Thanks for sitting down for this interview! Let’s start at the beginning, or as close as we can get to it. When did you first start DJing?
Around ’83, ’84 – just after graduating from high school. Tyree Cooper, Hugo H. and myself used to play park district parties, little house parties and at Ogden Park and The Visitation. My first really big gig was at this place called St. Stephen’s that we used to play every week with “King” George Moore. We named it The Courtyard, on 64th and Peoria. It was in the ‘hood, but we had a big crowd. We were bringing it to the kids that couldn’t get out of the neighborhood to the Music Box or the PowerPlant. Tyree Cooper was doing the bigger gigs – all the hotel parties, The Congress, The Bismark, all of those – and Hugo was doing WKKC (Friday Nite Audio with Pink House). We were sort of the big neighborhood jocks.
Were you the only ones we would know today that came out of Englewood?
Well, there was me, Tyree, Brian Frazier, Pierre, Reggie Hall… Basically, those names there are some of the guys that are still doing it today.
You mentioned before to me that, coming out of Englewood, some of the other guys seemed a little more “preppy” than you were.
Yeah. Steve [Poindexter], Pharris, John Hunt and all of them… Gucci Promotions, Armando, Terry Hunter, Brian Harris, the Chicago Bad Boys, Gene Hunt – they wouldn’t let me play at their regular gigs at first. I think I was a little too ghetto and too ‘hood for ’em, you know? [laughs]
But seriously, I was one of the first cats bringing two reel-to-reels and spinning with them at the parties. I was bringing out two Pioneer 707s, doing the Hummingbird, Jacks, The Courtyard, etc. I’d bring a drum machine, too. I would make tracks right then as the party was going. Way before my guys Daft Punk and all of them were doing live gigs, I was doing that at the basement parties – just bringing drum machines and doing everything live. A lot of my early tracks came from me doing them at the party when the party was going on. I’d save it in memory and bringing it home and polish it up. But then I listen to it now and it’s like, damn… didn’t use enough cleaner!
See, before there was a Farley for me, there was a Leonard Rroy. A lot of people credit Farley and rightfully so, but my introduction was Leonard “Remix” Rroy. I used to go and get tapes from him – Leonard didn’t even know my name. I remember it clear as day. I would sit in Greg and Otto Hines’ basement in amazement. Leonard was the trick master back then. He would do shit with turntables that you’d say, “How the fuck is he doing that?”
When Leonard speaks about his history in House Music, I feel him. He wasn’t downtown in a central location. He was in the ‘hood, down on 89th. He still had a packed house, though. He was my first true “DJ god”. Then came Farley, then came Ron, then came Frankie. I didn’t party at the Plant. Hugo H. would always try to get me to go. Me? From Englewood? “Nah… there’s a bunch of gay people down there!” I was very ignorant back then. Now I have a lot of friends who live the alternative lifestyle, but back then, when I was 21 or 22, I had the ‘phobia. I was on that gangbanging trip! After going and seeing Frankie beat the breaks off a system, you couldn’t keep me from it! “I’ve been missing all this? No way!”
Sometimes sitting on the cars outside of the Music Box was even better than being in the club. What a lot of people don’t know is that we sometimes didn’t even go in the party – we just went down there to hang out on the cars all night! Please, tell the story correctly: there was a party outside the Box just as happenin’ as inside. Somebody had some sounds with a Ron Hardy tape, and we’d be smokin’ weed, sniffin’ rush and some doin’ acid, partying outside… It was great.
A lot of folks started DJing and took that next step to producer, but you were acting as engineer or producer on a lot of early tracks way back in the day.
I was brought up in music. My mom (aka “Dadah” as I call her because as a baby I couldn’t say “Momma”) used to take me to the record store with her when I was young all the time. My father had all of the best equipment – Bose 901 speakers, a Revox reel-to-reel and thousands of records. We’re living in the projects but we have top-of-the-line equipment – Crown amps, and all of that. Music has always been a part of me. When I used to live in the Robert Taylor Homes at 4331, my mom used to take me up under the El tracks on 43rd and we’d listen to all the new releases that week. She’d ask, “Hey, have you got the disco version of that? Do you have the long version of that?” I really started to fall in love with music then.
There was also a guy named Rico that lived under us in the projects and he had two turntables and a mixer. My father just had one turntable. I got so smooth on the reel-to-reel that I could make it seem like the record was fading out into the next one. But when I saw Rico, it made me really want to gravitate to being a club DJ. It wasn’t even mixing back then – just one record fading out while the other one was fading in.
I’ve always had that love and wanted to know everything about the studio. Most people would just want to get on the drum machine and start beatin’ it. I wanted to know why it did what it did, how it did it, the circuitry part.
I remember my grandmother bought me a record player for Christmas one year. I took it apart, and she went crazy! She called my dad, “I just bought him this record player and he took it all apart!” I took it apart just to see how everything worked. Now, all my friends – Maurice Joshua, Herb Brasko, Pierre – when they need troubleshooting, they call me. Everybody that knows me knows I read my manuals back and forth, forth and back. Every day, I read a section of my manuals.
For the engineering part, I was engineering everybody’s stuff that was coming over to the house. From Armando to Hula… I would sit there and engineer Marshall Jefferson’s sessions. I just wanted to be involved in everything. That’s why I’ve always told the newer cats that are coming up under me to learn their equipment. Gil “Skatta” Carpenter, who is on my new EP on Defected – I told him when he came into the studio to learn the equipment first. Learn why it does what it does. That way when you’re working in the studio, you don’t just play around.
Do you think that’s gone now that someone can buy mass-produced software and call themselves a producer?
It’s definitely much easier. I can’t be mad about it – you’ve got to move with the times. If we had stuff like this back then… I don’t know if it would have been the same. I know how to go into an analog studio as well as a digital studio – most digital producers don’t know how to go into an analog studio. I can work on the original Jupiters, the Junos, the Moogs, Eventides, 480s and two-inch tape machines. When you deal with the software studio, it’s close but it’s not the same.
I was on the phone with Terry Hunter the other day, and he’s doing a track with Patrick Adams and we were talking about this. Patrick told him, if you’ve never worked on a Moog, you’ll hear the software and say, “That’s it.” If you’ve worked on a Moog – you can’t play the software. There’s just no comparison. I prefer the older stuff but the recall on the stuff – I just don’t have time for it. To write down the sound settings, load them back up, hope you wrote down the right sound – it’s too much hassle, but worth it if you need the real deal.
It’s just like when turntables became affordable – everyone became a DJ. Software and computers killed the business of the big studios. Just save up $3000 and you’ve got everyone saying they’ve got a studio.
What’s your studio like now?
At the crib, it’s compact but still powerful. Tons of software, a few hardware pieces, I still have my 149 tube mic, Avalon 737, Mac Pro, Kontrol 49, Big Knob, Logic Pro 8, Pro Tools LE for editing and a few other pieces. For me, it gets things done more quickly now.
I try to keep the creativity there. I’m still trying to remain creative in what I’m doing in designing sounds. I try to tweak everything I touch and not use factory stock sounds. I have to touch every sound. It would have to be an incredible sound to use it right out of the box. I touch everything just until it’s right, every single thing. This track I’m working on right now, producers wouldn’t believe the plug-in I used to make the bass patch. It sounds so rich and fat! You’ll spend thousands and thousands on new plug-ins and I found a cheap little $200 program to do it for me.
Some of those records, both your own and the ones you worked on with friends, are now classics. Do you think they would have come around if you had today’s technology?
That’s what brought us so closely together back then. Everybody in some aspect needed each other. He had this, I had that… “Man, I know you’ve got an 808. Can I borrow it for a week?” It made you work more because you were trying to create as much as you could in the week that you had it.
How many hours of music do you think you have in your archives?
Just stuff that I’ve done? Man, I’ve got a tremendously big box of DATs (digital audio tape). I told my mom, “God forbid, but if I leave this earth? All this equipment is worth nothing. This box right here? This is the money. What’s on these DAT tapes are the money.”
I do so many now that I lost track. The thing about the technology now is that you become somewhat unfocused because you’re able to do something, take it down, work on something else. Just with my House stuff, let me click on my folder… I have 194 tracks! Out of 194, probably 20 of those are ready to go to record. The rest of them, I’ll go back when I get writer’s block and start pulling out stuff… “Okay, that’s alright, let me take this and re-work it.” For me, it has become too easy. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. It’s a new love. I guess I can call myself one of the older cats now, and it brings excitement back to making music, like having new toys that you just want to sit there and play with all day.
You did Dance Mutha Records, Muzique… were there any other labels you did?
I also did Warehouse Records – that was Armando’s label but I helped a lot. He needed help and I was there for him, the same as he was for me. We worked it out so Dance Mutha was mine, Warehouse was his, and Muzique was ours.
There’s really no overhead to starting a label if you wanted to bypass vinyl or use it for promo rather than for sale. Do you think you’ll get back into that game?
Oh yeah, that’s coming. I was talking the other day with Roy Davis, Jr. – we’re getting ready to do a record together and he was asking me about that. What I need to do now is just focus on getting my name back out there. So I’ve been working a lot on other people’s labels – RobSoul, Defected, T’s Box…
What happened is I got in touch with Traxsource.com awhile ago, and I was going to do it but then I looked on Traxsource and saw like 17,000 labels! I’m thinking, I’ll get lost in the storm unless big records come out with the other stuff I’m doing and people start looking for it. When you get on Traxsource, you’re basically looking for what you already know – DopeWax, Vega, Defected, Strictly… you know what I’m saying? You have your picks that you’re looking for first. Then you might back up and look through the top 10 downloads and check some new stuff out. You have your faves but you might luck up with something you’ve never heard of before. You’re taking a chance.
Three and a half years ago, it was really exclusive stuff. Now it’s wide open and loaded with labels. You’ll get lost in the storm unless you have big name friends, DJs who play it and tell other people what it is. Fortunately I do have those resources.
What was crazy was that Tuesday I was spinning at the Reynolds and Ron Carroll came in. He’s like, “Man, I was in Amsterdam, they’re beatin’ this track of yours and I’ve got to have it.” Guess what track it was? “The Boy Beats on His Drum!”
The one we had on our Miami sampler! Did you put that out anywhere else?
Yeah, the same song, and no, it’s just on the sampler. They had to get it from the Winter Music Conference and brought it back home. Ron’s telling me and I’m like, damn, Amsterdam? He’s like, “These guys are going crazy, I need to have this track!” That goes to show you how fast this travels now. My wifey, Patricia, loves that track. She’s more into the old school, soul, R+B, classics and all of that. She listens to some of the new House stuff – she loves the Nathalie Cole remix.
Are you going to put it out?
Yeah, somebody will play it and they’ll call or they’ll call you and you’ll call me. We’ll just let it grow legs on its own.
While we’re talking about tracks, I know there’s a story behind why you never released “Phreaky MF”. It was one of the biggest tracks for a couple of years – why was it never released on its own?
My grandmother (R.I.P.) – or “Big Ma” as we called her – raised me all my teen years growing up. I’d go to church every Sunday, a good boy – doing the bad stuff, sure, but around her being the perfect grandson. So she heard it, her nice boy making this nasty song, and she freaked. So I said I wouldn’t put it out on its own as long as she was with us. It actually did come out on a compilation on Hula’s Club House label, but nobody got it because Hula did a lot of rap and R+B at the time. Eventually it was bootlegged and became a classic, but was still hard to find.
I think one of the reasons it became a classic is because of the lyrics. I never said the B word, or H, or W or whatever – it was a compliment to the women. The women loved it because it didn’t call them every name in the book. I just started performing that song around the middle of 2007. I’d only performed it once before then.
Out of all of those tracks – “Phreaky MF”, “God Made Me Phunky”, “So Let it Be House” – are there any that you just can’t hear anymore?
Nah, it’s not like that. A track may have been out twenty years and you might not want to play it in every set or at all, but I understand how it is. It’s like hiring Byron Stingily and he’s not gonna sing “Devotion”. Steve Hurley: you’ve got to do “Jack Your Body”. Those are the songs that people fell in love with and it takes them back, so I understand but… Man, I listen to myself and I listen to them and my voice sounds like a little boy!
Yeah, your voice was a lot higher then!
Yeah, I guess smokin’ cigars made my voice a lot deeper! But seriously, those records have a lot of memories for some people. Listening to them, they bring people back to a time and they bring me back to a time, and I wouldn’t trade those times for nothing.
You’ve done a lot of stuff that people don’t know about – like I just happened to find an old bio for Ron Carroll from years back, and saw that you, Ron and Byron Stingily were “Deep Soul Productions” and did half of Byron’s album. You don’t throw your name all over just for the sake of it – come to think of it, half the time you don’t even use your full name.
Yeah, it’s either MD or an alias. That’s always been me. I come from the old school and what was taught to me was that the person behind it, the one you don’t see… is usually the richest person! [laughs]
But yeah, I love putting other people on and helping them put their dreams and ideas out. I could tell you I did this and that and so on… But I can just say for the person reading this magazine that I’ve done a lot of things people would say, “What? You did that?” But I won’t take away from another person’s shine. People who are close to me know what I’ve done and what I’ve been involved with in terms of stuff that doesn’t have my name on it. Maybe when you all do a “Dirt” issue we’ll bring it all out. [laughs]
Speaking of dirt, you were around in that era when Trax and DJ International were huge. A lot of people still have raw emotions about business deals gone wrong in those days.
A lot of people who say they got screwed by Trax or DJ International just look like the oldest people now… They let it get to them and it becomes their whole life. You have to move on. We didn’t get a lot of money but we were able to stay in the game and piggyback off of that and get gigs and travel the world without having to join the army or something like that.
Like I said, I wouldn’t trade those times for nothing. Every day at DJ International wasn’t a bad day. Every day at Trax wasn’t a bad day. People will say, “Ah, Larry screwed us!” or “Rocky screwed us!” But there were times I saw Rocky write artists $10,000 checks. I only dealt with Larry a few times (well, other than going out in back and stealing records out of the garbage!) I dealt more with Rocky. He may have had some bad business discussions, but he was a good person. Some didn’t get paid some of the time, and we didn’t get paid what we felt like we should have gotten paid, but nobody put out a record and didn’t get anything. Not unless there was some third party stuff going on… like if you were an artist and Rocky paid the producer but they didn’t pay you. Rocky kept me in the game – period!
It was Tyree that introduced me to DJ International. I’d seen the success of “I Fear the Night” and I couldn’t believe that record was doing as well as it was doing. Back in the day we used to hang out on Rush Street, and people were playing their stereos, playing WBMX and you heard that song everywhere.
You have to remember, if these songs didn’t do anything – and some of them didn’t – the labels lost. Only when they did well, which the label may have had a lot or even everything to do with – did you hear griping. I didn’t understand at the time either, but when I started my own company and was doing the rap thing, I finally got the other side of it. I paid people a lot of dough and it still wasn’t enough. It’s better to take less of an advance early and get more money later, but we looked at it as, “Damn, let me get my money now!”
The masters are the key to the game. That’s it. Every couple of years, I get a check that I’m like, “Where did this come from?”
For people of a certain age in Chicago – the party people especially – you’re going to be identified for a long time with the Warehouse. For anyone who wasn’t here at the time, this was the Warehouse on Randolph.
Right, it was on 738 W. Randolph. Frankie opened up the first night which was Halloween. It was supposed to be Joe Smooth and Julian Perez, but they opened up the first night with Frankie so it would solidify their position by calling it the “Warehouse”.
I guest DJed one night and Julian was there. Joe was a little abstract and had his moments when he played some disco and then would go into jazzier material. Joe had a following as well, as he used to do SmartBar. Julian went to Rocky and was like, “We need to get Mike Dunn in here.” They moved me upstairs and moved Joe downstairs. So I took over the main floor.
Eventually, on all of the black nights – Julian had Fridays which was the B96 night, and that’s the only night he wanted to do in that club because he had another club he was doing out in Schaumberg – I took over deciding who would spin at the club. So I hired Armando, I hired Hugo, DJ Cowboy, DJ Emanuel and K-Alexi, but he was playing hip-hop and slo jams. Craig Loftis was my light and sound man. Craig was responsible for the original system.
Originally, there were three partners that owned the Warehouse: Joe Smooth, Julian and Rocky. I got Armando hired there – that was when I started getting on WGCI. I’d do the Riviera on Thursdays and come down to the Warehouse later. I started getting tired of that, so I asked Armando if he wanted to take over Thursdays. So he took over Thursdays, and I took over Saturdays. I would bring Andre and Gene and those guys in as special guests – I tried to give all of my friends a chance to come in and play.
What was the atmosphere there like? It was a crucial place but, maybe because it was so recent, people don’t talk about it as much.
The first two, three years, it was like you didn’t even have to go overseas. It was that good. It was what the Box and all of those other clubs had been – that’s what it was for the next generation of partyheads coming up. We had some old ‘heads coming up, too. In fact, before he passed – and this is totally 110% true – Ron came down to the Warehouse and visited me in the booth. I was about to say his name on the mic, but he ask me not to. Think about this: all of the people who say they knew Ronnie and partied with Ron, and he walked through that crowd and I don’t think one person knew that Ron Hardy was there. He said, “I just wanted to come down and see the club and somewhat pass the torch…” I was touched. Ron was coming to see me! He only stayed about four minutes but it was the most moving four minutes of my DJ career. That’s when he was really sick. He snuck in and snuck right back out. Many of my days, I lived off that moment… you don’t even know.
But the club was just incredible to me. Joe had the downstairs and did very well. When everything was at its peak, it was a beautiful, beautiful time for the Chicago House scene.
You stopped doing House Music for a couple of years and the word was you’d gone and done rap. But you were always doing rap, right?
I’ve been doing rap the same amount of time I’ve been doing House Music. Go back to “Let it Be House” – it was a rap! And I was producing other rap cats the whole time too. I was DJing rap ever since I can remember.
But this is the truth about why I quit doing House. When the Warehouse went down and it moved to the Prop House, I didn’t appreciate where they moved the people. It was in the back of the club, before they remodeled. They called it the Prop House because they used to sell props out of there! You’d be back there with props everywhere and I’m DJing on the stairs. Literally, there was no room or anything. The system would pop a fuse, get it back working, pop a fuse, get working again… So me, Jay-Jay and Big Ed (Big Bro) put seven or eight thousand dollars together and tried to move to the place that used to be called The Convent. But the crowd didn’t come with us – they stayed at the Prop House. They would rather stay there and party, so I quit. Now it looks like Mike has giving up on the House crowd, but you can equally say the House crowd gave up on Mike. I was doing parties down the road but they still wanted to go there. And in the end, look at what happened. The club totally dissed the people and the music on Saturday night.
For me as a DJ, my main concern is the crowd first. I learned that from seeing Ron Hardy, Farley and Frankie and being at all of those parties back in the day. People ask why those places were so special. It was because they cared about the people first. It’s first and foremost the people, and then the sound system, and then how the place looks, and then the bar. Now the bar is first and the sound system is last on the totem pole. You go to some clubs with a crappy sound system and they’re not putting any money back into the club or giving anything back to the people. It’s just take, take, take.
I’ve never stopped loving disco and House Music, but I really stopped loving all of the things happening around the music. Things were heading in a harder, more techno direction. I play hard sometimes, but this was hard. Really, 136 bpms is pushing it for me. Right around 124 to 128 bpms is comfortable – that’s House to me. And when you’re playing classics and disco, you’re talking about 96 bpms on up.
With Darrin and Curt at Reynolds on Tuesdays, I like those guys because they listen to my concerns and ideas. They don’t just take from the people – they want to give back. In House Music, every little bit helps the cause. It’s about the people, giving them nice music, a nice atmosphere, not playing the same seven records every time they come to the club.
Like I played Nirvana the other day and some girl was like, “That guy’s trippin!” But if you call yourself old school, how far back do you go? Because at Medusa’s, DJ Rush and Armando would play that and the crowd would go nuts, you know what I’m saying?
I don’t want you to come to the club every week and hear the same thing, because eventually people will get tired and the crowd will fall off. I want to keep you on your toes. Every week you’re going to hear something different… Trust me!
So this is your first residency in awhile. Where are you playing at?
Right now I’m doing Tuesdays at the New Reynolds (938 E. 75th), and starting in mid-May I’ll be doing Thursdays at the Premier in Dolton (300 W. Sibley).
I’ll also be playing at the Chosen Few Picnic on July 5th. That’s really my big coming back out gig.
And you mentioned releases earlier, with both some re-issues, some new remixes of some old classics and a ton of new music coming out.
Yeah, on the production side, I have an EP on Defected’s 4th Floor Records coming out under the name “Mike Dunn presents the MD X-Spress” called The Congregation EP. Tracks on there are “This Here is House Music”, a tune called “Na Na Na Na (I Walk with God)” and “The ER Track” co-produced with Gil “Skatta” Carpenter.
There’s also Pressure Cooker ’08 on RobSoul out of France with “Phreaky MF” on the same label, and something on DJ Deep’s label, Deeply Rooted, with Hugo H. I’m also releasing a Gospel House track on Terry Hunter’s T’s Box Records with Leslie Moore called “Give All Glory to Him”, and I’m working on other singles with my artists Michelle Penn and Ladi Lyke.
So you had some pretty incredible success with rap – why come back to House Music again?
Coming back, you know when the time is right. I missed the atmosphere so much. The first party I did in France with DJ Deep, I was like, “Ahh… this is home! Okay, you had your fun with the rap stuff, but this is where you belong!”
Through all of the trials and tribulations of the last three or four years, I’ve just wanted to come out of it as a better and stronger person, as a man and as a father as a friend. It roots you back to what’s important. It’s not the glitz and the glamour that will make you happy. It’s family and a few real friends. I’ve met a wonderful woman now and I feel like I’m happy with life again. I’ll just continue thanking God for his mercy, grace and blessings.
There’s just no way around it – I was born to be House!