New York, 1987. The city's dancers are walking around in a daze. Throughout the seventies, they knew that the most innovative DJs, the best sound systems and the most dynamic party spaces were indisputably theirs. When the disco bubble burst in the second half of 1979, New York's night owls, gravitating to the Paradise Garage, Better Days, the Loft, Bond's and the soon-to-open Danceteria, Saint and Funhouse, didn't miss a beat. Thanks to the chaotically creative cross-fertilisation of dance, hip hop, electro and new wave, the early eighties were as audaciously vibrant and as thoroughly New York-like as anything that had passed in the seventies. But by 1987, the city's dance aficionados, facing a barrage of friendly fire (from without) and unfriendly fire (from within), had lost their footing to the point where they were no longer sure of their place in the dance music cosmos.
The friendly fire began when a motley collection of know-nothing Chicago kids ("producers" seems too elevated a title) started to knock out a form of raw and energised dance music -- "house" -- that took New York's hardened clubbers, DJs, producers and remixers by surprise. Many could barely disguise their disdain for such a manifestly rudimentary form of dance music, but they began to look isolated when Chicago house acts scampered up the UK charts in late 1986 and early 1987. That isolation deepened when the Chicago subgenre of Acid house, which offended almost every known New York sensibility, including those of an unapologetically disdainful Frankie Knuckles, began to cause veritable mayhem across the Atlantic in the second half of 1987 and the first half of 1988. Meanwhile Detroit Techno, which was also passed over by New Yorkers, started to establish regional and international footholds via releases from Model 500, Rhythim Is Rhythim and Santonio. All of a sudden, New York was no longer the home of generic innovation or the sole arbiter of cutting edge sensibilities.
Then again, the small talk of aesthetic sensibilities hardly seemed to matter when AIDS, the unfriendly fire from within, began to exact its then-lethal menace. By the mid-eighties dancers were dropping in significant numbers and in 1987 the owner of the Paradise Garage, Michael Brody, who was sick, announced that his venue, which had established itself as the unrivalled Mecca for international clubbers, was going to close over the last weekend in September. Larry Levan, the club's legendary DJ, played for most of the event, and when he cut the sound during First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder" on the Saturday night his dancers sang the missing line, It's not over, between you and me. As if they were throwing confetti at a funeral, unidentified partygoers started to scatter slips of paper that read "Save the Garage" around the venue and the guerrilla action, half flippant, half serious, inspired the gathered throng to dance even harder. But as the event entered its last twenty-four hours, and as limbs started to grow weary, the mood shifted from celebratory denial to barely controlled grief. Physically and psychologically shattered, dancers began to squat down and shake their heads in disbelief. When the party drew to a close at nine a.m., they lit candles and cried.
To many, the closure of the Garage marked the end of an era of musical dominance and during the last three months of 1987 there were few indications of rejuvenation and renewal. With the Loft and the Saint about to close, and the Sound Factory and the Shelter yet to open, an ominous vacuum lay at the centre of New York's Nightworld, and it was far from clear that the city's music makers were in a position to fill the void. Levan, the most influential remixer of his generation, had all but stopped working in the studio and (in the words of his Garage alternate and close confident David DePino) "was in a mess." Music acts such as Blaze ("If You Should Need a Friend") were emerging in tandem with labels such as Movin' Records, Ace Beat, Jump Street and Quark, although many felt that the most soulful sounds were being produced by Chicagoan Marshall Jefferson (Ce Ce Rogers "Some Day", Ten City "Devotion"). Def Mix (Judy Weinstein and David Morales) was incorporated at the end of 1987, but the organization would only acquire its powerhouse credentials when Frankie Knuckles joined the team a year later. "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, the dominant house production force of the first half of the 1990s, had yet to form Masters at Work. New York's renowned house labels -- Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm and Nervous -- had yet to release any records.
When Todd Terry entered this scene of relative stasis towards the end of 1987, he seemed to be part of the problem, not the solution. In a scene where everyone wanted to be in, he was strikingly aloof. Instead of indulging in the trademark talk of community, coming together and love, Terry saw the world in terms of competition, money and pragmatics. Unlike his peers, who would excitedly reveal their influences ("Larry Levan", "Tee Scott", "Bruce Forest", "David Mancuso") and their favourite hangouts ("The Garage", "Better Days", "The Loft"), he would simply shrug his shoulders and, as if he lived in a parallel universe, haltingly list an alternative group of favoured spinners ("DJ Baby J", "Jazzy J", "DJ Raul", "Jellybean", "Tony Smith", "Grandmaster Flash", "Steven Lewis") and locations ("Roseland", "The Roxy", "Club Northmoore", "The Funhouse", "125th Street", "The World"). His preferred music wasn't disco or dance or house, but rap and Latin hip hop/freestyle. He didn't so much scowl as not smile. Yet by the autumn of 1988 Terry had established himself as the hottest house producer in the city -- by quite some distance.
Born in Brooklyn in 1967, Terry started to work as a mobile DJ, spinning records at street parties and school events, plus the occasional wedding. Taking advantage of the devolved and democratised conditions of music production made possible by the introduction of cheap drum machine and synthesiser technology in the first half of the 1980s, Terry (along with neighbourhood buddies Trac and Mike Delgado) began to record raw hip hop beat tracks for his DJ sets and in 1987 he "started adding sounds" to his music. The record companies weren't interested. "I could never get a deal for the rap," he says. "I tried to take it to the labels but they weren't into it." The young producer's self-belief remained in tact. "That music was way ahead of its time."
In order to make ends meet, Terry turned from hip hop to freestyle and produced a string of cuts including Masters at Work "Alright Alright" and "Dum Dum Cry" (the name was borrowed from his friend Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez; both records were released on Fourth Floor in 1987) and Giggles "Love Letters" (which Terry co-produced with Eddie Mercado and Zahid Tariq for Cutting Records in 1987). Around the same time, Terry also released "Flight 16" on Cutting Records, which he says was his "first ever dance track". "When I made it, it didn't really have any kind of genre," he comments on Trust the DJ. "People tried to call it different things, but it was pretty much in the middle of everything. It had elements of hip-hop, elements of house and elements of jungle."
Terry's breakthrough slab of vinyl -- and his first fully-fledged house track -- was "Party People", which he laid down in the autumn of 1987. Operating out of a makeshift bedroom studio that consisted of a sampler and a modest collection of drum machines, including the Casio RZ1, Terry laid down a foundation of beats that consisted of a tough, dry four-on-the-floor bass, a swarm of sibilant hi-hats and snares, and a loop of aggressively funky punched-out toms. Into this structure, which was more reminiscent of the locomotive funk of James Brown than the build and break of disco, Terry wove a series of disconnected, floating samples (including "Gotta have house music" and "P-p-p-p-party people") and rhythmic synth stabs. Disorienting yet structured, claustrophobic yet euphoric, "Party People" became the grounding template for decentred, sample-driven dance, a montage-oriented art form that took dancers on a furious drive into the unknown. As Simon Reynolds later put it in Energy Flash, "Party People" "is like a series of crescendos and detonations, a frenzy of context-less intensities without rhyme or reason."
"Little" Louie Vega, an up-and-coming DJ who was working at Heartthrob, remembers the moment he first received "Party People". "This guy came up to the booth and said, 'My name is Todd Terry. I just wanted to give you these new jams,'" recalls the spinner, who proceeded to listen to the track through his headphones. "I was like, 'Wow! This is powerful!'" Vega put on the tape straight away. "There was an instant reaction on the dance floor," he says. "I was playing 'Party People' six to nine months before it came out, so I got everybody into that sound." If Terry was excited, he didn't let on. "'Party People' was my first hit and my first house record," he says matter-of-factly. "There was a demand for house and I made it."
Over the next twelve months, Terry proceeded to produce, he estimates, an astonishing forty sides of material. "On average, a week for a single and two weeks for an album," he told NME in November 1988. "I don't waste time. I go in with the ideas, get them down and cut them. If I get a roll on things I can put together an album in two weeks." This was the production cycle of a streetwise pragmatist, not a studio perfectionist. "I hear most people spend a year and a lotta money," he added. "Most albums cost anything from 50 to 100 grand but I'd spend five grand. And that's exaggeratin' it."
Terry's year of relentless production began with Royal House "Can You Party" (which included the infamous police siren coda and "Can You Feel It?/"Ooh, baby" chants), Black Riot "A Day In the Life" (which revolved around a steady groove and riveting synth line) and the Todd Terry Project "Bango" (which sampled Lola Blank's stranger-than-strange vocal on Dinosaur L's "Go Bang"). Then, in close succession and an impossible-to-trace sequence, he delivered "In the Name of Love" (Swan Lake), "Weekend" (Todd Terry Project), "Yeah Buddy" (Royal House), "Just Wanna Dance" (Todd Terry Project), "Back to the Beat" (Todd Terry Project), "Dreams of Santa Anna/The Texan" (Orange Lemon) and "I'll House You" (Jungle Brothers). Albums by Royal House, the Todd Terry Project and Black Riot appeared in a synchronised storm at the end of the year. With no interest in pausing for breath, Terry promising a fourth LP -- by Swan Lake -- at the beginning of 1989.
There was no known precedent for this kind of output, at least not in dance, and despite the conveyor-belt aesthetic of Terry's beats-with-samples music this was no dance floor fodder. Louie Vega and David Morales struck up a tight alliance with Terry that was almost certainly motivated by the utilitarian motive of laying their itchy DJ fingers on his latest vinyl, and in the UK, where dance mania was gathering pace, dancers and journalists alike crowned him the undisputed producer of the year (and this in an era before the dance press acquired its penchant for drum-roll hyperbole).
Blues & Soul commented in June that Terry was "creating all the tremors around the dance floors". In October 1988 the Face noted, "In the past year Todd has quietly built up an awesome catalogue of dance floor hits". Then, in November, MixMag pronounced Terry to be "the current superstar of House Music" before adding, "the style of Todd Terry's house music cannot be classified as anything except his own". The NME simultaneously dubbed Terry as "possibly the ultimate producer", "the undisputed Heavyweight of House" and "'88's most reluctant face." Jay Strongman, reviewing the year in dance for MixMag, concluded the rave reviews by noting, "Todd Terry took the dance floors by storm with his electric mix of hip hop beats and house rhythms." He added, "The undisputed producer of the year… it wasn't unusual to hear jocks spinning five or six Terry productions in a row in clubs right across the country." In most of these articles, Terry was unblushingly referred to as "Todd the God".
The majors inevitably started to approach Terry with remix opportunities, but the producer kept his distance. "What they really want is for me to make it sound like a Todd Terry record," he told the Face in October. "They expect me to fix up their messes and make them hits. That's why I stick to my projects -- I don't like to involve too many people, because it gets out of hand after a while." Terry's modus operandi of lightning quick productions and near-instantaneous releases on shrewd independents reinforced his belief that working with the majors would end in frustration. "I can't handle the way in which the majors work," he told MixMag. "They just don't wanna understand dance music. I mean their release schedules are so delayed that by the time they get the record out, the tune's almost died. It has to be spontaneous."
Throughout this period, Terry, rarely seen outside his home studio and unreadable when he was, thickened the mystique surrounding his identity by deploying a series of pseudonyms that pointed towards different styles within his output. Royal House, he noted, "is rap style", Black Riot leant "towards an R&B style", Orange Lemon was "Latin-hip-hop-House" and the Todd Terry Project was "more commercial dance". In fact the sonic line that ran between these moniker-guises -- a Kraftwerkian mechanical-yet-funky beat overlaid with a cornucopia of samples -- was always more notable than any differences. Yet the monikers served a legal purpose inasmuch as they enabled Terry, acting in octopus overdrive, to avoid any legal skirmishes as he simultaneously extended his tentacles into several different labels. In marketing terms, his schizoid identity also helped him release more than one track at a time without competing against himself.
Terry's aesthetic inevitably drew parallels with rap, and his open preference for rap over house seemingly confirmed the suspicion that he his clandestine project was to bring hip hop aesthetics into Clubland. "There are few precedents for Todd Terry's work-in-progress," commented NME. "The closest you'll come is Kurtis Mantronik's early work, a series of techno-rap grooves bearing the tell tale signatures and subliminal auto suggestion of an aural obsessive." The parallel was far from outlandish. Like Mantronoix, Terry was concerned with transforming and relocating sound sources within a playful, up-tempo beat framework, and the potential for house and hip hop (which were being played back-to-back in a number of New York spots) to engage in a productive exchange was confirmed when the Jungle Brothers hooked up with Terry and laid a rap over "Party People". "This is the next step in rap music," declared Dance Music Report, "as it gets big in the clubs."
Terry maintains that no subterfuge (or otherwise) strategy existed -- "I wasn't trying to make a statement. I was just having fun with it and paying the bills" -- and that Chicago rather than the Bronx was his key reference point. "I just manipulated the Chicago house sound," says Terry. "I was basically stealing their sound. Marshall Jefferson 'Move Your Body', Steve 'Silk' Hurley 'Music Is the Key', Adonis 'No Way Back' -- those records were definitely my influence. They were the originals, and I just copied them and gave it a New York feel." Yet Terry's take on "New York" was certainly more ghetto than Garage, and that predilection came into focus when the offshoot genres of "deep house" and "garage" or "deep house" came into focus following the closure of Brody's King Street venue.
"When New York's Paradise Garage closed, the city lost part of its pulse, leaving only a brand of Eighties disco called Garage," David Toop wrote in the Face in December 1988. "In Chicago, it became known as Deep House, but out in the hinterlands of New Jersey where the music is now made, they call it simply Club; no passing dance fad, but part of a tradition that stretches back to a time when emotion was more important than the digital burn." Jefferson, who was pioneering the sound, told Toop: "One thing I don't like about modern music… ahh, people don't give you time to do a long crescendo." Jefferson concluded, "You have to go for the throat right off the bat. You have to go for sensationalism or the label says it's not a hit. There's no more mood music, man, anymore. That's what music needs now."
Terry, however, had little time for the subtle, atmosphere-oriented shifts of bass, vocals and instrumentation that characterised this nascent sound. "I wasn't into deep soulful house music," he says. "I always wanted something more energetic. That was always my key. When I hang out on the dance floor I want to be hyped, so that's what I try to create." Indifferent to the neo-religious, atmosphere-soaked environments of the Loft and the Garage, Shelter and the Underground Network, Body & Soul and the 718 Sessions, he adds: "Some deep house is nice, but it doesn't make you dance. I need to party. I'll put soul into a record, but it needs a strong drum. I'll put in sampling, but it has to be energetic."
Strong as his drums may have been, it was his use of sampling that became Terry's trademark. "First come the drum and bass and then the key lies with catchy sample-hooks or a good melody," Terry, confirming his production priorities, told MixMag in November 1988. "Really, though, it's the catchy sample-hooks that are the most important." The approach was innovative, at least within the relatively secluded world of dance. Chicago producers had leant heavily on disco, but, just like early hip hop and electro acts, they mimicked rather than sampled their favourite sounds, recreating, for example, the bass line from "Let No Man Put Asunder" or the vocal from "Music Is the Answer". With the release of "Party People", Terry changed all of that over night, and in so doing drew on the current trend in hip hop, which was to search beyond the most obvious sound sources (seventies funk riffs) and try something different (the sourcing a doo-wop vocal line on "Plug Tunin'" by De La Soul, or Sugar Bear utilising "Once In a Lifetime" by Talking Heads).
Combing through his record crates in order to dig out magical clips, Terry finally focused on three seminal sound sources: dance artists Marshall Jefferson and Arthur Russell, plus a rapper called Original Concept. "That's where I was getting the drums and kicks and snares," he confirms. The key Jefferson track was "Move Your Body". ("All the samples for 'Can You Party' and 'Party People' came from there") and the most important Russell records were "Go Bang" and 'Schoobell /Treehouse' ("Arthur Russell had a great organic touch. His sound was great for me to get snippets from").
Brilliant yet notoriously defuse, the Arthur Russell cuts illustrated the way in which sampling, still widely assumed to be an uncreative act of pillaging, required a willingness to dig deep plus a sharp ear and an ability to recontextualise sounds. "Arthur Russell always had a lot of parts to deal with," says Terry. "His records wouldn't always come together, so it made it easier for me to bring them together." In the case of "Bango", Terry isolated the female vocal that had been discarded by Russell but rescued by François Kevorkian in his classic twelve-inch remix of the album cut for Sleeping Bag. "I Arthur Russell after the release of 'Bango' and we worked something out," says Terry. "I don't know if he was too keen about the record, but he got half of the publishing."
Whether or not the creative processes are comparable -- and in the example of "Go Bang" and "Bango" they aren't -- Terry was working within the long-established parameters of black art. As Toni Morrison puts it, "The major things black art has to have are these: it must have the ability to use found objects, the appearance of using found things. And it must look effortless." Like an expert DJ who would recycle existing sounds in order to create new combinations, Terry was so skilled at the art of sampling that other producers soon started to sample his work. "Although I will sample material, all samples are changed and modified before I incorporate them into one of my tracks," `terry told MixMag in a defence of his practice. "Other people who maybe sample a bass sound not only don't change it slightly, but will actually sample the whole bass line and use it in a track -- this happened with a lot of my riffs many times. To me this is criminal, so much so that I am definitely going to sue those who plagiarize me."
Terry didn't channel too much of his energy towards the courts, with 1989 another frenzied year for the producer. Releases included D.M.S "And the Beat Goes On", Royal House "Can Y'all Get Funky", the Todd Terry Project "The Circus" and Lime Life "I Wanna Go Bang/Cause Your Right on Time", and between 1992 and 1995 he continued to provide DJs and dancers with a dubbed-out supply of grooves via the Freeze label, which he formed with Will Socolov, the co-founder, along with Arthur Russell, of Sleeping Bag Records. Tough and increasingly tribal, the Unreleased Projects and the House of Gypsies releases all date from this period.
By the early nineties, however, the critics were starting to doubt the man they had elevated to the status of the divine. "At one point I had everybody on my list," says Terry. "Louie, David, everybody was playing my sound. That's what was hot. They had to play it. But if someone is hot they’ll tear them down, so I started getting this, 'He ain't shit!' type of thing and, 'All he knows is how to do a sample!' type of thing. I knew I had to go into different mode -- with remixing -- and those songs were so hot they couldn't tear me down."
Terry's 1995 remix of "Missing" by Everything But the Girl, an international hit, became the crowning moment of a his remixing output, and reworkings of Björk, Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Malcolm McLaren, George Michael, Robert Plant, Sting, Technotronic, Tina Turner confirmed his major player status. "To me, Everything But the Girl was just another remix, but it brought me into the mainstream of remixing," remembers Terry. "After that, everyone wanted me." Terry also released a collection of his tracks on A Day In the Life (Ministry of Sound) in the same year and the record ended up paving the way for a production deal with Mercury Records. Terry's first release, "Keep On Jumpin'", which featured disco legends Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown singing in tandem for the first time, hit the UK Top Ten. The follow up, "Somethin Going On", was similarly successful.
As he puts it, Terry's latest project is to "make the old school new again". That's why Past, Present & Future contains the best of his groundbreaking 1988-89 output, as well as a series of previously unreleased tracks (including "Jumpin Remix", "Trippin'", "Soul Glow", "Don't Stop", "Touch Dub", "4 You" and "Never Gonna Change") and new records (including "This Shit Is 4 Real", "Texican 2005", "Can You Remix" and "New Gypsy"). The back-catalogue rarities include not only house but also "freestyle, Miami Bass and some trippy-type tracks as well." The new tracks, though, are straight-up, get-down house. "I'm starting all over again," says Terry, as sure of himself as ever. "I'm going to stick with the old school sound. That's what works best for me and that's what work best in the clubs."