Inside the studio (and creative mind) of a true house music innovator.
The track would influence scenes well beyond Chicago, nowhere more so than Detroit. It was there that Trent and Chez Damier, the legendary Detroit producer and Music Institute resident, forged one of the great musical partnerships of '90s house music. The music they produced in Kevin Saunderson's state-of-the-art studio and released through the Prescription label melded the epic feeling of "Altered States" with high-fidelity sonics and a mission to do no less than evolve house music. Even if Trent and Damier's partnership lasted for just a few years in the mid-'90s, it feels like they succeeded: it is actually difficult to imagine house music today without the influence of Prescription.
Trent has continued to evolve, too. While living in New York after Prescription's classic era, his sound became even grander, exemplified by the live feel and intricate instrumentation of the records he put out through Future Vision Records in the '00s, where one side of a 12-inch could barely contain a single track at 33 RPM. Now back living in Chicago, he's continued to explore new angles on his musical impulse, from hip-hop production to ambitious, genre-averse live projects. These days, Trent is once again making music on the South Side, working and vibing from a basement teeming with records and inspiration ephemera, and thick with incense smoke. On a frigid afternoon this winter, I descended the stairs and caught up with Trent at the epicenter of his creative life, where production is less a technical exercise than a spiritual one.
The first thing I was struck by when I walked into studio is... it has a vibe. Can you tell me about the vibe that you've created for this space?
Well, obviously, you can feel the creativity in here. For me, it's very important to have various types of stimulation. I need to make the space as beautiful and as organic as possible, [because] I spend a lot of time down here. This is a couple years' work. This was just a dirty old basement—the house is 100 years old. So for me it was creating a situation where I could just express myself. Having plants, and having reference material with the books and records, and color—very important. Color is extremely important, right?
Why is color so important?
To me, music, to a certain degree, is playing with color. [Colors] have different vibrations. Those vibrations actually fit along with sonics and things of that nature. There's certain tones that inspire certain things. I have my own set of color palettes that I use.
I'm seeing a lot of blue in here. What does that color signify to you?
A few things. People might say it's somewhat of a melancholy kind of color, or it's a moody color, but blue has a lot of depth. It's also, if you notice in the universe, or let's say just say the earth, blue is a very prominent color as well—the sky, and the water, that kind of thing. Just personally, I have a certain attachment to it. There are certain types of blues that I like, that really kind of touch me, and that puts me in a place. It just fits along with my vibration. When I'm in the studio, I always have a palette in mind and a story that I want to tell. Color and sound and storytelling are all mixed together.
You mentioned that it's really important that you have inspiring objects around: music, books—
What does that bring to the vibe in here?
Well, I mean, everything. There's a Native American saying that says, "Everything has a manitou. Everything has a spirit in it." Right? So, for me, there is obviously spirit in some of these masks and things that I have and meaning behind some of these things. Whether it be a Jean-Michel Basquiat picture, or [photos of] Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie or... I got a whole bunch of Prince stuff around here, too.
It's true. There's a Dizzy Gillespie poster...
Frankie Knuckles, obviously.
Yeah. Lee "Scratch" Perry. Andy Warhol.
Keith Haring as well.
All that. Both of my kids love Keith Haring now, because I raised them on it. Point being, I like my spaces to be a representation of me. Outside of [music], I am what's called a Babalawo, which is a high priest in the African culture Ifá. I've been studying that for 20 years, as a matter of fact. Ifá explains about how the universe is connected, and all these things are connected. There's a big connectivity going on all the time, and each one of these things that I've picked up has a connection to me, but also has a connection to other things in the universe, and that's how I see it. So, each one of these ancestors that are here, they've inspired me while they were living in some form or fashion. I just make sure that I keep them around to remind me of the greatness, because these guys were next level.
I want to talk about how the outside world makes its way into your productions—about how influence works for you. There's a pretty famous story about you and Chez Damier, your partner in Prescription, going to Sound Factory in New York, getting your mind blown by Junior Vasquez, flying back the next morning to Detroit—your home base at the time—and immediately getting into the studio and producing "Morning Factory," one of Prescription's all-time classics. Does that story exemplify the way ideas tend to come together over the course of your career?
I function on the analogue level, meaning taking real experiences and transforming them into digital format. How do I take what's here and what I'm feeling in my spirit and translate that to the keys, the drums, or whatever the case may be, so that I almost transport [listeners] into my experience? I've been able over the years to master that with myself, but it takes time to do that—to be able to articulate yourself in a certain way and to put spirit into your records.
That's why I always try to put a live element into whatever I'm doing, even though it's [mostly made with] electronics. Early '80s music, 1980 to 1984—you listen to that sound, you can't beat it. Why? People were getting used to using synthesizers, so you have this element of almost alien technology meeting organic analogue feelings. When you hear sounds [from a synthesizer] being used on a human level, an organic level, an analogue level, it creates this other thing that I don't think people have been able to put their finger on exactly. It's the mixture of heaven and earth.
Being able to make music that you can transport, being able to create a sound that people can step inside—that was the idea behind Prescription. Take me through how that sound came together, in the wake of The Afterlife EP.
The ideology behind Prescription was to open people's minds, because we felt at the time that Chicago music was getting pigeonholed as being "tracks." I was like, "That's cool, but it's not about tracks, it's about music." Cajmere was doing his thing, but his stuff was more track-oriented, "percolated." It caught on because his street music is straight booty shaking-type shit. That's fine, and it has its place, but this music is far more sophisticated than that, the experience is far more sophisticated than that. [Prescription] was about acting as a mechanism to change the vibration. That was the idea, but it turned into the process. It was just a lot of hardcore work, painstaking fucking work.
Let's back up a bit to how this begins, which would have been in the first part of the '90s. You move to Detroit, where you've linked up with Chez Damier and are making music out of Kevin Saunderson's KMS Studios. At the time, KMS was a million-dollar facility, with every high-end piece of equipment you could imagine—all the bells and whistles. How do you not get lost in an environment like that? How do you keep it focused and keep it real to where you came from as a producer? I can imagine a lot of people would walk into that situation and just be like, "Where do I begin?"
For me, it was like a kid in a candy store—I was like, "Wow, this is the shit." It was like opening up a bigger door to a bigger room, and I loved it. That's what I wanted. It's the difference between having a keyboard and a drum machine and having ten drum machines and ten motherfucking keyboards.
Are you somebody who has ever set constraints for yourself when you're in the studio, as an exercise in keeping yourself focused? You go into KMS, you have access to literally everything, but you're like, "OK, today we're just using these two things and we're going to see what we can do there."
No. Never. I'm going to follow this path and wherever we go is where we're going. That's how it is. Because then the sky's the limit. If there's a specific thing that I'm trying to accomplish, I know where to go get it. You really have to—and especially at that time you had to—take the time out to study all of the modules that you had. With Kevin's stuff, some keyboards and [other gear] that he had in there I didn't fuck with. Some of the stuff in his studio was too experimental. It was like, "OK, I'm not ready to do a film score just yet." You know what I'm saying?
What would be an example of something that you didn't even bother with?
Kevin had gotten one of the first Waldorfs that were ever put out. We tried to hook it up and couldn't get that shit to work at all. We were like, "This shit is just alien. We need a spaceship to go along with this." We just left it alone. But the Kurzweil K2000 was the basis of the Prescription sound, and that was a keyboard that was not being used [regularly at KMS] at the time. The Kurzweil K2000 was my favorite fucking keyboard to this day. If I could get a hold of another one…
Is it fairly rare at this point?
I'm not sure now. I looked online and I didn't see one. I think I left [mine] in a studio that I was recording out of, and I left it there too long basically. Came back, and it was gone.
That'll happen sometimes.
I wanted to ask you about collaboration and mentorship, which I see as threads running through your production career. How do you like to collaborate with other producers? What are you looking for in a collaborator, or in a mentee?
Being a producer is, you have the talent of being able to see something and then create something out of nothing. And sometimes it means being a producer of people, seeing talent. A great person that does that, who we know is one of the best, is Quincy Jones. You know what I mean? One of the greatest producers of all time. But, being able to produce talent, being able to see something in somebody who doesn't even know it's there, and you pull it out? I did a lot of that. And I've been behind a few careers in terms of creating a platform for them so that they can do their thing. But to be honest with you, it's more like I can see potential, based upon somebody's taste—the types of things that they're into, which I can see a similar strain there of where I've come from and what I wanted somebody to do for me, which is to take me and pull me along, whatever the case may be. So I've tried to do that with other people. A few of them have been very humble and given me respect and praised me for helping them out and we have great relationships to this day. And I'm proud of where they've gone and what they're doing.
Then you have others, man, where they turn around and stab you right in the fucking back. So it's like a double-edged sword. I have experienced more of the stabbing-in-the-back than the people that have been very gracious. You know what I mean? Money comes in the picture, fame comes in the picture, then all of a sudden amnesia comes into the fucking picture. I have no problem, for instance, telling you everybody that helped me out or did something for me, because it takes nothing from you to do that.
In other words, it doesn't diminish your own accomplishments.
Not at all, man.
But some people feel threatened by that.
Quite a bit. Among many things. But yes, it's happened quite a bit. And then I deal with people that I can see are confident in their own shit. And I think it's better to be like that. There's nothing wrong with reaching back and lifting somebody up, but make sure you're not lifting up a snake.
There's obviously a lot of politics in this music scene. How do keep that noise out of the studio? Maybe it creeps in sometimes, but do you have techniques for dealing with that—for trying to keep the focus squarely on why you're in there creating?
You got to develop thick skin, bro—thick fucking skin. You have to also believe in yourself when nobody else does, because it's going to happen. Anybody who's been successful has had to deal with the fucking haters. It could be in your own house, it could be somebody out on the street, it could be your boy. What you have to do is just concentrate on what fucking matters.
Business is fucking business. That's the other thing, too. I've been able to develop that understanding over the years. You develop a sense of being able to deal with different situations, dynamics. Wisdom with experience allows you to handle it the best. Any and everybody's going to have to go through it on some level, because you're dealing with people. A lot of people are disenfranchised with themselves and where their careers are and what they're doing. And they're busy looking at what the fuck you're doing and criticizing that.
So sometimes you have to ride it out and wait for things to turn the other way.
Ride the karma horse, buddy. Ride that motherfucker. Stay focused. Haters is going to come.