I first heard the name “DJ Boris” in the mid-1990s, spinning at a clothing store on Archer that sold phat pants to ravers by the bale. And I was already late: DJ Boris, aka Jerome Baker, had been setting turntables alight for years by that point, and would continue until his mysterious departure from the industry in the early ’00s.
Today, backed by Gene Farris, DVS1 and a whole host of lifelong friends, Jerome Baker is back on the scene and releasing some of the best House and Techno records you can find. How he got back here, though, is a long story – and a quintessentially Chicago story.
I’ve heard your name come up in a lot of interviews I’ve done over the years with people describing the early years of House Music in Chicago. Who was in your crew back then?
Man, there are so many people I was down with that I’m still down with to this day. Number one: Gene Farris is my best friend. We’ve been best friends since high school. We went to the most House-est school in the city at the time, Leo, a Catholic high school on 79th & Sangamon. At the time, a lot of the high schools had parties and different house DJs used to come do them. Leo had Ron Hardy play, Lil Louis, Boo Williams, and I think Terry Hunter during the years I was there.
You’ve probably heard other people talk about “the pits.” You’d have slamdance pits when certain tracks got played back then. There were a lot of people you’d be surprised were in pits. I was one of the people in the pit for real. That’s actually where I met Terry, aka DJ Frique.
You’ve mentioned Ron Hardy, Lil Louis – who were the DJs that you were most influenced by from that era?
At least for me it was Hardy, Lil Louis and DJ Rush. Later on it was more Rush than Hardy, because I started getting more into tracks and less into Disco and edits. That’s what really attracted me to House. I remember hearing “Acid Tracks” on the radio before it ever came out – and mind you, I was in grammar school at the time. I think I was in eighth grade, flipping through the channels and I heard this song. Even to this day you hear this song and you think, “What the fuck?” But imagine being an eighth grader and hearing it. I was on the edge of my bed, leaning over, face right into my speaker trying to understand what I was hearing. I still remember it to this day.
How did you go from the guy in the pit to a DJ?
A lot of people talk about the amount of DJs that there are now, but back then there were a lot of DJs too. They just didn’t have the means to be out there. The energy of the DJs that I was really diggin’ is what made me go from wanting to DJ in my room to DJing for real. I’m no different than anybody else, I had a little rinky-dink set up when I was a kid – fucked up Gemini belt drives, shitty Numark two channel mixer. I didn’t even have that – I went from two tape decks to tape decks and a belt drive. I was spinnin’ Hip Hop – again though I was 9, I’m just copying what I’m seeing on the videos. But it isn’t working because I’m on belt drives.
The summer I graduated from eighth grade going into high school is when I upgraded to two belt drives and started going to record stores to pick up a record or two. I think the first record I bought was Mike Dunn’s “Dance You Mutha.” I think another one was “Touch & Go” by Ecstasy Passion and Pain.
At least the way it works in Chicago, if you pay your dues and you’re good, you’re gonna get a shot. It’s up to you what you do with it.
After I heard “Acid Tracks,”I just wanted to know everything I could about this. All these great records started coming out then and it was boggling my mind that this stuff is being made here. I could walk past the dude that made this, you know what I mean? That was dope! And this was at the height of Hip Hop trying to take hold of everything. It didn’t take hold in Chicago then, because between 1987 and 1991, Chicago was a House city. People listened to Hip Hop but House was everywhere, on the radio, in the schools – everywhere.
Gene was a jock. He played football, basketball, and that was a whole different crowd than I kicked it with. I made a tape one day and my friend said I needed to let Gene hear this. I’m like, “Gene who? Gene Farris? Gene is not House, I’m not believing this.” But he was, and we got to talking. He listened to my tape and told me, “Hey, I want you to take this drum machine and do something with it.” I took it and made something and gave it back to him. He said, “Man, it just sounds so ANGRY!” He had me listen to some things – like, “Listen to this so you can see how a song is arranged because you just have shit all over the place.” I took some records I liked and sat back and listened and that’s how I started formulating what was my sound.
How did the Erotic events get started?
The first party we ever did was our senior year and we had somebody rent out a little bar on 79th and King Drive called the Key Club. Gene was spinning at the time already. We threw the party and it went… wrong. We invited some people who shouldn’t have been there. But spinning together, it was a sign of a whole lot more to come.
I went away to school, he went away to school, we graduated. I went to Bradley University in Peoria, I only went for a year but that whole year I did parties. That was pretty much all I did, I didn’t go to class and I should have but that’s why I was only out there for a year! I came back to Chicago, Gene came back from the school he was at and we linked back up with DJ Frique and decided we wanted to start throwing some parties. We came up with “Erotic,” the original, around 1992 or 1993. There was me, Gene, Terry, Black Terry – we were the think tank behind the whole Erotic thing.
I’m the type of person – I hit “Play” on everything. I can tell within ten seconds if I’m going to keep listening to it but I always hit “Play.”
Nobody else was throwing anything at the time that we knew of, but that was only because we were on the South Side. We later heard about things going on up north. A lot of the South Side people wouldn’t go but we did. We got to experience some of the first raves in Chicago, wandering through these places high as hell. It was just a whole new thing, a whole new presentation of what we knew. House was a “Chicago thing” for us in high school. We knew there were pressing plants and records from other countries but had no idea how big this shit was at the time. We were just throwing our little parties and everyone contributed. I might work the door, I might be on security, we all helped moved sound, passed out flyers. It was more than a collective. We were all friends before Erotic.
After awhile, it was like if it wasn’t our party directly, it would be one of our DJs spinning somewhere. I was also a member of the House Preservation Society, Gene was too. There was a time when even if Erotic or HPS weren’t throwing a party, one of our DJs were playing. I feel good that we were able to keep things going when there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot going on at the time. All the old places you heard about – 1355, 1471 Milwaukee, 500 W. Cermak – we had a hook up so we had a lot of those spaces first. Best party I’ve ever been to, the best party ever was Gene Farris vs. DJ Rush at 500 W. Cermak. Dear Lord! It was pandemonium.
I’m still payin’ dues, because I have to. Who cares about the ’90s? I mean, really? Some of the wolves out here don’t give a damn about the ’90s!
And somewhere along this time you started making music. How did the name “DJ Boris” stick?
I was DJ Boris in high school. Me and Gene and a few of our buddies had a dance group called “Intensity.” Everyone had one back then. We would go to parties and battle in the pits and all of that. That’s where “Boris” came from. After we went up north and started throwing parties, I just used the name again.
At gigs, I had my drum machine of choice, the Boss DR-660, and I’d take it with me and play tracks off of that. Little did I know that Green Velvet, Caj, was at a party and heard one of these tracks. I went to the Cajual/Relief offices one day and Caj came out of the office and was like, “I know you!” We reintroduced ourselves and he mentioned that track I played at the gig. I said it was right on this tape here. He waved me into his office and I threw it in and that’s where the first Relief Records release came from – Black Damien as “DJ Boris.” It was just songs from my DR-660. “Apacalypse” was on there, and I think that’s probably still my biggest record. I know it’s one of my favorites. And it’s actually a re-do of an idea that was one of the tracks I let Gene hear that was “angry!” You can hear how angry “Apacalypse” is even now, but I had a much better arrangement on it. That’s how that EP ended up coming out.
What about the Chicago Beat Freax record with Justin Long and Hyperactive?
At the same time, I went with Justin Long over to the record store DJ Hyperactive worked at. He said he was going to start a label called “Contact” and asked if I had any tracks. I had a few more in my drum machine, so we went over to Justin’s crib and ran that from the drum machine onto the DAT and Justin ran some of his on another DAT. That’s where the first Chicago Beat Freax record came from. Again, these were all tracks that were already on my drum machine. I actually was sitting there turning the knob and changing arrangements while it was recording – I didn’t even program it. Those records were out at the same time – at Gramaphone that was a big deal to have two records up on that wall at the same time!
But I wasn’t consistent with the releases because of life shit happening. I didn’t really take music seriously. It was fun, I knew I had a talent to do it and I wanted to do it but I wasn’t doing the right things. I wasn’t making the right decisions. The universe kept providing avenues to put something out but inbetween things would happen.
And I didn’t make it really easy for people to get hold of me. I was trying to make a living off of bookings but I was spending way too much money. I could have survived if I was responsible but I wasn’t. So I went and got a job. And then just life stuff started happening then, around 1999 into 2000. I came up to Chicago and me and Gene got into the studio and came up with an idea. Instead of him doing a Housey track, I would, and he’d make the more bangin’ remix. I did a track called “Ain’t No” on Farris Wheel back in 2000 under the name “Dorian Baker.”
Why were there so many names?
At the time, I always made different things and thought it’d be a bright idea to have an alias for all these different styles.
Like Cajmere/Green Velvet?
Yeah, in that same vein. Dorian Baker was going to be my House alias. Lord Damien would be for Hard Techno. Boris would be for Chicago shit, like that Contact record.When I went to Austria, I went as “Lord Damien.” In the States I was known as “Boris” and my records were under the names “DJ Boris,” “Lord Damien,” and “Dorian Baker.”
“Ain’t No” was your last record for a long time.
Yeah. Crazy stuff happened later on in 2000 and I basically made the decision to retire. I stopped from 2000 until 2006, I didn’t put out any music and I didn’t play any parties. Well, every once in a while everyone might ask if I would spin. I did a few parties with DVS1 a couple of times. But I wasn’t out there trying to play.
You were in Minneapolis?
Obviously, we’re talking, so there’s got to be a happy ending here…
Well, it must have been the universe moving in some way. I found out my wife at the time was pregnant and we were having a boy. I got to thinking about all the things you want to teach your son, and I came to the realization I hadn’t done some of the things I could have done. I didn’t accomplish the things I should have accomplished. How could I inspire my son to reach his goals if I didn’t do it?
At the time, I also had DVS1 in one ear, Gene in another ear, in two different cities each saying I needed to come back. I started with Reason and I think I made like 20 tracks in a few days. I hit DVS1 up and said I have a gang of tracks. He said to bring ’em through and as he’s listening, he said he’d master them for me. Those tracks came out on Relief Records as Relentless Muzik Vol. 1 in 2006 – that’s why it says “Engineered by The DVS One” on it.
There was a track in that batch that I lost but I hadn’t thought nothing of it. Last year, it came out as “Track 20” on DVS1’s label Mistress. He hit me up and said there’s a track of mine he’s been playing overseas as one of his secret weapons. All it says is “Track 20.” I had no idea what that was, but if DVS1 is playing it overseas, it’s probably good enough to put out. So he sent it to me and I listened to it. I had completely forgot about it. It was supposed to come out on Relentless Muzik Vol. 2 but I lost it and replaced it with “Bout To Party” since I needed something beatin’ to replace “Track 20.” And ten years later, here comes “Track 20” again.
All of that stuff was made in the same two or three month span. Both Relentless Muzik records on Relief, The Omega Chronicles on Mixtape Records, all of them were made in this two or three month time period.
Those were among the last records Caj put out on vinyl, weren’t they?
There were a few after that, but then that was it. He wasn’t the only one – there were labels poppin’ up everywhere. I had too many labels I was dealing with, I think. I just made stuff, sent it out and whenever they said they wanted to put it out, they did. I’d have three records drop in a month and then nothing in the next two months. Again the universe was providing opportunities…
“What held me back wasn’t industry politics. It wasn’t label politics. It wasn’t somebody hating on me and it wasn’t that my music wasn’t good. After really sitting back during that time off, it helped me see was that the problem was me.”
Was that when you came back to Chicago?
I got back here late 2010. Once I got back to Chicago I got a recharge. I felt it the minute I stepped foot in a club here. This was what I was missing. This is what I need. It was just an injection of my city. I’d been gone 13 years at the time.
I also realized when you don’t go out and just spin for yourself, you lose a certain something as far as skills go. Yeah you can hold a blend but it’s different than being “party-ready.” So 2011 I put out one EP and was really just focusing on getting myself back to where I needed to be as far as DJing.
My sound is probably best summed up as if you took Lil Louis and DJ Rush – those are my two biggest influences – if you could put those two styles together, what you hear would be me. Louis & Rush are my biggest influences and I haven’t heard anybody as good as either of themem in my eyes. They fight for #1 depending on what day it is. Somedays Rush, somedays Louis. That’s my bar to measure if you’re a good DJ or not. That’s a pretty high bar – I haven’t gotten to it myself, so I don’t judge people too harshly, and I’m not thinking I’m up there and everyone else is down here. But that’s the bar I’ve always strived to get to.
As a DJ then, how did you catch up? I mean that was both a pretty crucial time and music changed a lot between 2000 and 2006 or 2010. And there’s a lot more of it.
There’s a lot of good music out and there’s a whole lot of not-so-good music out. I don’t agree when people say there’s too much, though. My opinion is there’s no such thing as “too much music.” That’s where my love of House Music comes from. I wanted to hear everything, I wanted to hear how this person did it, how this one did it. That’s what drew me to it because I liked different people’s take on it. Everybody didn’t sound the same.
I’m the type of person – I hit “Play” on everything. I can tell within ten seconds if I’m going to keep listening to it but I always hit “Play.” I just love music. Every Sunday I sit up and go through everything. Every Sunday I’m doing that for at least four to six hours. I’ve had my days where I’ve listened to hundreds of tracks and didn’t like any of them. Doesn’t change that I love music. I could buy 100 records tomorrow and still have missed 100 great cuts. That drives me. Some people don’t have the time or make the time. I do.
Most people aren’t able to keep that drive past a certain point in their career.
It’s not “effort” to me, it’s just love of music. I do put a whole lot of effort into making myself a better producer, though. I think you can tell from 2011 all the way up until now – what I’ve put out has gotten better and better with sound quality. I’m constantly learning new things to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to upgrade my “war room” – that’s what I call my workstation – as often as I can. I’ve gotten better monitors, better soundcard, then an even better soundcard, some better decks – using the little I have and putting it into the music. I have to say that it’s showing a return. If you hear my tracks, no matter what genre they’re in, there’s a drive to ’em. That’s something I’ve tried to make sound better with each track. The stuff I’ve been doing this year, I think, is the best sounding, sonically, that I’ve ever done.
What material in particular are you talking about? Like the Underground OG album?
Yeah. Underground OG was all made this year. Minion on Farris Wheel was made this year. “Mindpoint” was made this year. Santiago Summer was made this year.
I’m at a point now where if I’m making something, I’m making it for a reason. I don’t have a bunch of finished tracks sitting around. Anything that I finish is going somewhere. I’m focused and the music is going places.
You sound intensely goal oriented now.
Yeah, I am.
And that sounds like the complete opposite of how you were in your 20s.
What changed? Or how did you change? How does a man change his perspective so much over time?
For me – this is intensely personal, but it may help you understand – but for me what held me back wasn’t industry politics. It wasn’t label politics. It wasn’t somebody hating on me and it wasn’t that my music wasn’t good. After really sitting back during that time off, it helped me see was that it was me. I was the problem, not anyone else. If I was going to do anything successfully, I needed to solve that problem, which was myself. You can’t just be introspective. You have to be hard on yourself. You have to pinpoint the things in yourself that you want to change. Sometimes it’s not the scene, the label or even the music.
Once I realized that about myself, I started making some changes and getting better and better. I got out of my own way. When I did, the universe started opening different avenues for me. I played more this year than the year before, and the year before that. I’ve been playing out more progressively every year since 2011.
I’m still payin’ dues, because I have to. Who cares about the ’90s? I mean, really? To be completely honest, some of the wolves out here don’t give a damn about the ’90s! I had to get reaquainted with the scene, and I have been. But I also have to continue to do that. I have to continue to put out music and continue to play out.
At least the way it works in Chicago, if you pay your dues and you’re good, you’re gonna get a shot. It’s up to you what you do with it. I believe that you’re the cause of your own problems a lot of the time, and that’s how I operate. I eliminate anybody else from my problems. I can’t do anything about what somebody else does or says. The only thing I can control is what I do and what I say. I’m very careful with what I do and when I do it.
What do you have coming out after Underground OG, the album on Farris Wheel?
I have a project I did with Ellery Cowles, we’re going to call the group Pitch Deck and we’re going to release Le Funk on Farris Wheel in November. Early December there’s another House EP coming out on Whitebeard. That will be under my name. There’s a project, a Chicago/Milwaukee project put together by Theodore Elektrk. It’s going to be a group of people giving originals and the other group remixes them. One from Chicago, one from Milwaukee. That should be coming mid- to late-December. I am almost through with one track for my next release on Farris Wheel coming out in January. I’ve tried putting out material consistently this year and I think I’ve accomplished that.
Originally published first in 5 Magazine Issue 139, featuring Jerome Baker, Hanna Hais, David Mancuso, Surface and Karen Copeland & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.