TRAX Records Chicago

Think of a classic house record and nine times out of ten you'll think of Trax, although you may not realise it. 'Move Your Body'? 'Baby Wants To Ride'? 'Washing Machine'? 'Can U Feel It'? All Trax releases. 'House Nation'? 'Acid Trax'? 'Your Love'? 'We Are Phuture'? 'U Used To Hold Me'? Yup, those too. What's more they introduced the world to producers who've become immortalised as some of house music's greatest innovators - Larry Heard, Marshall Jefferson, Larry Levan - and have provided an outlet for many more of Chicago's house artists over the years, such as Armando, Liddell Townsend, Robert Owens, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Mr Lee, Adonis, Fast Eddie, Ralphie Rosario, DJ Rush, Steve Poindexter, Terry Baldwin, DJ Skull... the list goes on. And they did it all by releasing crappy-looking rec

ords that sounded like they'd been pressed on sandpaper. Now there's a story worth telling.

House music's roots lie in the spontaneous combustion that was a handful of Chicago clubs in the early 1980s. In the days when clubs only needed one DJ, that DJ was in a position to make waves. And in a city where the clubs were usually soundtracked by jukeboxes, those waves could become a storm. Larry Levan came to take up the residency of Chicago's Warehouse in 1977, bringing a style and technique pioneered in, and previously only known to, New York's disco clubs and loft parties, such as mixing and programming a set and the use of reel to reel tapes. Word spread about Knuckles' disco, soul and funk phenomenon and The Warehouse quickly became the place to be for a party-hungry gay crowd. This, it is commonly accepted, is where the term 'house' originates. Knuckles himself has denied 'inventing' house, so what we are talking about here is more a style of playing music based on the idea of a musical flow and transition - for all Walter Gibbons & co's remixes, no-one had yet made A House Record.

Knuckles moved to another new venture in 1983, The Power Plant, which is situated on the north side of the city, and already a scene was beginning to emerge. Shortly after the opening of The Power Plant, Ron Hardy, who had begun DJing at Den One in 1974 then moved to LA for a spell, took over the decks at The Music Box on the south side. He pioneered a different sound to Knuckles; Hardy's mix of disco, European electronica, industrial and alternative sounds was spiced with tape edits which he would manipulate and pause by hand. The Music Box became known as a rougher, wilder and more hedonistic alternative to Knuckles' sophisticated mixes and it was here that the straight black crowds from the south side caught the bug.

Hardy is credited by some as the ultimate creative DJ, an innovator in the way he read the dancefloor, made it his own and defined a style of music into the bargain. He was certainly dedicated - a true party animal, he was known to live his life from his DJ booth, sleeping there and spending the days practising his craft.

As the friendly rivalry between Knuckles and Hardy developed, other DJs began to push the sound, like Wayne Williams, Steve Hurley and Farley Keith Williams. Then there was Jesse Saunders, who spun at Chicago's other major house club, The Playground. Jesse, who had musical training, was constantly searching for gimmicks with which to further his name as a DJ and had taken to creating his own drum machine tracks to play from tape. He went into the studio with the idea of recreating an obscure disco bootleg, the name of which he says escapes him. But which also turned out to be the first House record...

Jessie Saunders: "So I'm looking for someone to help me make a record, and it so happened that Vince [Lawrence] had come in the club looking for me to play a record that he had, this way-out avant, garde thing, 'cause at the time I would play Devo and the B52s. He'd talked to me about how his father had this label and where they would press records, so the first person I thought of was Vince. He took me down there and that's where I met Larry Sherman. And that's when the nightmare began! [laughs]"

A former musician, Larry Sherman bought Musical Products, Chicago's only pressing plant, in 1983. This was the vital link in the chain: access to the means of production. Jessie and Vince made a track called 'On And On', came up with Jes Say Records as a label and persuaded Sherman to press them it up for them at $4 a throw.

JS: "We had five hundred records made and took 'em to the stores. We promoted the records like we promoted the parties, with posters and flyers and whatnot. On the first day the record sold 150 copies and by the third day it had sold out. And we went back to Larry, three or four days after picking up the first records, and ordered a thousand more. Now, he's got a pressing plant in Chicago, and a small plant at that, and he'd do a little jazz thing or a little blues thing here or there, and they usually ordered a couple of hundred copies and gave 'em to their friends and wouldn't come back. And we showed up and we say, 'oh, we sold out in a couple of days'. He's like, 'Really? Where?' So Larry's thinking to himself 'Wow, I got these two young kids that can sell records. I'm gonna see if I can get in on this.' Basically what he offered me was to press all the records for free and just cut him in for a percentage, which at the time I thought was a great idea. So we expanded our distribution to other stores, and the next thing I knew we had sold nine thousand records, just around Chicago."

Sherman had set up a label called Precision to make the most of his new venture, but when he saw what Jessie and Vince had achieved and had subsequently visited Hardy's Music Box, he realised something was brewing. He wanted to get more involved, yet neither he nor Saunders wanted to use their own labels for joint projects, so they set up Trax. Vince Lawrence came up with the name.

Jessie Saunders provided the first Trax release, 'Wanna Dance/Certainly' by Le Noiz and Larry and Vince took care of shifting them. In fact, several other Trax artists also worked for the label, with Wayne Williams, Rachael Cain (alias Screamin' Rachael) and Ron Hardy all pitching in. A group of creative people had found themselves the ideal outlet.

Rachael remembers it thus: "Vince Lawrence was such a go-getter, he used to just shop the records out of the trunk of his car! In one day, you could go to the studio, make a track, take it out to the club, because Ron Hardy was very co-operative, and he would play it, and you could figure out then and there, 'is this gonna work?' And at one time Larry even had his own lathe, so he could cut an acetate, and we could do it all in one day. So I think it was that Larry basically had everything we needed. But Vince and Jesse, god, they were just visionaries. And I think that they don't get enough credit for what they have done." "I always wondered what made Vince and Jesse want to go to vinyl, but I guess it was just the fact that they met Larry, Larry had the pressing plant, and they saw an opportunity to go directly into the medium, y'know? And I guess that's pretty much how it started, because we, due to our association with Larry, could move faster than anyone else. And then of course things followed, 'cause Jamie Principle came right after that."

Other house artists began to come out of the woodwork, inspired by Saunders and Farley's first releases.

"I heard Jesse Saunders on the radio and said 'Boy, I can do that'." "I was working at the Post Office at the time. That's like a pretty good job in America. I was making a little bit over thirty thousand dollars a year, which at that time was a lot of money. I knew I wanted to put out records like Jesse Saunders but I didn't know exactly how. So I went to this music store with a friend, and the salesman was telling us about this sequencer. And he said, 'You know, with this sequencer somebody who can't even play can play like a real keyboard player'. And I thought, 'This is great', but my friend wouldn't believe him. He's like, 'That's bullshit, you gotta take lessons for years and years'. But the guy was explaining it to me and I was like 'I believe him, I'm gonna make records'. So I bought the sequencer, the guy gave me credit on the spot, and then the guy goes, 'You don't wanna have this sequencer and not have a keyboard to play, do you?' I said, 'Oh... no', so I bought the keyboard. And the guy says, 'You don't wanna have this sequencer and this keyboard and not have a drum machine to play, do you?' I said, 'Ah yeah, you're right..' So he says, 'You don't wanna have this sequencer and this keyboard and drum machine and not have something to play it all on, do you?' I said, 'Ah, yeah, you're right..'. So he says, 'you don't wanna have this sequencer and this keyboard and drum machine and this mixer and not have something to record it all on, do you?' So with the recorder and all, I spent about seven or eight thousand! My friends are all laughing at me, going, 'Stupid mo'fo', all that money and he don't even know how to play shit!' [laughs] And that kinda pumped me up, 'cause I didn't want my friends to think I was stupid, so I wrote my first song two days later - you know, stayed up all night trying to figure out how to use all this stuff - and that's how I got started."

Astonishingly, Jefferson says he had to pay Sherman for what actually became Trax's 14th release, the 'Virgo EP'. "I looked on the label and found out where Jesse Saunders got his records pressed up, 'cause Jesse had his own label. I thought I might as well go to the same place, so I went there and the guy [Larry Sherman] says 'Sure, I'll press up all your records, just give me the money'. So I gave him the money and he pressed up the record. I paid about $1500 to get that record pressed and to this day I haven't seen any money from it. Larry sold... just loads of that, but I've never seen any money."

Ron Hardy's club became the perfect testing ground for Trax material. If a record worked for Ron Hardy, most likely it would work, period. Other attempts at A&R were less successful, according to Marshall.

"Larry didn't know nothing. [laughs] I remember he didn't want to put out 'Can U Feel It' by Mr Fingers, he thought it was boring, but I said, 'No man, you gotta put it out'. He's like [adopts Sherman voice] 'There's no words on it! I don't get it'!" [more laughs]

But Trax was no longer alone on the Chicago scene - many artists worked for Trax and Rocky Jones' DJ International imprint. DJ International has itself provided a fair slice of house music's early standards, such as Sterling Void 'Its Alright' and JM Silk (Steve Hurley) 'Music Is The Key'. There was rivalry between the two - Trax's 30th release was Boris Badenough's 'Hey Rocky' - but where The Power Plant's more soulful style had contrasted with the rawer sound of The Music Box, so did DJ International lead the way with the vocal releases as opposed to Trax's, er, trax. And it was DJ International which made house's first breakthrough into the mainstream with Farley Jackmaster Funk's 'Love Can't Turn Around', reaching the UK Top 10 in August 1986 via a deal with FFRR. The same year in the UK, the first house clubs opened in Manchester and London. Steve Silk Hurley's 'Jack Your Body' followed early 1987 and house had its first number one.

Trax's glory years were the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1987 they gave the world its second gift when Phuture released 'Acid Trax'. Written by Herbert J, DJ Pierre and Spanky and produced by Marshall Jefferson, it was the first acid record.

The label's parting shot was, in effect, the Jamie Principle-penned (but credited to Larry Levan) 'Your Love', a hit in 1989. By now things were beginning to take a turn for the worse.

In short, it seems that the Chicago scene began to disintegrate. There are plenty of theories as to why, but the truth is more likely that there were several things to blame.

One is the outbreak of backbiting and infighting which followed the relatively rapid expansion of the scene in a matter of just a few years - indeed Jesse Saunders left Chicago to pursue his Jesse's Gang project with Warners after disagreements surrounding 'Love Can't Turn Around', first between Farley and Steve Hurley, then regarding the licensing of the track for its UK release. Radio, too, was important, far more so than it ever has been over here. In house's nascent days radio DJs had played a vital role in bringing the music to the straight black community, most notably the famed Hot Mix Five - Farley, Hurley, Mickey Oliver, Kenny Jason and Ralphie Rosario. Chris Westbrook aka Bam Bam was running his own Westbrook label at the time and two years ago told MF:

"I was getting support from local radio and the DJs and everything, until the DJs started up their own labels. That's what killed the scene in Chicago! I don't care what nobody says! What killed the scene in Chicago was when the radio DJs, who were initially playing our music and helping us, started their own labels and started competing against us! And they was only playing the records they were putting out or that their partners were putting out."

Rachael Cain agrees. "In the beginning that didn't happen. At first it was great because people were really helping one another. And then I guess it was because everybody was starting to say, 'Hey, look what's happening, these records are breaking. I'll just do my own thing, push my own music.' So yeah, I think that's right. Right now, there are a few DJs in Chicago that are just playing their own stuff." "When I think of the fact that here in Chicago, right now, there's not a dance station - why not? If ever anybody should just herald their own music..? It wasn't that long ago that the Chicago Tribune ran a story about House music being an 'orphan at home'. Our support for the house music scene has basically been from England!"

And Trax had its problems as well, says Rachael. "What a lot of people don't know is that when Larry was at his peak, around '88, '89, and was selling a lot of copies, Landmark, which was the biggest independent distributor in America, closed its doors and Larry had to declare bankruptcy. He's since gotten out of that, but at one time Trax was bankrupt."

Larry Sherman is a peculiar but vital figure in the history of house music. As you may already know, or just have guessed from Saunders and Jefferson's earlier comments, his business practices are the stuff of legend.

MJ: "Larry's in this circle of Jewish guys, right, and all of them own each others' businesses. So you come to sue Larry or bring up something about Trax records, and some guy in Japan owns the company. Larry's like 'oh, I don't own this pressing plant, this guy in Japan owns it and he's not here'. [laughs] So they could never pin him down, man!"

It seems that Sherman was not averse to the odd shortcut here and there - he was only too willing to press onto old LPs and poor quality second-hand vinyl, which explains why most Trax releases sound like they were recorded outdoors. In the rain. Bootlegs, too, were on the agenda for Larry, says Saunders: "He knows what he's doing. He even had a label called Bootleg Records, he just... did it."

Frankie Bones released 'Bone Up' on Trax in 1996. He tells a similar story.

"Larry's a very eccentric type of guy. He's gotta be the most eccentric person I've ever met in the music industry. They buy, like, scrap records and he doesn't mind throwing records in, like, other companies jackets, Motown jackets, and shrinkwrapping them. It's really bizarre. I think the only reason I wanted a record on Trax was because of the whole bizarre background Trax has, y'know?"

Remember though, that Trax was a loose outfit full stop. Nobody cared too much about acting like a major label at first. Jesse Saunders description of Trax's contractual arrangements makes the point:

"There was never any paperwork. You gotta remember, back in those days he owned the pressing plant, I made the music. It was easy for us to make something and put it out, and it didn't really matter. So there was no paperwork or any of that stuff, we just did it, made the money and moved on."

But according to Rachael, Sherman has been unfairly labelled a crook. "Like, I saw the contract for 'Can U Feel It'. And what happened with that was that Larry Heard wanted to write his own contract, and wanted a bigger advance than Larry would normally give. So he gave away all of his rights!" Rachael also states that Sherman isn't as well off as some would have it.

"See, in the beginning we were all these young kids, and there weren't many other house labels, it was a very closed market. So what happened was you made these tracks and you sold them, you got your advance. And I think that some people thought that records were bigger than they actually were. 'Cause I know that though the numbers were there they were not as great as people think. That's a fact. People think Larry is loaded but he's not, he's practically broke. Also, I think that what happened in a lot of cases was that people gave us their best music. Now they look back and they're disappointed, because they haven't made a better one since. They're riding on that record and they're not getting the money they would like."

This contrasts sharply with Marshall Jefferson's version, however.

"Larry just... took shit, man! [laughs] Just took it. And Larry's got the pressing plant right there, man, and he just keeps pressing it up, pressing it up, year after year. And people would phone up saying, 'We were looking for some of those old Trax Records classics, like Mr Fingers and 'Move Your Body' and he'd be like [adopts Sherman voice] 'Well, you know what, luckily we still have some left..' [more laughs]"

Yet as Jefferson also points out, at the time, money wasn't the priority.

"It wasn't really important to actually make money off of it. It's like, we were making records, man. Nobody really cared about making money, that's why we kept on doing it. Nobody really brought money up unless bills had to be paid or something like that. I had a good job, right, so money was really secondary. We just wanted to put out records, man. We were putting out records that were different from anything else in the world. And then once we got into it, we kinda realised we were like, startin' something, y'know? I'm really fond of that."

As the nineties arrived, acid house blossomed and Europe began to create its own version of the house sound. Some Trax artists moved away from Chicago to further their careers, or moved into other areas of production. Others simply gave up and disappeared from view. Larry Sherman had personal problems, but maintained Trax on and off, mainly through its Saber subsidiary. Ron Hardy had left the Music Box around 1987 and died in 1991.

Some Trax artists have successfully progressed into the wider dance scene of the nineties: Farley Jackmaster Funk and Marshall Jefferson are regulars on the DJ circuit. Jesse Saunders thinks he knows why:

"Marshall told me that when he went over there [the UK] people started asking him to DJ, and he said, 'I ain't no DJ'. And they said, 'We'll pay you $1500, $2000', so he said, 'Alright, I'm a DJ!'" [laughs]

But there is no doubt that plenty more artists who, despite (unwittingly) making valuable contributions to the development of house, now live in obscurity, unrecognised by the millions who now live their lives to the soundtrack these people helped create. And that is a great shame.

The latest chapter in the Trax saga is the recent spate of crackle-free re-releases from the Trax back catalogue thanks to a licensing deal with a London company. Whether or not any of the artists were consulted about this is unclear, but those concerns aside the re-releases provide a great opportunity for today's spoon-fed dance music generation raised on the myriad of styles that house music has spawned (including, to a large extent, techno) to listen to the records which started it all. Timeless records created on the barest of equipment in an era where there were no rules or expectations about how a certain record should sound. It was genuine, it was fresh and but it's gone forever. Only the music remains. Rachael Cain:

"I think the spirit was what was so important about the house music scene. When you think about a whole bunch of young kids who had no money, all knew each other, that whole group of people made a legendary style of music. Maybe other people made more money than us by taking over our sound, and maybe people in our own town might think that this is from England, but the people who really know, know."

Frankie Bones, too, is not bitter.

"In the end, although I didn't get paid, I do still hold that label in regard. I think the whole entire movement wouldn't be where it is without Trax, y'know?"

But the last word goes to Jesse Saunders, a true unsung hero of house.

"When I did my first record, I just did it because I was bored and needed something to do, to be honest. I didn't think that anything would come out of it..."

Max Renn

Ten classic Trax
Marshall Jefferson: Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)
Jungle Wonz: Bird In a Gilded Cage
Adonis: No Way Back
Mr Fingers: Can U Feel It
Fingers Inc: Washing Machine
Phuture: Acid Trax
Phuture: We Are Phuture
Larry Levan: Your Love
House Master Boyz: House Nation
Ralphie Rosario: U Used To Hold Me

Bubbling under
Ron Hardy: Liquid Love
Sleazy D: I've Lost Control
Steve Poindexter: Work That Motherfucker
Beltram: Flash Cube
Mr Lee: Pump Up Chicago
Maurice: I Got A Big Dick/This Is Acid
Jackmaster D: Sensual Woman
Adonis: Rocking Down The House
Marshall Jefferson: Virgo EP
Farley Keith: Funkin With The Drummer

Five not-so-classic Trax
Fat Albert: Beat Me Til I Jack
Willi Wanka: What Is House
Bart Starr: Way To Go Homer
Gotham City: Bat Trax
Farm Boy: Jackin Me Around
--Tom Robbins aka Max Renn is author of the above article. He was publisher and editor of Magic Feet magazine from which the article is lifted.

Farley Jackmaster Funk
Frankie Knuckles
Larry Levan
History of Chicago House Music


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