Interview: ORIGINALS… Marcus Mixx, part one

When you hit the bottom, there’s only one way to go… up. Just ask Chicago house producer Marcus Mixx, aka Marcus Shannon.

In the three decades or so since he first started making music, Shannon has experienced it all – having his early productions championed by luminaries such as Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, leading the A&R team at the seminal TRAX Records, and then being plunged into homelessness following a family emergency.

Still living in and out of shelters – most of his productions are now composed on a MacBook in one of the Windy City’s many libraries – things are starting to turn good again for the Beverly native.

He’s back at TRAX Records, working alongside label boss Rachael Cain (pictured with him above) on both music and video projects, including TRAX TV. He’s got releases coming out, on both TRAX and Let’s Pet Puppies, the underground label that has re-released several old Marcus Mixx tracks from the vaults. And he’s inching ever closer to securing a place he can call home – while cash flow is no longer an issue, he’s looking for a landlord that is willing to take on someone that doesn’t have a traditional 9 to 5.

As part of our ORIGINALS series, we caught up with Shannon to chat about how he got into house music, the rocky road that has taken him to where he is today, and what his future at TRAX Records holds.

PART TWO can be found here.

Q. Before we begin Marcus, how is everything going on the apartment front?

At the moment I have enough capital to get an apartment, but I don’t get paid by cheque weekly or bi-weekly – a so-called ‘regular job’. A lot of landlords don’t want to listen. They want to make sure somebody has a stable, regular job. At the moment, I’m looking for places that take cash.

To put my situation in another perspective, I tell myself it can’t be that bad. While I’ve had some rough times, I’ve met people that don’t have legs, or are living under bridges or on the streets.

For me, there’s something to look forward to: there’s still a little demand for my music and my videos. There are great people like Rachel Cain of TRAX, Mymy Pepper of Wake Up Music down in Miami, and Thomos Oakes of Let’s Pet Puppies… all of them have been so helpful. I’m making music again, and expanding into TV with TRAX TV – things are looking brighter.

There’s no reason to stop, just keep going forward and things should be a lot better.

Q. Thinking back to the 1980s, when did you first catch the house ‘bug’?

That was thanks to WBMX Radio and the Hot Mix 5. I grew up on rock and roll – I was one of the few black people in the neighbourhood and went to school with guys that were heavily into rock and roll. But when I was at home, I was a big radio listener; I used to scan my dial and stop on anything that sounded good – Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Stevie Wonder. I’m still that way.

I remember I was 15, and there was this buzz going around, like ‘have you heard house music?’ I wasn’t old enough to go to the clubs, so I listened to WBMX instead. During the day, my parents used to listen to it, when they played regular soul records.

But on a Friday night, it blew my mind. The way they used to blend records together made me want to become a DJ… as quickly as possible.

Ralphi Rosario of the Hot Mix 5, recorded April 1986. The other members of the Hot Mix 5 included Farley Jackmaster Funk, Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Kenny “Jammin” Jason, and Scott “Smokin” Silz

Q. How knowledgeable were you about the house scene at the time?

Back then I didn’t really know who Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles, or any of those great DJs were. I was working at a grocery store, and started purchasing vinyl at Gramaphone Records and the other record shops in Chicago, and got talking to some DJs. I was like ‘where can I hear this stuff’? And they would say ‘you’re not really old enough’.

So me and my friends would go to clubs and try and find a way to get in there. We’d get down there early, and we’d say to Frankie or whoever ‘can we carry your records in?’, just so we can see what the DJ booth look like. We used to give them mixtapes, and they would be like ‘nah, I don’t really have time to listen to that’.

But it was an amazing time; like being right next to a professional baseball or basketball player – they were just so approachable.

And then when they started playing, and how the crowd reacted… I wouldn’t have traded in those days for anything else. I loved everything about it.

When I started going to clubs, one of the things that I noticed at the beginning were that most of the house music clubs were gay. You had three or four guys all dancing up on each other; it wasn’t that I was put off by it, it was just something I wasn’t used to. Me and some of my buddies were bringing our girlfriends with us, and there may not have have been any other women in there, but the music was so good, we didn’t care. The next thing, you were dancing with guys and girls, it didn’t matter – you were just getting in to it.

Back then, we had a big gang situation in Chicago, but when they came into the club, they didn’t care if they ran into each other, or accidentally bumped into each other. You never saw any fights. That might have been different when the club was over and they were back out on the street. But in the club, it was like a ‘house music bubble’.

Q. How did you get into production?

One of my best lifelong friends, Gitano Camero, who works under the name L.I.A.M., had a very small 8-track studio. When I first met him he had no idea what house music was – he had all these drum machines and synthesisers, but he was doing rock music.

I was working on a track with him, and I said ‘can you turn the bass drum up a bit?’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. ‘It’s already too loud, why do you want it like that?’, he responded. I told him I was trying to make house music, and he was like ‘what the hell is house music’?

Within about two hours, I had him converted. He was really into it, and he begged me to come back the following weekend. I told him about WBMX, and where you could buy records, and about making mixtapes, and we used to hang out and experiment with sounds.

In retrospect, we didn’t do as much as we should have – we were drinking a lot; I used to drink two 30-packs of beer a day.

Longtime friend and close collaborator Gitano Camero

Q. Where did you draw your influences from at the time?

When I first started making music, it really reflected how I was feeling that day, or what I was listening to. You name an artist, and I was inspired by them. I can’t say I was inspired by one or two artists, it was all over the highway.

Gitano had all sorts of synthesizers; they weren’t the same ones that the big boys were using, but we played around with them all the same, and came up with these unique sounds. These days you can get anything you want at the tap of a button, but we would work with what we had.

That’s why some of those early recordings have these strange melodic bell sounds on them; we would mix that up with some effects and some strings. It was exciting.

When me and Gitano started making music, we would have a different label every couple of months. For example, Get Wet and Sweat Records came out of the blue one day, and we released a couple of tracks on it. Also Missing Dog, Under Dog… it was kind of cool because people thought that we had being signed by all these labels.

If we had kept some of them going for a bit longer than we did, they would have a real underground feel to them. But I think it was bad management at the time on our part.

Q. Listening to your early tracks, as well as those that were re-released on Let’s Pet Puppies a few years ago, there’s a real melodic feel to them – a musical intelligence?

Thanks. I was very fortunate; when I was five or six years old I took piano lessons every Saturday and eventually my mum and dad got a grand piano in the house. I used to read music a lot and then I started playing by ear.

I’ve never been a ‘copy and paste’ type artist, I’ve always tried to do my own thing. With tracks like The Spell and Without Makeup, I played them live – so you had seven or eight minutes of me playing the bassline as you hear it on the track.

Marcus Mixx’s Without Makeup (Ron Hardy Mix) was released in 2006, having been originally recorded in the 1980s.

Some days I’d be in the studio, and I would be thinking about a girl, and that would become a track. Another time, I might think about driving 80 miles an hour on the expressway, and that would turn into a track. It was just a case of putting down whatever was in my head. We’d be playing around with the acid sounds, and then put some flange on top of it, and it would be done in one or two takes.

We have so much stuff from back then, but the one thing we didn’t do was concentrate on growing a label, and getting enough copies out; we only never really repressed copies after the third round. We were just hanging out; we used to make music, and then head to the clubs to party.

That’s what has been so good about working with Thomos Oakes at Let’s Pet Puppies. He has so many of the old reel to reel tapes and DAT tapes from back then, and we’re trying to get that taken care of.

Q. Your first proper release, I Wanna House, came out in 1987, and was played by Farley Jackmaster Funk on the Hot Mix 5 radio show. Was that a ‘gateway’ for you in terms of developing a name for yourself?

Absolutely! Farley was the king of house back then, and it was literally like utopia when I first heard my records on the radio. He mixed it for around two minutes! I didn’t know he was going to play it.

The next thing I knew, there were record stores and distributors getting in touch, saying ‘we need another 25 or 30 copies’. Other people were saying ‘I knew you made a record, but I didn’t know it was that!’ It was a special moment.

Marcus Mixx’s I Wanna House came out in 1987

Q. I’ve spoken to other DJs and they have said it was quite a close community in Chicago back then, everyone knew each other. Was that the case?

It was a nice, small group of people, and we all traded each others records. If I needed to make a mixtape and I knew someone that had a record I needed, I could borrow it no problem – they knew I wouldn’t scratch it and I would take care of it. For the most part, we looked after each other. If there were DJ slots that needed to be filled, they would spread the word.

Armando [Gallop, RIP] was a little bit younger then me, and so was Ron Terrell, and I remember they came to me looking for the chance to play support on one of the nights I was putting on. They did the same thing that I used to do with Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy – hang around and open up some nights.

Another thing that brought the Chicago DJs together was this this rivalry with New York. I was still kind of young at the time, and I had never been to New York, but I remember this thing starting up where a few New York DJs were saying they invented house music. It was a bit like with the rap scene, the east coast/west coast thing.

It certainly brought the Chicago DJs closer together – for example, whenever Gene Hunt had a record out or Marshall Jefferson had a record out we would play the hell out of it. We didn’t diss anybody outside of the city, mind you, it was more about propelling things forward in Chicago.

I don’t remember anybody – Frankie, Ron, Farley, anyone – thinking they were better than anyone else.

Q. How did you come to join TRAX Records?

Steve Poindexter was the A&R man at TRAX Records and right before he left, he called me up out of the blue and said ‘Marcus I’m leaving TRAX, would you like to take over?

That’s like Michael Jordan calling me and saying would I like to play for the Bulls! TRAX was like the Motown of house music.

So I went down there and Larry Sherman [TRAX founder] basically gave me free reign. He was very rarely there at the warehouse/office, whereas I practically lived there. I would help bring records in, and press stuff up.

Don’t forget this was before the internet took off, so there was only a fax machine to communicate with. In the morning, when I came in, there would be 20 or 30 faxes on the floor, from all other the world.

Unfortunately Larry didn’t have a great relationship with a lot of the stores and distributors, but when I came in I faxed everybody in his rolodex, and said ‘I’ve taken over – let’s rebuild our relationship’. It was great to see people buying 200 units of, say, Move Your Body, but also buying some of the new stuff we were putting out as well.

Steve Poindexter, who Shannon replaced as A&R man at Trax Records

It was good that Larry stayed out of the way, to be honest, as none of the artists that made his label famous would deal with him. He dealt with the finances and stuff, and I was dealing with the artists.

Everyone you can think of, Adonis, Larry Heard… the legends of house music. I’d speak to them about doing some new stuff, and they would be like ‘sure, but we don’t want to deal with Larry’. I would say, ‘don’t worry, I’ve got this’, and a new record would come out.

This was a time when the label was getting straight again, the money was coming in, and we were getting back on track. I was thinking ahead about new releases and singles – at one point I blew my wad too early, you had distributors pre-ordering stuff before I even knew what it was.

Q. In the 90s, was it fair to say that the label was getting a bit stale; that the heyday of the late 80s had passed?

It had. In the 1980s, TRAX was number one, and nobody could touch it. But in the 90s it started to weather down a bit, because a lot of the artists went on to major labels and those that were still on the label weren’t getting paid.

I think back then, TRAX burned a lot of bridges, and it was difficult to heal those relationships. There was a period that I didn’t get paid for three weeks as well, I was borrowing money just to have gas money to go sell records.

Now, though, it’s totally different with Rachael in charge. A lot of the original artists are sitting down with her and working some bugs out. For some of them, it’s a case of ‘hey, let’s forget the past and start over’ – they can see that Rachael is calling the shots, so they are willing to give her a fair shake.

[Part two can be found here]

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