ONE OF THE MOST accomplished DJs and producers of House Music’s “second wave” of the 1990s, Gene Farris picked up himself and his Farris Wheel Recordings imprint last October and returned to Chicago, the city of his birth and the the city that propels his distinctive sound. Personal preferences may have compelled the return, but to hear it, it’s like he never really left. Farris Wheel always billed itself as a “Chicago house music label in Amsterdam”, and Gene is more eager than ever to take his label – and the distinctive sound of Chicago House – to the next level.
You lived in Holland for the last four years. Why did you move there, and what made you decide to return?
I moved overseas because I just needed change at the moment, and to put my foot in the game. I’d been DJing over there since the early 1990s – ’93 or ’94 – so I already had a lot of connections. I also had a management company over there called Elite Music Management that handles me in Europe, Australia, Asia, places like that.
I learned a lot there. Dance music and what we do is on a much bigger scale – most people who don’t have the opportunity to travel overseas to DJ on a regular basis can’t see that perspective. It’s definitely more of a business over there. It’s much more mainstream. You see a lot of Hip-Hop videos there too, obviously, but it’s a lot more regional – UK, Holland and Germany all have their own regional artists. And you see a lot more dance music than anything. It’s overloaded on all of the networks over there.
Why did I move back? Well, my mom’s getting a little bit older, and I decided I wanted to be a little closer to family. And Chicago’s not that bad! With the four years in Europe, I look at it as a college term. It was time to come home and bring a little bit of what I’ve learned back to Chicago.
You were born here in Chicago? What was your family like life?
I was born here on the Southside of Chicago, on the South Shore. My dad passed away when I was nine years old, but my mom’s like my best friend. I’m the youngest of three. I have an older sister who’s a cop, my brother’s a doctor and I’m a DJ. It’s a tough act to follow around here, that’s for sure, but my mom was always really supportive of my music.
I went to Catholic schools for most of my life. I met some interesting people in high school, I’ll tell you that. I met Ron Trent in high school in Hyde Park. DJ Boris is also a good friend of mine – he did some stuff on Relief – and we went to high school together. Mike Dearborn and I went to high school together – De La Salle. I was a triple letterman – basketball, football and bowling. I had to get that third letter for the chicks! It’s an all boys school, so you had to try to stand out!
I met Boo Williams when he used to DJ at parties for my high school. Gene Hunt – all of these guys. I was DJing toward the end of high school at the Powerhouse. I was always the youngest so I was going to class in the daytime and was hanging around with these legends at the Powerhouse later. It’s funny looking at it now.
After that, I went away to college for a couple of years in North Carolina and majored in business. I just realized I wanted to come back and be a DJ.
Do you remember the first time DJing?
The first time I ever put two records together, I was 11 years old. The first time I ever played out at a club, I was 18. The first place I had a full-blown residency was the Powerhouse with me and Ron Carroll and DJ Rush in… well, the first poster I see in my room here is 1990. I’d say that sounds about right. Boo Williams played there, Terry Hunter… I lot of people I’m still friends with. I don’t have any problems with any DJ in the city – I can definitely say that. All of the Chicago DJs are like family. It’s one of the things I’m proud of about Chicago. There’s so much senseless bickering in other cities, other countries. It’s not really like that here. We have small little things, but for the most part, the more well-known DJs all get along very well and have a lot of respect for each other.
Chicago is a city with people who have mad, mad talent, mad skills. The melting pot of talent we have here is bigger than any other city in the world. Any other DJ that I can think of in Chicago could move to any other country in the world and become a star. It’s a fact. From the first generation – Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy (RIP) and Andre Hatchett and Pharris Thomas and Armando (RIP) and Pierre. Then the second generation which is like myself, Sneak, DJ Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Spencer Kinsey, Green Velvet leading the charge. And now we have the third generation, with Greenskeepers, Gant-Man, Sound Republic, Bryan Jones – it just keeps going on and on and on. Talentwise? We have one of the biggest talent pools in the world.
You may not agree with this, but your name was usually cited with Mark Farina, Sneak – even back to Frankie – of Chicago House Music artists that left Chicago and then blew up. Why do you think that is?
It goes back to what I said – there’s so much talent here that some really good guys get overlooked. Any one of us could go overseas and become a rockstar. I went over to Europe and blew my name up just from living there for four years, but that wasn’t half as challenging as closing after Derrick Carter at my Zentra party. I mean, I’m closing after Derrick – I was way more afraid of that than any party I ever played in Europe!
There are so many folks that had to leave to get the recognition because the pool is so deep here. I wouldn’t put myself in that category, though – I felt that I left with my name on a high note. I was just searching for the next level – that was my main motivation for moving overseas. I was like, “Okay, I’ve done my thing in Chicago, and by playing all of these gigs, everyone and their momma knows who I am, from 15 year olds to 40 year olds. Now I need to challenge myself, move outside of the country and see what I’ve got and roll with the big dogs while representing Chicago at the same time.”
Did you start Farris Wheel Recordings over there or over here?
Farris Wheel’s been going on since 1998, so that was when I was still in Chicago. We’re still around, and that longevity is something I’m proud of. We’re still doing vinyl, too. Obviously we’ve gone digital along with everyone else, but we still offer vinyl to our customers and consumers. Staying in the game was tough but I plan on being around for awhile.
We have a lot of awesome stuff coming out right now. Bryan Jones did a record for us that came out a little while ago, Dutchmasters EP, Funky Transport’s “Shake It” with the Derrick Carter remixes. We just dropped The Soul Sessions EP which is three guys from Holland that do really deep, warm and soulful House Music. The EP’s gotten a lot of good reviews and licensing offers from Spain, Germany and from France as well. Now we have the Visions of the Future record – I don’t know if you remember that one from back in the day. It did really well and we did some remixes with Roy Davis, Jr. and Fabio Bacchini [see review in this issue -Ed.] We have another Funky Transport record coming out after that with a Brett Johnson remix, and something from Greenskeepers with a Derrick Carter remix.
Is House Music any different as you hear it in Chicago as it was four years earlier? What do you think of some of the general trends?
For Chicago House Music artists – myself included – I strongly believe that we have to innovate. Chicago’s always been known for its innovation in music. Everybody right now is on the West Coast tip. I love it – I’ve released things on OM and labels like that and I love them. But at the same time, I think Chicago has to find its own sound again and stop attempting to copy that West Coast sound. Derrick Carter’s been making that sound on his own for years, way before OM even existed – but a lot of the newer guys are kind of mimicking it. I feel we need to refine our sound.
Stacy Kidd – I take my hat off to him. He’s always stuck to his guns and kept that Chicago sound going. Also people like Paul Johnson. Then there’s Glenn Underground and Boo Williams – that’s the deep sound of Chicago, the deep soulful sound. And Green Velvet of course. I take my hat off to Caj and all of these guys because those are the true “Chicago sound” people. Not to take anything away from new producers – I love every single one of our artists. I just think that some of the newer guys are moving in a West Coast direction and I really would like them to see the city that they’re in and the innovation they have right in their own backyard.
What about the business of music? When Farris Wheel began, it must have been entirely based on vinyl.
With the way the industry is going, we’re going to have to step up. Vinyl’s going to be gone soon – that’s the reality of the way things go. Within the next 10 to 15 years, there won’t be vinyl, but God willing I hope there’s still House Music! We’re a small industry – much smaller than Hip-Hop, meaning we don’t have two billion consumers. We have to be an industry that steps up and supports our artists, buys tracks online to the artists and labels that deserve the money.
There’s really not a mechanism for House Music consumers outside of club patronage, though. Back in the 1990s, I’d say “Who’s the hot DJ? Gene Farris? Let me pick up one of his mixes.” So I’m buying your mix, the DJ is buying the records. Now, those mixes are free and that whole ecology of the business is ruined.
That’s the thing. It’s the only way. You can do mix compilations with all of your own music and sell it, or you can do mix CDs or put them on the internet and give ’em away, which I do. You can go to farriswheel-recordings.com and hear live mixes from shows all the time. That’s the new way.
Unfortunately, we’re losing the art of the album. Half of the tracks that I’ve downloaded through iTunes, I don’t know what the covers look like. I’ve never seen them. I couldn’t tell you.
Something that a lot of folks seem to have forgotten about the 1990s were the raves. You played so many and even threw a couple that I remember.
The raves were when I really had a chance to broaden my audience. When I was originally playing at the Powerhouse, it was mostly a black crowd. Playing at a lot of the raves like I did, I was able to broaden my audience to the Hipic kids and the Asian kids and the White kids. It propelled me to where I am today, where all kinds of people in Chicago know who I am, not just the northside but the southsiders too. I take a lot of pride in that. It shows I definitely earned my stripes.
And also, don’t forget the loft parties. There was some overlap but they were really two different scenes. The loft parties were where underground House really was. There was myself, Légo, Diz, Julio Bishop, DJ Traxx, Jevon Jackson, Matty, Mystic Bill, Frique, Davey Dave – we were doing raves as well as underground loft parties. Some of them aren’t around anymore but they were legends in the loft scene. You had a lot of people who were magnificent DJs – are still magnificent DJs – and had a hardcore following in the loft scene.
Do you ever think that’ll come back? We’re probably too old to be climbing up fire escapes, but do you think that could come back with the next generation?
I don’t think that underground vibe will ever be back because of the way the world has changed. It’s changed so much because of the security situation, crackdowns by police, the way the government is right now. I don’t think those types of parties will ever be back as it was. There would be some nights you could walk down the street and there’d be ten parties going on, all the way down Milwaukee Avenue and they’re all jumpin’ with great music. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to do that again on the underground level. If you missed the bus, you missed the bus. Maybe it could go back to house parties with fifty people around the house – I could see that. But we’d have five hundred people crammed into a loft with a strobe light and a police siren, a keg, some pot and a tank.
Out of all the parties, which ones stick out in your memory, both locally and internationally?
In Chicago, it’d be one a few years back with Mark Farina at Zentra. That was one of my favorite shows. That was awesome. But my best time ever was my 30th birthday, with me and Eric Morillo playing at Crobar. That was awesome – that was a party! Outside of the country, around ’98 or ’99, it’d have to be the Love Parade in Germany. I was DJing in front of about 150,000 people, 200,000 people. There were about a million people at the Love Parade that year, but not all in one place. That was still the most incredible moment.
Were you nervous?
Anybody that tells you that they wouldn’t get nervous for at least a second in front of 150,000 people must be Bono! You’ve got to be Michael Jordan or someone like that. But it’s like anything else: if the monitors are cool (which they were) and the set-up is nice (which it was), after your first mix and your first crowd cheer, you’re in the zone. It was awesome. That was definitely my highlight moment.
You’re doing a reissue with “Visions of the Future” so I expect you feel fondly of the stuff you’ve done in the past.
Yes. Well… some of it [laughs] There’s one track on Relief that was everybody’s favorite Gene Farris record… but I hate that song! Hate it! My cousin laughs at me so much, I clown it.
I have pride in a lot of the stuff from the past. I love everyone that’s supported me and appreciate that, so I don’t like throwing it in their face like “Oh no, not that record again! I hate it!” [laughs] I’m happy they bought it and I’m happy they enjoyed it. Without them, there’s no us, and that’s on the real.
The whole “classics vs. new music” argument that occasionally rips through Chicago every so often isn’t really an issue with you, is it?
Not at all. I play it all. Sometimes I get some flack for that, but there are other people who understand the business and understand the love of House Music in general. I don’t play trance or progressive but I will play some nice electro in its place and time. I wouldn’t do that in Chicago but I’ll play that in Europe, sure. I play disco, I play “proper House” as I call it – more Diz- and Mark Farina-style – and I play electro. People who have a problem when people only play new things or classics are closing themselves off, in my opinion. You have to acknowledge the history as well as the future if you’re going to have longevity in this business.
On a personal level,what’s the hardest thing about moving across the world for the second time in four years? There are no weed bars in Chicago so I imagine there’s a big difference in other stuff too.
Americans are so uptight about the whole marijuana thing. I’m an American too, though, so I’m used to that. But more than anything? It’s the tension between whites and blacks. In Amsterdam, there’s no tension between whites and blacks whatsoever. It’s more a tension between the Dutch and Moroccans – which is still fucked up, but just me being a black guy, I didn’t have to endure the stress of the race issue. I’m just an open person and I think I’ve changed a lot since I went over there and came back. I don’t have any animosity towards anybody. A lot of people who see me for the first time in a long time might think I’m full of shit but not really – I’ve just changed a lot in the way I think of things. I’m still me, I’m still Southside and I’m still Gene Farris, but I look at things in a different way after being in Amsterdam and having friends of many, many ethnicities worldwide.
You’ve had a number of Farris Wheel Recordings parties here since October – at least every other month if not more frequently – and at a number of different venues, from Zentra to Vision.
We’re promoting the return of the label and branding it, getting it back in local people’s minds. We’re doing another party April 21st for the “Visions of the Future” release at Boom Boom Room at Green Dolphin with myself, Brett Johnson who’s flying in, Greenskeepers and DJ Heather and DJ Diz with some of the other residents. That’s going to be a really nice Farris Wheel party.