SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN underdogs. Farley Jackmaster Funk, one of the most influential figures in the history of House Music, with a career pning three decades, clearly relishes the idea of being underestimated. More than twenty-five years since he hit the radio with the other members of the Hot Mix 5 and held down his legendary residency at The Playground, Farley is gearing up for one of the most ambitious projects to hit this city in years: more than 70 tracks ready to hit, and a new nightclub with a unique twist.
It seems that every few years, a writer “rediscovers” House Music and goes to those Chip E. has called “the usual suspects”, asks the same questions and writes the same article as those who came before him. Farley by this point has been interviewed dozens if not hundreds of times about the Hot Mix 5, about radio station WBMX, about DJ contests at clubs that no longer exist, about “Love Can’t Turn Around”, the smash single that broke Chicago House Music around the world, about all of the triumphs and controversies of House Music back in the day. You can find it in a number of books, and it’s a fascinating story, but I didn’t want to go over it one more time.
Instead, for this interview, I wanted to get the straight dope on a few issues lingering from those days – but focus mostly on the present and the future. Farley’s clearly a man with a plan: a global touring schedule, several albums ready to pop after nearly seven years of recording silence, the new vocalists he’s working with, a new manager (industry veteran George Jackson, who chipped in at a few points in the interview), and the Christian nightclub he’s developing here in the city. I also wanted to give him a chance to address some of the stories that circulate about his passionate faith and the manner in which he incorporates it into his DJ sets and appearances.
When you were a kid back in the 1970s, did you ever think that you could be a DJ and make a living at it? Are you surprised to see the way that DJ culture has evolved?
I never would have thought it would have evolved into what it has. You really can’t think that far ahead. At any point in my career, I never thought it would turn into the next phase, and then the next phase, and then the phase after that, and so on. My mind couldn’t conceive of that.
Did you know then that the Hot Mix 5 would be more than just a normal radio gig?
Never. I never would have dreamed that it was going to elevate us to this level. We were some guys that intrigued some other guys to do what they’re doing, and then it was like a whole nation of music was started. All over, everywhere, everyone wanted to do the same thing. I never dreamed that it would be like the commercial – “Be Like Mike.” I didn’t think anyone would want to “Be Like Farley”!
If I would have known then what I know now about playing on the radio – in retrospect, hindsight being 20/20 – you probably wouldn’t have been able to drive through Chicago without me owning the whole city, I would have been so rich. I had no clue! I was on the radio at 21 years old, and there were even younger guys influenced by what we were doing. We had no way of marketing that to younger people, knowing this was exactly what they were going to get into. It would have been just mad if I had known what we had. But we didn’t. Nobody did.
You’ve done radio since then, on a Gospel station?
Yes, it was on 106.3 FM around 1997, and syndicated in seventeen markets.
Is it possible to compare the two radio experiences?
With Gospel, it was definitely different because of the spiritual dimension. I elaborate differently in the musical area playing for a Christian audience than I do DJing for the secular world. With Gospel House, I have to think about every bit of the content of every record. I have to listen to all of the words to make sure they’re all saying the right thing. In that area, the music was definitely limited in terms of what I could do. All things go together in secular music. Not all things go together in Gospel. You have to listen to the spirit of the music.
I had to create all of the breaks in the records, too. It would take me seventeen hours to put together a one hour mix! I was trying to do something creative – in one respect I was doing something no one had ever done before with contemporary Gospel music. Isn’t it so ironic now that Gospel House is so common that you wouldn’t even notice it if you heard it?
Is the Gospel industry open to their music being played on a dancefloor?
It’s huge in the Gospel industry now, but back then it wasn’t. What I was doing was I was taking an itty-bitty piece of an accapella that was on someone’s record, sampling it, and turning it into a whole track. I had to literally manufacture everything I played on the radio. For the songs that were already there, I had to try to stick my beat up under it to create a House feel to the track. That’s why it took so long to do a mix – it was all of this production. But I’ll tell you what – doing it gave me so many ideas about what I could do with this type of music. And now, boom!
Let me tell you, I’m going to be opening up a Christian club here on the southside of Chicago. I have 8,000 square feet for the main room, 4,500 square feet for the kids downstairs and a VIP that’s 2,000 square feet. It’s in the making, but we have the venue already and we’re working on it now.
I also have 74 Gospel House tracks ready to go right now. I’m getting ready to release them with the club. The club will have its own soundtrack that I created. We’ll also have Holy Hip-Hop – there will be all kinds of nights that are going to happen.
When I first got into this in the mid-1990s, I’d see your name on flyers so infrequently that it created a sort of mystique about you. Most people my age had no idea about the history, we just knew the myth. Were you ever aware that you had this myth that had gathered around you?
Never. Well… a few times, maybe. My mentor was Kenny “Jammin'” Jason, and I felt that way about him. I was astonished that people could feel that way about someone who was just playing records! But seeing how people have always been fans of singers, I can see how people could be fans of mine in the same way. But I have to be modest and humble about it, because I never wanted to walk into a room and have everyone start worshipping me. No, no, no: there’s only one God that we worship and that’s God in Heaven. It’s funny because people actually do that to you in different countries – grab your hand and kiss your hand and bow down to you like your Jesus… It’s like, “Stop, stop, stop already! We’re just playing records. Nothin’ but an itty-bitty piece of vinyl. Calm down!”
There’s still a lot of acrimony left from those days. Both Chip E. and Steve Hurley have told me that their movie documentaries were at least partly intended to clear the air, yet you still hear from some of the pioneers biting at each other. Do you think those raw feelings will always be there?
Yeah, I think it will go on for infinity. The reason is because you’re talking about something that is so big in the world and nobody knew where it was going. It’s almost like Shaquille O’Neal’s dad. He didn’t raise him – his stepfather did. Now that Shaq’s famous, he’s like, “That’s my son!” Nobody involved in House Music then knew what this would turn into. They were just doing what they felt and they loved what they did. Now that this baby’s a little older and has become famous, everyone is saying, “I’m the daddy!” Maury Povich wasn’t around to say, “You’re not the daddy!” Maybe we can all do a blood test on Maury Povich’s show and find out who the real father of House Music is!
But to have been there is to know just how hard it was to get a House record played in those days. I can laugh when I hear somebody say they were there, because they don’t know how hard it was to get a House record played at a club.
For years, I went to the New Music Seminar in New York and I was deemed the “big mouth fool” in the room. Kenny Jason, Julian Perez – we were all in the room, and I was trying to get our music known. If someone was on a panel and said something such as, “I was playing the stereo the other day at my house…” I’d shout, “He said House! HOUSE! HOUSE!” What happened is that by the time we went to the second panel, everyone would catch on to me saying “HOUSE!” Tom Silverman from Tommy Boy and the guys from New York were asking, “Why do these guys keep screaming ‘HOUSE!’?” He asked me “What’s House Music?”
It was very difficult. People used to ridicule me for years, calling me the clown of House Music for going around and screaming “House Music!” everywhere. But all of them knew my face when I went to a conference. I was always controversial because I would always say things other DJs were afraid to say. We needed that. We needed the truth to come out about what’s really happening in our dance scene, and how come they’re always giving credit to the wrong person.
Derrick May used to drive to Chicago and beg me to play his records on the radio. Nobody would probably even know of Derrick May outside of Detroit. There are interviews on his myspace where he says he went to the Music Box and gave his music to Ron Hardy – this is true, but the world found out about his music and the sound of Detroit from the WBMX Hot Mix 5. He’s got super-amnesia. He used to drive all the way down from Detroit some five hours away to meet me in front of our cornerstone for music in Chicago, Importes, Etc. record shop, just to ask me to play his music. Check it out – I’m so glad he did, because his music was and still is the bomb. He didn’t stop there – he also use to tape our mixes and drive them all the way back to Detroit, and let them hear what the Windy City was doing.
There is also the misconception that with Frankie Knuckles playing at the Warehouse, the name came from there. That isn’t where it came from for me. Well… back up. It did come from there, but let me tell you how.
Leonard Rroy, one of the southside’s best DJs, came to me and said, “Hey Farley, I’m going to start playing a new brand of music. It’s called House Music.” So I’m on the radio, I’m a major guy in the city, and he told me, “I’m going to be playing House Music in my club.” So I drove straight to WBMX and said, “I’ve got a new thing called House Music!” I went to my club every week and said, “We play House, we play House!” Maybe it derived from Leonard Rroy being at the Warehouse and that’s where he got it from, but I only heard Leonard say “House”. I took it from there and said “We’re doing House Music.”
So this brand, this label, has gone from this one guy, Leonard, saying something to me about House Music, to the New Music Seminar, then back to The Playground which was the biggest club in the Midwest, then to the radio station where an average of three million people tuned into us every Friday then another three million on Saturday… Are you starting to get my point? From here we’re seeing it spread to all of these different places.
Frankie Knuckles had his club. It was a gay club that held 300 to 350 people. Now make sure you get this clear: it’s not about anyone being gay, because I love all people, but that club flourished because gays didn’t have a lot of places to go back then. A heterosexual club could be anywhere – you can be yourself anywhere you go. Why were people going to the Warehouse? It was great music, great fun – but it was where they could go and be gay without pressure! If someone there was straight, they were the minority now. They had their own place and it was always packed. The same with the Paradise Garage, although that place was as big as my club, The Playground, and to me it was 70 to 80% gay.
People get it so twisted. It was a wonderful, mystical place, but it truly existed on the heels of being a gay club because they finally had a place where they could go be free in their own world. We’re talking about going through the 1970s and 1980s when people would get beaten up just for saying they were gay!
I would like to say that in that situation, the music had to be secondary. It wasn’t because, “There’s this feeling they get when they go.” It was because, “Now they had a home where they can be free when they go.” And now the music came in like a thundershower.
I want to go back to WBMX for a second. You left BMX for WGCI. I’m wondering how that came about – there have been stories and articles which implied that you guys on the Hot Mix 5 weren’t really close.
Oh no, we were always close, always. What happened was that I wasn’t being paid at WBMX. None of us were. I was really big-headed then – I wasn’t a Christian at the time. I wondered, “How is it that I’m working for a radio station and I’m not making any money?” You could make money on the street anywhere, but not for DJing on the radio. We had the highest ratings in the history of radio for our show, and for that matter any show on these two stations, and we had the #1 sales team selling millions in advertising but we still weren’t being paid.
WGCI at the time had a 3.7 share. WBMX had a something like a 5.3 share. This is crazy: I went to WGCI, and they went to #1 – just from me going there and doing mixes. Yet this was a really hard time in my life for me because I was bamboozled and fooled. What happened was the owner of WBMX wanted to sell the radio station, but they needed to bring the ratings back up. They said, “Farley, we really need you back at WBMX. You’re the main guy – come back over and we’ll pay you.” I went back to WBMX and they paid me some nice money.
Twelve months later, they sold the radio station. The guy I worked with, Lee Michaels, who I considered a big uncle and who asked me to come back – he could have warned me about it. But I came back, we were a hit again, and they used the ratings to sell the station. I’d left WGCI and they didn’t want me back.
It shattered my career on one level. On another level, it opened my career up to the European market. Whenever someone is #1, it’s a hard way down, especially when you’re as big-headed as I was. Nobody was speaking to me – they’re laughing. “Ha ha ha, big headed Farley! Let’s see what you do now that you don’t have the radio station!” Other DJs were hatin’ because they had always wanted to reach my plateau. And I didn’t help matters with my big head, either. All of the promoters wouldn’t hire me because they didn’t want to pay me the money I was asking for. It got to be really difficult. Really difficult. Thank God things really happened for me overseas, and it took off from there.
So often, just in this city alone, House Music can be very cliqueish and focused on the past. Say I’m a young DJ playing some classics in a bar – and maybe George wants to get in on this too, because you’ve had massive overseas success as well – give me some advice on how I can break out.
GEORGE JACKSON: I always tell people that they need to broaden their horizons. At the same time, you never know people’s mission. Maybe that’s what they had in mind: to DJ at this small bar around the corner from their house. Whatever makes ’em happy, you know? Personally, I’m not going to go to that same bar every single week. I have to tip my hat to Czarina and yourself for doing your best to support every little party that’s out there. But no, you’re not going to grow doing that. Our music is big, bigger than a local hole-in-the-wall. If you’re going to grow as a DJ and producer, you’ve got to broaden your horizons.
And for people trying to get back in the game and dusting these old records off… Buy new music! [laughs] You have some old cats coming back and saying, “House Music didn’t die?” Well, no, House Music didn’t die… but those old records sure did! Go buy some new music, find out who the players are and network.
FARLEY: I think it’s a little different for me. You have to keep in mind that after WBMX went off the air, we didn’t have a name brand person on the radio to break new music. We had B96, but how credible was B96 to the people who made things happen musically? Bad Boy Bill is still one of the best DJs that Chicago has ever seen and ever will see, but once the music became more of a “white thing”, the soul left the music. Even in Europe in now, they’ve taken the soul out of the music.
Have you noticed that the biggest name DJs in the world play music that doesn’t have any soul in it? When I say “soul”, I mean that you can have a real singer singing these songs. Like Trance – you’ve never heard a soulful singer singing those songs. Unfortunately, promotion means more than the music – the kids are sold on hype, and they think they like it but they’ve never gotten a chance to hear other music. If they really knew the origins, they’d still love what they’re listening to, but they’d appreciate other music just as much or maybe even more.
Going back to the old school issue, I think it’s cool for the new school DJ to come in and play old school, but he’s got to keep his eye on the prize. Playing this old music is nostalgic. Honestly, when I started, I didn’t go out buying new records. I went out and regurgitated what Frankie Knuckles would play because I didn’t have what Frankie had – remember that I’m talking pre-House Music era, these are the disco days. You see, I’m from the southside of Chicago and we played more R&B and the more heartfelt disco, the soulful side of the music, and here I am trying to get “Walk the Night” which I never heard before until I heard Frankie play it.
DJs often aren’t terribly honest about that. We’ll say we’re sticking to our own sound but we’re influenced by each other. There are a lot of dishonest people who won’t give credit where credit is due. I don’t know how many times Frankie was interviewed and was asked questions about Farley that never made it into print. But when the questions about Frankie Knuckles to Farley come, Farley answers those questions and tries to answer them as honestly as he can according to his memory.
I realize that our music in Chicago probably would not be as big as it is without Frankie. I know God can use anybody, but I truly believe He used Frankie Knuckles. I have no problem with people saying that Frankie Knuckles is the creator of House Music. I really don’t. I really feel like I’m too old for that. If you don’t know me by now, you never, ever will. At some point, we have to celebrate each other and move on. Who created Rock’n’Roll? Little Richard is walking around with a wig on right now saying, “Ahm the one, ahm the one who did it all, ahm the one!” And he’s mad! Everytime he’s asked about it, you can see how mad he is. When you’re really that good, you don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just keep it moving.
You said you’re about to drop an album – several, actually – with these 74 tracks you’ve put together. What can you tell me about it?
My new album is half-secular and half-Gospel. I have two sistas named Valerie Griffin and Sonja James – they are my soulful big mouth mamma jamma church House girls. They’re very spiritual and they have two cuts on the album. Also, there are my other spiritual powerhouse sisters who happen to be the cousins of the famed Oscar Award winner Jennifer Hudson: Debra Windham, Krista Alston and Moma Sweat. Also my main diva, Felina Bunn, who I’m releasing first. The joint is called “Hatin’ People”.
Then there’s the diva known as Denice (“No Mic’s Strong Enough to Hold Her Voice Back”) Nelson, and my smooth divas Yvette Freeman (smooth to the core), Krisma (sweet to the ears), and Ms. Marshé Whaley, who I can only describe by saying she put tears in me and my wife’s eyes at Church one night and I had to hunt her down through friends and saints to work with her. Then there’s a male vocalist, David Dub, who is like my pop/House guy. He’s just like Justin Timberlake to me, with some serious uunnnff. Of all of the guys I’ve worked with in my whole entire life, he’s in the top three of them, period. He has a tremendous gift from God.
There’s also Minister Reggie Hall. What can you say about Reg that hasn’t been said? He is as cool as the other side of your pillow. And the king of all male vocalists in House Music ever, Mr. Daryl Pandy, who was the artist on our biggest House Music song to date, delivers the ending punch to this album for 2008.
You’re releasing the albums you mentioned on your own label?
Yes, I’m reactivating House Records.
Wow! Now that is a classic. When was the last time you released anything on House Records?
Man, it’s been so long… twelve years. I’m going to do both digital and vinyl, but the vinyl release will be very limited. That will be something for the nostalgic people who may want a record that says “House Records” on the label. It’s going to be crazy.
Also, I want people to know that all of the bootlegged stuff that’s out there floating around on the internet – that is not me. Larry Sherman stole all of my old music along with the guys from Canada, Casablanca. I’d say that 95% to even 100% of the music that you see out there with my name on it right now wasn’t licensed from me. This is my first release in the last seven years – that’s why this is so big for me.
There are all kinds of rumors about how you incorporate preaching at a show. I want to give you the chance to address things like that directly so people who heard it from a guy who heard it from another guy can hear the truth.
I’ll put it to you like this. Back in the day – I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t invent this – but I learned this from a steppin’ DJ back in 1974 who started playing Martin Luther King over “Summer Madness”. That’s how that whole thing started. Now, if I can bring a positive message by taking playin a instrumental track and mixing a Martin Luther King speech over it saying exactly what I’m saying, it’s okay, but it’s not when I do it on the spot? Figure that one out.
When Farley comes to a party, he’s going to get on his mic and he’s going to preach like Martin Luther King. If that was on vinyl and a DJ was mixing what I’m saying… what’s the difference? When I come in, I’m going to turn the music down and get on the mic. I’ve always been a very verbal person and I’ve always done that. It’s who I am. You can’t ask a person to be anything but what they are. That’s what I’ve evolved into, and people still enjoy the music that I play.
Some people lie and say I do it the whole night – that’s not true. I may do it two or three times in a night and pick my spots. And most of the time it’s around a good record – of course, you never want to play a bad record and try to tell people stuff! I make sure I pick my time. I pull out one of my best records, get their hands in the air and then say what I want to say and it goes down strong. I haven’t lost any work because of it in America. None, but in some places in the UK I have, because drugs and alcohol rule some people instead of losing themselves deep into the groove.
What’s the reaction in the Gospel industry to this? I imagine that some Christians must believe clubs are terribly decadent places.
It always depends on who you’re talking to. It may be someone that God has touched and they understand that God has a witness in the world anywhere you may go. But there are those who are close-minded. There’s a hypocrite in every group – Baptist, Pentacostal, Catholic. God spoke to me when He said, “Be True to HIM.” When Moses had the Ten Commandments, he didn’t always go to the nicest places to tell people about God. He went to Pharaoh. JESUS ate with sinners. Now I’ve been saved for thirteen years and I’ve been up and down. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve sinned, I’ve done wrong, I had to beg GOD for forgiveness – the whole thing. People might say, “Whoa, Farley thinks he’s perfect!” Far from it! I’m trying to get there, you know what I mean? But for me, there’s no other way for me to continue and have meaning in my life if I am not living the way that my father God has for me and to tell people what I know about Him.
You’ve described some pretty high peaks and pretty low valleys – I don’t think there’s much in this industry you haven’t been through. Why speak on it when you could probably perpetuate the myth?
I love to be brutally honest and I love to shock people with my testimony. This is going to freak people out: Four years ago, my wife and I didn’t even have heat in our home. I couldn’t even afford heat in my house. I could have borrowed the money from someone, but I said no. God wanted me to go through this for a reason.
One day, you’re going to ask all of the DJs you interview, “Give us your darkest, darkest testimony.” We need to humanize this thing. People see us all the time and we’re the life of the party. They don’t realize you may be going through something at home. I didn’t have any heat in my house and my car was possibly the oldest car you could ever find.
I have been all over the world telling people about God. But some promoters didn’t like what I was doing. The party people liked what I was doing, and I could pack 8,000 people in the house or whatever but the promoter is thinking, “Wait a minute: you’re telling people about sin and that’s how we make our money. We make our money with people falling down drunk and you’re trying to tell them about God?” Worldwide, I lost work. Not in America, but worldwide, because I was standing up for the Gospel of Christ Jesus. I would talk about the Lord on the mic, so they took the microphone out of the DJ booth because they knew I’d talk.
Is it true you took the headphones and used them as a mic anyway?
Oh yeah! I didn’t have a microphone when I was young, and someone showed me that you can take the headphones and plug it into the microphone jack. It won’t be as clear as a mic, but you can talk through them. So when this club hired me and took the mic out – no problem! I took the headphones, plugged them into the microphone jack and said what I needed to say. It didn’t bother me one bit. It’s so important to me to get it out. I lost a tremendous amount of work because of it, but if I had a chance to do it all over again, I would lose it all over again. The relationship with God is so important. Money can get us food, get a new car – all these different things. I’d rather not have that and have good health, and God controls our health. Don’t get me wrong – I still like having money, cars, homes and even that bling bling thing kid, but if GOD ain’t first in my life, you can keep it all.
I’ve been blessed. The ups-and-downs – being on the radio, being off the radio, the Playground, going into Hip-Hop, going completely broke on Hip-Hop, having to go back to this thing I started called House Music only to find it’s completely foreign and they didn’t want to let me back in… Now I’m back on top of this, traveling the world again and doing what I do. And I’m still preaching.
Who are your favorite five artists, DJs or remixers right now?
Felina Bunn (artist), Ron Carroll (artist), Kelly G. (remixer), Wayne Williams (DJ), and Deli G (DJ).
Which one of your peers in Chicago is your House Music hero?
No one comes close to Steve “Silk” Hurley. Just check what he’s done over the years: the #1 remixer in the world, a four-time Grammy nominee, the first #1 House record ever in the UK… He’s worked with the biggest artists in the world as a remixer including Michael Jackson plus two tons more. If you only knew where he started from you would be amazed. GOD brought Steve where no man could have put him, and that’s on top of the world, but yet feet still on earth.