Due to hearing damage, the Chicago legend has most likely played out for the last time. We chat with him about why that might not be such a bad thing.
Heard has long been one of the most important figures in house music. A native of Chicago and lifelong musician, he got his start making club tracks with Ron Wilson and Robert Owens as a member of Fingers, Inc., a group that drew the blueprints of house music with songs like "Mystery of Love," "Bring Down the Walls" and "Can You Feel It," all of which still get played in clubs today. Heard proved equally strong as a solo artist, releasing dozens of records over the next two decades under his own name or as Mr. Fingers, including such recent classics as 2007's "Sun Can't Compare."
By the end of the '90s, Heard was highly in demand as a DJ, a role he accepted but never fully embraced. "That DJ title was put on me," he told RA in 2008. "Like when people put down 'DJ Larry Heard.' [laughs] They put 'DJ' first. You never hear 'musician' mentioned at all. Just 'DJ/producer,' 'producer/DJ' or 'house music icon.' All these kinds of titles end up being put on you, but they never have anything to do with my original goal and intent."
Decades of playing out in clubs have, unsurprisingly, taken their toll on Heard's hearing, and by now it seems like the only way to preserve his role as a studio musician is to give up his role as a club DJ. Reached by phone at his home in Tennessee, Heard explained why this might not be such a bad thing:
When did you notice something was going wrong with your hearing?
I would say maybe three to four years ago. There have definitely been times when you get feedback, and eventually you know you find yourself turning to hear what people are saying, but then over time, it would come back. I guess the ear has filaments in it to try to protect your hearing, just like the body itself has protecting mechanisms. So the high end would disappear, and that was my ears' way of trying to protect themselves. Then it would slowly come back over time.
So you would just hear the same ringing in your ears that everybody hears...
Well not a ringing, I just lost the high frequency, and for me that's a problem because I like to use the hi-hats to synchronize what I'm doing between the records. So a lot of times when I'm in a club playing, I'm thinking something's wrong with the monitor speaker, and it was actually my ear trying to defend itself against sound pressure. So there's that, in addition to some more physical effects due to the amount of traveling I have been doing—it's been like 27 years of consistent traveling, you know, internationally, not sleeping and things like that. It's taken its toll, it all starts to kinda mount up, and it's become a downright hell of a risk now. So we've just got to make the right decision if it's in my best interest, health-wise.
I feel like with DJing it can be hard to find an exit strategy. Do you think that's true?
Well I don't think there has to be an exit strategy. Once you're ready to exit you just exit. [laughs] It's not like, you know, you're working for some Fortune 500 company and there's a 401k plan and all these things tied to it, and what have you... contracts. We're kind of independent contractors so you have liberty in that respect. But since I've been home, you know, not traveling, I've been able to do mixes at home where they don't have to be loud like in the club setting. So I'm still able to share music in that way preserve my hearing so I can continue on with my creative efforts. Because losing hearing would mean bringing everything to a screeching halt.
Are you working on any music at the moment?
Just remixes at the moment. As far as original music, I'm always comin' up with sketches, so I'm always replenishing the archives around here, and at some point I do want to do something with the music that's sitting there. I have literally thousands of pieces sitting, and the complication is that not all of it's dance music stuff. I mean, hip-hop tracks, and R&B tracks and smooth jazz and stuff like that. Stuff that people really aren't accustomed to when they think of Larry Heard. So that poses a challenge, you know, as far as people being able to receive that, because they still want, you know, "Can You Feel It."
How do you envision the future at this point? Will you still DJ here and there for a special event, or...
No, it's too risky, because you know any feedback could have dire repercussions for me. Normally it's not a big thing, it's just some feedback, but if it goes directly into my ear canal... It's just kind of a common sense decision.
Sounds to me like you're kind of comfortable with that idea.
Yeah, I mean it's not like I pursued DJing. I'm a musician first and foremost, so for me preserving the ability to do that part of it is the most important thing. To lose it all would be devastating, and of course that's what losing my hearing would mean. Now I can focus on more getting back to my roots and actually composing and doing all that kind of stuff. It allows me more time to really focus at it. Before my time was so divided. There was a time when the releases were coming very fast, and then they started to slow down at, actually, the same year I started officially DJing. That's when the releases started to be a year apart. Two years apart. Then it ended up being like '05 since my last official release as far as a full-length project. Because when you're DJing the time just isn't there.
Making music requires a lot of focus, and if you're starting and stopping and starting and stopping and starting and stopping, it doesn't work. It's not like you can just switch motivation and inspiration on like you can a lamp. It just doesn't work like that. It's gotta be organic in some way. I mean, it's my God-given gift to compose music, but for it to have sincerity behind it, that means I have to really be feeling it. It can't be mechanical. I could do the mechanical way, but it's not really my choice personally. I'd rather make something I can really stand behind.
Well it seems like there's a real silver lining to all this in that case. Anyway, you must feel good about all those years of DJing...
Oh yeah, it was a great time. Some very memorable parties, and you know, the events that go back a decade and a half that people still bring up about how great a time they had, and how, you know, etched in their memory some occasions were. So definitely great memories and great stories to tell about the places I've been to and the parties I've played, and played a role in. But like I said I'm able to do mixes at home, and share those via the internet or whatever. Some of them even being broadcasted in different parts of the world. So, I still get to do it, just in a different kind of a way. And it's not like there's a shortage of DJs on the planet Earth at the moment. It's not like "oooohhhh the dance world is crushed because one person can't come to play a party." I don't think it'll be that big of a problem. There's lots of people out there playing, and people who were playing before I ever got behind some turntables. I'm confident in all the other people out there. They can handle this, they'll be fine without me.