It's one reason why Carter has shied away from doing much press over the past few years, and it's why we are pleased to be able to bring you an extensive Q&A with him. RA's Todd L. Burns called up the Windy City to untangle a thread or two and, in the process, learned plenty about this Chicago classic.
When you started DJing, you were a bedroom DJ for many years.
That's because I was ten.
What were you playing back then?
Disco, R&B, some New Wave, some early dance stuff, electro, all the stuff that was around then. I had a deal with my Mom. Friday was pay day, and a lot of parents would pick them up from school and go get a special McDonald's Happy Meal. My Mom would take me to the record store. I would sneak off on my bike, using my allowance or grass mowing money, and go to the record store to pick up things. Later, I would say that I was going to the library and sneak downtown. I was a little sneaky. I wasn't really a troublemaker, but...not everyone knew everything. That's kind of the way it still is. [laughs]
When did you start going out to clubs?
I didn't start going out until I was about 16. There was some sneaking there as well. One of my earliest club memories was going to see Loleatta Holloway perform around 1987. It was weird to me, because nothing ever got started until about 2 or 3 in the morning. I was used to getting up and going to school. It was kind of awesome at the same time.
People seem to claim that in the early '90s that something happened in the house scene in Chicago, that there was a lull between Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles and then you, Green Velvet and Felix Da Housecat arriving. Was that your view?
I don't really think that was the case. There were always things happening. Those were just the kids that didn't make it to England or Europe. We always had Andre Hatchett, Terry Hunter. Ron Carroll did a lot of parties. The other guys were still around too: Farley, Ron, Frankie would come back and do things. There were lots of regional names as well: Jesse De La Pena, Rick Garcia. It just didn't make it to the papers. Journalists didn't care. We didn't wear enough make-up. I don't know what it was. There was a disconnect between what was happening and what made it to the public.
I was working at a record store then, and we were selling loads of records. Literally, you could go to 15 parties a night. Mark Imperial had this song "The Love I Lost," which was a huge hit in Chicago. The original singer had left the band before the song took off, and Mark eventually needed someone to tour with him. We would end up doing five, six, seven shows a night. There were loads of parties. We'd go in, blow our 15 minutes on stage and head to the next spot. There was a vibrant scene.
I think the perception of what Chicago music is was not what it was. You would have some clubs that played house songs, but it wasn't a house-a-thon for 25 hours. (Although there were those as well.) There was disco, there was New Wave, sometimes punk, R&B. The crowd could be anyone from anywhere. It wasn't these house people. It wasn't just 909s with a bassline. There were tons of other things as well. The thing was, back then, there weren't even that many house records that were out. And, honestly, the quality wasn't always amazing. Some of that old house shit? I was like, "That's some bullshit."
When did you start working at a record store? You worked at Gramaphone, right?
I worked at Imports Etc before Gramaphone. It must've been September of 1987 that I started. I graduated high school in June, and started college at the end of August. As a prerequisite of not going away for college and still living at home, my parents made me get a job. Then I eventually got kicked out of school. [laughs]
I stopped going. It wasn't that I was going out too much to parties or anything like that. I had gone to private schools for 13 years before that, where they take attendance before every class. Everything was regulated. I's dotted, t's crossed. When I got to the University of Illinois, there was none of that.
Once I started meeting people, school became a party. It was a social event. Get our hair did, rock your fly fashion, hang out at the Union. Meet people, and party, and bullshit. And party. And bullshit. Whatever. I had just turned 18. I was in the middle of a hormonal thrust. All of the rebellion that I had been saving up for my whole life came out at once. I changed my name. I was going under an assumed name for six months. I was this other person for a while, I tried on a different skin.
What made you come back to Derrick Carter?
I got kicked out of school! And my Dad started saying things like, "You need to get out, get a job, join the Army." That kind of speech. I didn't have any money to get my hair cut anymore, so I went back to being regular old Derrick. Which wasn't so bad.
You were obviously DJing in and around the city for a fair while. And you had put out a few records out as well. But did it seem like the Symbols & Instruments record in 1989 was a turning point for you? I've read that it had some impact in the UK.
It didn't feel that way to me. I couldn't see it from where I lived. We thought it was awesome. We got to go to Detroit, make records, meet cool people. We went down to The Music Institute, meet Chez Damier and Kevin Saunderson, record at Juan Atkins' studio. Derrick May showed us some production tricks. But it was more experience than any sort of notoriety. None of us knew what was going on. We knew we released a record, we spent a lot of time working on it and we never got paid for it. That was the extent of the experience at the time. Later, we learned that it had an impact here or there.
When did you first make your way over to Europe?
I technically wasn't invited. I kind of just showed up in November of 1991. Josh Werner, who used to manage Gramaphone Records in Chicago, and I bought some cheap tickets to England. I'd been talking to a few people there—Linden C, Bobby & Steve, Paul "Trouble" Anderson—that were into the garage scene. They let me get on at a couple of places like Heaven; a couple of Strictly Rhythm, Garage City parties; went on the radio on KISS FM. Nothing crazy, but it whetted my appetite.
Over the past few years, dogs have become a huge part of Derrick Carter's life. He now has six altogether, so we investigated the origins of their names.
Lady Tribena Alize-Jenkins
I named these two after the Kid Creole song, "Endicott." The lyrics go "Endicott loves Tribena so, Endicott puts her on a pedestal."
Count Gaston St. Laurent
He's a French bulldog, and I didn't want to call him Jacques. I went to a French Names website, and knew immediately it had to be Gaston.
Herman J. Miller
He's a regular blue collar kind of guy, so Herman fit. But I actually took it with the last name Miller because I was going through a mid-century furniture fascination at the time.
Archduke Plastic Bertrand
He was partially named after Plastic Bertrand, the Belgian artist known for "Stop... Ou Encore." But he's just Tron Tron. He ain't all that fancy.
Princess T'Erykah "Lollipop" La Poops
The youngest of the bunch, she was named after the lady who answered the phone at my ex-partner's insurance company. T'Erykah. I thought that'd be an amazing name. She also poops a lot, every time we go out she drops one. She's good though. I love her, she's the sweetest of all of them. That's the Lollipop part.
Yes. It was great. I required that validation at that time specifically. I played parties in Chicago, but playing for your friends, their friends and their friends is one thing. But the parties in Chicago were essentially rent parties. It was five dollars to get in. That would get you a cup. There were three or four kegs, a little bar, BYOD. They would start around 1 AM, and go until the last person went home or the police showed up. Those experiences were a bit more renegade. Our parties were Mike The Sound Man and a strobe light. The UK was a more structured clubbing environment: RoboScans, lights, dancers. It was a bit more of a spectacle.
You didn't start Classic until a few years later, but did you come back with the idea that it was something that you might want to do eventually?
I had two labels before Classic. Blue Cucaracha and another smaller thing before that. There were seedlings. I was working at the store, getting the label going, producer, DJing, remixing. I needed to get my foot in the door before I could enact my plan for world dominance.
When did you become world dominant? Or are you still working on that?
That was the idea I had when I was 20. I realized soon after that there was a lot of bullshit and malarkey required to make it happen. And I'd rather not participate in trying to make that happen.
On that same theme of not playing the game, you don't seem to do many interviews.
It's true. I don't like doing interviews in general. When I finished my Squaredancing in a Round House album, I went on a press junket. We did everything, and it really wore me out. I didn't think my words had anything particularly to do with my music, my talent or anything like that. I've always wanted to do work instead of talking about doing work. Interviews at first were novel, but then I would get misquoted or people wouldn't quite see where I was coming from or where I was going to. I got tired of people pigeonholing because of their predispositions, when I'm strictly striving to be my own person. Not part of a band or a group or anything else. I'm doing my own thing.
just doesn't always make it to
the 'tech house page' on Beatport."
It seemed like Classic—the label that you ran with Luke Solomon—was a testament to that.
That was our grand mission statement. We were going to write our own rules. We'd gotten a P&D [pressing and distribution] deal under those auspices. It was to the point where our friend set up a distribution company just so he could work our label. We were put in a position where we were given the keys.
What was it about Luke that said to you, "I need to start a label with this guy"?
We don't think that much. People tend to overthink things in that way. Luke is one of my best friends, so it was simple: We liked music, wanted to make music and thought together we could be dynamic enough to pull this off. We were big-headed, snobby brats that thought we could do whatever we wanted to do. And that worked after a while. There was nothing more than the fact that we got along fabulously.
Originally, though... There was Luke, there was Derrick and there was Chez [Damier]. Chez is the often missing, underreported link in the Classic chain. When we were starting the label, it was meant to be all three of us. Chez ended up not being as participatory, and then did Prescription. Which worked out perfectly. He got to write his own chapter.
Chez was the artist liaison for KMS. So when Mark [Farina] and Chris [Nazuka] and I would go to Detroit to work on our Symbols & Instruments project—which included more things that have never been released, we have at least four or five songs—Chez was our babysitter. I get along with Chez like a house on fire. To this day, I can call on him if I ever have a problem. The fact that he's in the music business is an also. He's one of my realest friends.
With Classic, you always knew how many records you wanted to release. [The label famously started its catalogue at #100 and counted down to zero.] Timing-wise, with the decline in physical record sales, that somehow worked out perfectly.
We kind of knew. But not really. We started at 100 because we didn't want to start at one like everybody else. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. Things starting going crazy. Distributors were going under, owing us loads and loads of money and keeping thousands of dollars in stock. By the time it got down to the last few releases, it was like, "Huh...perfect." I find it challenging now, because you can't rely on a distribution company or a promotion company or this or that to do all the work. But I like that too. I have to do the work. So I'll go do the work.
If you look at the Discogs page under your own name at the moment, it seems like you haven't been doing things. Your podcast from 2008 was full of your own unreleased material, though.
There's a lot of stuff that I do that I don't necessarily release. I have a lot of specials in my CD case. I just finished a remix for Felix. A 2 Bears thing for Southern Fried. Right now, I'm working on a Casey Spooner and Jake Spears track. I've done a couple of things for MC Lyte and KRS-One. I did a few DJ Bang tracks, a few things for Greenskeepers. There are loads of things, it just doesn't always make it to the tech house page on Stompy, Juno or Beatport.
I did a remix on the podcast of a song by So Called entitled "These Are the Good Old Days." It's a friend of mine Josh, a klezmer musician from Montreal. I'm always trying to cross-pollinate, to be places that you wouldn't expect me to be. I'm working on a project with a friend of mine's brother. He's a semi-famous ukulele comic. I've been asked to co-write songs for Kylie's album and make beats for Flo Rida. That's cool, but it's not as interesting or as challenging as working with a ukulele comic. [laughs] That has a certain appeal to me. That's a zag. I'm zigging, I'm zagging. I'm over here. I'm over there. That's what I like.