What happens when you raise a boy with Afrocentrism, polyrhythms, and mathematical precision? What if you throw in some music history, an extensive discography, love for movement, education, wisdom and a vision?
The boy grows to a man who is an innovator, an artist with a sense of responsibility – a man like Ron Trent.
Born in Massachusetts to parents active in their college’s Black Power movement, Ron was raised in Chicago in a home that stressed education, excellence and cultural awareness. “My parents stressed the importance of studying the past and its connection to the future…They really helped me to see how the chessboard was set up.”
Academic achievement and social responsibility were balanced by a passion for music. In addition to receiving early training in world rhythms by studying congas, Ron says he grew up with “a lot of jazz”. He eventually expanded his training to the trapset, snares and cymbals, but they weren’t his only source of sound. While Ron cultivated an ear for percussion that went beyond the 4/4 framework, he was also learning about the art of the remix from exposure to the rise of the 12″ and the EP.
The founder of Prescription Records, internationally known as a DJ and a highly-acclaimed producer, Ron has seen the industry from it’s beginnings. “My father ran one of the major record pools in Chicago, NADJA – I think that stands for the National American DJ Association – so I grew up around 12″ and EPs. Before it was even called disco, when it was still called ‘uptempo R&B’, record companies would give out promos and my Dad ran a pool that distributed promos to DJs and music lovers around the city”
It was no surprise when in 1982, Ron began his own career as a DJ. With a diverse playlist that included rare grooves like “Heaven and Earth” to the more popular (though he admits “goofier”) Cameo songs, Ron became another of the high school DJs making the rounds in the city.
Make no mistake, however – Ron had to work to get to his piece of the pie, being the youngest among a slew of now-legendary DJs. “I had a jumpstart on learning about music, but in order to earn my bones, I had to pull up my boot straps.” In time, he was respected by the pioneers that came before him and had earned his place among the legends.
Hi Ron, I am so glad to get the chance to share with the world what a wonderful person you are, on top of being one of my favorite DJs and producers. Recently you were on a bill with Michael Ezebukwu as one of the legends and pioneers of this music. What most people forget is that you guys started before the title “DJ” held such star power. Who or what influenced you to do this as a career?
I made a decision when my dad died that I was going to find something that I could appreciate and love doing everyday. My dad eventually graduated law school and was Assistant Dean at Olive Harvey College, and by the end of his life had done all these things but never really got to appreciate the fruits of his labor. So I said, you know, I’m gonna get a jump start on this. Originally I wanted to be an architect…
That makes a lot of sense, because your sound has interesting structure and composition. It’s mathematically elegant, as well as having a rich rhythm.
Yeah, I’m into mathematics and design. Sound architecture – that’s the key to me.
Talk to me a bit about your first track. I have little anecdote about it being the first and only set of doubles I could blend consistently. Remember I called you at some insane hour so you could listen?
The first track I released was called “Altered States”. Actually on the same EP were two other tracks and the one I thought they should play was a track called “Afterlife” on the other side. It’s funny how things work out, you know. I thought that was going to be the one and it turned out to be “Altered States”. My friend Terry Hunter told me, “You need to put this one out”. I was talking to him and Armando who’s not with us any more. Armando was like, “I got this label,” and so he put it out. The response was over the top. I didn’t expect it. It was a definite international flier for me. It put me out there and established my credibility. What happened was that Frankie Knuckles and David Morales got on top of it and, to be honest, they were the ones who really took it on an international front. A short story: Frankie would come back and forth from New York and play a club called AKA’s and he played that record three times in one night, so it was officially broken here.
And on the DJ side, what was the big break?
On the DJ front, there’s my cousin, who’s no longer living, and Gene Hunt. Gene’s manager Steven Norvilles and my cousin went to Quigley South High School together. If my cousin, Anton Rogers, was alive today he would be one of the premier DJs out. He actually influenced one of my other cousins, Andre Hatchett.
I didn’t know music was such a family affair…
Yeah, me, Andre Hatchett and Lee Collins are cousins. A lot of the stuff I used to play at the Reactor [a Chicago club of the ’80s], Anton would give to me. Anyway, he passed in 1989 in a car accident – he was actually in the car with Andre, Darryl Townsend…They had a little crew and had just dropped Andre off. They were major record collectors and so, for me, being the youngest in the crew, I was immersed in a lot of music on the DJ front. These guys were always buying records. I don’t just mean going to the record store – I mean flea markets, out-of-town flea markets, garage sales, experimenting with buying a whole lot of stuff and sorting through it. So that’s the school I come from. To this day I’m an audiophile. I like to study music, try new things out. That’s what keeps it interesting. And that’s why when I went to New York I had no problem connecting there.
Now when and why did you leave Chicago, a place where you were established and succeeding, to move to New York?
I left between ’96 and ’97 and was there for almost a decade. I hooked up with cats like François K, who I already knew, Joe Claussell, DJ Spinna, Ian Friday – those were my knockas! And actually one of my best friends back there, Jonesy Hines, who used to do management for the Giant Step party, which was my residency out there. Jonesy’s about 45 years old and has been collecting music forever. He’s like a walking encyclopedia. You go down to his basement and it’s like a music library!
He’s one of those guys you can just hum a few bars of a song and they’ll tell you when it was made, the label and might have a few of the remakes…Your cousin Lee Collins, Sadar Behar and Jarvis Mason are like that for me. It’s a priceless gift, really.
[laughing] Exactly. Those are my buddies. The ones you ask “Do you have that?” and they say “Do you have this?” and it goes on for hours. I really didn’t plan on living in New York, though. I knew from traveling back and forth that if I was going to live there, I was going to have to have a lot of money and I had lost a lot building my space here [Prescription Records]. So I went there and it took me over! It was like a whirlwind. I learned a lot there on the international front, everything.
What has happened in Chicago is it’s kind of gotten stuck in House – the name “House” and what it’s supposed to be, instead of what it started as: an amalgamation of music – everything.
By “everything” do you mean the come-as-you-are-and-show-me-who-YOU-are attitude that seems to have left?
Exactly, exactly – not just stuck in the title. I mean, I started off that way [knowing it was everything] and never got off it, but a lot of people coming into the scene and who never were a part of the scene don’t know that. And it’s not their fault. For me, when I was coming up, we tried to study everything that was around us and we tried to study what it was all about instead of getting what we call the “newscaster version”. If you’re going to know something, know it. Try to be the best at it because you’re carrying a legacy that’s rich and it’s our responsibility to know that shit. Unfortunately, now a lot of people don’t do their homework.
Alright, will you help me help people with their homework? Even though this is dance music, most of the credit is given to the DJs and producers and promoters. How important do you think the real dancers, the ones who generate circles and energy are to this scene?
Heh, well you know I was a dancefloor kid! When I first moved to New York, for the first maybe two years, I was a babypowder kid! That’s it. I was dancing and interacting with the community on the dance floor so that by the time that I started doing my own thing, they were like “Oh, so that’s Ron Trent!” They already knew me.
It seems like it would be important to dance if you make dance music, but a lot of newer people lie and say they’ve got to dance when they’ve really go to have a drink. You never see them on the floor or they bring the breakbattle/single person showcase to the dance floor. I really feel that’s changing the music and the scene.
For sure. That’s the first school – the dance. You have to understand the translation, what it feels like, what’s going on. In New York, like the early scene, dance is like yoga. Folks change their clothes. That’s their gym – listening to something you’ve never heard before, or nostalgic pieces, and being immersed in that moment, and working it out…It’s not about moves or the names of steps, it’s about your soul.
Then what do you think about someone like Ron Carroll saying “House Music is Dead”?
I can understand why he said that. The core of it is not dead, but the name – I don’t really associate with it anymore because so many people have taken it and bastardized it and turned it into something I don’t even know anymore. It’s not even from me anymore. What a lot of people are making and marketing as House now doesn’t fit the criteria of what the core is. It’s fixated and one thing, not the amalgamation that it really is. It’s mechanical, and that’s not real.
Part of that is due to the marketing machine out here. Part of it is due to the people who don’t know what it is trying to market it or whatever. But the core of it is still alive and doing very well. It’s going through the changes that it’s always going through, whether we’re talking about jazz, latin, afrobeat – all these things that are the core of what House music, dance music, has always been throughout time. It’s not about the genre, it’s about the feeling. Same with the dance, it’s about what you feel.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a frequency that happens on the dancefloor. For instance, in New York, for about the first year, I might get out for a little while and do my thing, but really I’d sit back watching because there’s a vibration there. They’re doing some of the wildest shit and you’d think you were watching an Alvin Ailey performance, but they’re not even touching. If you ain’t got that vibration, you can come in and immediately fuck it up. And I know from being out there and having someone come in that’s not on the right frequency and messing up the whole thing and they [the dancers] are fierce about it. They’ll knock you right on out, ’cause the thing is, a lot of these people have been dancing since 1975 doin’ their shit. For them, this is their sanctuary, their sacred space, and if you ain’t ready for the temple [laughs]…you need to cleanse yourself!
You gotta get baptized before you can preach…
And that’s real shit. So everything takes time and people want things right away, instant gratification. Instant DJ, instant dancer. No. Things take time to perfect and that’s really the bottom line but some people think they can doubletime shit. “I got what you got in doubletime. It took me half as long and I’m your equal as a dancer, DJ, producer…” but that’s not the case. Things take time. There are kids from the Powerplant/Warehouse era who can get out there and groove and fit right in out in New York, but now those who came after or never experienced that are just putting out this aggressive kind of thing versus finesse. And as time has gone on, it’s gotten more aggressive. So now when people who understand that finesse frequency dance, it turns into a show and the spotlight comes out and that’s some country shit.
Some people might think I’m being elitist or a snob or whatever. It’s not that. I just know better. And what am I supposed to do – lower my standards? That doesn’t fly in school, so why here?
Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of the Willie Lynch “divide and conquer” mentality permeating our House culture. So if we use any criteria for judgment, discerning quality from garbage, we are told that we’re elitist or condescending or alienating.
And you know this – another thing the supposed Old School tactics taught (though I hate to use that term) is that it forced you to be on point. Back then, if your shit wasn’t correct and wasn’t official, then motherfuckers would let you know and you would immediately feel like you had to get your shit together. “I need to do my homework or brush up on something.” You could feel it. That’s something I kind of miss about the ’80s. People were big on being individuals and now we just follow trends, i.e. people who follow “House”. They follow the moniker without knowing much about it really.
You mean like “knowing House” but never thinking The Clash would fit into a Hardy set, or what break of certain songs are the heat, not the hype?
You know! I mean I hate to keep bringing up the New York thing but that’s why they have a strong, fortifiable scene and market for what they have. They kept the story going and not just the little pieces of what they really don’t know – like people talking about “back in the day” and they weren’t even there. It gives them appeal to others, but it’s the blind leading the dumb. It’s a shame. It’s destroying the scene here.
The way I figure, only so many people of a certain demographic would have really been at LaRay’s. I was in my pre-teens and too young to get in. Growing up on it is different from being there, which is different from learning about it, don’t you think?
I was too young too, and I’m 33. I didn’t go to the original Warehouse. I got reports but you talk to people younger than us and they’ll try to tell you about the Muzik Box or “back in the day” at the Power Plant. I know about three DJs who went to Ron Hardy’s funeral – myself, Terry Hunter and Armando, and John who drove us there. The rest were some of the staff from the Muzik Box, ’cause it was down in Springfield. I’ve had so many people come up and tell me they were there, telling me shit that I know didn’t happen. He [Ron Hardy] was actually the first DJ I ever heard in about 1984-85, and it was at a Mendell party, and the only reason I got in was a nextdoor neighbor’s brother was able to get me in ’cause I had a moustache. It really blew my mind. I got to talk to him a couple times after that. He told me he played my track and that blew my mind, too. You know, he was really a hero of mine.
It’s really sad because it’s like watching the cycle of cultural appropriation/theft happen to my most precious possession. That’s why I wanted to do this interview, among other reasons. What would you say are the credentials for being true to the core of this thing we once called House?
Really, only time and letting shit speak for itself.
Alright – preach! But before we run out of time, let me try to get in a few more production questions to let people who might not know, know who you are. I know your musical training started with playing congas and trap set/percussion, but then converted to making rhythm with machines. When and why did you begin to bring the live sound back into your productions?
Well, I think because I started in the ’80s, I realized how to incorporate the things I learned then when I started working in bigger studios. I worked in Kevin Saunderson’s studio – you know, the guy who produced Inner City, “Good Life”, “Big Fun” and all that – so by 1993 I was beginning to experiment and expanding on the idea of bringing the organic element in. Because I was always interested in how Salsoul Orchestra or Philly International did what they did and made a record sound authentic. It took a while because digital recording and live recording are two totally different things. To this day I’m still trying to hone that.
When I was in New York I did a lot of live recording with straight up musicians – on the dance music and the jazz music tip. You ever heard of a group called Groove Collective?
WHAT! I used to play their first album on my college jazz radio show. I absolutely love them. I had a chance to see them live and had a huge crush on the flutist. They were highly underappreciated and too quickly forgotten.
Yeah, the fluteist is Richard Worth. Those are my guys. I started working with them through my work with Giant Step in 1998-1999 as a producer, A&R, that kind of thing, which eventually led to me getting a residency. So artists like Jill Scott, James Samuels, Donny, Carl Hancock Rux, soul artists – I would produce them and do remixes to break them on a dance level. That’s what Giant Step was about – breaking the mold, being cutting edge – so it was fitting that I would be with a company like that. I would use my musicianship, my percussion, playing keys, whatever to do the remixes.
That Giant Step residency is infamous. My sister used to tell me about it and then I got a feel for your more recent sound with the Abstract AfroJourney mix put out by King Street. It’s a beautiful sound that I can only describe as “truth”, because it is connected to this musical legacy but somehow still advancing the limits of sound. So what are some of your current projects?
Several albums – I’ve got a jazz album coming out from Japan at the top of the year with a label called Village Again. It’s more of a listening album, but there are a couple of tracks you might call danceable. I’ll be releasing it here too under my own imprint. I have a concept album featuring remixes of a lot of soul artists – Goapele, Jody Watley, Steve Spacek, Gaele, this new artist Keite and N’Dambi who I featured on my first CD. That’s coming out in February on R2 BBE. I’ve got a DJ mix compilation coming our on NRK as part of their Coast to Coast series and I have a hip-hop beats album that’s coming – I’ve been dabbling in that for a while and, like I said, I’m into music. Whatever hits me in the chest, that’s where I’m at.
And of course we get to hear you here in the Chi at Africa Hi-Fi at Sonotheque, your regular residency.
Of course, and there maybe something else in the works too. I came back to Chicago to do some things. You know, I want to give back the way it was given to me. I’ve also started an artist management company, Little Giant, and I’m in partnership with some other guys in a production company, Aficionado Music. The websites aren’t up yet but you can get to me through the Prescription site, prescriptionworld.org.
You stay busy to say the least. Since our time is up, let me just say that I’ll ask about those elekes some other time! Thank you Ron for your music and your insight!
Ron Trent was interviewed by Boogie McClarin