In 1985 Chicago’ s ‘Chip E’ Released The Massive House EP ‘Jack Trax’ To Worldwide Critical AcclaimSeptember 18, 2018
Chicago has a long and rich history of producing pioneering musical innovators, one such man is Chip E. the first Godfather of House. He is responsible for introducing terms like “House” and “Jack” on the ‘first’ House music EP and co – producing Frankie Knuckles ‘ first album, this is his story ..
Mike Mannix: Chip E, wow what an honour to get to talk to one of the original founding fathers of what we know today as house music. Talk to us about those early home life years when you were growing up in Chicago than a hotbed of innovative creativity and how those experiences propelled you into the dance music history books?
Chip E: I grew up in a household with a father that was an electrician (and private pilot) and a mother who continues to be a creative copywriter and book author. They had fairly eclectic taste in music. While they listened to a lot of Soul and R&B, they also listen to Rock and I recall lots of Bossanova, and later Disco. My grandparents would always watch the Lawrence Welk show on the weekend, and that’s where I heard Polka music. As a preteen, I worked on a high school newspaper, New Expressions. Hanging out with slighter older kids on the staff, introduced me to more music and fashion.
It was the beginning of what we in Chicago would consider the Punk Out error. We listened to Devo, Kraftwerk, and The B52s. One day one of the graphic artists for the paper, Eric Bradshaw, who was 4 years my senior, was working on a layout for something that didn’t appear related to the newspaper. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was a “plugger” for a party his group Vertigo was planning at a place on Michigan Avenue that they called “The Loft”. I was too young to go, but he let me go anyway. It wasn’t a venue per se, but actually an empty loft.
I recall going up the stairs hearing this loud music. As I entered, I saw silhouettes of people dancing, strobe lights, flashing red and blue police lights, and the song on was “Disco Circus” by Martin Circus. I was hooked. I loved dancing and dance music.
MM: In 1985 after your massive worldwide hit ‘’Jack Trax’’, Street Mix magazine declared you as the “Godfather of House Music.” How do you feel about that title today?
C: It feels scary to tell you the truth. I mean, when I was 18 years old and people are raving about your music and how groundbreaking it is. Well, that’s awesome for a kid. But now as an adult, a little older than 18 years of age, it’s scary that you set your personal bar so high. You know, I’ve continued playing music since then, but I stopped actually making music for a long time. At first, it was simply because
I hated the record label I was signed to.
I was 18 years old, I should’ve learned more about the people I was going to do business with. As I was saying, initially I stopped recording in protest to the label, press fast forward a few years and I’m thinking “was that my peak, did I do my best work in the ‘80s, maybe it was just an accident”. But with my recent collaborations with SLAM on “Like This”, with Lary Saladin on “Way of the Dragon”, and with Carl Cox on “Time 2 Jack”, I breathe a little easier, and I’m excited to make new music.
MM: Your first EP “Jack Trax” included “Time to Jack” (the first record to ever use the word ‘Jack’ in it in reference to dancing) and “It’s House” (the first record to ever use the word ‘House’ in reference to a genre of music). The original version is on eBay priced at $500.00 (USD) and clearly shows the regard with which this record is held in the eyes of many dance music enthusiasts today, a record that paved the way for what was to come, the House music explosion. Tell us about what inspired you to create something so fresh and the original studio production process and what that entailed?
C: To be a good DJ meant not only having great records but having exclusive records. What’s more exclusive than bringing a drum machine, keyboard and sampling pedal to your gig. This was very high-tech in those days. My first drum machine was a Boss Dr. Rhythm, my keyboard was some cheap Casio keyboard, and I had a Roland digital delay and sampling pedal that held less than a half second of sampling time. Even though it was a very basic setup, it was enough to differentiate me from other DJs and to start making my own music.
My friend Kurt Landrum kept telling me I should make a record.
I sold my Technic SL1200MK2 turntables so that I could afford a day in a little 8 track studio in the NW suburbs of Chicago.
I convinced a DJ I respected named Eric ET Taylor to come along as well as a friend and DJ named Joe Smooth. Joe would always come to the store and tell me about the cool new music gear he had. Somehow, before they were released to the public, Joe Smooth had an Ensoniq sampling keyboard. Not only did it have more sampling time than my pedal, but now you could play samples across the keyboard. With my posse and gear ready, we headed to Reel to Reel studios in Villa Park, Illinois. Duane Tham was the owner and engineer. It was actually a home built a studio in his house…but it was a lot more than any of us had ever seen. In one day we put together the entire Jack Trax EP.
The plan was to record “Time to Jack” and a few drum patterns I knew DJs would like…but after we started going and the creativity was flowing,
I put on a beat, played an accidental baseline and we all looked at each other and said “YEP” that’s when I recorded the vocal sample “It’s House”. We knew when we walked out of the studio that we had something VERY special.
I convinced my mother to loan me the money from her tax return so that I could have the record pressed on vinyl. It wasn’t hard to convince her, she’s always been very supportive of my creativity. Before we could get the records back, I went to a local pressing plant that I didn’t trust to press the records without ripping me off (I also didn’t trust their quality control) but I needed a test-press or what was called an acetate.
It would cost me $50 and it was only a temporary record. With each play, the record would degrade until after 50 plays or so it was unusable. In 1985 $50 bucks was a lot of money to a college student. I paid it and the next weekend took the record to Chicago’s infamous Rush Street. There was a party there and Farley “Funkin’” Keith was the DJ. I knew Farley from Importes Etc and when I gave him the acetate to play he took a quick listen in the headphones and then almost slam mixed it in.
As soon as the beat hit, he had the crowd’s attention, but when the vocal came in and said “Time to Jack” the crowd went crazy.
MM: How did you end up working with and co-producing Frankie Knuckles first record “You Can’t Hide”, and describe how that record came together?
C: Frankie and I had become friends because he was a regular customer at Importes Etc, a record store in Chicago that catered to DJs. I was one of the employees and eventually helped with the buying/selecting process. I knew what Frankie’s crowd liked, and what Frankie liked. He trusted my selections for him. As a matter of fact, he didn’t shop like most people. When there were songs I thought he’d like, I’d put them in a special bin for him. When he’d come in, if he had time I’d play some for him. If he didn’t have time, he’d just pay for them (we’d throw in some free promos) and leave with his package. That trust was a great foundation for our friendship. After I started making music, I wanted to share the joy and rewards with my friends.
Frankie was actually afraid to make music at first. I told him I’d help along the way, and make it easy for him. I found a latin band that had a great brass and percussion section. I did the electronic drum programming (Roland TR-909) and Joe Smooth and I laid down the keyboards. Frankie picked the song to cover, as well as selecting Ricky Dillard to sing on it.
Once we were all in the studio, it was like a family dinner, except with beats instead of food.
I guess the beats were our food.
MM: You worked with Ron Hardy in the studio on his first mix “Donnie” by The It (Harri Dennis, Larry Heard, Robert Owens and you), how did that go down?
C: This one is a really funny story. I can’t even remember how I met Harri Dennis. Could’ve been at the Music Box, probably was. Anyway, Harri was always telling me he wanted to make a record. Well, that’s great, but there’s a lot of people that want to make records. I mean, Harri didn’t play any instruments or even know how to program a drum machine. He wasn’t a DJ. He was a guy that wrote some pretty ‘out there’ poetry. After months and months of being bugged by him, one morning he came by and woke me up way too early. I was like, “enough is enough”. When he asked this time, I went over to the keyboard, hit a couple of keys and said, “There, that’s your baseline, you like it”. Actually, we both liked it. Again, this wasn’t like I kept playing different variations. I just hit some keys, sequenced it, and started building from there. The “Donnie” sessions were actually before I collaborated with Frankie.
Ron Hardy, we always called him Ronnie, ……..would always support my music and always (intentional or accidental) find interesting ways to play me and other music.
He was also a friend of Harri’s. We invited Ronnie to attend the session and do a mix on Donnie. Ronnie had never been in a recording studio before, but he had already been playing the demo of the song on reel to reel tape. At the session, there are 2 guys I’d heard about but never met. Larry Heard and Robert Owens. They knew my music, I knew there’s, but we’d never met.
Both of these guys were talented as fuck.
Larry added a keyboard part and was gonna play it through the entire song. I was like wait a minute bro, don’t you wanna sequence that? He’d never used a sequencer before. I was blown away. I’d been playing his “Mysteries of Love” and had no idea it was all played by hand. I remember talking to him a couple of months ago and he still thanks me for introducing him to sequencing. As for Robert, oh my Buddha. What can I say, his voice is amazing even to this day. It was just another one of those magical sessions where everything lined up.
MM: Are you the only DJ in the world that played Ron Hardy’s Music Box, Frankie Knuckles Power Plant, and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, and what are your greatest memories from each?
C: I’m probably one of a handful of people that actually attended parties at US Studios (Warehouse was just a nickname for Frankie’s first club in Chicago) as well as the Music Box, Power Plant, and Paradise Garage. But yeah, I did short opening sets for Ron Hardy at the Music Box, as well as for Frankie at the Power Plant, along with jumping in if they needed a bathroom break, and I performed at the Paradise Garage. I didn’t know Larry Levan well at all, but he was a huge fan of my music, especially “Like This”.
For Frankie and Ronnie to trust me behind their decks, well that was a lot of trust and a huge honor, even to this day.
Everybody in the city wanted to command their crowds. It was like being on top of the world when you were in one of their DJ booths. It was a magical experience.
MM: Tell us about the record shop you worked at in the 1980s, ‘Importes Etc’ were people in Chicago would buy their ‘Warehouse’ Records at?
C: The store’s beginnings (Importes Etc) were from the owner Paul Wiseberg who came to fame as a DJ at the Playboy Club in Chicago’s Goldcoast, and later started a record pool so that he could work as the go-between for labels and DJs. Paul saw how hungry DJs were for music, and after the record, pool decided to open the store. Paul had a relationship with a guy that imported goods from Europe and because the guy would bring Paul imported records, the store was called ‘Importes, Etc’. The Warehouse had just closed around the time I started working at Importes Etc. and many people knew the store was more of a DJ store than a top 40 store.
Many of the people who went to the Warehouse or DJs that wanted to be like Frankie would come in and ask for that Warehouse Music.
The staff and I eventually started putting up signs on Disco records that were played at the Warehouse. Eventually, I got tired of writing out “Warehouse” and just started putting up signs that said “House”. I can’t say I invented the word from my laziness. As I said, the “House” was a nickname of the Warehouse. So “House” was actually the nickname of a nickname. Regardless, the signage helped records fly off the wall.
MM: Who inspires you today?
C: Interesting, I’m really inspired by myself. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but I really try to not be influenced by what other people are doing.
I’ve never been the guy that tried to make music that sounds like what everyone is playing.
I try to make music that I’d want to dance to and listen to. Some of the people that impress me as DJs are Carl Cox, Joseph Capriati, Corky Traxman, and well, there’s a long list of DJs I enjoy listening to and talking to about music. Hope I don’t piss anyone off by not mentioning their names. Oh, and I’m loving the edits that my friend David Macias (aka Cratebug) does. David really has a great ear and great arrangement skills. He can take an old “so-so” song and turn it into a true dance floor banger. We’re working on some things together. He’s someone to watch for sure.
MM: What’s the greatest challenge you’ve overcome?
C: The greatest challenge I’ve overcome besides my fear of making music is Diabetes. I became lazy at a point, not working out, got fat and ended up in the emergency room of the hospital, diagnosed with Diabetes. I was instantly put on Insulin shots before every meal. The next thing I knew I had a case full of pills I had to take for everything. I decided, well my wife told me that I had to do something. I started taking martial arts classes, Hapkido. Within about 2 years, not only was I off the insulin, but I was off every pill I had to take. I’d lost 65 pounds, none of my clothes fit, I could see my feet again, and you could see it in my face. I feel better than I have in 20 years. By the way, I went on to get my Black Belt in Hapkido. Yeah, that was a big challenge, getting healthy again. I decided that my diagnosis wasn’t going to be my death sentence, but a wakeup call.
MM: You have DJ-ed all over the world, what’s the craziest event /country you performed at and why?
C: I’ve always been a fan of gangster movies, and had seen so many gangsters go to Cuba. Come on, I’m from Chicago. So I always wanted to at least visit Havana. Last year I was invited to play at the Eyeife Music Festival. For a festival, it was relatively small, maybe 10,000 people. But the energy there was amazing. It was like a love fest. I’m really looking forward to playing there again this year. I made some really good friends there and just loved the reactions to the music.
MM: With 4 decades in the industry whats the greatest lesson you’ve learnt?
C: I’ve learned that I need to trust in myself. That’s the biggest lesson. I’ve sent records to labels, and they’ve said no. Not just in ’85, but even today. Then I’ll hear from a DJ that I gave a copy to, that my music lit up their dance floor in Germany, or Japan, or Italy, or Vietnam, or Turkey. Then all of a sudden, the same labels that said no are asking if they can have it. It’s funny in a way.
MM: Tell us about ‘The UnUsual Suspects – Once Upon a Time in House Music’ documentary you’ve produced?
C: Around 1999, I was interviewed for the documentary, Pump Up the Volume. When the program finally aired,
I was really disappointed at the way it was edited, and at the content they selected. I decided, nobody’s going to tell our story the right way except us.
I teamed up with Kimmie D. a friend since childhood, and a veteran in the music business. We started interviewing not just the DJs and producers, but club owners and most importantly, the party-goers. I mean, a DJ has one perspective of the party, but there’s a lot of other people that had a totally different perspective, and one that was more relatable. That’s why we called it the “Unusual Suspects”.
People always focus on the DJ, he’s the “usual” suspect. Anyway, five years later and we had a story. A great story that was told by the people that were there. There was no narration, nobody to ‘tell’ you what happened to a paint a picture for you. The story, the picture, the sound, all came seamlessly from the people that were there. It was a great learning experience for me as well. I actually started from the end. I knew we’d deliver it as a DVD (in 2005 people actually bought DVDs). While learning DVD authoring, I ended up working on several DVD projects from Bonnaroo Music Festival to a bunch of DVDs for PBS and even did one on President Ronald Reagan. Next, I thought myself video editing. That led to me being a Certified DVD and Final Cut Pro instructor. I even consulted with Apple on FCP 6 and FCP 7. Lastly, I thought myself video production. I wish I knew more about video production. The film was shot in standard definition, and it looks kind of rough. In a way, it adds to the character of the documentary, but I really wish it was crisp HD.
MM: You worked with Carl Cox recently visiting him in Australia, tell us about the trip and remixing your classic “Time to Jack”?
C: Carl is an amazing person and a good friend. We both share a passion for cars and motorsports. We picked a couple of weeks when he wasn’t busy touring for me to hang with him in Australia. Not only did we put in some time in the studio, but a lot of time outside the studio. Along with his manager and best friend Ian Hussey, and some of his local gearheads we caravanned to Bright for a 3-day car show. It was like being a teenager again. But in the studio, it was all business.
Carl Cox told the story many times that “Time to Jack” was the first House/Techno record as far as ‘he’s concerned’, and he wanted to remake it to re-introduce it to today’s party crowd.
We finished production in November of 2017, but the first time it was played was during the January 2018 Essentials Mix with Pete Tong. I wish you could’ve seen my face light up when I was listening to his mix and heard it being mixed in. Again, I felt like a kid. We’re still tweaking the mix and plan to release it in March at Ultra Music Festival’s 20th year anniversary.
MM: What’re your thoughts on the dance music scene today?
C: It’s a really exciting time in the dance scene because there’s so much music available. Back in the day, you had to go to the local record shop and hope they’d still have 2 copies of the latest record. Today, you log onto your favorite eMusic store, preview and purchase tracks the day they’re released. Plus, if you want to make your own music, you can literally make music on your phone. I think that might just be a goal of mine for 2018, to make an entire song on my phone.
MM: What’s next?
C: Well, besides making a song on my phone…I’m going to continue creating music and DJing. I really love both, and equally as much. What I really want to do is pass on the torch. I want to help young people create exciting new music, and hopefully give them a passion for the roots of the scene. I told my friends in Cuba that this year I’d like to do a workshop. I think it’s really important for the world to have access to good music. Of course, shelter, water, food, and other resources are important…but music. Music speaks not just to your ears, it speaks to your heart and soul. It helps you remember the best times of your life, and get through some of the worst. Larry Heard said it best in my documentary, “The UnUsual Suspects – Once Upon a Time in House Music”, Larry said “It’s the soundtrack to our lives”, and it really is.