Chicago’s Jesse Saunders Released The First House Record In 1984 – Exclusive InterviewSeptember 16, 2018
Jesse Saunders holds the honour of being the first House DJ to release a record to the masses. He is one of the pioneers of House that came out of Chicago in the 1980s. A prolific DJ, record producer, film producer and entrepreneur. He is one of the founding pillars of house, it was an honour to get to talk with the man…
Mike Mannix: Jesse Saunders a true icon of the dance music scene, thank you for talking to us at iconic underground, you have been involved for nearly 4 decades in the electronic scene, tell our readers about your foundations from your families involvement in the civil rights movement and how Chicago moulded and inspired the young Jesse?
Jesse Saunders: My grandfather was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His organization the national funeral directors and morticians Association was the chief financiers of the marches and movements back in those days. Because black people couldn’t get loans from Banks and all the rest, or start-up businesses, or upkeep or to help with these movements, they were the only ones that could help.
Growing up around him in the movement and my mother was also heavily involved in it, she was a teacher, and it made me have a sense of Pride and a sense of accomplishment. My mother told me there was nothing that I couldn’t do so I set my eyes on anything I wanted to do and pretty much the achieved it. That was my Foundation, one of support nurturing and love.
What got me into DJing was my step-brother, Wayne Williams. He had been DJing for a few years already and had started to get parties and needed more hands to help DJ other parties. So we then became the Chosen Few disco Corporation. I started to get calls for me to DJ parties alone when I turn 17 and went in kind of a new Direction. I was always more of a turntablist in the effect that I like to make records do what they weren’t supposed to as in remixing them live.
MM: Tell us about the very first documented House Track ‘On & On’ you produced in 1984 and how it came about?
JS: ‘On & On’ came about because I had this record that was a bootleg by Mach One called on and on. It was a megamix of a whole bunch of other pieces and sounds on the A-side which most DJs would play to take a break for 15 minutes or so, but I flipped it over and on the other side was this haunting Baseline which was from Space Invaders. They combine that with the toot toot hey beep beep from Donna Summers Bad Girls and Funky Town’s horns and it was just a mesmerizing groove. I was the only one playing it and it was my signature record. One day it got stolen so I decided to make my own version of it.
Prior to that, I had already been experimenting with the drum machine making up different tracks and beats that would Segway through the different tempos of what I used to play such as reggae Italo disco NuWave some rock and roll some R&B you name it I would play it. Some of those tracks became the B-side of on and on with just the rhythm tracks playing.
One day I went to Imports etcetera which was the record store where I got most of my records that I played back then and one of the salesmen asked me about a record that I was playing that no one knew the name of. I had no idea what it was so I made a tape and brought it back and played it and the people in the store picked it out. I told him that those were my tracks, so the salesman told me that if I can get my hands on copies of this that they could sell a shitload of them. So a light bulb went off over my head and
that’s the story of how ‘on and on’ became the world’s first house record!
MM: You produced the very first House record that got played on national radio in the USA and the U.K. ‘Funk U Up’, was the inspiration behind the track and what was the production process?
JS: ‘Funk you up’ came about as a story from one of my band members by the name of Dwayne Beaufort. He was in a relationship with this younger girl and she was causing him a lot of headaches and problems. So he walked in my bedroom one day because that’s what we always to hang around and chill and write music and said, ‘’man don’t ever Bets with a pretty girl they fuk you up’’! Vince Lawrence and I looked at each other and said that’s a song! So we wrote it,
I recorded it on a 4-track recorder with my poly 61 and 808 and tb-303 then I sung the vocals, and the rest is history!
Since I had a record company started, I brought in my cousin, Kirk Townsend, who had been in radio for many years. He took it over to the radio stations WBMX and WGCI and got it played on the radio.
The record blew up and took over Chicago and became the number one record.
MM: Back in the day Jesse DJs and producers really had to put in some seriously long hours, dedication, patience and money to learn the beautiful art and skills of mixing vinyl and producing original tracks. Now with the advent of sync buttons, constructions kits and templates are today’s electronic DJ’s / Producers at a disadvantage or advantage?
JS: I think they’re at a disadvantage right now because they don’t really understand the essence of what music truly is. They’re not actually making music, they’re stealing or borrowing sounds and beats to produce something new, but pretty much anybody can do that.
I always say the best and worst thing to happen to music was music software. Some people are just not musically inclined and consequently, that’s why most of the music you hear coming out these days sounds very amateurish.
That causes the problem of taking up space for all the good music that should be coming through so it’s harder to be recognized today as an artist or producer.
MM: Walk us through the studio process when you were creating the smash hit ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ (1988) with Farley Jackmaster Funk and Darryl Pandy on vocals, what was key in the whole production process from the analogue outboard, midi, samples etc, did you realise it would be so big?
JS: We already knew ‘love cant turnaround’ was going to be huge. Steve Harley had made his cover version of I can’t turn around, the Isaac Hayes record. And it was distributed on cassette throughout the city to all the top DJs and even house head fans. So the reason why Farley wanted to do it, was because Steve was not going to put it out. So basically Farley and Steve were roommates and Farley just took the principle of what Steve did, called me and said we’re going to make our version of I can’t turn around.
My idea though was to not make a cover but to write an original song. Therefore I could reap the benefits of the publishing. Everyone else was afraid that because it was based on the idea of the Isaac Hayes version that we should not try to go after the publishing, but I know publishing very well. So I created that bassline sound on a sampler and molded it with a few different other sounds to get it to sound more Punchy and of course, we used the 909. I added horns and strings Dwayne Buford added the piano. I sang the backgrounds, Vince Lawrence and I wrote the lyrics. Farley put it in his mix on the radio, it got added to WGCI and WBMX and the rest is history.
MM: So who is inspiring you today and who would you like to work with in the studio?
JS: Honestly, I don’t really have any other producers that I work with. I’m a very intense and original type of producer so of course, I appreciate other sounds and techniques, but I don’t allow them to be a part of what I’m doing because everything I want to do is original and pioneering. The artists that I admire have been the same ones throughout my career since I was a kid like a Chaka Khan, who has the best voice in the history of female voices. I’m big on female voices too.
MM: You spent a decade working at Geffen/Warner Bros. and ended up producing and remixing for the likes of ‘De La Soul’, ‘Paula Abdul’, R. Kelly, DJ Pierre and ‘Jermaine Stewart’ amongst others, how did you find working at that level and did you achieve your goals?
JS: Even when I was working on an independent label such as mine just say records and of course Trax records, I work with the intention of producing and writing songs that everyone could enjoy. So writing and producing those artists were, of course, you know a blessing but I went into it with the same fervour that I would in my own productions for myself and my label. The one star Crush moment I had was when I wrote with Joni Sledge from Sister Sledge. I also admired working with Smokey Robinson because he’s a legend of course. Working with Holland-dozier-Holland on the George Clinton and Mavis Staples project was probably the most amazing thing that I’ve done. The best part it was actually sitting up in the office and listening to Eddie Holland spin the stories of the old days of Motown and how the biggest hits in our history they wrote came about.
I’ve been blessed to have great mentors.
MM: Whats the biggest Challenge you’ve overcome?
JS: the biggest challenge I’ve overcome is one I do practically every year of reinventing myself to stay relevant in today’s market. I have a lot of peers that haven’t been able to navigate the industry the way I have and they ask me how I’m able to do it. I’m a forward-thinking guy, I don’t get stuck in the old days of how things used to be. I’m always looking to move forward and Pioneer and originate new sounds and Blaze new Trails!
MM: Jesse what advice would you give the aspiring DJ today / Producer on how to be creatively original in an already saturated market?
JS: The best advice I can give which is the advice that I gave everyone on my lectures and in my books it’s about learning the craft. Learn your history. Learn to be a musician. Learn everything you can about the business and marketing. Because all of those things are important in a successful career.
MM: If you ended up trapped on a godforsaken island with only your decks, a crate of spirits and your vinyl fly case to your name, what would be the top 10 essential cuts that you must have to survive and why?
JS: Well, first off I haven’t played vinyl since 2004 LOL I play off my USB sticks because it doesn’t take much to travel with and I love CDJ 2000 because I can do all of the tricks that I used to do on turntables times ten with them. Basically, the songs that I would take would be, ‘He is the light’ by Michelle Weeks, ‘Sunshine’ by myself featuring ‘Danny Ivory’, ‘Move Your Body’ the ‘Maurice Joshua’ Remix by ‘Marshall Jefferson’, ‘On and On’ by myself of course, ‘Can you Feel It’ by ‘Mr. fingers’… I’ll just leave it in the top 5 cuz I can’t think of anything else right now LOL
MM: What drives and motivates you to succeed, Jesse?
JS: what drives and motivates me is the ability to continue to create originate and innovate. I’ve expanded into all facets of the entertainment industry from music production and songwriting to authoring books and subsequently producing films and documentaries. I’m in the current process of a pre-production for a movie script that I wrote as we speak. Stay tuned…
The other thing that motivates me is education. I spent most of my life educating people on the value origination and history of house music as well as the music industry and how to navigate it.
MM: What pisses you off the most about the scene/what do you love most about the scene?
JS: Nothing pisses me off about the scene because it’s an evolution and it takes on various branches just like the root of a tree.
What I originated as house music is the root and will always be the Catalyst to push the limbs further and into greatness.
What I love most is being able to give the world this beautiful house music. To perform in front of them and have them listen to my every move.
There’s no other feeling than being in front of 10,000 people and watching them enjoy what you’re doing.
MM: What are your biggest stand-out festival/gig moments where you thought ‘fuck this is real this is amazing….’?
JS: The first place I experienced that was nature one in Germany, then playing ‘Love Parade’ and made an again in Germany was amazing. My Chosen Few house music RI Union picnic has 50,000 + every year and that’s super amazing, especially because myself and my brother and the rest of the crew built it from scratch!
MM: Tell us about the ‘Electronic Music Café’ and also the non-profit you founded the ‘Music & Arts Society’
JS: When I did the 25th-anniversary tour in 2009 I created a house music Art Exhibit. We took it to 40-plus cities around the world and got great reviews. So when the two it was over I didn’t want to just stick it in the garage or Warehouse, I wanted people to be able to experience it. So I came up with the idea for the Electronic Music Cafe, which was an electronic music version of the Hard Rock Cafe. My non-profit the music and arts society came about as a way to give back educationally to the youth. We provide a program called The Art of the DJ which teaches young kids how to have confidence be a public speaker allows them to express their artistic side in a way in which they make their own album cover and come up with their own top 5 songs and announce them on the microphone. I also created the world’s first DJ exhibit called
Spin the evolution of the DJ.
MM: Whats next for Jesse?
JS: What’s next for me will be something big! As I stated before I’m currently working on a movie which is going to put house music in a place it’s never been! Stay tuned to Jesse Saunders.com and my Facebook and Instagram pages…
Interview – Mike Mannix