Longevity, for its own sake, doesn’t mean much. Do anything for twenty years and you’ll qualify for a gold watch and a testimonial. It’s not the twenty years that sets Cajual Records apart from the pack – it’s how grand those twenty years have been. If you came on board in year two (as I did) or year eighteen – if you love House Music, the music of Cajual Records has become something you share as the collective soundtrack of millions of strangers’ lives.
And no label has been as much a part of our lives as Cajual. People have fallen in love to this music. They’ve been saved. They’ve lost their innocence and found their will to live. And somewhere in your town – especially if your town is named Chicago – it’s quite likely that at this very moment, a DJ is mixing into the sounds of Cajual right now. Twenty years later.
I approached this interview with Cajmere on the subject of Cajual’s twentieth anniversary not to confirm facts that have already been stated a hundred times before, or go over, myopically, what I consider the greatest back catalog in music. Like the label, Cajmere is an entity constantly in motion. To understand where Cajual is after twenty years and what it means, you first have to understand where Cajmere is. And what he means. From talking to him at length, I’m convinced that he doesn’t view this as an occasion for a mighty fine eulogy. I think he sees the twenty year mark as just the beginning.
It’s probably a good idea to start twenty years ago. Now I was too young to know much about the landscape of Chicago in 1992. I’ve read that things were pretty dreary, what with Frankie and Marshall gone and Trax & DJ International having had their peak. What is your impression of what Chicago was like just before you started up Cajual?
That’s exactly right. The scene was in transition from House to Hip Hop. There were still a few clubs that were supporting House, like Shelter and Crobar (though I’m not sure if Crobar was around just yet).
I have to do a backstop here to long before Cajual, though. We all went to the parties in the ’80s – huge parties with thousands of people and a lot of excitement. That had kind of died off. Personally speaking, I had a deal with Clubhouse Records, which was run by Hula and K. Fingers. They had some hits like “Nu Nu” from Lidell Townsell, but they were working mainly on remixing major artists like The Fresh Prince (Will Smith).
We started Cajual for the love of music and out of necessity to get the music heard. I love music so much that my only goal was to keep it alive and keep it going at a time when, from the outside at least, it looked like nobody was really doing anything.
Did you know a lot of people in the industry and have some kind of a network when you started?
No, not at all! I had a deal with Emotive Records to distribute the records overseas and with Ray Barney to distribute them here, but that was it. To promote the records, I would just take them to Shelter and give them to John Curley and the other DJ there with him (whose name I can’t remember right now). I’d also take them to WKKC on the Southside which played more trackier stuff. And I think I DJ’d at a gay club which was also called The Clubhouse around ’93 or so.
Those were our only outlets in the beginning, especially since radio had moved away from this music. So the scene had really died in this city. I consider myself so fortunate because I didn’t know what would happen!
There was a point in my life where I didn’t feel the way I do now and that perspective helped me get beyond it and understand that if fans want to hear it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hearing you play this one song that you made will make someone so happy. I have to admit, there was a point in my life that if I heard “Perculator” one more time… [laughs]
Some of the most commercially successful songs on Cajual were also some of the first. It occurred to me that at the moment we’re doing this interview, someone in a club in Chicago is either blending into or blending out of “Brighter Days” or “U Got Me Up” – something you put out 19 or 20 years ago. Is there a burden of history that comes with that?
No, I don’t look at it that way. It helps to look at people I admire and people that I’m a fan of myself. Let’s take Lil Louis, for example. Lil Louis has helped me in so many ways that I can’t even begin to tell you, and he probably doesn’t even know about most of them!
But one night, Louis was playing at House of Blues and I really wanted to go, because I’m a huge fan, but I couldn’t make it out. The next day, I called Mark Grant to ask how it went. I asked if Louis played “French Kiss” and when Mark told me no, I found myself feeling so disappointed!
There’s just something about being a fan of someone and wanting to hear them play your favorite song that they produced. I had to think about my reaction to that. That helped me: I got it and I understood then.
There was a point in my life where I didn’t feel the way I do now and that perspective helped me get beyond it and understand that if fans want to hear it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hearing you play this one song that you made will make someone so happy. I have to admit, there was a point in my life that if I heard “Perculator” one more time… [laughs] I mean there were even tracks about “Perculator”!
But it’s all love and you have to look at it that way. There are fans that love my old stuff, some that love my new stuff, and some that love all of it. I’m a fan of the music, and some of my favorite DJs playing some of my favorite songs – it makes my day too. Hey, it would make my day to go out and hear Lil Louis playing all of his old stuff. I’d be so happy! But that’s me and I’m cheeky that way!
My record nerds will not let me do an interview on Cajual without asking about the topic of re-issues. You brought out “Perculator” with a slew of new remixes last year. What’s your policy toward re-issues of tracks done by artists other than yourself from the Cajual and Relief catalogs?
In general, I try to talk to the artist before we re-issue stuff. You have to think of the artist first and that’s what I think is right.
When Cajual started, Chicago labels had such a negative reputation from the record deals given to artists. We wanted to be fair and have the label stand for that as well as build a place where artists could grow and develop. I’ve made that decision, which I think is the fair, upfront and honest one.
Back in the day, as Cajual got bigger and bigger, there was one person in the office who had … I don’t even know what I’d call it … an “agenda”? or “personal issues”? … This was a person who went around telling artists untruths about how much we were selling and things like that. I learned a few really important lessons there. First that it’s important to know, fully, just who it is that you have in your camp. And second I learned that people will believe it, even when it’s so far from the truth, and even when they have knowledge that it’s not true, based on the supposed credibility of the person telling it.
I gotta take this opportunity to ask one other rather off-topic question: Chip E’s “It’s House” is a track that’s been a real formidable piece in your set for so long – I’ve heard you blend into it from the strangest places and it always comes out well in the end! Do you still play it, and what is it about that song that you keep coming back to?
I still play “It’s House”. That track takes me right back to old school Chicago and it’s one of the anthems of the jackin’ House era. You play it and everybody just starts jackin’. It’s simple, rhythmic, and that makes it very, very easy to dance to.
Cajual eventually got into the distribution game. It’s not terribly well known that Chez Damier and Ron Trent started Prescription in the Cajual office and that Prescription was distributed by Cajual. Did you seed that idea or did they come to you with the plan?
Nope, they came to me with the plan. And with Chez being the great salesman that he is, I couldn’t turn it down! [laughs] Those were such fun times. Looking back now, it was so much fun!
I’ve picked up something different in you lately. It’s almost like you have rediscovered the kind of passion that propelled you in the early days. It’s come up in other conversations I’ve had – people have really noticed that hey, it sounds like Cajmere has rediscovered his old joy. Is that off-base?
That is very accurate. One reason is, as with any artist, you get to a certain level and you have to find your vision or purpose. My purpose is to make music people can dance to, have fun to, and at the same time find something that maybe speaks to them on a deeper level. I went through a very challenging period in my life. I was seeking the Lord and renewing my faith and getting really a totally different perspective on life. I took some time off to get to the place where I really began to enjoy the music and looked forward to supporting people and looking out as best I can.
One thing that really seemed to herald that are the EPs you’ve been releasing with Gene Farris. They’re just a lot of fun – beyond being really good music, the fun and joy you had when making them really shines through. And as we’re talking about Cajual after twenty years, I think they form a kind of distinct, new era for the label. How did that come about?
Gene as you know was living in Amsterdam for awhile. There was a music conference over there that I was at – Gene was already living back in Chicago then, but he was at it too – and we talked about getting together and making some music. We connected back in the city of Chicago. When we were talking about what we wanted to accomplish, one of the things was getting some respect for Chicago. We both know that Chicago is the birthplace of House Music and that’s really where my focus is right now. And what better way to get that respect than to name all of the tracks after Chicago clubs – places that we enjoyed going to or that were well-known in the scene. So we came up with a sound, really sort of disco chops, and released these EPs giving honor to the clubs.
That music and those clubs both had such a huge impact on my life and on Gene’s as well. We decided to work some disco edits in a way that works well on the dancefloor for the kids of today. I love that stuff but you’re rarely going to hear me play a disco set. I’m not sure I want to prove a point by mixing those records together, but that’s me! [laughs]
We want to keep it alive, keep it out there and it’s interesting the way it keeps the music all around it in a certain place, gives it a certain reference. I can work on my other productions, like with Russoul, and it gives me a reference to a true Chicago House sound that I can keep in mind.
Russoul is your other main collaborator these days. How did you guys meet?
I met Russoul through Mark Grant. We knew each other for years and we always talked about the three of us working on something together, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The thing about these collaborations… I went through a lot of lot of personal challenges last year. I lost my father to cancer. My parents divorced when I was 10 and my father had custody of my brother, my sister and me, so we were very, very close. It was a very challenging time and I just didn’t feel the motivation or whatever to work on things on my own. Working with other people and these collaborations pulled me through that.
What other plans do you have to mark Cajual’s anniversary?
The plan is to give people a quick history on Cajual while also setting the stage for new artists, producers and singers that have that love and passion for the music to use it as a springboard.
Aside from Russoul, there’s a young female singer that I’m working with. I actually met her in church! She’s very young and I made sure I got the ok from her mom, so that’s looking all good! And of course I’ll be doing stuff with Dajae.
But Cajual will be starting small and keeping an easy pace. We’ll pick it up as time goes on.
It’s interesting, it’s a label with twenty years of history but it sounds like you’ve got all the enthusiasm and practice of a start-up.
Oh yeah! It feels so good and it’s something to get excited about again. I know people have a lot of love for us and people support us still. Some might not understand us, but if they knew that I’m just a regular old person, not perfect, doing the best I can, I think they’d understand where we’re coming from.
How about a new Taste of Cajual? There are so few touchstones in House Music but that’s one of them. It’s like the Appetite for Destruction of House Music – everyone’s got a copy in their closet.
I would LOVE for that to happen. And get Derrick Carter to mix it – that’d be great!