Interview by Richard Thomas
Vince Lawrence is a true dance music innovator, and the acknowledged co-author of the first house music track, On and On. Before the age of eighteen, he had co-founded Trax Records, one of Chicago’s most important record labels, and he was pulling in $10,000 a week selling vinyl to shop owners and DJs eager to gobble up the next big thing. Throughout his career, he has exposed some of dance music’s greatest prodigies, including Marshall Jefferson (Move your Body, Ride the Rhythm), Adonis, Byron Styngly, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Ron Hardy, Screamin' Rachel and Jesse Saunders, while inspiring many others.
We sat down with Vince to find out how he went about authoring this collection, and a bit about his colorful history within the dance music scene.
There are five main genres found in Chicago Fire: Drum and Bass, Progressive, Old School, Deep House and Electro. Each of these genres could be subdivided into any number of additional styles. How did you go about deciding which sub-genres would be represented on each disc? Why techy progressive and not anthemic trance? Why roughneck drum and bass rather than the more esoteric, LTJ Bukem flavor?
Our first objective was to make a loop set that people not just could use, but actually would use. We said, "If I was a user and I'm going to go out and buy a loop set of music, what would I need to make my work easier?" When we addressed the sub-genres, we felt that all of the new electro stuff actually was reminiscent of the old new wave and earlier industrial stuff. We assumed that a guy would want to sample from that Eighties style to make his new stuff. Do you know what I'm saying?
Yes. You can't take the new stuff and reprocess it to sound like the classic stuff, but if you're savvy, you can take the old stuff, leave it as-is, or make it into that new stuff.
Right, and with the sample library being 100% royalty-free, we wanted to make parts that sounded like parts you would otherwise have to get clearance to use. That's the number one thing right there: we wanted to make sounds that people would think came from actual records, sounds you would typically have no other way of getting access to other than through obtaining clearance. So we approached the genres in terms of what's going on today, but we were always looking to where these sounds came from.
Does that mean you had a specific approach to gear and recording techniques?
In the case of the Old School disc, all the drum machine loops are 100% [Roland] 808, 909, 626 and 727; those early drum machines. We tried not to wander too far from there. All the synth patches were made with an Oberheim Matrix 6 or a Roland JX-8P or a Korg Poly 61 to try and stay in that area. In the case of some of the old school stuff, we just sampled directly from 24-track masters of songs that I was writing in my sessions at Trax Records. The stuff we did for Deep House and Progressive was different. I've been working with the Akai MPC Series since the MPC 60. I remember conversations with Roger Linn about the way the operating system works and things like that. He was really the only guy who could answer my questions. So I did a lot of work on the MPC 60, and I've just been sampling and sampling. We went through all of my ZIP discs and floppies and pulled sounds and sequences for some songs that I hadn't released or ideas that we had. Sometimes they were just ideas from that time period and we just finished developing those to make the construction kits. For all the one-shots, we took stuff right out of there, then saw how, in this day in age, we could make those sounds better.
So how did you go about updating them?
We saw places where we could up the gain. We always went for more gain. Put it this way, there's just stuff that you can do with Pro Tools. There are things that you can do to sounds with Pro Tools that you couldn't do then. So we took those steps in every case to make things fatter or louder or clearer or more dynamic.
How did you break up the production of each library and organize the workflow?
That's an interesting question, because at first we weren't very organized. We just went at it. The first thing we did was to go through everything that required a two-inch tape machine, and we dealt with those things tape by tape. Some things were more suited for Electro than were suited for Old School, so we would put the results of that work in a file marked according to the disc it was going to go on. After we were done with the two-inch tape, we went though the MPC loops, the 808 and the Matrix 6. We took a session from an MPC and coordinated that with Pro Tools. I've got a huge MIDI rig. At any given point it's got 30 or 40 synthesizers, and I've got four of those MIDI I/O units that Pro Tools provides. We put together a kit with the MPC, the Matrix 6, the JX-8P and a Yamaha DX-816. You remember that?
No, I can't say I do.
It's eight Yamaha DX-7s in a rack. We whipped that puppy out. We put together our session kit, restored sequences from the Eighties in the MPC, played all that stuff through and captured it in Pro Tools, and that was our process. Later on we had days and days of just bouncing. After we got through that, we had sessions for the Progressive disc where we just made all new stuff. Separate from that, we had sessions of just guitars, sessions of just percussion, then two days of just vocals. We did some of the vocal sessions for various genres stylistically and other ones according to tempo. The Old School vocal sessions, although they may be used in other kits, are typically slower. As we moved through time, the grooves got faster.
In approaching each genre, we decided that we were going to up the tempo from disc to disc, but we didn't want all the vocals to be in the same key. We wanted to randomize that so users could use it to their advantage, so what we did is this: in the Eighties I used to like this record, old school wise. I whipped out the record, played it, and we'd take my favorite part and loop it.
What record did you use?
(Laughs) I don't want to give you any particulars, but let's say my favorite record from the Eighties. We'd loop a piece of it and create it in Pro Tools. Then we wrote new background parts for that song in that style. If I had a favorite Marvin Gaye record, and Marvin is singing my favorite part over and over again, I'm trying to write a counterpoint background to go with that.
And once you have that counter-vocal written, you suck the music out. Then it can sit on something that sounds like it was from that era, yet not sound derivative because…
Because it's totally new. We did that over and over again. Jeff Morrow, Yvonne Gage and Joan Collasso…the three of them are just the most amazing singers. You'll see their names on all those choirs that R Kelley has on his records. Jeff directs those choirs. Those two vocal tracking days were fun for us because we got to reminisce on records that we liked and why we liked them. Then we'd talk about background vocals, how we approached them, and how vocals were approached in the Eighties. Jeff was actually around in the sessions for Earth Wind & Fire back in the day, so he set me straight if I was off, historically, about the technique. "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs" were necessary, the appropriate "Babys," and so on. Counting "1, 2, 3, 4," because you need numbers (laughs).
What did you take from this whole process?
I learned a little bit more about what's going on out there. We really wanted to make a library that people would actually use a lot of. In doing that, it challenged us to say, "Okay, we only use this library for their one-shots, and I only like the percussion from this library." It really helped me organize stuff, especially drum-wise. I think we're able to find things a little better. Because the two inch machine was here, we could snag what we needed at the time. We catalogued tons of stuff. We know where everything is now, and we know where everything came from. It made us look at how we approach reverb and gain and things like that. It was a refresher course in that sense, but mostly we learned how to organize ourselves. My record collection is now catalogued alphabetically according to label (laughs).
How many people worked on the project?
About eight or ten, and it took two months to finish.
Did you write individual songs for these sessions, or just cut specific licks and phrases?
Every construction kit is a song with a verse and a chorus.
What did you want Chicago Fire to exemplify that other collections didn't?
For our purposes, it would have been wrong to make things all in one tempo. It would have been wrong to make things all in one key. I think that sometimes libraries aren't wrong, but I think it's hard to find what you're looking for because they're not telling you what it is. They give you a name like Gabba Goa, and you're like, "What the heck? What is that?" Eventually, once you've reviewed the library time and time again, you start remembering, "Okay, there was a track I listened to called Gabba Goa on this disc, and it was appropriate for what I'm doing right now." But to try to find a specific sound at any given moment is difficult. I'd just say forget it. We have a Roland TR-808. I'm going to EQ it the way I always EQ it for the records, and I'm just going to sample every last one of those kicks and snares the way I record them with the reverb and with the flanger or whatever. And here you go: here's that classic drum module the way we made our records with it, and you don't have to hunt for it. You don't have to look it up. There it is.
What makes you so qualified to put together a "Dance Music Anthology"?
I've been making house music making records for dance clubs, records that weren't intended for radio since 1979. I made my first successful record in 1980. I wasn't even out of high school yet. It was by a group called Z Factor called "I Like To Do It In Fast Cars."
Well, you know, pubescent teenager; got right to the point. So I've been making house music since 1980. It's 2005. I don't think that many people can be more qualified…to say that they've seen it come from where it came from and get to where it's gotten.
How difficult is it for young entrepreneurs to do today what you did back in the day, basically out of the trunk of a car?
I believe the Internet is the new trunk of the car, but I think that works in conjunction with the trunk of the car. I see guys everyday that are making records, and they're distributing the records to the clubs. I would say right now this is mostly in hip-hop and R&B, but they're making records, they're getting them out to the clubs, and they're getting them on mix shows in more than one city and more than one state. From there, they're trying for regular rotation, and when the spins get high enough and they get some semblance of sales, the majors pick 'em up. That's kind of the new A&R pool local mix shows and club play. I feel a major is more apt to notice your BDS than your hot press kit.
Tell me a little bit about your label, Trax Records. Wasn't Wax Trax! in the same space?
There were three "Trax" in Chicago: Chicago Trax Recordings, Wax Trax! Records and then Trax Records. The last to form was Trax Records; the quintessential beginnings of house music. Wax Trax was making industrial, and I think the common thread initially would be me. I was hanging out with Al Jourgensen and those guys at Chicago Trax recording studios, watching what they were making. I was fascinated by industrial. I started a band called Bang Orchestra, which got signed to Geffen, actually.
How did your styles intermingle?
I started making this harder, industrial house, around 1986. There were people recording for Trax Records at Chicago Trax Recordings that had nothing to do with Wax Trax! There were artists on Wax Trax! recording at Chicago Trax Recordings.
Was it a big building with all these sub-studios in it?
Initially it was one studio in a coach house, and then it became two studios, and then it became four studios. R Kelley cut his chops there and eventually bought part of it. There are so many great Chicago artists that passed through there. Marshall Jefferson, Ten City, Ministry, LARD (featuring Jello Biafra), R Kelley, the Smashing Pumpkins and Twista have all had their stint there.
Can you tell me a little about your company, Slang MusicGroup?
What happened was we started being approached by corporate America for one thing or another. I met some guys that led me into advertising, and I had made some commercials for TV. The music was hip-house, house music with rapping in it. We made these for the phone company to encourage kids to use the public phones in their high schools. From there we made some commercials for Anheuser Bush and Company and some of those were house music-based, but we made some hip-hop stuff as well. I wanted to get outside of myself in trying to service my then-regular clients. So I went to other producers that I knew from the studio and I would say, "I'm working on this thing, could you help me out with it? You know this music and this art form better than I do, because you live it just like I live house music." And it started there. When I got a commercial that was based in hip-hop or based in industrial, I would look to that guy for his input on that commercial and I'd pay him. Once it got regular, it turned into regular jobs. After a while I tried to formalize some of these loose associations so that I could know what to expect and they could know what to expect. We tried to create expectations and commitments based on that, and that's how the loose group came to be formed. I think that stems from the fact that I never liked working alone. I've always been a collaborative artist, so whether I was the producer or an artist in Bang Orchestra or Z Factor, I've always preferred a collaborative approach to getting the work done. It feels better to me to have someone to bounce things off of. So Slang MusicGroup effectively came to be to satisfy that internal feeling. It gives me the opportunity to work with other people, to get other thought processes involved, and to get fresh input and creativity outside of my own. I've been working with this group methodology for a long time.
What do you think about where dance music is going today? What does it need to do to take itself to the next level?
I have a very specific opinion, and it's just my opinion. This is a great time for dance music because everybody is more or less accepting the fact that it's here and it's not going anywhere. But I don't feel that dance music has really had its chance. It's not been really, truly promoted. There's been no Sire Records making house music. There's been no Motown of dance music, where they're developing artists. When I say dance, I'm talking house, techno, electro, all of it. Dance music has no face. There is no Beyoncé of dance music. There is no Gwen Stefani of dance music. There's no artist we hold to the same standards that other people who are in the business of developing artists do. We're not telling our top talent to get in shape and look better and learn how to talk to the public. We're not giving our talent the same appreciation and training that the R&B artists or a lot of the rock artists are spending to develop their art. Subsequently, when we step into that arena, we've been unable to compete. We're unable to compete with the quality of the records, and when I say the quality of the records, it's not just the songwriting, but it's the production as well. We're not able to compete on the whole personality level. When you put a 50 Cent or a Beyoncé or a Steven Tyler out in public, they generate fans.
Because it's a persona and a talent.
Yes, they pick up fan base. Put our artists out in public and they blend in with the rest of the public. We're not creating these role models for people to want to be like, and I think that that's coming, but I don't think it's there yet. That's my personal vision for our art form, that we have a Missy Elliot of house music, or we have artists that are making songs and filling seats.
Moby could be someone like that.
Moby is someone like that in his own regard, but Moby's just Moby, and that's the beginning. Where's our Mick Jagger?
We just have Keith Flint from Prodigy.
And that's getting somewhere, but as that becomes more commonplace, we're going to be able to compete to be legitimately heard on the radio. We're going to compete with some of that time on Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. We're going to compete for those billboards in the trendy neighborhoods. And when our albums come out as albums then we're going to truly be recognized. Until we come out of the underground we're going to be underground. "I want to be underground" is an excuse for "I don't want to get in shape" or "I don't want to make better records."
As long as you stay underground, there's not going to be a critical set of ears saying, "You've got good songwriting ability, but your production is horrible."
Yes. I'm buying a PC this week, because a guy that's interviewing for a job here said he made his first record in ACID software. What's funny was that he saw Chicago Fire sitting on my desk and he said, "I've heard about this and I was gonna get it." We like the fact that ACID can be an entry-level music composition device, and that it's really easy to use. In continuing to try to spread the base of house music and bring it out of the underground, we hope to find that Gwen Stefani, and in order to find her, she's going to have to make some music. The only way to enable people is to give them the tools by which they can do that.
Chicago Fire: A Dance Music Anthology was produced for Sony by Vince Lawrence of Slang MusicGroup, and John Guccione of Sound Genius Studios.