From his time with the Funk Brothers drumming up the rhythms for some of the all time classics, to his commercial smashes, to his role in bringing hip hop into house music, Tyree Cooper was at the forefront of the house revolution. His contribution to hip house widened the appeal of house music, laid house as a template for a kaleidoscope of musical styles, and brought the urban vibe of hip hip hop firmly into the house. Old School legend Tyree spoke to us
What was it like for black Americans in Chicago during the mid 1980s?
Being black and growing up in America, you don’t have to think about anything else outside of your surroundings. You’re so oppressed but dont know it, you think you have freedom but you don’t. And you try to do what you do. Anytime you have an oppressed society something creative is gonna come out of it, i don’t care what it is but something groundbreaking is gonna come out of it. So for us as far as House music was concerned, we didn’t think that anyone outside of Chicago would be listening.
So when did the spark become a flame?
When Jesse (Saunders) starting doing it, he wanted to become a bigger DJ, so he started making records. When he did it, Farley (Jackmaster Funk) said ‘Screw’ that if he can do it, i can do it to. Farley stripped it down even more. Jesse had the music side and on the otherside you had House but it was more of a beat track. The Jack tracks for the Jacking music, so we had House and we had Jack. Depending on the kind of person you were that’s the kind of music you listened to. So the preppy people went to House Parties because they’d play a little disco. It was cleaner they had polo shirts, blue jeans, preppy loafers. Just straight up college prepp, the whole party. Some of these people were fashion designers and were designing clothes for rappers back in the day. Outside of Dapper Dan and his jogging suits, I’m talking parachute prints for the ages, man, it looked like a fashion show in a House Party. When you went to the Jacking Party or a Beat Party on the Westside or you went to the hood parties, it was only Beat music, that’s when the party started. When I went to London that was the side I grew closer to because nobody was dressing up, they dressing like fuck that, I’m in this party, I’m going on.
In Chicago it was always the High School Parties those were the parties. Every famous DJ that you can think of from Chicago back in the day, trust me, he got known from the High School Parties. It was all focused on the High School kids because that youth movement at the time, hip hop and house, well in Detroit it was Techno and that was closer to Miami Bass meets Kraftwerk, it so was futuristic and if you lived in Detroit you got it. They had House too because of Ken Collier. So this whole black youth movement was bubbling and by 1985 Farley said ‘Im going to London’ I was like what you gonna do, DJ? he says ‘Yeah’. I’m like ‘They listen to House in London?’
Our experience of London was the language, Benny Hill and only white people. If you were shrewd enough and watched international TV, you might find Desmond’s (black tv show from 1970s) which came on PBS. Desmond was my shit, Pork Pie, man I loved Desmond’s. Benny Hill and James Bond if you got deep, we didn’t even think about The Saint. I’m no college professor but I liked knowledge and more so than my peers. Growing up in the hood you see your friend or someone you know on the corner selling drugs or somebody stealing cars or someone Breaking and Entering or doing all kind of nonsense. I said to myself as a kid, I can’t do this shit, so I played basketball until I found House music, that was my escape. Basketball saved my life, I mean it really saved my life. I wanted to be in the NBA that was my dream. I could play and most of the people I played with played in the NBA but at 19 I started thinking about my height, i thought yeah, I could play in Europe, back then you needed the grades it wasn’t as easy as it is now.
My best friend Hugo was a DJ so he was taking me to these House Parties and stuff, saying he wanted me to check Farley (Jackmaster Funk). I was blown away by his DJing, for one there was women from end to end and not like girls in the hood. I was like OK, what I gotta do to be part of this. First you get into the music and then you get into the scene and vibe. So i said to Farley ‘Yeah I know how to DJ’ he laughed at me saying ‘You don’t know how to DJ’ ‘I’m like yeah I do’ Farley says ‘OK, come by the crib’ I went by his house he had two decks and a mixer. I said ‘go ahead do your thing’ he did it and I said ‘Alright, you gotta teach me how to do that shit’ . He said ‘Nah, I cant teach you this it took me five years to learn how to do this’. So me being the person I am, if you tell me no and I like it, Im gonna find a way to do it. Get good and then try to be better than you, not go against you, just better. For me it was like basketball, if you score 20 on me today, tomorrow if you score 2 points on me you’re good.
After a while another friend of mine named Leonard Remix Roy and another guy Alto Hines and his brother James Hines who had a sound system in the neighborhood, gave birth to me and Mike Dunn. The times they heard me trying to DJ in that basement, day and night. Until one day they say ‘You doing a party on your own, do you know what your doing? You need speakers? ‘ Then they heard me and Mike Dunn play and said ‘Wow’. Mike Dunn is the only DJ partner I’ve ever had. When we got together to DJ it was like me and Mike against the world. We both like the same music but in different ways, Mike liked to tape records and edit, so I was like ‘Mike edits’ They sang like Frankie’s but were cleaner, it was for us.
One of the promoters that gave birth to so many DJs was Marvin Terry, he threw some of the biggest parties on the planet. The comparison with England is that you had warehouse spaces we didn’t have those spaces, we had hotel lobbies or hotel halls. We’s hire Hotel Congress or Hilton Hotel for two thousand bucks. It didn’t matter we were charging ten bucks and 2,500 kids would come to the party. Every-time you threw a party downtown everybody came, matter of fact, if you threw a party anywhere in Chicago and it wasn’t crowed, you really did something wrong. Especially if you were one of those DJs like Ferris Thomas, Andre Hachet, Steve Hurley or Mike Dunn and we’re not talking radio DJs because every-time they were on a flyer it packed the party every-time.
And that shit’s changed too, we used to listen to the radio to hear new music or hear new tracks and you run to the store and get it. That shit is gone, DJs aren’t?? breaking new records, they playing them but not breaking them, well I know they breaking but you know what I mean. I understand everything has to evolve it cant stay in the same but the natural progression of evolution is to make it better. I remember Sonia Stewart said ‘ we have to go back to the days of old’ which means someone else has overtaken us because we as humans haven’t evolved. If you think about it every twenty years we go backwards. Fashion, music and the media are like going back and your like cool, those times were beautiful but if you keep reliving them you keep that same mode that same energy, that same attitude, that same thing which made it like that. You don’t evolve as a human.
When you had Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, separately oh man, separately they drew their own crowd but one time they had those motherfuckers together. I think the entire city was in this one restaurant which only held 400 people standing. There was a line outside for 3 hours.
We had something similar to what you guys had that ‘Summer of Love’ coz the shit was just evolving. You had deep house, Jacking House, Acid House and then Hip House came. That shit wasn’t easily accepted. The radio and the white crowd excepted it because they could stomach Hip Hop but for the blacks, it was ‘What is this?’ ‘Man how you gonna play this shit’. The black underground took it on because it was nice and fresh. Everything was rising at the same time. Hip Hop was getting even bigger, more controversy in America than ever and House was growing. I was in England a lot during 1988-1990.
Fast Eddie stopped making House records around 1986 / 87, i think he got fed up with the business end of it. He did this record ‘Can You Dance’ and got cheated out of it, I remember that record as a demo and it was called ‘Pump it Up’ and exactly when you were meant to hear ‘Can You Dance’ you hear ‘Pump it Up’. It was the same record, the same bassline. He was tricked out of his money so he was just so upset with the business. Eddie was one of those prodigy DJs who was on the radio from 15 years old, he was amazing on the radio at 15. Coz he was dope on two turntables man, when you heard him scratch, even now as Im thinking about him I get chill bumps because when Eddie started scratching it had so much soul. All that scratching in my record ‘Turn up the Bass’ is Fast Eddie, he didn’t even want to scratch on his own records, I said you gotta scratch on one of mine. Anyways he said ‘fuck it, Im done with this shit’ he didn’t want to do nothing but Hip Hop so he got better at doing his tricks with the scratching and stuff. Rocky from the label was trying to scare him by threatening to take him to court for not fulfilling his contract to the label. Eddie told him he’d do Hip Hop but Rocky says ‘No we don’t do Hip Hop’ so Eddie says ‘Fuck it, i’ll do some Hip House’ Rocky says ‘What the fuck is that?’ Eddie did ‘Yo Yo Get Funky’ and Rocky was like ‘Whoa, we like that pop hit’ Eddie says ‘Pop hit, what planet you on? This don’t sounds like no Janet Jackson’ because that was popular at the time. Rocky turns to me and says ‘Tyree this is pop’
We had no idea what was going on over in Europe we left the business end to the label. We were just making records and deejaying. So Rocky was about to release ‘Yo Yo Get Funky’ which had mad feedback from all the radio DJs and said ‘Yo Tyree, you need to make a Hip House record’ I said ‘That’s not my thing that’s Eddie’s thing, I’m doing Deep House, my shit is Deep House’. I liked Rap music and Hip Hop but that’s not my thing. Rocky says ‘You should think about it man, it could be a big record for you. Your working on an album, you might want to try it’. I said ‘whatever’ until i gave in and called Lidell Townsell? and asked for Cool Rocks number. I wanted to do a track with him, Cool Rock did this track ‘Make You Dance’ during the whole Acid House thing and if you think you had an overdose of Acid House in the UK. In Chicago every other track you heard on the radio or at a party was Acid House.
It was a beautiful time because you had Disco and then you had House and for us House was tracks by Fingers and stuff like that. The DJs shared the music so if you knew Ron Hardy real good and he played that track or an edit, you’d go buy it on cassette and dub it. We had cassettes with pitch control and Frankie had reels with pitch. I remember going to a party with fifteen records in my hand and had to play for an hour and half. 15 records, bag of cassettes and my tape deck. You could rock the party because you had all this shit on cassette. They had the tracks that wasn’t released and you wanted to test it on the crowd.
Before the world had heard of any of this stuff we had it on cassette. Remember the original ‘Work the Box’, ‘House Nation’, ‘Jack your Body’, ‘Baby wants to Ride’ or ‘Donnie’./ As a matter of fact Jamie’s (Principle) first four platinum records, which were never really platinum but you know. ‘Baby wants to Ride’, ‘Your Love’, Waiting on my Angel’, and ‘Its a Cold World Make you Scream’ If you had all those tracks from Jamie, you were the man. None of that shit was released it was all about obscurity that was the hot shit. You guys had the dub-plates we didn’t get wise on the dub-plate which was a reggae thing. In Chicago they wasn’t a thriving community Jamaican community, we had them but it wasn’t strong at the time so we didn’t know the dub-plate. There would’ve been a lot of thefts because some of the DJs had to DJ to get out of the gangs. Some were living in the hood man, when your in the hood your a product of your own environment. You can see how basketball saved my life.
Tell us more about your trips to London in the eighties.
When I came to London for the first time in 1988, I had no idea of the success we had there, we were getting a different story. DJ International and Trax Records were giving us a different story. Cats like Adonis, Marshall Jefferson and a few others were going to the UK on a frequent basis but no-one shared the information. They weren’t being funny or nothing they were doing their own thing. I came to London to promote ‘Turn up the Bass’ but Acid Over was already huge – thing was, i had no idea because no-one was playing that record in Chicago. The label said it was doing ‘OK’ totally down-playing it. So as I’m about to leave for London, the label says ‘Hey man, Acid Over is doing great there’ I was like ‘Acid Over?’ So I got to London and outside looked like Desmond’s to me and then I found out there were more blacks there, I lost my mind. I expected to play to an all white crowd and I was performing my songs and not DJing. When I performed it was a mixture of people both white and black. I met so many brothers back in the UK. It was like going to a party on the North-side but the music was just like the South-side. When I heard Paul Anderson play and a few others whose names I can’t remember right now, I loved that shit. My original introduction to the scene was as a dancer and I mean a dancer. I came to London and thought they can’t dance but when they dropped a 900 number, everyone at the same time did the same move. The jump over the broomstick move and when I saw that I said ‘OK’ we wouldn’t play those songs but the vibe was there. The girls were everywhere but the sisters stayed away, the white girls were like hi but the sisters were like ‘I know how to rap, I know how to do that shit too, put me on’
Acid Over was a massive tune here so by the time you got here, thousands of people already had numerous MDMA experiences to your tunes so completely in the zone.
As a matter of fact it was Derrick May who told me ‘Acid Over’ was a hit in the UK. I thought he was joking he said ‘No man this record is huge, i hope you got paid’ i was like ‘yeah yeah i got paid’ He said ‘No bro i don’t think you understand, i hope you got paid’. I said i got paid but from that moment on i took more notice of the business end and what’s going on. The label was telling me a few DJs were playing it and it wasn’t a big record but years later i found out the truth. It gets worse, even after ‘Turn up the Bass’ went into the UK charts I still had no clue. I knew what needed to be done as far as performing but no clue on the business end. Dude I was going to England for Top of the Pops and they told me ‘Its just some pop show in London’ but it was the biggest music show in the UK and based on record sales. The way he explained it to me was as if Top of the Pops was like American Bandstand in America. Im thinking House music was something new for them and had no idea the show is all about record sales and nothing else.Amercian Bandstand was this small little show. The way it happened in the UK was it entered the chart at Number 32, one week later it was Number 16 and i was still in England, then one week later its Number 8. Dude i had no idea i was out on an adventure, no-ne explained the seriousness of it. Im a DJ from Chicago but had been given the money then i would’ve took it more seriously because i’d know it was a hit record. They kept you in the dark so you really didn’t know what kind of pop-star you were. I remember meeting Donna Summers at Top of the Pops, she was mean to me but i was like ‘I met Donna Summers’. Years later it hit me but at the time i was more interested in meeting her and playing Spring Affair when i returned to Chicago.
It wasn’t like a Beatles thing, I didn’t have people walking up to me in the street, no-one approached me, but if i went to a club and say ‘Yo man, Im just a DJ from Chicago my name is Tyree Cooper’ and the doors would just pen. Another time i knew i was famous in England was at immigration. It was 1994 when i first had drama with the UK. Farley got me a booking from a promoter over there. I was working at the time but don’t have enough time to wait for my money so i came to England with no money but i was gonna get taken care of when i arrived. I had my story down-packed, i was coming here to visit a friend of mine but she asked how much money i had. I said enough to get where I need to be. She said my story wasn’t believable because i told her I was going to a party. She says ‘Tyree Cooper, right?’ i says ‘Yeah’ she says the guy that made Acid Over, the producer right?’ I said ‘Get the fuck outta here’ i was done right here and I mean that. She made some notes on my file and red flagged me, every-time i came back I had problems.
How did other countries respond to your music during the late eighties?
London for sure was the best for me because it was an English speaking territory. Germany was sweet, Holland was cool but had they showed me the coffee shops first, coz I wouldn’t have gone to the red-light district. I think they wanted to ensure none of the artists had a drug overdose or something, though it seems Alcohol poisoning and Aids is OK (laughing). The first time I came to London I did twenty shows in twenty five days with couple days off. Normally I’d play 40 / 50 shows but it was so new they couldn’t get the bookings. DJ International was controlling it so I trusted them with my career, I went where they told me. The second time we came it was for a Tyree and Fast Eddie Tour, we both had records in the pop charts, we had no record labels and we were on CBS at the time.
So how did it feel for both yourself and Eddie because here you are touring Europe with music you originally made in your bedroom?
It was insane because we did everything that any young group would’ve done outside of burning down a hotel. We ran amok in the UK, we were scheduled for 30 shows and did 35 shows in 30 days. W loved every bit of it, we ate it up. We also had Jam D? with us who did that record ‘Move Your Body’ . Originally I wanted to do ‘Turn up the Bass’ with him but i couldn’t find his ass. There was about about nine of us on tour, Eddie (20) and i were the main act then you had Jam D? (20), Sundance (16) was our featured act and then we had two dancer s (19+16). We were partying hard, so much so that Eddie was seeing ghosts and shit. It only really hit me when i started to get more into the business end of the music. The real business was explained to me and what happened to me wasn’t pretty. It took five years for the lawsuit to finish. I lost a lot of years and i never got back any of the licensing money but i stood by what was right.
Tell us about some of the stuff you’re doing today…
Im doing really well right now, I got my own label Super Duper and we’re doing some great work. Im now managed by Angel Artists Management based in the UK and New York.