Saturday Mass: exploring the art of the resident with Mike Dunn

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Saturday Mass: a new interview series that tips its hat to Larry Levan and explores the art of the resident with some of the best in the business.

In an age where the touring headline DJ is king, gone are the days of one DJ one club. That’s not to say we’re knocking the trend, for it gives us access to some of the world’s best selectors on our own doorstep. But that still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate those who specialise in the long game. Where better to start this series than in a city that was built on such an approach, and produced one of the original resident DJs. By that we of course mean Frankie Knuckles and Chicago.

After Frankie Knuckles played the opening night at the (second) Warehouse, he passed the baton to Mike Dunn, who occupied a Saturday night spot until its premature relocation. Lauded by Ron Hardy as one to carry the torch after he departed, this is a man whose own story is deeply intertwined with the heritage of Chicago house. Unsurprisingly, he has a few good stories to tell: missed opportunies with Ron Hardy, bumping Joe Smooth down the DJ pecking order, distracting Frankie Knuckles with his singing, and seeing Armando drunker than he’s ever been. In and amongst that, we also went deep into the art of the resident and his own approach to the craft, still going strong at a weekly Tuesday spot at Reynolds.

Catch Mike Dunn at Dance Tunnel tonight for Thunder, and later this year at Farr Festival

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Hey Mike, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. First a few ice-breakers. What are some of the qualities you think makes a good residency?

Soundsystem, a great DJ, open-minded and musically wise people and, of course, a nice spot.

As an extension, what do you think makes a good resident?

A great resident is a DJ who isn’t afraid of his crowd. A lot of DJs want to play all the hottest records within an hour and keep the floor packed, but it takes more than that to be a resident; you’ve got to spread the night out. You don’t want to be redundant, playing the same thing out every week. Of course you want to play the hottest stuff every week, because that’s the thing now. People want to play a whole other different set every week and you lose the thing of breaking records. DJs used to break records, and the only way you could break records was to play them continuously every week until the crowd caught on. Some records caught on first time you play them and some may take a little while.

It’s also important to know your crowd. DJs will get to a point where they’re scared to play what people might not like. I’m not scared of my crowd, and I guess that’s what’s kept Reynolds going so long, because I’ve learnt from a lot of the best. I’ve done residencies at the at the Courtyard in my younger days, Warehouse and then the House, so I’ve always been a resident type of DJ. I’ve never been a DJ that was hired for an hour here or there. I do it now but my strongest qualities is being a resident.

Who have been some of your favourite residents over the years?

I know it’s a cliché but of course Frankie Knuckles is my ultimate resident, then there’s Ron Hardy, Michael Ezebukwu when he had his residency at the Rink Zone. As of now, there’s Terry Hunter and Louie Vega. I don’t know if Joe Claussell has a residency, but he’s one of my favourites DJ. I love Joe! I just like his passion and energy, and I can tell that he’s into what he does. That’s what clings me to him as a DJ and then his selection is just crazy.

How do you think the role and importance of the resident changed since you first started?

The roles have changed because they don’t hardly do residents any longer. I understand that every DJ wants a chance to play somewhere, but none of us got to play at The Plant until Frankie and Ron left. None of played at The Box. That was unheard of. We wouldn’t dare come to Frank or Ronnie like that. We came out to hear them at their spot, and come back home to the neighbourhoods where we were playing, and play a lot of the stuff that couldn’t go at those clubs. So for me, it’s changed a lot because the residency thing is rare, especially in Chicago. They jump all over the place. I guess that’s why Reynolds works because you know what you’re gonna get when you’re coming. And then some spots you come and the DJ is there playing, tearing it up, he’s banging the box. You go tell your friends, then the next week is a whole other DJ and the music’s changed.

How did you first come to be a resident at (the second) Warehouse in Chicago? Are we right in thinking it had something to do with outshining Joe Smooth on one of the first nights?

We called that the Warehouse on Randolf. When they first started the club, the first night was Halloween and Frankie rightfully opened the club up. There were three owners of the club – Rocky Jones, Joe Smooth and Julian Perez and the club was supposed to be based around Julian and Joe; Joe with the black crowd and Julian with the white and Latin crowd. Julian was at B96 and Joe was at Smart Bar up north.

It was only the first floor opened at first, as they were getting the basement and upstairs together. After they got the basement done, Rocky asked me if I wanted to play and I was like “yeah, yeah, for sho!” So I started playing in the basement – and I don’t want to sound big-headed or dissing Joe Smooth – but everyone was packed down there, and the upstairs was thin. So, one night Julian came through to check on the club and he saw that in the basement you couldn’t fit another shoe in, while the main floor upstairs was real thin. So I guess they had a meeting amongst themselves and Julian and Rocky outvoted Joe to move me upstairs and move Joe downstairs. I don’t think Joe was happy about that, but he did it anyway for the sake of the business. So that’s how I became the main resident on a Saturday night. 

Getting to know the environment you play is important to get the best out of it. Did you have a chance to familiarize yourself with the space and atmosphere at Warehouse – from a dancer’s POV – before your first set?

DJ International was across the street, so we were able to come back and forth to see things being put together. So, once the club was done and Rocky walked us through looking at the space, I thought this was a dream club. I didn’t think I’d be playing there though. And of course, the first night I was familiarized with it when Frankie opened the night. I danced all night, I remember that was the first time he played ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ by Robert Owens and I was singing it on the floor. I’m on the floor singing and Craig Loftus – who was working the lights – came down saying Frankie’s asking who that was singing!

I came from the dancing, so I knew all the records, I knew all the songs, knew all the words. I was just listening to tapes all day, all night. House music, disco, everything, so I was familiar with the spot.

What are some standout memories from your time at the Warehouse?

Well a lot of them I can’t talk about, but I remember a few! Ron Hardy sneaking into the club to hear me play, when he was sick, right before he passed. Armando’s birthday’s party, and he got so drunk and he fell out. I got those pictures somewhere, but I don’t know where! It was a crazy birthday party. We were laughing so hard. He was wasted!

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What was it like working alongside Ron Hardy? We’ve read that just before he passed, he came to Warehouse specifically to come say hi behind the booth and “pass the torch”. What were some of the key lessons you gained from him? 

I only did two parties with Ron. One was The Loop, a skate rink party that Armando put together. It was me, Ron, Armando and there may have been Joe there too, not Joe Smooth. And then there was another party and Mendel, and that was when I was first coming up in the ranks. Marvin Terry threw that party and if he knew a DJ who was good, he’d always call him a Super Bad Brother!

The lessons that I gained from Ron at the time? I was basically trying to find my way, and make my tracks in the sand, so I didn’t make full use of the fact I was spinning with Ron Hardy. That wasn’t in my head. I didn’t really understanding and appreciating what was happening. I was thinking Ron was going to be here for a long time, so I guess the lessons I gained from that, was not to take today for granted, because tomorrow may not be promised.

Are there certain records that are inextricably linked to your time as Warehouse resident?  

Reynald the crazy Frenchman had this record, it was the James Brown sample “hey, hey, feel alright, one time!” Anybody who’d been to the Warehouse knew that was a Warehouse favourite. ‘Generate Power’ by DJ Pierre – you knew that record came from the Warehouse! Marc Kinchen’s remix of Jodeci – ‘Freakin You’.

As an extension of this, is there a certain sound that you associate with your residency there? When you bought records did you buy certain ones with Warehouse in mind?

I just bought good records, and I was gonna play them no matter where I played them! At the time I was spinning at The Warhouse, I was spinning in Europe so I was finding stuff in Europe that wasn’t in the States and I’d bring it back to play at the Warehouse. A lot of the Fresh Fruit stuff I was playing, and that stuff was starting to get ordered in Chicago; Black Science Orchestra as well. I had nothing in mind though, it was just good records. It was never like “this is only going to get played at The Warehouse.” For that, it was edits or remixes or mash-ups. 

Was your final set as resident an emotional one?  

No, because I didn’t know it was going to be the last one! We got to the club and it wasn’t open and they said we’re moving it over to the other club for now and we just went over to the Prop House and they put us in this back room. It got its name because it had a lot of props from movies and all of that stuff was still in the back room where we were trying to do a party, so it was crazy! The electricity wasn’t correct, the soundsystem kept popping the fuse. So it wasn’t emotional, it was just me being ticked off that they moved the crowd there without a proper notice, and just threw us in a back room.

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You currently hold a residency a Tuesday night residency at Reynolds in Chicago. How does it vary to Warehouse, both as a space and its audience? 

My residency is called We Are Tuesday Nights and I know plenty of people want to take credit for that, but stop it, that’s my baby! The space is much smaller and we have a few people who partied at The Warehouse who come out and still follow me now. So I not only have some of my older crowd, but have a new following too.

The Warehouse was downtown Chicago and at a lot of those parties – especially black parties – the younger hip-hop crowd were going out and not knowing how to act. There’s a lot of spots where were can’t do parties downtown anymore. Our Tuesday night Reynolds night is smaller but it reminds everybody of the Warehouse because of the exposed brick in the front room where everybody dances. It’s a small spot, but I love it.

Has this made you approach your residency any differently? Has it taken on a different form to your time at Warehouse?

No I take the same approach. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Different times, different music, but the same recipe. It’s like your Grandma passing a recipe down to your mum and then you. You don’t change it because that’s what it is. If you take something out or put something in, everybody’s gonna know. So now I take the same approach as when I was at the Warehouse and Courtyard. I don’t try to figure out why it works, I just know it works.

You’ve played there for seven years now, so there must be some nights where you feel like you knew nearly everyone in there. Does playing in a room with people who are essentially your friends affect the way you perform?

Yeah that’s one of the things I learned from Frankie: know your people, get to know your regulars. When I come in, that’s what I do. I put my bag down, thank everyone for coming out, shake their hands and hope they enjoy themselves. Everybody feels like they know me and that’s the great thing about a DJ: knowing the crowd, their names, what they’re going through, their birthdays and whether something ain’t going right in their life. That way they feel extremely connected to you. I have people coming up to me saying “man you played this song, my brother passed away and this was one of his favourite songs. I thank you so much.” Tuesday night is family night, that’s what I call it!

For both your residencies, how integral was your relationship with the people behind the scenes? Were you active in aspects of the party that went beyond your role as a DJ?

If I’m going to be the resident of a night, I have to be involved. So, I’m behind the scenes checking on sound. I go into my pocket when it’s time to decorate for a birthday party, I do that for my crowd. I do a lot of things that’s behind the scenes. I have a radio show every Friday, where I promote the party. I’m only getting paid as a DJ, but I do a lot of the tedious work, like the flyers. I’m behind everything that goes on, like who plays there and when they play there. So yeah, I must have a say in what goes on otherwise I’m not a happy camper.

You’re due to play Dance Tunnel this month, which is only your second date in London since spending 10 years away from our shores. How did your last UK return compare to what you remember of the party scene here in the ninetimes?

The early 90s, I guess I was playing a lot of Strictly Rhythm stuff. It was good times, I’m able to play a lot of that stuff now. The only thing I compare it to now is that I appreciate it more now, than the 90s. It wasn’t that I wasn’t appreciative, it’s more that I appreciate being able to still travel now, being older and things slowing down. When I get over there, I just look into the sky, walk around, take a lot of pictures. I didn’t do none of that when I first went travelling. I wasn’t documenting any of my trips then. I thought “I’ll be back, I’ll be back, I’ll be back!”

The music’s back and is good again. There was one point where it got real hard. Funk and soul has got back in the house, which is very good for me and I’m able to appreciate it as a blessing, instead of something I’m taking advantage of.

Touring obviously his its many positives, but are there things you miss about your residency that when you’re on the road? Are there aspects of holding a residency that touring can’t replicate?  

I don’t miss my residency when I’m on the road! It’s okay if I’m not there for a week. I’ll only miss one or two parties then I’m back. I’ll call in and ask how it went, but I’m not gone long enough to have the chance to miss it.

You’re still very much apart of the Chicago dance scene. Who would you tip for the next year to make waves beyond the city confines?

DJ Alicia and DJ Tony T – my opener at ReynoldsYou have DJ Greg Winfield, who opens for Terry and Bang Sundays. My man DJ Lil John and Steve ‘Miggedy’ Maestro also.

Finally, what’s coming up on the horizon for you in 2016 that we should keep an eye out for?

I’ve started my album that I’m releasing with More/About/Music and Mark Potts. House N’HD – my project with Terry Hunter – is also coming along nicely. I’m doing a lot of remixes and extra production for Gershon Jackson. Of course the Black Widow – me and DJ Alicia – and then there’s Sarah London, an amazing writer and vocalist. Those are the things you need to be looking out for.

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