Interview: DJ Funk

The booty percolator delves deeper into his history as one of the architects of Chicago ghetto house

Since the mid-’90s, Charles “DJ Funk” Chambers has been synonymous with “ghetto house”: the gritty, pounding and perverted cousin of the Chicago house family. One of the architects of the ghetto house style – alongside Deeon, Houz’ Mon, Milton, Jammin Gerald, Slugo and Traxman – Funk (and his label, Dance Mania) has traveled the world promoting the power – and the powerful fun – of rough ‘n’ raw 808 and 909 house topped with nasty lyrics.

While some have quickly dismissed club detonators with names like “Dik Work,” “Pump It,” “Face Down Ass Up” and “Pussy Percolate,” they’ve hugely inspired the likes of Daft Punk, Bassment Jaxx, Justice and Boys Noize, all of whom have collaborated with the Midwest’s chief bootyologist. In this interview, Vivian Host talks to DJ Funk about the mixtape hustle, waterbeds, footwork and the Vice Lords, along with the history of video clashin’, megamixing, and ass shaking. Pump it up.

Jacob Khrist

Can you tell me what it was like for you growing up in Chicago?

If I could just skip really fast through it, it was hardcore. My family was really poor, so we didn’t have no money and shit. In the inner city, if you don’t got new clothes and shit, kids make fun of you. The schools are shitty. It was like a lot of gang violence; a lot of whores, pimps, hustlers – it’s not the most positive thing. As an inner city kid, that’s all you have for a role model. You don’t see a businessman with a suit on around your house – you see a drug dealer or gang banger. When you in the neighborhood and it’s only one job available for every 10 teenagers… it makes you fucking go crazy. I did not let that deter me. I was just like, “I ain’t fixing to do this shit. I’m a end up dead or locked up in jail if I try to go to that route.” If it wasn’t for the music, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. It takes your mind off of a lot of negativity.

Did you have other people around you that were older that were DJs? When was the first time that you heard house music?

I had to be about 13 or 14 years old. Me and my friend snuck in the club. There was just like these huge speakers and you could feel the bass. The DJ was up there scratching, and I’m like, “What is this? I want to do this.” I didn’t plan on making a career out of it or anything – it was just exciting.

In Chicago growing up, you just can’t be on the streets just hanging out with nothing to do.

You couldn’t really meet the DJ back in the day. It wasn’t like it was now where DJ are more like celebrities. Back then it was so underground; it was really private and personal. It took about a year or a little longer for me to get in with this guy Clint-X, who was one of the best DJs on Chicago’s Westside. I bought me some turntables and a mixer and records. That’s when it was real expensive to do it and I got hired at a club when I was 18 or 19.

What made you start producing your own tracks?

After DJing for a while, you just have the passion to make music. When I would hear the Chicago tracks – they would have an 808 or a 909 and it’d just be a beat track – I’m thinking in my head, “I can do that.” All I had to do was get some equipment. One of my friends had a drum machine and I ended up buying me one. An 808 was like $1,000 or $1,500 dollars; when you young and you not working, that’s a lot of money to come up with.

When you refer to “beat tracks,” what do you mean?

Just a drum machine. It’s just a beat and nothing else; maybe it might have a little lyric. We noticed that a lot of the times the A-side [of the record] wouldn’t make people move as much as the B-side, so would play the dub side or the b-side or just the track part of it and that became a whole style. The other music, the A-side, was for really deep house type of people. We was just young kids that wanted to get up and party and see girls shake they ass and shit, you know?

Whose beat tracks were your favorites to play?

Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, a lot of stuff on Trax Records, Lil Louis. A few times a year, I go through my old collection and get me some wine and reminisce like, “Ah, I remember that!” It helps inspire me.

There was this old record I made that I listened to recently called “Get the Ho.” The quality of it sucks, but it was so much of a jam. You can hear the hiss from the tapes on it, like they had to press it off cassette. I don’t even think the tape hiss is bad, or the converters that they had – it all adds the flavor and style to the music. It’s got a natural sound to it, you know?

Describe what makes the Chicago mixing style – or even the Midwest mixing style – so specific.

The style is more like a megamix. It’s tracky and minimal most of the time – you’ll just have a beat, a bassline, a hi-hat, a clap, and a vocal sample. We pitched our stuff up to like 140 or 150 bpm – that brings more energy to it. We would play the records for a minute and a half to two minutes, or even shorter, depending on what we doing it for. It adds more energy because then you hearing track after track after track after track.

I was like, “Fuck this shit. I’m a depend on myself.” If anything happens where I don’t be successful, I’m a let myself down.

It’s not like when you play a record for three to five minutes and you set yourself up for the eight, the 16, the 32 bars or whatever. We just bring the shit it how it feel. I used to do megamixes. I would cut it up so much that they can’t really sue me for sampling. I can still use the stuff right now! I used to be a breakdancer and there was this one megamix on Tommy Boy that would make me dance like crazy. I thought that would be cool to add to that to house music.

What do you consider to be your first big break?

I wasn’t even going to take DJing serious. The first DJ experience I had that made me thinking about taking DJing seriously was when I was a shorty. One day, I had bought maybe a couple of dozen of fucking Memorex cassette tapes. I made a mix and I dubbed them up. I made about $500 in an hour!

I was selling ‘em with one of the guys from Do or Die, before they was a group. We would go to Madison and Pulaski, the shopping center, and it’d be a lot of guys out there and they would have their soundsystems. We would go up to the guys – they was mostly drug dealers and shit – and just put in the tapes... “Hey, pop this in, man! We got DJ Funk.” They’d pop it in, and I’d just be it cutting up. They was like, “Give me two of those.” And then we’d ask, “Hey, you got some buddies?” We’d get their numbers, and that’s how it really spawned.

I made like $500. I was staying with my granny at the time and I don’t even think she made that working 40 hours a week. I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, I can make this in a hour. I don’t think I’m going to work a fucking job.” And I never really had a “real” job. Well, I could say I had two jobs. I worked at this furniture company called Aronson for two weeks then I quit and I bought a drum machine; one that I still got now. I had one more job for three months. I bought me two [Technics] 1200s [turntables], a car, and a leather jacket, and quit. Now my grandma thought I was crazy!

Justice - Let There Be Light (DJ Funk Bounce Dat Ass Remix)

Being a black teenager, 18 years old, with a factory job? I was making just as much as my parents and I quit. So she kind of snapped a bit. They didn’t encourage it at first, but I think when I made the “Bounce Dat Ass” remix for Justice’s “Let There Be Light” and it started blowing up real big they finally got it.

Did you have any mentors growing up?

You know what, I never really had mentors and stuff like that. My mentors were the records that I bought and the music that I played. When we first started making music, we didn’t have manuals. If you had a drum machine, you ain’t have no manual. Do you know how fucking hard it is to work? I told you music really kept me out of a lot of trouble – it’s because I would be concentrating on how to figure out how to work this drum machine instead of just wasting my time. In Chicago growing up, you just can’t be on the streets just hanging out with nothing to do and the police is riding around. The po-pos will get your ass.

I got locked up at the county once for some shit I didn’t do. I was in there with like 50 to 100 guys in one big dorm room. Never been in jail before, never got in trouble, anything. It freaked me the fuck out. Back then, it was half Gangster Disciples and half Vice Lords, the opposing gang. Then it was the Neutrons – that’s the motherfuckers that wasn’t in a gang. I was a Neutron motherfucker. When I first came in, I was already a famous DJ, so people was like, “Y’all don’t fuck with him. He cool.” I thank God for that.

DJ Funk - Pump It

They was smoking fucking weed and doing drugs in jail. I said, “Wait a minute! This shit ain’t making no motherfucking sense. How the fuck they got pornos, weed AND drugs in jail?” I’m said to myself, “Charles, you ain’t this fucking crazy. You don’t want to be around people like this.” That motivated me even more to do music. After that, I promised myself, “No more”; I think I made the “Pump It” record a couple of years later.

You used to produce with the Chicago rap group Do or Die, right?

Yeah, I had did Do or Die first record; they hooked up with the rapper Twista after that. I had a choice to make if I wanted to do hip hop or if I wanted to do dance music, house music or booty music. I was a teenager at the time, and I thought, “Man, when I get 30 years old, talking about killing and hurting people, I’m not going to like that.” I made a conscious decision just to do dance music because I know that I could do this shit until I’m like 60 or 70. I’m not a hardcore gangster. I can’t even imagine going to those shows and those guys be strapped up and arguing. For what? I want to see some ass and titties, you know? I don’t want to fight at a party. I want to party at a party.

The thing is, with any type of group, you got to depend on one, two, three other people. I was like, “Fuck this shit. I’m a depend on myself.” If anything happens where I don’t be successful, I’m a let myself down.

How did it come to be that you got on the Dance Mania label in the first place?

At first I put out my own record. This was 1993-ish. I was very young. I wanted to put a record out so bad, so I sold my waterbed – you know, I was a freak back in those days. I sold my car. I sold some of my DJ equipment. All to get the money up to actually put a record out. I pressed the record and went around to all the record stores in Chicago and put them on 30-day consignment and I made the money right back.

DJ Funk - House the Groove

Then, I found myself at Dance Mania; they had a distribution company and a record company. Ray pulled me to the side and he was like, “Hey man, I could sell a lot of these for you.” That’s when I did the “House the Groove” record. It didn’t take me no time to do that. I’m like, “Man, I’m a just throw this shit together.” It’s still one of my popular records, but it came from me investing in myself and putting my own record out. It was really expensive to do that shit back in the day.

I guess you had pretty strong faith that these records would sell.

I knew how much I was in love with dance music; I’m like, “Shit, I can make this shit right here. I am a teenager, so I’m a make what teenagers like.” I knew they was going to sell. Some DJs would put one or two or three tracks [one on record]; I put like eight. I was like, “I’m putting as many as I can get on this motherfucker.” Even when I did my Booty House Anthems 3 in 2012, I put 30-some tracks on there. When I did my DJ Funk Gold album last year, it’s got 43 songs and a mix. I don’t bullshit. It’s like, just give the people what they want, and let them pick what they want.

I’m not mad that I don’t have people that’s 40 years old at the party! I want to DJ parties where the young folks is at.

When I would buy the Hot Mix 5 records in Chicago and they would have one track on there, it might be a banging track, but I’d be mad. I’m like, “Dude, I don’t have that much money to buy a fucking record.” Now you get MP3s for free and shit. Anybody can be a DJ now with no money; compared to when I was coming up and you had to have the wax, the mixer, the turntables, the speakers, the amps. Oh my god. That’s why I take my TR-8 and TB-3 [drum machines] with me sometimes, because I got maybe like 50 tracks in there and then I start MCing live. Actually making up records on the spot, who does that now?

I play more of my original stuff now, stuff that’s unreleased, and then my ghetto house style. If it done lasted for 20 years, I made the right type of music because I’m still doing parties where teenagers is at. I’m not mad that I don’t have people that’s 40 years old at the party! I want to DJ parties where the young folks is at.

How much of the ghetto house style came from you guys MCing over the beat tracks at parties?

I didn’t really start MCing in the club until five years ago. I was one of those shy dudes and ain’t never really know what to say. I did all that stuff in the studio.

When I would make tracks with Jammin’ Gerald or Deeon or Houz Mon or any of those guys from Dancemania, whatever we had at the time, that’s what we used. If we just had a drum machine and a keyboard and no sampler, we’ll take the microphone and rap that shit live, you know? For instance, I think I did the first “Work It.” Then Gerald did a “Work It” and Deeon did a “Work It.” All our “Work It”’s did really good. Mine was sampled; I think I did that with a Ensoniq ASR-10. Deeon did his with a Yamaha keyboard and a 909, and he did it live. Gerald was using a Roland S-10 back in the days and a Roland drum machine. Whatever equipment that we had to do music with, that’s what we did it with.

DJ Funk - Video Clash II (Street Mix)

You mentioned making different versions of the same track. When you would do those and release them, did you need to get permission? I’m thinking specifically of your version of “Video Clash,” which is pretty similar to the Lil Louis original.

No. Back then I had permission from Ray [Barney], who was running the Dance Mania label. With the Dance Mania stuff, we used to collab and use each other’s music. We wouldn’t have to do a lot of licensing. I might call Deeon or Paul Johnson up and say, “Hey man, I need those samples. I want to make a remix of the track.” We were more like a family coming up. We didn’t have a lot of resources. It was good for us to collab – it helped everybody out. Even now, I’m still playing all the guys from Dance Mania – Paul, Deeon, Gerald, Wax, Robert Armani, Slugo – if it wasn’t for those guys making what they made, I wouldn’t even be where I’m at right now.

Can you talk about what the vibe was like in those Chicago parties? You were playing like The Factory, before you started playing raves?

Most of the clubs that I played at first were all black clubs, 500 folks and up. It was ghetto. They would shoot at the fucking club parties. Could you imagine that shit? I can remember one party that I did right down the street from my house in this big youth center. Somebody was shooting inside the venue, and everybody ran up on the DJs. I’m like, “I don’t got no gun! What everybody running up here for?”

After I started doing the records for Dance Mania, I started doing rave parties and I could just still play all the ghetto music that I made. It’s so fun and I never been around people that just didn’t want to be violent and just wanted to hug. You know, “Hey, we all a family” and all that.

For some reason, around that time I started playing raves, black people in Chicago had stopped listening to dance music and went straight to hip hop. Then you had Clear Channel. They kind of took over everything. They stopped our 20-minute workout mixes on the radio. People would listen to the radio all day just to hear music from Dance Mania and workout music! When Clear Channel took over, they was like, “No. Uh-uh. We playing gangster music on the radio.” It was like, “You don’t want to play happy music? What’s up with that?”

Our stuff was still selling on the streets, but then they stopped playing it on the radio. I stopped selling my shit because they was bootlegging my shit and making more money off my shit than I was. I said, “Fuck this shit. I’m a make my own music up and they’ll hear me play it at the parties. Fuck trying to put records out where other people can profit from me.”

DJ Funk "Work It"

When was the first time that you went outside of Chicago to play? I didn’t realize that Club Tracks #1 record – which has your early hits like “Work It” and “Pump It” – originally came out a UK label called Cosmic.

They got in contact with me through Ray at Dance Mania, I think. When they contacted me, I had a record ready already. That’s the secret – don’t go make a record, but just work on shit all the time. If you’re working with different labels, they usually pick better shit than you do anyway. I’m glad I worked with them because that record blew up so good for me and I went to Europe in ‘94.

Is that when you realized the effect your music had on people outside of Chicago?

It was on my third record when I went to London, and that was shocking to me. I got in a lot of trouble at that time. When I ended up getting out, all these people from Europe and Asia were hitting me up.

I didn’t take a lot of advantage of stuff that I could have, because I was just a ghetto guy. I didn’t know it would go so far. I didn’t know that people like Daft Punk were getting Grammy awards. If I would’ve known that, I probably would’ve paid more attention on what to do.

To be real, I was going through a whole bunch of motherfucking drama for a long motherfucking time. Instead of me concentrating on doing music and making records, especially when I had the energy, I’m fucking with my baby mamas and trying not to let them fuck my passport up, or getting kicked out my house because of fucking weed. I took care of three of my kids by myself for ten years, since when I was in my early 30s. That was fucking hard because I was doing all my bookings, writing my music, then going up to the school, the hospital and buying clothes. It was really hard. At that time, I was determined not to fail, you feel me? That fucked me out of working with a lot of big artists and projects and stuff, because I didn’t have the energy to do it at the time.

DJ Funk - Doggystyle

In 1996, Wax Master put out a song on Dance Mania called “Footwork.” Can you explain how Chicago ghetto styles evolved from ghetto house into juke and the style that is now called footwork?

When I was dancing at parties when I was a teenager, we used to do footworks. That was when you would dance to a beat track and everybody would crowd around. It was just at a different tempo. It was just a dance that was naturally out. My “Doggystyle” record is a juke record. Jammin’ Gerald’s “Hold Up Wait A Minute” is a juke record. All the footwork guys [like Spinn and Rashad] did was take our stuff and transform one or two tracks into a whole style of music. The same way with like reggae and moombahton or something – you could have one particular record and make a whole style from that.

They took our 140 BPM tempo up to like 160 BPM and it created another vibe, just like Trax Records had taken 125 BPM house to 130 BPM and then our ghetto house took it to 140.

Your first few records were not raunchy. When did you decide to put stuff about ass and titties in the music?

I just decided that I just needed to be more real and more like myself. I decided, if I go one route, I’m a sound like everybody else. If I take it this route and make something like “Pussy Ride,” that’s something that’ll shock a motherfucker. “Don’t you want a pussy ride?” Everybody want a pussy ride, right?!

I would admit stuff like that. I would say the craziest shit. Couple of years ago, I made “Put Them Titties In My Face.” I was just like, “What’s the dumbest, stupidest shit that I can say that people always think about?” You know, I’m just at the club and I was like, “Man, I would really like some titties in my face. I’m a remember that shit next time I write a song.” Just do the realest shit, no bullshit.

Most of the girls that like my music, they know I’m not talking about them. They know I’m a ghetto dude. When I talk about a whore, I’m talking about the real whores. If you not no whore, why you going to be mad? Most women don’t think I’m talking about them personally, and they come out and party to the music and then when they go home, they’re a lady. They get to let that loose side out of them. You just don’t get to do that everywhere.

Is making these records like a self-fulfilling prophecy? You make the record that’s like, “I want titties in my face” and then that happens?

Yeah, it works just like that. I didn’t never really want to say nothing that wasn’t true. In the beginning, when I was working with Do or Die, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I didn’t never talk about money, because I didn’t have none. Do or Die started rapping about money, and they ended up getting a million dollar deal. I felt kind of shitty because I produce these guys and they got a deal and they running away and shit. Where’s my cut? Anyway, whatever you write and put down on paper, it actually comes true. All you have to do is have the motivation and know you can do it.

Did you ever say anything on one of your records where afterwards you thought, “I can’t believe I just said that?”

Yeah, I did a lot of records where I didn’t believe some of the shit I said. Now, it’s normal. Now that you can curse on the radio or on the internet, I don’t even want to curse that much no more. It was cool when you couldn’t do it. Now that you can do it, I don’t want to do it no more… So I’m crazy.

Now you can do gospel songs.

No, no. We ain’t doing that. Not yet.

By Vivian Host on November 26, 2015

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