Interview: ORIGINALS… Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley (Part Two)
As part of our ORIGINALS series, bona fide house music legend Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley chats exclusively to 909originals about the clubs, tracks and individuals that shaped his long career.
Following on from part one yesterday, today Steve recalls the story behind breakthrough hit Jack Your Body, remixing the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson, and the importance of keeping busy.
Over to you, Steve…
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! 🙂