House music DJ and producer Ron Trent may have travelled all over the world in his near 30 year career, but his home city of Chicago is always with him. The spiritual home of house music, the inspiration for artists deep in its own neighborhood as well as those scattered worldwide, Chicago maintains unquestioned respect for its gift of musical genres and styles to the world, as well as the myriad talents who were born in and have championed it: blues, house, jazz, rock and soul, and of course house artists like Marshall Jefferson, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and Ron Hardy.
As well as releasing dozens of singles, EPs, collaborative works and three solo albums of his own productions since the early ’90s, Ron Trent has been running his own labels (Prescription, Future Vision, Electric Blue, Music And Power) and his own club nights (Giant Step at Shine, among others) in a mission to let the roots of house music grow across the globe. In this comprehensive interview with Steve Mizek on RBMA Radio, Trent discusses his entrance into the house music community, finding success with the support of Frankie Knuckles, the roots of the Prescription sound and his wide-ranging musical philosophies.
Tell me a little bit about where you were born, where you grew up, and a little bit about your musical upbringing.
I was born in Massachusetts, believe it or not. My parents had a choice of raising me in New York or raising me in Chicago. My dad is from Chicago and my mom was from Massachusetts. I was born a little bit outside of the college town of University of Massachusetts, and I was kind of born out of a revolutionary time, more or less: 1973. Both of my parents were very active in the black cultural movement, Pan-Africanist movement. I was raised on a worldwide perspective of history and that kind of thing. I carried that throughout my life, which is why now I’m very much into history and the restoration and cultivation of certain things, of certain aspects of history, that seem to get lost and be a little bit mysterious to people. I was raised here in Chicago – came here 1975, 1976. I grew up here and learned from these streets. It was the launching pad for me to experience the rest of the world.
What influenced you to start playing music, and what was your introduction to house music?
My dad was a percussionist as well as a singer in college, and he had his own band. One of the first instruments that I got introduced to was the drum. Learning how to articulate myself through my hands, my dad used to always tell me, “Man, your hands are too long, two fingers too long! You should be playing keyboards.” Maybe I should’ve listened to him.
House was just always like another family member in the house. It was just always there. I grew up listening to a lot of soul music, a lot of jazz, a lot of various types of music. My folks, my mother included, were very in tune to some of the pop culture music that was coming out, but alternative stuff. I grew up in a musical environment. You know, parties at the house, and my grandparents were also into music, too. When they would have their car parties, I would be the mini-jukebox and play the jams.
I graduated from playing percussion into playing traps. (We call them traps, but it’s a drum set.) I’m sure I got on my parents’ nerves, but I graduated from that into actually getting interested in playing keyboards. Once I had learned that that was an integral part of actually making music, I was like, “OK. I guess my dad was right, I should’ve taken piano lessons at an early age.” They had bought me an organ and all kinds of stuff, but I was like, “Eh, I don’t know if I want to do that.” The drum scene was a lot more exciting.
Records were always around. I think it might’ve been around 1977 or ’78 when my dad started working as vice president of a record pool here – it was called NADJA – with a gentleman by the name of Donald St. James. Record pools were more or less an avenue for DJs to act as tastemakers for music that was about to come out. Basically, record companies would come to record pools, which were like clubs, and say, “Okay, we’re going to give X amount of records for your DJs, and they’re going to test them out and they’re going to rate them. Tell us what kind of response they get on the dancefloor.”
My dad pretty much started DJing – but maybe not mixing, more like selecting – and they were throwing parties and this kind of thing. I guess I grew up in what became disco culture, and I say that because that’s actually the commercial term for uptempo R&B, which is what it was. I got introduced to 12"s and collecting albums and that kind of thing. Of course, I used to pay attention to all the pictures. When you’re a kid you’re paying attention to what it looks like. Reading the stories about the artist and this kind of thing, it was exciting.
Being a rock star, having a band was the thing that somebody wanted to do. You didn’t necessarily want to be a DJ.
Around that time I got introduced to the idea of mixing, or a mixer – not so much the mixing and DJ culture and that kind of thing, but more from a musical side. I got interested thereafter in actually creating my own music. Back in those times, if you had a band, that was like being a rock star. Being a rock star, having a band was the thing that somebody wanted to do. You didn’t necessarily want to be a DJ. DJing was kind of like, “What does that mean? Do you play on the radio? Clubs? What is that?” It wasn’t really popular like that like it is now – everybody wants to be a DJ now. I wanted a band back in the day. I was going in that direction.
It happened naturally. It wasn’t like this big, “Oh, I just woke up one day and I wanted to DJ.” It just kind of happened. It was also a neighborhood thing, too. The Warehouse opened up in 1977, which primarily had been a gay club. The culture of what we do today really comes from that, which then of course comes from, say, The Loft and David Mancuso, that kind of thing. Robert Williams, being the purveyor of The Warehouse, was a student of David Mancuso, and he brought it to Chicago.
By the time the culture hit – “house music culture,” which we didn’t necessarily call it; it was just music – it caught onto its own people. It’s not a thing where it’s like, “Oh well, this is the thing you do.” It was very underground. It was almost obscure. If you were into this music, you almost felt like you were part of an exclusive club. There was literally a whole subculture that had been created years before that you were just now discovering. By the time it hit the south side of Chicago, for us young heterosexual folk it was like nothing that we had experienced before. Mind you, the music that was being played in the club was a combination of what we had been raised on. Uptempo R&B, disco and stuff that you had just never heard before.
We had the Hot Mix 5 and radio shows and mix shows and that kind of thing, but this was just something totally different. A lot of this stuff that was passed onto us, the whole concept of what it was and what it sounded like was passed down through tapes and talk. People would talk about these things, and they had these tapes that they mysteriously got. All this came from the Power Plant, came from the Warehouse or came from the Muzic Box. This probably would have been a tape that had been dubbed several times through I don’t know how many hands, but you were getting a chance to hear what was going on in the club, because not everybody could get into these underground environments.
I’ve got to make that clear, because it’s something that’s real popular now and so commercial that people think, “Oh, this has just been something that was around.” This was something that you really had to be tapped into what was going on, and to be honest with you, you might’ve been ridiculed back in the day for being into house music. You were called a fag, or, “You into that fag music,” this kind of thing.
At least, that was the heterosexual experience, and I’m sure the homosexual experience as well, which is why they created their own environment – it was very mysterious. That’s the whole big story that’s there that people don’t really know about. Of course, we have the child of “house music,” called EDM now, which is the commercial term, which would be like “disco” back in the day. This was a big misconception, but bottom line is that this was a very special, secret thing that was going on, and not everybody was involved in it. That’s how you felt. If you finally got a chance to either go to the party, or knew something about the music, or knew some people that were going to the parties that were older than you, it was like you were being initiated to a special club. You took all of it very seriously.
What was it like writing your first two tracks?
My first few tracks nobody’s really heard before, or maybe those that I played for back in the day heard them, but “Altered States” was actually a product of a whole batch of music that I was making at the time. I had a friend, George Perry, who had more stuff than most people had. He was one of these kids – man, his parents gave him everything. His father was a doctor, so he had a 909, he had a big Roland keyboard, he had 1200s (which was unheard of back then). We’re talking about 13, 14 years old, ’85, ’86. We were still trying to get Gemini 101s, which is the turntable that you can go down to an electronic store downtown and get for $100. This boy had professional stuff back then, and I used to go over to his house and record. I had received a Roland 626 drum machine, and it was a part of the MIDI chain that we had at the time. We used to dial out ideas and this kind of thing.
Obviously, I wanted to do something slightly more musical than just tracks. I started off making tracks just to really dial out, getting used to the equipment, but later on down the line, once I got used to the environment, I wanted to really articulate something special. “Altered States” and “The Afterlife” and “Making Love” were tracks that came out of a process of experimentation. I had been exposed to music all my life, and tracks that were being played by Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, or the fidelity of Frankie Knuckles.
I say “fidelity” because Frankie was playing stuff that was a lot more sophisticated than the raw element that we know today in terms of the original Chicago house tracks. Frankie was from a different school. He was from New York, and they had been making music and doing stuff in big studios for a very long time; he was more professional. Chicago has an illustrious history in terms of music... But on the level of young men making tracks in their bedroom and this kind of thing, it wasn’t something that we knew about. We just knew that, “Hell, I could make some beats.” This was the mentality. Some people were a little bit more organized and developed, like Larry Heard. Larry Heard had been in a band in the ’70s and played drums in bands. By the time he actually started making music, he was musically inclined and just innovative. Same thing with Marshall Jefferson.
For youth culture, like myself at the time, it was just about making a track. You know, “Let me get this drum machine.” Whatever drum machine. I don’t know the numbers, but even if you had a BOSS machine you were the shit, you know? Even to have some Roland stuff was like, “Oh my God.” It started from there. I was making tracks to set myself apart from the other DJs that were out there. You wanted to have obscure stuff, you wanted to have stuff that nobody else had. It’s like, “Well, I can’t get all the records, but I can make my own tracks.” That set me apart from some of the other guys. It gave me my own lane in terms of being a respected DJ or producer at the time. It’s like the credibility was being created because, “Oh man, you know he makes these tracks?”
They didn’t come out until 1990, but that had been in my arsenal for a long time. It was actually my friend Terry Hunter that stepped in. He was like, “Man, you need to put that out.” Terry was older than me and on the young high school circuit of DJing, that kind of thing, because that’s what’d happen. DJ culture had gone outside of the clubs like the Muzic Box and the Power Plant and it was a whole high school circuit, high school parties. Out of Mendel High School, it was this whole creation of a subculture, intermediate youth thing that was going on. Out of this culture also came dance clubs. People had these dance teams, almost like groups, and they would all go to the party, and they were house groups. They’d dress a certain way. It was a very interesting thing. Mendel High School was on 111th in King Drive. I lived on 107th in King Drive. It was down the street, so being in close proximity, it was a neighborhood thing. That whole high school culture and DJing and having mobile parties became the thing, which is what I came up in.
[It was] folks like Terry Hunter, Pharris Thomas. Andre Hatchett was playing in that scene, but he was also a part of the older echelon of DJ folk. Jesse Saunders. These guys were doing those mobile parties and that kind of thing. I came up under that ring. You had different promotional companies – I don’t even call them companies – they were promotional teams; they weren’t that official. They were like little gangs. They would have little parties and whatever. People followed the energy and the attitude of whatever these guys were doing. Every team had their own little thing that they did and certain DJs they follow, so if you were an aspiring DJ, you wanted to be a part of that. You didn’t even think about trying to go to Muzic Box and play, which is something that kids nowadays would think. “Oh, I need to go and I need to be playing with this guy at that club.”
That didn’t even happen. There was one guy that played all night, and that was it. You didn’t even think about that. That was like the temple, you know what I mean? Frankie Knuckles had his and Ron Hardy had his and those were the two things we followed. Everything kind of branched off from that. Out of that, I developed my own skill and style from producing tracks to the type of music that I played. Mind you, back then – I’m going to say this, because “deep house” has been very misused – we called that music “deep house.” The reason why we called it “deep house” was because the kind of music that Frankie and Ronnie was playing was obscure. The thing that we could relate to this music was, “Deep. That shit is deep. That’s some deep shit, man.” Songs like “Wood, Brass & Steel” by Funkanova and Johnny Hammond’s “Los Conquistadores Chocolatés” and just really obscure classics, stuff that came out of the ’70s and that people had never heard of. That’s what we called “deep house music.”
That was our whole sphere of influence. House as it became was more like a term that was used on a commercial level that described the scene. Really, house came to fruition when it hit internationally, so in like ’87, ’88, it started becoming the international flyer for what was going on in Chicago, this sound. Steve “Silk” Hurley was making records for DJ International, Trax Records. He created a whole thing, but there had been a whole subculture, style, way of dance, way of attitude and everything else that had been going on for years. It was highly developed, as a matter of fact, but remained underground.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like to make it in Chicago as a DJ and producer, given how competitive it was in the city.
Chicago was really, really competitive. You had Ronnie and Frankie that were the tastemakers, the tone-setters, and then you had this youth culture that was developing. A young, pubescent, testosterone-driven kind of DJ thing was going on at the time, and I say it like that because we were really excited. This was a fresh time in terms of the music that was coming out. Better yet, it was the discovery that made it exciting for us. It was the idea that there was this new electricity that was happening in the city that we hadn’t necessarily been exposed to before. Of course, we all grew up on R&B and dance and stuff like that – that’s second nature to us. We did that. We grew up in households where music was the thing that threaded us all together, but this thing that was happening, which was fresh and was slightly mysterious, was the idea that we could be connected to it somehow.
The culture that was being created around that, that we were just kind of entering into, created this fever, you know what I mean? Of course, out of that came the “I’m better than you” kind of thing. That always kicks in. That’s the human spirit: competition. But it was less about the idea of being popular as it was about the skillset. Most of the people that were going out to the party back then, they were educated about the music, too, very educated. If you were going and calling yourself “into this music,” then you really knew how to be about this music, because otherwise you would be ostracized. Figure they’re going to laugh at your ass. Seriously, like, “He fucked up.” It could mean your ass, your career, so there was no fucking around.
I started playing around with records in 1982. I didn’t think about playing in front of anybody until about 1987.
There was no practicing in front of people at the party – I’ve seen a lot of that shit happen. You had your shit together before you stepped out. I started playing around with records in 1982. I didn’t think about playing in front of anybody until about 1987. It was about five years of fucking up and going through my process before I even felt comfortable doing something in front of somebody. I don’t know that there was a lot of competition amongst the inner circle, because everybody had their own thing, and that was the whole thing – you had your own individualistic artistic expression. Guys weren’t really trying to be like, “Oh, I’ma show you up at the party.” It was more like, “I’m going to do my thing, you’re going to do your thing, and that’s it.” There were DJ competitions and things of that nature, and somewhat of that competitive spirit, but it was more inspirational. You saw somebody doing something, it’s like, “Shit, that’s dope. I like that. Maybe I need to get my shit together.” It made you go back in the toolshed and get your thing together.
Let me be clear: Chicago was a wild place back then. Any slight move out of place, you might’ve got your ass whooped. Chicago’s got a history of being somewhat of a gangster city, and gang culture’s always been present, but let’s be clear: A lot of the guys that were in gangs went to the parties. Then there was those that didn’t, and looked at it being a situation where the music was synonymous with being gay, so then they would try to beat guys up and take their shit, because if you were into house music you were into clothes, fashion, collecting these different designers and this kind of thing. You know, expensive shit – Gucci stuff and this, that and the other. Sometimes guys would get robbed, but then also, some of these guys were street guys before they got into house music, and so the other guys might’ve got the bad end of the stick, too. There was just a sense that you really had to be an individual and know yourself and know what you wanted in order to be involved in this thing. That was the kind of present energy, but it drove the artistic passion. You really just needed to know your stuff. There was no faking it. Faking it ’til you make it? That was not existent.
Can you tell me about the first time you heard one of your tracks in a club, and you weren’t playing it?
The first time I heard my record played in the club was obviously when I played it, but when I heard it played on the big scale was when the guys that were a little older than me that I looked up to at the time – my brothers like Terry Hunter, Armando Gallop and other guys that were popular amongst that set of people – were playing my music. The most important time that I heard about my record being played, which is what changed my career from doing the underground stuff in the high school parties to being noticed internationally, was when Frankie Knuckles played my record.
I used to play at this club called the Reactor here, which was like the last after-hours club we had in Chicago. It was very underground, somewhat obscure, and I say that because it was kind of like a bridge between when the Power House and the Power Plant, which were Frankie, and the Muzic Box, had kind of gone down a bit. People were looking for something, and there was an underground youth culture that was raised on the culture of these things, The Muzic Box and the Power Plant idea, and really didn’t have a place to go. The Reactor opened up, and by happenstance one of my friends asked, “Hey, can we borrow some records?” Because I was always collecting, I had a lot of music. He was like, “Man, come on and DJ with us. We’re going to go try out at this club.” There was a young lady by the name of Dorie Greer that was the manager of this place. This place had been formerly called Kings and Queens, which was actually more slanted to being a gay club.
There were two owners – they fell out and one of the guys went off and did his thing. The other guy kept the space, which was on Lake Street, and opened it up as The Reactor. I went there just as a support team for my boys, because they were auditioning. I played and they were like, “We want you to come back and be the resident DJ.” I was like, “Okay. Sorry guys. Taking on the gig.” [First gig], we’re talking about 15 people on the dancefloor. It was a loft, three levels. It used to be a pallet company before, so it had three different levels of loft space and started at 12 at midnight ’til 12 next day. So I used to play from 12 midnight to 12 next day, and it grew from being 15 people to all three floors being packed. ’Round this time I’m playing “Altered States,” this kind of thing, and I’d decided to do a record deal with Armando Gallop on Warehouse Records. Armando and Terry are a bit older, maybe three years older than me... They could go to the club, they were in their manhood a little bit more than I was. I was a teenager – I’m playing at this after-hours club, which of course my mother wasn’t too into, but I was a bit of a radical back then, anyways.
Bottom line is that Frankie Knuckles came back, because he had moved back to New York and started doing the Def Mix thing, him and Dave Morales, and he came back to do the special party that he would do. There used to be a club called AKAs up north, and he came back to do the party. Now, this was a night I had to work. Armando had told me, “Listen, I gave the record to Frankie when I was out in New York for the New Music Seminar and they loved this record.” “Oh, okay.” I didn’t take it any other way. That night – which had to have been a Sunday night, and I think it was a holiday or something like that – people went to the party. They came back and they told me, “Frankie played your record three times that night.” Three times, right? So I’m like, “What? Shit. You played the record!”
Back in the day, when a guy really liked a record, he would play the record more than once through the night. That was the record that he was featuring and you knew that. That’s how it went on back in the day, and so that was like his favorite record of the night. He played it from the beginning to end. “Altered States” is like a 14 minute record, so that was like my official indoctrination into the music business, thanks to Frankie Knuckles. Frankie and Dave were playing it – David had his residency at Red Zone in New York, and they were doing music charts and really pushing the whole Def Mix thing. That’s what catapulted my career.
Step forward a little bit in time – how did you connect with Anthony Pearson AKA Chez Damier, and how did you end up making music together?
We got introduced by a common friend of ours, Carl Bias. He was part of a group that Liz Torres was in, Edward Crosby and Jessie. Master C & J was the name of the group. They made a record called “Face It” and a few other records. Carl and I were friends, and he called me up one day and was like, “I’m over here with this guy Chez Damier, and he wants to meet you.” I wasn’t that familiar with Chez and his Detroit history and anything like that, but he wanted to meet me and sit down and talk about music, so we did. We had a lot in common. Thoughts and philosophy about music and what we wanted to do, what we wanted to see.
Chez had been in the music business for a while – he had basically been working for Kevin Saunderson and working with Derrick May and all these other people in Detroit. He was originally from Chicago and he was like, “Man, let’s get together and make some music.” I was like, “Okay, let’s do that.” He had access to a big studio, which was Kevin Saunderson’s studio in Detroit. He had formerly worked for KMS Studios and that kind of thing, so he set it up so we can come in and make some jams and kind of spread out. And KMS Studios was dope. It was a room with a big board, Tannoy speakers, Genelec’s, and this was back in the day. We’re talking 1992, ’93 – a really professional studio with a live room, the whole nine. I was like, “Wow, okay. Spread out here.”
Let’s talk a little bit more about the studio, because it ended up becoming the Prescription sound. I was listening to your remix of “I’m Your Brother” and there’s that ripping chord that goes through it. They were a very specific set of sounds, is what I’m trying to get at. What was the studio magic? Besides the fact that you had a lot of gear at your disposal, what formed the Prescription sound for you, and what influenced you to make it that way?
The Prescription sound was really formed out of the philosophy that we had developed out of conversation, out of meeting, out of laughter, out of social interaction, and what we saw as a revolution that needed to happen to music. Having the technology at our fingertips allowed us to be able to articulate that.
I would start dialing out stuff, Chez was standing at the S1000 Akai doing samples, because that was his thing, coming up with vocals. Chez also knew the studio very well because he had worked in it so long, and we also had another engineer that we worked with, which was Kevin Saunderson’s brother, Ron Saunderson. He was a character. Ron had been a manager of a couple of bands [in the ’70s]. Tour manager. He was a band manager of Brass Construction and Skyy, worked a lot with Randy Muller, i.e. why he was able to kind of push his brother in the business.
It was like a laboratory. We were filtering our ideas and philosophies through these machines, and out of that came experimentation, which then became a sound.
Chez could pretty much cover everything that was in the studio, in terms of being an engineer and bringing a fidelity. I was the music guy. I was all into the electronics and sampling shit, and trying this and dialing up this, and then Chez would take that and put that through his filter. It was like a laboratory. We were filtering our ideas and philosophies through these machines, and out of that came experimentation, which then became a sound. That’s the best way I can describe it. Of course, the spirit that was there was the spirit that we created together, a force we galvanized at the time. It was definitely special, and a lot of stuff had just happened by the spirit of wanting to see something happen. Creating in the mind, talking to the spirit, articulating it through the machinery.
Tell me about how Prescription Records came to be.
The next step out of creation was being able to have a medium for it to come out. We wanted to broadcast the sound. We’ve created the sound in laboratory, now we want to send the message. Chez was like, “Listen man, we have a record label.” I was like, “Record label?” Because I’m in artist mode, like a producer. “Alright, we’ll start a label. Let’s start a label, put our stuff out. Sure. Whatever.”
Let’s go back a little bit – Cajmere was my distributor. He was actually one of my best friends at the time. Cajmere was my label mate on Clubhouse Records... I put out a record with them called “Love Affair,” and I entered into that situation with a guy by the name of Braxton Holmes, who was coming in as an executive producer at the time. It was like, “I’ma hook up a deal” – Braxton was more of a business guy. “I’ma try to hook up a deal, introduce you guys. I’ve got this thing going on in Clubhouse Records.” I was familiar with Clubhouse Records, so we met them. Long and short of it, Cajmere was there, too. They’d all long been friends, and Cajmere was making this weird style of music at the time... His sound that he was doing was nothing else that nobody had ever fucking heard before.
We just used to hang out. He was my boy. Used to go to parties. He used to come over, eat my food with my folks. We were boys. “Pick me up, we’re going to hang out and just experience life together.” Anyway, he caught on and got a lot of steam from his recording of “Percolator” – he played that shit for me way before it came out, and like I said, I never saw that coming. He literally created it off of the Cajmere brain, which is something else. It got a lot of fucking press, man. A lot of momentum behind it, and nobody saw that coming because he was like the oddball in the crew. He basically established his own record label out of that, started his own distribution, so we went to my old friend and he did the distribution on Prescription Records, which we started.
Prescription comes from the idea, the concept, of medicine work, medicine work coming from a term that’s used in indigenous terminology as it pertains to shamanism and working with the earth, working with natural resources and creating magic. Of course, that’s been translated into so many other things. “Prescription Records... Drugs and da da da.” Yeah, well, we were into using mediums to help us to harness the musical... To use the music as articulation of other things, just put it like that. We really played with the idea and the concept of being medicine men for music. It was more of a natural, indigenous concept that we were coming from. We weren’t coming from a “do drugs, fall out, listen to our music” kind of thing. It was more like when you give someone, for instance in olden times, an application of being able to solve something in their lives. You would give them a prescription to help them to solve whatever health problem, whatever spiritual problem, whatever problem was going on with the village. It would be a prescription application. Of course that word was not used at that time, but that would be the best word to use, and it’s used in a lot of literature to describe a healing mechanism.
When we created that label, it was a time when a lot of tracks were coming out, and we wanted Chicago to be held in a certain fidelity. Instead of being this raw track, we wanted to take the track to the next level, and that’s what we did. It was healing work. We used to put messages on the back of our records. It was a social kind of thing, and we wanted to come at it from more of a chieftaincy type level, so that’s what we did. That’s how that was created.
Can you tell me a little bit about making “Sometimes I Feel Like” and the different versions that came out of that? It was released under both of your names separately, right?
I pointed out how the music that we created was more out of a consciousness, a philosophy, a conversation. We wanted each sound or thing that was going on to have its own message, its character, so that it would have its own identity and be identified for what it was. We kind of created these different aspects, storefronts – rooms of sound, more or less. We wanted to be able to capitalize on that, that room of sound, if you will. So you didn’t just take it as the “Ron and Chez sound,” or the “Ron sound.” It was like, “This is a different attitude. It’s a different day. This is a different energy that happened, and we want you to pay attention to what that is.” And so we would name it, you know. It just really came out of the force of creation and just being somewhat involved, but also being a witness at the same time.
With “Sometimes I Feel Like,” Alton Miller was the vocalist on that with his girlfriend. She was a great vocalist. They were trying to form a little group at the time, and Alton used to work in the B room in KMS. There was an A room and there was a B room. The B room was more like drum machines – you can go in there and dial out whatever you were working on and then maybe take it into the A room. We worked in the A room most of the time, and Al was always in there trying to cook up his own magic spells. Chez and Alton had a long history. They opened up The Music Institute together and that kind of thing.
A lot of times we wanted to do collaborations, and that was one of those collaboration moments. Did a track and just threw them in the studio. Put the mic on, let it roll. Record the energy and then edit it later. That was one of those situations [that] just happened. It wasn’t like, “Okay, you’ve gotta do it like this.” It didn’t happen that way. It happened out of experimentation. Same way, actually, from what I understand of the whole P.Funk style, that George Clinton was sitting in the studio for hours having them just play shit over and over again. Taking shit in and out, it just happens. You galvanize, you create a spirit and then boom. “Okay. That’s what it is.” That’s the same thing that happened with that record.
Sometimes that stuff was very deliberate, like “Morning Factory.” That happened out of a trip to New York. We went to Sound Factory – we used to go to Sound Factory a lot in New York. We liked listening to Junior Vasquez because he was a DJ there at the time. Of course, years before, I had heard the best set of my life from Frankie Knuckles at Sound Factory. Maybe it’s because I’m romanticizing about it now, but Sound Factory probably had the best soundsystem I heard in my life.
We used to go see Junior Vasquez because he would always play this really experimental shit. It’s like he knew what kind of soundsystem he had, because he would play these records that were like, if you bought these records that he was playing and you took them home, they would sound like shit. We were like, “This isn’t the record I fucking heard at five o’clock in the morning at Sound Factory. What the fuck is this shit?” You’d take it home, it was like, you know, “Bew, bew, bew.” But he had the power of this system and the mind to be able to know, “Okay, if I play this song on this soundsystem, it’s going to bring out all these elements.”
It was magic. We were just fascinated with that. We were fascinated with the whole thing that he did there, because the Sound Factory soundsystem was like... I mean, this room was huge. Dancefloor was huge, could hold maybe a thousand people. The soundsystem was like having on a pair of headphones, but you could feel everything. It was like a combination of things that your mind had never experienced before, things that you were told didn’t exist. We were all about that. We were trying to push the boundaries. We went there on a trip, went straight back to the studio in Detroit, and I had bought a record that I really liked, which was Kerri Chandler’s “Atmosphere.” I was playing around with it, sampling it in studio, and I just turned it into this loop and created this track. Chez came in and heard it and was like, “Yeah.” So we took it on from there. It took on its own life, and that became one of the biggest records, to this day. That’s what we called it: “Morning Factory.” Being at The Sound Factory in the morning.
In addition to Chez, you had a number of collaborators. I want to talk about two of them specifically... The Basic Channel guys, Moritz [von Oswald] and Mark [Ernestus].
I met the Basic Channel guys in Berlin. This is a little after the Berlin Wall had come down. When I went to Berlin, it was two big clubs there. It was Tresor and E-Werk. E-Werk is where Sven Väth used to play. Tresor had been known as being a techno club, but it was really inspired from Detroit, so a lot of Detroit guys had been going there. My Detroit affiliation ushered me into going out there. Jeff Mills was out there, as a matter of fact – me and Jeff Mills played parties together back then. I can think of one gig specifically where me, Jeff and Chez played a party. It had maybe 40 people there. Berlin was a different place. It was like fucking Blade. I say that because it was really, “What the hell is going on?” It was really stark in its look, grey. It was really disheveled and it was really underground.
It was probably what you would imagine New York to be back in 1977, ’78 – squatters, this kind of thing. The wall came down in ’89 or something like that? I was there ’92, ’93. The person that we stayed with was Mark Ernestus, and he had a record store called Hard Wax, and we stayed in his house for three or four months. His partner was Moritz – don’t ask me to pronounce his last name. Fucks me every time, I’ll fuck it up.
Mark had owned a bar before and Moritz was the music guy. Mark was a really avid music collector. He collected a lot of reggae and a lot of dub, and they were trying to synthesize this combination of Kraftwerk meets reggae dub. They were still kind of working in that avenue, but they admired what we were doing, so they asked us for advice and help. We stepped in there, and Chez is a talker. He could hustle up on all kinds of stuff, come back and be like, “Look what I got.” Moritz and Mark, they were like, “Hey, man. We want you guys to do a mix on our song. It’s inspired by you guys and what you’re doing,” or whatever. It was more soulful than anything that they had been doing, because they had been doing these tracks and they needed some help, some advice, so we helped them.
Are there any other tracks from that era with Chez that have a particularly interesting story?
One track that I can think of that was like that discovery, or the first time it was really used, the ripping sound that you were talking about earlier, was “The Choice.” That was the first time that I played with that sound in particular, then we started dubbing it out. I was also into a lot of reggae dub stuff and doing tribute, which is kind of like the combination of what Prescription really is in terms of the sound. I really played with that sound a lot, and that somewhat became the signature, but “The Choice” was a release that we did on KMS Records. The original was actually Chez singing and we’re doing the background all this kind of stuff, but the dub is the one that makes it. That was the first time that that signature sound was used and that’s when we was like, “Okay, this is the Prescription sound.”
What became of your partnership with Chez?
There was some personal things that happened with us, because we were like brothers. We were different, but we were brothers, right? We basically got to the point where I think we just outgrew each other, is what it boils down to.
Even though I still think we could probably get together and do some innovative, dope shit to this day, at that time I wanted to push forward in my own way and he wanted to push forward in his own way, and that’s it. We were men and we split off.
Anthony Nicholson, as well?
Anthony Nicholson was a friend of mine, and he was running around in circles with my cousin, Lee Collins. Lee Collins was a legendary DJ here. Used to have a radio show called Sweet Dreams... His thing was called Sweet Dreams Productions on HBK, which was like a public radio station here, college radio station. Lee was one of these guys who as a teenager used to hang out under Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, and he was an avid record collector. He was kind of like the teenage Godfather, let’s put it like that.
Anthony Nicholson and Lee Collins used to hang out, they were tight. They did a record together that was on Movin’ Records out of New Jersey. Lee and Anthony would ask me to come into the studio for them separately to help them articulate their music, because I could play keys and this kind of thing. They were like, “Man, we want you to come in, and can you help me do this?” I don’t know necessarily what happened with him and Lee, but they stopped hanging out. Anthony was in a situation where he really wanted to make music but didn’t have an outlet. Basically, I kind of pulled him up as my protégé. Pull him into the business, help him develop his ideas and show him how to be the producer, which is what we’re supposed to do for each other. If you get in position to help somebody on that level, and you see talent, then you try to do that. I saw that he had talent, or a talent that hadn’t been developed yet.
You didn’t just live in Chicago. You’ve lived in other places like New York. Tell me about where you lived and what you took from those cities, or what those cities meant to you and your music.
Well, I lived in Detroit and then New York. I lived in Detroit mainly to create music, and it was cheap. I had a big loft for like $600 at the time. Chez was actually my roommate and I was in there with my girlfriend, a bi-level loft right in Eastern Market, down the street from the studio. Detroit was the kind of place where you could live cheaply, but it wasn’t like there was a whole bunch going on. It’s not even like Berlin, because Berlin at least has a scene. There was nothing going on at the time. It was kind of short-lived.
I really hadn’t planned on moving to New York, but it just kind of happened. It was like I went there and it put its arms around me and said, “You’re not fucking going anywhere.”
Right around ’96, ’97 I moved out to New York – this is after having an office and I tried to open a space here, a club kind of situation, and lost money. I really hadn’t planned on moving to New York, but it just kind of happened. It was like I went there and it put its arms around me and said, “You’re not fucking going anywhere.” I also started a new venture, a new record label called Clairaudience, with a guy that I knew from Atlanta. He was a New Yorker and created this record called “Ncameu” with my girlfriend at the time, D’Bora. D’Bora had been a major label recording artist on Smash Records... She was actually working for Prescription.
The guy came to me, his name was Cliff. He’s like, “I want to start this label. Can you show me how to do this?” I said, “OK. We’ll go into the studio, we’ll record.” I had been recording at Warzone Studios here in Chicago, which had been a punk rock, independent kind of studio here in the city. Da WarZone was the group that used to record out of there, and I think Ministry might have even recorded out of there. Really dope studio. My man Matt Warren was my engineer, who had recorded stuff back in the ’80s, did this tune called “Work The Box.”
I told Cliff, “Okay. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to create this jam, gonna put this out, blah blah blah, and walk him through the paces.” The tune we created was “Ncameu...” It wound up being a big fucking record, and it came out in ’97. This was like my introduction. I did this record and here I am, coming to New York. Francois Kevorkian did the mastering because I asked him to do it, and it was like an official “Ron Trent coming to New York” thing, so people were really paying attention to what I was doing.
The first couple of years of living in New York I was interested in being on the dancefloor. That’s how I went in – bohemian style, no name. I went there to just get in on the ground floor in the interest of feeling out what was going on. I spent most of my years dancing on the dancefloor, becoming a baby powder kid, as they call it. Throw baby powder on the floor, slide. All the house dancing kids do, you know, which is the culture that had been going on for years in New York.
It was almost like starting over again, because New Yorkers don’t play that shit, either. They ain’t having it. You’re coming in here being the man, you’ve got to prove it. I started from the ground up. By the time I had my residency in New York at Giant Step, it was a couple of years of proving that I could handle myself amongst these folks. Francois K. had been in the business I don’t know how many years. Danny Krivit, Joe Claussell, Timmy Regisford: These are guys I idolized, too. These are my big bros. As a result, I wound up being a regular guest at Body & Soul. I played Shelter. These guys became my big bros, and they looked at me as being like their little brother that they really respected.
New York was an experience in itself, being in New York at that time, because New York was a different place than it is now. There were no trust fund kids and there was no hipster action – I have no problems with hipsters or whatever the case may be, but there was no feeling of... You had to work to earn, let’s put it like that. It was grassroots and from educated constituents. People really knew the music. They grew up with the music, they’ve been partying the same way for 20, 30 years. They’ve been going to The Loft, The Gallery, Paradise Garage. These people know their shit. To be accepted, to earn my credibility there, was like, “OK, maybe I do know what I’m doing.” To be accepted on that level, it wasn’t about a popularity contest. It was about what you can do.
Your style has evolved over time. The Prescription sound, especially initially, was very sharp, angular, and as time went on it got a little bit more loose, a little bit more jam-oriented, little bit more jazz, little bit more African. Could you talk about the journey that took you from that to where you’ve gone since then, and what influenced those sounds?
My sound has mainly evolved because of where it began. Like I explained before, I started off playing instruments and drums, and the idea was, being a producer or producer/engineer and musician, is that you wanted to be able to articulate yourself in all these different mechanisms. When you have drum machines and a keyboard and that’s how you can express yourself, then that’s what you do. You go into that. Through time and situations changing, money being available now I’m getting paid for remixes and production, I can go into a bigger studio and do what I need to do. Now I’m also around a lot more musicians, and I understand musicianship and how to speak to a bass player, keyboard player, guitar player.
I don’t know how to play guitar, but I know how to play keys and I know how to play percussion, so a lot of times I could do stuff myself, which is what most of my production is. When I started working for Giant Step [Records], and we were doing that collaboration there, I started working with Groove Collective, which is a band that developed out of Giant Step. It was their house band from when they started back in the early ’90s, because Giant Step was primarily like an acid jazz meets jazz/funk with a DJ kind of thing, like cool jazz. Those guys that were in that group became my studio musicians and my partners. One of them in particular, Jonathan Maron, was a bass player. We really clicked.
Basically, a lot of the production I was doing in New York was just me being more of a musician. Now I can play my percussion. Now I can speak that language. Instead of sitting in front of a keyboard and a MIDI machine, now I’m like, “Okay, let’s expand on this. Let’s do this.” It just evolved from there. The opportunities were greater because the spectrum was getting wider, because the opportunity was creating itself through money and through experience and all these other things. It just developed, which is part of the process. If you are a true producer, you can stay being a producer if you like and just sit back and tell people what to do. But take somebody like Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones played trumpet. He knows how to play keys and these kind of things, so he knows how to talk that language. He might not necessarily play on all this stuff, but he knows what that is, he understands that.
It was the same thing for me. It’s like, “OK, now I want to create some of these records I grew up on, or that kind of sound. What’s it like to to do that?” Or, to try this electronic-meets-live thing, which is what I’ve always been into. It’s why I’m into a lot of early ’80s music. We always talk about the golden years of the sound, from 1979 to 1984 – it was that time when innovation was happening, when it was like live-meets-electronic: electronic innovation, live musicianship, the Moog’s and all these kind of things being used in live musicianship. To me, to this day, there's not a sound that has been able to top that, because of that combination of things. “Heaven meets Earth,” that’s how I always describe it. I just more or less was taking advantage of the opportunity to work with other musicians and humbly create. Create the zeitgeist and put it on wax.
What was interesting about the Giant Step time is that I was able to create it and then play it right for the people right there, test it out. If we did a tune for Donnie, which is the artist that went on to be on Motown, I was able to create it in the studio, then play it right at the party, build up some momentum on it, get people into it and then release it. That’s the power of being in that kind of situation. You don’t necessarily get a chance to do that nowadays, unless you have a residency or you’re in a position to have your own club. It just really evolved out of being able to mechanize my creativity.
You’ve been very, very prolific. Why you have remained very prolific over the years where your peers have gotten quiet or stopped making music altogether?
I’ve always studied the greats or studied history, studied other people, and I get inspired over and over again. I like to stay inspired. I get inspired from music I collect, movies, listening to what’s new and what’s coming out or what’s not coming out, and just watching the trends and staying in tune with that. Also, staying in tune with my own spiritual direction and my own independence. Not being polluted, necessarily, by what everybody else is doing. Some people have a tendency to get trapped into what everybody else is doing. “This is the newest, latest, hottest thing, and I want to do this.” That’s still not you, really. You’re following what somebody else is doing.
Nowadays it’s like 80-90% business and 20-10% talent.
I have my own soul and spirit, and I follow that. That’s what keeps me moving in that direction. I don’t quiet that. I’m always radical, too. A revolutionary in thought. It’s like, “OK, that’s going on, but I see something else.” Maybe I get inspired by that, but I want to see something else. I just keep moving in that direction, and I think the guys have a tendency to get trapped in what somebody else is doing. I’ve seen it. The thing is, when you’ve been in the business for a long time, you watch trends. If you’re going to be a businessman in the music business, you’ve got to watch trends. Nowadays it’s like 80-90% business and 20-10% talent. It might even be less than that because it’s a fucking popularity contest, too – you’ve got to add the social media thing in there. How many likes you have on Twitter and retweets and Facebook and Snapchat and all this shit. It is what it is, but the talent aspect has kind of been muted out over a period of time.
People get caught up into that trend. That’s not what the fuck this shit is about, bro. This was about the music from the beginning. Reading those records and how this guy got inspired, what do I feel about that, and let me articulate that on a record. I never got off of that, but some people got into this because of competition, maybe. “I want to be popular.” Being popular’s great, but if you can’t do shit when you standing up on the stage, then what the fuck is it about? I mean, really? What the fuck is it about? You’re a fucking clown. That’s not me, man. I’d rather be somewhere creating my own thing. Time always takes care of things. That’s what I know. That’s what I hold to. I don’t know about everybody else, but that’s what I hold to.
This year in particular, I’ve spent a little bit more time here in my own lab. The last couple of years I’ve been on the road heavy, more than I had been in the last years previous to that. I’m concentrating on finishing up a few albums, one of them being an artist album for Tkumah Sadeek, who was an artist that I discovered, believe it or not, doing hip-hop stuff. I put out a couple of releases of hip-hop stuff, not too many, but I have a little cult following of people that liked some of the hip-hop stuff that I do, because I’m a big fan of, say, J Dilla and Pete Rock and these other folk.
I got into that circle for a little while. For one or two years that’s all I did. I didn’t do a lot of house music because I just didn’t feel the inspiration from there. I saw the innovation coming from another place and put myself in that situation where, “Hey, this is a source and there’s a power. There’s something going on that’s breaking boundaries here.” I got inspired from that and I entered into that. People like Ge-ology, Waajeed, Pete Rock. Of course, my man Q-Tip. Count Bass D. MF Doom... Once again, this is where it starts: collecting that music. Checking out what other people doing, checking out what’s going on in the world. I started in on that and then circled back around to house music.
House music around 2006, 2007, [I was] really just not inspired. I was listening, but it had kind of got to the point where it was so commercialized and it’d become a formula. The music that was coming out was just really discouraging. I remember having talks with Frankie Knuckles about it, just like, “Man, what the hell is going on here, bro?” That’s the relationship that I had with Frankie, is that I would call him up from time to time and say, “Hey, man. What the fuck is going on, bro? What is this? What is that?” We would sit on the phone for a couple hours and we might not talk to each other for months, but it was always like, “Okay, so what you think about this?”
Frankie had also gone into doing his own thing musically, and what he was inspired by. I’ve always been into soulful progressive dance music, and I wasn’t hearing it. I wasn’t hearing it. I was hearing a lot of super electronic, over-synthesized music, where it had no soul. It had no content as far as I’m concerned, i.e. why we don’t play this shit now. It’s not timeless. The reason why music is timeless is because there’s a spirit there. It lives. A lot of this shit that came out... It just had no spirit. We won’t be playing it five years from now, because we will say, “Well, time repeats itself.” No. You’re not going to be hearing that shit, because it just didn’t have that staying power and it was a regurgitation of something else.
It had gotten to the point for me where I was just like, “I can’t do that.” Dilla passed away, too, and actually, the day that he passed was the day that I was going to meet him, believe it or not, in LA. It’s weird. Me and J-Rocc from the Beat Junkies were going to do a party for a friend of ours who’s one of the owners of LRG, which was sponsoring me and my little brother at the time – I call him my little brother – DJ Gargamel, Thomas. It was a birthday party – they were both Aquarius, so around January, February. Dilla’s Donuts album was coming out at the time I was in LA. This was around the Grammys time. He was going to supposedly show up and hang out… We had Detroit roots. We had a common friend, Amp Fiddler. We used to shop at the same record store, that kind of shit. But we never came in contact with each other, and he passed that day. I’ll never forget that.