THE FUNKY, IRRESISTIBLE DRUMBEAT that kicks off “Touch the Sky” has graced practically every DJs’ mix CD recently. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a selector without at least one Dennis Ferrer track in his playlist these past few years. His sound is redefining what people call House Music, and is pushing the boundaries without sacrificing the essential soulful element within the genre.
One of the most well-rounded of songwriter/producers and a forerunner for the newschool movement of House, Dennis’ past arsenal has pned the range from Afro-House to ambient to gospel to straight up techno.
Launching his career in the early ’90s as a techno producer and putting out records under the Synewave label, he later hooked up with Kerri Chandler and formed Sfere Recordings in 1998. He is responsible for some of the hottest records of the last three years: “Sandcastles”, “Son of Raw”, “Timbuktu”, “Most Precious Love” and “The Cure and The Cause”. He continues to push the musical envelope by allowing tech-house and soulful-house lovers to actually vibe off of the same song.
Dennis’ debut LP for King Street/Defected, The World As I See It, is a hybrid of deep, funky, soulful and, yes, tech-inspired. And he pulls it off brilliantly. “Church Lady”, “Touch The Sky”, “P2 Da J” and “How Do I Let Go” are just some of the hot tracks that should have everyone clamoring to own this album. His new label Objektivity Records promises to bring you more sonic surprises that are anything but predictable.
Amazed that I was actually able to catch this incredibly busy man, we sat and talked about his influences, the illness that kept him from music, and his plans for the future. He is intense, brutally straightforward and charming as hell.
Since you said you grew up on the ’70s and ’80s were you more of a bboy back then, more into hiphop?
Oh I was definitely into hiphop. I grew up with the whole bboy episode, with all the block parties.
When did you start getting more into house?
The thing is, hiphop was kinda combined with dance, you know… People tend to forget that you had a lot of the dancing that was mixed with the hiphop. On the one hand you had “Jam On It”, and on the other hand you had a DJ International record. There really were no cut boundaries.
Did you have any musical training?
None formally, except for what I taught myself.
I read that you like the ’80s more because they were more song-oriented. What were some of the groups from that time that you liked?
Oh wow, there were so many. AC/DC, The Petshop Boys – I mean I came across a big, big spectrum of influences. Learning how to DJ came on much later in the mix of everything.
So you began as a techno producer in the early 90’s?
Oh yeah, definitely. We did a lot of electronic music growing up. A lot of stuff with Damon Wild and this label we created called Synewave Records. It was a fun time but there wasn’t enough money in it to keep it going.
I really enjoyed your album and I noticed that every song has a very strong percussive intro. Is that kind of like a signature of yours?
I don’t know if that’s a signature… I just don’t like sleepy tunes too much! I fall into the harder edge of drum programming, probably. My thing is is that I’m not afraid to say that I make dance music. I’m not trying to change the world.
So would you say the most important thing for you is to make the crowd dance?
That’s right, that’s what you get paid for!
Tell me some of your thoughts with regards to techno and tech-house. You had a story about playing one of your songs (“Sandcastles”) in Miami last year and you were a little nervous that the crowd might be too freaked out about hearing tech-house?
Well with “Sandcastles” we were kind of scared, but sometimes you have to go backwards to take two steps forward. And when I played that in Miami everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
And they ended up liking it in the end!
But then all the soulful heads started to play it. We couldn’t understand how the hell that happened!
How long did it take for them to warm up to it?
Around six or seven months.
When you break in a song do you find that they tend to love it right away or is it a constant repetition with it?
For some odd reason, my songs seem to take some time to sink in.
And then they become big hits!
And then they’re hits. I don’t understand it. Some people, they get it and it jumps off right away. My songs seem to have a longevity to them which I really can’t explain.
Are there any that became immediate hits from the songs you’ve done?
No, it’s always a slow burn. It’s crazy! I mean love it – don’t get me wrong – because my songs have more lasting power than most people’s. But it’s always a slow burn and then it turns into a huge thing.
Are you working with anyone right now or are you just by yourself?
I do everything myself… engineer, mix, the whole thing. What you hear – that’s all me.
Do you not like collaborating with other people?
I’m not a big fan of collaboration unless… See, collaborations don’t work unless you respect the person to a high degree. They just don’t work. And I’m the kind of person… I don’t respect too many people! [laughs]
Oooh! Do you have any favorite producers right now?
A few favorites. You know I’d love to do some of the songwriting to Frankie Feliciano, Kerri Chandler… There’s a bunch of them.
Do you like to go out to clubs still?
I go out to clubs every weekend. I play a lot on weekends so the times I do get to hang out, I mean I really enjoy it because it’s just me. Not working.
Over the past few years I thought 2-step was blowing up over here and I wanted to know what your thoughts are about that style.
Good ole 2-step from the UK! That’s been around since ’94! To some people it’s great. To me, I’m more of a vocal kind of guy. I like to hear a good song, something that I can remember.
Do you sing?
No. There are just some things that you’re not supposed to do and I guess that’s my thing!
Tell us a little more about your label Objectivity Records.
Objectivity started in December of this year. The principle is basically we do whatever we think is cutting edge. Just like you see the telepop music – that’s pretty close to cutting edge for me. That’s going on there. We have a new Ane Brun project which is very edgy. These are the kind of records that I think we need to showcase on my label.
Is there a roster of artists already set?
It’s whoever I find at that moment in time.
You seem incredibly versatile in the sense that a lot of producers… They don’t usually go from afrobeat/gospel to tech-house. Usually it’s one disliking the other. What draws you to tech-house?
Tech-house was my past! It’s just the love from your past that’s going to come through eventually. Even when I did hiphop, that comes through in a lot of records, because a lot of my stuff is very drum oriented. Or let’s say when I did the afro-house where I did a lot of the guitar stuff. That still influences me.
Learn from your influences, you can only use them. When they’re needed. There’s a time for everything. And my old history with tech came into play again recently and I was able to use it. I’ve already been down that road. It’s like a piece of cake for me.
Do you still produce any kind of techno?
I just dig into wherever I need to dig and and then I flip it. I never want to get caught doing the same thing twice.
Are you working on another album right now?
I am working on another album. I think you’re measured by the amount of albums you do and the quality of the albums you do.
How long did it take you to work on your last album?
Well, I don’t think that that’s really a fair question because a lot of stuff happened during that time. I had Lyme Disease so that put me out of commission for almost a whole year. A lot of people don’t know that.
Wow. What was that like?
Bedridden, I was hospitalized, I couldn’t think straight. It doesn’t let you concentrate, it gives you OCD and you can’t work. You just can’t get anything done. So it took a little while to get over that. Finally, I’m okay.
What did you think of the Miami Winter Music Conference this year? I saw you at the Shelter party.
There were a few parties that were really great. The Shelter party was great, I heard Karizma’s and Spinna’s parties were great… Our party at Deep was just phenomenal. I was so happy for Marques [Wyatt].
I missed that one!
Oh you missed one of the best parties at the conference!
How many times did you play at the conference?
I played once, and the reason why I chose to play once is because I figured you either catch me one day or you don’t. And if you don’t – that’s it! I just decided I wasn’t going to whore myself. I just have a different outlook on that stuff. I look at it as, if you catch me once, it’s an exclusive kind of thing.
You live here in New York – what do you like and dislike about the city?
I love the history. I love the inspiration it gives me. I don’t like the cliques, and I don’t like the way New York is perceived now.
Do you think that you had to really struggle to pay your dues especially in a city like New York? Or was it easy for you?
Ahh… it’s overrated. Not to say that I haven’t done it – I have. I think I’ve paid my dues. I mean I’ve been around for a minute trying to keep my quality consistent. But if you get a good break and you blow up, and you blow up higher than me cause you’ve had a good break, well… that’s life! You have the haves and have-nots, the kings and the serfs. Not everybody can be a king.
Well, say you’re an up and coming artist and you’re trying to break in – isn’t it kind of difficult because like you said it’s very cliquey? Is it just a matter of hustling and making those contacts?
That’s what it is – it’s hustling. It’s 100% hustling. It’s hustling but the problem is you can hustle all you want, but if you’re quality is sub-par, then you’re never getting anywhere. So a combination of hustling and knowing that what you’re peddling is of good quality.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
The only thing that I could say is like I’ve always said – I feel blessed by everyone. And I think we need a lot of y’all support. It’s becoming very difficult to make records and survive now, especially with the downloading age. There’s not enough to survive. What you see here today with downloads won’t be here in the next few months, let alone the next few years. So support you know? Do your thing. Buy some downloads.