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Mike Dunn

The return of a Chi-town legend

2017 Dec 07     
2 Bit Thugs

We catch up with the house veteran as he prepares to release his first long-player in a very long time...

Nothing's been officially confirmed - or even officially discussed, cos I've only just thought of it now - but Mike Dunn might just qualify for a place in the Guinness Book Of Records. Because next Friday will see the the release of his second album, My House From All Angles - a full 27 years on from his first one, 1990's Free Your Mind.

Other artists have left longer gaps between albums, of course. Fans of Bristolian post-punk agit-funkers The Pop Group had to wait 35 years between 1980's For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? and 2015's Citizen Zombie; it was 34 years between the Stooges' Raw Power (1973) and The Weirdness (2007). But that usually happens when a band reforms, releasing a comeback album after many years apart. In Mike Dunn's case, he's never really been away - other than a gap of few years around the turn of the millennium, the Chicago house veteran has been turning out at least a single every couple of years for the past three entire decades.

It's just taken him this long to get around to making a second full-length. That's got to be some kind of record, surely?

That alone would be one reason to talk to him right now. The other reason being, of course, that he's a certified, bona fide old school house legend. Album schmalbum, we'd happily spend some time chatting to Mike Dunn if he was releasing a coffee table book of his watercolours. Or opening a shoe shop, to be honest.

 

We're talking, after all, about the man who's widely credited, along with fellow Chi-town native Tyree Cooper, with having pretty much invented hip-house. A man whose acid-drenched 80s productions like Let It Be House, Magic Feet and Personal Problems were dancefloor staples at places like Shoom and The Haçienda, and featured on the seminal Jack Trax compilations that helped kickstart the UK's own house revolution. A man who rode house's first wave of international success all the way into the 90s, providing that decade with one of its most enduring club anthems in the form of 1994's God Made Me Phunky (as MD X-Spress).

And yet compared to many of his contemporaries, Dunn has always remained more an underground figurehead than a household name. There were reasons for that: not least a parallel career working in the hip-hop world (for a time under the Bad Boy umbrella), plus visa/passport complications which prevented him from touring in Europe for many years.

 

Lately, though, the latter issues have been resolved and he's been able to capitalise on his new-found freedom to travel with DJ bookings at the likes of Berghain, fabric, Liverpool Disco Festival, Suncébeat, 51st State Festival and Shelter Amsterdam, not to mention serving up a couple of live sets for Boiler Room and Mixmag's The Lab LDN that have been streamed nearly 200,000 times. Dunn may not be a household name that NME readers have heard of, but the love he gets from househeads internationally clearly remains strong.

In recognition of that fact, in the past few years Dunn - previously one of the Radikal Fear Chicago All-Stars alongside Felix Da Housecat, Roy Davis Jr and Armando - has also been made a member of The Chosen Few, a crew of Chicago house originators that includes Jesse Saunders, Terry Hunter, The Hatchett Brothers, Alan King and Wayne Williams. Together, this unofficial royal family of house are responsible for the Chosen Few Picnic & Festival, an annual event - now in its 25th year - that draws over 40,000 people to Chicago's Jackson Park to celebrate house music in its birthplace. Long-term friend Hunter was also instrumental in helping Dunn set up his Blackball Muzik label - home to My House From All Angles - in the first place.

With all that in mind, releasing an album now makes perfect sense. But we got him on phone to talk about it anyway...

BACK IN THE GAME 

Let's start with the new album... tell us, in your own words, what iDJ readers should expect.

"With the album, I wanted it to be like, from the beginning sound going into the now sound. So it's kind of a mixture of when I first started, doing the 80s stuff with the acid, then it went into the 90s stuff, and then I brought it all the way up to now, the now sound. So you're gonna hear a lot of the acid tracks, some of the funky stuff and then you're gonna hear some of the newer stuff, the new productions."

So why did it take so long? Because it's not like you ever really went away...

"Well, I always liked to kind of peek in, peek back out. So I did singles and singles and singles. But then the passing of Frankie really tore me to pieces, and I said to myself, eventually, I'm gonna have to cross that road. So I wanted to leave some things behind, for my daughter, for my legacy. And I just felt like this was the perfect time to do it.

 

"The album's actually been two years in the making. I've been working on it for two years, and most of the tracks that are on the album weren't on it when I started out, because we kept revamping it - no, not this one, no, not that one, this one's good. As I was working on it, tracks kept getting better and bumping other stuff off the album."

I guess if people have waited 27 years, they can wait another few months!

"Right. There were some other things I wanted to do that I didn't get a chance to do, but for the time that I had to get it out, I think it's the best album I could have put together. I didn't want to over-think it, or things can get never-ending... just ask Dr Dre!" [laughs] I could have spent another six months on it but it felt like this was the time, and if I didn't seize the moment right now we might miss the opportunity."

You've certainly been getting some pretty high-profile DJ gigs lately, at places like fabric and Berghain...

"Yeah. With this go-around, now I'm back touring again, it's like younger kids are promoting parties now and they're more into the history, and doing their homework on who's who and what they contributed to house music. And thanks to social media and YouTube and so on, they have so much they can go grab now that we didn't have.

"When we were young, if you wanted to know about music and what had gone before it was, like, conversations in record stores or in clubs. That's how we had to find our information, and a month later we'd find out something! But for them it's instant. So that's been a real positive thing, and that's where my pick-up has been."

There are parallels there with someone like Kerri Chandler, who was an underground hero for many years and then in the past 5-10 years has become this huge global superstar...

"Right, and I look at someone like Kerri and I feel like that's where it could go for me. Well, I hope so, anyway! But I don't have to be mega... just to be able to take care of things, y'know?"

BACK IN THE BOOTH

Let's talk some more about your DJing. What are you using at the moment?

"I started out on Serato. I was basically forced into it because I let an ex-friend use my records, and he sold them all! So I was forced into buying all the stuff digitally because I couldn't find it on vinyl, or if I did, it was astronomical in price. So I started doing the Serato thing, even though I was dead against it... I was one of those DJs who was all against technology at first!

"Then me and Terry Hunter got an endorsement with Native Instruments for a minute, so we moved to Traktor. But I just found it cumbersome: setting up, getting in the other DJ's way, making sure nothing crashes... it was just too nerve-wracking when you're playing. So I went to the SSD drives for rekordbox, the Pioneer thing, which I've had no problems with.

"And what I love now is, I can carry everything with me. So no matter where or what I walk into, I'm always ready - it's not like, 'Oh, I should have brought this'. I hate to sound so old but back when we were bringing just vinyl, if you brought a bag of records and the DJ before you played maybe six of those records, you were like, 'Oh man, what am I gonna do?' [laughs] Now it's all there, it's just so convenient, I love it. But I still spin vinyl as well, because you can never forget where you came from."

 

 

You, of course, started out as a hip-hop DJ. Your love of hip-hop has obviously influenced your productions but does it influence your DJing, do you think?

"It used to more, because people forget that back in the day, we all used to do all the doubling, the scratching, the body tricks... that was part of a house set back then. That's going back right to the days before we even called it house, because before that it was disco and garage.

"This is a subject where I get a lot of flak off my hometown guys, because I always say that house is the bastard child of disco. When we first started doing house, we weren't doing anything but taking old basslines... either from the stuff that Frankie brought to Chicago, the Paradise Garage stuff, or from the Italiano disco, all of that stuff was big then. That was our pre-house days - we were calling it preppy, new wave, stuff like that. So house is the bastard child, because all we did was just rip a load of old disco basslines. It was just basslines at first because we weren't doing nothing but a bassline and some drums and sampling our voices over stuff."

That seems a fairly uncontroversial statement, so why does that get you flak?

"Because Chicago is the birthplace of house music! Not everyone likes to admit the influence of New York." [laughs]

BACK TO CHICAGO

Speaking of Chicago, you've also become one of the Chosen Few in recent years, and that seems to be going pretty well, with the Picnic and everything...

"Yeah, the Picnic is... it's an amazing thing to see. But it probably wouldn't be amazing to see if you're from Europe and you've been to Glastonbury and those types of things. It's big in the States because we don't have anything like that for house music. For us, and for those that can't get out to the big festivals in Europe, to see 20,000, 30,000 people out is pretty amazing.

"Those guys have been my friends since the beginning of house. Wayne, Terry, Andre... they've been my friends for a very long time. But I never pressed on them to make me a Chosen Few DJ, or even really thought about it, until Wayne and Terry proposed it to me. It was like, when I started DJing house again and started getting nice numbers at the parties, that's when they were like, 'Okay, we need to put him in Chosen Few before anybody else does something with him!'."

 

 

And you and Terry have been working together on the label front as well, haven't you?

"Yeah, with my label Blackball Muzik. What happened was, after I lost my deal with Bad Boy Records, when I came back to try and do some more hip-hop stuff I found I was blackballed from hip-hop. So that's where Blackball Music came from, and I said I'm gonna make that house. So I took on a partnership with Terry Hunter, with Tee's Box, and everything that I did I named Blackball This Mix, Blackball That Mix, just to get the name out there.

"I didn't want to just come back to house like, 'Hey, I'm Mike Dunn, I did this, I did that'. You know, a lot of the older cats you didn't hear from for a while, they come back with a record and you're like, 'Oh, he lost it'. I didn't want to be like that! I wanted to work myself back up little by little, see what's going on out here. I wanted to work my way back up the ranks, so it was like me starting over again, not me trying to start where I left off at."

What else is coming up on Blackball Muzik apart from the album, then?

"Well... there's going to be a lot of my own stuff on there, a lot of stuff under pseudonyms, and then there's gonna be some things that I pick up from other artists, as well. But what I've found out in this game, is that until it's done, it ain't done. So don't speak upon things until you know it's actually there!"

So is there anything else going on with you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?

"No, I think we've covered pretty much everything! The Chosen Few, Tee's Box with Terry Hunter, the album... there's not much more to say, really. Just, y'know, keep loving house music! Yeah, make that my last words: keep loving house music."

Words: Russell Deeks Pic: Jos Kottmann

My House From All Angles is out on Blackball Muzik on 15 December

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Tags: Mike Dunn, Chicago, Blackball Muzik, The Chosen Few, Terry Hunter, Frankie Knuckles, acid house, hip-house