This is an interview with Larry Heard that I wrote for XLR8R in 1995. He needs no introduction, he is the alpha and omega of deep house. You cannot use that term without crediting him for its genesis and his inherent genius in creating it. It’s interesting to see how the US mainstream — especially radio — ducked around house music in the ’80s and ’90s, but now even pop artists like Kanye West are sampling Larry Heard. West used the bassline from “Mysteries Of Love” for his track “Fade.”
While the interview was being conducted Larry told me, off the record, that Sade had approached him personally — in 1992, if I remember correctly — and asked if he would produce an album for her. Needless to say, her label nixed the idea. Typical. However, Larry Heard’s music is anything but typical. Please enjoy the article below.
Larry Heard is one of house music’s earliest innovators and a dance music artist in the truest sense of the word, but has yet to reap the rewards that have come to his contemporaries. Chris Orr talks to Larry about his colorful career and his new projects.
As the focus of attention for house music switches back to its spiritual home of Chicago, thanks to the strength of releases on Cajual, Relief, Prescription and Large, it is perhaps fitting to talk to one of the people who made Chicago what it is, was and always will be, the city that reinvented disco. Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers and Fingers Inc., was one of the main players when strange, metallic music started to filter out of Chicago. His contemporaries included fresh hopefuls like Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Adonis, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, Ralphi Rosario and Marshall Jefferson. Each had his own style, but each style was a variant of the classic New York disco and R&B sounds that had been propelling the gay, black, and latino underground for well over a decade.
Frankie Knuckles was a veteran DJ of that scene and his residency at Chicago’s Warehouse club gave this new wave of underground dance music its focus and its name; house, the music that was played at the Warehouse. House was born out of Knuckles revolutionary blends of R&B classics with Euro sounds like Kraftwerk, Yello, Italo disco such as Harry Thumann’s “Underwater” and the hi-tech garage sound of New York labels like Prelude and West End. The dancers on the floor became the producers. Inspired by this visionary fusion, people like Marshall Jefferson put rock music aside and embraced the idea of a new music that would renew the sensual depths of Philadelphia Soul and the ecstatic peaks of Salsoul.
Larry Heard was different, he was a drummer in numerous jazz and rock outfits and he never attended the Warehouse. Furthermore he felt very creatively stifled by merely being part of the rhythm section of a band. He decided to overcome his limitations by investing in some electronic equipment, the rest is the beginning of the roots of deep, abstract house and a pretty big chunk of techno too. His first efforts accomplished more than he could have hoped for, early versions of ‘Mysteries of Love’ and “Washing Machine,” two tracks that would inspire house producers for a long time to come.
As we sat in a restaurant on Geary street on a calm Friday night with the ironic presence of pop dance music lilting in the background, Larry told me about his role in the development of house and how his early productions were house by mere coincidence. “Well, my music was something pretty similar to it because when people started hearing what I was producing, and these were friends of mine who went to the clubs, they would say that it sounded like house, like the music that Frankie Knuckles was spinning. I used to pass the Warehouse after school, on my way to work, late in the evening and I wondered why there were so many people hanging out in the street. I guess I was pretty naive.”
I ask Larry if his music turned out the way it did because he was into R&B and Euro electronics like Giorgio Moroder and Yello, and his taste combination was like Frankie’s mix combination. “Definitely, my music was a low budget version of what Moroder was producing, but definitely very low budget. The r ‘n’ b influence came from Parliament and Funkadelic, I was heavily into them at that time, I mean that’s what stands out, I grew up listening to a lot of music but I can’t really explain the kind of influence they exerted on what I do. I like other R&B stuff like “Mainline” by Black Ivory, but I didn’t hear tracks like that until I started going to the clubs in 1985. By this time, the Warehouse had closed down and Frankie Knuckles residency had moved to The Powerplant. I wasn’t really a party person, but I liked it, it was different for me. I used to go out once in a blue moon just to see what was going on.”
1985 was the year that house broke out of Chicago, it was beginning to form properly, find itself. Soon it would replace Hi-NRG as the preferred music in the ever-progressive gay clubs of Chicago and New York and make its first appearance in Europe, in the clubs of Northern England, Italy, Germany and Ibiza. By 1987, when the house bug had bitten anyone with a sense of hearing, Larry Heard was already an underground celebrity. He had gone on to produce “Can You Feel It?”, and “A Path,” his first project with Robert Owens. Robert had added vocals to ‘Mysteries of Love’ and by this time the track was a standard in Larry Levan’s sets at the Paradise Garage. He now had his own label, Alleviated Records, which was being distributed by Gherkin, and this was the imprint on which seminal deep house like “Just Another Lonely Day” by Blakk Society and “I’m Strong” by Robert appeared.
Larry has fond memories of Robert Owens, “Robert and I never rehearsed or scheduled anything, we just started working together. I met him in 1985 through another friend, Tony Harris, who was a DJ. In fact Robert and Tony were struggling DJs, underlings of Frankie Knuckles, who was the superstar. Tony told me that he knew a guy who could sing and write words. The next time I went out clubbing Tony introduced me to Robert, we swapped phone numbers, chit chatted on the phone a little and decided to get together and do something. What we did was “A Path,” the first thing we ever did, things really worked out by themselves when we got together and started throwing ideas back and forth. Robert never got the recognition he deserved and now he’s in England. I think the last time anyone in Chicago ever heard of Robert was when “I’ll Be Your Friend” was getting serious club play. “I’ve heard “Was I Here Before” (featuring the all star cast of Robert, Chip E., Adonis, Farley Jackmaster and Idjut Boys), but nobody in Chicago is aware of it.”
Larry seems quite disappointed that he hasn’t heard Robert’s new “Joint Venture” EP, but is still glad that Robert is lending his voice to superior house productions. But then, disappointment is something that Larry is used to, his bad treatment at the hands of the notorious heads of Chicago’s original house labels, Trax and DJ International would have killed any lesser soul’s enthusiasm straight away. “If Rocky Jones and Larry Sherman had more vision in those days they would be the house equivalents of R. Kelly and Teddy Riley. But, they had none and that is one of the reasons the Chicago scene all but disappeared. Back in 1987, people, especially Europeans, had this notion that the Chicago scene was all about house, that house was played everywhere, but it wasn’t like that, in fact, when Frankie Foncett and Rene Gelston (Larry’s manager) arrived from London they expected to hear house music coming out of the P.A. system in the airport lobby. If they had asked someone where they could hear house music they probably would have been escorted out of the building by security.” So House was shunned even in its place of birth, even the radio channels stopped airing it when the acid house sound started coming through in late 1986 and early 1987. Europe was giving house a frenzied reaction as it slowly died in Chicago, but this arid period didn’t constrain Larry’s vision and creative force.
The period 1987 to 1992 saw some of his best work, work that broke the conventions of house music before they had even formed. The producers that remained in the Windy City after the hype died down decided to take house in new directions. Some, like Steve Poindexter, Mike Dunn and Armando, explored a harder, more minimal, track sound, a sound that has informed the style of new artists like Boo Williams, Gemini and Cajmere. Frankie Knuckles and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley took the path to the major labels with their refined, R&B-inflected garage, while Hula, Maurice Joshua, Ron Carroll and those who made up Da Posse and Da Rebels stayed and made phat house music. Larry Heard took his own unique direction. His style was not just one sound, but an outpouring of vital creativity in many different directions. Between 1987 and 1991 he was releasing quality house on his Alleviated imprint, Kris Coleman’s “Shine,” “Prove it to Me” by Ron Wilson and the “Mr. Fingers” EP (that included the seminal techno cut “Stars“). He released the two Gherkin Jerks EPs on Gherkin Records and work on British label Black Market as The House Factors; these were his exploration of the track sound, hard, percussive and acidic, with Detroit-tinged keyboard work on top. He also produced two classic singles by Gallifre featuring Mondee Oliver, “Stay Close” and “Don’t Walk Out On Love” and his famous album as The It, On Top Of The World.
“This was a transition period for me, this was when Robert moved out of Chicago, I was left without a singer and that was a pretty important compenent for me. I was now getting inolved with things I never had to do before, Robert did all that before. Now I was learning to write lyrics between different projects. The more downtempo material like “Rainforest Serenade,” from the On Top Of The World album, was a move away from the standard four on the floor house sound. When I record albums people ask me how many house tracks are there. On Top Of The World, like some of my other work, was not that kind of project. Basically the environmental slant of the album came together in an unplanned fashion, Harri and I didn’t plan to make an environmental album, it just came together that way. I met Harri when I was doing keyboard work for Marshall Jefferson and Harri’s project Jungle Wonz, Harri was a kind of a poet, so when we hooked up again we worked on the words for the album which led to poetic pieces like “Gallimaufry Gallery,” which was a head shop in Chicago that Harri used to frequent, in fact, it was iust down the street from the studio.”
The album was released on Black Market in 1990, the mellow feel of this album and of classic tracks like the original version of “What About This Love” showed that Larry was about to take another direction entirely, a move towards adult oriented listening music. This period of diverse projects and activity led to Larry’s eventual signing to MCA for the 1992 release of his Mr. Fingers album, Introduction, perhaps the beginning of the most turbulent period of his career that would lead to his disillusionment with labels in general, regardless of whether they were indie or major.
“By this time I had realised where my niche was and, basically, an album like Introduction was suited to the ‘Quiet Storm’ type of radio formatting, I knew that, but I don’t think the label realized it. When Introduction came out it initially sold more copies than ‘Eric B and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat The Technique, which was also on MCA. So here you had a unique situation, a rap album being outsold by what would have been regarded as a dance album. So what happened next, nothing, the label just didn’t know what to do, they had a new artist and new music selling really well and they didn’t know what the next move was. I mean they did the usual things that major labels do with dance-oriented music, release some singles with remixes on them. I felt that this is not what this album is about, it’s not really DJ material, but that’s the route the label took. I had the same problem with the Back To Love album, with that project I wanted to delve a little further into what I had tapped into with the Introduction LP.”
“As I said, I had realized that the following for my music was with the ‘Quiet Storm’ radio stations, but MCA had other ideas and these didn’t really coincide with what I was thinking. They had Simon ‘Funky Ginger’ Law in to add a more danceable feel to the final mix of Back To Love and that’ s not what I wanted, I had it set in my mind that I wanted the ‘Quiet Storm’ audience because it was more stable, MCA had their ideas, so I said OK we’ll do it, this is business, you’re the record company so you know what to do or at least that’s what you’re leading me to believe. And, of course, it didn’t work, it didn’t even get released on MCA, I parted with MCA and that was quite easy because there had been changes in their UK management. So I took the album with me, Rene really liked it, so he released it on Black Market and had it licensed to a label in Japan. I was pretty indifferent at that point, my vision was gone, so I said if you put it out go ahead, but it’s not my vision, it’s not my project.”
1995 sees Larry Heard having survived the gauntlet of indie label and major label abuse and lack of vision. That sense of artistic survival is reflected in his new collection Sceneries Not Songs Vol. Tu. To say this collection is good is a serious understatement, here we have a completely instrumental project that will appeal to DJs and listeners regardless of whether they like ambient, contemporary R&B, garage, house, techno or trip hop. That’s a serious achievement, but also the foundation that house music was built on, no frontiers; racial, sexual or musical. Larry’s work is a pure form of music that does not stoop to purism.
“The Sceneries Not Songs projects are more of a creative thing, they’re not this whole big business thing, let’s do videos, remixes, blah, blah, blah, this whole hustle bustle that forgets about creativity. These projects are my own creative outlet, as is my new project, Alien, which will be coming soon on Black Market, it has a more new age type slant and is influenced by people like Eno, Kraftwerk and Wally Badarou. When you’re doing stuff on your own labels or on a label like Brett Wilcot’s Gherkin label you can do what you like, I mean I was selling stuff through Gherkin so they weren’t going to turn around and say you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Sceneries Not Songs Vol Tu and Alien are my next phase, I wouldn’t go back to releasing dance singles alone, I mean I’ve been through all that, I’ve been broke, that’s nothing new. A vinyl record is only going to sell a certain amount, I can count the people I know who have a turntable, they get on my case when they can’t get stuff on CD, they all wanted “Premonition of a Lost Love.” I don’t really buy records, I haven’t really bought vinyl in about three years and I live 30 miles west of Chicago so there are no specialist stores to shop in. To drive 30 miles to get a record, I mean it would have to be a pretty good record. There are no outlets for dance music in Chicago, the clubs don’t play new stuff, neither do the mix shows, you’ll hear Adonis’ “Rockin’ Down The House,” but you won’t hear Barabara Tucker.”
I ask Larry, as a final question, where he thinks house music goes next as he has been there since the very beginning. “(Laughs) or somewhere near the start, really I have no idea where it goes next, as I mentioned I’m pretty remote from what’s contemporary, you should ask someone like Ron Carroll or Ron Trent or Chez Damier, they could answer that question. What’s next for me is an album project with a guy named Ché, he’s a poet, so it’s in the same vein as The It album, but Che’s a much better poet than Harri (laughs). I’ve been playing keyboards with Chez Damier and Ron Trent in Detroit for some new Prescription stuff, I mean if they decide it’s something they can use it will get released. It was a kind of impromptu session, just playing things to get ideas and throwing ideas back and forward.”
Larry Heard has been throwing ideas at the dance music community for ten long years, producing some of the most evocative electronic music ever heard and influencing anyone who has ever made a dance track. 1996 should be his year if there is any justice in this world, basically if you’ve never listened to Larry Heard, Mr. Fingers, Fingers Inc., The It or The Gherkin Jerks then you haven’t totally experienced music. He is dance music’s first real artist, not an overnight success on the strength of one remix. His music crosses all boundaries and holds the universal promise, soul and optimism of the artists (many lost in obscurity or seperated from their beloved music) whose music flooded out of Chicago in 1985, unaware of the joy it would bring to the world.