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Kerri Chandler spoke candidly with Marko Kutlesa about disco's legacy, his career arc, the recent passing of his father and much more.
Last updated: 9th Mar 2018. Originally published: 5th Mar 2018
He may no longer feature in the ranks of some “weird” DJ polls, but make no mistake, Kerri Chandler is one of the most beloved house DJs on the planet.
His passion is palpable as he moves around behind the decks when performing, often accompanying his selections with spontaneous live keys. Almost three decades since his first release, his popularity now far surpasses circles of deep house, garage and New York dance music who have championed him since he began.
He has been a prolific producer, evolving throughout his journey, issues many styles of house music on labels such as King Street, Shelter, Freetown Inc, Large, Nervous, Downtown 161, 83 West and Nite Grooves plus his own Madhouse, Kaoz Theory, Sfere and Ibadan imprints.
Prior to his forthcoming gigs Marko Kutlesa caught up with Kerri Chandler who was at home in New York, to chat about his recently departed father, disco, his career arc and his affinity with the sea.
You have a date approaching for Liverpool Disco Festival. What do you think disco music offers that today's dance music does not?
It's full of soul and feeling. I mean, I'm not saying today's dance music isn't, but when you have musicians playing who bring their best to the table, it's just feel. It's all feel. They all got together and performed with artistry.
Do you think the days of having so many musicians, like Salsoul Orchestra, on a dancefloor track are finished?
I think it depends on the budget and how well the producer knows how to make things. I've done them on some sessions myself. I had a wonderful time doing that. Funnily enough, I went back and did 'Doctor Love' as a remix for Salsoul and I got to speak with Tom Moulton about how all the particular intricacies of that song work and a ton of things about other Salsoul releases. We talked about microphone placement, how the string and horn sections were set up, how they multitracked them and did the drums.
I went to Sigma Studios in Philadelphia with Patrick Adams. It's sad because it's closed down now, but we were in there talking about all the people who had been there and recorded in that room. We recorded a video about it.
I've been around that kind of stuff since I was a kid because my dad was a DJ too. I was in studios when I was a kid, watching people like Kool & The Gang, so the live element has always been special to me. Watching that was the reason I actually wanted to do music in the first place. I would watch the guy sitting behind the mixing desk and think that is exactly what I want to do. I must have been eight or nine years old.
Watching people early on like John Morales, Francois Kevorkian and David Mancuso taught me a lot. Knowing what's been done over the years and how it's been done really helped me. I was lucky to be able to see it and learn from it.
One of the first things you briefly mentioned there was budget restraints. But the dance music industry is currently worth more than it ever has in the past. It's a multi million dollar industry. If there isn't enough budget for the music that fuels it, do you think maybe the money is stacked up at the wrong end of this industry?
Well, people are no longer used to hearing that sound. When they do hear it, from my experience, they love it. But it's so much easier for people to make music now. They don't even need a studio any more. They wouldn't know how to record things like this any more, to score it, to set it all up. They're quite difficult things to do. You pretty much have to be a musician or have an understanding of that.
People like Jeff Mills and Carl Craig are now working with orchestras, so it is still happening, it's just in the smaller tier of things it's just easier to play it on a keyboard than bring in an orchestra. You can play any sound you want on a keyboard and maybe it's close enough, it's fast and you don't need a budget. They turn around the mix as quick as they can and it's straight into the clubs.
But I've noticed that, as quick as they make them, that's often as quick as they disappear. All of the songs that came up from the disco era, they're still here. It's quality music, they're classics for a reason. That's the music I personally like, things that have the power to stay. I've tried to base my own catalogue on having that kind of longevity. Music needs feeling, heart, soul.
I can't say that a lot of the DJs now making this kind of music are doing it for the wrong reasons, they're doing it for their own reasons. Often though, they don't embrace the things that I love about the classics. Their classics might be a Masters At Work record or one of mine. But there's little training to teach you how the older records work.
The records that are made now, a lot of them are a lot more straightforward. They're all at a straight tempo, no breaks or changes, so they're very easy to get in and out of when you're mixing. With disco, you have to be pretty skilled to come in and out of breaks and understand how sometimes these tempo sets will start moving, unless you're using something like Abelton where it's locked in position. If you mix two disco records together and you do it wrong, everybody's going to know. You have to know these songs inside out.
You spent a long time operating in dance music's underground and your profile was not as big as it is today. Was there ever a point where you considered going off to do something different?
Actually I consider that I've been very lucky with it. I've never had a quiet period. If I'd wanted one I would've taken one. I guess it might have depended on which regions I might have been more popular than others. But there's never been a quiet moment.
I've lived of house and dance music since I was 18. I haven't had another job. I've been blessed since the first record I made, which was signed to Atlantic and kick started my entire career. After that, I never let it go.
I've never thought about doing anything else. The only thing might have been sound engineering, which I still do, incorporated into all the other things I do. Just DJing and production and doing my label, which I started back in 1992. We have our 25 year anniversary this year.
I guess in some way the perception might be that I'm busier now because I'm out touring a lot more than I'm making records, but I've never slowed down. The only time I've done that was when I had my kids and I took some time off to see them as babies. I didn't want to miss any of that.
I've been a fan of yours for a good while now and to me it feels like that although you were always a hero to us deep house, garage and New York house fans back in the 90s, it maybe would've been a surprise back then to see you on the cover of Mixmag or similar.
Really? Well, you know, the funny thing is that I did get press like that back then, I did do cover stories. Even that weird Top 100 DJs thing I was in for a while. I'm not in it now. Probably not even in the top 200, ha!
Given the benefit of hindsight, can you identify a point at which your profile did start to rapidly increase?
Well, again, I think it's a matter of perception. From the beginning, the first gig I ever had overseas was Ministry Of Sound. So, right off the bat I was doing these bigger places. I had a residency there for a while. I think it perhaps looks a little different for different generations coming in.
Let me put it this way, I've never noticed it in my career. Maybe other people have noticed it more than me? For me, it's always kinda been the same. And I've never really changed. I've always done what I've done. I think maybe one of the turning points might be when I started playing in Ibiza. That was a new generation coming in. It was roughly six or seven years ago.
I've always had the same agent. He's been one of my best friends for over 20 years. The same with MN2S. I've known them since it was just a party and I was playing for them. People were trying to book me so much in the UK that I asked them to help, be my agent there. At first there was only me and Marshall Jefferson on the roster. Now it's really big. Last year I moved to United Talent, because they had a different plan which seemed really cool.
So, I don't know what magazine says what, but I honestly don't feel any wave of up and down. Financially I don't often worry about what I do. I just do what I do and I've always been lucky to have an amazing fanbase. Apart from fluctuations in vinyl sales, when streaming and stuff started, I've never really noticed a dip. It's just different generations coming in and out. Nowadays I play to people my age all the way down to 17 year olds who sneak into the club.
Your recent DJ Kicks mix was made up of old tracks, inspiration and influences. Why did you decide to focus on that particular range of music?
I didn't want to do just another house music mix CD or some classics thing. I wanted to show my influences. I wanted it to sound as though I was showing you all over New York, where I grew up and the music that we listened to. That's what it really is, a tour of New York and my life, the things I've really loved. I thought people might enjoy that more than a mix they might catch me doing on a radio station. I really enjoyed it and I hope it works for other people too.
It does. Congratulations. It's a great collection of music. Some really great Roy Ayers associated material on there.
Absolutely. I call him uncle Roy. I have the pleasure of knowing him and of working with him. He's another of those wonderful human beings who influenced my life both personally and musically. He's taught me to be humble. A great musician. His music feels like coming home. He's family.
My dad even hung out with Roy. When they met they talked like they were old friends. I was doing a session with him (Roy). The session only took an hour, but he stayed all day talking to my dad. It was so funny to see them, they got on like a house on fire. I don't think I've ever seen my dad so giddy and happy.
What a wonderful memory. The compilation is actually dedicated to your dad. If you were at a festival or a club and you heard a piece of music played that would instantly reminded you of him, what would it be?
Oh, all music. In fact, I had a moment, after he passed away... I went to his house to clean his house out. It was not a good thing. My dad was still a DJ and he was actually planning his birthday party at the time. He was really excited about it. It was a really big birthday. We hadn't done one like that in a while, because I hadn't been around.
I remember going to the house, I saw all the invitations, I saw his record box there. He'd always come to the house and we'd trade off records. He had all this disco stuff. I still have his box in my studio. I haven't opened it yet. On his birthday I'm going to look.
The first turntables I ever played on were his, and they were there. I pulled them out from underneath his bed. And it shook me to my core. That week I had to leave to play at bpm and then I had to come back and bury my dad. I couldn't get out of this gig. I had to ask them at bpm to please take away all the turntables because I couldn't look at them. I just used CDJs, I just couldn't look at turntables. Everything about my dad influences me. That was the thing that we had in common.
Thank you for sharing your memories with us. I'm sorry for your loss and may I offer my deepest condolences.
It's 25 years since you started Madhouse. The last time we spoke you remembered a time when you set up the Madhouse label, where you were so focussed on production that you didn't DJ at all for a couple of years. Do you think that in today's economic environment, where earnings are really linked to performance, that could ever be an option to you again or indeed to other artists?
There are different ways now to collect royalties and publishing. It's been such a transition. Music is kinda disposable these days. I keep saying that, what I really mean is that people trade it off with each other. It's become more of a publicity tool. I've never looked at it as income. I've only done it because I love making music and if it sold, it did.
I have so much of a catalogue now that I collect a lot of publishing. It can come from anywhere, from Youtube, Spotify, other streaming services. The sales of vinyl have gone back up. In some ways you really don't need the middle man of the label, unless you want promotion and other things that cost, because there are other companies that will do the other stuff for you and do it well. It depends on what you're looking for and what you're trying to sell. I've never tried to sell anything that I wouldn't play.
As far as me going further one way in terms of making music or DJing? I've always done both. I try to keep a balance. I've done a lot more remixes of late than I have original productions, but that will soon swing around again because I need balance. For a while I perhaps listened too closely to my agent and agreed to do every party that they were enthusiastic about, but I'm a Libra. I have all these ideas and all these things I've lived.
Whenever I do a song it's about something I've experienced. And I've experienced a lot over the past couple of years, especially with the passing of my father. So, now I have a lot to say.
We were talking at the start about your forthcoming date at Liverpool Disco Festival. You have a long history of playing on England's north west coastline, Liverpool being just down the road from Southport where you played many times at the weekender. You also have a long history on Ibiza and on boat parties in Croatia. So, I wanted to ask, given all this experience of playing around it, has your affinity for the sea grown? Have you learned to love boats more?
Ahahahaha! The first time I got onto the boat in Croatia I had reservations about it because, firstly, I can't swim. So, the first time I had my back against the wall. I've done a few other ones that were docked and stuff. I remember doing one a few years ago in Bristol and that was my first, way back in the 90s. Then there were a couple I did in Paris like that. But they were all docked.
When the boats started moving, that scared me a bit. I remember in Croatia I had to take a smaller boat out to the big boat and I remember thinking, I can't believe I'm actually doing this. But then when we got to the boat, everyone was so happy to see me that I was thinking, "Woah, this is cool, this is cool!" It was like some James Bond moment ahahaha. It's really fun. But, if I had to get on a cruise ship, I don't know if I'd do it.