Kelly G has quite an impressive resumé: He’s a Chicago producer most famous for his hits of Tina Moore’s “Never Gonna Let You Go” and Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Go Down Moses,” and most recently for his remixes of Aretha Franklin’s “Feels Good YEAH!” on T’s Box (currently #1 in the Traxsource Top 100). He’s also clocked in over 15 years of music programming for companies such as Clear Channel, BET, Viacom and P-Diddy’s REVOLT TV, honing his skills working Chicago’s top dance clubs as well as at the premiere station WGCI.
It was while he was at the radio station that he piqued the interest of producers Steve “Silk” Hurley and Terry Hunter, which then led him to do remix and production work for artists ranging from Ne Yo, India.Arie, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Brandy, Faith Evans and Tina Moore.
But most importantly for me, Kelly Griffin was the one who introduced me to House music. A fellow classmate at Northwestern University in the 90s, he befriended me and took me not only to his numerous DJ gigs at black fraternity parties, but he also introduced me to iconic clubs such as the Shelter and China Club. It was these indelible experiences that eventually led to the creation of 5 Magazine in 2005, so how felicitous can it be that 13 years later we come back full circle.
Kelly G! I never would have thought that our friendship from NU days would take us here years later… with me interviewing you for my House publication. I always tell people how you introduced me to House music when you used to take me to your gigs! Remember that?
Indeed. You were so passionate and curious about music and as a DJ that’s a dream…to share new music, new sounds with a curious mind and see the excitement. I’m so proud to see you take that passion to another level by not only becoming a prominent DJ but also creating such an amazing and essential platform for the genre.
I was recently watching an episode on RA TV about how UK Garage turned into Dubstep and they talk about how one of your tracks was a major influence! I quote, “In 1995 a new groove was introduced, the US producer Kelly G remixed R&B singer Tina Moore with spectacular results. His broken drum pattern provided a blueprint for the 2-step sound that would define UK Garage.” Being a massive UKG and 2-Step fan, can you tell us about how that happened and were you just experimenting with beats then? Or were you already following some that early movement?
This all started when Steve “Silk” Hurley gave me my first professional shot to remix a song M-Doc and Jere McAllister had produced from this singer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin named Tina Moore. (Mind you I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, so this piqued my interest.) The song was “Never Gonna Let You Go.” At the time, Silk had a team of up and coming DJs and remixers he was working with including Steve “Miggedy” Maestro. We were all to do a mix on the song including Silk himself.
When Silk finally played my mix, everybody was looking at me sideways like… “Aah….hmmm this is interesting but I don’t think people will dance to this.” I stuck to my guns saying I love this, it’s different and gives the record a different vibe.
Now mind you, Steve Hurley was a legend in my eyes. This is the guy that did “Jack Your Body,” he’s doing mixes for Prince, Michael Jackson, everybody. I knew there was NO way I could ever outdo a pioneer like Silk doing straight house. So I just tried something different in my little small apartment on Printers Row. I said to myself, “Everyone else is going to do straight 4 on the floor, I’m just going to try this other groove that was in my head and God willing maybe my mix will stand out.”
I’ll never forget the day Silk called us all into the studio to hear the mixes. When they finally played mine, everybody was looking at me sideways like… “Aah….hmmm this is interesting but I don’t think people will dance to this because there is no 4 on the floor.”
I stuck to my guns saying I love this, it’s different and gives the record a different vibe. I will compromise and do a break down at the end of the mix and ride it out with 4 on the floor at Silk’s request. He thought the label Scotti Brothers wasn’t going to get it, but somehow, some way they did.
About a year later M-Doc and Jere called me out of the blue and said very casually “Man that mix you did on Tina Moore is blowing up in the UK.” I still had no idea how massive my mix was but it changed my life and opened the door for so many opportunities to play overseas and do other mixes including work I did for now Defected’s Simon Dunmore who at the time was working with a label called AM:PM.
Did you continue to spin after college or were there some breaks in between? I know I would intermittently run into you here and there but I’m curious as to the timeline of your career between house music productions and DJing and the other stuff you were doing.
Yeah I continued to spin after college. I met a brother in the mailroom while I was working at Kraft Foods and he introduced me to Elroy Smith, the program director for WGCI and I started do mixes on the radio. Another life-changing moment because like most folks in Chicago, I grew up listening to WGCI and WBMX. And to now, all of sudden be working at the station with legends like Doug Banks, Tom Joyner, Rick Party and Mike Dunn was like a dream to me. Ramonski Luv and I had a show called The BOMB! on Saturday nights. We played everything from hip hop to house. I also played gigs at the Shelter and all over clubs in Chicago.
I then went on to New York and worked for BET where I help start a show called 106 & Park and still continued to DJ. It was funny because as the Music Director for BET I help jumpstart a lot of careers from Kanye to Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Fabolous – you name it, they all came through BET. So it was always so funny when I was out DJing and an artist would see me they would be shocked. I’ll never forget playing at Kevin Liles’ (who was president of Def Jam at the time) birthday party and Jay-Z looking at me like, “Damn, I had no idea you threw down like that.”
But to this day I still enjoy playing, even though with technology the space is somewhat crowded but because I am a producer and creator I can distinguish myself from the other folks that are out there. As I will always have gems that other folks won’t have.
And then you also connected with Steve Hurley and Terry Hunter at some point. I’m assuming Steve was early on and Terry was just recently right? What work were you doing with them?
Yep, when I started spinning on WGCI, I met Steve Hurley and he took me under his wing. He would let me tour with him all over Europe so I would open up for him and then eventually started getting my own gigs. I learned a lot from Silk, from working with MOTU’s Digital Performer to stretching vocals by hand with the Akai S900 sampler to dumping our mixes to ADAT so they could be mixed in the big studio.
After I was deep into being a TV executive, I was still producing here and there but mostly remixes for major labels. I was telling Wayne Williams how I had all these tracks and ideas and needed an outlet to put them out. He connected me with Terry. It took us a while to get in sync because Terry was all over the place working with Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, etc. But as they say everything has a season, and there was a time for everything.
This past year became that season and we set it off huge. A lot of my music is inspirational so the first track we put out was “Tis A Land” featuring Marvin Winans, and then I had this TD Jakes idea called “Chosen,” and of course Terry and Wayne loved it from the name alone. And then came this idea I had for Aretha Franklin. So I was telling Terry, “Man I got this Aretha record that can be huge.” As fate would have it weeks later she passed and me and Terry were playing at Cielo together at Tony Touch’s Funkbox party and I played it and the crowd went nuts. Two weeks later he fast tracked it and put it out and the record just took off.
What are you currently doing now and what brought you back to producing house music? And what are your thoughts on how it’s come along in recent years?
I was working for Puff Daddy after leaving BET and headed up the programming team at his new music channel REVOLT. I recently left there and started a boutique marketing and consulting company called My Executive Room. We work with everyone including new and fresh talent as well as some established folks like Nick Cannon and Timbaland. I love working with new talent. You would be amazed at how many new artists that are out there but don’t have a clue of how to navigate successfully through the music business. So our company provides a turnkey experience for artists at any stage in their career.
Being around Hip Hop and R&B all day and for the most part of my career at BET and REVOLT, house is my getaway. I take refuge in the sound, the feeling it gives me. House (and when I say house I mean the real Chicago stuff, the soulful, I’m talking about something for real, take-me-to-heaven-for-a-few-hours kind of house) is a source of inspiration and high-level expression for me. So I never really stopped producing it, I just got serious about putting all these ideas out instead of keeping it to myself.
I like seeing the more soulful stuff come back especially in forms of afro house and gospel house. In fact I put my first record out with Steve Silk Hurley called “Go Down Moses” back in the late ’90s way before “gospel house” was an official genre. Then in 2007 we put out a song I did called “South Africa,” again way before afro house took off as a official genre. So with Silk I guess we were always doing our best to break barriers in music. I just love creating music that moves the soul. I really feel we can bring back those great uptempo records that not only rock in the club but work on radio and streaming platforms. There’s no reason we can’t have a mainstream First Choice, Robin S, Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston type of record again. We just need to work together and push the culture forward to the masses like you see in hip hop in Atlanta, or back in the ’90s NYC hip hop, etc.
Given your work background I could probably pick your brain forever in terms of music trends in the business. We at 5 Mag are constantly talking about what’s going on with the vinyl industry, streaming platforms, digital music sales, DJing culture, club culture, etcetera. Tell us something you’ve learned from being in the background of the music industry all these years. What have you seen and what are you seeing today?
I think the future is streaming. Vinyl is a great niche and for guys like me who spent a greater part of my life chasing, digging, and collecting vinyl its somewhat nostalgic but I don’t see it making a strong comeback. I believe we are just a few years away from WiFi not being some type of luxury or option. It will be a right. Like electricity; my teenage nephews don’t know a world without internet access and WiFi. And with technology moving as rapidly as it is, WiFi will get even better and more reliable like electricity. So streaming to me is the future. This of course will make the DJ market again more crowded but I think the real talent will always rise to the top. The technology is the tool, but you still need creativity. I finally just gave in and bought my first pair of CDJs 2000NXS. First I needed to let go of vinyl for the laptop, now the laptop is becoming obsolete especially in the House world for sticks. We have to evolve and adapt to stay relevant.
Do you think DJing will still be an actual career move in the next 5-10 years? What about making any kind of money through music production?
Definitely. For me I love it, I love being creative and sharing music with the world so DJ/producing and consulting is a perfect intersection for me. Streaming has opened the door for creators and producers to start making money again. And it’s all instant. I don’t need to sell physical records, wait for the label, etc. You see instant results. And with so much data out there, I know instantly what’s working, what’s not. I can pivot instantly if need be.
Where can people see you spin?
I’m just getting back to spinning out regularly. Tony Touch always looks out for me at his Funkbox parties so definitely here in New York. I’m also on Soundcloud and you can find my latest mixes also on my website djkellyg.com.
Remixes from Kelly G and Terry Hunter of the Aretha Franklin record “Feels Good YEAH!” are out now on T’s Box and just hit #1 on the Traxsource Top 100.