“Chicago is still the best city in the world when it comes to dance music.” This is not a controversial statement from Chicago Skyway, but it’s one he is uniquely qualified to make.
Sean Hernandez is Chicago Skyway, and under that name he’s released some of the most exquisite Deep House records to come out of Chicago in the last 10 years. Before that, he taught himself to make music on complicated machines through a painstaking study of this city’s classics, tearing them down and recreating them to learn what made them tick.
His roots grew out of the Chicago House Music scene of the 1980s – those common experiences shared by thousands, of Medusa’s in Lake View, DJs on the radio and the sounds of Chicago’s streets invading the high schools of the North and South Sides. His records have appeared on Uzuri, Eargasmic, MOS and Altered Moods Recordings; his DJ skills have taken him across continents and across the country.
photo: Moonhouse Productions
We’ve been meaning to do this interview for a long time now – years even! I don’t want to rehash anyone’s biography, but when you were growing up in Chicago, was there a club here that really made an impact on you? That first love always seems to determine people’s future direction.
Yeah that’s true. There was one for me. I grew up on the North Side in Lake View, and we had a friend who had an older brother who got us hip to Medusa’s. I was in sixth or seventh grade, I think, but they had an all-ages night since it was a juice bar. Our minds were just blown – that was the first time we ever experienced anything like that. We heard House Music on the radio and all of that but we never knew it was like that.
Before Medusa’s, I would sometimes use my brother’s fake ID from Lake View High School. They were pretty lenient about that kind of stuff. We went to a Gordon Tech dance where they had Bad Boy Bill and Julian Perez and people like that. That was probably my first “Holy Shit!” moment where people were just going apeshit to the music. But to see it on a consistent basis at a club was different. Medusa’s was an artsy club – they had different rooms, and so on. It just completely blew my mind.
After Medusa’s, I always wanted to be a DJ, I always wanted to work on music and I always wanted to have my own club (which I’ve realized I don’t ever want to do, because there are just too many politics and crazy shit to get into.) But Medusa’s has been very influential in everything I’ve done. The industrial scene, the House dancers – even the skinheads! It was every type of person meeting under one roof. And for the most part everyone getting along until they started playing some crazy music and people started making a mosh pit and fighting.
“I’m making my music for the guys who are popping, the people who are dancing. Those guys texting their friends what the DJ is playing or blogging in the club? I’m not making music for them.”
Do you think that kind of experience in a club is possible when you’re past a certain age? Or does it have to hit you when you’re young?
That’s kind of hard to say. I was going there until they closed it down. Then I went to the second incarnation of it and it wasn’t quite the same. I don’t know if I was over it or it had just run its course. And later they did something out in the suburbs which had more of a Euro or Progressive type of sound.
So when did you go from dancing to music and playing music to actually making music?
That’s hard to pin down, actually. I’ve had plenty of [club] nights. I’ve been part of crews and we’ve thrown successful nights. They were great, some were not so great, but you get to a certain point where you feel like you’ve done it all and now you want to create music too.
But I never had anybody tell me, “Well, here’s the gear and tools you use to make House Music.” We would go to Guitar Center or a music store and wonder what we should buy. We want to make House Music, too – but we had no idea what to make it with.
The only person we had to talk too was Caj, and that was great in itself but he wasn’t really giving us all that much information. He would play our nights, and every now and then I’d take him to the side and ask “Hey man? What did you use to do the ‘Percolator?'” or some shit like that. And he’d be like “Aw man, I don’t know. Why do you want to know anyway?” I don’t know, we just wanted to know! We weren’t going to make “Percolator” again but we want to get an idea of what to buy so we could make music.
So Caj would tell us he did it all on an MPC. And we nodded but asked ourselves, Okay… what the hell is an MPC?
I was the first one to buy something and I think the first thing I bought was an MC-303. It blew my mind! I thought this was everything I ever needed! But it came really quick after that, that wow, this was just a fucking toy. So I went through spurts of buying gear when I could scrape together whatever I could. I think I had my first “moment” when I got my first computer and you could download samples of what a 909 or an 808 sounded like. I guess I was just being a huge nerd listening to drum sounds forever but it made me connect the dots and understand, okay I need to buy this drum machine to get these sounds.
Eventually I got a 909 and another keyboard and little by little started building up my collection and trying to recreate some of my favorite songs. Like “Altered States” or “Acid Trax.”
Is that how you taught yourself how to make music?
That’s interesting because that’s pretty common among self-taught designers and people who work in a visual medium: just looking at art, picking it apart and figuring out how to replicate it.
Same with me. But with this it was more that I was going to read the fuck out of the manual. I was very patient with everything. I would learn the instrument inside and out. I still don’t know much about synthesis, but I would come up with a sound really, really close to what I was hearing. Just to reference “Altered States” again, I could get something that I thought sounded really close to that string sound and play that same note. I would try to reverse engineer all of these old tracks that I loved that I knew were effective on the dancefloor. I knew these tracks and I knew they made people go apeshit. And I wanted to make people go apeshit to my tracks too, so let me figure out how they did this. In a way, that’s kind of how I figured out how to program a drum machine, how to throw in drum rolls or drum fills or stuff like that or even make something sound like a Larry Heard track. I just kind of dissected their tracks to try to recreate them.
Have you ever liked the tracks you made like this and played them?
Well, I had all of this gear and then Reason 1.0 came out. I thought I’d try to recreate this stuff in there because in Reason there were more sounds.
I tried recording some of that stuff and it sounded terrible. I had it on a hard drive, but it crashed. And I’m like oh well, thank God nobody’s going to be able to hear that shit [laughs]
Sometimes I’ll put like an homage in a track I’ll do – like “Wet Flood” from the EP you wrote about, Thunder on Altered Moods. I have the “Land of Confusion” beat that I throw in every now and then. Sometimes I’ll throw in a little Derrick May fill.
Do people ever get the references?
I always throw out hints but no one ever notices. I’ll be like, “Maybe somebody will get it?” But they never do. Oh well.
Years from now people are going to find your records and it’ll be like the Da Vinci Code. They’ll have a chart on the wall with all of these arrows between different people and a buried treasure…
Maybe. But I use all kinds of references. When I started naming tracks I’d make a reference to something here at the University of Chicago. Like I named a track “CP-1” and nobody got it. It’s a place here relating to the beginnings of the atomic bomb and The Manhattan Project. I’ll throw in hints of stuff like that and people will like the song but never get the name.
Maybe it’s because “Chicago Skyway” is such an well-known reference. When did you start using “Chicago Skyway?”
I was working with a producer in the past. I said we should come up with a really cool name, and I always dug the name “Chicago Skyway.” And he was like meh, fuck that, I don’t want to call myself that. So I said I’d keep it for myself.
That didn’t really pan out anyway, so I decided to use it because I thought it was, first off, good marketing. I wanted my name to have “Chicago” in it because I would imagine that if someone in Europe saw something with the name “Chicago” in it they’d be at least a little more likely to pick a record up and give it a listen. And then Skyway because “Ah this guy is elevating! Elevating the dancefloor!” [laughs] Eh, someone might think it’s cheesy or whatever but I thought it was kind of cool. So I wound up using it and I’ve stuck with it.
How often do you look back on records you’ve done?
There does come a point where I can’t listen to it anymore, but I’m one of those people that will make many different versions of everything. I’ll do different “takes” – I mean I’m no jazz musician or anything, but I’ll sequence everything live and get a different feeling for it. Press record and press start and there you go – it is what it is.
Every now and then I’ll go back in and I’ll edit some stuff but it’s usually just one track. I mean I’m a hack, man – I don’t multitrack shit, I just record it straight into my computer and I’ll edit it from there. Steven Tang will help master my stuff but other than that… I try to be as musical as I can with the very limited training I got in school (and that was really late – I went to like music school in my mid-20s and it was a free music school.) But I’m making my music for the guys who are popping, people who are dancing. A lot of times with this culture, the critical ones are the motherfuckers who are texting their friends what the DJ is playing or writing on their blog in the club. I’m not making music for them.
And people who think that House Music is like some kind of high art? Nah, that’s bullshit too, man. It’s supposed to be fun music. It’s not supposed to be, like, “I put this hi hat in here to express the pain of the world.” Fuck that. It’s good time music.
There are two types of music that have a utilitarian purpose: Elevator Music or Muzak (to pass the time) and House Music to make you dance. I think some people feel insecure about that.
It shouldn’t be taken like that. Sometimes people are just too into that sort of thing and start making it about themselves. “Here are my chops about music.” And it’s no longer about the music itself.
What do you see when you look back on your records? Are you pleased? Regret that you did something wrong or didn’t work hard enough?
I always feel like I didn’t work hard enough. Always. It goes back to all of the versions I’ll make of my tracks. Like with “Heavens” – that’s the track that lead people to find out about me. I came up with so many versions of that track. It took me so long to get it to where it was, but I still feel like it’s still not quite there. You now what I mean?
I finally had to stop making versions of it a couple of years ago because, let’s be honest, I’m not going to re-release this again. It’s done, it’s in the past – hell, they’ve already re-issued it a couple of times. I’m done with it. Move on.
I think with every person who makes music or some kind of art – they look back and see things they wish they would have changed or done differently. “I wish this break would have gone longer or would have been louder…” But on the whole I’m happy with what I’ve done. And it’s good to see some of your stuff still being discovered. There’s this guy French Fries who was playing one of my tracks that’s a couple of years older on Boiler Room and people were going nuts. I didn’t think anyone cared about that track, and here I’m seeing some guy play it and people going apeshit. It’s nice to see something do exactly what you had in mind when you made it.
I feel bad asking some generic “end of the interview” question now. But really I’m curious: what do you see as far as the future of Chicago House?
That’s such a hard question to answer. It’s hard to put a finger on what’s going to happen next.
But Chicago to me is still the best city when it comes to dance music. Because there are so many layers. There are so many people who are really good at doing what they’re do, whether it’s DJing or production or whatever they’re known for.
On a worldwide scale, though, they’re only looking at a few of the big guns who have been around for awhile. There are so many more. Chicago’s like a big ass universe with multiple galaxies. You don’t even know what kind of life lives in that galaxy or what kind of solar systems there are in that galaxy. It’s so immense. But people won’t know that because they’re still looking at the same people in Chicago. They’ll always write about the same people. I mean, they’re brilliant, they’re great producers and great DJs and I hope I’m not coming off like a bitter guy with a grudge, because I totally don’t feel that way. But we’re talking about like just a few people. Sometimes there will be another one – they’ll notice this Jamal Moss guy, or this Noleian Reusse guy, or this guy over here – but there are so many different groups doing such insane shit. So much of it has yet to be really discovered.
Published first in 5 Mag Issue #128, featuring Chicago Skyway, the Euro-Disco of Voyage, Getting Started in Vinyl, Ortella, Moppy & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music — and take 60% off!