John "Jellybean" Benitez is the leader of the current trend of DJs turned recording artists. Tim Goodyer talks to him about the relationship between the dancefloor and the recording studio.
The routes to becoming a pop star are many and varied, Jellybean Benitez has DJd in the nightclubs of Manhattan and been a remixer and producer in the studios of New York on his way to appearing on Top Of The Pops.
THE METAMORPHOSIS OF DJ to recording artist is quickly becoming a familiar one. This side of the Atlantic we've already seen M/A/R/R/S (DJs Dave Dorrell and CJ Mackintosh) score a chart hit with 'Pump Up the Volume', and Bomb the Bass (DJ Tim Simenon from London's Wag club) following close behind with 'Beat Dis'. But in America, John "Jellybean" Benitez had beaten the ambitious British at this particular generation game - his new LP, Just Visiting this Planet, is his second and it's already spawned three charting singles with another set to follow suite.
From his roots in the Bronx, Jellybean worked his way into DJ'ing at Manhattan's hip Pointhouse nightclub, before moving into remixing and record production. To date his remixes include songs by David Bowie, Sting, Eurythmics, Talking Heads and Michael Jackson, while his production of 'IOU' by Freeez, 'Walking on Sunshine' by Rockers Revenge and a string of Madonna's singles has helped them into the charts.
"In the neighbourhood I grew up in, most of the kids wanted to be bouncers in nightclubs", he recounts. "It wasn't until I was a DJ in Manhattan that I actually met people that knew anything about music. Because I became very successful as a club DJ, managers, artists and producers would bring me stuff and I'd play it and tell 'em what I thought.
"I was able to play records and say 'if this part here was a little longer my audience would really go crazy' and they'd say 'oh, I see, maybe that bridge shouldn't be in the song', or 'the chorus is too short or too long'. I was just telling them what I needed as a DJ not as a musician or a consumer.
"A radio station in New York called 92KTU asked me to do a show on Saturday nights from 11pm to two in the morning the same way that I would in a club. I'm not the sort of DJ who plays one record then the next; I was going back and forth between two copies of the same song, then going back to a record I was playing five minutes beforehand or I'd play the last two minutes of the song without playing the beginning. Then people would go into a store and ask for the version they'd heard on the radio and find it wasn't the version they'd heard. The record companies started calling me and saying 'what are you doing, that's not the single?'. They couldn't believe what I was doing was just with two turntables, so they'd come by and see me do it live in front of an audience and say 'wow, we should put it out that way'.
"They didn't really understand what it was I was doing and I didn't really understand what it was they were doing, so they invited me down to the studio to do some remixing."
Jellybean's break into production work came when he was remixing songs for Madonna's second album, Like a Virgin - she was a song short, he had a demo.
"She liked it, the record company liked it and the producer who'd recorded all the other songs was working on another project, so I talked them into letting me produce it. By then I'd had half-a-dozen No. 1 dance records as a remixer and they thought it was a good cred move to let me do it."
The song was called 'Holiday' and launched Madonna's career as a pop artist and Jellybean's as a record producer. Since then he's chalked up over 20 No. 1 hits and around 60 Top 10 hits in the States.
Madonna also had a hand in Jellybean's first LP, Wotupski!?!, singing on a number called 'Sidewalk Talk'. The album added a Top 20 chart hit and two dance No. 1s to Jellybean's already impressive biography. In retrospect the producer-turned-artist refers to the LP as "an experiment".
"I kept remixing records and people kept saying 'you should produce'. I got a deal with EMI but they couldn't find the right artist for me so I ended up doing a concept album and having a pop hit."
JUST VISITING THIS PLANET has produced a further three chart hits in Britain, 'Who Found Who', 'The Real Thing' and 'Jingo'. All are uptempo dancefloor workouts, two use different singers - Elisa Fiorillo and Steven Dante - and with programming drum machines and playing synthesisers and percussion. Add to that a rosta of around 40 session musicians and you've got an odd mixture for what is essentially a 'solo' album.
"I thought it'd be fun to make a record and not have to worry about anyone's ego except my own", he comments with some amusement. "Because of my somewhat adventurous nature and my work as a DJ, I found I was having to work within certain parameters because of the music business. Artists have to be able to recreate what they create in the studio live. They also have images that they have to work within - let's say you're working with a band with a guitar player: you have to have guitars in every song or, when they go on tour, this guy's going to sit around for two or three songs. The same holds true for a saxophone player, or if there isn't a saxophone player you can't use sax because no-one else in the band knows how to play sax.
"I didn't want to have to worry about any of that stuff, I wanted to make a record with as many dynamics as possible. If you listen to the hit singles I've had here you'll notice that in 'Who Found Who' there's rhythm guitar and female backgrounds; in 'The Real Thing' there's no guitars, no percussion and female and male backgrounds; and on 'Jingo' there's six percussionists, electric guitar, acoustic piano and acoustic bass. It would be very difficult for Sting, Whitney Houston or David Lee Roth to have those three songs on the same album and have hits with them.
"Just Visiting this Planet gave me an outlet for the frustrations I felt when I was producing other artists. If I'd sung the songs I'd probably have fallen into the same limitations that groups have. I don't want to tour, I want to be the Steely Dan of disco."
"The record companies didn't understand what I was doing and I didn't understand what they were doing, so they invited me down to the studio to do some remixing."
Single number four, 'Just a Mirage', showcases the singing talents of Adele Bertei, already noted for her contribution to Thomas Dolby's 'Hyperactive' and a tour with Culture Club.
"I wanted to take the opportunity to work with three young singer-songwriters and help launch their careers", he explains. "It's the vocal performance that sells the record so I try to make the song fit the artist rather than the artist fit the song. Usually I cut a song in a few different keys to get the optimum performance from the singer - I find where they're having problems with their pitch then that's the key I use because it becomes the most challenging to them. I want a performance and if they can sing a song really simply, I'm not going to get that great a performance.
"I'm happy with the results but I'm happier that people are starting to understand what I was trying to do. I didn't do it for the financial side, I did it to experiment. I was able to do things I couldn't do with other people's records - and I needed that. Now I can continue to remix; I've just done a Fleetwood Mac song, I've started work on a David Lee Roth song and I've just started work with two new artists for WEA Records. I've also had a lot of offers to produce artists in the UK."
Throughout his progression from DJ to remixer to producer to recording artiste, Jellybean has continued working the American club scene. New York's Heartthrob and Studio 54 now regularly pulse to his particular style of running mix. It's a side of his work that he treats more seriously than a night out or a massage for his ego.
"Club DJs are very much in touch with what's going on because they deal with a live audience", he explains. "A radio DJ plays songs and if people don't like 'em they switch off or switch to another station. Sometimes when they listen they're driving the car, doing their homework or watching TV so they're not really paying attention. A club DJ is in the trenches, if he plays a record and people don't like it the dance floor clears - he gets a reaction immediately. Clubs are the only place you really hear new music - you get immediate feedback so you can try things out. It's like a laboratory; car companies have test tracks, club DJs have dance floors."
ANOTHER ODD ASPECT of Jellybean's solo work is that he's never written a song, so far the closest he's come is cowriting one song on Just Visiting this Planet. Unconventional goes only some of the way to describing his attitude towards making music.
"I can't read music and I can't write it, but I can hum my ass off", he says casually.
"I just hear music in my head, I don't know anything about it until I get a keyboard player in and say 'hey, play this', then I'll hum something to the bass player... Finally it'll lock and they'll understand what I'm going on about.
"Sometimes I hear three or four things in my head at once and it's only in the last year-and-a-half that I've been able to figure out what I'm humming with respect to a keyboard. It's taken a while to connect what I hear in my head to what my hands play.
"Now I'm starting to learn about music - I'm doing it backwards but I don't see anything wrong with that. I wanted to learn how not why, now I want to know why so I'm learning piano. If you ever sit there and go 'why, why, why...' you never get to it. It's like reading a foreign language; until you hold a conversation it doesn't really come together."
Given his background as a DJ, you might expect Jellybean's musical priority to be the groove, and nothing but the groove. Not so...
"When I'm a DJ in a club I make the dancefloor move, I don't care about the song. I could do a house record in my sleep. I can create grooves that people love to dance to but no-one can remember. Instinctively I make the party happen; when you've got 3500 people dancing at eight, nine o'clock in the morning I don't worry about key changes. I'm going to put a record on that's going to send the place to the next level. It wasn't until about two years ago that I knew about different keys and I listened back to tapes of what I've done and found I'd been doing it all along.
"I remember one night Paul Simon came to the Funhouse and he was sitting in the DJ booth and he said 'do you realise you modulated that song into this one?'. Excuse me? It's not something you should worry about on the dancefloor; people are there to have a good time.
"Club DJs are very much in touch with what's going on because they deal with a live audience; if they play a record people don't like the dance floor clears."
"But when I'm doing a remix for release I don't forsake the song for the groove and I don't forsake the groove for the song, I try to find something in between them. When I make a record I need to touch people, if I can't touch them what's the point?"
If "the point" is the ultimately human one of communication - in this case through music - does the proliferation of hi-tech musical equipment help or hinder the exercise?
"With technology now you can make a record in your house. Technology gave me an opportunity to make records, but the basis of making a record is the song. I find, as a producer, that some songwriters spend so much time getting sounds and samples that they forget about writing the song. So what you have is a great-sounding record but no song. If the music business is to continue to sell records we can't keep recycling things, we need to tap into the creative side of our brains and come up with something new - and have technology to embellish it. You've got to be prepared to take technology and experiment, but you've got to ask 'why?'.
"People need to get back to melody and lyric. If you're not careful it becomes technology as opposed to what most recording artists stand for. I'm a big fan of hip hop, it's 'teen' music, it's the voice of kids from urban centres crying out. They have songs that appeal to their age group and their environment. It's very adventurous because those kids don't have the funds to make great-sounding records but they come up with a lot of passion and experience."
Jellybean's musical modus operandi involves a good cross-section of instrument technology most of which he keeps and works with at home before going into the studio ("There's no pressure and it doesn't cost anything..."). There are drum machines galore - Linn 9000, E-mu SP12, Roland TR808 ("Which I still love and a lot of producers hate.") - and a fair smattering of keyboards - TX816, Emulator II, JX8P, Super Jupiter - and an old MSQ700 for sequencing.
"What I use for each song depends on the song and what I feel will work for it. First I work with the arrangements at home and then I find someone who can help me musically to figure out exactly what I'm trying to do."
Whatever else he may be trying to do. Jellybean is not interested in using the Emulator to lift other peoples' sounds or recordings. Instead he relies on his own sampling skills and combinations of commercially available samples.
"There's a lot of copyright laws and a lot of confusion right now and the people who are making decisions about all this are not creative - they're all lawyers. I'm torn about the M/A/R/R/S single, as a club DJ I think it's brilliant and the fact that they pulled it off is even better. But I think the fact that the melody has been used by someone else for profit is unfair to the songwriter, the artist and the record company. And that's the problem with technology.
"If you take someone's bass drum or snare sound, it's still wrong but it's not melodic; when you take someone's melody and actual performance not only is it a copyright infringement, it's a master use infringement. If you steal melody or lyric, that's a copyright infringement and the publisher of the song and the songwriters are involved. If you take the actual recording, the record company can sue you, the artist can sue you and the songwriter and the publisher can sue you."
Yet similar techniques are being used by club DJs most nights of the week. The case for the defence:
"A club mix is an abstract form, it's not being sold for profit, the songwriter is getting performance royalties and it's promotion for the record. I don't know about here, but in the States ASCAP designates a certain amount of income from club records for the songwriters, so they're getting paid for usage."
In Britain the PRS (Performing Rights Society) handle royalties in the same way that ASCAP (the American Society of Composers And Performers) do, making the use of recordings for live mixing legal, while recording the same material in a similar way remains illegal. But is it artistically different and does the law have the right to stand in the way of art? As the man says, it'll be lawyers rather than musicians who will make the rules. In the meantime the rest of us will carry on making music as best we can. I think...
"I don't know when there'll be a next Jellybean album or what I'm going to do on it - whether I'm going to sing or make it all instrumental. I don't know and I don't want to set any 'definites' yet. There may never be another Jellybean record."
If more artists were as objective as Jellybean Benitez about their work, we might not be disappearing beneath a mountain of records only the record companies seem to need.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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