ON NOVEMBER 10TH, a fascinating group of artists, musicians, DJs, label heads and music afficionados from all walks of life came together for the latest installment of Diaspora’s Den at the Vida Lounge. Headlining the event, as always, was Mr. A.L.I. Many people by now have been initiated into the Mr. A.L.I. experience – the mesmerizing voice of Carla Prather, the performances of “global groove guru” David Risqué, the powerful blend of rhythms and exotic sounds pning the world and mixed with an expert hand.
5 Magazine has been fortunate enough to have Mr. A.L.I. co-founder Jere McAllister share his thoughts with us about the meaning of House music through his column, and Carla and David have also spent some time with us in these pages over the last year. Vick Lavender, however, has been content to be the man behind the curtain. “I do this because I love it,” he told me. “I don’t care much for the limelight. As a producer, I’ll let other people take the limelight before I step into it.”
If you’ve spent any time in Chicago’s House scene, you’ve certainly come across Vick Lavender before. From his days as a DJ in the mid- to late-1980s to his time in Glenn Underground’s Strictly Jaz Unit prior to the founding of Mr. A.L.I., Vick has been one of those people in the trenches, releasing a steady flow of irresistible deep house tracks but slow to sound his own horn as one of the premiere architects of the Chicago House sound we know today. Working around our sometimes hectic deadlines, Vick graciously agreed to step out from behind the curtain and sit down with us to talk – about House music, fame, the music industry, some old friends and the musicians in the band that he calls his family.
Who is Vick Lavender? I mean who are you as a person, where are you coming from as a person, artistically, spiritually?
I was born in New Orleans, but I moved when I was a kid and was raised here in Chicago. Artistically speaking, I have so many influences it’s be hard to name them all. Joe Sample from a jazz group called The Crusaders and Sting come to mind. Spiritually? I do this because I love it. I don’t care much for the limelight, I’ll let other people take that.
How did you come to House music? Do you remember when your first paying gig was?
Probably… 1986, I’d say. I can tell you a funny story about when I first got into the business. This would have been back in 1987. I was going to put out a record with Larry Sherman [of Trax Records] – that was how I met Glenn Underground, who was working in the pressing plant for Trax. I was coming out of the room after listening to the record I was going to make and Larry was a couple of steps in front of me. Glenn was pressing records and he stopped and took me by the arm. We didn’t know each other at all. But he whispered to me, “Man, don’t do it. If I was you, I wouldn’t do it.” [laughs]
But here’s the thing: two nights later – I’m not kidding you – two nights later, I was watching ABC news and they were taking Larry Sherman away. I was like “Oh my God, that guy wasn’t playing!”
Today it’s different. A lot of us have been in the game so long that we know that we’re going to get ripped off. I think by knowing more, we minimize how much we’re going to get ripped off.
How do you do that?
You have to be on your game. You know, if you make one huge record, you can actually live without being on your game all the time. The scary part about it is that you never know when you’re going to make that one big record. You always have to be prepared. You never know – the record you’re making today might break big tomorrow.
The fun thing about working with indie labels is that I get to make whatever I want to make. If they don’t like it, someone else might like it. I’m not really tied down by, you know, “I don’t hear a single on this album” and stuff like that.
Have you done a lot of major label remixes?
You know what, I really haven’t. As of right now, we have a major album coming out on West End Records called Third World Culture and I have a solo album forthcoming with Unified Records called Diaspora’s Den.
What is Lavajam?
Lavajam is my solo project. I’m with Mr. A.L.I. We have jam sessions, which make up the Jere McAllister solo stuff. And then you have Lavajam which is the Vick Lavender solo stuff. It gives Jere and I a chance to do what we want to do. When you work with somebody, it’s also very important to take time out to do what you really want to do without being concerned about, “I wonder if my partner will like that?” It’s a very good situation – we’re both able to do these solo projects and come back to Mr. A.L.I. and keep it fresh.
Of the two of us, I’m more of the militant when it comes to sound. Jere is more flexible. Musically, I sort of stay within the sounds that I love, and I don’t really go outside that sound. Jere on the other hand is very professional. If Britney Spears came to him and asked him to do a record, Jere probably could and probably would do it. Me? Nah… But I think that combination works out great, because that’s where you get the Mr. A.L.I. sound. It’s that really great underground sound, which is where I’m from, and then you get more of the polished, professional sound which is where Jere is from. When those two meet, that’s when you get “Cast Your Spell”, you get “Rainy Day”, you get our entire Transit album.
So many influences came into the Mr. A.L.I. sound. Influences came from rock, you can hear some jazz and soul, which of course is the base of what we do – so many different forms of music. That’s the beauty of working with Jere. I think we respect each other enough to let the other bring his musical influences to the table. We had a lot of similarities when it came to music that we like. We were talking when we first met about some of the ’80s bands that we liked, a lot of stuff like the Smiths, Love and Money, the Cure, Joy Division which later became New Order.
Something really strange happened to black music in America. After the ’70s, everything became very electronic. You’d have artists like Teddy Riley who was making stuff like “Rumpshaker” and we hated it. Most artistic black kids hated that. Me, I was a huge Smiths fan, I have everything the Smiths ever made. It was artistic but it was very good musicianship. Bauhaus with Peter Murphy was another band I liked. We were playing all that stuff. There weren’t that many black kids that got into the stuff that we did so when I met Jere, we had that in common.
I know when you’re working with live instruments, it can sometimes sound too clean. Mr. A.L.I. never sounds too clean.
That’s where I think I take a lot of credit, by me being strictly from the dance industry and the deep house community. Some of the people I was listening to in the early days – I was a big Jamie Principle fan, a big Larry Heard fan. Jere comes from the Steve Hurley camp with a very clean sound. And as you know, the Jamie Principle or Larry Heard sound, it wasn’t as much clean as it was good. Don’t get me wrong – I think the production work on it was great. But it still gave you that dark, gritty underground Warehouse-Powerplant-Music Box feel. Steve Hurley and them gave you more of a cleaner sound. When those two sounds are married together, I think it’s a great thing.
Mr. A.L.I. wasn’t your first collaboration. How long were you with the Strictly Jaz Unit?
I was with Glenn Underground and Boo Williams in the Strictly Jaz Unit for nearly five years. On the Future Parables album, I wrote two of the songs on there – “Father’s Little Girl” and “Medone’s Thought”. Those got a lot of attention, but nobody really knows who did those records. Everybody thought that Glenn did them. I wanted to branch out and it was then that I met Jere.
Jere and I met in the Spring of 1999, though we didn’t start working together until the Fall of ’99. It was funny because everywhere that Jere saw me, I was playing records that he really liked. He walked up to the DJ booth five or six times and said, “Man, I keep running into you!” Steve Stewart, who Mr. A.L.I. really owes a lot to, introduced us and told me I should work with Jere McAllister, that he was a really good keyboardist.
The last time we actually met before we started working together, I was DJing at David Risqué’s birthday party. I was playing a record and once again, Jere walked up to the booth and said “Who did that?” I said Glenn and I did it. After that, we worked together every Sunday, every single Sunday, and during that time wrote about seven records – basically the entire first West End album – “I Feel You”, stuff like “Cast Your Spell” – all of those songs were conceived in about a two or three month span.
Where did the idea for the band come about?
Jere and I were looking for a record deal. We put everything we’d done together on CD and met with Radek [founder of Dust Traxx Records] to see if he would advance the money we needed to start recording live. But there was something missing from the CD – I said to Jere that this stuff sounds a lot like Glenn, and Radek already had Glenn. There was a record that Jere had done in Europe that sounded exactly like where we were going. I thought we should put this on the CD in case Radek gives me a hard time about the music. Sure enough, Radek heard it and said, “It sounds like Glenn.” I said, “Why don’t you go to Track #7?” He listened to Track #7 and said “So how much money do you need?” [laughs] So that’s how we started recording live.
Dave Risqué mentioned that you guys adopted a kind of persona in the beginning – Jere as the “Dean Martin”-type and you as the – I think he mentioned that your grandfather was Cuban?
Yeah, actually my father is Cuban. I always wanted to do something involving Dave. In like the mid-90s, I told Dave, “If I ever start a live band, I’m going to come get you.” Dave is such a dynamic live performer. I would go to Red Dog and see him shaking that tambourine, all these women dancing around him. So I said to myself, if I ever start a band, I’d love for that guy to be on stage with us. When Jere and I started Mr. A.L.I., I called Dave and said “We’re starting a band, just like we talked about.” That’s how it got started. Jim was Dave’s friend that played percussion and played on our first ever recording, which was “Missing You”. But Jim works a regular job and it’s really hard to stay on both ends of this.
I was going to ask you about that. In last month’s issue, Roy Davis told me how expensive it is to do live performances with a band. Are you guys going to keep playing a live show every few months or…
It’s very expensive. We’re actually getting ready to go to Europe with the band starting December 9th. And yes, it can get very expensive, but the reward is really, really worth it. First, you’re doing something that not everybody can do. If someone calls me up and says “Hey, I need Mr. A.L.I. live tomorrow,” we can do it. The band is like a family to me. I can call them up and say we have a gig tomorrow. Not everybody can do that. Usually your band members have other paying gigs to do.
I think your band members have to respect what you do. They have to love it. Everybody who’s in Mr. A.L.I. plays in other gigs – like Mike Logan and Lamar Jones, who play on the album, tour with Will Downing. These guys are very accomplished musicians and that’s why the Mr. A.L.I. material sounds the way that it does. I have to give my band a shout out: Joe Rendone plays percussion, Lamar Jones plays bass and Mike Logan plays keyboards. These guys are my family. Although I produce the records, these guys are the engine that drives the car.
Is Carla your full-time vocalist? Are you producing her solo material as well?
Well, Carla’s Mr. A.L.I.’s vocalist. Jere’s doing Carla’s solo stuff. She’s actually doing two records on my album and I might be doing a remix for one of the tracks on her album. It’s like we’re family, man. I’ll say that I need her on this track and she’ll say okay. Well, she’ll give me hell at first but then she’ll say okay. [laughs] If she didn’t give me hell, that wouldn’t be Carla.
I wanted to talk about the live performances. It’s really like a scene itself. Mr. A.L.I. draws people who don’t normally go to House shows. You’ve really got the market cornered because there’s nothing else like it.
You really have all walks of life represented. You have corporate-type people come, art people, devoted Househeads, blacks, whites, hipics, asians – everybody shows up. Everybody has a good time. You see a white couple sitting with a black couple and the club is not segregated because the music brings everybody to one. Those two or three hours, there are no colors and there is no race. It’s just people. That’s what I get the most satisfaction out of.
A friend of mine named Vida Cornelious is the one that actually came up with the Diaspora’s Den concept. She’s from Jersey and would listen to folks like myself, Ron Trent, and Anthony Nicholson – those were her favorite DJs. She came up with the concept for the Diaspora’s Den once a month at the Victor Hotel and they were quite successful. When I got a chance to move it to the Vida Lounge, I was like, wow, because they gave us the freedom to do whatever concept we wanted to do, while at the Victor Hotel, we had to do it with somebody else.
Diaspora’s Den at the Vida Lounge is basically a journey – a trip with a lot of rhythms. As you know, Mr. A.L.I. stands for “Afro Latin Influence”. It’s almost the same thing but the Diaspora’s Den has more of an African black cultural influence with a lot of drums, a lot of percussion instruments. It’s like the whole new solo album that I’m doing – the sound of it is a lot like the record “Vida” and there’s another record on there called “Kaylynn’s Thing” which is very afrobeat [see reviews starting on page 34 -Ed.] You can expect probably the deepest form of what they call House. I think people from all walks of life and all culture gravitate to it.
Let’s talk about the solo album, also called Diaspora’s Den.
It’s coming out on Unified Records in the Spring of ’07. You can actually go to traxsource.com now and listen to two of the records – they’re doing pretty well. One is called “Best of Friends”, the other is “Vida”.
Mr. A.L.I. also has a 12″ on West End called “I Feel You”.
I saw that Mel Cheren is listed as an executive producer.
Mel is the money man at West End. Kevin Hedge from Blaze is the guy that calls the shots. If Kevin likes your record, Kevin will put your record out.
A lot of your early material is still in rotation these days and has really stood the test of time, like the PM Blues EP.
I didn’t at first realize that record was in in rotation at all. Before I started Mr. A.L.I., I was in Miami and this guy from I think Switzerland came up to me and read my name badge and said “Wow, you’re Vick Lavender! We’re still playing your record!” I was blown away. I’d put that out there but I had no idea it was doing what it was doing. Just to hear you say that even, it still kind of freaks me out because of where I am now. I probably wouldn’t do a record like that now if somebody asked me. I’ve grown as an artist. But that just lets you know that you should always go back. My 12″ is probably going to more electronic. Those are my roots.
Do you consider yourself a purist?
Yeah – Jere tells me I’m too much of a purist. I don’t have a problem with any form of music – I just have a problem with so much new music not being heard. I’m a firm believer that everything should be heard. With the whole hip-hop and rap thing, the reason it appeals to the public is that you can see it. In Chicago, you can’t see the artists. The only way to see them is to pick up an album or pick up a CD or go hear them spin. Those are the only outlets to see them. Everything else is what you hear.
People have a misconception about me, that I hate classics. Nothing could be further from the truth. The music that I make is directly influenced by classics. But with all the great music being made, how can we as a culture listen to the same fifteen records? Listen man: I’m 39 years old. I do not want to hear a record that I was listening to when I was 18. Don’t get me wrong – I think records like “Set Fire to Me”, “Jazz Carnival” – those are records that in my opinion are classics. But those records might not be classics to you. Those might not be classics to Czarina or classics to Jere. It’s all opinion. But I can’t go to a party and hear the same disco record that I heard when I was 18 years old. That doesn’t make any sense.
Do you have a favorite place to play in the city?
Probably Sonotheque. On the right night for the kind of music that we make and play, there’s no competition. I also like the Victor Hotel too. The guy that brought me in there, DJ Nicky from Italy, respects Mr. A.L.I. and all of the deep artists in Chicago. When he books us, he says “Hey man, go in and do what you want to do.”
You’ve worked with Dajae live, Carla Prather, Reggie Hall. Is there someone you’d liked to work with but haven’t yet?
Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. I’d love to do a record with Sade too. I like her voice. She’s not a traditional vocalist but I think she could really push me creatively.
Artistically, where do you see yourself going in a couple years?
You know, a dream of mine is to go to different continents making records and then come back to the States and compile them all into a single album – a real world album. I want to go to Japan and record two records. I want to go to Cuba and record two records. I want to go to Brazil, South Africa – and then compile them into a real world album. It’s something I’m going to be trying to put together in the next couple of years. It’s not really that far-fetched. With the notoriety that Mr. A.L.I. and Vick Lavender are starting to get, it’ll be easier to pull off. Mr. A.L.I. has a huge fanbase in Japan right now. I get emails everyday from people in Japan asking how they can get my records. I’m on myspace as I’m taking to you right now and I hear from people asking about my influences from around the world every day.