sat 13/08/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kerri Chandler | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kerri Chandler

theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kerri Chandler

A history lesson with the godfather of soulful house

Godfather in the house: Kerri Chandler

Kerri Chandler is quite simply one of the most revered figures in dance music, as much now as when he emerged from the New Jersey club scene onto the international stage nigh on a quarter of a century ago. True to the spirit of the disco, he has only ever released three albums in that time, but has made over 100 12” singles, and maybe twice that number of remixes of other people's work, as well as untold performances as one of the most consistently popular DJs in house music.

His style is exceptionally musical, taking rich influences from soul and jazz and heavy on the use of “real” instruments and singers – but he has never shied away from playing the most out-there techno too, and it's his ability to combine the sense of sophisticated classicism with new technological and stylistic developments, the familiar with the strange, which has in part kept him on top of the game for so long. While other DJs of his vintage play to older crowds or are treated as revivalists, he remains plugged into cutting-edge clubs from Berlin to Ibiza, and is a direct influence on the youngest dance producers working today as well as retaining his original audience.

I met the genial 44-year-old at Shoreditch House in London, a couple of days after he had played records embellished with live keyboards for over eight hours at the XOYO club. He was treated like a king by the young audience there, but in person he is genial, open and extraordinarily laid back.

JOE MUGGS: To begin, where was your first contact with music? Were your family musical?

KERRI CHANDLER: Well my grandmother's cousin was Lena Horne, so it was there! My grandfather was a singer and introduced me to a lot of people, and my dad was a DJ, and he introduced me to [R&B group and successful songwriting team] Surface and Kool & The Gang in the studio. I was really young, watching them in there and getting to see them come into the club and perform. Pic Conley [of Surface] was my dad's best friend, and so was Meekaaeel Muhammad who was the writer for Kool & The Gang, and they'd always hang around the house, so there was always musical influence there. The first time I went to the studio was just “wow, yes” - I was just sitting there going “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”. It was a place called House of Music – actually there were two places, Four Bit and House of Music – and as soon as I stepped into them, I was just “wow, what IS this place?”

Did you fall for the technology as well as the music?

Oh completely. Completely. I was so used to looking at some basic two-channel mixer with some turntables, my dad's DJ setup, that when I found that you could have a 48 channel version of that, and each thing has a different sound... I was like “You can control all of this stuff? You can EQ every channel? You can put effects on all this...?” The minute I found out you could do all this, watching them mix something down, I was just... “Wow.” And then I turn round and I'm seeing all these lights go, all the effects on what they do, all the reverbs and the time delays, the compressers, the gates... all these things. I was in heaven! For a 10 year-old to look at all this stuff, it looks like science fiction.

When did you start getting hands on with this stuff? Did you use your dad's decks?

Well my dad never knew I used his decks. It was around that time, I was maybe 10, 11 years old, and it'd be when my dad left the house. He was cool, but he was really strict when it came to his gear. He just wanted to make sure it was kept in order because it was really top notch, and if anything broke, it was “uh oh” – because just getting a cartridge at the end of the week would be tough, you have to order it from someplace and all that. So yeah, nobody touches anything. The way he had it set up was a big counter, with these Thorn or AR turntables, they had pitch control but they were belt-driven, the whole thing floats, you had to be super careful – and to change the speed you had to lift a whole part of the platter off, move the belt onto a different wheel for 33 or 45; it had a pitch but you had to do that to change the main speed, I thought that was the weirdest thing in the world.

He'd put a crate in front of the turntables, stand me on there and pass record to me

Anyway I'd have to stand on a dining room chair to reach it, and I'd have it on just enough so I could hear the music, but my dad loved riding his bike, he had a ten-speed, and I'd hear him coming up the walkway the “k-k-k-k-k” of the gears, his bike was loud, I'd hear “k-k-k-k-k” and switch it all off – it was all on one switch so it was just “click” and nobody would know it'd been on. But in this one instance, after I'd been doing it for a long time, he happened to come back home and I'm standing with the platter in my hand – to change the speed but to him I'm standing on this chair and I'm holding it up like I'm ready to destroy something, and it was “AHHHH what the hell are you doing?”. I was like, [winces and speaks through teeth] “uhhh, I'm mixing”, and of course it was “wahh, get the hell off there, you're going to tear up my shit” and all of that, and I went [cooler] “look I'm just trying to mix, man,” and he went “ahh you don't know what you're doing, get the hell off there, that's my shit, you're gonna mess up my shit, I gotta use it this weekend,” and I thought “ah well, y'know, next time,”

But then he went, “Look, if you want to learn how to mix, I'll show you how to mix”, and I said “I already know how to mix! I watched, I've watched everybody,” and he was like “OK then, show me. If you can mix, then great, we'll have a go at it. But if you can't, I'm gonna crucify you.” So for a 12 or 13-year-old, that was the challenge, so of course it was “Right, I have to mix!” and not only did I mix, but I kept on mixing, and it got to the point where he was just really stunned. He stood there stunned while I was mixing up these old disco records, just riding them, and he was like, “Wow, you really know what you're doing, you're blending these things really well!” So immediately, that weekend, he took me to the club and I started warming up for him. He'd put a crate in front of the turntables, stand me on there and pass record to me, and that was my opening – I used to warm up for my father.

And he was playing disco too?

Yeah mainly, well yeah, completely actually. Old disco tunes, this was at this club called Rally Racket in East Orange [New Jersey] and I'd start maybe 9.30 and play to just about 11. They'd call me Little Man, put a suit on me, I'd mix records and it was hilarious. Then of course, I'd have to go, my mom would come and be like, “c'mon Kerri” and I'd try to run and hide, get away.

What kind of crowd was it?

It was an older crowd and they would dance their asses off, they had on their wild disco dance, people flinging people around and throwing them through their legs, it was always a serious-ass party – it was the place to go actually, but I had no idea. I was just happy to play music, I didn't know about all that stuff, about what was cool. But all these artists came through, like Sharon Redd was there to perform, they'd have things lined up, keyboards and things, people would play over the records, and my dad would record all these reel-to-reel tapes...

So you just weren't conscious of the social mix or sexual mix of the crowd?

Nooooo... I just took it as growing up around all these people. I never knew what a sexual anything was, I just thought “these people are crazy and I love it, look how they dress, they're just maniacs!” I didn't know anything about the drugs, or the drinking or anything, I was just a kid in there having fun. I seen the things they were drinking, real colourful things, you know, and I knew I couldn't have any apparently, I'd just get some Shirley Temple type drink, some fruity thing... but that was the extent of my knowledge.

And that was it – the start of your career?

Oh god yeah. I've never let it go, ever. I was like, “forget it, I will never let this go.” Because I knew what it was immediately. And around then I also became an intern at a studio called Mirror Image, and at the same time my uncle had just started running a cable company that had a TV studio so I became an intern there. So over the summer, I was working there doing that, both at the same time, and I didn't sleep – I was a kid, I was running back and forth to both, I wanted to know everything about everything. And within about a year and a half, two years, I became the head of every damn thing – because I wanted to know everything, I was like “forget it, I got to learn this”. I was the engineer for everything, I became the head engineer from being an intern, and from being an assistant producer at the television studio became the main producer. So I learned how to work cameras, lighting and everything from that, and all of this started a journey of “I just wanna know more! This is amazing! All this new technology and I have my hands on it!”

So I'm guessing you weren't too bothered with school then...?

No, I did school! This is the funny thing, I aced the crap out of school, I dunno maybe I have autism or something because I was just like Rainman with all this stuff. School was just very easy for me – I'd cut school and go to the library, in fact, then come back and ace the test, do what I had to do, and that was it. I went to college a couple of years and took up engineering, the music thing took off, my hobby became my job and my job became my hobby, I started DJing at weekends, and next thing I know I started making records. I'd got into rap by then, so I had this hip hop group Art Of Origin who did pretty well – we even got signed to Rick Rubin's label [Def American]! So it was an interesting thing – the people I knew who did the rap stuff didn't know I did the house stuff, and the people I knew who did house stuff didn't know I did rap. I was wearing two hats! I was running out on stage, rapping, DJing, lalala, then at the weekend I'd go in the club play disco and house...

It's funny it seems to have been written out of history how close rap and house actually were, down to the same people making them.

Oh yeah, the funny thing is we're all friends, we all know each other, we have the same sensibilities about music and what our classics are. We talk the same language, and that's where we get all these beats from, the chunky thing, because we come from a hip hop background. The same thing with Kenny Dope, Todd Terry, we come from the same thing, going through breakbeats, finding records, “these beats are dope, let's hit that” - then we started putting it into house things. When I started doing house, I didn't know I was into doing house. I started because it was therapeutic – I lost my girlfriend years ago, someone killed her. Behind [legendary NJ club where KC would become resident] Zanzibar, of all things – this guy raped her, and killed her, and left her behind the club. But she loved house music. I was devastated, I was really, really wrecked.

She was always behind me, a beautiful woman, and I didn't know what to do with myself – but I thought to myself, “well, she loved house music, let me get more into house,” and I listened to what was going on. My friend said, “You should get more into making house music, I think you'd be really good at it” - because at that point I'd only been producing hip hop – and I thought “well, Tracy really loved house, but I don't really know how to do house.” So I said, “Let me play with some things, we'll see” - and the first track I made was “Get It Off”. Now “Get It Off” was short for “get it off of my mind” because of her, and I put all these parts in it that had to do with what I was going through because of her – like there's a part that goes “You! Are! So! Vicious!” and I was talking to the guy that did that to her, and “now is the time, now is the time” was like “now is the time to get this off my mind”. And there was “get it off, get it off, set it loose”, and also a big scratch through the middle of the records which is what my life felt like when they killed her: it changed my entire groove, it changed my being.

“Get it Off”

And that really affected the way I work, but then after I'd done this, I just thought “whoa, this felt really good, I need to do this again, this is what I need in my life.” I needed something this therapeutic that I could put anything I want to into it, and clear my mind. And then we just started having fun with it... There was “Drink on Me” which was just hilarious. One of my friends was a dancer, and he had this crew of dancers that would come to the club all the time – our club was Club America – and downstairs were hardcore dancers, they'd throw powder on the floor and go crazy, while a level up from that were suit-and-tie people who'd look down onto the floor, like, “wow, what's going on down there”. Now, what would happen is they'd get too curious and they'd come down the bridge, and now the people are there, two and three at a time on the dance floor, powder on the floor and dancing their asses off, and these guys are looking at them like they're zoo animals!

This shit we do is POP music here? How the fuck is this possible?

So my friend and I came up with this idea to get these people off the dancefloor. These guys always thought they were the mack, always with a drink in their hand, and they'd walk sideways with suit and ties on. So “Drink on Me” was a song to the bartender, to say “give away free drinks!” The free drink was always Sex on the Beach, because for some reason it was the easiest and cheapest to give away. So I had the song on reel-to-reel, and the minute I put it on, me and my dancer friend would have a signal, we'd catch each other's eye like, “it's time!” This red light would be spinning around the room, “Drink on Me” would come on, and all you'd see was these suit-and-tie guys running up the stairs and straight to the bar, because the offer only lasted as long as the song was on, and that's how we got them away. They'd mind their business and stay up there for a while, sucking on their Sex on the Beach. We made a big joke of it, but even so, it was putting my life into the record. Every song after that, I put my life into it, it was supercool, knowing I could literally express myself, and I swore I'd never make a record unless there was a story in it because it's very therapeutic and maybe people can even relate to what I'm doing.

That's interesting – because people sometimes talk about dance music as escapist in a negative way, like it's about running away from reality, but for you the escapism was in confronting reality!

Well it was getting away from reality too. I mean we didn't live in the best neighbourhood at all – our neighbourhood was horrible, the fucking ghetto. People would always get robbed or stabbed or something. There's a saying that [rap group] Naughty By Nature had: if you can make it out of here without getting stabbed or shot, you'll be alright. That's the kind of neighbourhood we were in. I've always had a gun in my face, somebody's always wanted to stick me up, people robbing all the time, that's just the nature of the beast. I couldn't wait to get away from there. It's no different to Detroit techno, they did their thing because they needed an escape with music.

Was there any sense that the music could change society too? A lot of classic house music has that quite churchy hope of redemption, lyrics about building a better world and so on...

That was it. We wanted unity, we wanted peace, we wanted love – that's what we wanted, and that's what our community was through the clubs and music, that's what our family was, and that's how we began to really go. Tony – Tony Humphries – was pretty much like the Reverend at Zanzibar, that was the end-all-be-all, and he gave us a voice to be heard and a platform to speak, and we went in and we had a blast. He had a radio show that showcased everyone, and he had a very very wonderful vision of showing the talent that was in New Jersey, the vocals and our scene. Partly the New York scene too, but mainly showcasing the amazing vocalists we had. In the club he'd play these records over and over, then there'd also be a stage for a showcase and at a certain stage in the night these people would come on and sing these same records he'd been playing – they'd perform at the club. And this was a wonderful thing, we'd all attend, we'd all support one another and see one another play.

The same club, Club America, where I was resident was owned by the same guys – Club America, Zanzibar and Club 88 were all owned by the Berger Brothers, and they'd rotate us club to club. Now when you were resident somewhere you didn't just play records, you had to know the lighting, you had to know the soundsystem, you had to know everything about everything, and we all were very lucky because we had a Richard Long system in all the clubs, which is the best system in the world, so by getting to know this we became these audiophile people, and not only that we got to know what every record should really sound like, and what you could play over each one because we had the best gear to do it with! It became one of those things where it was just “wow, this is a really cool-ass scene we have here – it's not just New York, we have all these really interesting things happening here.”

And in terms of DJ's craft, Tony is held up as one of the all-time greats – was there any sense of competition or spurring one another on on that front?

Not at all. No competition at all. Tony was more like a big, huge help for me – he was like a bigger brother to me, full of advice. He always said to me, and I've never forgotten, “if you play for the ladies, the guys will be happy.” When I started coming to London, we'd both be at Ministry of Sound a lot, I'd always be just before him or just after him and it was the most wonderful time. We were both from the same place, East Orange, so for us to come over and play like that... You know, we'd had all these silly conversations over the years, late nights coming back from Zanzibar in Carlton's van, and it's so cool to get to know someone like that; he really was like my bigger brother, showing me the ropes because I was just a kid doing this and he was seasoned. He'd say “Kerri, use me as long as you can, because this is the outlet I have – go ahead, because this is what it is” He'd take me into the studio a few times, showed me how other things worked, what they were using, what they were doing, had me in on a couple of sessions playing keys and things, he just took me in and showed me how things ran – I owe him a lot!

And what time did you realise that what you were doing could go international?

Well, the third record I did was “My My Lover”, which I produced for Dee Dee Brave. No, fourth. “Drink on Me”, “Get it Off”, “Superlover”, “My My Lover” just one after the other. I came to London in, I think, '91. I met my friend Mel Madalie in New York, he wanted to have a meeting here [in London] because he'd just licensed “My My Lover” to Champion, so of course I thought “cool” because I got to come over here, and I got a show at the Ministry Of Sound at the same time. I'd never heard of Ministry Of Sound, but I kept hearing rumours about it, rumours it was set up after the Paradise Garage, and sure enough when I walked in, wow! The room was set up exactly like it, it had the same [speaker] stacks I was used to at home, I felt right at home, it was easy – even the music I was playing was perfect for it. What got me was that there was that show, Top Of The Pops, I saw this and my song “My My Lover” was there in the charts! Underneath it was Color Me Badd, this wasn't the dance chart, it was THE charts – I just thought “how does this work? This shit we do is POP music here? How the fuck is this possible?”

“My My Lover”

How aware were you of the British love affair with dance music, the acid house explosion, the Hacienda and so on?

Ah this is where it gets interesting. After that, I started playing everywhere because of the records – so I played the Hacienda, and every time I played there it was infamous, it was an infamous fucking night! Again, I thought “what is this? How does this work? How is this even possible?” So I started playing Manchester and Leeds and all of these places, Hard Times and Back To Basics with Dave [Beer, notorious Leeds club promoter and bon viveur]... Milk And Two Sugars and Gasm... all of these places, so many parties going on, so many illegal warehouse parties, so many pirate radio stations – I came up when Kiss was still a pirate station and I'd be there in some apartment hanging out with these pirate radio people. It was such an edgy, pioneering time, I thought “wow this is mad here, all of these people creating something for themselves, damn I love the scene here.”

So I went back and forth, back and forth across the Atlantic, then I started going to Italy a lot too – places like Echoes and Paradiso, and I though “woah OK, so this  is everywhere then!” So now I'm showing up in Ibiza, which was Es Paradis at that time, a big swimming pool in the middle of a club – like, what the fuck kind of club is this? And I'm popping up in all these huge festivals and raves, like nothing I'd ever seen before. At home it was rappers blowing up like that, then I come over here and house is blowing up like that. House, and acid house, and hardcore and... I mean, I've never broken down genres like that, I'm like “it's HOUSE, what is all this acid house and speed garage and handbag house?” but I really got into it.

And then I ran into Ricky Morrison, Paul Trouble, Phil Asher – early on before Phil was even DJing, just because he was there on the scene – and Sarah HB with the night she was doing, I think it was Raw. All of these things were going on, and all of these people became really close friends. Then I met Sangki from Freetown Records, and I started my own label around 1991-92 with Mel Madalie, so I was running Madhouse, I was over here all the time, and everything was cool – it was like “you're not gonna get me away from this place!”

You mention these different scenes – did you follow things like speed garage as it split off from the house mainstream?

Well I kinda knew what they were doing because I knew all these people like Karl “Tuff Enuff” – and I still keep in touch with all those guys – but watching all those things, the two-step thing jumping off, the drum'n'bass thing, there were so many styles, every time I came back there'd be another one, but I've never tried to make that stuff, because I don't want to try and guess how it's done. I just do what I do and what sounds good to me, I've never done a two-step or a drum'n'bass record because it doesn't feel natural for me to do. I've always stuck to my guns and it's always swung back around eventually.

Which it certainly has now.

Again! It feels the same as when I started, there's a lot of the same things being made as when we were just learning what we were doing, and I think there's a lot of this new younger generation learning the machines and coming up with the same kind of formulas that we used to when we were getting our heads round it. A lot of these kids they don't play keyboards or whatever, and when we were young we had to keep it very simple, running across chords and the same patterns.

Well a lot of young guys making house now started in the grime scene, which was very musically raw – the first producers even literally making it on their Playstations.

That's what I mean! I did an album called Computer Games almost ten years ago, the same way, I broke all my machines – I'm an engineer so I ripped all my game machines apart, and I had a blast. I wanted to make an album with computer games without making it sound like it's a computer, because I said you can make it very musical – why does it have to sound like “bleep blop blip”? I said these things can have very interesting tones, so if you manipulate it so it becomes something more musical, rather than something grimy. It's a matter of polishing these sounds and knowing what to do with them to make them flow.

If you listen to some of the early UK jungle, the precursor to drum'n'bass, it was made with a home computer – an Atari ST – and often nothing else, yet it could be unbelievably rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated.

Yeah. All the guys I knew starting out, their studio would be an Akai S900 or 1000, an Atari ST and that was it. That was IT. The amount of sample material you could use in each track was limited to a very few seconds. It would come through a small mixer, into a DAT [digital audio tape] machine, but they'd make some crazy shit like this. Maybe they'd have one keyboard, or one little sound module, but compared to what you can get on any computer now it was nothing at all.

So were you aware of UK funky [a London based underground house scene with strong grime, West African and Caribbean influences that briefly flourished around 2007-2011, and which fed into the current house music resurgence] as that hived off from grime and garage?

Kind of, yeah. Same thing really, I was aware this was happening, in this case I didn't know who these guys were, but I always heard it when I came over during that time. You'd hear it from people's cars and radios of course, and people would put me up on it, someone like [dance music PR] Nicky Trax here – she'd always have the promos of everything no matter what it was, and she'd always be like “yo Kerri, check this out, I'd like to know what you think of it”, in case she ended up doing press on it or something. I'd hear it, I'd think yeah, that's kinda cool, yeah that's sick, hmm, what do I think of this? She'd get me doing these exercises, like compiling top tens of this and that, it was funny, but I got to know this stuff like that – then I'd finally meet these guys that were making it, pop into their studio and see some of what was happening...

And of course what then happened is these guys kind of went full circle into your world – they've become more sophisticated in their production and gone back to very musical house music, while still keeping that London bassline...

Oh yeah! It's really nice to see. I think it's really wild, even back then I love how they made songs. I love bass – that's just me, I love those low frequencies – so it's the most wonderful thing in the world to hear music with those reggae tones to it, hip hop style drums, grimy shit, I love it. There's something about the tone in it, it's not an automatic tone that comes out of a machine, you're not going to turn on your machine and get that, there's something they fucked with so hard like they're saying to the machine “lemme show you how this shit's supposed to work!”

“Op-l 3” from Computer Games

It's funny, as you listen to the different strands of house music, it starts to feel like there are very specific frequencies that come from someone having a background that's Jamaican, or German, or indeed in New Jersey or Chicago...

Exactly! It's what they grew up with, their classics, the things that made them and inspired them, those are in their minds, and when they home in on house music they naturally do their own take on it. And each time you hear something new like that that's come from it, it's like “woah – that's sick!” One of my favourite tracks is one of Goldie's songs, 'Inner City Life'. That song, the first time I heard it I wanted to cry – just everything, the way that vocal comes in, the strings, the way those drums are put together, I never heard anything like it. I knew all these sampled drum breaks these guys would use like 'Apache' [drum break sampled from Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band's Shadows cover, endlessly used in hip hop, jungle and drum'n'bass] and suchlike but this was the first time I'd ever heard someone do this, use drums like that, just freak that beat like that [he beatboxes the complex syncopations], taking it from the snare and freaking it. The first time I heard it I kept listening to it over and over. I mean, I did hip hop, I sampled those same breaks, but I would never have thought of freaking the beat like that.

And again, going back to what you were saying about the British tastes in the nineties, that was a chart hit.

Beautiful, the vocal on it on top of those electronic tones just sends you. Not long ago, a friend and I were travelling to Glastonbury, and I saw he had it on his iPod and I said “I just have to hear the album”, I'd never heard the album it came from. So he puts it on and there's all these versions of this song, then all these other things and I'm just IN. THE. ZONE. It was just “WOW”. Just... just... sick man, real sick. There was another one that made me laugh recently that I heard on another trip, guys playing these old rave things, "Searching for my Rizla", "Looking for my Rizla"...?


Yeaaaah that's it. It was so crazy, I was laughing my ass off, it's so stupid, but I heard one version I'd never heard before and the sounds in it were dope, it was like “whoa, where did they get these sounds from?” Again this was made with real basic equipment, but there's always something interesting to be found.

Well again, it's that very precise expression of a very particular set of people – these working class English guys, spending all weekend in a van belting from rave to rave, looking for their Rizlas – at a very particular time when the technology made this music possible...

Yep, you can practically hear the machines they were using. Gotta be an Akai something, probably an ST.

And I've noticed in your DJ sets especially, there's this constant interplay between the very human – particularly in the voices of singers, of course – and the extremes of what technology is capable of. Do you ever plan this in conceptual or aesthetic terms, or is it more reactive?

Nah, nah it's never been aesthetic for me, it's practical, it's about what tones can I get out of this machine? I call it the battle against the machine – who's going to win? Because you can have a million-dollar machine but if you've got a shit idea, then you're gonna have a million-dollar piece of shit. So it all still comes down to the idea, and what you can pull out of the original concept – which goes back to what I decided right at the start of making house music, that everything had to come from my life, that it had to come from an idea no matter how simple.

It's like I always had a conflict between being an engineer and being a producer, because being an engineer your job is to get the cleanest sound you can as a recording, to the best of your ability, choose the mic-ing, choose the gear to get the best recording as you understand it. But as a producer, it's about the ideas, so if you're wearing both hats this is where the conflict comes in, and as a producer you have to make sure the idea is still there and not destroy it as an engineer. You still need to leave some grit in there, sometimes the idea gets lost in cleaning things up too much; I've had some raw tracks that I go back to and think “why didn't I use this instead of the cleaner one?”

Well, sometimes, as the Buddhists say, it's “first thought best thought”.

I can see that. Some of these things, if you take too much time to work on them it loses the feel. I'll give you an example: the first time I really had Arnold Jarvis in the studio and we did “Inspiration”... well, that's what it was. It was an inspiration. I had my place set up like a club, like the Ministry of Sound, with all the lights and everything, and this was the first time he'd come there. Now he told me he'd just come from a hospital and his friend had cancer, and he was dying, but he was still very happy and he was a very optimistic person still, and he said this was just inspirational. And he just started writing things on his hand, he said “d'you wanna make a track”, I said “sure we can make one.”

I started striping the tape, I had the system on and ready to roll already, I passed him a mic and we started rattling off things – he started singing and I started playing keyboards, I had a grand piano in the room and I started playing my piano. So he said, “Can you record it just like that, with me singing and you playing piano together, just like that?” and I said, “Sure, I haven't done that in a while, but yeah”. I striped the whole tape, I set up his microphone, I reversed the phase of the room so as to cancel out all the reverberation of the room so you don't need a vocal booth, I started playing an electronic piano this time... he looks at his hand where he has this lyric, the tape starts rolling, and we did “Inspiration” in one take. Sometimes that's the best thing in the world. We played it back, and I thought “that is fucking cool”. I didn't need to mix it, change the EQ, nothing – I just recorded a little extra layer of organ. I went back and just sampled that “Inspiration... inspiration to me, life has just begun” and flew that back into the song as a refrain, so that became the title. We didn't need to do any more, it took all of 25 minutes, and that's where the best things come from.
It was the same with “Track One” – I wish I could've said I laboured on that for ages, but it was an unfinished demo for Sable Jeffries to sing over for something I was doing for Jerome Sydenham, but she ended up using a different one. That beat took all of 20 minutes to make, but it's probably one of my most famous, or infamous, tracks I've ever done. Sometimes it'll even trump things you've worked on forever, like when I did this version of the Seal track “Latest Craze”, I thought “yeah I'm gonna polish the shit outta this one, get string players all over it, get this, get that...” – and I don't even know if that one ever saw the light of day. The one I did that again took me 20 minutes to do, just a weird dub, big bassline and some rugged drums, that's the one that was floating around, the DJs wanted, that got bootlegged... sometimes it just happens that way!

Seal “Latest Craze” (Kerri Chandler Dub)

Do you think the consciousness of that moment when something doesn't need any more work might be part of what has helped keep you relevant? Because a lot of people get more and more technically proficient as they get more successful and end up disappearing up their own process...

That's the thing, you lose the tone. That's when you lose the battle with the machines. I got really lucky in the studio early on, because I learned all these machines as an intern, and I had access to almost anything I wanted to use. But I learned very quickly that if you have a tone in your head, find the machine you think will get you closest to that. If a sound is lacking, find that sound. As soon as I heard a Roland TR-909 [the drum machine at the heart of house and techno] I had to have one. I said “I hear that sound in my mind already, so I need that thing.” Everyone else was 808s, 707s, Linn drums, but I was “mm-mm, this is the one, this is going to cut through everything, it is going to whup everyone's ass.” I knew instantly how to EQ it and then me being an engineer, I could go inside this thing to make it longer, make the octave drop lower, make it mine, and that became my signature kickdrum sound. Then I thought “wow I need a really nasty bass to go with that now!” Thankfully I was hanging out with all these reggae guys at the time, they kept throwing me bizarre little machines that nobody else would think of – these cheap little tiny Casio keyboards, that make these very simple waveforms, they'd go “yeah man you just need that...” And it worked, immediately it worked.

Are you still like that then, do you still look out for unusual toys as well as the “proper” studio gear?

Yeah. Because that's the thing, that's what I mean. You have to find THAT sound, because once you find the sound you need it's worth hundreds of hours of fooling around with the mix to try and make the wrong sound right. And it can come from anywhere. I recently got it with a software plug-in called Doom, it was like “wow, someone has plugged into my brain and downloaded this”. Some of the software processing now is amazing.

So back to your position as a musician and DJ – how does it feel to be considered an elder statesman?

I don't know man, I'm just happy to be here [gurgles with laughter]. I'm really excited about the younger generation, and I started my company called Madtech [sister label to his long running Madhouse imprint] because of it. It's been a labour of love, but I've met so many cool people through doing it – my two favourite people to hang out with, even, are Laurence [Blake, aka Citizen, young Midlands producer], and [Leeds duo] Voyeur. Everyone who's been on the label has been a great, great friend and a great influence on me, we share thoughts and music, I learn from them! And being over at Circoloco [notorious underground Monday day-into-night session at the DC10 club in Ibiza] for, what, five years now – all of these guys in the crew there, they're like family. We all swap each other's mixes, we all support each other, we all have a great time out there. We all stay in touch throughout the year, and I just look forward to keeping that fuckin' thing going, you know?

Circoloco is pretty notorious, as you'd say. As an older guy, though, do you sometimes look at the decadence and go “yikes!”?

Sure I do! But I've been there and seen it and done it. Well, not done THAT in the sense of drugs, but you know, when you're young and you think you're invincible and nothing's ever going to kill you, I've done plenty of foolish things. But after I became a dad, everything changed, I became Mr Responsible – hell I AM responsible for someone else's life, so things changed. I never did any drugs, though, because my dad told me. I shouldn't say this but he is – was – a serious druggie. He'd take me aside and say “Kumar” – that's what he always calls me, it's my middle name – he'd say “Kumar, we have a substance abuse problem in our family.”

He says, “I'm going to tell you now, you're going to love it, and you'll destroy everything you've ever worked for. You don't want to really do that. Trust me on this. A little drink once in a while is OK, but cocaine, all those other things, that will destroy you completely.” I'm looking at him and he's telling me this while he's doing drugs. That is the most frightening shit I've ever seen in my life, he's sitting there rolling a joint going [inhales] “this is terrible” and he's enjoying it, but I see on his face he means what he's saying when he goes “don't ever, just please don't”.

So do you feel some responsibility to be a father figure when you're among wild club people?

Kinda. But the guys know I'm not into that and they respect it, nobody's doing anything really crazy around me. They have their thing, their life, that's the way they are – if someone needs a little bump once in a while that's their thing. I don't want to see anyone I care about get fucked up, or go to hospital, but different people deal with it in their own way. If someone tells me they're cutting back or whatever, I'm happy, but you know, I don't judge. And certain places, certain groups, seem to channel that chaos around the music. Circoloco seems to have become this unstoppable force, like Back to Basics in Leeds, that you can't imagine not being around. And house music is at the core of this.

House music, then, is here to stay?

Oh god yeah. House has taken on a life of its own, it is a living thing. I always get these questions, like “how long do you think house is going to last?” and I just say “it's dance music. As long as people want to dance there'll be some kind of dance music.” People want to enjoy and release and forget and have a great time listening to things that reflect how they feel and trigger off deep emotions, which is a release. I understand this, I get it, because I had to do it myself. And I really watch to see how everyone enjoys it, all the dancers, and the people who just go to have a nice time, and there'll always be people who go and don't know what the scene is, but after a while they start getting into this music they've never heard before, and they bring their friends, and then before you know there's another scene popping up somewhere in a place you never heard of. And the music keeps changing, keeps incorporating everything that's new, but it keeps the groove all the same. It keeps on going!

  • Parts of this interview originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of Mixmag
When I started doing house, I didn't know I was into doing house. I started because it was therapeutic

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