“Sometimes you just gotta push it…” House legend Todd Terry chats to 909originals
Todd Terry is an iconic figure in the world of house music. The Brooklyn native’s contribution to the acid house movement with tracks like Weekend and Can You Party helped light the touchpaper for what is now approaching a four-decade career. Elsewhere, cuts like Something Going On, A Day In The Life, Keep On Jumpin and Warlock aren’t just Todd Terry classics, they are among the finest examples of the house genre.
And that’s to say nothing of his iconic remixes, for artists such as Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Garbage, Jamiroquai, The Cardigans, Everything But The Girl… you name it, he’s done it.
2023 has seen him start the year with a flurry of new releases. These include Fly Like An Eagle (a cover of the Steve Miller Band classic) and I Give You Love (featuring Janika Tenn & Lee Wilson) on his InHouse label, Make You Happy, a collaboration with Mark Knight and James Hurr, on Toolroom, and a recently-released Steve Mac edit of his classic Keep On Jumpin’ on Freeze Records, another of Terry’s longstanding imprints.
Read More: #MyRecordBag – House legend Todd Terry reveals his all-time ‘go-to’ tracks
In short, he continues to fly the flag for uplifting, pumping house music, and while other artists may come and go, there can only be one Todd Terry. 909originals caught up with him.
Hi Todd, thanks for talking to us. It seems that you’re incredibly busy right now with all the new releases you have coming out. Is this typical for you? Do you thrive on having multiple projects in the works, or is this an especially busy period for you?
I have to do all of my records at the beginning of the year when I go out on tour, otherwise I don’t really have the time to give it my full concentration. So during the first four to five months, I try to bang out as many records as possible. Once summer comes, I can just focus on banging out gigs.
Sometimes I can work on a few records here and there, but I hate to be gigging when labels call and say that they need new records. I don’t feel like doing records now, you know? I’m usually tired from traveling – it’s tougher that way.
Given your history, I would have thought you would be able to set your own terms, rather than being at the mercy of the label’s demands?
Well, it’s kind of the case that you want to keep active as much as possible. Sometimes you do a couple of records and this one goes that way, that one goes this way. You’re like, ‘well, I still need something that’s a banger’, you know? You just can’t predict anything these days. A lot of it isn’t even about records any more.
I’m sure it can still be challenging to decide which tracks to release on your label InHouse versus other labels, like the recent release on Toolroom. Can you talk about your decision-making process?
Well, I’m just trying to do what they don’t do – what the majors want. I try to do the total opposite. With Fly Like An Eagle, I said ‘nobody’s gonna touch that’, so I’m gonna touch it. We used to play it all the time back in the day, and then when Biz Markie came out and he sampled it [on Nobody Beats the Biz], you know, that was just like a big deal for us.
So, I wanted to do my version of it, which was like a house-type of thing, you know, but I wanted to keep the essence of it, keep those noises in the background. That’s my whole thing. I like noises and I like weird stuff floating in the background. So that’s what I wanted to keep, that essence.
Your InHouse label has been around for 25 years now, Freeze Recordings even longer. It must a challenge to keep things exciting and fresh, especially with new labels popping up all the time. How do you keep the momentum going?
It’s annoying sometimes, to keep up with all the sh*t that’s out there, because it feels like social networking has become more powerful than your label.
Of course, you have your music, but you also have a whole other take on the music – is it good for commercials, or is it good enough to dance to? And then there’s the question of how you’ll look in your next video. It’s not just about the record anymore; it’s about the whole overall thing.
So, what you’re saying that nowadays music needs to fit into a social media and commercial context rather than standing on its own, like it used to.
It’s like every record is a movie now. You know, there’s promotion, we gotta put tags on it, we gotta get five DJs to chart it and tell everybody that it’s happening. It’s just different.
We used to just make a record, take it to the record store and go take it to the DJs – that was simple. It’s not that simple anymore.
It’s a whole branding thing. I would ask ‘when are you going to put it out?’, and they would reply ‘Oh, we gotta wait two more weeks because we don’t have the lyric video’. You need all this stuff. It wasn’t like that back in the day, there just seems to be so much more turmoil now to make it fit right.
You gotta compete. Even if you know you have a better record than someone else, you gotta compete. That’s the real crazy thing.
You mentioned the word ‘turmoil’ there. Are all the commercial and social media considerations taking some of the fun out of it for you?
Yeah, well, you get annoyed. You’re doing these posts, you’re doing a bunch of likes. You’re catering more, instead of just saying, ‘That record’s out, and it’s great’. It’s like you have to explain why it’s great and show how great it is to the world, you know? It’s just a different vibe.
Back in the day, it seemed easier, because it was easier. We would just put records out randomly back then, now your setup has to be three months long, you gotta get good interviews, you gotta create a different angle, you know? That’s the key to it.
A lot of labels are delving into their back catalogues and re-releasing tracks digitally, and you’ve done that with InHouse and Freeze. With such a vast collection of tracks and EPs over the years, how do you decide which ones to reissue? That must be a challenge too?
Well, no, to tell you the truth, that’s more of the easy part. Because what gives me the idea to put a particular record out is the people. So you get a certain amount of requests, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you should put out, you know, Warlock again.’ If you get five people or 10 people saying that, then I think ‘ahh, I should put out Warlock again’.
It’s better when you can use the people as your real A&R, not just yourself, you know? That makes it easier. There’s no turmoil to that.
But figuring out the industry today is turmoil. What are they into, what are they gonna like? Should I try to start a new style that sounds like this, or take a chance on that? There’s a bit of wondering.
With those records back then, I didn’t have to wonder. They just did their thing. You knew they were good, and you know, they’re still good. It was different way of looking at things.
I haven’t had the chance to see you play in a couple of years. I’m curious, do you delve into your archives and bring some of the old vinyls from the early 90s to play in front of a new audience?
I mix it up, dude. I play all fashionable drum rolls, singing, break beats, whatever. I’m gonna play it all. That’s how I feel.
It’s easier to play it all now than back in the day. Back then, I had to play reggae, soul, freestyle, Latin, breakbeat, and hip hop. I was playing six genres at night. Now, it’s easy for, you know, an hour and a half, two hours to just throw something that’s similar to house on.
It’s an easier vibe. There are some things that are easier, and some things that aren’t.
After a successful start to your career, in the 90s you signed with Mercury Records and had even more success with tracks like Keep on Jumpin’. Managing your labels is another chapter. What chapter would you say you’re in now, and do you feel like there’s still a long way to go in the book of Todd Terry?
Well, I realise that I can’t ever stop my records. I would love to have a Sony Records deal, and have them put out my records, but they won’t take it. Instead, they’ll take some type of weird-ass record and promote the shit out of it, and I’m puzzled by that.
I’m like, ‘So you think that record is going to be better than my record? You’re going to pick that guy over me? I’m the one with 30 platinum records. What has he got?’ So I gotta prove it on my own, and put my money where my mouth is.
So, this year, I’m putting my money into ten to 12 records that may have some radio influence. They don’t necessarily have to have radio influence, but I would like to pitch some of those records to radio this year and just do it myself.
I don’t want to meet Sony, or Atlantic Records – I think they suck. That’s my honest opinion – they forget about the guys that got them there. My hits got them there – that’s why they’re picking dance records.
But they tend to forget that, and put you down like an old dog that needs to be shot or something. It’s very degrading. But you know, I won’t stop.
I’m trying to make records that you can still throw on at next year’s party. You can still play Something Going On 30 years later. I’m making those type of records, but I guess they don’t notice it until it sits there for a little while – it took Everything but the Girl nine months to get on the radio. Nine months, dude.
It is what it is. I’m just going to have to power it out.
You keep it simple with your productions, and I think that’s what has made your music stand the test of time. I get frustrated sometimes when I hear overproduced tracks with too many unnecessary elements – less is more in many cases – and that’s something that needs to be conveyed to younger producers. Do you feel obliged to offer advice from time to time?
Hell no. They’ll have my secrets. But at the same time, everybody does their own thing. I can’t mess with that kid, you know? That’s his style, and a lot of people like that style. I just gotta stick to me.
I’ve done that whole ‘change of styles’ every now and then, sounding like this and sounding like that. But I think at the bottom line, the most success I’ve had is when I’ve taken the approach of ‘you’ve got to be yourself’.
You mentioned hip hop – would it be fair to say that hip hop served as a template for some of your earliest productions, almost as if you were creating hip hop and it ended up becoming house music?
Well, like I said, I didn’t really know about house when I started. I came from hip hop and then I came from freestyle. That’s tracks like Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Shannon, Let The Music Play, that kind of style.
So when I got into house, I was kind of learning as I go. I didn’t really understand the pure essence of it – I got that a little bit later. However, I always liked the hip hop influence in it – something funky, a little out of the ordinary that shocks you. Just a little piece here, or a little horn there, or a little sound that you can remember from back in the day.
Just little dips and dabs of good funk and soul records – the records that got us here. We got here from good music, but unfortunately now we’re making bad music. I try to fuse it together the best way I can.
Look, I make bad shit too, but I’m still always trying to fuse it together, you know?
I was getting reacquainted with your back catalogue before the interview and what strikes me about some of them, there’s this fantastic drum machine that you use, a really mechanical sound. Was that a TR-505, or something else?
Yeah, like you said, less is more. My first machine was the Casio RZ-1, and all I had was four sample slots. So I had the kicks there, and then I had a noise sample where there was like a bass noise, or a horn or something like that.
Then I used to bounce that down and add to it, and then take that and bounce those two tracks down and add to that. Because I only had a four track. That’s how I made some of the first initial records, like Bango and Can Your Party, A Day In The Life. There was a lot of bouncing and levels and stuff like that until I got it right.
So, you were essentially taking a four-track and turning it into a 16-track? I was wondering because many producers I speak to who produced back in the day cite the Boss Dr Rhythm and similar machines.
Yeah, I had that too, but I couldn’t get it to sound good. It had a hum in it, a low res hum, so you couldn’t put it on a record. So I had to find another drum machine that could give it the right essence. I found the Casio, with those four little sample pads, and I was in heaven. It was going to work.
After those days, I fell in love with the E-mu SP12 and then the SP1200 because that could sound better and punchier, with jumping drums and everything.
I was changing one sound and going into a different sound – I wanted to have a different sounding track every three years, or different sounding drums. I was always looking for that.
You were quite young when you released those early productions and it seems like you were adapting to changes in the industry as they came along. As for your rise to popularity in the UK, I’m sure you’ve been asked about it before, but how aware were you of what was happening? It reminds me of Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s experience with Jack Your Body getting big in the UK. He didn’t know about it until he got on a plane and flew over to do Top of the Pops. Was it a similar experience for you, with all these things taking off and you becoming more aware of it?
I used to receive phone calls from people for interviews, and I remember thinking, “Why? Why would someone want to interview me from London?” What is this all about? But then I spoke with a guy who said, “Hey, your records are doing really well out here, in London”, and I was like ‘cool, cool’.
The first time I actually experienced the impact of my music overseas was when I went on the Sleeping Bag tour. T-La Rock, Just Ice, Mantronix, Nice and Smoove – we all went out on tour. I used to be their DJ, so we hung out together a lot. The first club we did was the Wag Club, then we did The Fridge and Brixton Academy. When we went out on that stage, we heard that roar, and we were like, ‘woah, this shit is crazy out here’.
That was a shock to me, and it made me realise that this is real. You could do all the great music that you liked, and make money from it. It was a big deal back then, and we just couldn’t believe it. It was really a shock.
In the US, other producers have told me that it was difficult back then because there wasn’t an established market for house music like there was in the UK. Record labels didn’t know where to put it – they didn’t know if it was hip hop or R&B. Did you encounter this as well?
No, some of them knew what was happening – they knew that this was what was being played in the club, and that it was a better alternative to what they were previously playing in the club, hip hop and freestyle. When they switched to house music, people started really dancing. They started moving, and getting into it.
Then, the majors tried to pop it, and that took it to another weird level, but it worked with some records because it made it even more popular. I wanted it to stay underground forever, but you can’t have that and also make it last. So, it had to get bigger.
Let’s talk about the New York scene and the producers you worked with in the late 80s and early 90s. Some Chicago producers I’ve spoken to have told me that when they got started, a) everyone was making it up as they went along, and b) everyone knew each other. They were going to each other’s houses, working with each other, and saying things like, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds cool, put that in’. Was there an element of that with you guys – were you pushing each other to make new boundaries?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I was mainly the catalyst of all of them because I used to be calling them up going, ‘Yo what are you doing? Come on, we’re gonna make some tracks and just bug out’.
At the beginning of the day, there was me, Mike Delgado, Franklin Martinez – and then Kenny [‘Dope’ Gonzalez] used to hang with us, and learned a lot of stuff from us, doing edits and making beats and stuff like that. There was definitely a vibe going on.
Then I used to go to Coney Island, to Tony D’s crib, with Oswald Elliott, and I used to hang out with the hip hop guys and make house music and mix it up. I was like a traveling music box.
I used to just go to everybody and play keyboards, and different beats, and hype them up. So yeah, I did have a big kind of family going on. I was in five different places every week, you know, just vibing and making music. It was everything for me.
I remember reading in a previous interview that you make records from the perspective of someone on the dancefloor, rather than as a straightforward producer – that the crowd’s reaction is the ultimate judge of a tune’s quality. Do you still feel as connected with the crowd and their reaction as when you first started producing?
Well, I think it went through stages. The dancefloor went through stages. You know, there was funky house at the beginning, and then it got to more sophisticated house, and then we got a little bit too commercial with it. Then we had to come back to funky house again, before EDM made it all about a drum roll.
Now, though, I think we’re in a good place. All the riff-raff is gone. You guys had fun, you guys made a bunch of money. Now let’s get to the real shit. I think a lot of the old-school producers need to come back – Ten City, Crystal Waters, Lil Louis Club Lonely – we need these type of records back.
You can keep some of the essence of what the new guys are doing but we need the funk, you know? It’s hard for me just to do it – like I said, the majors aren’t not gonna pick up my funky record. They’re gonna water it down, or get it remixed by some young kid that they think is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But he’s not. He’ll be gone in a year. That’s what keeps on happening.
I spoke to Marshall [Jefferson] and Byron [Stingily] from Ten City recently. It’s great to see them back in action.
Yeah, that’s good music. Marshall makes good music. We need that.
I came across a quote from you a few years ago where you mentioned that remixing work can stifle your creativity at times. What did you mean by that?
It does, because you to listen to this knucklehead behind a desk tell you what to do. It’s like, ‘dude, when was the last time you had a platinum record’? How are you going to tell me what the f*ck to do?
You’re telling me, ‘you need to sound like blah blah blah?’ Look, I get that, but he’s that guy. Why don’t you go hire him? I’m not going to sound like that guy. I’ll try to mimic some of his ideas that are really good, but I’m not going to make it sound exactly like that. It needs to sound different. That record needs to play and sound like that record, this record needs to play and sound like this record. Come on guys, what’s the matter with you all?
They get stuck, and they don’t want to lose their jobs – I understand some of that aspect of it – but be a leader, somewhere, somehow. Somebody step up and take it to where it needs to be.
It’s really hard to please when you do remixes. You gotta please this artist, you gotta please the label, and you gotta please yourself.
Yeah, that strikes me as odd – why would they approach you if they didn’t know what you do? There seems to be a disconnect there.
Ohh big time. I’ve had guys tell me, ‘No, it should be more like this and more like that, blah blah blah,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, who are you talking to? What’s the matter with you?’
It’s been tricky out there when it comes to remixes. I tend to grab the money and keep going. You can’t fight everybody. So, yeah, I sold out. I gave in to sin, but I also kept my integrity. I’ve always tried to keep integrity on all fields. It’s not easy to do in any business.
Let’s move on to your remix of Everything But The Girl’s Missing, which you mentioned earlier. Some people have said in the past that the band and producer didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it, and you had to fight for it. But that seems hard to believe when you consider the impact and influence it still has today. Can you sum up in a few sentences what the story was behind that remix?
At that time, I was doing tonnes of remixes, but that song came in, and I loved it. Even my manager was asking ‘is that for you?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff I really want to do.’ I want alternative shit, and I want my hard-ass beats. I think that’s a good world to be in. I think that gives the dancefloor more fusion.
So, we got the mix in – I went back and forth to two studios. I got it done in four hours, somehow, because we had to transfer something from one studio to another, and I handed it in. They were like, ‘Oh, it sounds good, blah blah blah.’ But then they’re like, ‘we’re trying to work it out. The artist probably doesn’t want to really change their sound’.
One day, I was in Italy somewhere, and another DJ friend of mine, Benji Candelario, called me and goes, ‘What’s this record you got out on this white label with this blue vinyl?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was saying something about ‘this girl record… something girl’, and I realised it was Everything But The Girl. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, ‘that’s something that’s supposed to be coming out soon’, and he was like ‘no, it’s out’, and there it was on white label.
Why didn’t they tell me? I would have been banging it out. The label were saying they were testing it out, that they hadn’t been able to get radio airplay with it, that the beat was maybe too hard. They asked me, ‘do you want to go in and make a softer mix?’ I was just, ‘hell f*cking no’. Leave that shit the way it is.
It went through that type of phase, and people at Atlantic Records kept on trying and trying to get it on the radio – and then all of a sudden, it got played on PLJ or something. And then it went crazy. It took three weeks, and it was all over the world. Like out of nowhere… and this shit came out nine months ago! That was weird.
And that was it. It was out there, and it was number one everywhere. You know, sometimes you just gotta push it. Sometimes people aren’t ready for it. They just want to stay with what’s familiar.
You could argue that a lot of people might not have even heard of Everything But The Girl if it wasn’t for the remix, which is quite ironic. The band recently announced a reunion – have they reached out to you to do another remix?
I mean, no offence, but I think our relationship was never as solid as everybody thought it was. I would have thought, right away, they would have called me to produce half the album, but they didn’t. So, it is what it is.
I’m not mad at them, we keep moving. I’m thankful to them, and I hope they’re thankful to me.
It’s obviously a track that’s so synonymous with you. I think if you play anywhere in the world, people expect you to play that at some point, right?
Oh, yeah. People get mad at me because I don’t play that record. They will walk up to me, angry. ‘Hey, you didn’t play my favourite record!’ and I’m like, “Oh my God, here we go again’. And they would be mad as hell. ‘So, you want me to get back on and play it? I ran out of time!’
I remember speaking to CJ Mackintosh, and he was saying that he has to play Pump Up The Volume everywhere he plays, and Joey Beltram has to play Energy Flash everywhere he plays.
Yeah, that’s right.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? On one hand, it’s great because people expect to hear those classic tracks and they’re still popular after all these years. But on the other hand, it can be a burden because you feel like you can’t move on and try new things. Finding a balance between pleasing the crowd and exploring new sounds is definitely a challenge.
Oh man, keeping people happy is like paying their bills. You just gotta keep on doing it. That’s not gonna go away.
I don’t know, man. I try to throw everything I can in my set, but you know there’s always one guy who says, ‘Oh, you didn’t play that Sound Design record.’ I’m like, ‘dude, why did you pick the most obscure record in the world?’
It’s hard to please everybody, but I try. I play the majority of them – Missing, Something Going On, Keep On Jumpin, Bango, Can You Party – as much as I can, but you only have so much time. And then I can’t really play any new tracks, because I’ve had to play all the old stuff, you know? It’s kind of tough.
Is there a particular favourite production of yours, Todd? Perhaps one that isn’t very commercial, but a hidden gem that you always keep in your record box. It might not be considered a ‘Todd Terry classic’, but it’s still always there for you as an ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ record to play?
Ah, well, you know, there are two ways to look at that. Obviously there’s Can You Party, A Day In The Life. And there have been hidden gems – lots of hidden gems – and I have to go and find them, There are so many of those, more than the obvious ones. It breaks my brain sometimes.
A lot of the hidden gems are other people’s records, tracks like God Made Me Funky by Mike Dunn – that’s a hidden gem. Marshall Jefferson’s records are hidden gems. There are lot of records out there that have that bang to it.
I want it all – I want to play it all, and I want to give it all. It’s hard to just put one stamp on this record or that record. It’s like a collage, they all have this power in them.
What does the rest of the year have in store for you? I mean, obviously, you have lots of tracks out now, but when does the touring season really start for you, I guess?
Well, it has started pretty much now. I get back to New York, I play there, and then I go to Miami, and then to London. The pot is brewing right now; they’re confirming all the stuff that they couldn’t confirm last month. So people come to me and say ‘I need you here on the 15th’ – I was going to hang out with my family, but I guess I can’t do that.
So, a lot of things are happening right now. I have Fly Like An Eagle out, I Give You Love is coming out. I’ve also got this record called The Sound, which is a rip-off of This is the Sound that I did with Riva Starr, but then I robbed it myself and made another record.
I’m doing some crazy stuff this year. I’m not gonna hold back.
Thanks Todd for talking to us. Check out his latest releases and tour dates here.