Beloved in this city and respected around the world for his classic and contemporary contributions to music, Ron Trent has surveyed the House Music landscape in our town and beyond. He hasn’t liked what he’s seen.
Think global, act local, right? That’s what he’s doing: with his continuing biweekly residency City Beat & a monthly at SmartBar to firm up the late night scene; a strong commitment to the vinyl medium on his forthcoming remix album and LP of Ron Trent originals; and the launch of a new record store, right here in the heart of Chicago.
And that’s about all the introduction you need.
You have two residencies going on in Chicago right now: City Beat 2nd and 4th Thursdays at Crocodile and Rockers at SmartBar the 1st Wednesday of the month, and you’ve taken a very intense approach to both of them. What are your thoughts on the state of the scene here in Chicago right now?
We’re in full-fledged damage control right now, and instead of just complaining about it, I’m doing something about it.
Candidly: the city that I love, that I grew up in, that brought me up, has changed. Nothing stays the same forever, but the scene has gone off-path from the level of professionalism and the level of respect that we’re used to and which we’re capable of. This is in all the arts but especially in dance and dance music.
And DJing is an artform. Let me tell you what I mean by that. It takes full on creative force, both internal and external. It takes depth. It takes getting inside yourself. It takes taste and from taste comes style.
I’m saying all that to say… it’s not there, man.
City Beat is a conglomeration. In its local form here as a night, it’s a mechanism to get people involved again, to get people thinking creatively again, and to set a certain standard. It’s at Crocodile and some people say, “Why Crocodile? Why are you in the basement?” It’s not about being in the basement. With that location in Wicker Park, you get a large amount of younger faces – it’s really as close as Chicago comes to the Village in New York. You get artists and young folks who are doing something walking in. It’s about getting to the people.
With SmartBar, it’s up north and they already have that reputation as alternative spot. The party is called Rockers and it’s about stretching imaginations and pushing the envelope, like an old punky reggae party or dub party. I try to push the guys to get up a little more.
Before trying this, I was wondering if it was even worth it to stay in Chicago. I was thinking, maybe it’s time to get the fuck out again! It was getting difficult to go out and enjoy myself.
Motherfuckers have torn the fabric out of this city. It’s true. With bad soundsystems, with everyone being a DJ, with people jumping over each other, infighting… It’s the ego thing.
To be honest, we’re in full-fledged damage control right now. That’s what it is.
So with all of that said, instead of just complaining about it, I’m doing something about it. I’ve had conversations with various DJs, good people who have been doing this for a long time, and concluded that it’s not just in our city. It’s around the world. But locally is where we can act. If we don’t call it out, nothing will ever change. We all have power, and Chicago is a city for the people. But everything we do has an effect and people don’t realize that.
With all of that history and that lineage, how do you just ignore that? I’m trying to do something about it.
Sort of like the butterfly effect – that, if I say, “Eh, screw it. I’ll take the easy way and nobody will know” – it’ll have ripples growing larger?
Exactly. Chicago set a certain standard going all the way back. House Music as we know it today – the spirit was from the ’70s but the soundtrack was made in the ’80s. And it was brought to Chicago from New York. Both Frankie Knuckles and Robert Williams are from New York, plus there was David Mancuso who was really the godfather of this thing in terms of trying things differently than they had been done before. Chicago took from that and we built on it.
The aftermath of the standards that Frankie and Ron and Robert set was a generation of DJs that I’m a part of taking this thing out of the clubs and to high schools and making it mobile. There was a certain level of quality that isn’t there now. It’s great to celebrate history, but that history is not being taken care of.
You have thirsty people out here only to make a name. We need to take a look at that. You have a lot of novices and non-professionals attaching themselves to this thing. You have producers – not just in Chicago but worldwide – creating the same tracks over and over again.
I’m passionate about this because I’m serious about it. Listen: when I didn’t know about something, I took the time to learn, to practice my craft and learn to harness that energy and grow as a person. Then my energy would be powerful enough to help.
Today, you have people taking shortcuts. You have computer programs that allow you to mix, allow you to produce without putting that work in. We’re all put together in the same boat, the same pot. The people who haven’t and the people who have are grouped together.
In life, I come from an entirely different ideology. It’s not about yourself. You take the best guy in your clique, you pull him up and put in the work to help him succeed. Then you get the next guy, and then a line forms and you have a lineage.
So that’s where we are. We either set new bars and new goals or we stay fucked. The only way we’re going to make it better is saying what’s wrong and setting new bars. The quality of the older producers: that’s the bar that we’ve fallen below. With all of that history and that lineage, how do you just ignore that? I’m trying to do something about it. These are two of the mechanisms I’m using.
On that subject, you’ve played smaller rooms for a classics crowd, and you go from that to some festival where you’ll be playing before or after someone like Fedde Le Grand. How do you manage that as a DJ?
It’s really simple – or, it’s not really simple, but it should be. It’s just like teaching a class. As a teacher, every classroom is different and every curriculum is different. DJs, in the beginning, were about introducing new concepts to people, bringing a new consciousness and taking people on a journey. We’re social scientists. That’s what we are. You have to start by sitting back and studying people.
DJs are social scientists. That’s what we are. You have to start by sitting back and studying people.
I have a wide palette when I DJ, because to me there are only two types of music: good and bad. Sure, not everybody’s ready for everything, but as a DJ it can be too easy to hide behind genres and names. It’s easier that way. It’s hard to stand out. It’s hard to dance when nobody’s dancing. It’s hard to be that first person on the floor. You don’t want to stand out or look square. But then there are those with a different mentality: “I’m a dancer, and when something hits me, I’m going to dance.”
It’s easier to wait for other people and get lost in the crowd. In the ’80s you had people who were willing to dress different and stand out, especially in an oppressive urban environment. It wasn’t easy.
Take the people who go on websites and write under fictitious names and pretend to be a master of the game. They say they’ve been to all the parties going back however many years, but I bet if you put a spotlight on it, half of the people who are down now weren’t then. For one thing, this was taking place primarily in the gay community and that was a immediate block right there. In the mid-’80s and even into the late-’80s, you had a lot of heterosexual males and females that were still sort of touch-and-go about the whole thing. But by then you had music on the radio, with hot mixing and that was judged acceptable. It was very hard to say “Fuck what you think, I love it and it’s me.” It’s like a unibrain mentality – lots of people in the same clothes, with the same thoughts.
In Europe, your music – especially the tracks you made and released with Chez Damier on Prescription – are being played on a nightly basis, sometimes more than “top sellers” from download sites, and they still sound completely contemporary. How do you feel about that overseas resurgence?
That shows you how stuff works, man. The mentality is that just 5% or 10% of the population is ready, forward-thinking and on the hot shit. It takes a good 10 years for a new generation to come along to catch up. Look at Bob Marley: he died in the early ’80s and it took ten years for people to come around and appreciate him.
I’m sure we wished sometimes that more people understood what we were trying to do, but then again we did have plenty of success with some of it, too. That’s the pain of making classic material versus fast food and filler that just goes nowhere.
There are people who are visionary and there are people who follow. Everything happens in time, and this happens to be the time. Chez and I, when we were working together on Prescription, I’m sure we wished sometimes that more people understood what we were trying to do, but then again we did have plenty of success with some of it, too.
That’s the pain of making classic material versus fast food and filler that just goes nowhere, or even something that stands as kind of a time piece or a relic from a certain era. We’re in an electronic era now and these are the tools that we have now to express ourselves. If we had been around in the ’70s we’d be using drums and non-midi keyboards to express ourselves. The methodology is still the same: to make music that has a certain quality and emotes something which people can connect to and become inspired by.
Look at Motown versus some guys trying to sound like Motown. Which are we talking about now? Motown. Or Philly International versus guys who were ripping them off. Which are we talking about now? More than just making good music, Motown and Philly International made statements with every record that affected both independent labels and major labels on into the mainstream.
I understand you’re working on a remix album with some of your recent work that’s going to be coming out in the next few weeks?
I’m going to be issuing a Ron Trent remix album, which will include the remixes I did of Erykah Badu’s “Honey” and Jill Scott’s “Spring Summer Feeling”. These were official remixes, not bootlegs. When it comes to dance music – I’m not even sure I want to use that term because these days “dance music” means Gaga as well – but when it comes to the sort of music that we appreciate, we have to understand that it’s not respected on certain levels in the commercial community. It’s not respected and it’s a joke.
There’s also been the decline of the really good remix. You’re just going to put out something with beats or an acapella that sounds like squirrels singing? We have to remember that dance music, House Music, is essentially uptempo R&B. You need to really get into the song, feel it, see how it works on an emotional level first. Remixing takes time, it’s not something that you can just feed into a machine and have something acceptable come out on the other end. Before everything comes the idea. We’re relying too much on machinery and the skill level and reference is not there.
I’ve also heard there’s an album called Dance Floor Boogie Delites of original material?
Yes. The original Dance Floor Boogie Delites was the name of a record we put out on Prescription with “Pop, Dip and Spin” on one side and “Morning Fever” on the other. It got some mileage back then – Billboard mentioned it in ’94 or ’95. We later took “Pop, Dip and Spin” and added some vocals from Curtis Harmon (Lil Louis’s brother) and released that in 1998 as “Comin’ Back”.
Chez and I were fans of that late ’70s/early ’80s funk and boogie music – it was an inspiration to us during the Prescription era. It had the live element of funk but with the introduction of electronic keys, not just the Rhodes but the Prophet and other keyboards. It would later be considered by a lot of people as part of the Garage sound. It had great vocals but also some instrumentals – all of it was just really quality music. Leroy Burgess was one of the leaders of that sound. It’s really just catching on now and you can really tell that some of the quality producers have studied it. So the album will be released on Future Vision and it’ll be “Ron Trent featuring Leroy Burgess”. It sounds like an old fucking record, those old jams…
I remember hearing awhile ago that you were determined to release music only on vinyl. Are you holding to that with these two albums?
That’s the plan and that’s what I’ve done. I’m a big believer in vinyl and it’s stood the test of time. With digital, I know people are going to pass it around and rip it from vinyl anyway but hey, we might as well make it a little harder for them!
Where can people pick it up?
Well, one place they can pick it up is a new record store called City Beat. We’re launching a record store with my business partner in the basement of his place, which everyone knows as The Silver Room. We want to stock it with hard to find and classic material, imports, my records and other guys’ records. We’ve lost the community aspect that comes from getting together, conversing and listening to music on a great soundsystem.
Ron, this was the story right here and it snuck right by me. When is this going to be happening?
We’re still working hard on it – there’s a lot that goes into this – but it’s safe to say we’re aiming at being open by the end of June. I’m not playing around here! I’m serious. I want to change the mentality of the demographic.
Is what you meant when you said City Beat is a “conglomeration”?
There’s the record store, and there’s also City Beat as a party on the regular here in Chicago. But we also want to push it beyond that. City Beat represents the pulse of the city, and what I’d like to do is make it an artistic installation and have events in other cities, themed around color and sound therapy with live performances, dope sounds, etcetera. The art aspect hasn’t been there to my liking so far but with the installations, we’ll get it there.
What do you have to say to the people that make up the scene – regardless of who they are as DJs, producers, club-goers, heads, dancers…?
I want people to sit down and ask themselves why they’re in this. I want them to really examine that, and when they come up with answers as to why they’re in this scene, I think it’ll be better for themselves and better for others. If their head is in the right place, it’ll keep it moving.
There are too many people trying to be King of the Castle, even though being King of the Castle doesn’t pay the bills or leave a legacy. Ego and all of that stuff gets mixed in and it’s really bad for everyone. If you sit down and think about this stuff, then you can make beautiful music, beautiful things, bring something to the environment and inspire those around you as well.
And that’s real.