I WANT TO INTRODUCE you to a guy – you might already know him. in fact, I’m sure you’ve met him before. If you’ve been to more than one House Music event at any time in the last twenty years, you’ve probably been on his dancefloor. You can see him at old school and afterhours events on the southside of Chicago, but he’s at home at events with a younger crowd too. He’s comfortable making tracks with industry legends and serving the role that his mentors like Ron Hardy did, passing on records and teaching the nuances of DJing to a younger generation.
I want to introduce you to Gene Hunt. Few in the industry can claim to be “more old school” than the guy that began spinning in the mid-1980s at age 15 – or can say they’re more active playing out than Gene is today. Nor can many say they’ve written more hot dancefloor records than Gene has since his first, “Living in a Land”, was released on Trax Records nearly two decades ago.
I met up with Gene in the front of vinyl mecca KStarke Records for a wide ranging interview about his prolific career and unique contribution to House Music.
I know a little about your family background. Your mother is actually a fashion designer, right?
My mother’s a couture fashion designer. She’s been in business about 21 years. She has a clothing store in the South Loop and does custom couture work – suede, leather, nothing you can buy off the rack but something unique. If you have something in mind, something uniquely personal in nature, she can design a really cultivated look in reference to some of the clothes. Some of her clients have included Michael Jordan, Steve Harvey, a lot of celebrities and comedians like Bernie Mac, some of the newscasters, athletes, football players like Donovan McNabb…
I always thought your sartorial splendor came from being old school, or is that from your mom?
It’s a bit of both. In today’s world, the more abstract you are and the more wild you are, the more unique you are. It gives you a style that goes along with creativity.
I’m trying to give off a very energetic vibe. Sometimes I like to be mellow and just laid back. Other times I like to get dressed up. It’s just unique – not to be a show-off or anything, but just be myself. Back in the early 1980s, House was a fashion statement and people would dress up. Guys would come with fancy hats and have their hair puffed up or wear a box haircut, but everyone had a different flavor. Nowadays, it’s a little more toned down, more about the music and less about the fashion dimension.
So tell me about when you first got involved in DJing.
I started off in 1986. I was 13 years old and hanging out with guys who were a lot older than me. My grandfather was actually a DJ and used to take me to the bars where he played at. He’d sit me on his stool and I’d watch him play records. I was fascinated by it.
One day, some friends in my neighborhood said they were going over to some other guy’s house to mix. I watched them and it reminded me of those times out with my grandfather. I began to spin, but it wasn’t until later, when these older friends took me to a hotel party, that I heard what House Music was all about. You see, I’d been one of those hot mix DJs, doing tricks and backtracking and all of that kind of stuff, so I really didn’t have a sense of what House Music was. I sat and watched the dancefloor. I heard music that I’d never heard before, live instruments and vocals – real tracks. After that, I was sold.
I started buying records, a lot of the WBMX stuff and Italian disco. I’d make my demo tapes and give ’em to people. I was still in school at the time so I would do little parties here and there. Finally I attracted the attention of a couple of promoters. I approached Lil Louis and he gave me my first real shot. There were other promoters on the southside like Galaxy and Gucci Promotions, and they gave me a shot too. And then I was playing with one of the best DJs in the world, which was Ron Hardy.
Tell me about your relationship with Ron.
Ronnie kind of took me under his wing. He asked me, “What are you doing here, little boy? Aren’t you supposed to be going to school tomorrow?” No, I’m about to DJ. “You’re about to DJ?! Well then, I have to see this myself. Tonight, I’m going to open up for you!” Ron Hardy opened up for me!
I was shaking and fidgeting. I didn’t realize before that there were thousands of people coming to these parties. Here I am, 15 years old, a little bitty stack of records that I just learned how to play, I’m playing for 3,000 people and I really don’t know the formula. I’ve got nerves, I’ve got the jitters – and then I’ve got this guy right here, considered one of the best DJs that there ever was! He put pressure on me, and I was really nervous. It was a little rocky and a little scary, obviously.
Even though Ron is gone, he’s still here through my influence, since I was his apprentice. At the same time, I still want to keep that vibe going and let everyone know how much he meant to me and how much he meant to House Music. He was a DJ and didn’t make too many records. But just think where he’d be right now if he were alive! Obviously, I don’t think he got the credit that he deserved.
What was it like to work such an intense mentor when you were just a kid?
It was hard on me, to be sure. I hung around Frankie and we’d play together when I was in New York, and he’d play here on Sundays. But Frankie would spoil me. He’d give me everything. It was more like, “Here you go!” [Gene picks up a small stack of vinyl nearby and hands it to me.]
Ron made me earn it. Louis was hard on me too. I hung around all of those guys, but Ron Hardy was the guy that really made me earn everything. He put pressure on me. “That record is eight minutes long. Play the damn record – don’t rush it out. You’re not a hot mixer. You’re an underground disc jockey. Play that music and let them hear it.”
What do you think made you stand out?
There were a few things that separated me from the other DJs. We had the reel-to-reel with pitch control on it and we had the cassette deck. Most of my music was on tape and on reel-to-reel, so I would turn the turntables off and go from tapedeck to reel-to-reel all night.
No DJ coming through the ranks now is going to know what it’s like to mix off a reel-to-reel – it’s got to be considered a lost art. How did that work compared to turntables?
It’s a totally different situation. You had to pull the tape out, run it through a lead, cue it up and find the right spot. It was a little more intricate than just putting your record on a platter and cueing it up with your hand. It was a lot more technical but the sound quality was a lot more immense. And you got a chance to play a lot of things that the other guys didn’t have.
Back then, I also had a drum machine, and I’d toy around and make these really abstract tracks. They call that “Techno” now, obviously, but back in that era it wasn’t called Techno. I’d call it Disco because that’s where it all came from. A lot of people don’t know that Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson used to come to the Music Box. When Ron Hardy and I spun at the Music Box, they brought us “Strings of Life”.
The music been split up into all of these particles when it comes from one solid base. It’s all a 4/4 form of music. I’ve heard Disco records that are 140 beats per minute. I’ve heard Disco records that are 110 beats per minute. These days, people feel like anything past 127 beats per minute isn’t House Music. You can’t define that. Music is your interpretation of what you feel. It was just music to us – just some funky ass tracks!
The percussion on your original productions isn’t just snare-hat-snare-hat… You have some sounds that I’ve never heard on record before.
I use so many different elements. I’ll put five different snares together and then put an effect behind it which gives it a totally different pattern. I’ll grab natural sounds from the elements from being out, being at the museum, hearing a sound when I’m at home. I’ll grab different sounds and put them together so as to contrast them and then run them through a processor which gives me a different sound altogether. If I did things in a normal way, I’d have a normal sound.
It’s a degree of artistry that you usually don’t see. You’re crafting every single beat.
Every single beat, and there’s always something going on. A lot of guys, when they make their tracks, they take a loop, they go on and ride it and then they pour all the other things on top of it. I want you to have excitement like a roller coaster when you hear my tracks. That’s how I think about my music: like a roller coaster. I’ll take you up the slide, suspend you up at the top, and then send you down for the rush, let you have a few loops and turns. I never want the ride to get boring.
You moved out of Chicago and retired from House Music during the 1990s. Why was that?
I retired around 1994. This was a really important time for House Music, and I was gone. I moved to California and started producing a lot of Rap music and working with a lot of Rap artists – I started production with Bones Thugs’N’Harmony, Snoop Dogg…
I continued to release both House Music and Techno, but I just stopped DJing because I lost a sense of it. Ron Hardy had passed away, Lil Louis had gotten a major label deal with “French Kiss” and moved to New York, and it just seemed like the whole scene was crashing. I found another niche and something else to do.
When I came back in 2000, after missing those years, it took me a bit of time to get re-adjusted. Some guys are here today and gone tomorrow, but I must have made some kind of impact if I could start when I was 15 years old back in the early ’80s and come back. But it was an adjustment. I had to surround myself with the new guys. They knew who I was, but I had to reinvent Gene Hunt. It took me a good two or three years just to re-establish myself, and I’m still getting into that rhythm right now.
There’s a very small group of people from your era that are still working DJs, in the sense that they spin regularly in their hometown.
There are only a handful of us that are around as far as legendary veterans. There’s Wayne Williams, Terry Hunter, Andre Hatchett, myself and a few others… We look out for one another. Obviously, Frankie Knuckles still plays too. But being out there in the trenches, playing with a lot of younger guys like Jamie 3:26, Stephen P. and Paul Harris, the guys I play with at The Note – there are a lot of new and up and coming guys that are great.
You play serious old school nights as well as for younger crowds who might not recognize the classics. What’s your take on breaking new music?
Something I learned back in the day is that if you play a record and clear a dancefloor, don’t worry – the chances are that you’re just familiarizing your audience with something new. Don’t just give them everything, because you won’t be teaching them anything – you’ll be a jukebox, not a DJ. A DJ is a person that’s going to experiment. He’s going to take a record and play it two or three times in a night and next month it’ll a hit. Now everybody’s playing it because we made the record hot.
I’m playin’ 21 years in the game now. I can’t only play the stuff that I was playing when I was 15 years old. I have to move with the times. Here’s the thing, though. I have the old audience that’s familiar with what I used to play but also a whole new crowd of people that’s never heard the stuff I used to play. Now I can take all of that and make myself a nice vegetable stew of music. I can play some songs from back in the ’70s. “Hey Gene, what’s that track?” Dude, this is older than you! But I’m glad that you like it because it’s fresh and new to your ears like it was to mine when you were a child. But I’m still around and now that you’re old enough to get into a club, let me teach you and give you a little more than what you’re used to.
That’s what educating is all about. That’s what all of life is about – educating one another, cultivating one another as a people, regardless of race, gender or creed. If we work together musically, we can generate a creative rhythm that’s always evolving. This is bigger than all of us and we have to approach it without politics or ego – just for the love of the game.
And it’s not about playing for your DJ buddies – you’re not trying to impress them. You’re trying to impress the audience that’s coming out, and you’re trying to get that therapeutic rhythm in their mind to let them forget about their problems with their job or their relationship or their finances. “Last night a DJ saved my life.” That’s true! I’ve had people say, “Gene, I was really having a bad day man, but thank you for playing my song. Now I can get a good night’s rest. I’m thinking clearly now.” I had people that were on the verge of committing suicide at certain times when we played back in the day. “I’m thinking about ending my life.” C’mon, man – let’s hang out, let me get you a drink. I’ll play the music for you and give you a reason to live.
Wow. How does that make you feel?
It’s a blessing from God and something that I don’t take for granted. Remember, I’m a single parent father, I have a 13 year old son and an 11 year old daughter, so I’m both the dad and the mom. Add being a DJ, trying to help some of the young brothers, being a good parent, helping them with their homework… Obviously it’s a big responsibility but this keeps me going every day. My job is to inspire and to teach.
People come up to me and say, “Gene, you really inspired me tonight” – that’s a blessing from God. I’m humble and I appreciate that and give thanks. If you’re true to House Music, House Music will be true to you.
Last year you won the Global Mixx Award as the best House Music DJ. It was actually called the Ron Hardy Award.
Yes, I was nominated with Louie Vega, Marques Wyatt, DJ Heather and Andre Hatchett. It was at the Park West and the awards were given away by Method Man and Ludacris. I got a call that I was nominated and I was absolutely honored, but for some strange reason I counted myself out. At the actual ceremony, I was sitting down eating, and they had screens where they were broadcasting. I was eating some chicken, and they announce, “And the winner is…” And they called my name! I’m sitting next to Terry Hunter, Mike Dunn and K-Alexi. They’re like “He won! He won!” I had to quickly swallow what I was eating. [laughs] I gave my little speech and took my award, but I was honored. I didn’t expect it, it was an absolute blessing, especially as it’s named after someone that I hold in such high regard.
I wanted to ask you about a release you did on Rucksack a few months back, as it’s one of my favorite obscure record labels. Where did the track with Ron Hardy come from? Did you save it all these years?
“Throwback 87” – that was a track that Ron and I made in my bedroom in 1987. We put the drum machine and a Juno-106 on top of the bed. I stumbled across the reels one day. I sent Rucksack something new that I made, and included “Throwback” and said, “Check this out, this is something that me and Ron did back in the day.”
It was very basic, but it was a killer on the dancefloor. Ron would drink his Coca-Cola and turn the knobs while I programmed the drums. We played it at the Music Box one night and they went bananas.
What do you have coming up for the future?
I’m trying to finish up all the stuff for this year. I’m working with Kenny Dope and other guys that I’ve had goals to work with for some time. That’s a part of reinventing Gene Hunt, not just as a DJ but on a recording artist level. I’m trying to put Gene Hunt in another category, because there’s still more space left in my career to grow.
Another aspiration I have is to open up a club here, but with a different focus. I want to make it a House artist museum, with live painting and sculptures. You’ll be able to learn about House Music in the day and during the night you’ll get a total education of where it came from and an idea of where it’s going to go. I see House Music going to another level. This is the best time to be involved.
Back on the production side, I just finished working with Robert Owens when he came to town. I’m officially on Kenny Dope’s label Dope Wax now. Louie Vega included a song of mine on his mix CD for Defected – the song is coming out later on Dope Wax. I’m on Jojo Flores’ GotSoul label. I’m also doing some stuff on a label called Little Angel, a division of the Club Star label from Germany. I just did an album for them called In Sound.
I’m also starting my own label, Jestin Records – my daughter’s name is Jessica, my son’s name is Justin, so I put their names together, and their handprints are the logo. It’s going to be a Chicago-based label. It’s the first label I’ve started in my life and I’ve lined up some pretty good distribution. My first project is called “Tribute”. I’m working with guys like Derrick Carter, Farley, Chip E., Kenny Dope, Theo Parrish, Roy Davis, Paul Johnson… I’m dedicating a track to them as they influenced me, then I’m sending them the track to remix. Altogether there will be about 15 tracks on it. It’ll be a double CD, and then I’m going to do 12 inch releases of each for the DJs. I’ll give you the scoop on that when it drops.
I have some tracks out on a label called Philosophy, and I did an album for Unified Records here in Chicago called Seasoned and it has some bangin’ beats and vocals. That project will be coming out close to March and the Winter Music Conference too.