From Chicago house to facemelting EDM, producer Vince Lawrence has watched the electronic scene -- and the buzzwords -- change with the tides.
Vince Lawrence was there. He may have only been 17-years-old at the time, but he was most certainly there. There to witness the birth of house music in the gay Chicago underground, there when thousands of people descended on the White Sox Stadium to blow up disco records, there to get crazy at DJ Frankie Knuckles’ world famous club The Warehouse (where the word “house” arguably came from), and there to produce the first house track on record, Jesse Saunders’ 1984 single “On and On” which sounds worlds and worlds away from the commercial house music of today.
And he’s still very much there, dropping records in Chicago through his production studio Slang Musicgroup, and hanging out with the electronic music elite. We thought we’d be remiss in talking about all the big names and big festivals of the EDM movement today without getting a little nostalgic, and hearing what one of the legends has to say about what’s happening.
How did you initially get into house music?
I guess there was no such thing at the time. We were at the tail end of disco, and I was an usher at Comiskey Park, where the disco riot was. I was taking people to their seats at the ball games and saving money for what would become my first synthesizer. We were at this place that was post-disco, you know the George Clinton, P-funk records were at their peak, Earth Wind and Fire was a Chicago staple, and there was this influx of new wave and Italo synth music coming from the UK, Italy, etc.
I was going to dances where they would play records on the import 12” label Prelude, along with you know, whatever, “Rock Lobster” by the B52s. We were throwing parties at the time and we set out to make records that sounded like those parties, and that’s really the long and short of it. We were trying to capture the essence of these dance parties and these style of dance music that Frankie Knuckles was doing at the Warehouse.
How did you get hooked up with Jesse Saunders?
Jesse was a DJ at the Playground, which was a late night dance club that didn’t serve alcohol. It was a place we could get into, because I wasn’t 21. Jesse was DJing at some other parties, at that point I had gotten that first synthesizer, and I had made a record, and I said, ‘Jesse I got this band!’ We were starting to do shows, and you know, when you’re the DJs you get everyone from the high schools fawning all over you so I said ‘hey if you’re in my band, that’s a win for both of us.’ We got together late one night, and we put together tracks and stuff, and ultimately that became “On and On,” and they say that’s the first house music record….
Later I kinda co-found this other label Trax, which became the seminal Chicago house music label. We signed Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, and a bunch of other artists. It was just a very interesting time. We were putting out records like crazy, there was no internet so we were driving from club to club to club at night, dropping them off so DJs would play them. One of my contributions would be that I kind of connected the DJs with the record making process.
Were you spending at lot of time at the Warehouse?
Yeah, well, when I could go, because I was 17 or 18 and it didn’t open until really late. I would have to sneak out of the house. Because, seriously, where are you going at 1 o’clock in the morning?
What spoke to you about the house scene?
All of the music was sooo good. The system sound was so awesome. And just all of the freedom. Gay people, straight people, rich people, poor people, it was kind of a scene in that sense. That’s my first real melting pot experience in Chicago.
There was this rumor that there was acid in the punch. So people were very attracted to that possibility. I don’t know if there was acid in the punch or not. But people just making out in the corners, having sex on the dance floor. And Frankie had all of these sound effects that he put in with the records, it was just a really great experience with music. It was really all about that music.
The club wasn’t a whole lot to look at, really. The way clubs are nowadays with all this bottle service and stuff…nothing like that. It was really just some walls. And the bathrooms were separated from the rest of the club, but that’s about it. Some rudimentary coat check or whatever. No real design in that sense. No frills. There was dollar soda, that was pretty much it. But you could smell the weed in the air, and it was just so free. You’d be coming in the middle of the night and leaving and it’s broad daylight, that was invigorating. I just liked it. Musically I wanted to contribute to that. I wanted to be a part of it in the way that I could.
What was your budget like for “On and On”?
Oh I don’t know, I think that we just didn’t know any better! Our goal was to make something that sounded good coming out of that system at the club. We would take our cassette to the Playground and play it and go home and adjust, and say it needs more of this or less of that, based on how it’s coming out of the PA. We had enough bass when it sounded a certain way in the club. Really, it was trial and error.
Hear “On and On” by Jesse Saunders, produced by Vince Lawrence
How much of the same vibe now remains in Chicago?
A lot of the vibe in records is the same, people make records with whatever they got. That funky, synthy, synth based, funk disco — that’s the essence of house music and that’s present today. It’s present a lot in this 4-4 bass dance music, this progressive house, this deep house, this chill house, even the essence of trance and stuff like that is built on that house foundation. I think that there are many branches that have grown from that house tree at this point.
Now the clubs here in Chicago have changed. We used to live in a time when the clubs led, the club was a place where you could go out and experience new music. There are very few clubs that are still like that….In the broader sense most of the clubs are about bottle service and fancy people. I’ve actually been to parties where people where Deadmau5 and Paul Oakenfold are playing, and fancy people are just standing around watching. I’m like, really?! So I haven’t had much affection for the Chicago club scene in that respect. But things may be changing actually, i had been invited to help develop a club night at a place here in Chicago.
Have you been affected by the growing popularity of EDM in America?
I think that it’s good. I think the commercialization of any music idiom is good, because now perhaps some of the artists will have tools to make great music. I think any opportunity that gives artists a platform to show themselves is good. I hear house music on the radio and I’m like hey it’s about time! [laughs] maybe radio will be better! I think that’s great. I think more established artists are looking at the artform, that’s a great thing because wow, it gives people that might not have listened to house music a chance to hear it, people that might not have gone to the underground club. Rising water raises our boats in that sense. I’m not like ‘oo stay away from my stuff.’…
R. Kelly has a house music record out! It’s great! Needless to say it’s got a great singer! And you know, those songs are the songs that are going to be the future of house music as we know it. House music is finally realizing itself. All of the emotional parts, the structural parts about house music with great songs and great singers, it’s coming of age in that respect.
What new producers are you into?
I love Skrillex. I met the dude, he was totally cool. I’m glad because you know the story, ‘never meet your heroes?’ But the energy that he brings to the room is phenomenal. That’s what it was like for us when we started, people jumping around manically. Just really feeling the music for music’s sake. those kids don’t have to recognize the song in order to hear ‘this feels good on my body.’ So I think that’s where the energy went. Skrillex stole it. Hmm, I like Wolfgang Gartner, I like that stuff. Me and Felix the Housecat got this kind of relationship, I like what he’s doing. Man, I mean there’s a bunch of stuff out. I kind of miss Naked Music, it kinda started up and had its moment…Naked Music is to house music what Philadelphia is to rap. So I kinda miss that.
Other producers….Calvin Harris is you know, cool. I like my stuff a little…personally i like my stuff a little funkier. A little less trance, heralding back to disco’s roots. I like Scissor Sisters, how about that? I think that’s a good mix of disco and house. Is that nu disco? What the fuck is that? I like the fun, happy gay part about it. I have my smatherings of liking Deadmau5, not in huge amounts. I don’t like anything in huge amounts.
As a producer myself, I’m producing some R&B stuff, there’s some 16 year old kids I’m producing on the rap side, kinda that trap stuff that Chief Keef is doing. ..I like too much music. Locally there’s Telefon Tel Aviv, it’s like ambient, cool shit. Mira Black, she’s from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I love her record. It doesn’t get a whole lot of publicity but Madonna used one of her songs or something like that.
What’s the biggest problem in producing electro these days?
What I’m finding is that everybody wants everything to sound the same, and call it one name. So when house gets a little harder it’s hard house, or if it starts sounding a little bit the same it’s tech house, and trance is, you know, its gay cousin, it’s like what is that? Most of the dance-based, most of the 4-4 synth based music these days is based on house one way or the other. Some parts of it has more song on it than other parts, people feel the need to distinguish. It used to be the same party. You could hear New Order’s “Blue Monday” right next to McFadden & Whitehead. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and “Blue Monday.” You could hear, I don’t know, the Jackson 5…next to the Kraftwerk, or the B52s. That happened at the same party!
So what do you think of the word EDM?
There’s EDM, IDM…Call it house music and call it a day. We really don’t need to rename it. It is what it is. There’s really only two kinds of music at the end of the day. Good and bad.