Revolutionising the possibilities of dance music and opening up a whole new realm of sound and feeling, DJ Pierre is the man who put the acid into Acid House. Breaking from the disco/funk soulful sound of Chicago house, he took a generation deeper and darker,tearing through the boundaries of the dancefloor experience to unite imagination with groove and leaving us at the edge of sonic reality with a huge smile on our faces…. He spoke to us with immense charm and a warm innocence..
What were your early influences both musically and personally, and how did they lead to house music?
From as far back as I can remember, Jazz was a huge influence on me. It was the sound that my mother had grown up with through the 50’s and 60’s and it was passed down to me through her. People like Count Basie, even the old boy Tom Jones, and I’d be dancing around banging on things until my mother got me one of those little pianos for me to tap along to the music. A little bit further down the line, my father bought me a clarinet allowing me to play in a band which I stayed a part of throughout my school years right up to my graduation although I’ve got to say, I didn’t stick with the clarinet but moved onto the drums when I was about 12.
Funk was another heavy influence, people like Parliament, Bootsie Collins, Cameo and there was a pop side as well – David Bowie, that kind of funky pop sound. Then I started getting into early hip hop, and I tell you, Sugar Hill Gang….that just blew my mind. That was the first song that I ever heard that LITERALLY blew my mind. I ended calling up the radio station which I’d never dreamt of doing before because I just needed to hear that song again. I just remember waiting and waiting for it to come back on and thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if I can fall asleep with my eyes open’, and to this day, I think I did, or if it wasn’t sleep, it must have been a trance because I came round hours later with my eyes just STINGING!! As I started getting deeper into hip hop and discovering Grandmaster Flash, I was just beginning to DJ which led to me listening to Italian Disco type tracks, and it was the fusion of all these styles that led me to house music
Well, I went to this school party and they had this DJ there playing these 2 records, and I liked the intro to the record, but this guy was drawing the intro out far longer than on the original track and I didn’t know how he was doing it. Now I used to edit mix with the pause button on a cassette deck by linking 2 radios and recording from one to the other, pause the song on beat and quickly rewind the other side to extend that part of the track. All of us in my neighbourhood were doing this every day and comparing edits. So when I heard DJ’s on the radio mixing tracks, I figured it had to have something to do with the pause editing I was doing – I mean I had no idea they were using turntables, and all the mixes were short, no long blends so it seemed totally logical. So I started leaving an extra 4 beats on my edits so the 2 tracks to flow together and it would start to sound like a blend. It wasn’t until that school dance that I finally clicked. The DJ’s playing, I’m not hearing any switching, and the parts are going longer and longer. Meanwhile, I’m watching him touch one record, then the other – the music sounds exactly the same, and not knowing how a mixer worked, I couldn’t understand how he was doing it. I was so amazed, I just stood there all night, transfixed, watching him play. I got home, and straight away it was ‘Mom….er….I need 2 turntables and a mixer!!’ They bought me a set and I was away….. So the pause editing was the prelude to me mixing…But you know….that’s the story of me becoming a DJ… Getting into producing is a whole other story…..
How did you get into producing?
Well, my first love was being a DJ. It was Spanky (my partner from Phuture with the signature deep voice) who was more interested in how to actually make the music. He would listen to try and figure out how it was actually being put together and he came over to my house one day saying ‘Man..we can do this’. This was around the time that Chip E had Time to Jack out – those early stages of house music coming together, and living in Chicago itself rather than way out in the suburbs like me, he knew that the music was being made by people in the area.
He was like ‘Man…they got these machines called drum machines’ ‘So what does that do?’ I asked him. ‘ They’ve got all these drum sounds in a box’ he tells me. Now while he’s off thinking about how he can use it, my first thought is wondering how it works – it’s the way I think. So I’m like OK, but a box????? With drum kits in it??? It was like a comic strip thought bubble coming out of my head with this image of someone trying to stuff drum kits into a tiny box. So while I’m fantasizing about the technical possibilities, he comes over a week later….and he’s got it. So we start tapping away, and all these hi-hats and snares are coming out, and sure enough…..there it was….drum sounds in a box. It can happen. But even at that point I just wanted to play his rhythms and lay accapellas over them, until I finally borrowed it and started making my own beats. So straight away he’s all ‘Man, Let’s start a group’ and we were born. But it really wasn’t my dream back then to make the music and I always look at it as a spiritual thing, that God had guided me in this direction. I was always curious about music and about the technical side of life, but on my path these doors just seemed to open. I truly believe that planned or not, you have to made for it, it has to be what you were supposed to do. I know everyone’s a DJ nowadays, everyone’s a producer, but sometimes you just have to be led there.
The 303 and the deep acid sound of Acid Tracks revolutionized the range and possibilities of dance music …..which came first – the concept or the 303?
Well we had gotten good at making drum beats, but when we got the keyboard, the basslines we were coming up with just didn’t sound good enough. At the time you had all these hot tracks coming out from Fingers Inc and weren’t even close to that. We just needed something to help us make a dope bassline. I mean I didn’t even like the individual bass noises in the keyboard we had. One day, I’m over at a friend of mine’s house – Jasper, and he’d played me this guitar track a few days before and on hearing the bassline, I was straight away pumping him for what he’d used to make it. And he tells me it was this thing called a 303, and of course he’d been using it how you were supposed to use it, as a practice tool for guitar players mimicking a bass guitar. So I’m at his house checking out his 303 and realizing that if we just had one of those, we’d be able to make good basslines and some serious music.
Now I didn’t have a job or any money, so I got hold of Spanky who DID have a job and convinced him that we just had to have one. 40 bucks later he came back with it and called me up saying ‘Man – I don’t know about this, it’s making some crazy sounds, come over and let’s figure out how to program this thing. I get there and sure enough it’s making some crazy sounds – the sound we now call acid. I started turning the knobs, and Spanky’s face changed and he’s going ‘I LIKE THAT – keep doing it!’, and we were there for a good 5 hours, turning knobs and trying out different drums with it. And the thing was, the 303 came with 2 preset patterns already in the machine. One was interesting……and the other one…..well that ended up being Acid Tracks. Acid Tracks – it came with the 303. I mean we advanced on it, put accents onto it, tweaked it and improvised with the knobs, but the core of it was that preset program!
Once we were happy with it, we put it on a cassette and took it to Ron Hardy. But you know the question I always ask is WHY did we think it sounded good? Think about it. Why would you think that something like the 303 sounded good? Most people would just turn round and say ‘what is that?’. Personally, I’ve always thought outside the box in that anything can be music to me, just listening to the moving parts of a watch machine I can find a beat, something you can move to. And I really think that that perception of what the possibilities of music could be allowed us to believe that this might be something people could dance to. It was a weird sound – no doubt, but we were grooving to it, and we hadn’t grooved to ANYTHING we had made before then!
So we took it to Ron Hardy, and I tell you, if it wasn’t for Ron Hardy, acid would not be here. It’s more than just the fact that we used the 303, the 303 made acid, and we thought it sounded good (which if we hadn’t, we’d never have taken it to him in the first place), but that Ron liked it, made it. Ron was all of our musical guidance at the time, and if he didn’t like something – that was IT. He listened to it, no real show of emotion, just nodded his head, and then turns round to us and says ‘Right. When can I get a copy?’ That was it…we heard that and we just jumped out of our skins. We got him a copy and he played it that night…..4 times…
The first time, the Music Box was still pretty empty and everyone was like ‘what the heck is this?’ and literally stopped dancing to it. But it sounded amazing on the big system and we didn’t even care that the dancefloor stopped – ‘He played it, He played it… That’s it… that was the dream…..he played it!!!’ We stayed, dancing and then about an hour later, he dropped it again. The second time, people danced through it, not getting excited or anything, just didn’t stop. Another hour floated by and he brought it in again… And you could see the dancefloor thinking, what is it with this track, he keeps playing it – so they started to get into it a little – bit weird they were thinking, but we’ll flow with it. The fourth drop….. and the place went CRAZY. People were dancing in ways I’ve never seen again, doing stuff that you just knew they were on drugs – I mean jumping all over the place, pushing everybody, lying on the floor kicking their legs in the air. And us…we went nuts, practically peeling the paint off the walls…and you know…I’ve never experienced ANYTHING like that since then.
A few days later a friend of mine starts telling me about this track Ron Hardy had produced called Ron Hardy’s Acid Tracks. There was always news going round about whatever new track Ron Hardy had, and people used to take little tape recorders into the club to record him so I was going ‘Let me hear it, Let me hear it’. He plays it…’ YO MAN That ain’t Ron Hardy’s track… That’s OUR track’ ‘Get outta here Pierre’. He just couldn’t believe that we had made a track that Ron Hardy was playing…..and it was that point that I realized that all these tracks Ron Hardy was supposed to have made weren’t actually his – just everyone thought they were because he had such musical influence that people assumed that everything he played was Ron’s track!!!! Up until then I’d been keeping our track a big secret, but right there, I pulled it out, whacked it on the tape deck in the car.. ‘WOW man…that really is your track…but they’re calling it Ron Hardy’s Acid Track’. ‘Really’ I said. ‘Well we’re going to drop the Ron Hardy and call it Acid Tracks’ Up to this point we hadn’t really got much further on a name for it than In Your Mind, which was lame, and it made no sense to change it from Acid Tracks now that it was already known… And that was it…and we started up making records….but that’s a whole other sunny story……
So it’s all good, but now we’re thinking to ourselves OK ,OK, but how do you make a record? Well the first thing we did was call ourselves Phuture. And I tell you.. NO ONE was using no ph for the f sound back then. You can’t get away from it now. Nobody realizes the extent of our influence on something like that, I suppose we do because we know we were the first. Anyway, so it may sound ludicrous wondering how to make a record, but with no idea, no internet to search it, no major labels in Chicago – that really was the question.. How do we make a record? Who do you see about it? So I thought…. I’m going to ask Marshall Jefferson. I went on down to a concert he was doing with Curtis McClain at the Powerhouse, got myself into the very front row and wrote ‘My name’s DJ Pierre, I’m in a group called Phuture, and we made this track that Ron Hardy’s playing called Acid Tracks’ on a piece of paper and finished it off with ‘Can you help us make a record?’ So I’m jumping up and down waving this paper and trying to give it to Curtis McClain who finally took it and I yelled ‘Please give that to Marshall’. The very next day I get home and there’s this note on the fridge saying Marshall Jefferson called and a phone number. I hadn’t exactly kept it quiet that I was trying to get hold of Marshall, so kinda suspicious, thinking ‘that ain’t no Marshall Jefferson’, I called my friend and demanded why he was calling my house pretending to be Marshall Jefferson. He started getting all excited going ‘What, Marshall Jefferson called you?’ and I’m saying No man – that was you’. He pointed out that it wasn’t his number on my fridge – I still wasn’t buying it, but he convinced me to call the number and sure enough Marshall picked up.
On the record it says Marshall Jefferson produced it and Larry Sherman (owner of Trax Records) wrote it, and at the time we had no idea what that meant, but it said Phuture so we were cool – That’s our name right there! But Marshall didn’t produce anything, he mixed it, set the levels, brought the parts in and out and EQ’d it, but he stayed true to the way we had done it. What he DID do though, was slow it down, because the original track was about 127 bpm. Now in Chicago, we liked our music fast, but he said ‘Look…if you want New York to get into it, you have to slow it right down – and if the DJ’s want it faster, let them pitch it up on the turntable’. ’Whatever you say Marshall’ – and it was true – New York did get into it and they did like things slow – at the original speed in fact, whereas in Chicago – we always played things fast, and it wasn’t until I started buying all the Chicago classics that I realized how slow they actually were – they’d just always been pitched right up. But his name as producer on the record was definitely not him trying to get slick or anything, I’m pretty sure it was basically Larry Sherman dropping his name to sell more records
Well, the funny thing was that the reason we thought the record had initially been named Acid Tracks was a reference to acid rock or acid jazz, and simply a descriptive word for a gritty sound. I later found out that it was actually related to drugs – LSD basically. So not wanting to be seen as advocating drugs, I thought I’d write an anti drugs track and put it on the same record, so people would realize that we were definitely not advocating drugs. I wrote Your Only Friend in the hope that people would understand that if they are doing this drug – cocaine, then the only friend they would end up with would be that drug, and at the end of the line, they may well lose their life. Somehow it didn’t end up like that at all. People would hear it come on, start yelling ‘The Cocaine Song, The Cocaine Song’ and run to the dealer to get as much up their nose as possible. But Marshall, when he heard the track, it had my voice on it and he turned round to me and said ‘Pierre….this is the voice of cocaine speaking….man it’s gotta sound deep, gotta sound dark, gotta sound scary and we should get Spanky to do it because he has a deeper voice.’ So he put Spanky’s voice through the harmoniser and we were like ‘YEAH’. Now that was a big thing Marshall did, because that gave Phuture a vocal vibe and a vocal image that took it all to a deeper level. I give him a lot of credit for doing that and we used that voice on everything after that.
I wasn’t aware at all. Let me see……. I knew what was going on right after the acid house scene had started to die down, so all the time it was crazy, I didn’t know what was going on, and Larry Sherman wasn’t telling me, for whatever reason, he was keeping it all a big secret. I mean, there was no internet back then so how WOULD you know unless you had heard it through word of mouth, and all the house magazines at the time in Chicago were local, free pamphlet type things that didn’t have that kind of international range. But you know – someone COULD have said something, because there were people going overseas at the time like Farley and Marshall. In the end, I found out because this English writer pitched up in Chicago wanting to interview me – and he filled me in on the craziness over in the UK, but that was the first I’d heard of any of it!!
How was life heading up A+R at Strictly Rhythm – any insights into the business end of house music?
Boring for the most part. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting to learn how things worked, but I was never cut out for a desk job. I can honestly say this though. Strictly Rhythm was probably the most honourable of all the record labels. All the labels had some degree of dishonesty going on somewhere in their operations – everybody trying to hustle and make their money, but I do understand that the labels were taking all the risk, fronting thousands of dollars before anything even hit wax. But for the most part, Strictly Rhythm did have a pretty sound moral integrity, and the label was in fact the reason behind me moving to New York, because I did respect what they were doing as a label and felt I could work with them. But there is something that I really would like the world to know. When I had no studio equipment, Mark from Strictly Rhythm would, week in week out, rent studio equipment for me to make music on. The deal he made with me was that he would have first option on anything that I made. Now he never wanted to own me or own everything made, but just have first choice, and if he passed on it, I was free to shop it around other labels. Now what record label would do that? That’s a blessing right there. That’s a special person who would do that for you, because record labels just don’t do that and if they do…..trust me they’re going to own everything you make. That is something I’ll never forget, and something that allowed me to be who I am today, and I will always be grateful to Mark Finklestein for that.
Afro acid is more than a project to me. It may have started out like that, as an album, but now it’s a movement to get house music back to where it was when we first started, hearing soulful, acid, techno, breaks……..all the different forms of house music at one party, on one dancefloor. Afro symbolises garage, disco, funky house and the soulful side of house music while Acid represents, acid naturally, but techno, minimal, tech house and all of the harder flavours. I wanted to combine the two and create a space, create a party that could take you on a journey and make you feel an all embracing range of different experiences. That is what Afro Acid stands for . I’m planning an album that explores these different sides of electronic music and whenever I do an Afro Acid party, that is the kind of vibe that I’m trying to create, to unify people through the union of electronic music – hence the logo of the smiley with the afro on it creating a visual for the concept.
What are you up to at the moment?
OK – well at the moment we’re doing Afro Acid Digital-BeatPort, Afro Acid Digital-Juno, Afro Acid Digital-iTunes and Afro Acid Plastik which is the vinyl label, doing a lot of exciting things and working with a lot of big artists. We just came off a HUGE success with a track that me and L’il Louie Vega did together called The Jungle, and the second track I’m doing now is with the group Justice and I’ve got Benny Rodriguez and James Lavelle in to do the remixes right now, and that’s going to be a huge release sometime in October. I’m really buzzing about the label, bringing in top artists and getting some fresh new talent into the studio as well. Alongside all of that, I’m working on my first artist album, which went briefly on hold, but I’m back on it with a vengeance, pulling a lot of names together for that project. The creativity’s flowing…….
Afro Acid will be touching down near you sooner than you think…..