“I want people to feel like they saw something special when I’m gone.” Chicago House Music producer Terry Hunter is one of the most prolific musical figures this city has ever seen. This is his own story, of the storied collaborations with Armando and Mike Dunn to R. Kelly, John Legend and Jennifer Hudson.
THIS IS WHERE A MAN WORKS, in the earth beneath where he lives – where the songs were written and the hooks polished off before they were shipped out for DJs to play.
It was Terry Hunter’s studio, in the basement of his home, and seven days ago it was destroyed.
It was bad luck that I happened to call at this moment – just bad luck that it happened at all. Nine feet of water poured into his studio in less that four minutes as heavy rains ravaged the city of Burbank, just outside Chicago. The loss was total. “I don’t even have a keyboard right now,” he told me.
The flood wasn’t what we were going to write a story about. This was about Terry Hunter, not Terry Hunter’s studio, his hard drives and keyboards and acts of nature and/or God. But obviously the subject kind of colored everything else. “I’m going to piece it back together,” he said, “but in the meantime, I’m thankful that I have a lot of friends.”
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] At a time when music production is an increasingly solitary activity – the disco orchestras of the ’70s reduced to one man alone in the dark with a laptop – for Terry Hunter making music is still a selflessly communal activity. [/quote]
That’s one of the things you have to know about Terry Hunter. He has a lot of friends. Twenty five years ago he began making music with his friends – guys named Armando Gallop, Mike Dunn, Ron Trent and so on. The names have changed (sometimes – The “HD” project stands for “Hunter & Dunn”) but he’s never really stopped.
At a time when music production is an increasingly solitary activity – the disco orchestras of the ’70s reduced to one man alone in the dark with a laptop – for Terry Hunter, in this room up until a week ago, making music is still a selflessly communal activity.
The flood barely made him pause. Between then and now there were sessions to be held (in a different studio, of course). There was a project for a new singer on Monday night and producing tracks for Aretha Franklin that had to be wrapped by Wednesday. The press was calling about his new single with pop star Jennifer Hudson that’s been blowing up. Sunday was Bang at The Shrine – Terry’s weekly residency now approaching its fourth year. And then there was me. Sometime between now and then – at either 1 in the morning or 1 in the afternoon, he promised we were going to talk. And we did.
* * *
Terry Hunter can make a fair claim to being one of the most prolific and fascinating figures in Chicago music (his production has transcended “just” dance music by now). At the time we spoke, that track with Jennifer Hudson – “It’s Your World” – had been in rotation at countless Urban radio stations across America. “It’s Your World” features and was originally intended for R. Kelly (Terry’s working with the R&B star on his highly anticipated House Music album as well). He’s produced two tracks for Aretha Franklin, fielding phone calls from Clive Davis and then hanging up the phone and wondering if that really just happened.
Terry Hunter doesn’t need other people to create, but he prefers to work that way. He always has. It’s hard to argue with the end result of these collaborations with Kenny Dope, Mike Dunn, or all the way back to working with Armando, Ron Trent, Aaron Smith of UBQ. Or the array of vocalists from Barbara Tucker to Teresa Griffin, Carla Prather to Sheree Hicks and getting the best out of every one of them.
His musical projects have expanded into matters of history and social change. He was the catalyst behind Chicago DJ Day. The Chosen Few Picnic has exploded in attendance since Terry joined Chicago’s foremost DJ collective a few years ago. And while people who should know better joke about living in “Chiraq”, Terry’s “We Are One” project was House Music’s first and (shamefully) still the only project to address the epidemic of violence in the city over the last several years.
It’s only when you stand back and take it all in that you can appreciate it. This is why we were doing the interview in the first place, before the flood. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spoken to Terry Hunter over the years on other people and other things. I’ve spoken to Terry Hunter on the Chosen Few, Terry Hunter on Teresa Griffin, Terry Hunter on Armando, Terry Hunter on Chicago DJ Day. I wanted something to tie it all together. Terry Hunter on Terry Hunter.
Whoever Had Whatever and We Took It All To Armando’s Place
It began in the 1980s, and like urban blues and some part of dance music itself, it began on the Southside of Chicago. The explosions from Disco Demolition Night on 35th Street lofted something high into the air and by the time it came down nobody recognized it anymore. DJs down south had gotten hold of 909s and 808s and a pawn shop somewhere had just sold the 303 that would be tweaked until something odd and incredibly fascinating came out of it.
It was here that Terry Hunter’s first studio was put together, though it was never really “his”. It was a bunch of kids that liked to play records putting pieces of equipment together and seeing what came out. Most of them we know now by name.
“It was all about whoever had whatever [gear] and taking it all to Armando’s place,” Terry remembers of those early days. “You have to remember that we weren’t making records to sell them. Chicago was so competitive in the DJ scene, we were making tracks for our own sets that would make us stand out from the rest.”
Raw, rugged, with an eight note line repeating over and over like a horror movie theme, “Madness” is dark, really dark – probably the darkest thing Terry Hunter ever made. It was officially his first record, released on Armando Gallop’s Muzique Records.
“We didn’t know shit about mastering or anything like that,” he remembers with a laugh. “We just made some beats and checked the levels and tried to make it sound good. But that is what turned just a hobby into a life.”
The Shock of the Old
“Madness” dropped in 1990; within a year, his first official collaboration had been formed with UBQ Mix Productions with Aaron Smith & Ron Trent, and then Aaron and Terry alone with the UBQ Project.
The raw, DIY sound of some early Terry Hunter records is probably more popular now than it has been at any time in the last 25 years. There’s undoubtedly demand as records get repressed and people worldwide turn on to the sound of Chicago circa 1993. Terry hasn’t been in any great hurry to revisit it, though.
“Kenny Dope and I were talking about putting out about another Mass Destruction album and we were talking about that,” Terry says. “The sound that the kids are into in Europe, in the UK and especially Ibiza is like the stuff we used to make in the 1990s. And sometimes I think about breaking out this drum machine and using this keyboard to get this sound and give them what they want. But it’s difficult because my head is somewhere else. I don’t live there anymore. The businessman in me says I might want to visit sometime, though!” he laughs. “I mean, I survive entirely off music, that’s a blessing but there’s a mortgage payment every month.”
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] “You have to play what you like. Think of all the iconic DJs – they played what they liked first. Frankie played what he wanted to play, and the crowd adapted. Same for Ron Hardy. When somebody books me, they’re hiring Terry Hunter, not ‘Terry Hunter playing like someone else.'” [/quote]
This carries over to DJing as well. Terry could probably make a pretty good living digging through disco records and early Chicago House tracks. Where does his relentless pursuit of “the new” come from?
“I get bored quick. Really, that’s what it is!” he laughs. “I love the classics, man, but I can’t go backward like that. You have DJs who are now getting into disco and getting the masters and you know… For me personally, I did that 10 years ago or whatever it was. I’m trying to get on with the next thing.
“The new music is what gets my blood going. If I sit on one place too long, I’m afraid of getting a blood clot and dying from sitting still.
“As a DJ, I have to play what makes me feel good. You often see DJs making Facebook posts or tweets about playing for the crowd. And I agree with that to an extent, but let me tell you something: you have to play what you like. If you think of all the iconic DJs – they played what they liked first. Frankie played what he wanted to play, and the crowd adapted. Same for Ron Hardy. When somebody books me, they’re hiring Terry Hunter, not ‘Terry Hunter playing like someone else’. I want people to feel like they saw something special when I’m gone.”
And This is A Soulful House Record
And it’s soulful House that Terry’s best known for making (and playing) today.
“I tell a lot of people, soulful House can be your business card to DJing,” he says. “You might not make much money these days with these kinds of records, unless you get that one that really becomes a hit. But it can keep your name out there. I keep the releases coming and hopefully it forms a well that never ends. I was blessed in that T’s Box had a few #1s this year. There was one with Chantay Savage, the HD project with Mike Dunn went to #1, the John Legend remixes for ‘All of Me’ went to #1…
“Right now we have a single out with Jennifer Hudson and urban radio is eating it up. That track was originally for R. Kelly, believe it or not. And as I’m sure everyone has heard, R. Kelly is making a House album and we’re working on that.
“‘It’s Your World’ has become an Urban AC hit. It’s on V103 and radio stations East to West have added it. This is a soulful House record. It isn’t a cheesy record.
“Some of these vocalists and mainstream artists are watching this and – no disrespect for anyone – but they’re realizing they don’t need to pay a ton of money to a commercial EDM artist to remix their songs. I mean it freaks me out that Wayne [Williams] and I are sitting in on phone calls with Clive Davis about working with Aretha Franklin. I hang up the phone and I’m like, Is this happening? That might not mean much to anyone else but that blows my mind.”
It Only Takes One of Us
Every record Terry makes, it seems, he makes with a group of friends. When we talk about the Chosen Few, the first thing he mentions is how great it is that all of them are friends after all these years. When the conversation turns to Bang Sundays, he’s quick to credit the strange longevity of the night to his team and the Shrine’s Joe Russo and Lo Grayson – “one club owner and manager believing in what we do.”
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] As I’m sure everyone has heard, R. Kelly is making a House album and we’re working on that… [/quote]
I still remember the first time I interviewed Terry Hunter for this magazine. He was on the road, but pushed his dinner aside to talk with me for two hours about his friend Armando. Those early years may not have been the best times of his life – Terry has a family, has seen great things happen – but those early years with friends, figuring things out, trying to outdo each other and helping each other along the way – you get the feeling he’s been recreating those experiences over and over again all along.
“It’s funny, I’ve never really thought about it that way,” he says. “But yeah, since Day One, I’ve always been working with other people. I think it comes from my grandparents. They raised me, and my grandfather used to say, ‘Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.’
“My whole life, I always wanted to surround myself with talented people who are positive and who are doing great things. If I’m not working for myself, I’m working for the team. It only takes one of us to make it for all of us to make it.”