|Jerome Sydenham: Whatever makes you happy
The Ibadan boss is as busy as ever, 15 years after the label began. RA's Todd L. Burns visits his Berlin apartment to find out how he makes house (and techno) look so easy.
The ridiculously prolific Jerome Sydenham started running in the mid-'80s, and he hasn't stopped since. Cutting his teeth in the New York house scene, the Nigerian-born DJ held a residency at one of NYC's hippest spots, Nell's, before moving to Atlantic Records' A&R department. Successful but stifled by corporate culture—"when I got an office, I'd lock myself in and go to sleep"—he soon cut out on his own and founded Ibadan Records almost exactly 15 years ago. It has since gone on to become one of the most consistent purveyors of house music.
But soon after the '00s began, he once again found himself bored with formula and began a love affair with techno that has only intensified since his move to Berlin two-and-a-half years ago. He's one of the few DJs that can credibly pull off equally as well-received sets in Berghain and Panorama Bar. Over the course of an hour at Sydenham's Berlin apartment, RA's Todd L. Burns talked to the label boss about how Ibadan has evolved, his host of collaborators and much more.
You were born in Nigeria, but you were growing up in England, right? Why did you first make your way over to New York in the mid-'80s?
That was the natural step, I think. I was in school in England, and New York was the next place to go to follow the music. I also have family there, so it wasn't like I went to the big city and got lost. My mom had two sisters there, my sister was already there. It was a natural move at the time.
Were you already DJing when you got to New York?
Bedroom DJing. I had finally gotten a proper turntable and a mixer. But I actually had the wrong turntables at first. I didn't know about 1200s, so when I went to buy them they sold me something they were trying to get rid of. The stock. I struggled with those, but it helped. When I got the 1200s in the end, everything was so easy. My brother, though, was living in Philly at the time, and he rented an old warehouse where I played. This was 1986 or so.
After that, I got a job at Nell's, which was this landmark chic club where they had a strict door policy. Everyone wore black. Celebrities hung out there. Downstairs had a nice nightclub where they booked cutting-edge DJs like Miss Kier from Deee-Lite. I gave the manager my demo cassette, and someone cancelled and he called me.
What was on the demo cassette?
It was a house mix. New York and New Jersey house and, of course, Chicago stuff as well. I was working at a restaurant and the call came. They said, "Can you come now?" I was in the middle of work, and I got fired on the spot. My boss was like, "If you walk out the door, you cannot come back." "Bye!" When I got there, I couldn't put the needle on the turntable, I was so nervous. I was literally vibrating. It still happens sometimes. But after a couple of drinks, things worked out and I got the job. I ended up playing there almost every week for at least four years before I got another job at Atlantic as an A&R assistant.
How did you get into the A&R business?
Well, I had always wanted to do A&R.
It seems like DJing is just another form of it anyway.
Of course, they're synonymous. I just couldn't get in the door anywhere for a long time. But I discovered this lady who lived across the hall was a video producer for Atlantic. She said that I should come by sometime and pick up some free VHS promos. [laughs] While I was there, I saw Merlin Bobb, who worked at Atlantic, but was also a famous DJ on WBLS. He'd do the mixes late at night along with Tony Humphries and Timmy Regisford. Coincidentally, his assistant had just left or just been fired and he told me to call him. Soon after, I started. Just like that.
Looking over your wall on the other side of the room, you have plenty of acts that you had a hand in doing A&R for. Simply Red, Snow, En Vogue. Was En Vogue the first group that was a big thing for you? How did you find them?
My boss and I both agreed that we liked some producers called Foster & McElroy from San Francisco, so we gave them a production deal. It was one of the first production deals of that kind actually: We signed them to deliver a certain amount of product over five years or something like that and let them find groups they could work with. So they put it together, they did the auditions. They were put together like a boy band.
What was it about their production that appealed to you?
They were good songwriters. That's the key thing still today. It comes down to the songwriting. It's much easier to put a beat together than it is to write a good song. Because people can't write good songs, you can fast forward to why most dance music is mainly instrumental. [laughs] Then it became the norm, so people then have a phobia for songs because they're not used to it. And that changed that.
Do you find that it's tough sometimes for yourself, then? That people don't understand what you are doing with your own work, because you have this songwriting background and less of a track-oriented perspective?
In regard to dance music, I am always looking for songs. When you have a good song, I'll put it out tomorrow happily. Just make a good instrumental as well. Some people will go for the song, others will go for the dub. I think it's fine. I am always looking for songs, but I can't find any. It's either too dated or too gospelly (which had its time and may come back). It's really hard to find those "in between" songs, they usually get snatched up by major labels.
When you first started Ibadan, what was the impetus?
The way we started it...well, we kind of cheated a little bit. When I left Atlantic I took the multi-tracks of the albums from Ten City, which was a premier house band of the '80s, "Devotion," "Right Back to You," "All Loved Out." We started the label by remixing all that stuff, and updating it to the contemporary sound of the time. Me, Joe Claussell, Kerri Chandler. Everything evolved from there. There wasn't a plan. We just knew it had to be high quality shit. My friends wouldn't allow me to release bad records. They'd say, "J, are you kidding?"
A lot of peer pressure.
A lot. But it helped you learn. After they didn't like something, they'd explain why. Nobody knows everything. It's a learning process.
When did you meet Kerri and Joe?
I put out one of Kerri's first records in 1990 on Atlantic. I gave him a lot of remix work too. After a while, he evolved and eventually he just exploded and did very, very well. I met Joe at Dancetracks. He hung out there all the time. He had 60,000 records in his apartment even then. He was the best DJ easily at the time. He'd actually DJ in the record stores on Fridays after closing. We'd all hang out and watch Joe Claussell DJ from 9 PM to 1 AM or whatever, because he wasn't DJing at any club. He was the guy that all the DJs knew, but none of the club owners did. It was only when he started his label, Spiritual Life, and he started getting love in Japan that things took off. Obviously now he's huge too, very successful.
In the same way that Joe started to get more attention when he started his label, did you feel like Ibadan was a way to get more recognition?
We didn't really think about it like that. We all wanted to start record labels. We didn't think about the DJ thing, because it wasn't that international then. Maybe there was London with some people like David Morales and Frankie Knuckles. We just wanted to make dope records. There was no connection within making records, producing and DJing like there is now where you make a record to get more gigs. We just wanted to be more independent—certainly I did after being at Atlantic.
"I heard Laurent Garnier play and I said,
'That's it. If [techno] sounds
like this, I'm getting involved.'"
While I think that nowadays you're known for being more diverse, early on you focused pretty heavily on deep house.
Exactly. I woke up literally one day and said to Kerri, "Guys, we need to move forward here. We need to start fusing some things, let's close the door." And that sort of led to... When did it start? In terms of my catalogue, it could have been Tony Watson's "Passages." I think King Britt was playing at a club in LA, and I said to him, "I just got this track, can you play it?" And it was the best thing I had ever heard in my life. I signed it on the spot. I remember going to the ATM, gave him cash, shook hands and put it out. I remember when someone reviewed it, they wrote, "I think Jerome must've been on E when he heard this record." I wanted to do different things.
I remember talking to Dennis Ferrer, and he said that when he played "Sandcastles" for the first time at WMC that everyone was like...
What is that? They frowned on it in New York. I gave it to Timmy Regisford, and six months later I went to the Shelter and he was playing it for, like, 30 minutes. We were proud of that groundbreaking stretch. Especially for New York too, because it was stuck at that moment. I like to keep Ibadan moving forward. I was always wanting to deal with my techno fantasy. I was always listening to and buying techno, and I started Apotek to deal with that.
I was kind of surprised when I met you in Berlin one night at Panorama Bar, because you walked in with Function. I was like, "What are these two guys doing hanging out together?"
[laughs] I heard Laurent Garnier play this amazing set at Ageha a few years ago, and I said, "That's it. If [techno] sounds like this, I'm getting involved." This was about six years ago. And I just started discovering all these techno shops in New York City and labels like Poker Flat. I was like, "Why don't they sell this in the shop I usually go to?!" I was like a kid in a candy store. Because it wasn't my genre, I had no idea. It was the same with Blueprint. I discovered that after I moved to Berlin.
It was like falling in love again.
Exactly. And Function, Dave Sumner, and I work so well together. It's automatic. And I'm doing a Dennis Ferrer remix at the same time. It's just music. It shouldn't be pigeonholed.
How did you met Dennis?
Kerri and I met Dennis at the instrument shop he worked at in Manhattan, Rogue Music. He was a good salesman. All we wanted to do was fix a SP-1200, and he tried to sell us everything in the shop. Eventually we got into a conversation with him, and it turned out he lived across the street from Kerri's house. And Kerri eventually let Dennis have the empty room next to his studio, told him to set up right there. Kerri and I told us we had to work together.
Did it work immediately when you got into the studio together?
What does he do better than you, and what do you do better than him?
I'm a superb idea person. I wasn't a very good programmer, because I didn't have a computer. I was anti-machines. I was very organic, and I couldn't afford all those big machines, tape machines and all that. So I also have to rely on an engineer. Production ideas, arrangements and quality control. [laughs] Mixing. Bringing the right samples together. I'm able to articulate directions very well, so communication is very easy. It's the same with Dave. As long as we're focused [laughs], things are really quick for us.
One of the guys you recently worked with is Argy.
Yeah, it's very easy to work with Argy, things come together quickly with him. And Christian Prommer. It hasn't come out yet, but we're doing an amazing project together. I went down to Munich to his studio. It was like magic. Really different stuff. That's the thing. I just did something with The Martinez Brothers, and it doesn't sound like them, it doesn't sound like me. It sounds like something else. It's the personalities. I don't know. It's just really good.
You have this fear one day that you'll wake up and not remember anything. You forget how to make a record. And it does happen. It happens to everybody. I'm just happy that it hasn't happened to me yet. [laughs] Every day I wake up excited still. I run to the studio. I leave the bed in the middle of the night sometimes. I bought a piano, and I've been taking classes for a while now too.
When did you buy it?
Just a few years ago. I've been focusing on the blues, and seeing how it can apply to techno or house.
How does it apply?
Just in the chord structures. It's very easy to manipulate chords within the discipline of the blues, and you can flip it into house. [laughs] I don't know whether that actually makes sense. But for me, it makes sense. It also made me hear things differently. I was making music for so many years without even knowing what "c" was. I didn't know whether it was in the right key. You know it sounds right, so you say, "Don't touch it! That sounds good. Leave it like that." I'd be in the studio with a master musician saying, "That doesn't sound right." "But Jerome, it's right technically." "Yes, but it doesn't sound right. Do something else. I don't know what you should do. Just do something else."
"Try it any other way."
"Try it any other way except that way."