From working as an assistant and co-conspirator with Julian “Jumpin'” Perez, to working behind the counter of record shops (Gramaphone, Jumpin’ Music and others), to running record labels, throwing parties, DJing any room with two turntables and a PA and finally jumping into production – Bear Who’s been there. And after years on the scene, he’s finally standing at the top of the industry as one of the most respected and unique artists. He’s a familiar face in a genre that’s often faceless; a primetime entertainer in a genre that sometimes seems to discourage any departure from the familiar, the safe and the ordinary.
I talked with Bear Who for close to three hours in his studio. He had a lot to say, but none of it was rehearsed. It wouldn’t be possible to record here every subject he touched on – familiar names from the past that have fallen on hard times and have been seemingly discarded; old residencies (including his own “A Family Affair” with Légo and Julio at Superlounge); industry success and hardships; and, most of all, his unique fusion of influences that he calls “mental music”.
Bear Who is one of the party people – don’t get me wrong about that. But as he talked about the four years that went into his latest creation, The Beatbox, it was inescapable to conclude that this is more than a few tracks he put together because he liked the way they sounded. This is a manifesto of sorts – and a vindication, that the years spent in the trenches of the industry haven’t been wasted.
First of all, I have to ask where the name “Bear Who?” comes from. What does it mean?
It’s a nickname. I was always known as “Bear” because I’m a pretty big guy. People would see my name on a flyer (especially when I worked at Gramaphone) and they’d see, for instance, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter… and Bear. “Bear? Bear Who?” That’s where it comes from.
A lot of people see me as different characters when I walk into a club. I’ll hear, “Man I see this guy everywhere! Who’s Bear? Bear Who?” Exactly!
Tell me about the early days.
I grew up on the Northside, and ran with a crew called “House on the Boulevard”. There were crews everywhere in those days, on every block. I’ve been influenced so many times by so many people, being in the scene since I was ten years old and meeting everybody. Just put it this way – if this was a university, I’d have my PhD, no doubt. My doctorate! “Doctor Bear Who?, House Music PhD.” [laughs]
It’s funny, but my little sister doesn’t know that there was a time when there wasn’t House Music. I was already taking over my parents’ stereo and eight tracks and experimenting at ten years old. I used to mix off three radios! Get the beat, hit pause on these two… Ron Hardy and those guys were just names to us. I was ten years old – you think I’m going to the Music Box to see Ron Hardy? I was down the block with a hundred Puerto Rican kids playing “Jack Your Body”.
Nobody talks about the Puerto Rican House influence that made House as big as it is, because everyone’s always talking about the Southside or the Westside. I mean from 14 to 21 years old, I was just DJing – every day. We all were. Hector Lopez went to Gordon Tech with me, Légo went to Shurz, and Julio Bishop went to St. Patrick’s. Our high schools would throw parties, and the DJ that held down the school, held down the party.
You used to work with Julian “Jumpin'” Perez as well, correct?
It was Julian that taught me how to DJ. I was his assistant. You asked me how old I was when I was ordained? I was ten years old, turning on the radio and hearing Julian absolutely destroy it. That was it. I was his assistant when I was 17 years old, going to 21-and-over clubs as his friend and his assistant. He taught me club etiquette. He taught me how to be a mack, how to walk into a club, how to program a record. He taught me that you don’t put this record after that record. He taught me that with just one record, you should be able to take a room that’s not dancing and pack the floor. How can you not become great if you’re taught by the guy that invented this?
Julian’s Cuban, so he also had the Latin swing. That to me was the most important thing, because I come from the hood, from Humboldt Park. You hear that in my sets. But it all comes down to Julian Perez. I’ll tell you, I’ve done hip-hop parties, freestyle parties, techno parties… I’ve spun with the likes of Sven Vath, Paul Oakenfold, Josh Wink, Carl Cox, Derrick May, Légo, Marques Wyatt, Louie Vega – and I’ve never been scared because I was taught by the best.
And think about it: you’re 14 years old and you’ve got 10 or 15 DJs around you saying “Fuck up, c’mon, fuck up, fuck up, wrong beat! Wrong beat!” Dude, it was strict! If you’re a Chicago DJ, you’re surrounded by the best. Julian taught me that.
If you want to know the history, I used to run a record store called Jumpin’ Music on Grand. Julian Perez owned Jumpin’ Music, and I ran it for him. I worked at the record store and would bring the new Cajmere to play on B96 with Julian. For many years on B96, we used to play House and Hip-Hop together, in one set. People were just going nuts listening to it. True story – B96 told me straight-up that they’d never play Hip-Hop, and now they’re all about “Hip-Hop hits”. But when we used to play that shit, people would react to it. And the other DJs copied us. I won’t mention any names but I remember it, and suddenly everyone was doing it.
Julian and I rode together for many years and he taught me a lot until one day, I was done with the whole B96 thing and I wanted to move on.
How big is the Hip-Hop influence in your music?
The Hip-Hop influence is just as big in me, and that was from Day One. People forget about the Boogie Boys, Mike Dunn, Pharris Thomas, Lil’ John, Kanye West, R. Kelly – those are all House people. This is Chicago, bro – there’s no way around it.
In the beginning, New York had Hip-Hop and we had House. And then it switched in the mid-’80s – they got House, and we got Hip-Hop. If there’s a Hip-Hop person that don’t like House, he ain’t from Chicago, and that’s the truth. I was a Zulu King, baby, and I’ve done it. I ran the Zulu Nation in Chicago for three years with Cassius D. They all came to my parties. I still get my respect in the Hip-Hop community, from the biggest names, because I’ve been around so long.
The ’80s is when the Zulu Nation was bustin’ out and it was all about the bboys. That’s poppin’ now too. People like the electric bboy thing and that’s what I am. If there’s anyone that can claim to be Chicago House bboy, it’s Bear. I broke my ass on the linoleum and the cardboard many times.
Let’s talk about “Fix My Sink”. That song debuted, I think, at #20 on the UK charts and became a huge worldwide phenomenon.
I was at home and the song came to me. I wrote it, put it together and brought it up to Sneak – I thought it was done but he didn’t think so. That song was everywhere. The video for it was on the BBC, on TV in England. We did a live performance at Virgin Records in London – the same place where huge bands like Metallica play. To this day it’s still on ringtones and everything else.
The funny thing is that people who didn’t know us before had me pegged as the singer and Sneak as the producer – a team, like I’m the House Music Snoop Dogg and he’s the Doctor Dré. But I don’t claim to be an MC or a rapper. I’m an entertainer. That’s where my “Fuzzy Cufflinxxx” alias comes from. That’s the Bear that you see at the clubs or on the decks or that makes the records. Like Cajmere has Green Velvet – I understand it. I get it. I see where it’s at.
Will you and Sneak be working together again?
I don’t know, but you know what? “Fix My Sink” put me out there. It was the most successful thing musically that I’ve done up to this point. We put out some good music. I’d done records before but we went on a big tour, my video was on MTV, and suddenly I was a superstar.
How does that feel? I mean, you’re in the UK playing at Virgin Records, and then getting off a plane in Chicago where there’s no paparazzi or anything. Is it a head adjustment?
You mean having a 9-to-5 in Chicago, yet I’m on TV in England? Hell yeah, it’s an adjustment. How does any human deal with that? Kanye West has a hard time dealing with the fame, I know that. You go to LA and people are asking for your autograph and all of that. The trippy thing is when I play “Fix My Sink” and people are singing the words to me. And then you go back home and you have trouble getting into one of the clubs that you used to DJ at. It’s a trip. It’s a weird experience but everybody goes through it here in Chicago.
But you still live here…
And I will still be here because I’m hardcore. You know how the saying goes – if you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere. I’m stickin’ it out.
When you talk a step back and look at it, this thing is huge. Honey Dijon is in New York – from Chicago. Mark Farina is out in San Francisco and one of the biggest DJs in the world right now. Colette? She’s gone. Gene Farris is in Amsterdam. Tyree Cooper is in Berlin.
But I’ll tell you what, I meet people who were ten years old back in the day, buying my records, seeing my name on flyers – I meet these people now and it’s such a weird thing. I met this cat in Miami and he said he’s known me since the B96 days. One of his kid’s favorite CDs is a CD that I made. This guy heard me play in Miami and told me I made him cry when I started playing my old school material. He was serious. He told me this was the first time he heard me play and he grew up listening to my voice, hearing me mix and hearing my songs.
You talk about being true? Well, that’s one thing you can never take away from me.
You’re a part of the Gramaphone fraternity – one of the amazing talents in House Music that has worked at that store. Have there ever been any ideas for a kind of reunion concert or project?
It’s been kicked about, but we’re all off doing our own thing. When you try to get that many people together, with schedules and touring and other commitments, it’s hard. The experience though, was out of this world. I worked at Jumpin’ Music, and then you had the Hip House, which owned Underground Construction and Afterhours Records. Sneak worked there, Fast Eddie worked there, Halo worked there, Julio Bishop worked there… We were all homies.
Gramaphone had the best DJs in the city but was more underground. Do you know what it was like working with Psychobitch and Darrell Woodson and Josh Warner? You knew music! If you worked at Gramaphone, you were probably the most educated DJ in the world.
But it’s the same thing with the Mongoloidz. The Mongoloidz started in 1997. Ten years later, we’ve all gone our separate ways, but we’re kind of like the Three Musketeers – we’re always down with our crew.
Tell me more about the Mongoloidz.
Armand van Helden, Sneak and Junior Sanchez had their crew. Ian Pooley got pulled into it, Eric Morillo, Harry Choo Choo, myself… It was ten years ago and things were a little different at the time. We had plans of producing albums and going on tours but – trust me, when you get those kinds of names in one room at one time… that room can get a little stuffy. [laughs]
It’s turned out to be more of a brotherhood, a fraternity. It’s funny because I still get a lot of people asking about that all the time. I’m sure the rest of the guys do too. But like with Daft Punk – I hadn’t seen those guys in five years, some of my best friends. Their manager emailed me and said they left two tickets for me for Lollapolooza in August. I went to Lollapolooza, went back home, changed, I go into the VIP at Green Dolphin for the afterparty and they’re all there and we’re kickin’ it. That’s it – that’s the Mongoloidz.
Or, I was stranded in New York four or five years ago, and Armand says, “Yo, stay with me.” The Yankees are about to win the world series and I’m staying with Armand van Helden in Manhattan. We went out that night and we ran into Ice-T at a club. That’s it.
Junior Sanchez knows that when he comes to Chicago he has a place to stay – the guy’s rich and he could just stay in a hotel, but Bear’s here. That’s what the Mongoloidz is about.
You’ve played residencies all over the city, at all kinds of different clubs. Where do you see that headed in the future as we get older and the generations change?
Honestly? I think that old way of doing parties is done. I was talking to Junior Sanchez the other day – he’s pretty much the electro king of the world right now – and he said, “You know, bro, you’ve got to keep your hand on the pulse of the new generation. That’s the only way you’re going to survive in this industry.” And it’s true.
With parties, they have to be what people want. If you try to force one style of music down their throats all night, they’re not going to show. Every Friday and Saturday in Chicago, you’ve got to play some Hip-Hop. If not, you’re going to be one House dude all alone in your house. Look at Zentra – they’re packed every Friday. The people want to go to Zentra, listen to headbangin’ records, dress up in tight jeans, wear their hair in a punk rock style and wear Converse. That’s cool – we did that in the ’80s and we want to do it again. But we gotta embrace Hip-Hop and we’ve got to accept that we need a place where Derrick Carter, Junior Sanchez and Kanye West can be chilling at one place at one time.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m House Nation, I’ve got the tattoos on my body and they’ll be there until I die. But if you’re from Chicago and you’re into House, you have to embrace Hip-Hop in some sort of fashion. You can’t ignore it. I play that way in my sets. I’m droppin’ “Umbrella” over a Derrick Carter beat. I’m taking acapellas of Eminem and dropping it over “Jack Your Body”. I’m taking Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy” and dropping it over a brand new Gene Farris track. I’m taking a Kenny Dope dub beat and throwing “Humpty Dance” over it. You never know – I’ll play everything.
But the youth? This isn’t going to be preserved unless there’s a 19 year old kid running around bumpin’ that shit in his iPod. That’s where I’m going with “The Beatbox”, “U Step”, “It’s House”… I’m doing this so some 17 year old Puerto Rican kid that likes House Music or likes Hip-Hop can hear my single and see that this is something different. That’s where I’m going and what I’m trying to do.
So let’s talk about the new material. What’s the best you’ve done, in your opinion?
“The Beatbox”. That’s four years of hard work and passion. I think I pushed the envelope with “The Beatbox”. I’ve always been the one to push the envelope, whether it was doing the biggest parties when I was promoting or putting together the sickest Latin beats or jumping on the mic.
The single just came out this week, it’s on beatport and digitally at all of the other download sites. We put it out there earlier this year so people who were real could write about it. And one thing: I’m not hip house! Everyone’s trying to spin this as hip house. I’m not Fast Eddie, I’m not Kool Rock Steady, I’m not those guys. I’m just doing Mental Music – a fusion of what the people want to hear. Then I give my vocals to my boys (or girls) and let them beat ’em up and let them do the remix version that they want to play for their people. You might not like the original but the Greenskeepers’ mix is dope. Or someone might like the Tim Baker mix, or the original mix, or CZR’s or Tyree Cooper’s mix. That’s how you’re going to stay young. It’s like a virus, spreading, and that’s what we’re going to be about. I want people out there to really listen to “The Beatbox” and know where its coming from.
In October I’m going to be releasing “U Step,” my second single. I have Derrick Carter remixes, Inland Knight remixes… It’s already getting huge props. Pete Tong is feeling it and Mark Farina took one of the mixes for his Tokyo Live CD. It’s serious shit. And this is just my second single – I’ve got nine more to go.
The video for “The Beatbox” was shot in a club. Was that here?
Yeah, that was shot at Four. The video was directed by Charles Little, my former partner in Pure. He left the party scene and became a media director. He shoots commercials, movies, videos, he’s done websites… He’s a true friend and an incredible talent. He saw the vision of where I wanted to go with “The Beatbox”. It’s a Hip-Hop version of what would happen if a dance DJ went into a Spanish club like the clubs here in Chicago. We had 150 people turn out, and no one’s done that before. That’s the Chicago posse. I can’t wait to work with him on my third video coming up, which is “U Step”.
This was released on Dust Traxx. How do you feel about releasing your material on other labels?
Dust Traxx is also a distributor, it’s not just a record label. They run Sole Unlimited, which is one of the few vinyl import/export distributors in the world. Dust Traxx is just one of the labels among a hundred they represent. You can sometimes feel like a victim of quantity over quality, but honestly, people have to be more independent of the label. A label can only do so much, and there’s no sense in waiting around for other people to make you a star.
It’s the same principle as being a DJ. When I play out, I call my friends and they show up. Because I have the experience of being a promoter, we promote. I pay money to have a publicist so people know what’s going on, so four or five hundred people are going to show at an event.
When I played at Zentra with Terry Hunter and Kenny Dope last May, I made that whole deal happen. As a favor to me from Terry and Kenny Dope because of the relationship I have with both of those guys, they said they’d take a cheaper gig. Jon and Rob over there are amazing. They believe in what I do and I love those guys. They were little kids when I was doing my thing and they looked up to me so to see them doing their thing now is great. Those guys get it.
A lot of vinyl distributors are slow in paying now, and it almost looks like it’s on its last legs. Where do you fall in the vinyl vs. digital debate?
Here’s an education on how running a record label works because I ran a successful label, Afterhours Records. Vinyl is a good promotional tool. You try to get as much out early and maybe sell a few. But the primary objective of vinyl is to promote.
5 Magazine did something with you at the Bassline Stage at Puerto Rican Fest this year. How was that experience, bringing House Music back to the masses?
It was a great time. Anytime I have the chance to spread the gospel to my Puerto Ricans, damn right I’m there. I’ve had problems in the past because of the fact that we, as Puerto Ricans, are stuck. If it’s not reggaeton or Hip-Hop or really old House, like “Jack Your Body” – that’s it, they’re done. It’s really difficult when you’re trying to promote and educate with some new stuff. It gets disenchanting. But you have to understand that back in the day, when you played at a party, you played everything, including Hip-Hop, House, reggaeton – you name it. That’s the way we got down. So I can play everything. I have played everything, everywhere. Bar Mitvahs, sweet sixteens, graduations, everything…
But can you play with that downtempo lounge vibe?
I have played lounge!
Even “Sleepy House”?
See, I don’t play “Sleepy House”. My shit is drums. If I play something loungey, you’re going to feel like you’re in a rainforest! [laughs] That’s the Latino in me. You’d hear a remix of Prince by Masters at Work, Daft Punk’s “Around the World” remixed by Ian Pooley, Bear Who’s “The Latin Swing”…
Having “apprenticed” under an established DJ like Julian Perez, do you think the up-and-comers are cutting corners and not learning their craft?
I guess everybody’s struggling to make it but there’s a lot of bullshit DJs that don’t have those skills and don’t know how to play records. They’re Christmas DJs: “For Christmas my mother bought me Pioneer 1000s and a Serrato system and now I’m a DJ!”
You know I have love for everybody but I speak my mind. There’s this guy in Chicago paying people to roll with him, paying people to do productions with him, has money behind him – and never DJed a day in his life but went to playing clubs in Chicago. I think that’s a shame. I think Armando would turn in his grave over that. I think someone like Kool Rock Steady would say, “Punk Ass Muddafucka!” in his reggae voice. If you’re going to DJ, you’ve got to pay your dues and earn your respect.
You’ve mentioned a lot of people from the old days. Who from the old days doesn’t get the respect they deserve?
Respect? The ultimate respect is you put on a song in a club and people recognize it and put their hands up in the air – that’s respect. The greatest at that is Cajmere. As soon as you hear “It’s time for the percolator…” at any club, at any time, at any place in the world – the second you drop that record, it’s over. Anywhere. I could be in Hamburg, Germany or Botswana or Bolivia and when I drop that shit, people are going to know it.
Where do you think you stand in relation to the legends?
Some people call me a legend. I don’t believe that. A legend is a Julian Perez, a Ralphi Rosario, a Psychobitch. And then you have the whole second generation after them: Bad Boy Bill, Farina, Derrick Carter, Diz, Heather. Someday I want to write the book about everything that went down in Chicago. And if I don’t write it, I want a chapter with all of the things that I did so people can know. It’s important because we don’t have a museum or some program where old DJs get tax breaks [laughs].
But working at Gramaphone with Derrick Carter, being cousins with Légo… Something’s gotta stick. It’s a miracle to see the things I’ve seen and do the things I’ve done. And I ain’t done yet.
Everybody that’s a DJ has got to hustle and try to get the same gigs the other guy’s trying to get, or wear the flashiest clothes and wind up in a magazine somewhere, or put out the right CD with the right mix from the right guy so they’ll put your shit on the radio. It’s bananas! And I give props to people who can handle it. I’m still the humble Chicago kid that’s learning from this shit, that’s dazzled by it.
I feel like I’ve been through the war, like a soldier. I had no choice. I was House and I’ve given up my life to do this.