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 music 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.
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…
Q. Tell me how Jack Your Body came about?
If anything it was a fun track to put together, I never expected it to be as big as it was.
I had a four-track version of it, and I’d take all these elements and put them on top of each other, disco loops and familiar basslines. When I went into the studio to do it for real, I wanted to maintain that sense of fun.
At the time, Eddie Murphy had just brought out Raw, and Mr T was in the new Rocky movie, so I did these impressions of them on the vocal track, with a bit of James Brown in there as well. Actually, Eddie Murphy does impressions of Mr T and James Brown in his sketches, so it was kind of like I was doing an imitation of the imitation. I was like, ‘what would Mr T say in a house music situation?’ “Jack it up out there!”
Musically, though, I wanted to do something different to what I was doing previously, so I learned to play some blues progressions from an accomplished pianist that was friends with our manager, and one of them became the bassline for the track. I just wanted to do something different, to make it unique.
Q. You were recording an album with JM Silk at the time the track came out – did you have any idea how big it had become overseas?
I didn’t know anything about it! I was just focused on Chicago, and when I saw Music is the Key take off in Philadelphia and the east coast, I thought that was as far as the scene went. When it exploded in the UK, I was like ‘what..?’
Q. There was that famous story of how you ‘snubbed’ Top of the Pops – what was the real story there?
I was asked to do Top of the Pops after it became a hit – I didn’t know anything about it until it topped the charts, remember, it was illegally released. But it was a hit, and how can you be mad when you have a hit? People really embraced it.
So the BBC contacted my management and invited me over to London – I had never heard about Top of the Pops, or that there was this whole acid house thing breaking out over there – but they said no. We were working on the album for RCA Records, and we were on a deadline, and I was told I could go to London after I finished the record.
If I had know the sort of love that Jack Your Body was being given, I would have said ‘you know what, I’m going to get on a plane and go over and do it, and come right back – never mind the jet lag’. But at the time I was counting on my management to advise me on what I needed to do with my career. I had no experience in the music business.
In the end, it came out that I had snubbed Top of the Pops, but it wasn’t like that. At first I thought it was big in the dance charts; I didn’t know it was the number one pop record. But it was too late at that point.
Q. When the JM Silk album, Hold On To Your Dream, came out, it got mixed reviews. Were you happy with it?
In hindsight, hooking up with the major labels could have been the end of my career. In all honesty, the people that signed us up to the contract at RCA loved our music, they loved Jack Your Body and Music is the Key, and they wanted us to do more tracks like that.
But when we got to the record label, they wanted us to be an R&B group, because they thought were were more marketable that way. Different departments at the label were trying to define us, and telling us what we had to be, and we didn’t even know ourselves at that stage.
The A&R person that signed us up wanted us to do house music, but before you know it, that A&R person is gone, and everything started to change. I don’t think people at the label thought that house music was going to be big the way it is.
We put lots of reverb on the album, and other things you wouldn’t usually have on a house record, because I think we were trying to sit on the fence. Everything on that album was watered down, I think it’s one of the reasons it didn’t succeed, because it didn’t fit R&B, it didn’t fit pop and it didn’t fit house. It didn’t fit anywhere.
People still bought it, and we had some fans, but it wasn’t really what I had intended house music to be, you know?
Q. You managed to free yourself from that contract, and started a new chapter in your career as a remixer?
Yes, getting out of the RCA deal was one of the best things ever for my career.
When the album came out, we were touring a lot of clubs – Paradise Garage, Studio 54, you name it. It was a great experience for me, but during that tour I also realised that rehearsing for shows, going out and doing the same songs, again and again, was not for me.
I wanted to be in the studio creating something, as a producer and remixer. Keith was a great singer, and he also wanted to do his own thing, so we parted ways.
I started concentrating on remixes. Pseudo Echo’s Funky Town was one of the first. At the start, I was just taking a track, adding a few instruments and percussive elements to it and editing it and making it DJ friendly. I thought that was all that remixing was.
But then I worked on Roberta Flack’s Uh Oh Look Out Here It Comes, produced by Quincy Jones, and I changed the whole musical structure of it. It was the first time I put together a brand new track for the remix – I wanted to do something different, and I didn’t know of anyone else that was doing it that way.
That was eye-opening for me, I was thinking I could do this for everybody – give people dance hits regardless of the genre, and expose the house sound to people that normally wouldn’t be exposed to it.
Q. Your remix work escalated pretty quickly – you were working on Prince and Michael Jackson a couple of years after that. How did that happen?
I think because I was remixing Ten City, and they were on Atlantic, that opened the door for me to do Roberta Flack. It was like ‘why don’t we put Steve on Roberta, she needs to break into the dance market?’
I remember I did two versions of the track – the first was an R&B version, which took several days to do, and I did the house version almost as an afterthought, in only about seven hours…it was really fun for me to experiment with no boundaries.
Nobody really understood my ‘experiment’ at first, so it ended up being the B-Side on the 12″ record. But when it was released, the DJ’s gravitated to my version and the song ended up #1 on the Billboard Dance Charts. That version ended up getting me noticed even more by Atlantic, and by the industry.
Once I started working on a few Atlantic projects, other labels saw what I was doing and asked me to do some work for them – I think I went and did an InnerCity remix for Virgin, and pretty soon I ended up getting Paula Abdul from that.
Atlantic were actually well connected to the club scene, they were the guys that started The Shelter in New York, and they had lots of good connections – they were looking for artists that they could break in the clubs. After Jomanda – Got A Love For You, I was working with Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston, and that’s what led to me doing work with Michael Jackson and artists like that.
It was a gradual process, but that was the best way for it to happen, because the budget started getting bigger and I started working with bigger artists – it turned into something I could do for a living, and was really fun.
I suppose the downside of it was I didn’t have the chance to experiment as much – the record company was embracing what I was doing with the horn sounds and the piano sounds, so I had to stay in those parameters. At one point it probably got a little too much, I was doing so many of them that it was overkill.
But that’s what happens when you build a sound, it’s difficult to take it to the next level, because people have an expectation of what it’s going to sound like.
Back in the 90s, the remix game started changing – you had a number of different people doing spec mixes, and the record company would pick the ones they wanted, and it went from that to people basically doing mixes for free. So that was my cue to go back into writing again.
Q. Was there an avenue where you could go and ‘be yourself’ with music?
Yeah, ID Records was really where I had the chance to experiment more and do different things, like Kym Sims – Too Blind To See It. That was very different from my sound at the time, and it ended up shaping the direction I wanted to go in.
It was important to have an avenue like that; if I didn’t have ID Records, I probably never would have had the chance to do underground records like Maurice Joshua Featuring Chantay Savage – I Gotta Hold On U, or Donell Rush – Symphony, or even develop some of the piano sounds that ended up on some of my more commercial remixes.
I had the freedom to to the major label stuff for Michael Jackson and people like that, and also keep my underground thing going. I needed a way to keep experimenting.
Q. Looking back, the Chicago scene that you were a part of was so influential on dance music as we know it today. Did you ever think we would still be talking about it today?
No, I was just enjoying the ride! For us, it was about the love of music, how it made us feel. I still think back to that first time I was at The Loft, it made me feel uplifted. Or when I heard I’m Every Woman on the radio; that feeling I would get from my favourite records when I was growing up.
Q. You’ve been making music for 35 years, and you’re still putting out tracks on S&S Records. How do you keep the hunger going, keep excited about what you are doing?
By learning. Right now I’m on a mission to improve my knowledge of chord progressions, so I can play things I hear in my head, and put tracks together faster. The industry is much faster these days, in a lot of cases it’s a quantity versus quality thing: if you’re not putting out new records all the time, it’s like you’re inactive or something. For me though, I need to have quality AND quantity, it’s the way I am.
I get excited about learning new things. I’m like a sponge in that way, always finding new ways to learn around the studio. Working with younger people, and Millennials, has been eye-opening too, because it gives me a real sense of how they work.
As long as you stay humble and are willing to learn, you’ll never get tired, because you’re always evolving. Look at Madonna; she has probably embraced every form of dance music that was ever created during her career.
Q. So much about being a DJ these days is also about the ‘celebrity’ element, social media, influencer status – does this frustrate you?
I embrace it. I love the fact that people are so eager to find out about house music, even after all these years. I’ve done some big festivals, where I was able to play house music to 60,000 people and rock the crowd – even though they might have EDM DJs on the same bill.
When I was growing up, I was influenced by the soul and jazz records that my father owned, I’ve always respected different kinds of music. I think it’s incredible that the music around today has been influenced by what I was doing; it’s moved on a generation.
Q. What work are you currently undertaking with S&S Records?
I’m super excited about the current releases on S&S such as the S&S Chicago 2018 compilation, which features many of this past year’s releases.
But one of the releases I’m most excited about is the 2019 release of my Anthology Project and the re-issuing of titles (with remixes) from ID Records, Silk Entertainment, DJ World, Echotron, and my partner Skip’s PushPac Records.
For more information, visit www.snschicago.com. Thanks again to Steve for the interview, and for the fantastic pictures! 🙂