The restless adventurer has found a new calling. One-time Chicago resident JT Donaldson played twice in as many months in the city this summer, with something new in his bag.
Or sort of new. They’re 7″ records – the small, 45 rpm discs that dominated the dance music industry before Tom Moulton originated the 12″ DJ-friendly single.
This might sound like a gimmick, but there are some serious DJs in this game, and on the House Music side, too – from vinyl purists blending 7″ rarities in their sets as secret weapons, to another fellow Chicago roots, Zernell Gillie, who can drop a limited edition Grimy Edit on the market and have them sell out before the week’s out.
As for JT Donaldson, one gets the sense that his interest in this new/old format is driven by that same restlessness that’s seen him move a half dozen times across the country, from Dallas to Chicago to California to Brooklyn and back to Dallas again. JT Donaldson could probably play the same set and make the same records he was playing and making back in 1998 – and it’d go over well. But you get the impression that the very idea of getting stuck in that rut is horrifying to him.
The search for 7″ records struck him as something “new and exciting. It’s a format I wasn’t all that familiar with. But it got me geeked about digging for records again.”
I wanted to start by talking about the “7 inch phenomenon”. There are a few people in this scene that have devoted themselves to it. How did you pick it up?
I’ll admit, I was late to the party. I really only got going heavy with 7″ collecting around this time last year. I spent a good portion of my summer in Belgium and France. Being an avid collector/digger I was already in the shops on the regular. I got some classic LPs and such, but then went into a store which had a huge amount of 45s. I asked the owner how much they were and he told me that unless otherwise marked all the 45s were 1.50 euro. This got me started on digging for 45s.
added: June 5, 2014
What was it that grabbed your attention?
I didn’t realize at the time some of the titles I would find on 7″. I was finding disco, boogie, house, italo and such – titles I already had on 12″ back in the States. I guess it was appealing for a few reasons: they’re mush easier to travel with, and for me it was something new and exciting. A format I wasn’t all that familiar with got me geeked about digging for records again.
What records make up the meat of a set now? If I’m at GrandBar on July 10, what kind of sounds can I expect to hear?
The 7″ inch set can vary, but when in Chicago it has been and will probably tend to be stylistically a lot of the roots of House Music. Classic House, Disco, Paradise Garage-era stuff as well as a mix of the new and more modern 7″ releases from labels like Beyond Luck and Cherries.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] I learned from the Chicago school of mixing (thank God). So, my approach has always been to ride mixes. Riding the pitch is a normal move for me these days, so it’s not that foreign or new. [/quote]
Has steeping yourself in these records influenced you as a man that makes music?
It’s always inspiring to be surrounded by greatness, prerecorded or live in the flesh. I’m not sure it’s had a huge impact on my writing lately because most of the new material isn’t really sample based. There is however plenty of influence and inspiration that comes with having a house full of records.
What about as a DJ? Most of these records were probably pressed without anything like mixing in mind. And everything from disco back in time generally has a BPM swing – they don’t keep perfect time.
I learned from the Chicago school of mixing (thank God). So, my approach has always been to ride mixes. Riding the pitch is a normal move for me these days, so it’s not that foreign or new. I guess the main stylistic change is that the mixes tend to be quicker. Shorter versions mean you can’t miss your breaks or you’re left out in the cold real fast.
You’ve always seemed to be kind of a restless nomad. As soon as I got used to the fact you were in Chicago, you moved west. Then I heard you were back in Dallas. What changed in your life then?
Yeah, I’ve moved around quite a bit the past 15 years. I left San Francisco and moved out to Brooklyn around 2008. That move inspired me to branch out a bit more as a DJ. I started a monthly residency at Trophy Bar with DJs Geology, Amir Abdullah and Waajeed. Sharing the bill with these guys was super fun because we played all sorts of records. At the same time I did slow down with my releases. I was still making music on a regular basis, but not releasing near as frequent as I had been. I guess I felt like I had already said what I wanted to say with my House productions, and if you’ve got nothing left to say… it’s best to get out of the way. Saying that, business did slow down, record stores close, labels I worked with defunct… etc. It was a real transitional period for me in many ways.
I wrote about your record for Mes’ new label Nu Jax. I think people called it “Nu Disco” but it had two of the best Italo tracks made since the summer of ’83 on it. Was this a landmark release for you or just something you wanted to get out of your system?
It’s funny because those tunes were made over 3 years ago and finally released through Nu Jax this January. Of course it was thrown into the “Nu Disco” box, but that didn’t really bother me at all.
I wouldn’t say it was a landmark release, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it so well received after being on somewhat of a production hiatus. Style-wise, those songs were an honest reflection of what I am or was into. I wanted to get that out of my system to a degree, but that sound is still in me whether I release a record or not.
The future holds many things in store, production-wise. I’ve started a group called Dear Belga with singer and producer Penelope Queen, the daughter of Isabelle Antena, whom I also have recorded an album with over the past year or so.
Does the cyclical nature of this industry ever freak you out? I just randomly picked up your record Back To You from 1998. It’s a phenomenal record, and a sound that wasn’t terribly appreciated is now quasi-mainstream in this part of the industry.
History repeats itself. Music is no exception. I’m not freaked out by it too much. I’ve come to expect certain truths about the music industry. I’ve had friends tell me that the music I did was coming back years ago when minimal started to phase out. I think with that particular record, I was being pushed creatively by my peers. I was living with Spencer Kincy at that time and we would always encourage and push each other to our creative limits. I was going out every weekend listening to some of the best House DJs on the planet. So to look back on that record, you also have to look at the setting it was created in.
Spencer Kincy (aka Gemini)
One of the things brought up when Frankie passed away is that DJing is the kind of practice that one gets better at with age – sort of like Jazz, but very much unlike most other forms of pop music. Do you agree?
Absolutely. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I would agree with that. You have got to put in the time in order to develop and sharpen your skills. I think you see more and more “7 hour” sets lately too. Usually only the masters that get asked to play that long. In my opinion those types of sets shouldn’t be all that rare. I would love for a high calibre DJ to take me on a journey. Think about all those nights that Frankie, Ron and Larry had where they played from opening until closing. The full night! That’s the difference right there.