Poindexter came from a musical family. His father played drums with Duke Ellington and led a competitive drum corp, while his mother sang with Mahalia Jackson. Poindexter's older brother, Tony, began DJing in the 1970s at basement parties, playing a style of soul known as steppin' music. (Chicago's steppers scene still flourishes today.) Tony was hired by a mobile sound-rental company, Foxxplayers Sound 77, and began playing at their parties. "I would watch my brother all of the time," Poindexter recalls. "So I started messing around with the turntables and caught on to it."
Poindexter started DJing in 1975 at the age of ten, spinning for Kurt Townsend's Saturday night parties at Mendel High School in Roseland on the South Side of Chicago. "Everybody was in high school, I was in grammar school," he says. "They gave me a debut up there. I was playing old steppers and R&B music." At the time, most mobile DJs weren't beat-mixing, but Poindexter learned to "bump" mix—to "catch the Foxxplayers beat, drop it, try to keep the delay from in between the records." He practiced at home, then brought his new style to Mendel.
"When I started mixing, there was no headphones," Poindexter says. "There was no cue on the mixers. The mixers actually were [Pioneer] PA mixers. Ken Samuels, he built a cue system. He took a PA horn and a small power amp and he made a system where you could hear the other record on the turntable before it would go out." Eventually Foxxplayers purchased mixers designed for DJs, including units by Clubman and Olson Electronics. "That's when we started really beat-mixing," Poindexter says.
The weekly Mendel parties were huge, with over 2,500 teens in attendance. The parties were billed as "bi-level," with upstairs and downstairs dance floors in the lunchroom and gymnasium. In addition to Mendel, Poindexter spun for Foxxplayers at the Burning Spear, an old blues and R&B club on the South Side where B.B. King used to play. "They had an Earthquake soundsystem," Poindexter says. "On each side of the stage they had maybe eight seven-foot speakers with double woofers in them. That was 15-inch woofers, so it was thunder! Straight thunder every time we played a party." Poindexter also DJ'd at parties with WVON's Herb Kent.
In the late '70s, Poindexter transitioned from steppers R&B to disco. Into the early '80s he was playing records by Slave, Kool & The Gang and Imagination. "I went from the disco into the punk rock age," he says. "That's when Herb Kent really started picking up people, when the punk rock started playing—B-52's and stuff like that. Devo." Herb Kent's radio show, Punk Out, on WXFM introduced new wave and synthpop to a largely African-American crowd.
Chicago has always had its own musical terminology. At one point "house" referred to underground disco records with great breaks. "My first house record—I would say was a house record—that I played would be Peter Brown 'Do You Wanna Get Funky,'" Poindexter explains. "I played that and the crowd went crazy out there at Mendel. I used to beat-mix that and a lot of other stuff together."
Jesse Saunders and Wayne Williams began going to Townsend's Mendel parties, and were among the guest DJs there. After Saunders' "On And On" came out, Poindexter and his cousin John Hunt experimented with playing drum machines at parties, even though they weren't releasing records. "I was doing edits," Poindexter says. "Get a good cassette deck with a good pitch control in it, we would do our remixes off of it. And at the same time we got a Sequential [Circuits] TOM, the LinnDrum—we was messing around with stuff like that, but we never put nothing out. We were just making tracks you can play at a party. That was it."
Poindexter began sharing tracks with other DJs. "'Work That Mutha Fucker' actually came out a year and a half before it was even on vinyl," Poindexter says. "Armando [Gallop] used to play it. Frankie [Knuckles] used to play it. It was just something that we played at the parties to get the crowd fired up."
Around this time, Poindexter, Brian Harris and Terry Hunter founded a promotion and production group called the Chicago Bad Boys. The group's membership eventually swelled to around forty DJs, producers, promoters and dancers, including Armando, Roy Davis, Ron Carroll, Gene Hunt, Pharris Thomas and Robert Armani. "Everybody would come over to each other's house and spend the night making tracks," Poindexter says. Poindexter began DJing less and focusing more on music production and party promotion.
"The whole [EP]... was trying to get the kind of sounds that nobody had ever used," Poindexter says. "I had a partner. His name was Wesley Green. He had a studio. Me and him used to work together on the South Square area... so I used to walk down the street, walk through the alley to go over to his house and stay over there half the night sometimes. We'd just be making tracks."
Poindexter and Green only had access to limited equipment, including a Roland TR-505 drum machine, a Kawai drum machine, a Casio CZ-101 drum machine, a Sony keyboard and a small, battery-powered Casio keyboard whose sounds they sampled. "On 'Computer Madness' I was tweaking, playing the drum machine, but I was moving stuff. I was trying to change the filter sounds. Wes, my partner, he came in, he's like, 'OK, while you're playing that, I'll just tweak the keyboard sound.' So we tweaked the sounds, and we got them just how I wanted it, and I was like, 'This is it—computer madness! It just sounded like something that was out of the future."
The title track, "Work That Mutha Fucker," was more accidental in origin: "I was just sitting down, just beating the track... and the track messed up, and I was like, 'Oh, this motherfucker!'"
Inspired by his own offhand remark, Poindexter decided to put the phrase on the record, but with the equipment he had, it wasn't easy. He recorded his voice to a DOD foot pedal guitar sampler that he triggered from the high tom on his Casio RZ-1. "It wasn't right, so I started tweaking the voice a little bit with the knobs on the DOD until I got my voice like I wanted it to sound. Everybody thought that was a sample voice, but that actually is my voice. I just filtered it just a little bit. We was just messing with what we had, not knowing down the line that what we had would be historical, just go blow up like that.
"On all of my records I try to do a snare pattern," Poindexter says "I wanted everybody to know that was my thing. People know me. When they hear the record, they're like, 'That's Poindexter 'cause you can tell by the snares.'
"The sound that we was putting out—it had a little distortion in it, but everybody from Chicago knew when they heard that kind of sound, this raw basement sound."
The EP's final track, "Born To Freak," famously has two basslines, but that too was an accident. Armando insisted Poindexter re-record the track in Bam Bam's Westbrook Studio. "We hooked up everything and had it running," Poindexter says. "As we was making the master, Mike Dunn walked across and hit the cord to the bassline machine, so I was like, 'Ah, shit!' So I started breaking the track down. And he's like, 'Hold on, don't stop it, just keep on.' And Armando's like, 'No, don't stop, just keep on.' And when the bassline came back on, it actually came back on with the bassline that Mike Dunn had done.... We rolled it like that."
"Work That Mutha Fucker" was a huge success, both in Chicago and overseas. While Warehouse Records and Muzique were still running strong, with distribution through Dance Mania's Ray Barney, Poindexter became associated with Trax Records and its subsidiaries Housetime and Saber, helping owner Larry Sherman find talent and distribution while releasing records by the Chicago Bad Boys.
"I brought in about 13 guys," Poindexter says. "Believe it or not, the majority of us put out records. It was funny! Mike Deshawn, Brian Harden and Roy [Davis] used to be on the back side knocking the labels—the centers—out of the records. They used to go downstairs and get the old vinyl and bring it upstairs, and then they'd punch it out, and then they'd put it in the grinding machine. But me and Ron Carroll was in the office. I was the A&R. Ron Carroll was doing the design for the labels."
On top of this, the Chicago Bad Boys started their own label, Chicago Underground, and threw parties all over the city. "We took our own money most of the time and would do these parties with them on a gamble, hoping they went off," Poindexter explains.
In the early '90s, the group threw parties at Club AKA, Coconuts, the Riviera, the downtown Holiday Inn, the Marriott, the Ascot Motel and the Regal Theater. Poindexter also helped open a club in the South Shore called the Pleasure Dome, and the Chicago Bad Boys collaborated with promotion groups Cold World and Montana to throw huge hip-hop shows at a Photon laser tag facility.
Not only did the parties help promote the group members' records, but they also kept Chicago's house scene vibrant at a time when styles were evolving. "House music and tracks, techno, all of it came from the same place. It came out of here," Poindexter insists. "Other states was making it. We just happened to get on cause we had a different sound and a better sound to how our crowd was dancing to the music. House music for Chicago: that was our brand. That's what we ran with."
Nowhere is the crossover between beat-track-based house and techno more obvious than at Djax-Up-Beats. After Mike Dearborn was signed to the label, its owner, Saskia Slegers, asked Poindexter to help her find more Chicago artists.
"I called Paul Johnson, I called Glenn Underground, Boo Williams," Poindexter says. "I was calling different artists and bringing them in. Roy Davis, [DJ] Skull, Ellery Cowles. I called a lot of guys, just, 'Hey man, this is a new label I'm doing A&R for.' My nephew Kareem Smith, Jamal Moss—like, 'Come on in, let's do this. She's paying upfront money, you can get your record out, you can also get some tours from overseas.'"
In 1998, Poindexter and his brother Tony founded a construction contracting company that kept Poindexter out of the studio, but now he's looking to get back to his music. Ray Barney just reissued "Work That Mutha Fucker" and Poindexter is working on a double pack of classics, due out in November.
"I'm still touring now. I'm still travelling to Berlin, Scotland, England. I've been some of everywhere," Poindexter says. He regrets that he has yet to see Japan, but with a bad back, flying isn't easy. "When I get calls from overseas and texts from overseas, they're asking me for the old sound. I have to go back in, get the drum machines, hook them back up like we used to and get that old, dirty sound.... acid tracks, old beat tracks and stuff like that. They're trying to introduce it to the younger generation, how our music actually sounded. This is where your music came from. It came from these tracks, these guys, these DJs. From these artists."