Marshall Jefferson Still Sounds Like the Future

The Chicago house originator guides us through his deep dancefloor legacy

Marie Staggat

One of house music’s founding fathers, Marshall Jefferson was born in Chicago in 1959. Though he grew up on Motown, his teenage years were spent obsessing over rock music, much to the chagrin of his soul-loving friends. It wasn’t until the early ’80s, when he was working a graveyard shift at the post office, that Jefferson heard local DJ heroes the Hot Mix 5 and threw himself into dance music. On the advice of Jesse Saunders, he bought a small fleet of gear and began producing tracks in 1985, initially using the name Virgo until his genre-defining “Move Your Body.” The piano-heavy track became an anthem on both sides of the Atlantic, and Jefferson’s reputation was boosted by his involvement in producing tracks by Phuture, CeCe Rogers, Ten City and countless others. In this excerpt from his in-depth Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio with Lauren Martin, Jefferson gives a glimpse into his fascinating world.

Just before you started to produce your own music, what was inspiring you musically?

I was listening to a lot of rock music, which was strange for a black dude. I had Black Panthers in my family and I think I may have done it to secretly, subconsciously, irritate them. I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Cream, Yes, David Bowie and Elton John. Those were my main influences, but I also liked black artists like Isaac Hayes, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield and Stanley Clarke. I mean – anything that my friends weren’t listening to.

When I started making house music I noticed that everybody else was copying disco, so I said to myself, “I’ve got to try something different. Since everybody’s going that disco-sampling direction, I want to take from some of my rock and psychedelic influences from the ’60s and ’70s.” I wanted to incorporate that in the house music and, coincidentally, instead of acid rock, a lot of people started calling it acid house. When I made “Open Our Eyes,” I was thinking about Yes.

Tell me about the making of “Open Our Eyes.”

Marshall Jefferson - “Open Our Eyes”

Love Parade... it all started because of some kids who were listening to “Open Our Eyes” and felt love.

I was trying to be really purist. I had Kenny [Bobien] and Eddie [Stockley] sing the vocals live to the master instead of laying the vocal to tape because I didn’t want anything to mess up that pure blend. People ask me to remix the song to this day, but Eddie’s in California and Kenny’s in New Jersey and both of them are accomplished solo artists. Those background vocals will never be duplicated because nobody’s recording to tape anymore. It was just the most beautiful thing. I would play it and people would cry on the dancefloor, singing, “Open our eyes, give us the light.”

It wasn’t that big a hit but it was very influential. Someone came to me at a music conference one time and said that he loved my work. He said, “We heard ‘Open Our Eyes’ and we walked on the street and we had a parade. There were about 150 of us and we were so full of love that we made a parade,” and that’s how Love Parade in Germany started. It went from 150 people to eventually 2 million people, and it all started because of some kids who were listening to “Open Our Eyes” and felt love.

Could you describe to me the feel of walking in to The Music Box and watching Ron Hardy play, and how it inspired you to start making music?

Ron Hardy would do edits. He wouldn’t do his own music. He didn’t play anything. He would be editing on his cassette deck while you were talking to him. Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles broke a lot of new artists in their clubs. They would play a lot of stuff that nobody else would play, stuff that even the Hot Mix 5 wouldn’t play until a bit later (because they were shackled by the program directors saying, “We can’t play any unreleased music on the radio”).

I know there was quite a bit of tension between the kind of sounds that were played in each club: The Music Box had a different vibe to the Warehouse. What of both appealed to you?

The Music Box was a lot more energetic. Ron Hardy had a drug problem. He needed to speed up the music because it all sounded slow to him. Frankie Knuckles, on the other hand, was much more classy. Some records – “Acid Tracks” and “I Lost Control” – Frankie wouldn’t have played because they weren’t classy enough. Ron Hardy was “rock the party at all costs.” People would be screaming every single song. A normal party for Frankie was from midnight till noon. Ron Hardy sometimes would go for three days without sleeping and people would be dancing right along with him.

I’ve heard that the making of “Pleasure Control” was very much along the lines of how you describe Ron Hardy.

If my mother ever knew what went into making “Pleasure Control” then it may not be her favorite song anymore.

On The House - “Pleasure Control”

Ah, yes, “Pleasure Control.” That was back in the day when a lot of people brought cocaine into the studio as an inspirational tool. One time, the engineer thought that Ron Hardy brought cocaine along and he dove right into it. He said, “Man, you got some blow? All right!” Ron Hardy just said, calmly, “It’s not that kind of blow.” It was heroin. For the rest of the night, the engineer was in the corner with his eyes bug-wide open: “That wasn’t no coke, man! That wasn’t no coke!”

He was nonfunctional, so Ron and I had to take over the session and we didn’t know what we were doing. Ron learned how to do it while he was high on heroin. That’s the most amazing thing about it. He mixed the song live: with his own hands, on a 24-channel mixing board; moving the faders up and down, doing his own dropouts, all of that. No edits, no nothing. “Pleasure Control” is my own and my mother’s favorite song, but if she ever knew what went into making it then it may not be her favorite song anymore.

On a technical level, I know that you played pretty much all of the instruments that were used as the bulk of your sound. Could you explain the bare bones of how you actually did that?

When I first started playing, because I was a DJ and not a keyboard player, I only had the concept in my head when I bought the equipment. I said, “I’m going to record the parts live at a slow speed, then I’m going to speed it all up so that it makes me sound like a much better live player.” I noticed that I had to lengthen the notes so they would sound fuller and more natural after I sped it up, and I became so adept at it that it sounded natural by the time I got to “Move Your Body.”

For “Move Your Body,” I would play one part, the bassline, at 40BPM, then speed it up to 122BPM. In that process – if you’re recording at 40BPM and you speed it up to 122BPM – it’s going to sound choppy and jerky. It’s not going to sound natural and the key is making it sound natural, so what I did technically was quite meticulous. I had to link the notes up and know how much I was going to lengthen each one by to be able to fit them together. I learned how to do that on the fly, too, because I had to.

Marshall Jefferson - “Move Your Body”

House music parties began when people quickly found out that the gangsters wouldn’t show up because those were the gay parties.

What other sounds, US and non-US, were getting folded into what you were doing at the time?

It was a lot of Italian disco, stuff like Klein + M.B.O., and a lot of Philly Sound, too. We didn’t care if people were saying “Disco Sucks!” because we liked it and it was part of our thing. House music was our everything. It was the best underground dance music and underground meant that the overground — the pop people, the corny people — didn’t like it. Also, the gangsters didn’t like it and the primary objective of house music was to keep the gangsters out.

When you say that house music kept the gangsters out, what do you mean? What was the culture of Chicago like at the time that it made you feel that way?

It’s still like that today [in Chicago]. There was a recent report that said there were more gun killings in Chicago than Afghanistan over the last decade. Spike Lee even made a movie called Chi-Raq about Chicago’s gun crime. House music parties began when people quickly found out that the gangsters wouldn’t show up because those were the gay parties — after the Warehouse, where Frankie Knuckles was spinning. They said, “I’m not going there. I’m not going to no gay house party.”

That’s why house music exploded in Chicago. You started seeing 5-10,000 black kids at parties and it’d be completely safe because none of the gangsters would show up. By contrast, in New York, the gangsters were throwing the parties, like the Zulus and the Latin Kings. I know the Zulus had a model: “You come in peace, or you leave in pieces.” Nobody would dare cut up at a Zulu party. They’d take them in the back and you’d never see them again.

In Chicago, we absolutely didn’t like hip-hop. It was the idea of violence. Everybody trying to throw rap parties in Chicago got their parties shot up. Gangsters are stupid sometimes: they’d show up and say stuff like, “You stepped on my Jordans, man.” People don’t want to put up with that. They want a safe party, and that’s the house party. I’m not saying that nobody in Chicago likes hip-hop, but nobody wants to dodge bullets, neither.

By Lauren Martin on August 4, 2016

On a different note