Interview: Todd Terry
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Todd Terry had on New York club music in the late ’80s. A native of Bensonhurst and Coney Island, Terry liked straight-up dance music as much as the hip hop he spent his teen years attempting to make, putting together tracks and hoping to land a production deal. But when he shifted, for fun, to stitching together already-existing house tracks into a megamix called “Party People,” credited to Royal House, in 1987, he had an instant hit.
“Party People” presaged a torrent of singles in 1987-88, under nearly as many pseudonyms: Black Riot (1988’s “A Day in the Life”), Swan Lake (1988’s “In the Name of Love”), and – before gifting it to his old colleagues “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, whom Terry had introduced to one another – Masters at Work (“Dum Dum Cry,” 1987). Instantly, Terry became an in-demand remixer as well as producer: his mix of Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” (1994) propelled it to number two on the Billboard pop chart. Terry spoke with RBMA’s Michaelangelo Matos over the phone in summer 2012 about his life and career.
How did you start out producing? Did you just make tracks on cassettes for yourself?
Yeah. I got a little drum machine when my boys used to rap and I would make the beats. That’s the producing aspect where I started. I started out in rap records. I was learning how to do that type of stuff first because I felt as though that was a lot easier than having to get musicians and make music. I thought, “OK, I can get a beat and he can just rap to it and that’s hot.” It’s Run-D.M.C. – he had a beat and a rhyme and it was good. I definitely made a lot of stuff just for myself in the beginning.
Were the first house recordings you made the first house recordings you released? Or did you make a lot of stuff that didn’t come out very early on?
I did a radio interview with Marshall Jefferson and the first thing I said to him was, “I didn’t know that was your record, I’m so sorry.”
No. The first house recordings I did were records I shopped the next week and got a deal – kind of weird, that. After they showed me what they were doing in The Garage, I just mimicked Chicago house stuff – Dominatrix, those kinds of records. I mixed them all together and made a house record. And I think one of the first house records was “Party People.” I played around with some samples here and there. Actually the stuff was right off the cassette. I took the cassette and sampled it. I found out later it was Marshall Jefferson. I didn’t really know the whole aspect of who I was sampling or where I was getting some – I was doing it joking around, just to show my friend, “Oh, I can do this shit. I can do this type of music, what’s the big deal?”
Was Northcott Music the first place you took your demo?
No. I actually went to a lot of different labels at first. Northcott basically took my records because I had other records out. I was all over the place in the first couple years. It was just going so fast. I had ten records out that year, which was remarkable for anybody at that time. I would say that was ’87, ’88 – I had a lot going on [with the dance stuff]. I was trying to finish up a lot of my rap records and I couldn’t get deals with those. I used to send out those records to companies and I never heard anything back.
So when you put all that stuff in ’87 and ’88, was it a big backlog that you had stored up or were you just making a lot of tracks at that time?
I was just making them and selling them. It was just a process for me – go make a record: some took a week, some took a day, some took two months. I would just work on the records and bring them to labels. I was working a little bit at that time and trying to move out of Mom’s house.
Were you recording on a cassette four-track or reel-to-reel?
I had a reel-to-reel. Everything was reel-to-reel for me. I would go in there and I would bug out for six-and-a-half minutes, or I would bug out three-and-a-half minutes and I’d just do some craziness and then I’d edit it. I wanted to make records interesting every minute-and-a-half. That’s what I tried to do. Do a really hot minute-and-a half/two minutes and just loop it three times.
When you say you were editing, you mean with a grease pencil and a razor blade?
Yeah. I was splicing and dicing. A lot of those records are basically edits. It was me editing into the part. I would sit there and edit the record – I learned editing from Mike Delgado and Franklin Martinez at the time when we was doing the Masters at Work stuff. Sometimes when I couldn’t find them I said, “Alright, I have to edit this myself.” That’s when I started getting into editing. But my editing was really straight cuts. I couldn’t do tricks or nothing that. I just edited right on the beat.
Let’s talk a little about the Jungle Brothers’ “I’ll House You.” You’re credited as arranger. What exactly was your role there?
I used to work with Tony D, and we had Idlers Records. It was the affiliate through Warlock. So it was me, Tony D, and Oswald and Elliott, with this label where we put out a lot of the rap stuff like The Jungle Brothers, Choice M.C.s. My whole thing was the dance stuff but [laughs] I still wanted to make rap records. That was just my whole thing. So I would work with Jungle Brothers. I had ties into Whodini and Doug E. Fresh... I was still backdooring my rap projects here and there. And, you know, I did put out a few of the rap records. People probably don’t even know that I did [that]. MC Serch, his first records, Bad Boys, a lot of stuff from the very beginning. I did some of those records. Some of them had my name on them, some of them didn’t.
But for that particular one, did they call you and say, “We want to do a house joint”?
We used to all be in the same basement – that’s where all the records came out of. “Can You Party,” “Party People.” A lot of the stuff I did at my house, but I would master the stuff at Tony D’s crib in Coney Island. And then one day Tony says, “You know your ‘Can You Party’ shit is enormous. We should do a rap version to it.” I was just, “Man, I don’t know about doing that” cause I didn’t want nobody on top of my records unless I thought of it. That’s how I was. But it really was Tony D’s idea – he’s the one that thought of it.
What do the hip hop guys that you hung out with generally think about house music?
I wanted to make records interesting every minute-and-a-half... Do a really hot minute-and-a half/two minutes and just loop it three times.
Doug E. Fresh got it right away because he always made club music. I guess if you’re a gangster rapper, you’re not gonna get it. It’s not their style, it’s not their fusion. Doug E. Fresh got it, Whodini understood it because he had music in their records. They went more R&B and music. I think anybody that was just in the musical aspect of it, they would get it. Some of the other guys – Choice M.C.s and all that stuff – they didn’t want to touch dance records. We offered it to them. They were like, “No, we like this hip hop beat better.”
No, I did not know them. I had a problem with Frankie Bones ’cause he would pop shit about me in interviews and steal my records, which was really stupid. Every one of the records that he came out with was a sample of my record and he used to pop shit about me, so I didn’t [like] that at the time. I always said I’d catch him [laughs] and I never caught him to this day. Anyway that was just – a lot of people made careers off of me. It just happened. I was there for the era. I had all the records out at the time. I sampled a lot of records, a lot of people sampled me. That’s what happened.
You mentioned sampling Marshall Jefferson earlier. When did you meet him?
I met Marshall on tour. Me, Derrick May, Marshall Jefferson, Robert Owens. We did this Marlboro tour. That was the first time I met Marshall Jefferson. We did a radio interview and the first thing I said to him was, “I didn’t know that was your record, I’m so sorry.” [laughs] That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth. Because I didn’t know it was his record. I didn’t know it was Kevin Saunderson’s record. I didn’t know who did the record. I got those records off a cassette.
You sampled them from cassettes?
I had this mixtape my friend gave me, and I sampled it over the cassette. I was, “Oh, I’m just gonna take this little piece here.” I didn’t even think about that it was so dear to anybody to take a little piece and make something out of it. I mean if you really think about it, I made a record out of sound: “do do do do do.” I took that and made a record out of it. I didn’t think it was that bad. I didn’t loop their whole record. [But] no matter what, I still took something from them. Marshall was really cool. To this day we’re cool.
Did you make an effort to always clear your samples?
Yeah, I always would try. You got to realize that – at some point some of the records, I don’t know what they were, white labels or cassettes, I didn’t really care where I was getting the idea or the sound from – because I didn’t really care about house at the time. I didn’t really care. I was hip hop. You understand?
So you look at house, I didn’t care about it the same way. I wouldn’t sample Run D.M.C.’s record, but I’ll sample this guy’s record. You understand what I’m saying? It’s a different way of looking at it back then. I didn’t care about it as much as something I would have really believed in, I guess you would say. But if I could clear a sample, I would let somebody know that I sampled them, what did they think about it, can we work a deal. I would definitely try. I think I was the first guy to think that. I’d walk in to a label and say, “Well, I got a sample from this record, we should clear it.” I said that 25, 26 years ago.
Around that same time, a lot of house artists were getting signed to major label deals. Did the majors court you outside of the Max Q project? Did they court you as Todd Terry?
I would say I went to every major label to get a record deal. None of them would sign my records. None of them. I went to Capitol Records, I played them “Bango,” I played them “Weekend,” they turned it down. At one point I said, “Yeah, I’m going to get a major label deal – this is the perfect time, what major label is going to turn me down?”
One label did sign me and ruined me at the same time. That was Zomba Publishing. Zomba Music Publishing. I did a deal with them and I did an album for them, and it never came out. It stayed on the shelf. It was “too many samples” and “this is not a commercial record,” and I said, “Have you heard what I’ve done? A lot of my records aren’t commercial and people still play them on the radio. Why am I here? Obviously you heard something from somebody who said that I’m good, right? So just let me be good and put out a record.”
Remixing, I think, really just messes you up and waters you down and your career.
It hurt at that time because I put a lot of concentration in not putting out records with anybody else for that year. I thought, “I got all this perfection and now here is the icing on the cake. Now I’m going to do some craziness and it is gonna revolutionize house music and dance music.” They never put it out. They never cared about it or nothing. It just sat on the shelf. I wasted all my money doing it too. That was another thing. I wasted all my money at that time doing that album.
When you were done with that, is that when you really started to pick up on the remix stuff? Like, “I got to pay bills”?
Yeah. That was my bread and butter to make money, because I had to make money after the craziness that happened to me that year. They wouldn’t let me put out other records with other labels in my contract, so I had to do the remixing. That was the only way to put out stuff. And, remixing, you got to please the artist and the label. You don’t really please yourself. I never was keen on remixing. Remixing, I think, really just messes you up and waters you down and your career. That’s what I’ve seen.
Did you generally have a set fee to remix during that period or would it be a sliding scale?
Every budget was different. If we had four thousand and the record only needed a dub, I’d do it. It’s all about what the record needs. If the record needed a full vocal remix package with dubs and instrumentals and all that stuff, it’s a bigger budget because it’s probably four days in the studio. That was in the time of the big studios too, so that was expensive. I remember having $50,000 studio bills. I had to come in there and cut a check for 30 grand just to work it there. So you’re talking a way different time.
I’m particularly curious about your mix of “Brighter Days” by Cajmere. I’m guessing you didn’t get a lot of money for that but at the same time, that was a pretty big...
I didn’t do it for no money at all.
You did that for no money?
Did it for no money. Some records... if I felt the record was a hit record... I would either do it for nothing or... I think he paid for the studio time. Which was probably two days of studio. But we didn’t get paid for it because I dragged Kenny [Gonzalez], I dragged Louie [Vega], I dragged everybody in to do it with me. I was, “I’m doing this record, I’m doing Cajmere.” And everybody was, “Oh yeah, I love that!” I don’t necessarily believe I have to be paid for every record. I believe if it’s a hit record – and my name is on it – I got paid for it. It’s more of a payday for me to be on a hit record. You’re only as good as your last record. So you always want to be on a hit record. Always. No matter what it takes.