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"My Music is an Announcement": An Interview with Todd Terry

"I always pick... the kind of samples that get people talking."

Whenever you get a chance to see a house music legend like Todd Terry in action, you shouldn't pass it up. At a recent club night at the Princes Charles space in Berlin, I saw him ignite a room with his rapid-fire, seamless mixing style: deep, sensual Chiacgo house mixed with 90s chart bangers like 'Push The Feeling On', all coming together with a playful, sincere flair that's a rare treat to dance to. The gravitas in the room was palpable, too. Locals wriggled out their bones and left them to one side, dancing like each groove was more of a phenomenon than the last.

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It's a sentiment that Todd Terry wrote into the culture with his track 'House Is A Feeling' back in 1991, and one that he's championed throughout his 30-year career. As one of the true originals of the house sound, Terry's move from hip hop in the late 80s saw him take his reel-to-reel technique from underground break beats, and into the sound that's come to define a culture, a technique - and a feeling.

With the release of his new single, the aptly titled 'Real House', and a short run of DJ sets in Ibiza this summer, Todd Terry's still going strong. THUMP caught up with him about the techniques that formed his earlier gems, and what's next for the famed Freeze Records and Strictly Rhythm.

I remember a quote of yours that I found so interesting: that when working on reel-to-reel in the early days, you made a point of doing something different every minute and a half. Could you explain this technique and mind-set a bit further?

Todd Terry: I was trying to make exciting music with break beats, so every 16 or 32 bars, I wanted the tune to change in order to keep it interesting. It's what they call "mash ups" now, but back in the day they used to call these mixes "bits 'n' pieces". I'd have this section where, say, I'd have the vocal sample, this bassline and that beat. I'd keep that same beat going, the same groove going, but maybe change either the bassline or the vocal sample, and then add a little keyboard.

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What I was really doing was building a big, giant remix. I was brought up with cutting, so I wanted to make house music like that: a big old break beat, with a lot of energy. The more I practised the longer I could space the groove out, which allowed me to put more detail into the groove as I went on.

For every minute and a half, what's on your mind? 

Todd Terry: I'm not making records as a producer. I'm making it as a person on the dancefloor. If I feel like I can dance to the track straight through, without feeling like something got confused in the cutting, that's how I set it up. If you're dancing, that groove should have the same potency as the groove before it, so that you can just keep going. It's only when there's that continuousness that I can give you that release of energy on the dancefloor.

Do you feel that working on reel-to-reel especially made this possible? The quite literal cut and paste of it all?

I'm always going to have that style where it's all based around action; whether that takes the form of a drum roll, or a new sample coming in. I always believed that a record should be as dramatic as possible, but always keeping the same groove.

Working on reel-to-reel, you would make the groove first, then go back and add the samples and then the song, y'know?I was always taught to make my sample records like a song, so they would be built like: verse-bridge-chorus, verse-bridge-double-chorus, different type of bridge, chorus-chorus-chorus.

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What is it about a record that you hear, and think, "That is a sample"? 

Sometimes you'll just hear this one little groove, and I'll find myself bobbing my head to it. And I'll be like, "Yo, that shit is dope, that part is crazy, why didn't they just loop that bit and start the track from there?" So I kind of pick and chose little grooves to…. travel with, in a sense, to build drama into. Other times, it might be a vocal I heard, but in my head I'll be hearing music under that vocal that's totally different to what was produced. So, I'll take it from there.

Then again, it doesn't have to be from a record. It could even be just someone saying the same thing over and over again. Like, from our conversation right now, the word "drama". I could go of and make a record now called 'Drama', about the way we're talking about the groove.

Ha, well, if I managed to inspire a track of yours somehow, I think I could sleep happily tonight. If you say that even original productions are (by the nature of reel-to-reel) "edits", how do you differentiate between this technique and remixing for others?

Remixes are great for getting my music out to people, because it'll be going out on a major label and getting major promotion, but you're also restricted because you're making that record to suit the label's style, or the artist's style. You have some of your style on that record, but you're being tamed. It downgrades your creativity.

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On my productions, I have full power. I can use that drum roll, or not back off on a hard kick drum so that it works for radio. At the same time, my passion is when the remix contains the best of both worlds, with both styles complimenting each other – like, say, a nice, floating song with my hard beat. That worked well on the remix I did of Everything But The Girl, for example, but they initially they wanted to turn down.

Seriously?

The group and some of the label guys felt it didn't fit their image.

What changed their minds?

Well, because we fought for the record to come out. We believed in it, and believed that it was what that group needed at that time. In fact, the guys around me thought they were a lame group, and that I had given the track life, ha.

That's nuts considering the success of the record: over 3m sold, no small feat for a house remix back then.

Listen, a major label doesn't know anything. All they do is work with, and for, the charts. If they knew Kanye was going to be huge then, how come they downgraded him at first? It's called the music business. Right now, on any day, you'll have 7 dull tracks playing on a radio station when there should be, like, 42 great ones.

Speaking of great records, I'd like to ask you about a few of your older, classic records, and pick your brain and your technique and mind set at the time of each.

Your 'Hear The Music (Def Dub Mix)' as Gypsymen has always stuck in my mind because of the use of samples: the piano chords from Machine's 'There But for the Grace of God Go I', and the vocals from Unlimited Touch's 'I Hear Music in the Street', right?

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That's right, good ear girl! Well, again, it's about taking a sample and writing a song with it. So you've got the bassline for the hook; the "I've got the music" part is your verse. The 'hay-bop-a-doo', which the track travels on throughout, is the hypnotism, and the other parts provide the character that turn the track into a song. All I did was travel between the parts so that, all of a sudden, by the end of the track, they relate to one another.

Why choose these two samples in particular?

I had the word "music" in my head, but I didn't know where I was going to find it. I had tried a couple of records out, but it was the way the Unlimited Touch vocal worked so well tonally: the way it stretched the key felt so right. As for the 'There But For The Grace Of God' sample, I slowed it down so I could present it in a way that the kids in the clubs today can understand. It's like one of those announcement samples - like Van Halen's 'Jump'. I always pick announcement samples; the kind of samples that get people talking, that are instantly recognisable, that announce themselves.

I love the idea of the house sample as an announcement; a call to the dancefloor, even. What about 'Dreams of Santa Anna'? That has a brilliant announcement feel to it, with the Ennio Moriconne sample from 'For A Few Dollars More'.

I wanted to something like Babe Ruth's 'The Mexican', which was out at the time. I knew I couldn't get the original version's singer, so to ensure that there was some other firm reference on the track to the original, I created - or rather re-created - the 'announcement' guitar part from scratch, using synths.

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'Dreams Of Santa Anna' took a long time. Like, a week. I stood there for hours on this rinky-dink keyboard - I didn't have the equipment I have now - but in the end I didn't play any of the notes right simply because I didn't know how, so the finished version has a lot of weirdness to it. I did the melody last on that track - after the beat, the samples, the FX, everything – hoping blindly that the melody would bring it all together in the end.

See, the fact that you consider a week a long time to spend on making a track is incredible. Especially given that you were working on reel-to-reel.

You gotta realise that 28 years ago, what you had is what you had. But no matter what, you needed some kind of multi-track device.

One of my favourites is 'Bango (To The Batmobile)' – partly because it's a great track, but also because it was released on Sleeping Bag Records and samples Arthur Russell. What's the story behind that track? Did you actually work with Arthur Russell on it?

"Bango" was major for me. I managed to get it into the hands of a couple of DJs like Larry Levan and Little Louie Vega, who both then played it. Then, when I met Arthur…. you could never tell what Arthur was thinking. He had a real strange way about him. He was so talented, but really, really dry. Anyway, he must have enjoyed the track because we cut a 50/50 deal right there. It was also the first time I had ever cleared one of my samples. After I had finished the version we put out, Arthur and I planned to work together in the studio on another version of the track, but by then he was becoming very ill.

I always wonder what he could have achieved…. Keeping it up though, the last one I wanted to ask you about is another favourite of mine, but one I also saw Kerri Chandler play in Iceland last weekend. It was to a home crowd that have never had a dance music festival at home before, but when this one got dropped they all went off. It was so refreshing. 'Sunday Morning' – what's the story with that? That feels like another of your announcement tracks.

I've always thought that record should have made it onto the radio and made a big statement for house music, but it didn't turn out like that. But, that's the way it goes sometimes. I'm cool with it now because I believe that a lot of the records I've written in the past will have their time - be it through someone remixing it, reissuing it, whatever. It might take years, but it's inevitable. 'Sunday Morning' is one such track. It definitely is an announcement.

Speaking of reissues, I know that you re-launched Freeze Records early last year, in collaboration with Clone. You re-issued some older tracks of yours like 'Jazz Anthem', but do you have plans to release anything this year?

We've got another six releases that we're working on. That stuff's going to be on limited release, though. It's gonna be rare: only 300-400 copies of each, and all vinyl, too. I'm forever loyal to the format. I grew up with it, and it's still a real speciality. This is all for our crowd. I don't want any scrubs buying it. I want it to go to the 'heads, to the real deserving house fan who has been searching for it.

Also, on a label note, I know that BMG bought the back catalogue and publishing rights to Strictly Rhythm too. What's going to happen with those records? Do you have any say over what happens to them?

It's the old story of the bigger company coming in and fucking everything up. I appreciate that Strictly Rhythm needs to make their money back on their investment, but with this deal not only have they fucked their relationship with us up, to a degree, they've also wrecked what we were trying to do with these records. 

I'm concerned about what BMG are planning to do with the material. I don't know if they should be releasing every last record on vinyl, I don't if these records should be remixed, and I don't if they should be released en mass. There should be compilations released, sure, to teach the world the story of the label, but does the average BMG guy care enough to tell that story? I doubt it. They're having their little power-trip thing right now, so, it is what it is. I'm going to keep on moving, though.

Todd Terry's new single, 'Real House' is out now on X.

He's also playing Fire, London, on July 5th, and Space Ibiza on July 6th.

You can follow Todd Terry on Twitter here: @djtoddterry and Lauren Martin here: @codeinedrums

Read more interviews with legends on THUMP:

"You Forgive a Lot of Things on The Dance Floor": an Interview with DJ Harvey
Bass God: Bassnectar Is Not a DJ. He's a Movement.

The Man from Tomorrow: an Interview with Jeff Mills

"I'm an OG Again": Goldie on 20 Years of Metalheadz, and Turning 'Timeless' Into an Orchestral Score

"I Want People to See What I Do, What I Play": An Interview with Kevin Saunderson