The originator of acid house claims the secrets of good music are feel and emotion rather than a Roland Bassline and an Akai sampler. Simon Trask gets in the mood.
Pioneer of acid house and deep house, Marshall Jefferson places songs and musicianship above sampling and studio trickery.
"WITH ONE GROUP I produced recently, I had this tune and I just had to have real horns on it. Today everybody's got horn samples, string samples, guitar samples, but they just don't sound the same as the real thing. The record company tried everything they could to talk me out of using real horns, so I went out and got them, paid for them myself, and had them play on the tune. Everybody flipped over it. I just knew it had to be that way."
Marshall Jefferson is a man with a mission, and the recording studio is his battlefield. The mission: to put the soul back into music. The opponents: technology and a profit-hungry record industry. On a current tally, Jefferson is winning. Things are going his way, and for anyone who likes "warmth", "mood" and "emotion" in their music (three words which Jefferson uses a lot during our conversation) that can only be a good thing. Check out Ten City's soulful Jefferson-produced debut album Foundation, the deeper-than-deep house 12" single 'Open Our Eyes' by Marshall Jefferson Presents The Truth, or his heavenly 82bpm remix of Dusty Springfield and the Pet Shop Boys' 'Nothing Has Been Proved'. It's a small if representative part of his current output.
Chicago-born Jefferson, now 29 years old, is much in demand as a dance-music producer/musician/songwriter - or, as he describes himself, a "listener". Yet little more than four years ago he was working for the Chicago post office and rocking out in his spare time to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Not many people have made the transition from Deep Purple to deep house, but Jefferson is an unorthodox listener. He grew up with the thudding beats and screaming guitar solos of heavy rock while all his friends were into disco, then when heavy rock started to go commercial he discovered the Chicago house music scene in its infancy. Since that time he has emerged as possibly the single most influential figure in house music. From early jack tracks such as 'The House Music Anthem - Move Your Body', 'Ride the Rhythm' and 'Time Marches On' through the seminal acid of 'I've Lost Control' and 'Acid Tracks' to the seminal deep house of 'Open Our Eyes' and his production work with Ten City, Jefferson has defined the direction of house music.
These days Jefferson spends a lot of time in the UK, where he is constantly in demand for production work and remixes. He's also in the process of setting up a UK-based record label, which will offer an outlet for both UK and US acts, and is producing Kym Mazelle's debut album at Matrix Studios in London. Yes, Marshall Jefferson is a busy man.
OUR INTERVIEW TAKES place in a small, cluttered hotel room in London's Lancaster Gate. Clothes, cassettes and a copy of Tina Turner's autobiography are strewn across the floor, the phone rings every ten minutes, and an over-zealous cleaning lady periodically demands that she be let in to clean the room. Amidst this chaos the genial figure of Jefferson reclines on his bed, offers me a beer and somehow applies himself to answering my questions with both thoughtfulness and humour.
"Right now I'm starting up my own record label back in Chicago", he reveals, "and I've been building up a roster of live musicians to work with there. It's taken about three years to get everybody together, but now they're all ready to go. We've got horns, strings, bass, guitar, drums, percussion...
"If you wanted the Motown sound then you had to go to Motown and use their musicians, if you wanted the Philadelphia sound you had to go to Philadelphia and use their musicians. Now if you want to get the Chicago sound you'll have to come to Chicago and use our musicians."
It seems that the label won't be exclusively for dance music, however. Jefferson used to play guitar in various rock bands before succumbing to house music and reactivating piano skills learnt in childhood. Now he's talking gleefully about upsetting a lot of people by forming a rock band and recording double albums full of lengthy guitar solos. Can this really be the man who brought us deep house?
Jefferson's introduction to technology and the recording studio came in 1985. As he recalls: "I had a good job at the post office, so I could basically buy any equipment that I wanted. Jesse Saunders was making records then, and I wanted to make better records than he did."
A trip to the local music store was in order. Unfortunately, Jefferson soon fell foul of some classic dodgy salesmanship.
"The guy said 'with this sequencer you'll be able to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock', and I was going 'Wow!'. So I went and bought a JX8P, TR808 and Yamaha's QX1 sequencer. What he didn't tell me was that I couldn't sync up the 808 and the QX1, which was why my first record, Virgo's Go Wild Rhythm Tracks, ended up being just 808 drum beats."
Jefferson remembers with some amusement his introduction to the recording studio at the hands of Vince Lawrence, Jessie Saunders' producer.
"It took four months to do that EP, at least 80 hours of studio time. Basically he didn't want anyone else in the business, and he was trying to make it all sound more difficult than it was. There'd be dust on the console, and he'd be going into this whole thing about dust, how you had to have the right amount of dust on the console, not too little and not too much!"
The path of progress doesn't always run straight. For instance, who would have guessed that being sold two instruments with incompatible syncing systems would have led to a new style of music. For when Jefferson searched around for an instrument to sync up to his 808, he alighted on another Roland instrument: the TB303 Bassline. He first used the 303 on Sleezy D's 'I've Lost Control', which he recorded back in the summer of 1985.
"If you sample somebody else'e record then you're limiting yourself musically - also, you're committing the ultimate crime against music."
"It was the day I got the 303," he recalls. "Sleezy was in the basement, and we just said 'let's go for it'. That was the first record I took to Ron Hardy at the Music Box, and he would play it six or seven times a night. In fact, it was bigger in Chicago than 'Move Your Body'."
The TB303 is used in a restrained way on the track, and there's no use of the timbral changes which were to characterise 'Acid Tracks'. Yet amidst the growling voice and atmospheric noises it clearly brings a new, sharp-edged sound into house.
Jefferson recorded Phuture's 'Acid Tracks' with DJ Pierre in late 1986. Like 'I've Lost Control', it was big in the Chicago clubs, but this time around the fuse was lit for acid house to take off in a big way. Jefferson explains: "I gave Pierre my TB303 because I was just tired of using it, I didn't like it any more. The big difference between me and Pierre was that he was a DJ and I wasn't. He made the mistake of telling all his DJ friends that it was a TB303 on 'Acid Tracks', so next thing I knew, within four months there were about 60 acid records out, and within five more months there were over 1000 - just in Chicago."
The consequences of this acid deluge were inevitable. Jefferson elaborates: "Acid house just cancelled out Chicago's dance music. It wiped everything else off the dancefloor, because you couldn't play anything else around it, it was too fast, too energetic. Also, before acid you could have a huge hit in Chicago; 'I've Lost Control' sold 70,000 copies there. But what started happening was that a huge dance hit in Chicago would sell only 5000 copies, because acid records were coming out at the rate of about 60 a week. None of them were terrible, but when you play 60 records in a row and they've all got the same instrument, basically the same beat, and somebody's girlfriend singing badly over it all, you kind of get worn out! Basically, there were too many acid records, because they were too simple to make.
"People were saying I started it all, but I'd say 'I hate that shit'. It was where everybody else was going, and my natural way of thinking is that I'll go the other way; that's what I've always done."
In fact, Jefferson had already moved on to new pastures with 'Open Our Eyes' by Marshall Jefferson Presents The Truth, a slice of atmospheric house which built on the style of his earlier Jungle Wonz tracks. 'Open Our Eyes' is more than one-and-a-half years old now.
"I didn't feel a real need to put it out," he says, "until I saw the acid house thing happening and I just got mad. I wanted to do something different. People were saying 'Ain't nobody going to play it, it's too slow', and I thought that too, but it just seemed the right thing to do. Everybody was going acid-house crazy in Chicago."
Along with the music of Fingers Inc, 'Open Our Eyes' signalled the arrival of a new style of house which has come to be called "deep house". Jefferson reveals an unlikely influence on the track:
"It took me back to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. They had all the clocks and stuff on it, and I had the waterfall and the birds. In New York people just flipped over it; there were reports that people were crying on the floor when they heard it.
"I was just conveying a mood and emotional content. Deep house has a lot to do with the way you mix the tune and the sounds you get up. I must have remixed 'Open Our Eyes' more than twelve times, and I still wasn't satisfied with the way that it came out. The bass plays a large part in the track; people feel it and hear it at the same time."
Jefferson's approach to songwriting might surprise anyone who thinks that all dance music is pieced together in the studio like some kind of aural patchwork quilt: "I can't write a song in front of the keyboard. Usually I'm in the shower or I'm driving in my car and I suddenly hear the finished song in my head. Melody, harmony, horns, strings, bass, guitar, congas, drums... everything. Then I've got to rush to a keyboard to get it all down before I forget. That's how I write."
"Pierre made the mistake of telling all his DJ friends that it was a TB303 on 'Acid Tracks' - next thing I knew there were about 60 acid records out."
Perhaps even worse than acid house in Jefferson's eyes is sample-based music, in particular the music of a certain Mr Todd Terry. Terry is not flavour of the month with the dance musicians of Chicago and Detroit. Not only does he sample bits of their music, but he's threatened to sue anyone who samples his music. So what if someone samples a bit of his music which contains a bit of their music? It all starts to get a bit daft.
Gentleman that he is, Jefferson refrains from being impolite about Terry, but decides it's time to be forthright on the sampling issue in general. Sampling aficionados of a nervous disposition are advised to skip the next few paragraphs.
"I think sampling's ruining the music industry. If you sample somebody else's record then you're limiting yourself musically. Also, you're committing the ultimate crime against music. You're taking something that a real musician has worked years to strive for, and you're sampling them. It's really as low down as you can get. I mean, these are musicians who worked 15 hard years before they even thought of recording. You can't play drums so you sample someone else and put them all over your record. All those musicians are broke now, but you're sampling their records and you're thinking that you're the greatest in the world. It really hurts me to see things like that, all the rappers crossing their arms and saying 'I'm paid in full'.
"Rap music has this mentality that you have to sample. Why? It's really making music sound cheap and tacky right now, at least to me - nobody else seems to be noticing. When you sample an old record and put it on a 24-track recording, it sounds just like an old record being scratched. There's no depth, there's not the same emotional content. Basically it sounds dry and cheap, there's no fullness or warmth. I don't understand it.
"Stop sampling people from the past; instead of sampling a drummer, get a drummer. Everybody in the music business, all they're thinking about is money, money all the time. Yet when you think about it, if you've got one gold album then you've made enough money to last you for life, as long as you're not a drug addict. There's only so much money you can spend, so why not try something new, something innovative?"
This one could run and run, but in the meantime Jefferson has plenty more to say about the use of technology in music: "Music's gone stale because of technology. There's no individuality. Everybody's using the same instruments and basically the same sounds. That's the natural scheme of things nowadays, not only because everybody can copy off of everybody else so easily, but because the industry encourages copying; record companies want safe formulas.
"Everybody's using the wrong sounds. Every song you hear now has got loud drums on it; I hate loud fuckin' drums. They have to twist my arm to put loud snares and stuff on record. That's what everybody else is doing, and I hate it. It sounds so digital, so mechanical, and it kills the variety of songs. It would be fine if you just heard one record a day with loud drums on it, it would be perfect. But all day? Boom-ka-ta-boom-boom-ka-ta! I just can't take it. Everything just sounds so alike today. I just hear a commercial sound, and it gets to me.
"People don't go for what sounds good to them, they go for what's technically good - like, say, a good clean snare or a good clean kick. I have to EQ all my tunes myself now, because every engineer wants to get the kick drum to sound thin so you can hear it, but I want my kick to go "boom boom" so you can feel it. I'm always having arguments with engineers about this, because they'll say 'you can't hear that kick'. They think I'm crazy. The moment I leave the room they'll sneak a bit of EQ in. I just say 'look, man, just get away from the board and I'm gonna do this myself'. It's not that they aren't good engineers, but they're programmed to think a certain way; I know how I want my music to sound, and it's a different way."
Jefferson uses engineers when he's recording, but then he records everything flat, only adding EQ when mixing. Similarly, everything goes down dry when he's recording; all effects are added at mixdown.
Listen to any Jefferson production and you'll hear that reverb is an important component of his sound. You may well suppose that AMS or Lexicon would figure prominently here, but if so you'd be supposing wrongly.
"I like the MIDIverb II," he reveals. "In fact, in a lot of cases I prefer the MIDIverb to an AMS. The AMS sounds better than a MIDIverb in one case, and that's when you're using an SSL console. AMS is more compatible with SSL consoles, but the MIDIverb is more compatible with analogue consoles. The only thing people complain about with the MIDIverb is that it's preset, but shit, if you've got a reverb which sounds like a £6,000 reverb but only costs £200, why complain? I stock up on MIDIverbs - I've got about 12 of them."
"People don't go for what sounds good to them, they go for what's technically good - a good clean snare or a good clean kick."
When it comes to recording desks, Jefferson is blunt about what many people consider to be the ultimate.
"I hate SSL consoles. It's extremely hard to get warmth out of them. I've tried using different EQ, but still the end product is SSL; there's a particular sound to that board.
"What has happened is that record companies tend to go for SSL because it's the most expensive board and because it's totally automated. That's the industry way of thinking: perfection. But in truth it's not really perfect, because there's no warmth.
"Stevie Wonder, who's used synthesisers from the beginning, nowadays he's just not using the right sounds, I mean warm, full sounds. He's using these thin digital sounds. SSL console; you hear it all over his music. Michael Jackson, too: SSL console. See, with Thriller and Off the Wall, those albums had a certain warmth. It wasn't just the real instruments. I could use all synthesisers on a track and it would still sound warm. I go for warmth instead of cleanness."
Ironically, Jefferson is working with an SSL desk at Matrix Studios. However, it so happens that Matrix are the proud owners of the second SSL console built by the company, and Jefferson reckons it has a warmer sound than later desks. It's an interesting point: digital technology is supposed to be consistent, yet it's not unknown for manufacturers to make changes to the components they use on different production runs. These in turn could conceivably result in variations in sound quality.
Back in Chicago, Jefferson has his own 16-track home studio based around a Fostex E16, though he's planning to upgrade to an Otari 24-track soon.
"At the moment, everything goes through a Tascam eight-channel board", he explains. "I love that board. I've got the drums coming through a Yamaha DMP7 digital mixer, but that's then put through the Tascam. Bringing the drums through the DMP7 alone makes them sound very thin; there's no fullness. But bringing them through the Tascam board, the warm analogue sound is there. It's not the EQ, it's the actual sound of the board."
The drum department of the Jefferson home studio is taken care of by his Roland TR808 and 707 drum-machines. Perhaps surprisingly, he's only relatively recently started using the TR909. Roland score again on the synth front, though it's not their recent synths which attract the Jefferson seal of approval: "I've still got the same old JX8P that I started out with," he declares proudly. "Man, those deep bass sounds, those smooth strings, I'd pay a £10,000 ransom for that instrument."
So Marshall Jefferson does love technology after all - it just has to be the right kind of technology, used in the right kind of way.
"I've mastered making my own sounds on it," he continues. "Every sound I get is out of the JX8P, except for piano sounds. For them I use either the JX 'Piano 2' or a real piano. Very few sampled pianos sound good to me. I used the Prophet 2000 on 'Move Your Body' and that was good, but somehow I'd get inconsistent piano sounds with it, and in the end I didn't really want to know. Now I use mainly real piano."
Among the JX's preset patches, Jefferson is partial to the smooth, silky strings of 'Soundtrack'. In fact, the patch is much in evidence on Vicky Martin's 'Not Gonna Do It', a Jefferson-penned track which he produced in his home studio.
Jefferson always hires in a JX8P when he's working in the UK. But, instead of carrying around cartridges of JX sounds, he programs the sounds he wants at each session. Now, most musicians jealously guard their sounds, and wouldn't dream of leaving any behind in a hired instrument. But, in typical contrariwise fashion, Jefferson has other ideas.
"I leave sounds lying around in the machine in the hope that they'll get used on other records", he reveals, adding by way of explanation: "Everyone else is digital, so I go analogue."
Finally, to all those people who want to copy Marshall Jefferson a second time around, he has the following words to say:
"People think that all there is to copying Marshall Jefferson is copying the drums, copying the piano, copying the bassline. But the only thing they need to do if they're studying me is study the emotional content of every record."
Amen to that.
Interview by Simon Trask
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