Unimpressed by the headlining DJ at Zentra one Friday night, I was about to sit down when suddenly the music shifted and so did the room’s energy. Two animated guys jumped on the tables and started banging out funky, head-bopping tunes. For as long as I clung loyally to the deeper and more soulful style of House, the sounds of the new school finally reeled me in.
The Sound Republic is Frankie J and John Mork, two regular suburban kids that were raised on the dance music scene of the mid-’90s, nurtured on raves and self-promoted college parties. Also operating under the pseudonyms of Francis Jilla and Johnny Drama, they have managed to bang out thirty releases in just three years with labels such as Bunchlox, Dae Recordings, Guesthouse, Tango, Lowdown, Aroma and their own label, Spatula City Records. For being a relatively young group, they have already made a name for themselves and are in high demand as DJs, remixers and producers. Their songs are irresistible dancefloor hits.
One evening I sat down with these 2 very outgoing and outspoken individuals, as they talked me through everything from their music to their philosophies about what they feel is their responsibility in spreading this infectious, quirky music that is distinctly Chicago jack.
So how exactly did you two meet?
JOHN MORK: Frankie and I started by going to rave parties. We met at Illinois State in ’98, but Frankie and I had been raving in high school and we were both from the ‘burbs.
What kind of music did you gravitate towards then?
JOHN: I was listening to a lot of Hiphop. I liked House and Drum’n’Bass, but I wanted to be a Hiphop DJ. Frankie was a Drum’n’Bass DJ when we met – he was already mixing. So I guess it started there and we all became friends. Basically we were in this little small town all going to college.
You played Drum’n’Bass before? That sounds crazy to me!
FRANKIE J: Yeah! It was different because all my friends that I used to party with were all Househeads. They all played House. But you know, I liked it better. I still loved House, I just didn’t buy it. So I went to college, and we kind of started this conglomeration, we started throwing parties, and that’s when raves got to that level where you threw a party and thousands of people showed up.
JOHN: No matter where it was.
FRANKIE: How I met John was in college – I kinda knew who he was, we partied at the same parties – and one day he just calls me out of the blue and says, “So, you know how to DJ right? You think you could show me a thing or two?” And I was like, “All right!”
JOHN: The way I ended up with House is that I was in my dorm room trying to learn how to mix and whenever I played House Music, girls in my dorm room floor would come around and be dancing in my room and shit!
FRANKIE: Yeah, and I played Drum’n’Bass in my dorm room and nobody came around!
JOHN: So I started having a lot of fun mixing House Music and I just got bit. I remember finally hearing good House Music and…
What’s good House music to you?
FRANKIE: Deep House! This guy all through college was just a straight deep Househead!
JOHN: Like Strictly Jaz Unit, I heard all that jazzy shit and I was really into that! So that sound really influenced me. Again, it really was all about girls dancing!
FRANKIE: I still pursued Drum’n’Bass, and I pursued it really hard because the Chicago scene was doing really well. I was promoting and doing all kinds of stuff around the city, and it was so hard to break into the Drum’n’Bass scene. So I got kinda disillusioned and was kinda burned out on it. I was talking to John, and John was kinda at a low point too and we were like, why don’t we just sit around and make some House beats and not give a shit about it and just have a good time with it? And we made a whole slew of tracks, about 8 or 10 tracks.
JOHN: And that started everything. That was about three and a half years ago. It seems like so much longer than that.
Who did you like in Chicago at the time? What DJs were you looking up to?
JOHN: When we really started, it wasn’t about Chicago so much… This was when what I would call the first wave of the new school happened with people like JT Donaldson and Lance DeSardi, Brett Johnson, like that whole Texas crew, what Diz and the The Freaks were doing, everything that Derrick Carter was doing was classic… that first wave of the new school.
We had both graduated, and we both were kind of at a turning point. I had been playing that really deep soulful sound and I realized that maybe that wasn’t me, at least in terms of making that kind of music. You know I love this style of music, it’s really great, but I don’t feel like I have any authority in the sound or in the scene to do that, because it’s just not me!
What really broke us was we did a bootleg of this track called “Just a Little Lovin'”, and we have names called Francis Jilla and Johnny Drama. And it ended up being, in our scene anyways, one of the big tracks of the year of WMC three years ago. And that paved the way for us. This guy Mes from San Francisco had a bootleg label called Guess Who?, and he really pushed for us. We wouldn’t be sitting here without him.
How could the two of you work together, and continually have the same vision… Eventually… well, don’t you have differences? I would think that if I’m creating something, it would be very hard to collaborate consistently.
FRANKIE: You know what? In the past with all of my endeavors working with all kinds of bands and all kinds of people, it’s been like that. But I think John and I have been friends for long enough. We know each other’s limits, where we each excel and where we each fall short.
JOHN: Yeah we play to each other’s strengths. Frankie’s more like my brother than my best friend. We’re just not competitive with each other. We know how to tell each other “no” on something. It’s just not an ego thing. Another reason we don’t clash so much is just that we don’t take each other seriously.
FRANKIE: I was so disillusioned about trying to be an upcoming DJ, that I told John, “When we do this, we’re just going to not give a fuck about anything… We’re going to do whatever feels right, whatever we think sounds good to us.” I want to change the face of House Music. So we’re not going to make something that everybody else is making.
You’ve done so much music in such short a time. How often do you work together on it?
JOHN: We only work once a week. Every Tuesday. We just came from the studio and after this interview we’re going back to work!
Are you perfectionists?
FRANKIE: Sometimes we won’t make any progress on a track and we’ll try a ton of stuff, it’ll all be crap… But I still think of that as progress. Because once you go through all that crap, you know not to do that again.
A lot of people are not growing up on House Music – you were probably at the tail end of it.
FRANKIE: Oh I totally agree. It’s sad. When we were younger, a lot of the times when any kind of major hit was on the radio, there would be some kind of legitimate vinyl release by the label with a top remixer. They would get a House remix, even a Drum’n’Bass remix. That’s almost gone! So the only way to remix R&B, Rap or any popular music is by a bootleg illegally.
So if you are a kid in high school, all you’re listening to right now is all that commercial bullsh*t. Kids aren’t exposed to House, there’s no avenue for them to listen to it, they’re not 21… Where do you see House Music going in 10 years?
FRANKIE: You know I think about that every day. We run a label that pushes vinyl, and every day it’s changing. We’re one of the last few in our genre that’s still pushing vinyl.
And what is the purpose of that?
FRANKIE: I love a good, thick 12 inch… There’s a certain credibility that you maintain when you’re producing wax.
JOHN: You have a trend, especially with new school labels, of starting just a digital label.
So you’ve definitely invested some money into your label.
JOHN: First off, we’re not trying to make a living off of House. That allows us a certain amount of integrity that other people can’t have.
Do you guys go out a whole lot?
JOHN: Since I started grad school, I don’t go out that much. We’re out when we’re playing.
FRANKIE: Honestly, going out is what burned me out on Drum’n’Bass. There were weeks when I would DJ almost every night of the week to a crowd of five or ten people. It gets really old really fast.
JOHN: Quality over quantity. There are people all over the city whom I respect and think are great DJs, who play seven nights a week, but you even go to Milwaukee and nobody knows who they are. So for us, we realized playing in Chicago every night of the week is not going to help us all that much. For the most part what we worry about is being in the studio and touring. We’re trying to spread the word on what this new sound is – what influenced us and what we’re doing now.
Running this magazine, I get so many new DJs and producers asking me to help them get gigs, get their music out there, it just seems so overwhelming at times. What would you say to someone who’s just starting out and is trying to get a name out for themselves?
JOHN: Do your own thing. Do it yourself.
FRANKIE: Work hard on music you’re making, push it to everyone you can.
JOHN: But do it yourself. We didn’t ask anybody for a damn thing. Everybody pays dues, you’ve got to understand that just because you have a crate of records and know how to mix, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to shit. You really need to get out there and bust your ass.
FRANKIE: I’m also going to say, don’t stop. I started DJing 10 years ago, and it didn’t happen for 10 years. And the only thing that kept me going – and this is going to sound stupid – you gotta think about Bad Boy Bill! One of the biggest DJs out of Chicago, but if you look back at his career, he had been DJing for ages!
[At this point a random guy at the bar comes up to us and says he couldn’t help but overhear that they were DJs, and that he had tons of records in his car that he was trying to get rid of – a quarter apiece. John and Frankie pour through his records, and our conversation is punctuated by occasional barks of “Oh wow!” and “Duuuude…” at some of the crazy shit the random guy had.]
What other genres of music do you listen to?
FRANKIE: I listen to a lot of radio Rock. When I was in college I was a big Dave Matthews fan. That’s as white guy as you can get!
JOHN: In general, the both of us are music fans. I like everything! We play House Music and we spend a lot of time around House, we make House Music. But if I was just going to sit there and listen to House, what does that bring to the table for when we’re making music? It’s more important for us to be listening to other music because that brings in new influences to the sound. To listen to House all the time, you’re in a vacuum.
FRANKIE: You’re going to recycle the same things you hear over and over again.
JOHN: Honestly, Frankie and I try to exist in our own world and try not to be worried about what’s going on around us. Our formula of working together has worked well for us.
What do you think about the complaint of a lot of southsiders that a lot of the northside kids don’t understand and respect their House Music history?
JOHN: We can all pick up Love Saves the Day or Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and read about the history. We understand that history and we respect where we came from, but at the same time, part of the thing with starting The Sound Republic is that we felt like in Chicago especially, everybody was so obsessed with the past! We weren’t at the Warehouse, we’re young bucks! But I wish that people could see that we want to keep the torch burning for Chicago, and keep Chicago relevant. So we’re doing our own thing, and carving our own niche out.
We do respect where we come from and we try to hold it down for Chicago. We maybe don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take the music we make and the scene seriously. We want to make people feel like there’s something new and exciting going on in Chicago! Not just “I have to go to Chicago because it’s the motherland, the mecca.” We’re fucking suicide bombers of House Music!