Kerri Chandler is a house legend, one of the very best and most respected names in the business. He has been shaping the genre since the early nineties, and continues to spread positive vibes and his unique brand of soulful house around the world. The founder of both the Madhouse and MadTech labels, Kerri has always stayed true to his style whilst constantly innovating and creating, recently dropping a hot compilation album from his new imprint Kaoz Theory. Before he went out to Barcelona for Sonar, Kerri shared the meaning behind the music with us.
Hi Kerri, hope you’re well.
I’m good man, how are you?
I’m chilling man, we got the sun shining in here, you got sunshine yourself?
Yes finally, it’s been sunny non-stop.
Nice, I’m glad you’re having a good day. Actually I was hanging out with DJ W!ld a little a while in Bristol recently, we had such a good time with you.
Oh cool! Good, good!
How often are you over in the UK now?
A lot, this whole summer. Yeah I start in Barcelona and then I’ll be back.
It’s a silly question, but is life treating you well right now?
Oh man couldn’t wish for any better. I’m having a wonderful time.
Is life like that for you, just one constant long line of perfectness?
I don’t know about that but you know the good outweighs the bad.
Excellent. So where was it you grew up?
I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey.
What was your first taste of working in music?
The first time I was with my dad. He’s a DJ my dad, and the first time that I actually got to put on a record and really DJ out somewhere was the club he was playing at, and I just loved it from then. That was it for me. I was maybe about 13, 14 years old and they stood me on a crate and they would just hand me records, and I would warm up for my father every weekend. I’d have like the 9pm - 10/10.30pm shift and then the club would go into high gear and I would have to go home. That would really upset me but I’d still get to stand there and mix records as everyone’s coming in.
Would you say that in terms of being a DJ your father was your biggest inspiration?
Oh god yes, absolutely. My dad was the coolest dude on the planet, he’d get to go and DJ every week, he was like this hero dude and it seemed like he knew everybody. Then what happened was I met a friend of his, one of the writers for Kool And The Gang, and I went to the studio with those guys, and I got to see their studio, and that just blew my mind. Watching him in the studio, seeing all this recording gear, I’d never seen anything like that and I’m watching people make records. I used to just sit in on sessions, watching, like “wow this is crazy, the big mixing desk, I’m used to like a two, three channel mixer, this is ridiculous, all these lights and gear and keyboards”. I didn’t want to leave there so I kinda just sat and became an intern there, then I found another studio and became an intern there, and started doing production. First I started taking some cuts from reel to reel and then just mixing from there, and then I began making records, just started travelling and that was it, here I am now.
So what kind of music were you playing right there when you were 13?
Oh it was disco, straight up disco.
And what about when you started production?
It started as like edits for me, doing tape edits and splices and stuff. I used to run home from school and listen to this thing called Paco’s Super Mix and I used to have Latin Rascals and stuff like that, and I used to chop these tapes up. I’d run home from school and sit there with these cassette tapes and record the mixes and these crazy edits. Then I started trying to learn how to do it, I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, you get a cassette tape and make these pause mixtapes.
So you were making all different kinds of mixes, whatever you could get your hands on?
Yeah, yeah just trying to make mad mixes, trying to imitate like Paco’s Super Mix, Latin Rascals edits. New York was very hot, DJ Hollywood and all these other things. But that’s what it really was for me, like “wow, all this crazy stuff, I wanna learn it and know it”. That’s kinda how you get started.
So you were kinda setting genres do you think? Like that sounds like a new genre.
Yeah, it was really disco and then we got into all the rap stuff too and that was like early eighties and nineties, like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and all that kinda stuff, so everybody had DJ crews, and then you had battles. We were that kind of generation so you could actually play a lot of disco, a lot of house, like house was just really coming in, you can play rap stuff, so you can do all that at one party most of the time.
What was your entrance into house then? What was your first track?
My first one listening to, early Marshall Jefferson stuff, Steve “Silk” Hurley, early Mr Fingers stuff, a lot of stuff was coming out of Chicago. Then I started hearing stuff coming out of Jersey and then stuff out of Zanzibar, and then Tony Humphries had his radio show, and I just kept hearing different people play different stuff. My first real record, the first time I really heard house as I would describe it, was a song called ‘Finally’ by Les Brown, that’s like eighties, and I was just like “woah, what is this?” It sounded like he took a Casio, played something over it, it was just like “wow this is really a record, I could do this too, I have a Casio and I’ve got the same drums”. I didn’t realise that was house music, I didn’t realise that’s what you could do, and I started just making edits over things and taking drum machines and just playing over stuff. My dad had these musician friends that would come in and play stuff live at the club and I was like “this is cool, this is exactly what I wanna do”. I just kinda followed what he was doing, hanging out with the people that he knew, and kinda just fell into it.
I mean I see you as around at the beginning and you were producing at the beginning and you’ve got legendary status now but when did it start appearing?
I would say the first stuff I did was probably was like ‘Get It Off’ and ‘Super Lover’, and ‘Drink On Me’. I kinda did that stuff maybe back in like 1989, 88, and that kinda jumpstarted my career. I guess I was really lucky, I was blessed to have such a wonderful start, I didn’t realise it was going to do what it did and keep my career going the way it has for so long. I just kinda kept a love for everything I’ve done, and kept going and going. And then I started Madhouse, which was 1990, and I just kept it going.
Were you hearing things from overseas? Did you hear things like ‘Voodoo Ray’? Was that around?
Yeah that was my favourite day to go record shopping because all the imports would come in, on like a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I used to spend all my money on all these imports. I would go straight to the import wall, stuff would be coming out of everywhere, like Germany or London, that would be immediately like $20, “do I get a few of these things here or one import for like $22? Hmmm” [laughs]. So it was like "yeah I gotta go for that import, I don’t know when I’m gonna see it again, when they’ll bring it back in the store," so that’s how it was. And the first party I played abroad was at Ministry of Sound in 1990, so when I came there, that’s the first time I’d flown on an aeroplane, the first time I played anything out of the country, and when I got there I was just like “oh, this is just like Paradise Garage”, like they took a mirror image of Paradise Garage and put it in London, that’s exactly what Ministry of Sound was, so I was like “oh I’m comfortable with this, it’s exactly the stuff we use at home, like I’m home”, and that was it. After that, you couldn’t get me off the plane, I was back and forth, back and forth.
And this is what you’re doing now, right?
Exactly! Nothing’s changed, I’ve just got older!
How would you define your music, your style?
Honestly it’s a reflection of my life. Most of the songs I make up they have something to do with what I’ve done in my life. How I actually got started in house was someone murdered my girlfriend, and she used to love house music, I mean she really, really loved it, and at the time I was really into rap stuff. But my friend said “Kerri you need to try some house music, I think you’d be good at it” and I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I really don’t know, but Tracy loved it so maybe I should try some”. It seemed to like really release what she was feeling all the time inside, she’d dance her ass off, so I said “you know what, I’ll try some just to see what happens” and the first record I made was ‘Get It Off’. That was my first house record, and it was short for “get it off of my mind” because somebody murdered her, and I was like “let me get this off of my mind, now is the time”. And there’s this scratch that goes through the record and that’s how it felt like my life was being taken out, she's gone and like someone ripped my life away, ripped my groove away. And there’s a part where it goes “you are so vicious”, and I was calling out to the guy that murdered her and I just could not get it off my mind 'Get it off, get it off, set it loose, set it loose." like set my mind loose and that’s how I started making tracks, and I said, “this is great, this is my release, this is how I can actually express myself a bit more”. And I just kept doing that with every record. Like ‘Drink On Me’, that was a call to the bartenders at this place I used to play at called Club Americas and there was two different kinds of people who would come into this club. It was really one of these infamous clubs, like Queen Latifah’s crew used to come down there with all these dancers, they were really badass. And then you’d get these wine bar, suit and tie people who would come by and try to pick up women. There were three levels to the club; the DJ booth was up on top, there was the second level where you had the bar area, like a lounge/restaurant kind of thing and the dancefloor was on the ground floor but from the DJ booth you could see all three. What would happen was all these suit and tie type would just come down, walk on the dancefloor and just stand there and look at the dancers, like zoo animals. What would happen was all these suit and tie type would just come down, walk on the dancefloor and just stand there and look at the dancers, like zoo animals. So what we made up, me and one of these dancers, Teulé, who is actually the guy singing on Drink On Me and we made this thing up where we’d call to the bartenders to give away free Sex on the Beach’s when I played the song. This big red light would come on and start spinning around, and ‘Drink On Me’ would come on, and you’d see all the suit and tie people run back upstairs to get free drinks as long as the song was playing, and they would leave all the dancers alone. So all of the songs that I’ve done, they all have a story behind it, or some kinda connection and I found myself really connecting to the music that I made and why I'm doing it. So any song I make, there’s a part of my life there.
Ok so tell me about the last thing you produced.
The last thing I ended up producing was for this album, ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Dark’, and the same thing with that. There’s two ways I dealt with this, one is when I go out and DJ my favourite thing to do sometimes is close my eyes and just hear the music, so it’s dark, and let the music take over. My senses become a bit more aware and all I hear is music and I'm feeling stuff and I love when they do that in the club, when they turn the lights out, and everyone just does what they feel like, some people might be grope up a woman, some people might be doing things they shouldn't be doing in the dark but it's kind of cool when they do that 'cause everybody’s partying in the dark and it's like are you scared now that it's dark but when you turn back on the light you can kind catch everybody in the act. So it’s almost like a call, same thing I did with ‘Drink On Me’, it’s a call to the light man in a way to say you know what let’s have some fun, turn off the lights, let’s see what happens. Turn off the lights a minute. Let's see who's afraid of the dark, let's let the music take over. The second reason was, I have an 11 year old and he likes to play hide and seek in the dark. He’ll run around the house or the studio and he’ll turn off the lights, so I’m listening for him running around in the dark. His sister will come downstairs and she’s scared of the dark, and it’s funny, I’m listening out for them and he’s like laughing in the corner and I’ll try to catch him. It’s playful. So again it’s a part of my life. If I have a story, I’m gonna put it into the music. There’s a sound in the song actually where he was running around, and there’s like a pipe in the basement and he hit the pipe, and I’m like “that’s a really cool sound, I like that, let’s mic this and put it into the song”. It sounds like there's a pipe in the beginning of the song and it goes all the way through the song and that's my son hitting the pipe and I recorded it and put it in the song because when we were playing around in the basement and it works so well with it. I could tell you a story for every song that I’ve done, otherwise I don’t make them. I wouldn't know how to just make a song I have to live something before I make a song.
I see your style now, I see how you make the hit songs now but musically, I saw you on the piano while W!ld was performing. Are you one of those guys with that musical touch?
I play three things primarily. I play bass better than I play keys. I went to piano school, I used to hate piano truthfully. As I kid I had piano recitals but later on I found that I could use it for production, and I was happy again. I’ve always loved drums, I’ve always loved bass and the piano was the first instrument I really took up. I play bass more than I play piano and I guess that’s where I get all my basslines from.
And how often do you have that piano next to you when you’re playing?
Well it depends on my mood. Sometimes it’s just a piano in one room and I get there and I have a thought in my head, I don’t want any other gear around me, I want it to be clear. I’ll just start playing around on it, kinda taking mental notes of what I’m playing because sometimes the studio gets overwhelming. The simplicity of just me and a piano is better sometimes, I can hear the melodies, it’s stripped down, easy, acoustic. If I take that same thought and bring it to the studio, it mutates and changes and the purity of it sometimes isn’t there.
Do you often get to get out and do impromptu collaborations with artists?
You’re gonna laugh when I tell you this, a lot of people don’t know that we’ve been doing this and we’re gonna start doing a lot more towards the end of the year, The Martinez Brothers and I actually have a jazz trio. Those guys are amazing, between keyboards and drums, forget it! The same thing, I just play upright bass and drums, and we kinda swap back and forth. That’s how we’ve actually been doing it so it’s nice.
We need to do that show in London!
Yeah that would be fucking cool.
So your house is burning down, the piano you can’t save it, what item would you bring with you?
You know what that has happened. On June 23rd I’ve always had some crazy stuff happening, that’s why I said Kaoz 6:23, because it’s always chaotic on June 23rd. One year it happened to be that. I have to say the first thing I ended up saving before my gear, but this was when I was younger, was actually my turntables. I had to go get my turntables [laughs].
Do you have any crazy rituals that you do before you get in stage or make a song?
Actually yeah I do, did you know that already? That’s interesting that you would ask that. I kinda say a silent prayer, I say “God thank you for allowing me to do what I’ve done for as long as I’ve done, and please help me to not influence anyone in a negative way, and please let everyone come and go home safe”. That’s how I start and finish things when I get to a club.
That works, I’ve seen you. I was at ADE last year and I’ve seen the crowd when you finished my last party. It was the party with Seth Troxler and the vibe at the end, it was crazy, people felt it.
I loved it there, I love Seth like my bigger little brother. You know we have the same birthday, that’s why we get along so well.
I bet you guys have fun right?
Too much fun, that’s the problem [laughs].
What’s the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into with Seth?
You know what, the funny thing is we get away with murder, so there’s never trouble. I don’t know how, he has a way of getting away with everything, I can’t explain it [laughs]. There’s never trouble, it should be, but there never is.
So if you could fill a swimming pool with anything in the world, what would it be?
Wow, a swimming pool with anything. This is gonna sound strange and maybe generic but the truth is I wish there was peace in the world. Honest to god, we’re at war too much. I would fill it with love, hope and peace. There are too many negative things in the world, and I don’t like that, I always try and stay positive.
Nice. And what’s the future for you? What do you feel you have left to accomplish?
I just wanna spend time with people I care about, and live life to the fullest. I wanna see if I can help the next generation coming when they need help. There’s a lot of people that didn’t know how start or had no idea how to get things going, and that’s where I started MadTech. MadTech is my other label, it’s like a springboard for the next generation coming in and it’s been going well for the last three years, so we’re bringing in a bunch of new guys that just didn’t have an outlet to get their music heard and out there. I get to see the next generation coming in and blooming, I really care about that; I want to see them do well. That’s the truth of it; I really like to see everybody do well.
Well it’s been a pleasure catching up, Kerri!