Veteran duo Solid Gold Playaz have just dropped a killer four-tracker on Freerange Records, which seemed as good a reason for a chat as any…
Solid Gold Playaz are Kenny Gino and Big Mike T, a pair of Midwest rave veterans based in Wisconsin, USA. They’ve been producing together since the late 90s and have recorded as MindInfluence Music, Black Music, Dark Matrix, MindInfluence and Cozmic Jazzz Futurist [sic] as well as under the name Sold Gold Playaz, and have put out music on DNH, Soulfuric, Kanzleramt, Losonofono and their own Solid Gold Records.
Specialising in potent dancefloor-targeted, DJ-friendly deep house grooves, their releases have become extremely popular with house Djs, and Jimpster’s such a fan that he’s just released their new four-track EP Mind In A Daze on Freerange. He’s even included a Jimpster’s Top 5 Solid Gold Playaz chart in the press release for the new EP, and says of the duo that, “They’ve released some of my favourite house tracks dating back to the late 90s, so it is a real pleasure to have them produce four amazing new tracks for us here on Freerange.”
The Mind In A Daze EP is a serious four-tracker, ranging from the hypnotic My Mind Is In A Daze, all gnarly synths and layered percussion, to the smooth Detroit-flavoured pads of The Kiss, the resolutely underground Let Me See You Jack and classic SGP dance floor vibes of Optical Illusions.
iDJ chatted to Mike and Kenny about the ups and downs of a long career turning out quality underground house music.
Thanks for your time today. First of all, how has your lockdown been?
Mike: “Lockdown has been okay for me, working on lots of new music.”
Kenny: “About the same for me, just trying to stay physically and mentally healthy.”
For those who might be unfamiliar, please tell us who you are and what you do?
M: “Mike aka Big Mike aka MK Smokin’ T. I’m a producer, DJ, cratedigger, sampler, and lover of funk in music.”
K: “And I’m Kenny, also a producer, DJ, not-as-much-of-a-cratedigger as Smoke, sometimes sampler, and definitely a lover of funk and thhe abstract in my music. Together we make up MindInfluence Music aka Solid Gold Playaz, Black Music, Dark Matrix, and Cozmic Jazzz Futurist, among our other aliases.”
Where are you and what are you up to today?
M: “We’re both in Racine, Wisconsin, which is located about an hour north of the city of Chicago and just south of Milwaukee, and today is just a regular workday for me."
K: “And I'm at home because that is life for me right now. Today I’m just working through some musical ideas I have.”
So, tell us your story: how did you first get into house music?
M: “I first got introduced to house music while listening to Chicago radio in the 80s. They were playing Italo, disco and early Chicago drum track records. Their radio broadcast signal came in very clean where we lived, and we got to listen to and record the Hot Mix 5 and their shows on WBMX. They were responsible for taking the music to the next level. I was and still am a huge Farley Jackmaster Funk fan! By hearing those early drum tracks I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
K: “I got introduced to the music pretty much the same way, but I also had some cousins who were DJs in the City around that time too. My cousin Gerald was a bit older than me and went by DJ Jammin’ Gerald at the time, and he and his family moved up here from Chicago around 1980/81. He was playing what we called new wave records back then, but it was Italo, disco and the dance music that I call house today. Between what he was playing, what he was teaching me, and me trying to copy Farley Funkin’ Keith’s style - that set my foundation for house music.”
So would you say where you’re from has affected your musical journey?
M: “Yes, it did, and you can hear it in our music. Chicago had the house thing going on and Milwaukee had the electro and hip-hop thing going on.”
K: “I completely agree. And when the Detroit guys started bringing their music to Chicago that had an effect on us too.”
What other influences contribute to how your music sounds?
M: “I'm into jazz, funk, sample-based hip-hop, bossa nova, disco, classic rock and ambient music. You'll hear all that stuff sampled or played in our music at times.”
K: “And I'm pretty much into the same stuff too. Mike turns me on to a lot of great music because he constantly digs for music. And I would add the Detroit and Philly sounds as well.”
How would you describe the music that you make?
M: “It's a bit of Chicago, a bit of Detroit, shaken and stirred with a bunch of Racine, Wisconsin.”
K: “I think of it as future music because there are things that we did 20+ years ago that people are still vibing with today!”
Do you have a favourite among your own productions?
M: “Not really.”
K: “Most of my favourites are tracks that never even made it out of the lab beyond a demo tape or two, or just shared between us. But it just showed our progression and creativity and how our story was changing.”
There’s a gap from the late 2000s to the late 2010s where you don’t seem to have made much music – did you take some time out from the industry?
M: “Yes, I did take some time off from making music. Things, for me at least, were starting to sound the same and I wasn't coming up with anything that I wanted to let anyone hear. It felt like I had forgotten how to find good samples or play my keyboards.
“Then there was the switch from hardware to using soft synths, Ableton and Cubase. I had a hard time figuring out how to use any of that different technology because up to that point I was just using my MPC 2000 and a bunch of keyboards and drum boxes. So during that time I’d really thought about just calling it quits and retiring for good.”
K: “I went through something very similar after my brother died in 2005. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore and pretty much gave up production – and Djing, too. But Mike encouraged me to keep making music even if it was only for us to listen to… so that’s what I did.
“Eventually, things changed for me again, and after two separate visits from some good friends and label owners – Jon AD from Losonofono Records and Mike Grant from Moods&Grooves – and playing them some unreleased stuff we’d saved up over the years, they convinced us that it was time to start letting the world hear what we were doing again.”
Who would you say has been the most important person in your music career?
M: “That would have to be Kenny Gino. He is the one who got me to start making music. Around 1986/87 he would bring his keyboard and drum machine to my house and play me things he was working on. I didn't have any keyboards or gear of any kind at the time and that lit a fire inside of me. I needed to start making music too. We would do beat battles when we both needed inspiration. And they would last for hours, just playing ideas over the phone to each other. We did this back in the days, and still do it today. Even when I stopped making music, he was still blowing my phone up with new music and kicking my ass. He was trying to get me motivated. When he stopped making music, I did exactly the same for him.”
K: “Yes, he did. I hit the wall recently where nothing sounded good to me, and Smoke was right there hitting me with the new stuff he was working on and blowing my mind! And what he never realised until recently is that I was taking inspiration from him the whole time I have been making music! Him and my cousin Hosea were the ones to let me see that I could do this… I could make music from the ideas I had in my head. When I was at my most creative, I was just trying to make tracks that would sound like something those guys would do, or at least something they would vibe to… and Smoke was doing the same thing, making tracks that sounded like something I would come up with. All the while it was just a vicious circle of each of us trying to sound like the other, and that helped push our sound.”
Tell us a career highlight?
M: “Finding out big DJs were playing our records all over the world and finding out record stores couldn’t keep our records in stock.”
K: “About the same for me. Some of the biggest DJs in the world at the time, as well as DJs in Chicago, were supporting and charting our records. That was a great feeling. An there was the time DJ Demi hit me up to tell me that he’d just read an interview with Jimpster where he’d mentioned us by name. We’d always been huge fans of Jamie’s music and that just blew my mind because we hadn’t even met at that time! And then there was the time we got to experience Gramaphone Records – the house music mecca for DJs in Chicago and the world – sell out one of our records in minutes, while we were standing there just watching the records fly off the shelf. That was another dream come true.”
And have there been any low points or tough times in your career?
M: “I think the low point for me is not being able to make anything good music-wise. I probably didn't turn on my gear for what felt like a couple of years. Horrible time for me.”
K: “We have both been on that level. Hearing sounds in our heads is both a gift and a curse to both of us, especially when you can’t get that sound to come out or get it to sound like what you hear in your mind. And when that happens over and over for a period of time it’s enough to make you just want to give it all up.”
Your new EP on Freerange is superb, it strikes a perfect balance between house and techno. Tell us a bit about how you approach making your music?
M: “I just make whatever makes me feel good in the moment. Tracks that start out as deep tracks, sometimes turn into techno tracks and techno tracks sometimes turn into deep tracks. And then sometimes they turn into electro tracks or they end up drum & bass. And there are days where I am on the hip-hop, chill-out type of vibe or maybe something that’s ambient. It all depends on the mood.:
K: “Yes! And the music tells me where it wants to go and what it wants to be, too. I might start out with something I want to go deep with but then the track tells me that it wants to be something else. And I have learned through much frustration of trying to control things and make the track what I want it to sound like, to just let the track be what it wants to be. That and trying to sound like my version of what Mike might make!"
Are there many ‘happy accidents’ in your production approach or do you plan it all out?
M: “I think it's a little of both. Some things that are planned don’t go as planned and then turn into something that's great.”
K: “Oh, there are absolutely happy accidents in the music for me… sometimes things I could never recreate. I listen to some of our old stuff and sometimes wonder how we made some of those tracks because I have no clue. But I know some of it was planned, but some were just happy accidents.”
What it’s like working as a duo – what are the advantages and disadvantages?
M: “The advantages are, if something isn't working, the other can pick it up and make something of it. We have always worked like that. Disadvantages are Covid 19. We can't get into the studio to do things together like we used to. Before all of this, I would either go to Kenny’s studio or he would come to mine and we could just vibe out and create for hours, and the hours would fly by. We have created so much music that way and we have endless hours of music recorded on old DAT tapes where we were just vibing and creating.”
K: “Exactly what Mike said! We found a system that works for us and now it doesn’t matter if we are in the same studio or not. It’s all just us. If one is not feeling the music or just dry on ideas at the time, the other one carries us through. But the greatest thing is that we think so much alike and have a long history, yet we still have some variety in our individual perspectives so that we can keep each other fresh in what we do.”
What have you got planned for this year?
M: “We are working with Jon from Losonofono to get our Bandcamp page up and running to release some new music and some previously unreleased music. We have tons of new material so this will give us a creative outlet. We are also working on the next Dark Matrix/Techelectro project for all the techno and electro fans. And we will start working on our next chapter in the Theories Of The Ghetto series. There’s also another release on Freerange Records in the works."
K: “And I would add that we plan to get back in the studio together and get back to the vibe sessions again. We have some plans for our Cozmic Jazzz Futurist project as well – some spaced-out, abstract, Sun Ra-type stuff. I am really on that vibe right now.”
Is there any other question we didn’t ask that you would like to answer?
M: “Yes, a little back story on our history and how the Solid Gold Playaz and Mindinfluence Music family formed. Kenny and I had become rival DJs back in the mid-to-late 80s but we had mutual respect for each other and sometimes played at the same places. Back then you had to battle for respect… and we talked a lot of crap if you weren’t bringing the mix on point because we took our DJing seriously!
“Around 1989 or so, Kenny would bring his keyboard and drum machine to my house and play me some of the music he was working on – he had a Roland W-30 and a TR-505. I still remember the first time I heard one of his songs in the mix. He was making a mixtape at one of our fellow DJ friends' houses and he’d brought his four-track tape machine with him, to mix in one of his productions with some early Chicago house records. It was a structured track with a bassline, keys, vocals, and chorus. I started joking about his track for some reason and kind of ruined his vibe and he packed up his tape machine and left.
“It was a few years before I saw him again, sometime around 1992-93. By then, I worked at a record store where Kenny shopped for music and he would always have tapes with him with some of his new music on them that he would bring for me to play in the store. These were early ideas he was constructing in his bedroom studio. And by that time, I had a couple of keyboards and drum machines too. I invited him to bring his gear over to plug in to see what we would come up with – he was using a Roland DJ-70 at the time and I had the Akai S950. So we had all kinds of sample time along with a Roland TR-909 and various other keyboards. And we just clicked… and the music just clicked too. And that was the start of the Playaz.”
K: “It was about 30 years before he finally explained to me why he dissed my track like that but we’re all good now! It worked out for the best and we just laugh at it all now. And I am so glad that I do not have that mixtape or that track any more!”
Words: Harold Heath
The Mind In A Daze EP is out now on Freerange Records