I remember this interview mainly because Curtis, aka Cajmere and Green Velvet, was really fun to talk to and did a lot of laughing and giggling throughout our phone interview, while also making intelligent comments about house music and Cajual’s (his label) role in the dance music world. If I remember correctly I wrote this at the end of 1995 and it was published in early 1996. I started writing for XLR8R some time earlier in ’95. Before I left Ireland I met an American musician named Jay Ahern — producer of the Aquarhythms records and who can now be found working in the bowels of Hardwax in Berlin — who told me to contact XLR8R when I got to SF as I mentioned to him that I had studied journalism and was writing for a couple of small publications in Ireland.
I worked for XLR8R for two years for no pay from ’95 to ’97, in order to get a body of work together. Though I did blag…I mean procure…an obscene amount of promos. I had no computer at my house — did anyone in ’95? — so I would go over to the XLR8R office on Divisadero at around 5:30AM or 6:00AM, conduct interviews, transcribe them, or write reviews and then go to work moving furniture, often til 10:00PM. I probably did this a few times a week during the deadline crunch in that two year stretch. Enough martyrdom, here’s the Cajmere piece.
Caj, A Rising Star
Chris Orr talks to Cajual’s head honcho about delicate matters like success, family tension and Gary Numan
It’s quite obvious that Cajual is the mainstay of the newly revived interest in the Windy City, but where would Cajual be without founding father, stout, brave house innovator and wearer of some pretty crazy wigs, Cajmere? Simple, Cajual wouldn’t exist, but Cajmere would probably still be wearing the wigs and being an all round fun guy. In this interview I asked Caj (as he is known to the Cajual crew) a load of questions and wasted a lot of his time; great thing was he didn’t mind at all. So in a telephone call to a rather busy (given the amount of music, talking, chortling and guffawing going on in the background) Cajual office Cajmere laid out the secrets of Cajual’s success, how it’s a family affair, and the whys and wherefores of the label and its offshoots.
“I set it up because I really love house music and I sorta had a vision of the way I wanted things to go. I had done things on another label and I could see that things weren’t going the way I wanted them to. I decided to go and do it myself which is a little crazy (Cajmeresque giggling). Our first release was “Brighter Days” by Dajae back in ’92, I imagined it would just be one label, but with subsidiary labels you don’t confuse the DJs. I mean the market is getting more and more specialized, I don’t understand it, but that’s the way it is. I hadn’t intended on starting a Chicago renaissance, my whole thing is that I want to make sure that the music is always around, ‘cos I just love house music. For me that’s all I want to do, that’s why I have the label, it’s so that people who I like myself can make music, the music is a part of my life and it’s a part of other people’s too. It’s really important that it’s always around for those who really want it to be and to stop the major labels saying it’s over when there are people who still listen to it.”
It’s quite evident that Cajmere loves house, he made that statement at least three times in reply to my first question, enthusiasm like that is only to be commended and is a inspiration to those who love the music for the right reasons. So in the city where disco never died where did Cajmere’s inspiration come from? “I really like Sly Stone and Grace Jones, those are the artists I like the most but there are a whole slew of people who inspired me, basically anything that came out in the 70s. My father was a DJ and he played a lot of that kind of music, but he didn’t just play disco, he played funk and blues as well. That’s where my diversity comes from, that’s why my productions cover different bases. In 1982 when the house sound was starting to form I was into new wave stuff like Gary Numan, ‘Burning Down The House’ by Talking Heads, Blondie. To me Jamie Principle’s first records are new wave. You know it’s funny I did a top ten, recently, of the records that most influenced me, it was a little weird when I was doing it because it made me think about the way I am today.”
I asked Cajmere if he would like to see Cajual getting the same kind of success as Strictly Rhythm or did he feel that this would weaken the label’s underground status? “Well, the only way it could be successful is if people are still really into it, as long as it’s still respected. There are people that I would like to add to the label, like Martha Wash and the Deep Dish boys ‘cos I like them (laughs).” I ask him if he would sign Sharam and Dubfire because of their sound. “Not neccessarily their sound, I like them (laughs), they’re cool, I was just talking to them today. Let me see, who else would I like to add umm, that’s okay, just put Martha down, Deep Dish, they get enough praise (obviously taking the piss, in fact one of them was probably standing in the office while this interview was going on). I’d like to work with Larry Heard, Larry’s done it all, I can’t think of anyone else.”
Cajmere’s ‘Underground Goodies’ EPs and mixes and his work as Green Velvet have really championed the Chicago track sound, but some people are quite dismissive of it, seeing it as basic, a Chicago variant of noisy, banging, aimless techno and not a real black music form. People are now calling this sound, ‘Ghetto House’, so no doubt, certain critics etc. will begin to give negative press to this title.
“Ghetto House is the stuff that Dancemania does, they called it that because it’s mostly played in the Ghettoes. To me the track sound is for moving, dancing, I mean different musics are geared to different things. If you want to go and jack you won’t want to hear all-out vocal type records, tracks are for those who really like to dance or whatever. You can listen to a track and be so into it that you don’t need to dance with somebody else, you just feel real good. As far as black music is concerned, it just depends on what you define black music and black people as, because I don’t know how many people in Africa listen to disco. It depends on the society you come from and how you perceive music, if you come from an open environment where you listen to everything then your opinion of music is going to be different. There are so many people in this world and I don’t think that anybody should hold one person’s musical opinion as gospel. The techno aspect of Chicago comes from the fact that Detroit and Chicago started round about the same time, we were sorta on the same vibe, we probably influenced one another. New York got the house part of this development a little bit later, Chicago and Detroit are on the same page. Both scenes listened to a of of imported records, so that’s another reason why we have something in common.”
In 1986 and 1987 when Chicago appeared out of nowhere many journalists and djs referred to it as the city where disco never died simply because it remained popular long after the press and the mainstream had bashed it. Artists like Braxton Holmes and DJ Sneak who record for Cajual still use disco as a strong focal point so obviously disco still plays a major role in this city’s dance music scene. “I think Chicago is the city where disco never died, you know I don’t wanna be carrying on this disco legend, even though we make a lot of sampled disco tracks. What I would be a lot more satisfied with is if these were actual disco records instead of rehashes of old ideas. I always thought we would be a lot more instrumental in renewing the good aspects of the disco era if we were doing new disco records. I sorta tried to do new disco (anyone for nu-disco?) when I did “U Got Me Up” with Dajae. You always have to move on, but disco is important because it is the foundation, you don’t need to abandon things in order to progress.’
Cajual and its offshoots have released so much quality material that people are now talking about Chicago overtaking New York as the main centre for the production of cutting edge house music. However, because New York has been so prominent for so long many house fans still feel that Chicago will always be in the shadow of New York. “I don’t think we are in the shadow of New York, New York has its market and we have ours. A lot of people play just New York stuff, if someone plays Chicago style then he or she will play Detroit stuff too. When people play like that I think that they’re missing something. I don’t think New York is as radical as Chicago, not unless there’s something I haven’t heard, there are some people doing progressive music, like Empire State Records, for instance, but by and large it’s the same old, same old.’
Another aspect of Cajual is that there are so many producers, promotional people (like the hardworking, but consistently gracious, Ivan Pavlovich) and others involved in the label that I am sure that there are times when nerves get a little frayed and personalities might well clash. “Sometimes it gets chaotic and nerve-wracking but you know what it is, it’s a family and there’s some days that everyone hates one another. But, you sort of realize that no matter what, you’re going to have to see the other person the next day or whatever, so you just see things as phases. That’s what it’s like to me, some people hate each other, it’s just like how you would hate someone in your family sometimes. I mean being around anyone for a long time you would start to get on each other’s nerves. Because we are such a small community we have no choice but to get on each other’s nerves ‘cos we’re around each other all the time.”
I decided to finish the interview so I told Cajmere that I would cut him loose, I don’t know if he misunderstood what I said or if he was just looking for an excuse to give himself props, but this was his response, “But the cutting edge stuff I would say is (big giggle) Green Velvet” (Caj’s other nom de groove). I told him that I knew he would say something like that, and anyway just being weird doesn’t mean that you’re cutting edge. “(more giggling) There’s a good way of being crazy and weird and a bad way, like my track “I’m Losing My Mind’; I think that has musical integrity to a certain degree. It’s trying to reach a different part of the psyche, I don’t know which part but, it is a different part. It’s music that you get locked into, the more you listen to it the more you get into it, it’s a psychological groove, a psychedelic groove. The thing I like about it is that, mean I really don’t do drugs, but when you lister to it you feel like you’ve done something. That’s what I like about it, but some people don’t get to that point because they can’t stand listening to i that long (laughs).” So Cajual’s going from strength to strength, Cajmere’s vision is well on the way tc being fulfilled and we can expect more quality releases in the future. The striking thing about Cajmere is that he doesn’t come across as a label boss, he comes across as someone who enjoys a good time and who enjoys house music, perhaps that’s all it takes, and of course wearing green wigs and questionable footwear. Hopefully he will grace San Francisco with his fun loving presence sometime in the future. Until then we have the tunes and new hope for Chicago.
Cajmere’s Top 13 (I wasn’t counting) of all time.
01) Sly Stone – If You Want Me To Stay
02) BB King – I Never Make My Move Too Soon
03) Grace Jones -Slave To The Rhythm
04) Soft Cell – Tainted Love
05) Liaisons Dangereuse – Peut Être … Pas
06) Liaisons Dangereuse – Los Niños Del Parque
07) Art of Noise – Beatbox
08) Ministry – Hallowe’en
09) Jamie Principle – Bad Boy (Original tape version)
10) Kraftwerk – Numbers
11) Parliament – Flashlight
12) Dajae – Brighter Days
13) Dajae – Let Me Be