|Playing favourites: Traxx
RA chats to the outspoken Chicago DJ/producer about scared DJs, why he thinks Model 500 are Balearic and why he thinks he's the biggest risk-taker around.
Melvin Oliphant III is a regal name, but the man who goes by it makes music that is anything but. Raw, dirty analogue tracks are what you'll hear on Oliphant's newest album under the Traxx moniker. It's called Faith, and it's perhaps one of the most exciting albums that will be released this fall. But perhaps moreso than his productions, Traxx is a DJ. He's been playing for 21 years in, around and outside the birthplace of jack, Chicago. And that's why we enlisted our own Finn Johannsen to phone Chicago to chat with the DJ/producer about some of his favorite records. -- Todd L. Burns
I discovered this track in one of your live sets, and I was really surprised by it. How did you get to this?
I actually heard this being played by Ron Hardy at the Music Box.
Ah, so it was Ron Hardy who inspired you then?
The people that have inspired me musically where I am now is Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, Larry Heard and fortunately but unfortunately Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain. Those are pretty much some of my strongest influences. Later on it became people like Farley Jack Master Funk when he was really bringing it to the table musically on the radio, and from that point on it's like my whole world expanded, it expanded to unparalleled paradox.
In regards of "Diskomo," though, when I heard Ron Hardy play it, it didn't make sense to me because I wasn't on drugs. But a lot of people that were in the party scene at that time were experimenting with drugs. Ron would spin records faster, because he was under the influence. So the thing is I probably heard "Discomo" at a faster speed. You never knew what Ron was doing at this time, so when you hear "Discomo" and you hear these sort of patterns and tone pads and kind of modular effects like wind and stuff in this manner, it was hard to tell what was what. If you were in that time period, would you think that was Ron Hardy, or would you think that was a record?
It has a really eerie atmosphere...
It's the same thing with Ian Curtis, and what Joy Division did. The producer behind them gave that whole thing atmosphere, that sort of specialness. And that's what "Discomo" did for me when I heard it.
This new wave post punk music is not necessarily something you would associate with early house, which is kind of peculiar, but you seem to be attracted to this kind of music...
This is house music. That's the thing that nobody—and let's make this clear, I am nobody to tell you what is and what isn't the truth—but I can tell you what I know and what I saw. And it was the innovation that Larry and Ron undertook, and it's the innovation that I have personally taken on myself. I am singlehandedly the ambassador of truth right now. I feel like I have singlehandedly taken on the roles of these artists in the way that they described their music and the way that they played their music, and I feel that I'm someone that can say that this music that has somehow been forgotten has a greater significance than people can imagine.
Video 5-8-6, 1982
Let's talk about New Order. This has a kind of long-jam approach to recording, but it is also kind of a blueprint, not only for later electronic developments, but also for their own developments. There are already shadings of "Blue Monday" in it, but it is much earlier, 1982.
I play "Video 586" in my sessions. I play every type of sound known, and I am probably the world's biggest risk taker. There are probably three other people that I could say right now that are as risky as I am.
Who are they?
Mick Wills, from Stuttgart, Germany, James T. Cotton and myself. And, actually, someone who is on another level to also give full etiquette and education and experience is Jamal Moss. In my eyes, even though he doesn't DJ, musically what he does with IBM and these other projects... it's not the sort of stuff that you would usually hear.
But he does DJ, doesn't he?
Jamal is one of my guys, and I have never seen him play wax. But what I have of him, the material that I have gotten from him, is still sick. It's like another level of Ron Hardy through Jamal Moss. Without a doubt.
"My main agenda is to change the
rules to the way that they should be."
You seem to be quite like-minded in your approach...
Well, "Video 586" is an idea that I didn't realize that was important until later, Jamal didn't realize until later, that JTC didn't realize was important later. It's the idea of not following the law of 4/4 music, or the law of what it should be. This is what made music risky, and this is what made New Order risky.
Why do so few DJ's take risks that way do you think?
Because they are scared. They're scared to lose the crowd, they are scared to be risky, to do something that they have never done. That's why you have something called the social chain, and it's what everybody else follows. I am not on the social chain. Those people that I have mentioned, Mick Wills, James T. Cotton, Jamal are guys that I know do not play by the rules.
So is that your main agenda? To change the set of rules?
My main agenda is to change the rules to the way that they should be. The way that everybody is crying, "Why can't it be like the days when I was growing up." Because this is the point, think about it: Why do people play records from the old days? Because they wanna remember. Why do you always have to remember the past? Why can't you deal with now?
3 Big Songs, 1981
The next track is from David Byrne.
Yes. The version that I have of "Big Business" is not the dance remix. I haven't even heard it.
Ah, yes. I wanted to speak about the 12-inch version.
I bet you that it's sick. I have the version from The Catherine Wheel, and that one is like...we're talking pure cosmic live instrumentation, and the whole song makes sense. I was just playing this two weeks ago at an outdoor festival, the Chicago House Music Festival. And when I put it on, it scared people away. They didn't know how to take it in, and it's their groove! David Byrne is still years ahead.
It's a pretty manic song in a way, although it has very detailed instrumentation.
You can say manic, I can say freak! I listened to that song the night I first got it about 30 times.
Is this something that helps you in your DJing? I mean you're pretty known for showing what you feel when you play, you're pretty expressive as a DJ.
I am very expressive, but I don't really... I have to say there is a core of people that really understand what is happening, and why it is happening. All I can say is that I am unpredictable and I stand behind that and it was the same with Larry. If you look at the Maestro DVD, you will understand me.
"I am not like anyone on
the face of this planet.
I am in my own world."
I saw that film.
That's all I can say. I am saying visually. You are saying to me visually, and the visuals that these people tell you that you are seeing are true, but it's not for entertainment. This is how I am looked at.
But actually it's just flowing through you.
[People say, "Oh, he's doing] all this stupid little head-nodding stuff and it's so fun to watch him because it's so silly." This is how they talk about me, but they don't really understand what is happening. It's like the Holy Ghost or some power from somewhere takes over.
The thing is, many people in the business say "I'm gonna do a DJ set," and that means "I'm gonna produce a set that will work basically with things that are primary," things that are current. Things that they know will get a quick instant response. That's not for me. I can't function on somebody else's popularity because they have a hit. I can't function like that, I have to feel what is able to be felt from my own energy to endure. And when I am in these types of situations, I don't ever set myself out to say "I'm gonna give you a DJ set," I set myself out to say "I don't know what I am gonna do." This is what Ron Hardy did. And this is what Larry did. Yeah, of course you're feeling it. But it's never in my mind to drop this at 3 in the morning. Or that at 1:45. See, I don't know what I'm doing.
You just improvise.
What I am doing is allowing myself to get lost in myself. It's strange, because if I could take all of this out of me, I would be like every other person on the planet. But I am way more than that. I am not being arrogant or egotistical, I am being 100% with you right now. Real talk. I am really not like anyone on the face of this planet at all. I am in my own world.
"The Native Dance"
Touch Me Baby, 1991
This is a Todd Terry production.
Yeah! I really like this track. This is the inception of primordial dance beats, that hip-hop flavor and upbeat dance stuff. You can hear how he played it by hand with two notes. It's very minimal, in a house format.
It's really hip-hop, the way he arranged the samples, but it took me quite a while to realize it's actually Arthur Russell's "Treehouse" he sampled. It's kind of a wild idea to take this and put it in a kicking track like this.
I absolutely agree, because he used that almost throughout the entire track before he even got the keys in there. That was the surprise when I actually heard it, when I listened to the whole track, that's when I was like, "Okay!" Because that gives the track the next stage of energy, to continue on to its end point.
You're more associated with the Chicago jacking tradition, but do you like this kind of freestyle-rooted sample house of the early 90's from New York too?
Jak is really being disrespected now, because people really don't know how to work jak in. They really don't understand that jak is the whole experience. If you don't understand that, you never will. It doesn't matter where you are from. I'm into everything. That's what Traxx is. Music. I don't want to be house music. I don't want to be even my jak beat, I wanna be music.
Interference / Electronic, 1988
"Electronic" is definitely one of my cuts. But it's very rare that you hear someone play it, unless you're in a Detroit type party.
Yeah. It's Detroit techno, but it's also very near the classic Chicago acid sound, pretty hypnotic. I really like that.
It sort of reminds me of a project here from a lady named Liz Torres. It has this type of ghostly essence. It radiates the type of energy stamina that is not necessarily so in-your-face, but is instead almost like a mist. Like, you know, if it's hot outside and you don't want water to come on you, but you walk through one of those water fountains and it has some spray going on, this mist and this little tap of water touches you. That's how electronic is for me. It's a mist that rubs over me that is easily manageable to rub off on others.
That means that I don't necessarily need to play it in the late hour because that's sort of how the track was made, playing it for the prime time. It's just a matter of how you create your execution and transition when you're playing something that will coincide or somehow be in parallel. As I said earlier, parallel doesn't necessarily always have to work. You know, there can be a point where you play one point and then you can do a cold fade and then you can start it.
It's like some kind of weird funk.
I was also surprised by that as well. This is definitely a recommended record for those who want to have something a little bit more...can I say Balearic?
Soif De La Vie
"Goddess Of Love"
Goddess Of Love, 1985
I found this in Berlin at a bookstore actually. I dunno why, but it grabbed me in the way that the guitar is infused with that sort of sound of appreciation. If you noticed, some of the riffs were sort of off.
It is an odd record, totally.
It is an odd record. The vocal is not necessarily my thing, I'm way more about the dub, the instrumental, because in the beginning you hear the woman singing, "Tell me what I can do to you." It was like it was made for the Music Box, if you want my opinion. You know what, that's not even my opinion, that's my fact. That's surely for the Music Box, a record for an odd type, you know what I'm saying?
I went to a club in Hamburg in early '87 and that was kind of the period where DJs were playing one-half house music and one-half stuff synth pop and Hi-NRG. They always used to mix "Goddess Of Love" with records like "House Nation," and it always struck me that there was no real difference aside from this kind of Patrick Cowley bassline. But it's very rough, and it had a similar quality. I just love dance to that.
You know what's funny? I played this recently in Barcelona, but I also played it the night I performed with my 707 drum machine in the same city. Because I had given Hugo Capablanca the "In a Daze" track.
The one with Eric D. Clark.
Actually, Beat Dance is not me and Eric D. Clark. Beat Dance is me and my partner Beau Wanzer. We made the song in my studio here in Chicago back in 2007 or 2008. It was a song made out of a malfunction and a joke. Beau's Roland AXJP was not syncing right, so it kept on playing these notes that we had written. But played them differently. And it only played certain notes. So we just recorded it.
I made all the beat patterns and structures, Beau came on and did all the string keys and we aligned the song. And that was it. I was done, but it needed vocals, which I didn't think I could sing it so I left it alone. I left it alone for a long time and then I met Hugo. He was starting his label, and he didn't have many disco distribution contacts, so I helped him get that all taken care of.
One day after his first record came out, I rang Hugo and was like "So hey, your record is doing good, what's your next record?" He was like "Honestly, I don't have one." So I sent him the track, and he really liked it. Several months later, Hugo sends me the track back with vocals. I'm like, "This is cool, but who is this?"
"Freedom" is in my list of all-time top favorites. The Crucial mix is the sickest mix here. That's the one I still beat to this day.
What do you like about it?
The way that it sounds. The way that the keys are played in a very hypnotic and very synthetic way, and the way—speaking about the Crucial mix—that the delay works. I also really like the way that the message is synthetic whereas the other versions are friendlier. The Crucial mix has a darker edge. Like, for me, I would consider myself to be the Sith Lord, from the dark side. I still have the good side of the Jedi in me, but I posses everything in black. It represents my cloak, and the Crucial mix is my cloak and darkness to almost mentally and physically scare you, so you're actually in that extreme moment where panic, chaos and disorder sort of go well together. Like the devil dancing beside you. This is how amazing "Freedom" is for me.
Do you like the way that they attach this really opinionated message over it? I mean, it's not like the lyrics you will hear a lot in the early house records. They are pretty personal.
The lyrics are very outspoken, yeah. They speak indirectly towards me. I'm living my life for me, you live yours for you. This is exactly where it is now with me because people can't like me because I'm so difficult, because I have a way of being very direct and not trying to hide my feelings. This is what freedom is for me. You always have to live your life for you, I always have to live my life for me. Life is what it's about and this is where we are now and this is truth. Truth is cold. The cold that we live by is the cold that has been here years and years and years, which are the simple laws of life. This is what this track does to this day. But, again, something that is not necessarily always in people's faces. It's not like people are making the effort to dig and actually learn. But freedom has been there and everyone wants to follow. Not me, I'm here for the truth. And this song totally, totally represents me, this sound and the truth, all in one.
"Join in the Chant"
Join In The Chant (Remix), 1987
Douglas McCarthy is a very good friend of mine. From where he was living, the town he was in, the expressions—as he has explained it to me personally—needed freedom, to be free. And "Join in the Chant" is basically a celebration to bring the congregation together. This track pushed the boundaries of incorporating dance music and underground—almost even pop as well, because it was almost a crossover even though that was not the way it was intended.
I can remember when it came out, it was industrial in a way, but I also thought it was something different. It's also a techno prototype, of course.
In America, they will play it on regular radio and they still do. Somewhere, just because. And so if you take it and look at it in the moderation of "Oh well, that industrial EBM thing," you're overlooking the whole value of the importance of the track. I mean you've got to listen. It's a challenging track. And I like to be challenged. I like challenges, because I like to work out the problem.
In what way did you apply that to Faith, your album? Is that what defines you? Do you just like to challenge yourself or challenge other people even?
I'm honestly going to be able to tell you it's actually both answers. I will speak of the others first, and the others are these people that I'm basically speaking about in Chicago, not really anyone else but Chicago. There was time people had what you would call an appreciation for me right around 1996. But after they heard the first album from Dirty Criminals, they said that "Traxx is a sell-out," "Traxx is wack," "He doesn't play the way he used to." But the thing is, the people who heard me play between 1992 and 1995 often didn't know I was playing years before that. They caught on to one very special moment when all the really good music was coming out, when the producers were experimenting. But the way I played music at that time...people never wanted to me to grow out of that phase, they never wanted to go into any other music, no Jeff Mills, no nothing. Since I left, they basically abandoned me, so I haven't played in Chicago much over the last 10 years.
You're pretty much an outsider in your own city.
An outsider in his own city: Traxx
I've been outside my own city playing. Another reason I think I don't play here is because of the respect that I demand as a 21-year veteran. Playing for 21 years and producing music with hardware gear for the last ten years, I don't want to play in Chicago for $100. OK, we're in a recession, but don't pay me $100.
And, on that fact, don't expect me to play for free so you can get your rocks off watching me act like a fool—get to see me act all crazy behind the decks. That's not crazy, that's the Holy Spirit and that's the whole point. What happened was, I left Chicago but didn't leave, so when I did the first album I wanted to go further back into Chicago to the days of the Medusa Club when it was industrial EBM, New Order, all this stuff.
Was that the club Jamal Moss based his edit series on, those Medusa edits?
Yeah, because that's his ideal reflection of it. Like I use to go there, Jamal, all of us used to go there. That's how the Dirty Criminals album was created. It was in the way of that Medusa time. So once people heard that album, they said I was a sell-out. They were like "Why didn't Traxx make a house album?" That's what everybody had been waiting for. So I waited ten years to make this house album because I don't want to be in the same genre. People overplayed jack, the classic jack. That's why I don't want to represent jack in my mixes any more. I just want to appreciate what it was spiritually that he passed to everyone.
I now represent jakbeat which is influenced from the energy. But what I did was I left myself, I put myself away to capture my idea of the Music Box. And Jamal is doing Mathematics, his label, which is his idea of the Music Box. This basically was my way of trying to explain the music without really trying to talk….I'm keeping focused, meaning nothing is going to bring me down. And that's why my faith is here now. This is my faith over the ten years I've been making this music, over the 20 years I've had the opportunity to play. It's a blessing so I want to take my faith and see how far it can go.
But the thing is, the faith is not only just about my life, faith is about your life, faith is about everybody's lives right now, and this is why the album is crucial. Because it's not just a dance album, it is a fully narrative story created by me and all of my partners: Josh Werner, Saturn V, James T Cotton, D'Marc Cantu, Nancy Fortune, Tiny. I mean this is a big deal. This thing evolves with your life, my life, everybody's life and the world we live in which deals with finance, life and death, to live and to survive, your friendships and family, relationships you see what I mean, supporting one another, the point of education, everything. When you see, when you actually see the artwork and you look at it, that's what you see inside. I didn't want to have to put my name on the album to say, "Hey, guess what? I'm going to drop something so you've got to see my name, my title, blah, blah, blah." No. All you need to know is the truth. Let art speak, let the visuals speak, let the music speak and allow yourself to be open to actually inhale the experience.
Published / Friday, 25 September 2009