Last week, dance music lost one of acid house's pioneers. Jacob Arnold pays tribute to the Phuture cofounder.
In a statement, DJ Pierre (Nathaniel Jones) said, "Spanky is the reason why the group Phuture was formed. He got me in the game as a producer. The world has no idea how talented he was and how much I depended on him. He texted me last night [20 September] saying he was working on music and how excited he was to have this opportunity to perform again. We were working on our album project and he was so excited about that. I'm just speechless right now. All I know is he will want me to finish what we started. He will want me to say to you that Phuture will survive."
In January of 2015, I interviewed Smith and Jones via Skype from their respective studios. They were reuniting Phuture (with Lothario Lee) to tour and record. Smith revealed that it was Ron Hardy's DJ sets at The Muzic Box that inspired him to create his own music. In early 1984, Smith, who was living in California, received a letter from Herb J urging him to return to Chicago to hear Hardy play. "Long story short, I come back home," Smith said. "I never went back to California 'cause of the experience I had at The Muzic Box."
I asked Smith if he was a DJ at that time. "I was a DJ at home!" he laughed. Smith also attended The Playground, where Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Steve "Silk" Hurley played for a younger crowd. "At that time I didn't know what type of skills I had music-wise," Smith said. "I always danced my whole life. I've been a big-time dancer. But what made me buy a drum machine was Farley. Farley used to play the 808 on the radio, and I really liked that sound, so I got up the next day and I tried to find me an 808. At that time, I didn't know what it was but I went out and I bought a little Boss drum machine, and connected with DJ Pierre for him to play my beats while he was DJing."
Jones, who lived out in University Park, was into electro and breakdancing before Smith introduced him to Hardy's more eclectic selections, ranging from the Philadelphia sound of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes to stripped-down Italo tracks. At first Jones, who was a drummer, found it difficult to wrap his head around the concept of a drum machine, asking, "What's that?" Smith replied: "It's this box that has these sounds you can get from a drum."
"No one knew about sampling then," Jones said. "So I said, 'How can that be?'"
"I don't know," said Smith. "I just know that they put these sounds in a little box and you can play them!"
Smith's ultimate goal was to record something Ron Hardy would play. "I knew that we needed something else than just beats. So we would try to make music together with keyboards and stuff like that, but it really didn't sound where we was confident that Ron Hardy would play it. It wasn't until we purchased the TB-303 that [we thought] this would be something that Ron Hardy would play in the club, which was 'Acid Tracks.'"
The original "Acid Tracks" was a 15-to-20-minute tape laid down in 1986. "Pierre was turning the knobs," Smith said. "I would be on the drums, taking the drums in and out. We was just vibing together. Herb would probably do a sound effect or something, 'cause it had a wind sound in it. We were just vibing on the whole track."
Jones was turning knobs on the Roland TB-303, a synthesizer originally intended for guitar players to sequence a simple bassline with the settings left in one place. Changing parameters on the fly created an unusual burbling, squelchy effect. "I'm like, wow, that sounds good. Keep turning the knobs!" said Smith. "Don't stop doing that. I knew at that time that we had something that was totally different from anybody else."
Hardy played "Acid Tracks" four times at The Muzic Box before the crowd got into it. "The first time he played it, the club had just opened," remembered Smith. "Maybe it was 1:00, 1:30. The club opens at 12. So it wasn't a lot of people there. Of course Pierre, Herb and myself, we got real excited 'cause he played it. It was like, 'OK, maybe this is not going to be a big hit or nothing, but at least he played it!' The second time he played it, it was OK. The third time he played it, you could see them getting into it. The fourth time he played it, they lost their minds!"
The group went home elated. "It was like the next day, let's make another one!" Smith said. "Let's do something else. It just gave us a world of confidence."
It took a year for Jones to get Phuture's tape to Trax Records, via Curtis McClain and Marshall Jefferson. "It was on a cassette which went around the South Side of Chicago, so pretty much all of the DJs had it," Smith said. "Pharris, Lil' Louis, Farley—all of the DJs had a copy, and they would just play it. So it was really a big hit before the vinyl even came out in Chicago. Once it was released on Trax Records, that's when it became a big phenomenon in London and places like that."
Acid house became especially popular in the UK, infamously precipitating moral panic in the tabloids. Lurid reports of ecstasy-use resulted in rave crack-downs. Ironically, Smith's chilling spoken word on "Your Only Friend (Cocaine)" warns of hard drugs' dangerous effects.
Smith's vocals also appeared memorably on the classics "We Are Phuture," "Can You Feel The Bass?" and "Spank Spank." In the early '90s, after Jones left Chicago for New York, Smith worked on several collaborations with Jones, L.A. Williams and Roy Davis Jr., for labels like Sex Trax, Strictly Rhythm and Emotive. In the late '90s, Smith formed Phuture 303, working with Williams and Davis as well as Proffessor Traxx, DJ Skull and Rio Lee. In 2014, Smith reunited with Jones to tour and record new material. Smith also founded a digital label, Creators Of Deepness Recordings.
"Despite how things seem right now I want to encourage all of our acid House family that Spank is right here with us," Jones said via email. "He was my brother. We fought like brothers, and we loved like brothers. He lived for this music. So we will make sure he forever will live in this music we created together."
Phuture's invention and popularization of the acid house sound left an indelible mark on a wide range of music, from techno to IDM, but in Chicago this week, Smith is being remembered for his humility and kindness. He is survived by his wife and manager, Elisa. Funeral services are planned for 29 September in Munster, Indiana.