WHILE IN NEW YORK, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with one of my musical idols, Kevin Hedge. He makes up the other half (along with Josh Milan) of the songwriting/production team Blaze. Their soulful brand of House music has been around for over 20 years, and they’ve worked with some of the industries’ heavyweights such as Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Babyface and Masters at Work. In 2005 they wrote and produced the House anthem “Most Precious Love” sung by Barbara Tucker, and were recently contracted to create a musical selection for Cirque du Soleil. In 2007 Blaze’s remixes of “Dreamgirls” songs “Listen” and “Family” have been heating up dancefloors across the world.
Kevin Hedge is also president and co-owner of the esteemed West End Records in New York City, an institution responsible for introducing the world to some of the newest and most exciting artists and producers in the soulful dance market. In the past year he has embarked on creating a House music magazine called Listen very much similar to 5 Magazine, and then subsequently launched a new record label called Blaze Imprints.
Songwriter, producer, entrepreneur… DJ can be added to the list of his talents. After years playing with Timmy Regisford at the legendary Club Shelter, Kevin alongside Grammy award winner Louie Vega currently spins at a three-year strong residency called ROOTS in New York’s Cielo nightclub.
While sitting at the West End offices, I found Kevin to be warm, funny, very humble, and he had some very interesting insight into what can be a very complicated industry.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I’m originally from Newark, New Jersey. The musical training I have is listening to soul records in the living room of my mother’s house.
What type of music were you drawn to right away?
Obviously soul, I’m a child of the ’70s, so I grew up listening to all the ’70s greats like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway – you name it. All of the usual suspects.
Did you know you were going to grow up having a musical career?
I thought I was going to be a football player for the Dallas Cowboys! But around 12, 13, I went to an event at my grammar school, and there was a DJ there by the name of Terrance Cooper, and that gentleman was doing his thing and the crowd was loving it. Ever since then, I felt the need to make people happy. And that’s what DJing is: your job is to make people happy.
My mom gave me some turntables for my sophomore year in high school. I just started practicing from there, playing records of that day – records from Salsoul, West End, Prelude and the other hit labels from that day. And from there it just turned into a passion for DJing and entertaining people and making them feel good. Making them happy. Changing peoples moods, changing their lives. That’s really what it’s about it’s about. I just felt the need to make the world a better place. That’s really no BS – that’s really what I live on today.
So what’s your philosophy when you play for the crowd? Do you feel you have to “educate” them the way some DJs feel they have to?
No, when I’m in the DJ booth my job is to keep the crowd happy. Point blank. So if I’m working at Cielo or at Portugal at one of the festivals, I’m subject to finding music within my musical tastes that will make that crowd happy.
What are those musical tastes?
Well I’m pretty much a soul kid. I did a festival in Belgrade with about 4,000 people. After all night, they’ve been listening to all this techno, and I come on playing James Brown and classics like that and they’re moving to our kind of soul music. They loved it.
When you’re DJing at a party, what’s the goal of the party? To have fun. So if the DJ is not really paying attention to the crowd, and they’re just doing their own thing, it’s no fun.
Do you have a formula for how to break in a new song?
Usually if I break in something new, if I’m really into the record, I’ll set it up I’ll play a record that they really know and that they really get off of, and then I’ll play the new record after that. And that sets it up. And I might try it two or three times in a night – four or five times in a night, even.
How did you meet Mel Cheren and how did you hook up with West End Records?
I used to be part of a nightclub organization called Shelter – I was actually the financial guy for that. I used to do the operating and the managing. Timmy Regisford was the main DJ. How I got to spinning there was that when Timmy went away, I would try to fill in. Mel would come because he was a Garage head, and Shelter was the heir to the Garage throne in New York. And from there we just became friends.
He started West End in 1976. I didn’t become a co-owner until 2002. Mel liked the productions that I did, and he thought that I was a fairly good businessman, so he invited me to be a part of it. He allowed me to buy 50 percent of the copyrights.
Not as much as one would think because my goal with a record company was not to make it a production label. I didn’t want to turn West End Records into Blaze Records. I really wanted to find new talent and let them break. And some of the new talent is exciting, from Steal Vybe to Ian Friday to Manchild Black to even some of Chicago’s finest, like DJ Pierre, have come through here. I’m excited to know that we put out music from those guys that helped their careers get going.
Do you scout for talent or do you find that they come to you now?
It depends. Sometimes you get solicited or sometimes you’ll be in a nightclub, you’re a DJ and people want their music exposed and bring it to you, and you hear it and go “Wow!”
That must be such a headache to have people always coming up to you, harassing you to play their music. How do you deal with that?
Well, I remember when I was them. That’s what makes it wonderful. I really don’t want the new producers trying to break in to have the same kind of struggle that I had when I would go to the Larry Levans or the big DJs of that time and try to at least speak to them. My goal is to make it easier for them.
I wanted to touch on a little bit about Blaze. How did you and Josh connect musically and who does what in terms of production?
Well Josh and I were introduced by the other partner in Blaze, Chris Herbert. We started recording in my bedroom. Literally, I would play drumbeat tracks off vinyl and Josh would sit there and play keyboards with the drumbeats. That’s how we started. This was in 1984. From there it turned into wanting to emulate my heroes of the time which were Levan, Paul Simpson, Norman Harris, Earth, Wind & Fire. We just wanted to emulate our heroes.
Did you think you were going to blow up to be as big as you are now?
I don’t care about that. I don’t consider myself that big.
I don’t think so! See, it’s not my music. What myself and my partner Josh do… we’re really just terminals. The music comes from the universe, from the cosmos. This is what we all really believe. And we just happen to be the terminal through which that music is passing. We’re tools that the universe is using to present these messages, these lyrics, these melodies to the people. We’re just the tools. We’re not the creators of it. When we sit down to write, it’s not like we’re doing anything. We just allow our souls and minds to be open.
Why do you think people are drawn to remixes of R&B music?
This is going to be controversial but I’ll let you have a little controversy! [laughs] I think because House Music is being produced by DJs first. When Josh and I came up, we came up during the “songwriters period”. When you listen to the music of West End, Salsoul, Prelude – that’s the music my teeth were cut on as far as dance music. All of that music is based on songs. So Josh and I grew up on a songwriters’ aesthetic. If we were going to make a track, a song had to go with it.
Moving forward in time to when tracks became really popular – when Roger S., Pal Joey and those guys started to come through around ’90, ’91 – a lot of today’s producers were bred from there. But I’m 40 years old now and bred from the time that songwriters played records.
You guys have it backwards when you guys were doing your thing with Chicago House. But “Promised Land” is a really great song! “You Used To Hold Me” is a really great song! Sin City made incredible songs!
I guess the worldwide exposure of House Music came because of the language barrier. See, if you made just a track, then the beat could move everybody around the world. If you were in Japan you didn’t have to worry about understanding the lyrics. I believe that’s why instrumental House music transitioned like that.
Like the tracky, jack music Chicago is so famous for? Do you like that style?
Of course, I played it back in the ’80s! However the songwriting aesthetic has been moved out of it. You don’t hear a lot of great songs.
So fast forward to now, with major labels – I think they’re incredibly smart. They just put the acapella out for whoever wants to snatch it and use it. When you’re doing a remix for a major label and you decide to bootleg it, you’re really doing the major label the biggest favor. Because it’s free promotion for them, for their artist, for their act.
Leela James was out for a long time. When Quentin [Harris] bootlegged the remix that he did (which was a great remix), it just made her more popular.
What about with Dreamgirls? When you first saw the movie or heard the soundtrack, did you immediately know what to do?
No. I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t until Sony BMG contacted us to do the remixes. People think everything’s a bootleg. I would never have touched those records or those songs. Those acapellas aren’t even available.
First they contacted me to do Beyonce’s “Listen”. We got the “Listen” parts back in September before the movie even came out! Then they gave us the Sunshine Anderson to do. Then they said, “We want to do dance remixes to release a CD in conjunction with releasing a DVD.” So they contacted us to do all of them. Josh and I decided to pick the songs that we thought could work, because there were songs on there that were “Heavy Heavy” and could never be a dance record.
What did you think when you heard “Family”?
“Family” I thought was going to be an excellent House record because traditionally the theme of House Music is world unity. So just that hook alone…
What about “And I Am Telling You?”
I didn’t want to remix that because that was the most obvious. Sony BMG is going to let us license our remixes for release through the new Blaze Imprints, our new record label.
Can you tell me more about that?
It’s separate from West End and primarily a soulful House label. Strictly focused on soul, and records that I personally pick to be released.
Is vinyl still profitable at all with all the online music downloads? Running a label, how has electronic distribution changed in these past few years?
The thing is the music business, as a whole, doesn’t know what the music business is going to do. I’m not talking about the independents but the majors. They’re trying to keep their profits high. For us as independents, we can get by because we specialize in a niche market. And usually our market is underserved by the majors, which means that gives us an avenue that the majors can’t take advantage of.
Are any DJs still buying vinyl records though?
Vinyl is still profitable in a sense, however it is getting to the point where it’s going to be for collectors, just people who want to collect vinyl. Digital downloads have still not lived up to the expectation of what we though digital retailing would become. So right now we’re in a semi-vacuum, where we’re between brick and mortar sales and digital sales. And digital sales are not making up for what we’re losing in brick and mortar sales. And brick and mortar isn’t selling enough, for digital to just be extra. So you’re seeing distributors going out of business, record labels going out of business, because there’s not enough financial return to support what we do right now. However, I believe if you survive this, in two to three years the music business will be healthy.
Right now, this is the most fantastic time for music in the history of the organized businesses. Now is the time that more music is being enjoyed than ever before. More people listen to music than ever before, because of the accessibility of it. iTunes has made catalogues of music available that weren’t available before and has created value from obscure music that it wouldn’t make sense to manufacture.
How do you have time to do anything? You run a record label, you DJ, you produce, you remix you write… Do you get to go out at all?
You know, I was talking about this to a young lady last night! She asked me, “When are you going to go on vacation?” And I said to her, “I am on vacation!” Every morning when I get up, I’m doing exactly want I want to do. When I wake up in the morning, my routine is waking up, give thanks, 15 minutes of just meditation, get dressed, I take my mother to work everyday. I hit the gym, get out of the gym by 10. By that time the office opens and I’m calling these guys to check in, and then I’m on with the day. Me and Josh have investments in physical fitness, we actually own the gym that I go to.
I still live in Newark, New Jersey. I live in the ghetto. I love it. I have a beautiful brownstone that I live in with my mom. I grew up in Newark. I have a studio in Irvington, New Jersey. We’ve been recording there since 1990.
You were in Chicago a few months ago. What did you think of it?
Chicago is one of the home states for what we do. Chicago and New York are brothers and sisters.
But yet you’re so different! One major thing I noticed is the dancing. House dancing is so evolved in New York.
It’s a tradition! See, at the Paradise Garage, a part of going there was to dance. That was the thing – how good you were as a dancer!
So there were always circles there, just like in the Shelter?
Always. That’s a tradition in New York. I know the roots of House Music they say are in Chicago, but the roots of this dance thing, this soulful dance thing, is in New York.
Tell us about your magazine LISTEN.
Well Listen is a zine that I always felt the soulful House scene was missing. Media: I think that’s our weakest point. We’re not good marketing people. I got tired of seeing DJ Magazine, URB Magazine… And if they had to pick someone soulful, they were either going to pick Masters at Work or DJ Spinna. Those aren’t the only two guys that do soulful house music! Kerri Chandler has been doing it for 20 years! Why can’t he be on the cover?
I think the soulful House scene is the original scene and it’s always the side child. So why am I going to wait? Screw it! I’ll do it myself! That was before I knew that 5 Magazine was around. If I had known you were around, then I would have probably wanted to support what you were doing more, but I didn’t know. But I wanted to do something to service our community. Really, the book is service. There’s enough people to read your book, there’s enough people to read our book, and continue growing. So we have to work together.
I’m going to say it! You can write this in your book! [laughs] Why is it in Chicago… Well what do we have in New York? We have a certain amount of “working-togetherness”. We don’t always work together, and not everyday, but I can call Spinna and we could do a project together. Spinna can work with Kenny Dope. I can work with Louie. I can send out eblasts for 718 Sessions, they’ll send out email blasts for me! Just because. When I’m in Chicago, I’m talking to a producer, and then he’s talking bad about the other producer, then the other producer’s talking bad . . .
But I thought it was like that in New York too!
Not at all. Somehow, outside of one camp, we all manage to get along and really have an affection for each other. We can all be in the same party! Whenever I come there, it’s always an interesting scene to me, and I’m like, “Guys! Just get over it! Nobody is making money!”
I really want to do an article on Chicago called “Then and Now”. At one time, in ’84 or ’85, Chicago was at the top of the world musically! What happened? Why didn’t it sustain? Why did only two people get rich out of it? What happened?
There’s an old camp and the new camp, but I’m in both of them! I know the old guys and the new guys. The old guys don’t like the new guys, and then the new guys don’t like each other. Or they work together then they get mad at each other… It’s bananas!
Well the old guys only like to hear the same thirty songs every night.
What me and Louie Vega tried to do (with regards to our Roots night) was to show people that that could be done. That two production entities could work together and do it in unity. Do we have fights? Not that I know of. Do we have different views? Of course! But usually one of us acquiesces.
What I’ve always wanted to do, at the Winter Music Conference, is a party called The Battle of the DJs. New York vs. Chicago.
Oh no! There might be a riot! Who would be the judges?
You would have to make it for the audience. I’m from New York, and they’re going to hate me, but I totally think Chicago would win.
The problem with us, well maybe not every New York DJ, is that we’re smooth. We’re SMOOOOTH. Everything is smooth and luscious!
Wayne Williams once called it “sushi music”.
Right! So I think that that harder Chicago sound would probably work well for the more international crowd than that smooth soulful sound. But for some ironic reason, our sound translates better internationally around the world. We work more than most Chicago DJs. And because we have people doing business, we work with companies that can market our product a little better.
You look at most of the DJs here – like Dennis Ferrer, for instance, linked up with Defected and they marketed him really well. He made some great records but it was also his marketing that took his brand out.
I like to think of it as approaching it more as a business. It’s not just “Let’s go make a jam and let somebody give us a thousand dollars for the record.” It’s not just that. It’s “How is this record going to translate for my overall brand?”
You all have some really talented people in Chicago, guys that I would really like to work with. I think what we in New York really have an affinity for is the business. Not because we’re more talented. I think Chicago may be a little more talented than us.