Larry Heard Talks Us Through the Making of "Can You Feel It"
Ahead of his performance at Sunfall, we spoke to the house pioneer about how one of the 20th century's greatest works of art came to be.
Thirty-one years ago now, an improvisatory musician from Chicago inadvertently changed the course of the world forever. Armed with a synthesiser, a drum machine and a cassette deck, Larry Heard laid down "Can You Feel It," a Ron Hardy approved house record that still sounds as fresh today as it must have done during the Reagan years.
Under a variety of monikers, most notably Mr. Fingers, the softly-spoken producer and DJ has been a pivotal part of a scene that dominated Chicago, then America, and then the world. Heard, like Marshall Jefferson, Frankie Knuckles, or DJ Pierre can comfortably lay claim to have reshaped the sound of what became the future. Early house records like Heard's own "Washing Machine," or the utterly-excoriating "No Way Back" by Adonis, still have the power to stun listeners and drive clubs wild. They sound alien and beautiful, simultaneously ingrained within us and so unlike everything that followed. And few sound as beautiful, or as alien, as "Can You Feel It."
"That's what you aim for, that's what anyone who makes music aims for," Heard tells me over Skype. He's talking about the fact that the B-side to his second ever single is still beloved by dance music diehards the world over. Following on from 1985's spookily sparse Mystery of Love 12" which was released on his own Alleviated Music imprint, the Washing Machine release saw him sign to Trax Records, a label that alongside D.J. International was one of the cornerstones of the then nascent house scene. This, of course, was before house had been sucked into the greater dance music machine and become the highly commercial monster it is today. There were no huge festivals, no branded tie-ins, no Zac Efron-starring Hollywood movies.
Like any emerging cultural scene, Chicago house was predicated on personal connections. Though Heard admits that he wouldn't describe everyone in the city during the mid-80s as "best buddies," there was enough of a support network that ensured young producers' work was heard by older DJs. The most important thing was, as he says, "getting it to Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and Wayne Williams and people like that around town, people synonymous with party events." That's not to say that mere proximity was a surefire indicator of success. "I didn't start off knowing Frankie Knuckles; I was just another bright-eyed kid coming up to him with a record," Heard says. "I'm sure he had that multiple times a day, every day." Knuckles doubtlessly did have to sift through a seemingly endless cache of cassette demos on a daily basis, but few could have been as fascinating as the song that went on to make Larry Heard's name a global concern.
Listened to three decades on, "Can You Feel It," feels truly revolutionary. Built around a gloriously gooey six note bassline, there's little more to it than a flatteringly propulsive percussion track and a few icy-blue pads that introduce an undulating sense of warmth to a track that's otherwise as tough as a steelworker's boots. It is that simplicity and sense of spatial awareness that means it's not dated a jot since initial release, and goes some way to explaining why, every few years, young producers decide to step into a time machine and try and make records just like it. And that's understandable—a work of art so pristine in its purpose, so immaculately conceived and delivered, will always be a desirous object.
During the course of our chat, it became apparent that "Can You Feel It," wasn't the result of months of hard labour. One of the most beguiling and beautiful pieces of music made in the late 20th century didn't involve backbreaking workshops and endless brain-wracking. "I used a Roland Juno-60 and a TR-909 drum machine. That's all the gear used on the song," he says. "I had two cassette decks—there were no digital recorders or even multi-track recorders—and I did one take, one pass, on one tape, then ran it back to the other one, played some other parts by hand that I wanted to add, and that was pretty much the recording process. It wasn't exactly the Beatles."
Speaking about it in 2017, ahead of a live performance at this year's edition of Sunfall, the London-based festival that takes place in mid-August, Heard seems genuinely delighted that the track still gets such a reaction to this very day. There must, I asked, have been a noticeable difference in how audiences react, not just to "Can You Feel It," but his other material, and house at large. "People raise families and stop going out, young people come in, so there's a turnover," he says, a fact he claims generates a level of freshness, meaning that "the old heads who know the songs are getting excited for the thousandth time and the young ones hearing stuff for the first time and getting excited, too."
The average festival isn't quite a democratic utopia, though, and not just because of the crushing price of the average on-site snack. "Festivals illustrate how every generation wants to be different from the one before it," Heard says before adding, "but it's evident that people are the same no matter what the year is—you're seeing reactions now you saw 30 years ago." Sure, the context may have changed wildly from the genre's inception—the parched fields of South London are a far cry from the sweaty intimacy of Chicago's numerous legendary nightspots—for Heard, there's still a touch of the Music Box everywhere he plays. "Same response, different people. People who swear up and down they're are nothing like each other."
Gallery-goers are still over-awed by massive Mark Rothko paintings; readers still find themselves in 19th century France every time they crack open the worn, yellowing pages of Madame Bovary, and clubbers still believe they've entered a whole new world whenever anyone, anywhere, brings in the unmistakable sound of "Can You Feel It," Larry Heard's one take Chicago house wonder.