I'd seen Carter play at XOYO in London a couple weeks before, and while he remained locked into the mix, eyes down, head bobbing, his selections made mischief around him. The bumping rhythms Carter is known for have fun in the fibre of their being. House music is his foundation, but he uses the sound as a platform to explore pop, disco, soul, funk, hip-hop or "whatever I can get a hold of, that I find resonance with." Plenty of Carter's zest comes from acapellas, using them to create on-the-fly remixes that exist only in that moment, and that night there were plenty: De La Soul, Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Brandy & Monica, to name just a few I wrote down. The club responded. From the way a group of his friends stormed the DJ booth early doors and didn't stop dancing, to the surprise confetti blasts, the leotard-wearing podium dancers, and the smiles on people's faces, Carter's spirit defined the night.
The rascal idea is a handy one, especially when Carter has a glint in his eye, but it's nowhere near broad enough to define a person and an artist who's spent the past 30 years doing things differently. Carter seems to think of himself as part thoughtful observer, part "loner weirdo," someone who engages with the scene on his own terms and then retreats home to Chicago to hang out with his five dogs. He's been closely associated with legendary clubs like smartbar (where he still does the regular party Queen! with Michael Serafini), The End and Bar Rumba, but he told me he's actually not too comfortable with residencies as they imply homogeneity. As you'll read below, even Carter's views on club culture itself seem pretty slippery. Somehow, though, this all necessarily makes him the DJ he is. "Find your soul," he once said on "Where U At?" "And use your inner voice, the road less traveled, is now the path of choice."
I think one of the first things that people associate with you is great shoes. But then also, of course, the style of music you play, however you want to define that. Have you strived to stand out and define a sound as your own?
No. No, I'm not that contrived. That's the kind of thing that people in PR and marketing and yeah... I don't do that. I do what I do. I do what I feel, how I feel it, the way I do it. I don't go, "This is going to get them. This is going to make me stand out." I have none of that. If I like it, then I'll attempt to try to play it. It may not always work but if I like it then I also want to hear it at 105 decibels. If it's something that resonates with me, then I want to hear it loud.
I try to do a good job and I try to make memories and moments. That's different than me saying, "I'm going to set myself apart by doing this." Or I'm going to have some sort of preconceived notion of who I am and what I am and what I'm doing, and attempt to lean that in a direction or attempt to pose it this way. I'm very much just... I'm me. I'm moving constantly, trying to shrug off the bullshit.
I understand. So I guess when people talk about a Derrick Carter sound, maybe what they're talking about is just your taste.
I think it is. It's a cultural, emotional. An odd blender of sorts, like I throw all sorts of things in there. Whatever I can get a hold of, that I find resonance with, I'll try to add it, literally, add it to the mix.
I have a couple of 512-gigabyte memory sticks that are dripping with stuff. I do attempt to tailor things a bit more for an event. So, I did this Derrick Does Disco party last week, which was crazy great. I get to expand on disco or an idea of what disco can be. Or, if I'm playing more of a techno kind of thing, or slightly harder, or even downtempo, they can be things that I expand on. I'll start in a place and then just groove my way until I have to stop.
When people talk about a Derrick Carter sound, I really think they're talking about rhythms and drums. They're not really talking about all the other parts. Hearing you play the other night, there were elements of disco, hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, pop. It's all that. It's just that I think you have an interesting division of sound. You keep the drums and rhythms bumpy. You keep them grooving. But what gets pulled in over that...
It could be anything, literally almost anything. I'm mischievous as part of my bend, my personality. I would go even further. I'm a fucking... rascal. In so many ways I'm rascally. I've got a lot of private jokes going on that no one knows about. I'll think of something. I'm mixing, and I'll have a memory pop up and like, "Oh shit, I should throw that in."
That's because, without being an asshole, I have a certain skill set. I've been doing this for a long time. So, I can throw in a hip-hop acapella or a weird something over the top of something else, just to add another layer of complexity, add another layer of rhythm or melody. It's buzzing along on the same track but all of a sudden, you're in.
Are you trying first and foremost to entertain yourself?
Mostly. Fuck. If I'm not having fun, then who the fuck is? I have to balance that with the fact that I'm hired to come and perform some work, to do a job, to be an entertainer. I also feel that my jokes are the funniest. I'm the one that thinks that out of everybody here, I'm the funniest motherfucker.
I'm entertaining myself because ha ha ha, if I laugh, then everybody's going to laugh. Or if I'm having a good time, then everybody's going to have a good time. If I'm not having a good time, no one is having a good time.
So, it's not like I have this set planned out that I'm taking with me around to various venues for the next two months, my festival set or anything like that. I have a liquid view on what that can be. It's an energy level thing. This is the amount of energy I'm trying to put in the room. Sometimes, it can be a bit more. Sometimes I pull the energy back. Sometimes it's more nuanced.
There's a lot of personality, I think, that goes into it. My personality is rascally.
Which effects do you like?
I don't go for much strange stuff. I just use a little bit of delay, a little bit of echo, sometimes, some reverb, some Ping Pong.
Keep it simple.
Yeah. I just like a little bit of drama, a little bit of window dressing.
On the mixer tip, you were talking about rotary mixers on Twitter recently. You said you really like the sound quality and the feel, but they seem a bit precious to you.
They are. People who have rotary mixers are super dorky about their fucking rotary mixers. I'm not that nerdy about anything. I'm not that overly precious about anything except for quality. That quality can be achieved in a variety of ways. It's not always just this sense of like it needs to sound like a loaf of bread, straight-out-of-the-oven warm. If you're only just playing one record and then playing another record and then playing another record, then yeah, it better sound warm as shit, because you ain't doing nothing.
I got to pop things in and out. It's popping in from this dimension to that dimension. I'm trying to think fast and act as fast as my brain comes up with things. As fast as I can imagine things, make them happen. Rotary mixers don't offer me that. It's a slower idea and train of thought. It's more presentation.
What about the way DJs like Theo Parrish or Joe Claussell play?
Yeah. They're on the EQ and doing that. They're working the track more so than the mix. I work the mix. They work the track. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm not taking anything away from them but the mix is my jam. They're running the EQ and giving you hell or high water for this beat. That is a form of presentation in and of itself. That's giving you something that makes the moment. My moments are made via the transmission or the transposition of a variety of things that all come together in this current, like this stew that's happening.
You had a bit of design input on the Rane MP2015. What's the story there?
Nothing. When they were doing it I knew the guy who was heading up that division at the time. He asked people who he, I guess, had somewhat of a relationship with or a respect for, to assist him. "What do you want to see in this mixer project? The idea is this. What does this mean to you?" Or, "What, ideally, would this contain?" I'm very much into that. I've got a Pioneer guy who I talk to fairly frequently about things that I get to play with before they're released and give input on those things. It's the same thing.
I'm a working professional even though I'm not necessarily a hit-recording artist or something like that. I am a knowledgeable and astute technician, to some degree. I'm going to give you the real-world how I feel about things.
I really wanted a crossfader on that fucking mixer [the MP2015]. I really did. It broke my heart. I can't even tell you. It broke my heart when they didn't include the fader on that mixer. I was crestfallen.
The crossfader would have allowed you to punch in tracks.
Exactly. I'd still have the ability to drop it, here's this beat for two seconds. Or give you a little something that's spontaneous and still alive and not just this long death march.
They'd sent me one. When I used it, it took three hands and an unnatural curvy motion. I have to do all this other stuff, so I need to keep one hand on the pitch control. I only really have one hand to do some of the things I need to do... When they didn't include the crossfader it took away my ability to do the things I needed to do. It just didn't allow me to be natural.