There are few people of whom it could be said that they were there at the ‘birth’ of a movement, but Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley is one such individual.
As the maestro behind such early dance classics as Music Is The Key, Jack Your Body and Let The Music Take Control, Steve, along with other luminaries such as Marshall Jefferson, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk and Frankie Knuckles, is regarded a figurehead in the emergence of the house sound in Chicago in the early 80s.
He’s also an accomplished remixer – of artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince and Mary J Blige – and a four-time Grammy nominee (not forgetting heading up dance group J.M. Silk)… all the time remaining true to his house roots.
These days, he’s the co-owner of S&S Records, Inc, alongside business partner Shannon ‘DJ Skip’ Syas, and continues to produce and remix tracks by some of the industry’s hottest artists.
Part two of our ORIGINALS interview will follow tomorrow, but for the meantime, it’s over to you… Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley.
Q. How did you get into music?
It all started with my dad, I think, who used to listen to a lot of jazz, R&B and things like that, and over the years our taste in music became quite similar. When I was growing up, you had producers like Quincy Jones, George Benson, Rod Temperton coming through.
I really liked the production values of it; the analogue synth sounds and the nice warm drums that Quincy would do. Things that sounded not too harsh on the ear, you know?
I was also a big fan of Parliament Funkadelic. That’s probably where I got the idea to use claps in my records, as there are a lot of claps in Parliament Funkadelic. I think if you track back to the music I was listening in my childhood, you can hear the references in the records I put out later.
I remember when I was growing up I got a job at the grocery store and spent all my money on records. I didn’t have very many to be honest, and I used to borrow a lot of my brother’s records and create these cassette tapes, combining music from the records and music taped off the radio, and gave them to people as gifts.
I didn’t really know anything about DJing at the time, I just liked listening to music and playing music for my friends.
Q. What was your first experience of DJing?
There was this hall in high school, where we had these parties. There were two turntables, and each one had a little speaker on it. So we would put the mic next to the turntable and play it out to the room. The sound was really horrible, but it was better than what they were used to, so it kind of worked.
In hindsight, maybe they didn’t know what they were doing, but I didn’t know either.
I remember thinking, ‘if we had two turntables, we wouldn’t need to have a gap between records‘, but there was no discussion of using a mixer or anything like that. That’s how early it was – people wouldn’t even expect two records to be ‘mixed’ together.
Late in my high school years there was this radio programme with Kenny ‘Jammin’ Jason and Peter Lewicki, Disco DAI, and they were doing real mixing with tracks like Donna Summer, Chaka Khan and other records I really liked.
I couldn’t believe how they were doing it – I thought being a DJ was just about playing one record after another, but there was so much more to it.
Q. What did you do in college?
Because I had an analytical mind like my dad, I thought I wanted to be an engineer, so I set out to be an electrical engineer, and got accepted into the University of Illinois.
But once I started to take classes, it suddenly got real for me – I was doing calculus, and biology and all these things I didn’t know much about. Needless to say, I checked out of that school and started to pursue my music.
Q. At this point, how much of an influence was the Chicago nightclub scene on your music and DJing?
I wasn’t really exposed to it as much as you might think. I heard about Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse when I was in high school, but my parents were quite strict, there was no way I could go to a party that started at midnight.
I think if I had the chance to go, I would have had a very quick lesson on how to mix and DJ properly. I was very far removed from it all.
Sometimes at the high school they would have a homecoming dance or something like that, and they would bring in a professional sound system. But they wouldn’t even attempt to mix the records together, they would just say something on the mic and put on the next record.
When I graduated high school, though – that’s when everything started to change. Not only was there Frankie at the Warehouse, but you also had The Chosen Few playing at a place called The Loft.
I remember sneaking out of the house one day and going to The Loft – maybe around 1981 – and I got exposed to incredible music: records on Philly International, Salsoul, Becket. That was the first time I was properly exposed to people that knew how to mix. It was incredible.
I took all my money from working at the grocery store, and bought a set of belt drive turntables and a Gemini mixer; I even built my own turntable case out of wood. I was on the fast track!
I actually learned how to DJ pretty quickly, because I had the time to practice, up to eight hours day some times. I ended up winning a couple of DJ battles, and I got a few gigs on the back of that, in places like Sauers, The Candy Store, The Playground… the places the college kids were going to. There was a mix of sounds there – house, disco, early acid.
That was what was really cool about the scene – you had The Warehouse for adults, and then you had places for people that were just out of high school, or in college.
Once I became a DJ, I started experimenting with doing re-edits, and that’s what turned into me creating my own music.
Q. How long did it take you to get into production?
It was almost like I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, I was making music. It happened really quickly – those years from 1980 to when my record finally came out in 1985. In the beginning, I was actually using a four-track recorder to make my own tracks and re-edits.
I would take the most energetic part of the record, generally the vamps, just as hip hop might take the breaks. I would put that on one track, and the drums on another track, and then maybe an acapella on top of that.
This was before anyone was releasing anything that might be called ‘house’. It was cool really, because I could do live edits using the four-track – bring in just the drums on their own, or maybe the vocals.
Seeing as I was learning how to edit, it made sense for me to start making my own tracks. I knew nothing about the music business, but when I saw Jesse Saunders put out On and On, I realised I might be able to get a record out myself.
Actually, I was rooting around in the basement and I found all these calendars going way back to the 80s, so I knew on what day I was going into the studio to record I Can’t Turn Around, things like that. That was pretty cool.
Q. It’s often been said about the Chicago scene that all the DJs knew each other, and that many of the tracks that came out had been circulating around for years. Was that the case?
We were all really close. Chip E used to have parties in his basement, and I would DJ there all the time. He used to get mad, because he was only starting to learn how to DJ, and I was pretty experienced.
I wasn’t really trying to outdo him, I was just eager to DJ wherever I could. We’re still good friends, but at the time he was pretty salty about it!
A lot of us were making tracks before they were released, often many years before they were released. That’s why I don’t believe in terms like ‘Godfather of House’ or ‘Originator of House’, because house was something that was being created by all of us at the same time. It’s hard to put a timeline on who did what first.
I don’t think there’s any way of finding out whether Marshall Jefferson was making music before I was, or if Farley (‘Jackmaster’ Funk) was making music before he was.. it was all around the same time.
Farley and I started making music at around the same time, because we were roommates. We both bought an inexpensive drum machine – a Boss Dr. Rhythm – and a couple of Casio keyboards and pretty soon found out that wasn’t enough.
They were good, but they didn’t get the house moving the way we wanted to. I remember I used to take a loop from Kikrokos’ Jungle D.J. and put that on top of it, just to get a bit of a groove going.
When I think back, there was a lot of work in that – I would record every four bars to a reel to reel, and then record that back to cassette, and put that back in the reel to reel, and edit edit edit. I was hot mixing the drum machine on top, and while it wasn’t perfect, people used to go crazy to that.
Q. How did Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk end up putting out Love Can’t Turn Around before you did?
I made that track back in 1982 or 1983! I was playing it off a four-track at parties.
Farley and I weren’t roommates any more, and he decided to take my arrangements, and teamed up with Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence to put some lyrics over it and get Darryl Pandy to sing over it. They put it out before I had the chance to put my version – I Can’t Turn Around – out on RCA Records.
I didn’t understand how someone could just take someone else’s song and put it out as their own. But that’s what happened, and it ended up looking like I was ripping off his music.
Q. Are you still sore about that?
To be honest, it’s just one bad experience that happened, and I learned from it. Maybe it was a blessing – if that hadn’t happened, maybe Jack Your Body wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.
I have to accept things the way they happen and be the bigger person about it, because the negative energy can drag you down and keep you from being creative.
Actually, now that I think about it, when Jack Your Body was first released, that was a bootleg – an illegal release. I could be salty about that too, but at the end of the day, a hit is a hit, if things hadn’t gone the way they had gone, history might have turned out differently.
Sometimes, bad things happen for a reason…
[Check out 909originals.com tomorrow for part two of our interview with house music legend Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. Thanks also to Steve for the pictures. For more information on S&S Records, visit www.snschicago.com.]