three. I loved the sound of the productions of Gamble and Huff, and the sound of MFSB and the Sweethearts Of Sigma, which featured on albums by The O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes and The Three Degrees. Also Thom Bell’s trademark sounds on albums by The Detroit Spinners and The Stylistics. I also love the disco sound and the great disco orchestras of the seventies. Especially the Salsoul Orchestra and John Davis And The Monster Orchestra, which were two of my favourites. There are so many great disco tracks and three of my favourites, are Candi Staton’s ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, Sandy Barber’s ‘I Think I’ll Do Some Stepping Out On My Own’ and Curtis’ ‘How Can I Tell Her’. Disco along with funk soon became my favourite genres of music when I started playing out.
When I think of Chicago as a music hybrid, before house music, I think of Curtis Mayfield, The Stairsteps, the group Windy City and The Carl Davis Orchestra. What was the definite thing that made the Chicago sound different to the west coast, east coast and the other mid west style of jazz, funk fusion, disco and soul music?
Growing up, and when I became involved with the city’s music scene, I was already aware that Chicago didn’t just have one sound. It has several sounds or variations on genres that were popular elsewhere in America. Sometimes musical genres arrive in Chicago and evolve or mutate and become something very different. Chicago really has its own scene from food to music. That was the case as far back as blues and jazz and I heard that in the funk, soul and disco that was coming out of the city when I was growing up.
Having made a name for yourself locally by 1979 deejaying what tracks were you championing, where were you playing, and who else was making their mark in those early days?
Before the insanity of the Disco Demolition Derby, at Comiskey Park, in Chicago, on the 12th’ of July 1979, my sets featured mostly disco and funk, with some soulful sounds as I played around the neighbourhood. This usually included tracks by everyone from Barry White, Black Heat, Bobby Womack, Brass Construction to James Brown and Candi Staton, Cerrone, Chic and Cymande to First Choice, Fatback Band, Loleatta Holloway, Lyn Collins, Mandrill, Pleasure, Ripple, The Meters and The Temptations. Just mentioning the names brings those early gigs back. What tracks did I play? It’s more a case of what did I not play. If it got people dancing I didn’t care. Back then, it wasn’t a case of whether the music was fashionable, it was a case of was it danceable. There were lots of deejays coming up at the same time as me, and our paths have continued to cross over the years. This includes two of my good friends Miguel Garcia and Ralphi Rosario.
You would have seen first hand the before and after effects of the ‘Disco Sucks’ episode. I’m not sure how many people understand its significance, so how from your perspective did that movement impact on the industry and you in Chicago as well as throughout the USA and the world?
Following the Disco Demolition Derby, record companies backed off from interest in disco, and disco artists and groups were dropped. Many record labels were ruthless as they began their search for the next big thing. Sadly, there was a tough human cost that was felt across America
and further afield. People forget that many of these musicians and singers had families to feed or mortgages to pay. Many struggled to reinvent themselves in the post disco era and were lost to music. Even in the post disco era, the music had an underground following and the Disco Demolition thing never was really a big deal to me, and my circle of friends. Most of us thought it was a big publicity stunt and as far as I‘m concerned disco never died. Instead, it just evolved into what we called dance music.
What was your deejay name and how did you manage, aged only thirteen in 1982, to develop from being a deejay to also promoting your own parties in those predeceasing house music days?
I’d been playing house parties around the neighbourhood. In the summer of 1982 I was in my freshman year at high school and I was ready to make the next step and make some money. Somehow, I managed to convince my Mum to lend me a hundred and fifty dollars, which was a lot of money back then and with that money I hired a room that was used for wedding
receptions. I used the rest of the money to hire a deejay friend from high school who had a sound system. To promote the night, my Mum photocopied flyers at her work and these were handed out in the neighbourhood. When the night came, three hundred kids paid three dollars each and I scored nine hundred dollars. I never again hired a deejay to play at parties and this was a new start! The next day I headed to Chicago’s Midwest Stereo, and bought a pair of Technics SL-B2 turntables, a Clubman one-one mixer and a pair of Cerwin Vega Speakers. Using the new equipment, I played all over the neighbourhood and then in Chicago. Other times, I put on my own parties, which were risky as nobody might show, but usually it worked and I made money. It was another chapter in my story.
I was hitting the clubs and the dance floors in 1982 totally absorbed by this new exciting moog and electro production, frequenting a Friday night Double Disco event at Electric Ballroom in Camden. Our recently departed brother from the London hood Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson was at the forefront of exposing that sound and we ate it up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. How easy was it for you and the whole Chicago movement to embrace this new found syncopated electronic boogie dance sound that was a few years post disco championed by recordings like D Train ‘You’re The One For Me’, and The Peech ‘Boys Don’t Make Me Wait’?
The new sound was something that I embraced and loved and incorporated into my deejay sets. By then, I was heavily into the New York sound labels like: Prelude, Prism and Streetwise. I was also spinning lot of Italo Disco from labels like IL Discotto, High Fashion and Rams Horn plus boogie, disco, electronic music, Euro Disco, funk and soul. I wasn’t going to play one type of music and my sets were always eclectic. Tracks like D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’, and The Peech ‘Boys’ Don’t Make Me Wait’ were exciting new tracks, and I wanted to hear more music like this. Other deejays were the same and we were all looking for similar tracks, as the music evolved during what was an exciting time for dance music.
What’s your memory of the late Frankie Knuckles relocating from deejaying in New York to Chicago, his impact on early origins of house music and advise on your experience in that movement?
The late great Frankie Knuckles is without doubt one of the greatest and most innovative deejays ever. He arrived in Chicago from New York in 1977 and was the resident at The Warehouse for about five years. By the time he left in November 1982, it was one of the city’s most popular clubs and the place everyone wanted to go. No wonder because Frankie Knuckles took deejaying to another level. He experimented by programming 4/4 drumbeats and combining this with excerpts from disco tracks. What’s ironic is that it started as an experiment but it became a way to provide new material for his eight to ten hour marathon deejay sets. Later, this technique, pioneered by Frankie Knuckles was used by some of the early house producers. They created tracks by taking the rhythm section and bass line from classic disco and R&B songs and mixed them with excerpts from modern synth-pop songs. If it hadn’t been for Frankie Knuckles and his experiments at The Warehouse maybe house music wouldn’t have evolved the way it did? It did, and that is thanks to Frankie Knuckles one of the pioneers and founding father’s of house music. We must never forget his influence and innovative experiments.
During the mid 1980s, whilst you were still in your teens, the Chicago house sound was developing and you dabbled in 1985 by making a rap, almost early acid hip house record ‘Rock The Nation’. This led to collaborations with Sunset Records and making music with Ralph Rosario. I’m guessing rap wasn’t as lucrative as making house music, so how did you make that transition so quickly to become one of respected producers by around 1987?
My career took an unexpected twist. My friends heard me rap, they said, “Man you should rap.” I went away and wrote my own lyrics and started doing a rap, while I was spinning to the instrumental of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and it really caught on, people loved it. Soon I was getting hired to rap at pretty big events in Chicago, and opened for The Sugarhill Gang. After that, my friend Miguel Garcia thought that we should make a record and we found a studio and the engineer turned us on to the whole synth and drum machine world in 1984. Then ‘Rock The Nation’ came out in 1985 and Miguel and I got screwed so badly by Alwan Records, that we vowed to never sign with a label and just put out our own music. That was how I came to co- found Sunset Records. At Sunset Records, we released ambitious and groundbreaking music, including The Razz EP, which I produced with Ralphi Rosario. This was the start of a successful period for the label, when I co-produced Master Plan’s single ‘Electric Baile’, in 1986. The single, which featured house diva Pepper Gomez, charted on Billboard and was just the latest success for me and the team at Sunset Records between 1985 and 1987. This success wasn’t just about me, but the artists, bands, engineers and producers. It was a team effort and a period I enjoyed and often remember.
Did you have any involvement in Ralph Rosario’s ‘You Used To Hold Me’? I only ask, as I love that record?
Sadly, no I didn’t. But it’s a great record and l’ll go out on a limb and say ‘You Used To Hold Me’ is Ralph Rosario’s finest hour.
Over here in the UK House /Acid / Garage Music was very popular with releases coming through labels like Trax DJ International and HOT WAX. I cannot profess to being an expert in that field but I was certainly playing much of it between 1986-1990 like Adonis ‘No Way Back’, Virgo ‘Are You Hot Enough?’ and Ralph Rosario ’You Used To Hold Me’. Farley Jack Master from Chicago had success here both on radio and in the clubs. In the UK we created a splinter movement known widely as Acid which had drug connections with the new emerging ‘E’ tablets having an association. How was the UK phenomenon in the late 1980s viewed back in Chicago? How did the clubs and radio infrastructure support not only in Chicago but also in The USA and beyond?
We all heard about the Acid House phenomenon that sounded like quite an adventure and a real game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The thought of spending half the night traveling up and down the freeway, trying to outwit the cops as everyone waited for the phone call about where the party was being held sounded incredible. I’m sure that once the loved up dancers were dancing away in a warehouse to the latest house music coming out of Chicago and locally produced tracks it was worth the hassle. Back home in Chicago we had many clubs throughout the house era, and I played at the AKA, Club Flamingo, Coconuts, Limelight and Paradise club. Radio was where many people first heard house music, and especially on the WGCI Hot Mix 5’s show which was hugely popular and one of the most popular programs on radio in Chicago. It was the perfect platform for new and up-andcoming deejays to have their music heard.
You’ve done so much, too much to mention over the last thirty years and watched house music
progress from its pioneering electro / acid esoteric sounds to its more current millennium musical productions from Vick Lavender and the legendary Ron Trent.
What is your overall feeling of the Chicago house movement and your personal contribution?
Some thirty-four years after I co-founded AKA Dance Music with four of my friends, enough time has passed for me to comment on the Chicago house movement and my own personal contribution. Sometimes, I think people within the music industry underestimate or play down the importance of Chicago house, as they can’t see beyond the traditional genres of music, which during the eighties were much more profitable for the majors and larger independent labels. Along with some managers within the music industry they saw house music as a street thing, which was a passing fad and would soon be replaced by something new. How wrong they were. In October 2018, when I released my new album ‘Music Is My Life’ on Wake Up! Music, I discovered that the music industry had changed beyond recognition and so have record labels. It has been ten years since I last released any new music, and now it’s a very different ball game. These changes began over twenty years ago, and the music industry continues to evolve. However, house music is still going strong, and probably, much to the amazement of those who predicted that it wouldn’t last in the early days. Looking back, Chicago house was a musical revolution that transformed what many people refer to as dance music. After Chicago house and Acid House there were many sub-genres including soulful, jazzy and Latin house. The latest sub-genre is Nu- House, which describes the music on my new album ‘Music Is My Life’. This release has received rave reviews in the USA, as well as in the UK and EU on Wake Up! Music, when it came out on the 15th February 2019. Nu-House is the latest chapter in the history of house, in which I’ve been a part from its birth. This started at Sunset Records and continued at AKA Dance Music where I released the first ever hard house track ‘Bang The Box’, which sold over fifty thousand and is regarded by critics as a classic. Last year, I remade ‘Bang The Box’ and my 1986 collaboration with Pepper Gomez ‘The Way To My Heart’. These two tracks are part of my musical legacy that spans four decades. I’ve been a lucky man and made a living producing, mixing and deejaying house music, and ‘Music is My Life’ and always will be.
The new album is quite diverse with disco, jazz and funk influences. Queen Latifah’s Tania Maria sampled ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ gets a more stomping four-floor treatment featuring Pepper Gomez who is also featured on disco bass lined ‘The Way To My Heart’, and a Latin tinged ‘Catch Me If You Can’. ‘Going Deeper’ has some infectious drum programming and organ sonics. ‘Musica Es Vida’, I can hear as a potential Ibiza and Balearic Islands classic. As a first release in ten years with lots of live music and as a homage to house music, what was the journey in making this album?
You know, I had a blast making this album. We took about a year to complete it. I had a bunch of tunes and was lucky enough to reconnect with Pepper Gomez who worked with me on the project for her label Wake Up! Music (wakeupmusicgroup.com). It was great as I do have my own studio and that meant we didn’t have to always be worrying about the clock. I was quite happy to send the instrumental parts of the tunes to Pepper as she just hears the melody and the lyrics to whatever I write. It really is an amazing process and partnership and I look forward
to writing more hit songs with her. In many ways, this might be my most important album for a lot of reasons, including that I hadn’t recorded any of my own material for some years. But, I think especially this record represents my journey in music and the birth of the Nu House sound – Nu House, a term coined by Derek Anderson. I’m super proud of what we have accomplished including having ‘Get On Up’ hit number one for two weeks in December of 2018 on the Digital Record Tracker Indie charts. We wanted people to feel the music, to want to get up, move around, and dance. I think we’ve done that. Lastly, for any art to survive it must keep evolving. With our Nu House sound, I think we’ve done that and we’re going to keep doing it. Thank you.