Back in my student years at Northwestern, a young DJ named Kelly G. used to play the hottest tracks that would get all the college kids jumping. After the upteenth time I asked him to ID a song I liked, he told me to get every record done by a Steve “Silk” Hurley because he was responsible for every hot song on the radio and in the clubs.
Chicago’s very own “Remix King” is a producer/remixer/songwriter/DJ and four-time Grammy nominee. His ability to musically embellish a song and take it to a higher dimension has earned him the title as one of the country’s top remixers. His first released single, “Music is the Key,” made it to the Billboard Dance Chart’s top 10, establishing him as one of the pioneers of House Music. Shortly after, his group J.M. Silk premiered on the RCA Records label and produced a string of #1 hits including “Jack Your Body.”
The artists he has worked with are mind boggling, from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Crystal Waters, Madonna, Boyz II Men, Jennifer Lopez, Brandy, Kelly Rowland, Ann Nesby and CeCe Peniston to name just a few. At this moment he runs his own production and remix team called SilkMix.com and a record label, Silk Entertainment.
Steve graciously agreed to talk with me for this wide-ranging interview about his roots in Chicago’s clubland, how he developed into the musical force that he is, and what he continues to do to further his unstoppable legacy.
Your evolution went from DJ to remixer, songwriter to producer, correct? Did one lead to the other quickly, or did you spin for a long time before making your own tracks?
My first party that I DJed was a “Sock Hop” at my high school, Lindblom Tech. I don’t even think I got paid for that party. My friend Vic and I used two turntables with speakers on them and a mic that was hooked up to the school’s PA system. To mix, we had to move the mic slowly from one turntable to the other. Pretty high-tech, huh? That was my first taste of mixing 2 records together and I was hooked.
I would say that the longest transition for me was going from someone with a boom box that played his special cassette tapes, to becoming a DJ that would actually be hired by someone. I probably paid more dues as a DJ than anything. I worked countless hours on my skills, trying to learn and invent tricks, and working on my scratching. I wanted to get good enough to win a DJ battle, because no matter how good I got, nobody would let me spin at any of the parties, not even for free! That ultimately ended up being my way in.
Herb Bertha, a legendary DJ from the south side, saw my eagerness and potential and let me to spin with him at my first “real” party at The El Panama Club on the south side. It was a lounge, but I DJed like my life depended on it and impressed him. He decided to put me in a DJ battle against some up-and-coming and established DJs at The Penthouse on Roosevelt Road. I won my first battle and the buzz was finally getting out there about me as a DJ.
The place I really wanted to spin was Sauer’s, on East 22nd Street. That was where the hip and trendy high school and college kids partied, and the music was very similar to what Frankie played at the Warehouse and Powerplant. That was where I wanted to be, so I entered a battle that Dave Risqué was throwing. I won the battle, a trophy and a whopping $100.00, and the rest was history. I became a regular DJ at Sauer’s and I was finally spinning for the eclectic crowd that had great taste in music! It wasn’t until I started making a name for myself as a DJ that I stumbled upon becoming a producer…
What inspired you to begin writing your own music?
Actually, it was the crowd that I played for at Sauer’s that inspired me to start making my own music. The crowd was so receptive to good music that didn’t have to be a radio hit, but still all of us DJs were playing the same 50 soulful disco underground songs. I loved that music and still do, but I wanted to give the crowd something extra when I played; so I bought a Casio Drum Machine and later a Boss Dr. Rhythm Drum Machine, and started making beats to layer over my sets.
That went over well, so I started making contemporary but raw versions of classics like “Love Is The Message” and “I Can’t Turn Around.” That worked really well too, and the next thing I knew I was dabbling in making original music. “Music Is The Key” was the first original song that I wrote, and it worked so well that I borrowed money from my dad to record it professionally and release it. I hired Keith Nunnally to re-sing the vocals for me, and I partnered with Rocky Jones to release the song as the first record on DJ International Records. The song went to #9 on the Billboard Dance Charts, and before I knew it, I had a new career as a recording artist (along with Keith, as the group J.M. Silk).
I’ve read in other interviews that you like to study the dancefloor. What do you find moves people? Is there a difference between what made them dance then and how the crowds are today?
It depends on the crowd that you play for. I think the younger crowd tends to be more receptive to the intensity of the drums and bass and of the track in general. A more mature audience usually reacts more to the feeling that the music and lyrics give them. That’s just a general observation that I have, but there are exceptions in every party. That’s why I study the dancefloor, because my ultimate goal is for everyone to “feel me” when I play music. I want those younger people to get the feeling that the older crowd gets too, so if I have to bring intensity to get them on the floor, I want to give them more after that – not just intensity but a more spiritual feeling of jubilation that can only really be achieved by great chord progressions and melodies working together to make you “feel” the spirit of the artist’s music, not just feel the bass hitting you.
When and where exactly did the word “jack” come from?
I just remember in the early ’80s we always made reference to someone “jackin’ the box” if they were doing a great DJ set, or “jackin’ it up” if they were dancing really hard and feeling the music, or “jackin’ House” when a DJ was playing House Music. I really don’t know where it originated; it just caught on in our clique like any other slang does and started spreading to the masses. When I DJed, I wanted people to “Jack Their Bodies,” so hence the song!
Tell us about the Candy Store. Also what clubs did you attend growing up?
The Candy Store was my first weekly residency. The club had a hard-edged, high school and college-aged crowd from the south side that liked a more urban flavor of House and electronic music. I did Friday nights, and Farley did Saturday nights. We also did some parties together there.
My first taste of “real House Music” was at “The Loft,” where I heard Tony and Andre Hatchett, Alan King, Wayne Williams, and Jesse Saunders (The Chosen Few). Once I heard “Is It All Over My Face” and “Ready To Rock,” I was hooked on that more soulful underground club music that we called “HOUSE!” Other clubs that I attended were The Mansion, Sauer’s, The Penthouse, The Gallery, The Music Box, The Powerplant, The Riviera, C.O.D.’s, Mars Bar on Rush Street, and on the west side, Mr. G’s, and Divinci Manor. I could go on and on but I’ll stop right there.
You started getting commissioned to do remixes for Michael Jackson, Prince, Janet, Mary J. Blige, Crystal Waters to name a few topdog names. What event in your career catapulted you to that level?
The transition was kind of gradual. The success of “Music Is The Key, “Shadows Of Your Love,” “Jack Your Body,” and “I Can’t Turn Around” got my group (J.M. Silk) a recording contract with RCA Records. I got a short but not always sweet lesson on the music business from that experience, and started concentrating on creating the music behind the scenes as a producer, leaving the artist thing behind.
That led to me doing remixes in 1988 for Ten City, Inner City, then Roberta Flack. I did my own compilation album for Atlantic in 1989, while still doing remixes. In 1990 I did a remix on Jomanda’s “Got A Love For You” which established a new sound for me, and led to me doing mixes for Prince, Black Box, Crystal Waters, and every other artist that you could think of. By the time I did Michael Jackson in 1992, I was locked into a “Hurley Sound” that labels wanted every time they hired me.
At the same time I was developing my own artists and producers with my label I.D. Records and I.D. Productions, which was the camp of producer/remixers that I was developing by putting them on my remix projects and featuring their production on I.D. Records. I.D. was a vehicle in which we could experiment and develop new sounds by releasing records independently with no input from the major labels. That kept our sound fresh and ever-evolving, and helped us to develop several artists and producers. Kym Sims, Jamie Principle, Chantay Savage and Donell Rush were all broken through I.D. Records, as well as last year’s Grammy winner, Maurice Joshua, M. Doc, and Grammy Nominee Eric “E-Smoove” Miller. I’m really proud of how far those guys have come, and we’re all still really good friends. By the way, I’ve got big plans for the I.D. Records catalog this year!
But to answer your question, there were many monumental events and milestones that lead me to reaching that status as a producer, so I wouldn’t say there was any one event that made it happen.
How important are vocals to a House song?
I think vocals are very important to a Soulful Vocal House record, but that’s just one genre of House Music. I play several types of House Music. Even back to the early days of Chicago House Music, you had some vocal tracks (“Move Your Body,” “Shadows Of Your Love”), beat tracks (“Jack My Body”), moody instrumentals (Fingers, Inc.), bassline-driven tracks (“No Way Back,” Adonis), and many other things in between. I think that’s the beauty of House Music. There are no boundaries. Yes, vocals are important to a Vocal House song, and of course I love vocals; but that’s just one type of House Music!
Did you write “We Got A Love Thang,” “Keep on Walking” and “I’m Not Over You” with CeCe Peniston in mind?
No, “Keep On Walkin” was originally demoed by Kym Sims, who helped M. Doc and myself write a few of the lyrics at the end too. “We Got A Love Thang” was written by E-Smoove, Jere McAllister and Chantay Savage as a song demo. Once we heard it, we knew it would work for CeCe. Once I had CeCe’s vocals on the song, I produced it in the “Hurley Style.” “I’m Not Over You” and “Searchin'” were written specifically for CeCe for her second album. We had a great writing team at I.D.
What inspires me is the fact that I can do what I love for a living, and still take care of my family. Even when I have those days where nothing seems to go right, all I have to do is think about the days when I worked a 9 to 5, doing something that I hated to do, and watching the clock all day… THAT’S INSPIRATION ENOUGH FOR ME!
I would say that that was the most trying time of my career was when I went through a lawsuit from 1993 to 1995 with my former management. However, it was one of the most important turning points of my life as well. It was the start of a new chapter in my life.
When writing a song, what is the process you go through? Do you start with the beat, the bassline, a vocal?
I start with chord progressions first, because I want to move people with my music. Once you know what chord progressions you want, you can then produce the track in whatever style you want using those chord progressions as a guide. If I’m working with a vocalist from scratch, they may sing while I develop chord progressions. Then, once we establish the song’s structure, I’ll work on the production while they write lyrics. The other way I work with vocalists is to give them a track and let them write to it. Once we record the vocals, I’ll usually end up “remixing” the track to make it complement the vocal even more. Occasionally, if I’m making a groove-oriented track, I may start with the bassline and drums, but usually, it’s the chords first.
It has been said that there is a stronger appreciation for House in Europe than in the U.S. Any ideas as to why this may be? Is there any hope for House to ever get close to where hip-hop is?
In the US, there are a lot of House fans, but there’s a disconnect between the clubgoers and the music that they hear. Because House Music is not usually played in rotation on the radio, consumers have no way of knowing what the music actually is. Therefore, they usually have to buy a mixed CD of their favorite DJ to get the music, not knowing if they will even get that song that they heard in the club last night. Most consumers don’t have a clue what song they are hearing at a House club. I think it can go to the next level once we start educating our patrons on what the music is and where they can buy it. Hip-hop is fed to the consumer through radio, videos, and other media, then made available through a sophisticated distribution system. House Music is finally starting to be made available through online distribution such as iTunes, beatport, and Traxsource; now we just to get the promotion to another level.
Where do you see dance music going ten years from now?
With technology being where it is today, it can’t go anywhere but up. Dance music enthusiasts tend to be more technologically advanced, so I think the internet is definitely going to be House Music’s biggest ally. With satellite and internet radio, and the increased awareness of where to buy the music that we hear, It will not matter whether we hear dance music on conventional radio. It will be everywhere else.
What is a typical day for Steve Hurley?
6:30 am. Make sure my 15 year old daughter is up. I heard her alarm go off a few times, each time followed by a loud slapping noise on the SNOOZE BUTTON.
7:15 am. Get my 5 and 10 year-old daughters up for school (usually takes a couple of tries). Take my 15 year old daughter to school (or give them breakfast – my wife and I take turns doing this). Make their lunches while my wife does their hair. My wife usually takes the little ones to school – we carpool with a neighbor.
It’s 8:30 am, and NOW I’M FREE. I immediately hit the computer and phones, checking e-mails, messages, iChat, MSN Messenger, MySpace, and wearing about 20 different hats as a LAWYER, AGENT, PRODUCER, ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE, ACCOUNTS PAYABLE, PROMOTIONS, YOU NAME IT (I love it though)!
By 4:00 pm, I finally get to go into the studio and do some music. It may be an Old Skool/New Skool Remix for the Tom Joyner Morning Show, or new tracks for my music library that’s featured on the Oprah show. I may be finishing up a track for the Chicago LP Project that I have coming out, or recording vocals on my 15 year-old daughter B. Laurén, an R&B singer/songwriter ala Beyoncé, Mariah, Amerie, Alicia Keys. No telling what it will be, but as long as it’s music, my day is complete.
MIDNIGHT. Oops, I forgot that DJ Skip and I need to go to a club and do some videotaping for the Chicago LP CD/DVD Project that’s dropping this Spring. I guess my work is never done!
4:30 am. Arrive back at home; Skip kept me out all night.
6:30 am. START ALL OVER AGAIN!
Tell us about this new DVD project you are doing with other Chicago producers.
DJ Skip and myself have joined forces to start the label, S&S Records (Silk & Skip), and to put together a CD/DVD project called The Chicago LP. The Chicago LP fuses the past, present, and future of House Music, which is the foundation of today’s electronic dance music. For the first time ever, we were able to bring together Chicago’s Pioneers of House Music with the next generation of Grammy Award winners and international hit-makers.
The CD is a collection of 20 new and never before heard House records from Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, DJ Pierre, Paul Johnson, DJ Skip, DJ Rhythm, Roy Davis Jr., Ron Carroll, Eric “E-Smoove” Miller, Maurice Joshua, Bad Boy Bill, DJ Wayne Williams, Stacy Kidd, CZR, Mr. K-Alexi, Malik Yusef, DJ Slugo, DJ Lego, George Jackson, Fast Eddie, Hyper Harp, Marshall Jefferson, Kelly G., and myself, Steve “Silk” Hurley. Several singers will also be featured, including Xaveria Gold, Delano, Kevin Irving, Syleena Johnson, Dani, Javante, Jamie Principle, and a few surprise guests that are in the works. We’ve also included a bonus DVD documentary that chronicles the beginning and the future of the Chicago House movement. The DVD also includes the inspiring story of world renowned DJ Paul Johnson, and how he has overcome being confined to a wheelchair to become a superstar DJ. We’ve got in-studio interviews, out-takes, neighborhood shots, and live DJ sets as well. It’s coming out this Spring, and I’m really excited.
Any final words you’d like to say to our readers?
Thank you everyone for all of your support of House Music and me throughout the years. I also hope you will continue to support this magazine, because it is a pure magazine that is reminding the world where House Music came from and where it is headed. Great job, 5 Magazine – Czarina and Freddie especially!
I’d also like to send a shoutout to my staff producers, John “DJ JM3,” Tony Blowe, and Mogie Israel, along with my future superstar artists, B. Laurén, and N-Tyce, and my partner DJ Skip. And of course, thanks to all of my Chicago people that participated on our ground-breaking project.