Playing keys like Stevie Wonder: in Conversation With Marshall Jefferson

Marshall Jefferson is late for our meeting. Something that does’t bother us in the slightest, owing to the fact that we are usually late for nearly every appointment we make. When he does arrive in the lobby of his hotel, he is calm and collected, but also extremely apologetic for holding us up, citing a meeting beforehand that had run over. Throughout the process of taking his picture, there’s not even a flicker of annoyance as our photographer asks him to adopt an obviously quite uncomfortable pose – looking up while sitting down. It’s only when he stands and thanks us for the pictures and walks off – forgetting that we have an interview to do – that you see the real smile emerge. From an artist that has shaped modern dance music with seminal work in the 80s, it’s a smile that was as reassuring as anything, as we took to his hotel room to discuss his past, present and future, ahead of his appearance at Proud in Camden.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

Starting our conversation at the very beginning, Jefferson hails from Chicago, the ancestral home of house music. When he was growing up and, still to this day, gun crime is rife in the city; something he attributes to the Chicago Police’s offensive on gang leaders, eradicating leadership and opening the door to “a different gang on every block, fighting for crack corners”. His father was a police officer for a time, quitting in 1970, after the murder of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Jefferson recalls how his father would go to work and hear white cops bragging about killing Hampton and he “just had to quit”.

Despite crime in the city, Jefferson speaks of his early life fondly. His parents played Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and Lou Rawls “all the time”, while his real fascination lay with popular rock acts like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin. It’s not until moving on to a discussion about how “Elton John used to be so cool, black people were even listening to him”, that we get to see Jefferson’s charisma shine through. There’s a way in which he suddenly adopts alternative voices for the sake of clarity or, indeed, just bringing his infectious laughter into a story. It’s something we notice all through our meeting, as we sit in a straight-backed chair in his hotel room, feeling incredibly at home.

Ridiculed by his friends as a Stevie Wonder wannabe…within a year he’d released ‘Move Your Body’ and DJs were hiring keyboard players to play keyboards like Marshall Jefferson.

In this social climate, house music emerged in Chicago as a refuge from the violence. With gangsters put off by the music’s affiliations to gay culture, house music parties became a safe place to dance: “the party you didn’t have to worry about getting shot at”. Soon enough you’d see “5000 black kids at parties and in 40 years not a single incident”. A stark contrast to hip-hop parties, as Jefferson remembers: “pow, pow, you stepped on my shoe motherfucka!” As a sign of how these protective principals have endured, this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Chosen Few Picnic, with tens of thousands in attendance. “People bring their kids, their grandkids…it’s beautiful to see. I mean even the President listens to house music”.

It was in this climate that Jefferson started to DJ in 1981 and, after buying ‘On and On’ by Jesse Saunders – largely credited with being the first house record of all time – Jefferson knew he could do better. “They were bad records you see”, he says. There’s no hint of smugness or self-congratulation in his tone, rather it’s a view held among many of the originators. The imperfection of ‘On and On’ is exactly what encouraged Jefferson and his contemporaries that a higher standard was easily attainable. A trip to the music store with a guitar-playing friend helped set that vision in motion. The salesman was trying to persuade him that with a Yamaha QX-1 sequencer, “’you can play keyboard like Stevie Wonder, even if you don’t know how to play’”. Jefferson decided to take a punt, but not having the $3000 it cost, he was convinced to open up a credit line of $10,000, afforded him due to his good job in the Post Office at the time.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

Of course, noticing a weak resolve, the salesman didn’t stop there, selling him a keyboard, drum machine, studio mixer (although he already had one for DJing), a four-channel recorder, another keyboard and a drum machine (the famous Roland TB-303, which at the time stores were struggling to shift). Ridiculed by his friends as a Stevie Wonder wannabe, he wrote his first song two days later. Within a year he’d released ‘Move Your Body’ and DJs were hiring keyboard players to “play keyboards like Marshall Jefferson”. It’s a testament to his intense can-do attitude, something that we explore as a typically American trait. A list of friends he reels off sounds like a tracklist for a ‘Chicago House Legends’ compilation: “people like Mike Dunn, Terry Hunter, Maurice Joshua, Armando and Farley [‘Jackmaster’ Funk] would come over and say ‘I can do that!’” In the UK, Jefferson would show people they could do the same, but the mentality was different and the response would be “oh no I can’t!”

Jefferson has a long history with the UK, having moved to London around 20 years ago. Living in Chelsea for an obscene amount of rent, he soon realised how much further his money could go elsewhere and a trip to visit a friend in Manchester prompted a move there, “from 3500 a month for one bedroom to 4 bedrooms for 700 a month!” He often makes the trip back to Chicago, visiting his mother now in her 80s, and over to New Jersey to see his girlfriend. On asking if he has a big family, Jefferson’s humorously responds, “one thing about making records is that you find out who all your relatives are! If you got ‘em, you know about it!”

Elton John used to be so cool, black people were even listening to him.

Jefferson’s most enduring record – perhaps the one responsible for bringing most relatives out of the woodwork – is ‘Move Your Body’. It’s a piece that means so much to so many, and indeed still has the same effect on the dancefloor as it did when it was written. “I thought it was a hot song when I made it” Jefferson jokes, “but 30 years… daym!” It’s stood the test of time, unlike many other tracks from that period, and perhaps that is due to the enduring positive message behind the track. He still plays it in every set, and confesses he’s not sure if people still like it or whether it’s the fact that he, it’s creator, is playing it. We put him on the spot to describe the feeling he gets from playing it out now and, in true restrained style, Jefferson simply says “It’s fun man. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a lot of fun!”

It was not until he had seen some success with ‘Move Your Body’, that he noticed his DJ career take off, but how that side of his career began is a story similar to what you hear from many people who catch the bug. On seeing a DJ playing at a Chicago club called The Nimbus, Jefferson heard him working a strange effect into his set. He was phasing records, something that nowadays can be done at the touch of a button on a mixer, but back then involved a fairly complex process of playing the same record out of sync on two turntables. A buddy of his at work, Curtis McClain – who was actually the singer on ‘Move Your Body’ but also a “great DJ” – knew all the tricks and showed Jefferson how to do it. It’s a trick that he still performs in sets to this day, and it’s amazing to think how simply hearing it in a club all those years ago set the wheels in motion for one of the most illustrious and long-lasting careers in the industry. With a number of great selectors around him, learning the art of DJing took no time at all. His first event was attended by four people, although he still accounts that to ruthless promoters ripping his posters down.

Now constantly touring, he has played in Chicago publicly not more than ten times. There’s an interesting culture among promoters in the city that only pay $50 to their headline act, with the next step up being $250,000. In Europe things are different, with a sliding pay scale, making it more attractive to tour. Even though he was offered to take over Frankie Knuckles’ residency in the city, the fact that he was only offered $100 for the night turned him off. Apparently even Masters at Work would receive such a measly fee, even though they were playing for around $20,000 overseas.

Perhaps this rocky domestic infrastructure is a reason for some of Jefferson’s early contemporaries not achieving the same longevity. As he recalls, other pioneers like Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence, “left the house music scene alone for a while. Jesse was trying to be Prince with the Minneapolis sound and Vince tried to make industrial, alternative stuff.” A well known DJ at the time, Saunders started driving “fancy cars and getting all the girls”, something that apparently was not all that prevalent in those days amongst the DJs. Fees started sky-rocketing, because “the main players were scared of flying. Junior Vasquez got paid $1million to play at Wembley one night and only 100 people showed up.” He was deathly afraid of flying and wouldn’t get into a plane. They offered him the huge sum and of course he said “I’ll fly!!”

One thing about making records is that you find out who all your relatives are! If you got ‘em, you know about it!

With only one album to his name, the curiosity of a follow-up was hard to suppress.  His debut long play, Day of the Onion, is so called due to the nickname men in Chicago gave to girls with a “great ass” (“look at that onion motherfucka!”). Therefore, the Day of the Onion is the day you “shake your booty”. Plans for a new project are to completely change the game of dance music recording, and the theory behind it had us hooked from the moment he started explaining. Jefferson has started work on new tracks, hopefully to be bundled into an album, that are recorded binaurally. This involves the encoding of spatial information within the recording process, which means you’d be able to hear sounds from above, below, either side, in front and behind, moving in all planes. “It’s made for the headphone generation” he says, “I’m a headphone fanatic… I’ve over 60 pairs and I’m sick to death of stuff coming out only in stereo when you can have all this extra stuff”. Using a pair of microphones mounted to a dummy head, one mic in the place of each ear, it is possible to record sound exactly as you would hear it, making use of the distance from the microphone and the exact direction.

The possibilities with this technology are huge. Although only really applicable to headphones at the moment, imagine a club environment with sustained vocals rising up inside you while bass lines come from every angle imaginable. An example of binaurally encoded audio is ‘The Virtual Haircut’, which Jefferson played us on his extremely heavy and most expensive pair of headphones. What of the music itself for the new album? We were given a listen to the first track he finished for the new venture and it’s possibly some of his best work to date. Featuring his voice, in a similar narrative to ‘Mushrooms’, you are taken to the beginning of time, when music doesn’t exist and a solitary cave man discovers the way to make music to attract a female. Imagine the beating of a stick coming from one direction, and the rolling bassline ever-present, but changing place in your ear, not simply just panning from right to left, but coming from beneath you.

It’s very evident how excited Jefferson is by this project. It’s something that really could revolutionise the way we interact with dance music. It’s not a method that he’s necessarily come up with, but it’s the application to this format that will make it interesting to producers and fans alike. From his studio in Manchester, Jefferson is busy recording, while maintaining an impressive touring schedule considering just how long he’s been in the game. Having started Open House Recordings, he has now turned his attention to Freakin’ 808 Records (a name he shouts so loud in one of his funny voices that we’re sure there’ll be a knock at the door soon enough.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jefferson isn’t as hot on new talent as one might expect. “There’s so many songs coming out, and I try to listen to as many as possible, that I don’t get a chance to see who the producer is!”. Back when 25-30 tracks came out a week, vinyl-only, it must have been easy to keep up with all the newest music, but he confesses that he “can’t say that [he’s] keeping up, with like 50,000 tracks coming out a week!” It’s something you hear from many DJs nowadays, that there is a saturation of the market in some ways, but others are completely hungry for as much new music as they can get. In today’s turbulent house music culture, Marshall Jefferson has managed to remain relevant by sticking to his guns and it’s refreshing to see that his love for music burns as bright as it ever did. He has the kind of personality that wouldn’t be in the game if he didn’t still feel that he was performing to his best. There’s also a warmth to the man as he gives us that reassuring smile yet again; a quality that is endearing and yet commands a great amount of respect. Perhaps respect is the least he deserves, after a lifetime devoted to the enjoyment of others.

Photos shot exclusively for Stamp The Wax, by Lewis Khan.

Marshall Jefferson plays Proud, Camden on 7th November

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