WHEN YOU LIVE IN a city as musically blessed as Chicago, it’s always hard to know how prominent your local heroes are on the national stage. So it wasn’t until I started talking with producers and DJs from out of town that I realized what a treasure this city has in Mark Grant.
It was at a small club more than ten years ago that I first experienced his ability to pick up a party and drive it straight over the edge with his turntable skills and ear for selection. Today, Mark is known internationally as one of the hottest producers in House music, and credited by many as having resurrected vocal House in the 1990s when tracks were dominating the dancefloor. While touring the world and showing his skills as one of the most accomplished DJs to come out of Chicago in the last 25 years, his songs as a producer are burning up the charts on traxsource.com and other mp3 sites.
Mark worked with industry heavyweights like Lil Louis and Ralphi Rosario in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but now finds himself on the other side of the equation: It’s a mark of distinction for up-and-coming artists to say they’ve worked with Mark Grant.
Tell us a little about the early days and your own personal background. When did you begin DJing?
I started DJing at 12 years old. My oldest brother, Jerome, started experimenting with it. His DJ friend, George Little, made a tape that I listened to over and over again. My brother had one of those auto-reverse tape decks so I would go to sleep and wake up to the mix. After that I was hooked and wanted to DJ. My parents got me a mixer for my birthday in June and the turntables for Christmas.
Do you remember what your first paying DJ gig was?
My first gig was at 13 at Golgatha elementary school. Nobody danced, at least not that I remember. Everyone crowded around the table and watched. It was nerve wracking. I blew my brother’s Panasonic Thruster speakers and I got paid $15. But I guess I did alright because they called me back to do a fashion show.
Who was that one DJ that made you want to master the turntable?
A couple of different ones over the years. But initially, Farley Keith made me stay up to 2 or 3 in the morning to hear his mixes on WBMX, because I was too young to go to a club. Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Lil Louis, and Louie Vega, among others, have had big influences on me over the years.
You carved out a huge reputation for yourself as a DJ before going into the studio. Was producing something you always saw as the next logical step?
I actually got into producing around 14 or 15. My middle brother, Brian, plays the guitar and had a 4 track, keyboard, and drum machine at the time. I would mess around with it when he wasn’t. I would remake the House songs I liked and eventually started to make my own.
Some of your DJ residencies are part of the history of Chicago House, like Boom Boom Room. Do you miss setting your flag at one weekly spot and do you have any plans to do a local residency again?
There are some things I miss and some I don’t. And the ones I don’t miss don’t have any relevance anymore, thank God!
I redirected my focus, concentrating more on traveling and mainly laying a foundation for Blackstone, my label. It’s plenty of work. I’ve finally reached the point were the foundation is in place. I can now concentrate more on producing records and push the music through the system. I don’t think I would have been able to create this system, produce records, play 3-4 nights a week, travel, and also achieve some of my personal goals at the same time, so residencies went on the backburner.
Now since I’ve accomplished those goals, I feel I’m more dynamic and I have more to offer to Chicago and for that matter the world. I’ve tried not to be non-existent to the Chicago club scene, making sure a play around the city every once in a while. If the right opportunity presented itself, I would consider doing a residency.
What do you look for in new music that makes the cut and gets into your sets?
Hmmm, I like it when songs, tracks or whatever have elements of soul, funk and jazz in them, with a little groovy snap in the beat. There are a lot of producers and labels that do this but Restless Soul/Phil Asher always come to mind for this type of groove. JT Donaldson is good for it on the more snappier tip. I know I’m missing a lot of folks, but that’s my model when I’m making music and that’s what I’m looking for.
Tell us about the sound of Blackstone and your mission with the label and why you stepped out on your own.
Our mission is simple: to make the best music possible. I always had plans of having my own label. Blackstone had been in the planning stages for many years before it came into existence. I stepped out on my own just to create another avenue. I still plan to work with other labels, which I’m doing now with Cajual, Large, and so on.
You were associated with Cajual for many years – especially as you mixed “A Taste of Cajual,” which was probably the first mix CD to cross over and reach the mainstream. How do you remember your years with Cajmere, and did it prepare you as an artist with your own label?
I’m grateful for the Cajual days. It jump started my career on a national and international level as it did for many Chicago artists. I don’t think we’ve had a label in Chicago since Cajual to have the same impact for Chicago artists since then. Two things of many stand out about Curtis aka Cajmere to me, then and now. First, he is very insightful and humorous. He’s has dealt with situations that I haven’t and has given me useful insights on being an artist and label owner and so forth. I would say he’s my other brother.
The cool thing is that those days have resurfaced. I’ve had the opportunity recently to remix new releases from Cajual and Relief from Dajae, Walter Phillips, and Mr. Green Velvet. Also, Blackstone vinyl releases are now under the distribution arm of Cajual.
People who love vocals credit you with almost “saving” that aspect of the Chicago House sound when tracks were being pumped out in the mid-1990s. Who’s been your favorite vocalist you’ve been able to work with, and who haven’t you worked with that you’d like to?
Thank you, by the way. I’ve remixed vocalists that I’ve liked but there’s nothing like making a song from scratch. I would say Russoul is my favorite vocalist. We vibe very well together and making music is exciting and easy with him. He’s been featured on the first three releases on Blackstone. I also have to mention that Swaylo and Chezere are very good artists to work with too, I’m looking forward to recording new projects with all of them. It would also be interesting to work with some fellow Chicago artists like Peven Everett, Ron Carroll, and Dajae.
You’re credited as the writer and vocalist on Lil Louis’ 1988 release “7 Days of Peace.” Any desire to step back behind the microphone yourself?
No, I have no plans to get behind the microphone. At least I’m 99.9% sure. I’ll leave that to professionals!
What’s your approach to making music? Is it a matter of inspiration or can you just “work” in the studio like a 9 to 5 job?
My studio experiences never seem to be 9 to 5, even though that would nice. It tends to go on until it’s done – sometimes ’til the next afternoon.
As far as my approach to making music, it usually always starts with the Rhodes, especially when creating a song with lyrics, as opposed to a track. I usually experiment with keys until I hear something I like, then add the bass and drums. After that I usually hook up with a vocalist to write the lyrics and add musicians, if needed. From there I start producing the song, adding, changing keyboard parts, beats and so on.
As far as making tracks, I usually leave the Rhodes out, and keep adding riffs within that key scale. Also, sometimes I stay out of the studio and sing things in my head then figure them out on the keyboard. Whatever way it comes is how I do it.