Kerri Chandler reflects on a quarter-century of his label, and a lifetime in music
What were you doing 25 years ago? Some iDJ readers will have been partying on, enjoying the last throes of the original rave boom before (in the UK) the 1994 Criminal Justice Act forced its transmutation into the club scene we know today; others won't even have been born yet. Kerri Chandler, though? He was busy setting up his own record label, Madhouse Records.
25 years later, he's still doing it - and has been doing ever since. Unlike a lot of labels that crashed and burned in the 00s when digital downloads changed the mechanics of the music industry forever, only to re-emerge, phoenix-like, a few years later, Madhouse has never gone away, putting out a constant string of deep, garage-y vocal house releases while, for the past seven years, little sister label Madtech has taken care of darker, grittier, trackier bizniss.
Keeping a small, independent house label afloat throughout a quarter-century's worth of ups and downs for the dance music industry is no mean feat. And it's one that's now being celebrated in style. Last month saw the release of 25 Years Of Madhouse, which sees 25 gems from the label's back catalogue remixed by the likes of Will Saul, DJ Deep, Josh Butler and Kerri himself, who's also put together a stunning DJ mix featuring all 25 reworkings. As you'll read below, it's a labour that a lot of love has gone into... but then it's not every year you turn 25, is it?
Read on to learn more about the making of the album, and to get Kerri's thoughts on how the industry has changed over the past 2.5 decades - and on a past decade that's seen him progress from underground hero to festival bill-topper.
Let's start with the new album, 25 Years Of Madhouse...
"The 25 years thing kinda snuck up on me! The first thing I knew about it was, Simon [Burkinshaw, A&R at Madhouse] called me and said, 'You know it's the 25thanniversary? We should do something special.' So he came up with the idea of having everything remixed and doing it as a mix album with 25 tracks, and it just went from there.
How did you go about selecting the 25 tracks?
"I asked a lot of people that I know love the label, people like Jeremy Underground, Maximiliano in Italy, DJ Deep... all the heads that I know really love Madhouse, I asked them what their favourite tracks were, and I just compiled a load of stuff that I thought would be cool together. Then I went back through it all doing edits and stuff, and I had other people come in and do edits.
"It was so much fun to see what other people did with the stuff: everyone had their choice of the tracks they wanted to edit or remix, and it was fun because a lot of the stuff, I said I don't even want to hear it until I come to mix the album. And that first run at it, when I was mixing it... I was like, 'Wow, this is so cool!'."
The two tracks I'd have wanted to see on there would be Get Out and I Need You, and I see they both made the cut! Were they popular choices?
"Absolutely. But they had remixes as well. Rocco is a really good friend and what he did with it - I actually heard it out before Simon sent me it, I heard it in a club and I was laughing, like, 'Who did this?'. Then I found out it was Rocco and I was so happy, because it's so different from anything I would have done with it."
But the remix of Get Out is even more extraordinary - it's taken that track in a completely different direction.
"Oh yeah, completely. That's the point: there's fresh energy right across the whole album, it's not just me remixing the stuff that was there 25 years ago. All those tracks are new in a weird way, they're old but they're new again. And so far the reponse has been amazing: I was blown away by how quickly it jumped up the charts."
IN THE BEGINNING
So that's what you get for 25 years of hard work - now let's rewind to the beginning. Nowadays, every DJ who steps outside their bedroom has their own label, but that wasn't the case back in 1993. So what was the impetus for setting up on your own in the first place? Originally it was a joint venture with Champion, wasn't it?
"What happened was, years ago, the first record I ever had licensed was Dee Dee Brave's My My Lover, and that was with [Champion Records founder] Mel Medalle, through Movin' Records. It was interesting because he had a relationship with this other guy I worked with called James Bradden. It was about my fourth or fifth record, I was already doing stuff with Atlantic and I'd just started working with Warner, doing rap stuff, and Mel wanted to actually meet with me.
"He was coming over to New York for the New Music Seminar, and I guess he'd been following what I'd been doing, so he said I want to have a meeting with you, get some more tracks going and see what else you'd like to do. And in my head, I was doing all these tracks and remixes for Atlantic and Warner and I thought to myself, well I must be doing something right if they keep hiring me back to do all these things. So I said, you know what? Instead of me going to a label, I wonder what would it be like if I actually owned the label myself?
"So I was thinking about that, and then I spoke to Mel about it, and he said 'Really, you'd like to start a label? How about we do one together?'. He said, 'I'll show you everything I know about how to run a label,' because he'd been doing Champion for a while and made a success of it, 'and then you can run a New York office for Champion and I'll run yours over in the UK!'
"So I said, 'Okay, let's try it out,' and that's basically how it's been. Then I met Linda over at Downtown 61, who's always been like a second mom to me, she sort of took me in and showed me how everything runs and works, and then the same thing with Abigail Adams over at Movin' Records, she took me to the first pressing plant I ever saw, took me to my first mastering suite, and all this stuff kind of blew me away, I was hooked on the technical side of things.
"When I started the label, I was very, very green with it all, but I knew I had an outlet to do exactly what I wanted. I didn't have to listen to anyone's advice or do all this other stuff, I could make music the way I wanted to make music. It was so much fun for me to have an outlet to do all these things, and Mel was the springboard for that, for me to do what I love. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't love the other stuff I was doing for the majors, but the freedom I had with doing Madhouse was like, I can turn these things around the way I think they should be turned around. No one's telling me I have to make a four and a half minute song, or I need an intro-verse-chorus structure or anything like that. I can do all these dubs, it was up to me to explore just how far I could go. Artistic freedom - that's what Madhouse represented to me."
And you never really went away, did you? Not like a lot of labels that closed down in the 00s and then rebooted…
"Yeah, I barely slowed down with it. The only reason I slowed down with it was, Mel's health wasn't really that great at one point, and Mel's like a second father to me, so it was like, I'm not gonna do the label without him, no way. So we slowed down for a little bit, for about a year, but after that he got better and he was like, okay, let's go!
"Even today, I ask Mel, 'when are you going to retire?' and he'll tell me, never. He says he's having so much fun he's never going to retire."
Somewhere along the line you launched MadTech, so we should talk about that as well...
"Yeah, MadTech was... really it was the same thing Mel did for me. Because I saw a lot of young guys coming into the scene, so I figured I'd do what Mel did for me, give them a springboard to express the way that they wanted to do stuff.
"It started as, like, Madhouse has always been a soulful, vocal-based label and I never wanted to change the tone of it. But there were a lot of tracks coming through - really cool records, records I really liked, but they felt more like tech/minimal-type records and they didn't really fit on Madhouse. So I thought, it'd be really cool if I can do for this new generation what Mel did for me and give them that springboard to do their thing. So there was Citizen, Voyeur, Josh Butler, and a whole slew of people.
"I know exactly how it feels to start a label and start building your career, and everybody that's been on that label I've kept in touch with. I'm hands-on with all this stuff: there hasn't been anyone on that label that if they need something, they can't pick up a phone and call me. There's always a rapport that way, because I love what they do - and I like to learn from what they do as well."
DAWN OF A NEW ERA
That's a good point to move on to your career more generally. I'm thinking back to when we first met in the early 00s. At that time the big superstar names were Todd, Eric, Roger, Kenny and Louie, whereas you were perhaps more of an underground hero - but that's changed, hasn't it? Over the last 10 years you've gone stratospheric!
"I think what it is for me... everyone always asks what was my favourite time period, and I don't have one. I think that's the thing, I've always kept true to what I wanted to hear. I never tried to follow anyone's sound or trend, I was always just me. But I guess at some point it just caught back on! There was a new generation came in, I started doing DC10 and then that brought a whole new wave of people with it.
That's the thing - you seem to have caught the imagination of a whole new generation who've pushed you through to another level entirely. And that must feel quite odd, at times?
"I think a lot of it, for me, makes me - I mean, I'm always very appreciative of anyone who likes my music, but what makes me laugh is, I have records older than some of the people who come out to listen to it - I've made records older than most of them - and yet they know exactly what it is. Like obscure remixes I did, stuff that I'd almost forgotten making, they'll come up and ask for it and I'm like, 'Woah, how do you even know this stuff?'.
"I think a lot of it is, a lot of the mixes I did back then sound like a lot of the dubs these kids are making now. And I think that's where the synergy comes in... because I've always done songs, but I've always done these really dark 6:23 dubs as well. That's what kept the edge, I think."
Well, one thing that characterised Madhouse releases for me back in the day was they'd have those really raw, Jersey-style drums, and the big bass. Which cuts through a lot more today, I think, whereas a lot of soulful house and garage from that era was a bit more high end-y. Madhouse was always a bit more slammin'...
"Yeah, and that's always been important to me. A lot of the mixes I can make light, but what always got to me was, we'd always make a song but we'd always wait for the breakdown, and I always thought, 'Why aren't these breakdowns longer?'. In my head it was like Jimmy Bo Horne, Is It In?, I'd always be dying to get to the breakdown. Or even Good Times, we were always waiting for that bassline. I'm so used to - especially doing hiphop, you always rock where the breaks are.
"And that was my focus. I was like, we can make songs, no problem, but why aren't we making things that are just breaks for DJs that play house? And I noticed Chicago was doing stuff like that, and I thought why isn't anyone doing this in Jersey? New York was really polished, it had that Frankie Knuckles piano feel, but David Morales would come around and do certain mixes - like one of my favourites is his mix of Alexander O'Neal, Thing Called Love - the minute I heard the dub of that I was like, 'Woah. Why aren't there more records like this?'.
"I always thought two things. You wanna have fun, you wanna please the whole crowd? Play some songs, please the ladies, they've got their hands up, guys are happy. But when you wanna get dark and really have some head music, there's that break. That break sets it all off."
GET IT RIGHT
So you think that slightly tuffer sound is why the younger generation have latched onto you so much?
"Yeah, but the other thing is, I pay a lot of attention to the people that come out to hear me. I spend a lot of time just listening, out in the crowd and during soundchecks, and I take mental notes every time I go into a club - this sounds great, this doesn't sound so good. Even in my studio, I made it so it's a club set-up. I have a club system on one side of the room, and I can go monitor what a track will sound like in a club.
"And I have it set up so it can mimic anyone else's soundsystem. I have convolutions I take so that I can mimic exactly what a track will sound like at DC-10, or at Ministry Of Sound, or any of these other places. I don't want to have to wait to go to a club and hear it. I can tell what the arrangement should be, but sonically, something that sounds great on monitors, when you turn it up louder you're like, oh, that sounds different. That bass drum isn't where I thought it would be.
So to capture those convolutions, are you literally going into these places with a sine wave when they're empty?
"That's exactly it. I don't know if you've ever heard about me and my soundchecks but they're infamous - I change rooms around like you would not believe! I'll go in that room and take drivers out of things and do all sorts of things to make the room sound better, not just for me but for every DJ. I'm more of an engineer than I am a DJ, sometimes! I'll find things that are vibrating, I'll get the drill out, I'll start screwing doors shut! Seriously. I'll be there for hours making sure the system is right, because I want to make sure everything sounds good.
"I really, really appreciate every single fan that comes to see me play, because they could be going somewhere else. So I wanna put my all into it, I want to play every gig like it was my last gig ever."
Larry Levan eat your heart out!
"Ha ha! But I come from that generation. I grew up with all these people, like Larry Levan, Richard Long… David Mancuso's one of my dearest friends. We got spoilt for sound in New York and New Jersey, and that was the first thing, and then comes everything else. You know, the soundsystem and the music you play are very important, and then the things that you put through that system, the quality of it, that's a whole other animal."
And of course you had the example of your own father to learn from in that regard as well...
"Yeah, absolutely. My old man was a sound guy, an engineer and a DJ. In fact the majority of my family were DJs and engineers - I didn't have a choice really, it was just natural! Y'know, I grew up watching people like Kool & The Gang and Steve Arrington make records, because they were friends of my Dad's. I'm sitting there and it was the same thing, the quality - all the effort they put into getting things right, I had to understand.
"I was at Music House every day as a kid. I think I fell in love with the mixing desk, I think that was the biggest thing, because I was used to this two-channel Clubman 101 mixer and then all of a sudden I walk in and see this thing that's, I dunno, nine feet long and they're telling me that's a mixer! I was like, 'You're joking! What do you DO with it?'. So all of these things, I grew up with."
So it's been a long road for you, in a nutshell. What would you say are the best and worst changes you've seen in dance music culture over the years?
"Well, what I can say is, record sales - kinda weird the way that went! I'd never have guessed that someone running a software company would completely change the way we consume music. But I did kind of see it coming because I always thought it would be really great if I could have all my records in one place without having to physically bring them with me.
"And also the way we hear music, the way we reproduce it and the way we make it. I used to need a whole room of stuff, and now I can do it all on my laptop, as weird as that is. I mean, I love being around all my gear, and it's really hard for me when I'm on the road. But now, it's like... even with my son, who's 14, I've never seen anyone produce music the way he does, and all he's using is his iPad."
Is he going to follow in your footsteps, do you think?
"It's hard for me to say. I think he's actually going to do the other thing I wanted to do, which is computer programming and engineering. That's where he is."
You mentioned earlier that Mel said he's never going to retire… are you?
"I'll probably be kind of like Mel, I'll sit in the background and watch the next generation come in and do what they're doing. As far as me being on the road, I'm not going to be on the road forever, or certainly not at the pace I am right now. I'm on a flight every day, or every other day… I have to force my way to take a weekend off.
"You know what it is? I'm happy to be there... but getting there is another story. I joke about it, I say no one actually pays me to DJ - they pay me to fly! I can't ever get used to it. Honestly, I'm a million-mile flyer every year, and I've got the card to prove it, but for me it's like, I don't get to see anything. That bothers me more than anything.
"There's two places I've wanted to see all my life. One is Loch Ness, and the other is Stonehenge. Those two things have fascinated me since I was 9, 10 years old. Then I got to travel a bit, and the first time I did Block 9 at Glastonbury, I looked out the window and saw a sign for Stonehenge. I was like, 'Is Stonehenge near here?" and they said yeah, it's on this road. So I was like, PLEASE can we stop and look at it? I was thinking in my head, I finally get to see it! But they said 'We're running kinda late, I don't know if we can'. So the way I saw Stonehenge was in the distance, at about 50mph, out of a car window.
"And the same thing with Loch Ness, there was a festival right on the edge of the lake, but when I got there it was pitch black and all I got to see was, like, a little inlet and a sign. I was like, you've gotta be kidding me. So I saw it, but I still haven't seen it. Oh and Easter Island, that's another one for the bucketlist! So at some point, maybe I'll do some travelling and actually see stuff... because at the moment all I see is the airport, the hotel and the club."
Words: Russell Deeks Pic: Tony TK Smith
25 Years Of Madhouse is out now on Madhouse Records
Tags: Kerri Chandler, Madhouse Records, New Jersey, DC10, Kool & The Gang, Steve Arrington, David Morales, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Frankie Knuckles, Richard Long, DJ Deep, Jeremy Underground, Maximiliano, Mel Medalle, Champion Records