Brooklyn native Todd Terry, has been a force in the house music scene for over 3 decades, has sold 10’s of millions of records, played all over the globe but once was a young kid steeped in hip hop attitude.
He was a Bboy and an MC who used to rock the bloc parities, then he seen Grandmaster Flash cutting up the records and decided he was gunna produce his own beats from scratch…. a legend was born.
I caught up with this imposing dude in Dublin to get it real….
Mike Mannix: Hi Todd you have got a long career going back 3 decades now so I am sure you are being asked questions all the time can you give us a bit of a highlight being based in New York on what gave you the itch to mix, how did it all kick off?
Todd Terry: Yo Mike me and my friends used to go to these kind of bizarre parties in the streets, block parties and that’s when I got interested in DJing.
M: So, what were your musical influences at the time your inspirations?
T: Man, I was more into the funk and the soul and the breakbeat, that’s what I got into and strictly drums, so I was more like into James Brown and that type of stuff, I was just interested in how they created all them sounds. It was the key thing to me how they recorded it, it was interesting.
M: You had a bit of a background in Hip Hop?
T: I started in Hip Hop first, we were into beat boy break type of thing and I used to be an MC and that was the whole thing, it was how we used to rock the parties.
M: That kind of gave you the inspiration to make your own beats?
T: Yeah I was into the DJ state of mind and I was more interested in how to mix the beats but not produce the records just yet. When I used to go out with my friends the clubs I got into records, I used to sneak into the clubs when I was 16 so that’s really when I wanted to figure it out. I just got into this really interesting stage when everything was going on and I started to check out what DJs were playing, I wanted to make my own tracks.
M: So what was the transition from the decks to actually producing?
T: I just felt as though I wanted to make the break longer, so I wanted to cut my own records with breaks but then I got the idea from Grandmaster Flash when he first played Freedom we noticed that he replayed the record. We tried to cut records back and forth so then I got into making beats from scratch.
M: So that got into you getting your first drum machine and your first equipment?
T: My first drum machine was a Roland TR 505 and I used to use that at my parties and they used to be like ‘yo he got a beat box, he has got a beat box’ and I used to throw the beat box in after certain records and people was just mesmerised that little machine could make that beat.
M: So, were you self-taught then?
T: Yeah I kind of taught myself, I used to just listen to records and try to mimic the records, I took records like ‘Let the Music Play’ or ‘Planet Rock’ and took it from those records. I know sound by sound, arrangement by arrangement.
M: So, you did it the hard way?
T: Yeah, I used to just figure it out, write it all down, how many tracks were in the: records, bassline, the clap, the snare, the formation of it, I wrote down everything.
M: It is different for our readers today where everything is just available on a laptop, we didn’t have anything like that at all.
I agree I mean if I had that (Laptops, construction kits, templates) back then, would I be here now? Ya know maybe not. I think it was the creativity that did it for me.
M: I interviewed Joey Beltram a few issues back and he said you were one of his biggest inspirations?
I was mesmerised by how hard Joey Beltrams music was,
it was like really fast and angry and crazy! I used to play all his records really slowed down except for ‘Energy Flash’ because that track was 123 BPM, but all the other records were 131 and 134, it was just like hard so I used to play them ones really slow. I think a lot of the cats back then had a lot of inspiration from each other, it was never a hatred thing. If Joey was playing somewhere we would go see Joey play. If I was playing in Chicago somewhere we would go and see Joey and say ‘Whats up, love your stuff man!’ So that was the love then Ya know, I think now it goes back and forth between some DJs egos, a lot of things are said behind closed doors that you wouldn’t believe but, ya know
men are always gonna have egos so if you get a little edge on him, he will cry! Dudes cry! It is a shame because some men have millions of dollars and they still cry!
M: I suppose in the era you came from it was all about that connection with music?
T: Yes, ya know it was New York, everybody was friends, everyone was trying to get on, make money, and make something out of their lives. We were all young and there was a scene in DJing, you wanted money, you wanted to have nice things you had to make records, that was my only way out I couldn’t do anything else I didn’t have any other aspirations so I just went on into the music. I quit the job I did whatever I had to do to supply the music.
M: And you’re still at the top of your game!?
T: I think my longevity in what I do is to stay current no matter what I am trying to do, my old school still means everything but you gotta get stuck in with the new kids and come up with some tech-house, techno all types of stuff. You have to mix it up or you are not going to survive out there it is a tough tackle, just to stay back in the days is not gonna work ya know. It is great to play them parties like I play half old, half new I think it’s the best way to keep the kids in and please the adults.
M: What’s inspiring you today then?
T: I think the surge of house coming back is my real drive right now, it was a hard gig to play after an EDM DJ, I had to really fight for my right technically and really bring the crowd back into civilisation. We had a phase of bleeps and we had a phase of EDM, I mean it is a hard tackle to keep house strong through all that. I didn’t want to sound like them.
M: EDM is definitely a thing on its own where it seems more corporate whereas where you came from it was all very organic, it was just something natural.
T: Well they just get radio ya know house records are just unable to get radio there is always a hard fight and you’re just like ‘play the record!’ I am a name I have been here a long time just play the record and let the people decide. Radio just tore house down and now they want to come back to it.
M: Everything just has a cycle.
T: Yeah but
the house cycle would have been a lot greater if we got a lot more radio play.
M: I am seeing a trend now with a lot of the EDMers finally growing up and transitioning through to the roots of dance music.
T: Well ya know they just can’t keep up playing with that synthesizer anymore, it goes for a little while and then somewhere along the way it loses it’s lacklustre.
It’s Music without music, it’s tough to keep that going.
M: Just touching back on a track I grew up with as well when you were under Royal House ‘Can You Party’, can you tell us a little bit about that?
T: My record signing at the time wouldn’t let me use Todd Terry so I had to come up with ideas to keep out there and keep my name out there so I was able to produce under other names and they were like ‘Okay well they own these three and they own them two’ and were like ‘well it was produced by you but under a different name’. I figure out a way to do it legally cos if I was to release it under Todd Terry Records or Todd Terry Project then I would only be able to release 5 records because that is what the contract said. Back then I didn’t have lawyers so at the time I just signed the thing and let me carry on making music because at the time I was more in a gangster mode like ‘If you don’t let me do what I want to do I will come and get you!’. I could have used Todd Terry on different labels so instead of doing that I came up with this, I kept it really easy because I didn’t want to fight with anybody but I was in the mode of if I didn’t get what I want I could use my muscle. I did that a couple times with labels because they were like
‘You signed a contract’ and I was like ‘I don’t give a fuck if I signed the contract, I’m here with two guys with guns’.
M: Okay, can you tell me a little bit about the track ‘Can You Party’ because that was one of my all-time favourite tracks?
T: Well ‘Can You Party’ was really a remix of ‘Party People’ and what happened was I got into this clarity thing so that’s why I came up with ‘Can You Party’ it was just for clarity. I was playing it to the guys at the label and I was like I came up with this track it’s like ‘Party People and its more energetic and it spit’s’, I was explaining it to them in colours I don’t know what I was drinking back then. I was trying to explain to them ‘It’s an orange thing, it sounds orange’ and they were just looking at me like ‘whatever, this is the craziest shit in the world, we don’t know what you’re talking about’. So I eventually got the track out and it took off, haha.
M: Massive that was.
T: Yeah it had the feeling that it had this party anthem thing going on. We were in the mastering studio with this guy called Dick Charles and he was like sixty something at the time and he goes ‘hey how are you doing’ and I think it was one of the first records I mastered with him. So, he was EQ-ing it and I was like ‘no let me EQ it, I know how I want it to sound’ so played some record and listened to it and put our record on and EQ-ed the shit out of it! Dick was like ‘there is a lot going on, I see what you’re trying to do you, you just want more punch out of what you’re doing, this is the way to do it.’ So, he started explaining to me that ‘it may work a little better if it was at 125bpm, this pumps a little bit better if you keep it there’ he explained.
M: Did you feel it was going to be such a hit as you were writing it?
T: The one that I was confused by was ‘A Day in the Life’ I was really confused about that track I was like ‘is that cool?’
I’m coming from a Rap background so everything had to be a gangster like, our gangster homeboys had to at least give me the head nod
on it so I mimicked in my mind certain things had to be tough. When my records came in they had to be more gangster than everyone else’s.
M: I suppose that was the attraction for Joey Beltram.
T: Yeah because I came out with those records and he came out with ‘Energy Flash’ straight after it was harder so I came back with I think it was ‘Jumpin’ with ‘Can you feel it?’, I think that was the attack on Joey Beltram-how hard can you make a record haha?
M: So that was kinda good in keeping you both on your toes in a way.
T: I had a couple records out and they were just like loud ass bangers but the label couldn’t get the mastering right and I was explaining to ‘let me do the mastering’ and this guy would not let me EQ it so there was a constant fight. This guy kept fucking up my records because he went for a mid-range clarity and I was like ‘no this shit has to have bass, it has to be hard, it has to sound like a Rap record, LL Cool J and Public Enemy’ he didn’t understand. Some of my anger was kicking in, I mean I had incidents with A and R guys right outside their office because they didn’t like my record. I think I was right because there was one incident where they were like ‘you have to change your drums, it’s too busy, you have to sound more like blah blah blah’ and I was like ‘fuck that’. He was like ‘why don’t you try to do another mix?’ and I was like ‘Nah’.
M: You stayed true to yourself?
Well yeah when you have a strong belief in what you’re doing it could be a super power or a super burden and you just kind of go with it and see where it takes you, you feel strongly about a subject you feel strongly about it. People are strong about war but, I feel strongly about a kick drum.
M: Any advice for the up and coming?
T: My advice is to try to find a style and try and find your own name rather than mimic others. Be original. I mean I was trying to sound like James Brown, but I ended up sounding like that this.
M: Okay the Last question then, so what’s coming up next?
T: I’m DJing with a lot of different DJs Josh Butler, Kenny Dope and I am doing a lot of different tours with people like Roland Clark and I am playing at Pacha with Bob Sinclair. My record labels are doing really well, all the labels just splitting out records, I just kinda wanna give everyone a shot-we have a really good promotion, we chart, we see the records that are out and we expose. I don’t know what the other labels are looking for but they’re missing out on a lot of good stuff, I guess they’re looking for names but I am not necessarily looking for a name but a good track if you are feeling it. I mean the track may not be a sensation now but in two years’ time, it may be. You have got to put it out there play it, let another DJ play it, get it in the right TV commercial if it’s good it’s good.
Live Interview – Mike Mannix