Mike Dunn was interviewed by phone in mid-January 2008 for The Armando Project. The interview began with some small-talk which is redacted here. Errors in transcription are the fault of the interviewer.
MIKE DUNN: A lot of our stuff, all of Armando’s stuff, Terry Hunter’s stuff – I was the one recording. We used to do that at Bam Bam’s house. I had an 808, someone else would have a 707… That’s how the “Land of Confusion” track came about. The name of that track was originally “Slave for Love”. When I did that track, Armando was in Miami. He had brought some records over and was like, “Mike, can you put this together for me?”
I’m giving you the real history here, and it’s not a dis in any way, because Armando was one of my best friends, and I remember getting that call the day that he passed – we’ll get to that point when it comes… But “Land of Confusion” was a mistake! It was one of the biggest records, but it was a mistake! See, “Land of Confusion” is based on the 303. If you take the batteries out for a minute and put them back in, that’s the first bassline that will come up. I want people to understand, because a lot of people weren’t there but talk like they were, and the story gets so fabricated and so colorized and they think it’s so beautiful. It’s no dis, but that’s how it came about. It wasn’t like Armando programmed it. “Land of Confusion” was a pre-set bassline. Take the batteries out for a second, and it’s going to clear all of the memory out. Put ’em back in and all of the pre-sets come back up. That was the first bassline.
Armando did great tracks, but Armando was also the brains behind the movement. He was a great promoter – the king of promoting. From the “School Daze” thing at the Hummingbird, Medusa’s, the Hotels… Back in that day, Marvin Terry was the king. Armando was like the prince.
Armando would go out at 11 o’clock or midnight and hang posters on poles. He’d call me at 7 o’clock in the morning saying he’d just finished! Armando, Disco Dave, Joe Louis — it would just be a three man crew. But when you woke up the next morning, the shit was everywhere! He would do it himself and wouldn’t let anyone else do it. He was hands-on with that. He knew it’d be done right. I mean, from 95th Street to 35th Street – there was a poster up on almost every corner, on every street pole.
Imagine two or three people in only one car, from 95th to 35th, stopping at the corner and boom boom boom! Then they’d drive to the next corner and boom boom boom! It was this determination and dedication that was incredible to me. I mean, there was no radio. For us to get on the radio – that would have been something! But this was how we reached the people. There weren’t any text messages or internet. Armando had a mailing list and would write it all out on every card. He had three or four chicks and he’d take them over there, come by the next day, pick ’em up and mail ’em out. It was two-thousand, three-thousand people, which for back then was incredible. He was one very organized dude. He knew what he wanted to do, knew what he wanted to call it, knew how much money he could spend and got it all done.
So you were kind of the engineer or producer on some of the early stuff?
MIKE: Exactly. All of Armando’s stuff, he would bring over his stuff and I would get it right.
Take “100% Dis”. He knew what he wanted, he just couldn’t get it out himself. So he says to me, “I want it to sound like Todd Terry.” Oh, okay, cool. Got the Loletta Holloway track, from Todd Terry we sampled one of the hits, some other little things we put in there and came up with the track. Todd was extremely upset, to say the least. But I’ve always been someone that looked out for Chicago. New York looks out for New York, everywhere else looks out for everywhere else, so…
We all spent a lot of time over at his place talking about it. He had a studio set up in his basement, up on the bar, and anyone who had ever been to his house would come down those stairs, with records everywhere, with the drum machine, tapedeck, reel-to-reel and all of that in the basement. We’d go into his bedroom when his mom was at work and we’d be over there, messin’ around and watching movies.
A lot of people don’t know that about him. Check this out. He would rent hotel rooms, take a VCR, rent all the movies on pay-per-view and record them, and then have all of us over for “screenings”. He learned how to take the thing off the hotel TVs – the sensor that was supposed to stop that – without setting it off, and would record every movie. He loved going to the show and he loved watching movies. We’d come over to his house and watch movies — “Man, I got this new…” Man, where’d you get that?! He finally messed up and told us how he was doing it and we were like, boy, you’re crazy! Basically the closest people that were always over there – Hugo, Pharris [Thomas], Terry [Hunter], Me, Joe Louis, Disco Dave. Joe Louis and Dave were his best friends. Dave lived down the street. So they grew up together. Like I said, Bam Bam lived right around the corner. And that’s how Land of Confusion came about.
How did you go from releasing tracks on other peoples’ labels to releasing them on your own?
MIKE: Well, Armando and Bam Bam fell out because Armando worked in JR’s. So he knew how many records were getting sold and how many boxes were coming through and he could call up all the other record stores and check. So they fell out because of that, and that’s why he started his own label, Warehouse Records. That was his, Dance Mutha was my label, and we came together and did Muzique Records. He had his and could do what he wanted on it, I had mine, and then with Muzique, we’d jointly agree on everything. Which is another story I’m going to tell you now.
Lil Louis came up and wanted to put “French Kiss” out. I told Armando, “Nah, nah, nah, that ain’t gonna do nothing.” Armando was like, “This is gonna be huge!” But I was, you know, “Nah, nah, nah…” [breaks out laughing] But that was my call and I blew that one.
I think Louis is still living off the royalties from “French Kiss”. Wow.
MIKE: What everyone wanted to emulate and follow back then were Marvin Terry’s parties. Most people go back and talk about Frankie and Ron… But the Bismarck with Lil Louis was the place where a lot of people started to party. Me, I was from Englewood, I was a ‘hood guy, I wouldn’t go to those places. But what we did was we took what was going on downtown back to us and promoted in the neighborhoods.
Well, one of the cool things about those days – though I was only aware of the tail end of it – was that you could see southside DJs bangin’ it at northside clubs like Medusa’s. There wasn’t a polarization to it.
MIKE: We saw that it was more money going north. Those were great parties. Medusa’s… Armando and Rush just beatin’ it… me, Terry, Pharris… Those were parties! If someone’s like 40 years old today – c’mon, you weren’t at the Warehouse. You were barely old enough to get in the PowerPlant! Even with the Music Box. A lot of folks were getting caught down there scared – “Oh, a lot of gay people are in there…” I wish people would stop trying to jump on board because those are cherished moments for people. It’s like people opening up a club called the Paradise Garage in this day and age. Don’t make stuff up – this is my history.
What a lot of people don’t know is that they didn’t even go in the party – they just went down there and were hangin’ out on cars all night!. Tell the story correctly: there was a party outside the Box just as happenin’ as inside. Somebody had some sounds with a Ron Hardy tape, and they’d be smokin’ weed, we’re partying outside… Everytime I see Robert Williams, I think, this here’s the man behind all of that. He brought Frankie here. A lot of times people walk right by and don’t even know who he is. If you gotta ask, you don’t even know. I pay homage to those that I know…
Everybody tries to claim the name and all of that. The name derives from the Warehouse. House Music. We cut everything off in Chicago: “Going to the ‘Box, going to the ‘House…” You’d be coming over that bridge on Halsted and smoke blasting out of the PowerPlant. My friends that I work with now, schoolin’ in House and everything, they’d be like, “Why they call it the PowerPlant?” Because it was right next door to a power plant!
Speaking of clubs, I wanted to ask about the Warehouse, where you and Armando played together. This was the second generation Warehouse.
MIKE: Right, it was on 738 W. Randolph. Frankie opened up the first night which was Halloween. That was the first night – October 31, 1990, a little flyer with red writing. Frankie was the first. It was supposed to be Joe Smooth and Julian Perez, but they opened up the first night with Frankie so it would solidify their position by calling it the “Warehouse”. That was the first night you heard “I’ll Be Your Friend” and all of that stuff.
None of us were DJing in the club in the beginning. I guest DJed one night and Julian was there. Joe was a little abstract and had his moments when he played some disco and then would go into jazzier. Joe had his following as well, as he used to do SmartBar. Julian went to Rocky and was like, “We need to get Mike Dunn in here.” They moved me upstairs and moved Joe downstairs into the basement. So I took over the main floor. Eventually, on all of the black nights – Julian had the Friday which was the B96 night, and that’s the only night he wanted to do in that club because he had another club he was doing out in Schaumberg – I took over deciding who would spin at the club. So I hired Armando, I hired Hugo… K-Alexi too, but he was playing hip-hop. K. was upstairs in the loft playing rap. Craig Loftis was my light man. Craig was responsible for the original system. I hired everyone – everyone who spun in that club had to come through me. Which was how they wanted it.
Originally, there were three partners that owned the Warehouse: Joe Smooth, Julian and Rocky. Somewhere in there it got twisted around and they got bought out. I got Armando hired there because I was doing – that was when I started getting on WGCI. I’d do the Riviera on Thursdays and come down to the Warehouse later. I started getting tired of that, so I asked Armando if he wanted to take over Thursdays. So he took over Thursdays, and I took over Saturdays. I would bring Andre and Gene and them in as special guests – I tried to get all my friends a chance to come in and play.
What was the atmosphere there like? The second Warehouse was a crucial place but, maybe because it was so recent, people don’t talk about it as much.
MIKE: The first two, three years, it was like you didn’t even have to go overseas. It was that good. It was what the Box and all of those other clubs had been — that’s what it was for the next generation of partyheads coming up. We had some old ‘heads coming up. In fact, before Ron passed – and this is totally 110% true – Ron came down to the Warehouse and visited me in the booth. I said his name, he was like “Shhhhh!” Think about this: all of the people who said they knew Ron and partied with Ron – he walked through that crowd and I don’t think one person knew that this was Ron Hardy. He said, “I just wanted to come down and see it, pass the torch…” I went off. Ron was coming to see me! He only stayed about three minutes. That’s when he was sick. He snuck in and snuck right back out.
The club was just incredible to me. Joe had the downstairs and did very well. When everything was at its peak, it was beautiful, beautiful time.
Were you around when Armando got sick?
MIKE: Yeah, that’s a story.
Armando started to get… not quite himself. Man, Armando’s in the hospital — he’s in Cook County. I didn’t know how sick he was. They then transferred him to Little Company of Mary. They were telling me I better go see Armando, he was really sick. Kool Rock had passed, Pink had just passed…
Armando was Catholic. A priest was walking out of the room. He’s like, “Man, it’s a shame, he’s so young.” I’m like, what are you talking about?
I walk in there, and I’m like… Oh my God. It was not Armando lying in that bed. His head was so swollen and his legs were just… There were no mirrors in his room, they’d all been removed. A sign was over his bed, “Do not comment on his looks to him.” He’s not conscious. He’s down under. I was just sitting there talking to him. Saying my prayers. I walk out, crying. I really couldn’t believe it.
A couple of weeks go by. Almost a month. Armando’s getting better. I go back up there and see him. He’s looking cool – he looks good now. Still a sign over the bed, but he’s looking better. All of the swelling and all of that had gone down. He can barely talk. “Ah, Mike… I heard you got this song… at the Warehouse… ‘Freaky Muthafucka’… everybody going crazy over it…. Man, can’t wait to hear it, can’t wait to hear it…”
I was like, cool. Okay. We have a talk. Then he comes home. I’m like, okay, he’s really good now. I’m getting ready to go DJ in Germany. After I leave Germany, I made a connecting flight to New York because Byron Stingily was doing his video for “Get Up” and I was going to be in it. Thinking everything’s cool, he’s doing better…
We do the video and we’re driving home. It’s me, Big Ed, Ron [Carroll] was in the van, and another person. We’re driving home through this big snow storm. We’re in Indiana, about to hit Chicago. Phone rings. Big Ed answers the phone. We’re all listening to music and everything. Terry’s on the phone – Terry Hunter. I hear them talk but I don’t know what they’re talking about. He hangs up the phone. He’s like, “Hey guys, turn down the music. Armando just passed.”
I just went off. They had to pull the van over. I got out, was walking on the side of the road, just saying, “No, no, no, you were supposed to wait until I got back, dog, you were supposed to wait until I got back…”
We finally get back. We go to the funeral home. The funeral is starting at 7 o’clock. At 5 o’clock I was there, just sitting in the pews. I couldn’t even get up. Farley got up and spoke. Ron got up and spoke. The girl that he had and was taking care of at the time – she had left him. Everyone was ready to whup her ass. His parents were Catholic so they had the service in the church as well. I didn’t want to go to that one – I didn’t want to see him, you know, put into the ground.
The last time I was talking to him on the phone, it was upbeat — I’m going to Germany, when I get back, I’ll go over there to see you…
Rumors were spreaded about that this, about that. Nobody really knew what was true. Bone marrow, AIDS… I just couldn’t handle that. The way that he looked in the hospital – seeing somebody that we lived with every day almost for four or five years…
What are some of the times that stay with you all of these years later?
MIKE: I remember when he’d go at it with K-Alexi. He’ll tell you about when they’d go at it. They had arguments! Almost got to blows fighting! We’re at the house – me, K., Armando and Shon Jackson. Armando and K-Alexi got into it, I don’t remember exactly what K. did. They’re talking shit about each other’s music. Armando’s saying, “You play that fuckin’ music, nobody listen’s to that shit…”
K. hits him back below the belt: “‘Land of Confusion’? All you have to do is take the batteries out and put ’em back in and that fuckin’ bassline comes out!” Oh, Armando went off! He was so fucked up after that. We were driving away on 95th – he ran up on the side of the curb! Shon, he’s laughing so hard, all of us. Armando’s yelling, “I can’t believe what he said! He said all you got to do is take out the batteries! I can’t believe he said that!” And it was true! But he was so salty! They didn’t speak for a minute. They just wanted to fuck each other up. Armando wanted to, like, tear his head off when he said that.
For the most part, I just remember all of the good times that we had. In fact, when I’m recording records – like I had that battle with Gene Hunt awhile back. I just started running across cassettes we made. I just found a big collection of them I haven’t run through. You see, I helped his mom get rid of all of his stuff – you know, sell his stuff to people, because I didn’t want other people getting over there… She didn’t know what it was, you know what I’m saying? You’d have people come in there saying, “Man, give me that bassline, I’ll give you a hundred dollars.” She wouldn’t have known.
One thing I regret – I should have held on to all of his equipment. His 909, I should have held on to that. But I was helping her out to get everything straight. Then you have Larry Sherman, talking about he owns all of the masters to Armando’s tracks, saying he made a deal with Armando when he was in Cook County… You ain’t nothin’. Those belong to his mom. I asked her about. I don’t know how [Larry] got hold of them or how they got out of the house. But he had all of the masters of all of the stuff that we did, all of the remixes…
In House Music, a lot of that kind of stuff ruined a lot of people. I mean really ruined. I mean drugged out. I mean labels really ruined people’s lives. JMV was homeless for awhile. People who’ve done hit records and they have nowhere to stay. A lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths because of it.
All we did in those days was put the music on the reel-to-reel. We had the drums synced up so the drums would always play live. That’s why we could never duplicate most of that stuff because we taped it to cassette or whatever and then erased it. Back then, we didn’t know anything about what it was worth. I mean, these were masters! We were naive to what the music business was all about. We weren’t into that. We were just about putting out this great record and, hey, my name is on it! And all of the other little stuff we didn’t really care about. And people now are like, “Man, you got the masters?” Are you serious? No, dog, a lot of that shit we recorded on DR4s and the drums were running live…
Most people don’t know it but I always say a prayer when I’m getting ready to spin. I know Armando’s looking down on me. I know he’s watching over me throughout all the trials and tribs a brother’s been through. I know he’s my angel. It’s really one of the reasons I wanted to get back in the game, House Music. I wanted to try other things so at least I’d know I’d tried. I didn’t want to be one of those old cats saying “I should have been, I should have tried, I should have taken the chance.” Armando taught me to never, ever be scared to try something new. He was younger than me but I looked up to him just as much as he looked up to me. It wasn’t one-sided. I helped him because I knew he was a true friend and I was to him.
And that’s it – from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.