One of the most versatile producers to come out of Chicago in the 1990s, DJ Skull is back on the scene and working at a more prolific pace than ever.
Consider it making up for lost time, as the one-time Djax/Upbeats, Majesty & Relief Records artist is in the midst of the kind of creative renaissance most producers can only dream of.
Every week seems to bring another remix, another project or solo recording, from the Skybox project on Wax Candy, the Chi-Life live project, remixes of Roy Davis Jr.’s “Slide” and Klein + MBO’s “Last Call” from Opilec.
5 Magazine talks to one of electronic music’s most eclectic music makers.
You know, I’ve never heard of where the name “DJ Skull” came from.
When I was younger and into House and alternative music, I was always thinking about what name I wanted to use. I was walking up north on Belmont, and I passed a store window and saw a skull inside. For whatever reason that stuck with me, because it means that I’ll always use my mind over matter or muscle. I’ll use my brains to get me where I want to go. I didn’t pick the name to scare people! [laughs] I didn’t want to sound like some kind of a rebel with it though I was in a rebellious period then.
There were a lot of people who came up at the same time as you, making music & DJing together, sharing equipment & everything. Were you part of a crew like that back in the day?
I was neutral. I was giving tracks to everyone – Armando, Ron Trent, Rush, Boo, Glenn – everybody who was around and playing in the clubs at the time. Though now that I think about it, me and Glenn were part of our own crew. We would make tracks at my house, at my studio. K’ Alexi and Marshall Jefferson were nearby – they had their own base and we had ours. I remember meeting K’ Alexi and at the time I really looked up to him. We had the influence of those folks but were doing our own thing.
I was always a little different from the other House guys, though. I love House, deep stuff and everything like that so don’t get me wrong. I always have played everything in my set from day one – Techno, Disco, House and so on. But the thrill of writing a new track and really feeling the new stuff is what propelled me and gave me my style.
I promote new music not just as a matter of style but because it helps me. You know, I gotta eat too! I have to promote my talent and show what I can do. It doesn’t pay me to try to emulate what someone was playing in 1984. Though I’m actually remixing some music from that era right now – from Klein + MBO – but I’m remixing it to sound new. It’s that Italo sound that I grew up playing and I’ve always loved that.
For me, I was always interested in discovering what would come next. I really liked Italo when I started making my own tracks, but then I’d get into break beats, acid tracks, whatever. I love all this stuff and appreciate it all, but it was about what I can do myself. How can I keep this thing moving?
What I’m into is making tracks that will hit the floor and make people want to dance. I know those tracks. I know where it’s at. I don’t want to keep remaking old records.
How hard was it to break into the scene then? Was there a lot of rejection in being a new producer from Chicago in the early 1990s?
Rejection made me who I am. Really, it did! The first release I had wasn’t the first track I made or first one you heard. I wanted to put my tracks out in front of people with more experience and wisdom than I had earned up until that point in my life.
Ron Hardy rejected me. I gave him a record and he told me what I could do to make a better record that he would play. With Saskia [Miss Djax] – I remember she rejected me cold. I sent her some deep material that I was doing for people here. She told me, “I don’t want that. I want you.” Afterward, I sent her another demo, and she signed two EPs from me. She had a different relationship with me compared to some of the other artists on Djax. She was the nicest to me. She was also the meanest to me. She expected a lot from me.
Rejection made me what I am today. And we’re losing that foundation. I think it’s dangerous, man. Really dangerous. We’re listening to stuff we shouldn’t.
I wanted to ask about Majesty Records but…
Go ahead. I actually think Mike [Dearborn] is going to bring that back.
I think so. I’ll help him out if he asks me for help. I think Chicago needs it – it needs a label like that, with that kind of prestige and which brings the harder tracks.
There’s a funny thing in this town. When Rush plays in Chicago, you’ve got to spell out if he’ll be playing Techno or Disco, though he can play both. Then there’s Robert Hood who has made a distinct hybrid with Floorplan…
There are some people in Chicago who attend parties and they know every track that every DJ is going to play. That’s the exact opposite of us – they have no idea of what we’re gonna play!
With Rob, there were plenty of nights in the ’90s where he and I had some discussions about where this whole thing was going. He had the vision of what was happening. He was really one of my main influences in coming back – him and Roy Davis, Jr.
You were out of the scene for a period of time.
Yeah. That was solely on me. It wasn’t the labels or the music driving me out or anything, it was just me. I think I had some weak points that I needed to eliminate. I had to grow up and also raise my own kids. I never stopped making music though, and always kept up with the guys, though that was mostly through Roy [Davis Jr]. Roy is really a positive guy and that’s who I surround myself with now – really positive cats that don’t have to feel like they need to run other people down. But I knew I was coming back the whole time.
Like I don’t want to make arguments with people about [vinyl] records. I’m not dissing digital, but making records is just what I know. It’s the main format I’ve always worked in. When you’re working on music that’s destined for vinyl, there’s a certain discipline to it. And a record has an aura that is hard to capture on digital.
I was blessed in that I made my name back in the day and it still has some resonance in the scene today. But I missed out on a lot of life then too. I was a studio mole, a studio rat, and when I left the studio it was basically to get on an airplane to play some place.
With the Chi-Life record – that’s almost an entirely separate project for you, isn’t it?
It is a whole different project. The first EP came out in 2010 and it did pretty good. It surprised me but a lot of people got it. For the Chi-Life album, I put myself in a scenario where I would compose an entire album in one day. It wasn’t all 15 of the tracks – four are from the original Chi-Life EP that hadn’t been released digitally – but 11 of them were made in one day. I didn’t mix it down but I had it sequenced and planned and recorded everything in one day. I decided to call it a “live project” because I haven’t done my first album yet and didn’t want people to think this is it.
Similar to that, I got an email from Sect Records asking if I could give them something. With the Dark Knight EP it was the same thing: all those tracks were done in one day. They weren’t mixed down or EQ’d but I set them up.
Thomas from Sect called me up and we talked about 30 minutes – he heard them and said he wanted to hold on to them for a minute so we could release them properly. And when we did, he called me up and told me they had sold out and he had a check ready for me. So we’ve done another deal. I’ve got deals right now with labels in Italy, Germany, Spain, more cats in Chicago… and that’s deliberate. I want my stuff everywhere. I don’t look at whether a label is big or small, I’m just looking for good people that want to stay in the game.
Who did the artwork for the Chi-Life album?
That’s my father. My parents were a big reason why I got into music. My father was an oil painter and that’s how he put himself through college – he’d make oil paintings and sell them to rich people in Hyde Park. When I was a kid, he’d paint and would play jazz classics, and he’d ask me questions about the music. Like, what speaker were the horns in? What about the strings? When was it centered? It really kicked it off for me in music, trying to answer his questions while he was painting.
DJ Skull’s The Chi-Life: Live Project is out now. Also be on the lookout for a new record on Sect and a new project, SkyBox, representing the production collective of Wax Candy founders DJ Skull, DJ Metal X and Avee. See waxcandyrecords.com for the info on all of the above