I’ve written more obituaries than I care to remember in the last three years. Many I wrote aggressively, as if to reclaim from the shadows a person that history might in its haste forget about. I wanted to stake a claim – to tell people in the future about this person, about an artist who is worth caring about. I wanted to shake the pipes, stomp about and make some noise, to protect people from the always advancing death of silence.
That’s unnecessary now. History is going to remember Earl Smith, Jr. with more regard than we do. Of that I’m sure. He was more than the co-founder of Phuture or the first DJ or producer to do this or that. He was one of three kids from Chicago that absolutely revolutionized music. There was music before Phuture, and music after, and every day that music progressively becomes more “electronic” is another day that cements Phuture’s legacy.
It takes a whole hell of a lot for a new sound to captivate Britain – a country with an outsized supply of musical innovations, and which has often borrowed from abroad but never returned what it borrowed without making it better. But that’s what Phuture and Acid House did.
Tommie Sunshine once told me that Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” was so unlike any record that came before it. You didn’t listen to it so much as you processed it. It’s still the most apt description I’ve ever come across for Acid House – a sound that you can say we’re still “processing.”
It’s been more than 30 years and Acid House still sounds fresh. People still make records with it and nobody accuses them of hopeless nostalgia. It can’t be assimilated, dated or discounted.
Earl – and it has to be said: with Pierre, with Herb, with the whole cast of Phuture & their frequent collaborators – these guys did that. And with everything else that’s happened with House Music and dance music since it broke out of Chicago 35 years ago, their creation is still unequaled and still somehow sounds so incredibly contemporary.
In a statement after Earl’s death, Pierre credited Earl as “the reason why the group Phuture was formed. He got me in the game as a producer. The world has no idea how talented he was and how much I depended on him.”
Earl passed away on September 21, and word traveled around the globe in an instantaneous flash of light that the young kids that first made Acid House probably would have found fascinating. I didn’t know Earl well, but I know other people well, and I’ve been struck by how many of them have exactly the same memories of him that I do. I met Earl a few times in Chicago over the last few years. He was always friendly, easy going in spite of (or more likely because of) his tremendous height, and in these brief encounters impressed upon people how kind and authentic he was. He took an interest in what other people were doing. He followed up. He reminded me of a person who treated strangers like friends and friends like family.
Other people have told the story of 1985 and what happened in that session when the knobs got twisted just a little too far, too hard. And that’s good, because the future will want to know about Phuture.
Published first in 5 Magazine Issue 138, featuring Dave Pezzner, Jeff Derringer, a tribute to Earl Smith of Acid House pioneers Phuture, mixes and interviews from Boorane, Jay Hill, Tim Zawada & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.