If there is a Robert Johnson of Chicago House Music, it’s James “Jack Rabbit” Martin.
No one has ever claimed that Martin walked down to a crossroads and had his 303 caressed by the Devil’s hands. He wasn’t poisoned by a jealous lover, and he probably never rode with hobos on a freight train. But Martin’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame and acclaim as one of the greatest acid house producers in history after a tragically short life draws parallels to the King of the Delta Blues, who even today is celebrated more for the diabolical myths that surround him than for his recordings.
For nearly 25 years, Martin’s poorly distributed (and often poorly pressed) records have been discovered, re-discovered, treasured, bootlegged, bought and sold for extortionate prices. It’s not uncommon for an original pressing of his only long player, There Are Dreams And There Is Escape, to fetch several hundred dollars from record collectors (at press time, there is but one up for grabs on discogs.com – for the asking price of $970.02).
The demand is real; the music is exquisite; and the producer who made it has become, 23 years after his death, more of a myth than a man.
When it comes to music collectors, a vacuum of facts is invariably filled by wild speculation. It’s not enough to not know. We want answers. What are people to think of a man who made three or four of the best acid tracks of all time and then produced no more? And how is it that the most expensive record in House Music history was made by a man that many people in Chicago have still never heard of?
Chicago is unforgiving. There are myths in this city, to be sure, but only outsiders really believe them. It’s a place where rivers run backward, but only to transport sludge. Capone’s vaults were better left undiscovered. We regularly bulldoze our landmarks; the Maxwell Street Market where countless Rhythm & Blues legends learned their chops is gone. The Warehouse exists only in your memory or your imagination.
James Martin has become one of those mysteries, those myths of Chicago as this nursery of talent so vast that we can’t possibly support them all. As a generation of dance music artists who attained success elsewhere can attest, it’s not entirely true. It’s just that in Chicago, becoming a “starving artist” is less a cliché than an inevitability.
In 1988, James Martin’s four track record There Are Dreams And There Is Escape was pressed by Yoton Records, an imprint which Martin appears to have created especially for his first original release. Yoton released no other records; its business address was a small house at 10847 S. Prospect.
For all that people noticed, Martin might have saved his cash. There Are Dreams did little in Chicago when it was released in 1988. Some aficionados picked it up, but distribution was spotty and those who were given copies to play usually didn’t. Like Robert Johnson, it’s uncertain if Martin had the pleasure of hearing his own music, which would later become so revered, played in public by someone else.
It’s not hard to imagine the few people who did hear There Are Dreams discounting the tracks as derivative of other Chicago acid house productions. Acid Tracks by Phuture was released a year earlier, though it was played in the clubs long before being commercially released; Armando’s “Land of Confusion” also dates to 1987.
Listening twenty years later, however, “Rabbit Trax I” and “Rabbit Trax II” outshine everything that came before. It’s stunning to hear these records and comprehend that they were made in an old fashioned studio (Jeffery Islinger’s Hair Bear Recording Studio in Alsip) and without in-the-box digital tools. In complexity, “Rabbit Trax I” has a rival only in “Land of Confusion”, and the slamming 909 beats and air raid sirens push “Rabbit Trax II” into an even darker place. Put them on today and you can feel your hackles rise up – they’re simply astonishing. When taken together with the acid mix of “Only Wanted To Be”, it’s obvious that Jack Rabbit borrowed to some degree from what came before – Phuture, Armando and, in his “softer” material, Fingers Inc. – but polished these sounds into their most perfect form. It would be years before anyone caught up to the raw yet intricately arranged sounds of a Jack Rabbit record; 25 years later, many are still trying.
Chicago slept. In the UK, however, 1988 was the start of the so-called Summer of Love”, fueled in part by MDMA and the primitive, curious records streaming out of the American Midwest. The use and abuse of the 303 as captured on wax was a watershed event: nothing before had ever sounded like this; it defined the new music in the way that distorted guitars once defined Rock’n’Roll.
There Are Dreams earned Martin a cult following in the UK, according to retired DJ & acid house aficionado Kelvin Reddick. Unlike many early acid records, “You didn’t need to touch it at all, you could play the record as it is and people would flip. It held together like many rock records did. You felt like this was a complete song, not a recording of danceable sound effects.”
Over the following two years, acid heads in Britain would search for more Jack Rabbit records, usually coming up empty handed.
UK label Westside Records released a version of There Are Dreams’ “Only Wanted To Be” as a white label. In a one-sheet preserved and posted to discogs.com, Westside’s Paul Ruiz alludes to the buzz about Martin in the country. “If you’ve gathered who Jack Rabbit is, you can convince yourself that this one of the softest records he’s ever made!” But the real treat was what was on the flip: an acid mix that is absolutely mental, and – adding to the legend of Jack Rabbit – has still never been commercially released.
This is a fact: what is often regarded as the greatest acid record ever made has been limited to bootlegs and a reported 200-run white label pressing.
Similarly, “Let Us Have Love (Step By Step)” on Housetime was distinguished mostly by a crushing acid mix. In the wails & screams of the 303, Martin had found his groove, and perfected it. But except for the release of “Another Vicious Lie” (uncharacteristically muted, with chords similar to the “House Music Anthem” and possibly a much earlier composition date) and two tracks on comps, that was all.
Nature abhors a vacuum; obsessive collectors, even more so. And so myths grew about this mysterious figure from Chicago that made three or four of the best acid tracks in history and then disappeared. In the UK, speculation turned to suspicion. “There was talk that it was someone else” recording under an alias, Reddick remembers. “Adonis, his name was thrown about, because he was co-producer [of ‘Only Wanted To Be’]. Why it was is, every person making this music was brought to play at clubs and raves in the country. You saw them. I don’t know if people didn’t try as hard to find him or if he ever played.”
Martin was never “famous” – or even “House Music famous” – in his hometown. This is not unusual, as any Chicago artist can testify. He was, however, not quite the mystery he’s been made out to be.
Martin grew up in the milieu of other Chicago kids of his generation, particularly those from the South Side of Chicago, falling in love with the music at places like the Muzik Box, the Playground and Coconuts. He was for a time a resident DJ at AKA’s, one of the seminal House Music spots, located at 6259 North Broadway (the location is now an Nizari Ismaili house of worship). Ron Hardy and countless other legends played there and left recordings behind. James Martin left little trace. Those who were there say he could move a room, but to what degree they’re influenced by his later acclaim is uncertain.
Martin’s name is preserved on few flyers from the era preserved by collectors. In fact, for many years it was impossible to obtain a photograph of him. Published with this story for the first time are two photos taken by Steve Melvage at JT’s Music in December 1989. Curiously, this was the same number of known images depicting Robert Johnson for a half century. Surely more exist; it’s just a measure of their lack of notability in their own place and time, and their rediscovery and veneration by people outside their respective circles.
James Martin died of asthma-related causes in 1990, leaving behind even fewer original recordings than Johnson. There have been no posthumous releases and if any exist it’s unclear if his heirs have any idea what these might mean. The records that do exist (especially the one he pressed himself) are now regarded as some of the finest ever made; “lost” recordings would fetch a fortune.
Yet the legends persist; in many ways, a legend is more comfortable than an enigma. In words that equally apply to Jack Rabbit, Martin Scorsese once wrote, “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend. Even the experts didn’t have much of a clue as to who he really was; just that he recorded a total of 29 songs, that he died young, and that he was the greatest.”