IT’S HARD TO describe how deeply house music flows in the veins of a Chicago Househead. Many of Chicago’s heads were raised on the music, attaching tracks to memories of first kisses or high school dances. Some were born to make the music, hearing a new song in every heartbeat.
Terry Hunter was doubly blessed. His father was a DJ at their West Side tavern, The Family Lounge, spinning mostly disco and soul. By age eleven, when most youth were just discovering House music, Hunter already had equipment, a record collection of dance classics and insight about how music makes people move.
Like so many of Chicago’s youth of the ’80s, Terry Hunter had an older relative expose him to the Warehouse mix tapes created by Frankie Knuckles. He recalls being amazed that “this guy could take all of these records and put them together to play like one song.” Inspired by the mix tape and the WBMX Hot Mix 5, Terry asked for a rotary mixer for his 12th birthday. Together with two turntables and two amplifiers connected to four speakers, he created the illusion of the seamless blend by turning the levels up and down on the rotary mixer or “slamming the records together” because his turntables had no pitch controls.
“I was the guy you would call to spin at your birthday party,” he laughs. “I was the DJ at the real House parties – the ones at your house!” The events that he coordinated with his friends attracted the attention of local promoters, leading to the break that would start his career as an international DJ and producer. And all of it happened by the age of 18.
In a career that ps almost two decades, Terry Hunter has worked for Frankie Knuckles and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk. He has spun at the legendary Candy Store and Powerhouse. He has composed innovative remixes for Ten City, Zhane, Joi Cardwell, Crystal Waters, Georgie Porgie and India. He has written for Billboard and is the founder of UBQ Mix Productions. Most recently, he has deepened his musical relationship with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez of Masters at Work.
I was able to catch Terry on a short visit home between stops on his international schedule. He was engaging and excited to talk with 5 Magazine about his career, his upcoming releases and House music. With a graceful introspection and humility uncharacteristic of many of today’s uber-DJs, he confesses that he had “fallen out of love with producing music for about a year and a half. I was really busy with DJing but I didn’t like seeing the labels and what was happening to the music I loved. Everybody was trying to go with what the media said: ‘Trance is in,’ ‘No, drum and bass is in…’ To me it was always about the feeling of the song.”
I was really excited at the opportunity to interview you because I feel almost like I know you already. You spun at so many of the parties from my youth. In my research I learned that you spun at the Powerhouse, the Candy Store and La Mirage, but didn’t you spin a lot of the hotel parties of the late ’80s and early ’90s?
Yeah I used to do all those parties – Sauer’s, the McCormick Place parties, the Bismark, the Ascot Hotel parties…
You were in your teens then, spinning regularly. How did you get your start?
Really I got my break from a big promoter by the name Marvin Terry. He would throw a lot of parties in the ’80s and early ’90s. You might know him because he threw the McCormick Place parties that had all that trouble in the early ’90s. Well, there was a place called the Hummingbird on the southside.
Yeah, I know the Hummingbird – it was on 87th and Ashland. It was in the basement of this building and packed so tight the mirrors were sweating… It was usually a little different crowd then the southside House crowd, right? More “beat/woogie” – or they might call it “juke” now, right?
Yeah, that was it. I brought in different crowd because by that time I had my own following. I was doing parties with my friends from Hyde Park High School. There were a couple of groups that would throw parties, the Kudos and the Bros. We would do all these parties, the Jack and Jill parties… So Marvin came to me and said he would put me on at the Hummingbird. I was geeked, right? I mean, everyone knew who Marvin Terry was – he did the McCormick Place parties. So he said, “You’re a bad little brother! Here’s what I’ll do for you. You give me $75 and I’ll put your name on the flyer and I’ll go promote you.”
So I was charged. I went home and I told my old man… [laughs] My old man meant business and he didn’t know who Marvin Terry was, but he knew I was already getting money to spin at these other parties. My old man said “Oh no, you have him come over here. You might play for free but there is no way you are going to give him $75.” Marvin was going to come over anyway to drop off the flyers so I could give them to my friends. My dad had him sit down and told him, “You might be able to get my son to play for free but there is no way he is going to give you $75 dollars, too.” So I got to play the Hummingbird and I didn’t pay either. Things just kind of went up from there.
I met John Hunt who ran with these cats called Gucci Productions. He said he was putting on an event, a DJ battle at DeLaSalle High School that he asked me to be in. I won first place and from there they promoted me and I was on every party they did, all the Racketball Club parties and Boat parties, and it just grew from there.
Do remember who judged the battle?
Yeah, it was Steve Poindexter, Pharris Thomas and audience participation. Really, it was all the parties that gave me the name and recognition. People liked my sound.
So you were doing well for yourself DJing. How and why did the music production start?
The production basically happened because there were records out and I would say, well, I would have done this or that differently. I was doing a lot of edits with tape decks. This was the late ’80s. I went to friend’s house and he had a Korg keyboard and a drum machine and I started making these tracks that I would play at my parties. One particular track that I did was called “Madness”. That led me to meet Armando. Armando liked the track and he had a record label, Warehouse Records, and he said “This is cold. I want to put it out.” You know, we used to say “cold”… [laughs]
He released it and it was a success, which led me to a guy named Georgie Porgie and I hooked up with Mirage Entertainment, L&R Records who made “You Can’t Stop the House” and “Work It to the Bone”. I started doing records with them and that’s what led to all of the historical stuff and eventually to the remixing of the big artists.
You were successfully DJing, producing with some major players… What made you decide to start your own label?
The UBQ Project was originally Aaron Smith, Ron Trent and myself. We wanted to do something together. We felt the same way about our music and so we came up with UBQ, which is short for “ubiquitous,” meaning “present in all places at all times” or “omnipresent”. Ron went off to do his own things but Aaron and I stayed together.
Was it a big jump when you started you own label?
Honestly, at first I didn’t know and I didn’t even care. And I got screwed. I didn’t know anything about the business. Armando and all those guys had distribution and manufacturing lined up so all I had to do was make the record. I never really encountered having to put my own record out. I was lucky, but then I got screwed too because I didn’t know anything about the business. Now I know, but I had to learn a lot of things the hard way.
You mentioned earlier that you had fallen out of love with making House music until about a year and a half ago. What happened?
I had fallen out of love with the production side of things. I always loved to DJ but making a record is so personal. It is giving all your soul, giving your all and then to hear anyone say “it’s bullshit” or “people aren’t feeling this” or “the club won’t play this…” I got discouraged because I didn’t get into this for that. A lot of people are out here making mechanical music, spinning mechanical music, and not putting their heart into it. So I continued to DJ because that’s my first love and I still had to do what I had to do to eat. Really, it was working with Kenny that helped me to get out of that feeling.
It’s been said that you are Chicago’s invisible “Master at Work” in reference to your relationship with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and Louie Vega. Is there any truth to the rumor?
First and foremost, they are both really good friends of mine. I’ve known Louie Vega and Kenny Dope for a long time and Kenny is like a brother to me. We talk almost everyday and now we have begun to bring that to a new level. Kenny really helped get me inspired to produce again. We have always worked together and we have always done records. Now we have linked up my label, T’s Box, with Dope Wax. I’ve done remixes on Kenny’s Dope Wax. He really motivated me out of my slump. He would tell me how he remebered selling my records, so it was like he has always been there for me. So we just tied things together.
The first project that we did was the Kanye West “Addiction” remix. We’ve done records together for years but this was the first kind of thing whare everything was together, and then we just went from there. Our chemistry was good. We DJ together and personally we’re best friends so it’s just natural.
What are some of your goals for this new T’s Box/Dope Wax? What should we look for?
I really want to reach back to a lot of my Chicago people, like K. Alexi. I just put out a single for him called “Don’t You Know” that was big anthem in the ’90s and we remixed it. We also just picked up Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” and remixed it.
I’m excited to hear about the return of the House anthems, there’s nothing like dancing to a song when everyone knows the words or rhythm and there is a deeper meaning.
We also just picked up Fable Jeffries’ “Urban Soul”. We’re doing so much together; we just want to take this to a whole new level.
The new music will be released on both labels?
What will happen is there will be projects that have the T’s Box imprint on the Dope Wax label and then we will also have things coming out separately. But it’s like I’m part of the Dope Wax family because all of our records on T’s Box are going to be distributed through Dope Wax. I’m on record saying we are going to change the game.
What uniquely makes a track a “House track” for you?
Well, it has to have that 4/4 and it shouldn’t be less than 110-112 bpm or it’s more hip-hop/R&B. And it has to be about dance. It has to make people want to dance. House music is dance music.
What other kinds of music do you listen to or what other sounds give you inspiration?
I’m a hip-hop head! It’s about good music. I grew up listening to everything. I collected hip-hop records as much as House, but being from Chicago, House took it from there. But I’m also in production on the hip-hop scene. I’m producing work for Rhymefest – you know, who wrote “Jesus Walks” for Kanye. I have an artist on my label, Twone Gabz, who’s big on the underground hip-hop scene. Also, on the R&B scene, I’ve done work for Selena Johnson where I sampled the Natalie Cole classic “Annie Mae,” so I brought a House flavor to that. Finally the next single to come out on the R&B tip is a single by Rahim Devon called “You” on Jive Records. So I’m definitely doing hip-hop and House production and doing both well.
You don’t feel divided or conflicted or have people asking you to choose House or hip-hop, dance or R&B?
Like my man Jazzy Jeff said, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. People who say “I’m into House but hate hip-hop,” or b-boys that say “I hate House” – all of them can kiss my ass. I just like good music regardless of whether it is country/western or whatever. I think we’ve all grown up enough to say that. I’ve seen House music go through all kinds of transformations. I can remember back in the day when you had DJs who wouldn’t play new music. Everybody was stuck in disco but I was like, “Why are we so afraid of new music?” Robert Owens, Armando – that was new music. We accepted it then but then we got stuck with disco and the classics. I was the only one playing new music.
But how much of that was just people growing older, having less time to party and kind of wanting to be in familiar songs, and how much of it was being closeminded?
There are some who are just discoheads and love disco. Some just want to reminisce. That’s what they want: to hear music they heard when they were young… And we should give them that, but there’s more out there.
Any advice to people new to House music production or DJing?
Before you even get out there to make a record, know your craft. A lot of people follow what the press says is hot and don’t go with how they feel. Always follow your own heart not what anyone says.
Do you have any upcoming appearances?
Yeah, I’ll be doing some work with 3Degrees and a monthly residency is in the works where I’d bring in some big DJs – keep your ears and eyes open for that. Also, I’ll be a part of the International House Music Conference in May.
Terry Hunter was interviewed by Boogie McClarin.