Comes the hour, comes the man: Jeff Craven of Chicago’s venerable Large Music has strong opinions on the way House Music is evolving, and is strapping his label’s 20 years of history to a new vision of Deep House that has captured the global underground but remained elusive to much of America and Chicago’s homegrown scene.

We were talking before this interview began about your experiences at this year’s Winter Music Conference and what it represented for the scene. What impressions did you walk away with this year?

To be blunt my personal experience of the conference this year in terms of events was unsettling. A very close friend stated that WMC 2012 was the “funeral of American House Music that nobody came to” and I share that sentiment to an extent. The political battle between WMC and Ultra has taken a significant toll and I think it was patently obvious to anybody who was paying attention.

As promoters and event hosts we have to take some blame as well. This paradigm that we can throw 70 parties every day and expect a declining demographic to pack each venue is borderline insanity. We have to come to terms with the reality that the music fans that made WMC so special over many years have moved on; they have families, jobs, limited vacation time and many other reasons to not make the conference a priority anymore. And that should be okay. There is a strong generation gap now and many of the mainstay events were much lighter in attendance with a noticeably older crowd than in years past.

With all that said, I took the opportunity to seek out parties that weren’t necessarily associated with WMC and not even in South Beach. Seeking those parties out was an eye opening experience for me. Take any given event, for instance, at The Electric Pickle in downtown Miami. Every event was packed full of young, fresh faces paying at times $60 to hear a new generation of DJs and producers. Strangely, these events almost went “under the radar” with the current WMC crowd.

I have been trying to process this phenomenon for weeks now and I think it has reached some kind of tipping point that has changed the face of the entire Miami Music Week forever.

Well, from the perspective of a label, is WMC still a big deal? You’ve done promo deals with iTunes, if I remember correctly, and stuff like that.

Large has had a presence during the conference for 12 years now and there are so many amazing memories… particularly of our Get Large Miami event. We have done promotional giveaways with iTunes in the past as well as many in store appearances and artist showcases. There was a time in the past where the press was everywhere during the conference from all corners of the globe. I didn’t sense that this year at all and that makes a huge difference in why a label would host an event or promotion now. Do I think WMC is still a big deal for a brand trying to build a following? My current answer is no, and we are going to assess what role we will play next year as a record label. I just have a hard time accepting that it is worth the financial investment with such a small pool of press contacts. Perhaps my view will change as we draw closer to 2013.

But let me brighten my answer a little bit. The festival circuit for dance music and specifically House or Deep House has expanded dramatically over the last few years and perhaps it’s time to think outside the box. The Amsterdam Dance Event, Ibiza Dance Festival, BPM festival in Playa Del Carmen, Sonar – they’re all growing exponentially as major showcases for the music we love. It is time for American dance labels, DJs and fans to start looking at these events as viable alternatives to grab some of that “magic” that we all have experienced during the Miami conference. Life should never be static and change is good for all of us.

There’s a certain Deep House sound that has had a breakthrough everywhere except the United States, and Chicago in particular. Since you’ve released so many Deep House classics on Large, I think your opinion on the current sound would be creditable and interesting.

That is a particularly painful question for me to answer, to be honest. This “tipping point” that I told you about during the conference has also happened to Deep House in general. The European, UK, and Australian dance scenes are dominant now… and that is certainly a good thing. What isn’t good is how far behind we are in the US and specifically Chicago.

For those of us who call Chicago home and are DJs or producers, we tend to have this arrogance about the fact that we are “from the home of House” and we matter just a little bit more because of where we live and play. Look, I have been guilty of this very thing for years. But here is the reality, at least in my context: we are painfully stuck to the past and not looking into the future or even the present. I thought Dennis Ferrer in his interview with 5 Magazine earlier this year was particularly prescient. He travels the globe and he was calling it as it is. American labels and producers, specifically for Deep House, are no longer dominant like we were for so many years. I will take it one step further: I am beginning to wonder if we are even relevant. Obviously, there are exceptions but as a general rule the shift is deeply troubling for all of us.

American labels and producers, specifically for Deep House, are no longer dominant like we were for so many years. I will take it one step further: I am beginning to wonder if we are even relevant.

I made a conscious choice to try and move Large away from a standard American Deep or Soulful House sound in 2009. I am the first to admit that the label was coasting on its laurels a bit and I felt arrogant about the success the label had over so many years. But when you start to have reviewers in dance magazines reject your material because it sounds “dated” and too “American” and have talented producers not want to work with you because you are an “old label” – that can be a real wake up call. Every day at the Large office is a struggle just to keep the global listening and buying audience engaged. Sometimes I feel like we are paddling upstream and can’t compete at all anymore with the new crop of European based labels but I am firmly committed to pushing the brand forward and Chicago as well.

If I had one message to all of my friends and colleagues in the Chicago House community it would be this: we MUST let go of the past and accept the truth that we are behind the curve now. We have to come together to find solutions and stop fighting with each other and bitching about everything that is “wrong” with our scene. Our rich history no longer matters like it did… if at all, anymore.

But I don’t want to sound like a big whiner so let me point out the positive. The new Deep House sound and scene is incredibly exciting and creative and there is no reason for American labels and DJs not to adapt and enjoy this new movement. This music is starting to resonate with a younger generation and we need to get on board. Does it sound different than what we may have labeled as “Deep House” in the past? Yes… but let’s not be afraid or critical of it and make it our own. Let’s start playing and embracing music from Nina Kraviz, Huxley, Seth Troxler, Maya Jane Coles, The Revenge, 6th Borough Project, Lee Curtis, Jamie Jones and so many more and let go of the mistaken idea that it isn’t “real” Deep House.

Large has always been a “big tent” in terms of the sounds you release, but what does this process of change mean for Large and for you personally? Will you be taking a different approach in A&R? Do you see yourself “remaking” Large?

Well, I think any dance label that has been around for 20 years such as Large has might appear to be really varied in terms of music focus. Perception is always interesting when you are looking back into history. The reality is that I have always searched for the underground House or downtempo sound that has moved me personally. I have a hard and fast rule in A&R that I never sign a record that I wouldn’t play as a DJ. Underground House has gone through many different manifestations over the last 20 years and – if you think about it – several different generations of clubgoers and DJs. I am really proud of the rich catalog that so many great producers have created at Large.

As far as changing our approach or remaking the label, I consider it more of a “retooling”. We have to be smarter and faster in terms of how we release music and when we release it. This “new” sound of Deep House that we are talking about is what I am gravitating towards as a DJ and the label will reflect that moving forward. One thing I do hope is that some of the new generation of dance buyers will go back into the rich catalog of Large and find the gems that await them. We at the label can be better about positioning some of our greatest releases to the new buying public and we are working on that.

One thing I will say – and I don’t think this can be avoided as a topic – is that I find the lack of diversity in this new sound and scene a little bit troubling. I am not blind to the reality that there seems to be a slight racial divide in this new context. That disturbs me.

To play devil’s advocate – some people say that these things go in cycles. For instance, many of the “new” Deep House producers like Maceo Plex were known primarily for Techno a few years back. Is there something about the new breed that leads you to believe it’s more than just a passing fashion?

Yes because it’s contextual, Terry. What I mean specifically is that Soulful House or Deep House as we have known it had a specific context. It was born and evolved in primarily gay nightclubs in urban areas with very diverse crowds. One of the aspects of House that was so compelling to me when I started the label was how interwoven the cultural influences from different backgrounds and life experiences were in the music. The distinctive gospel lyrics and vocals derived from the experience of growing up in the Church for many black producers and vocalists at the time and the Latin American musical influence was a dominant theme as well, especially in some of the early NYC House records. There was even a distinctive thread of New Wave sounds in some of the early Chicago House releases. If you look back at some of the playlists of Larry Levan at the Garage and Ron Hardy here in Chicago you can often be surprised that they both would play a record like “Rock The Casbah” by The Clash or “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads. For our generation of House Music devotees, that was our context.

So what is the context by which a new generation of House Music lovers are first hearing this music? Are they experiencing the thrill of being in a very diverse underground loft party? Is there an appreciation of the influence of gay culture in nightlife and music as there once was? Are the specific ethic influences I mentioned still important in the development of the sound? Is this music still primarily set in an urban context or has it moved into a big festival context? These are questions I don’t have an answer to yet.

One thing I will say – and I don’t think this can be avoided as a topic – is that I find the lack of diversity in this new sound and scene a little bit troubling. I am not blind to the reality that there seems to be a slight racial divide in this new context. That disturbs me because I think that is one of the great characteristics of House Music: it can serve and has served very diplomatically as a bridge and panacea that cuts through racial tension. I hope that as Large evolves, Chicago evolves, and the US dance scene evolves that it will not be an issue for long and these events will eventually feature that diversity that made the early days of house so dynamic.

The odd thing is, Large started out with a sound quite close to the almost primitive-sounding Deep House sound that’s so fetishized today. When I hear a lot of current Deep House, I hear a lot of Ulysses.

I totally agree with you and as I mentioned that is something that Large and other labels like us should capitalize on. The question is how do we do it in an elegant and productive way? We have started a series called “Large Classics” where I have been featuring tracks from our catalog that I think are very relevant to today’s sound. That has been really successful and we are trying to come up with other ways to remind the present DJs and buyers about where House has come from. Again, we are fighting this branding of being an “old label” every day so it’s very tricky and at times extremely frustrating.

Large really stretched beyond the usual DJ market with your mixed compilations. I read an interview with Ralph Lawson from 2020Vision somewhere where he mentioned that the sales for those, at least as far as he’s concerned, have fallen off dramatically. What role do the Get Large comps play for the label today? And is this my fault for offering DJ mixes for free?

The Get Large compilations are an essential part of our business model and one of the greater points of success in the Large history. One of the reasons for the success is already inherent in your question: the comps reach out beyond the DJ-only market and engage customers who don’t purchase music on DJ-centric sites or stores. Ralph is right to an extent, the CD-based comps have really taken a nose dive in terms of sales, but the digital demand for these comps on sites like iTunes is still tremendous. What makes a digital comp appealing is that you can not only buy the actual mix but each individual track that goes into it. I think this is why there is still a demand for the essential “mix comp” even though there are so many podcasts and free sources for DJ mixes. So I won’t start blaming 5 Magazine for killing off our compilation market just yet!

Large has always been known for signing artists from Chicago & as well as the wider world. It’s funny because the label was criticized at the time for being in Chicago but not necessarily being chained to Chicago – yet I can’t really think of any “regional” labels today that are drawing strictly from their own backyard. Was that a deliberate decision on your part – to have an international focus for your releases – and do you think that’s added to the overall “Large sound”?

Yes I was always amazed at the criticism that would come our way about this issue, at some times very intense. I mean every DJ in Chicago had a dream of going overseas to play records, yet a Chicago label had to have a definitive regional focus or we weren’t really a part of the scene? Come on, that made no sense. I found it wonderfully ironic that the recent article in the Chicago Reader on House Music gave no mention to Large, Guidance, or Fresh Meat as influential players in the narrative of Chicago House… and all three labels did have more of a global perspective in terms of securing talent and music.

I can’t say that it was a conscious choice back then to have a more international roster. I just picked music from the heart and found the producers that inspired me. It has added to the overall sound and you can hear a lot of varying sounds and styles in our catalog.

Oddly enough, I have an upcoming international release from DJ Schwa from Shades of Gray and Alex Nievel, a DJ and producer based in Prague, that sort of represents everything you and I are talking about. It is an EP that features as its opening track a remake of the infamous classic “Percolator” from Cajmere. Caj gave us his blessing on this one even though it is shockingly different than the original. It has a very distinctive “new” Deep House sound and is being supported by DJs such as Huxley, James Teej, Danny Howells, Sishi Rosch and many of the upcoming stars of the genre.

What is disturbing is to see all of the controversy that the remake has sparked among veterans DJs, specifically in Chicago. Some have simply described it as terrible… without giving it a fair shake and realizing that one way for us all to move forward is to pay homage to some of the House classics with an updated sound.

The experience of promoting the release has made me aware of just how difficult the journey of moving into another direction is going to be for Large. I have a lot of faith, though, that it can be accomplished. Good music, in the end, is what rules the day and Large has been through enormous challenges in 20 years. I know there has to be many people who are ready to take this journey with us.