By Dan Beaumont
Gene Hunt was a protégé of legendary Music Box resident DJ Ron Hardy and had a front-row seat for the genesis of house music in Chicago while still in his teens. He is fiercely protective of Hardy's legacy and personifies a distinctive style of DJing that dates back to the beginnings of club culture itself. Gene Hunt is a collector of dance rarities, producer of unique analogue house tracks, reel-to-reel edit specialist but first and foremost a DJ.
I met him from Heathrow and accompanied him to St Pancras for a gig in Ghent. He agreed to let me record him talking as we had lunch waiting for the Eurostar.
DAN: Can you share a Ron Hardy DJ secret?
GENE: I remember we were playing together, I think it was about ’87, ’88.
I played this track and he was like, “Why did you rush it out, why didn’t you play the rest of the track?”
I said “But the floor cleared.”
He said, “Let me tell you something: This is what you’re gonna do.” He looked in his bag and he gave me a couple of records. The first record was called Galaxy, by War. So I play this record and cleared the floor again.
He said, “Play it a couple more times.”
I said, “Tonight?!”
He was like “Yeah! Play a couple tracks, do that, then play it again.”
So I played it again. And the crowd stayed on.
He said, “Do you see my point? You have the power to break records. But you cannot be afraid as a DJ to let them experience what you experience. Now what do you think about this record?”
I said, “I love it.”
“Now, what makes you think they don’t? If a record is eight minutes long, play it! Don’t just rush it out or rush it in because the drummers and the singers don’t start getting into their groove until the middle or towards the end of the record. So play that shit! Don’t be afraid. See what you just did?”
“What I do?”
“I just let you break the record.”
And I was like, “wow, you tricked me.”
“I always trick you.”,
Y’know, Ron would give me these challenges or tasks when we’re live at the club. “Alright, c’mon, bring something in.”
I’m like, “I don’t have my stuff with me!”
“Use my stuff.”
So, that was the part about execution. That was the part about timing. That was the part about learning. It was not being afraid to express what you want to express. Give them what they want, but then also educate them.
DAN: Do you think that DJs play too safe now?
GENE: Yes a lot of them do. A lot of them choose their hot spots, a lot of them find more simplistic ways to work an audience without being as creative as they are in other aspects. Now, since you have Traxsource and Beatport and all that other stuff, it makes it very accessible for people to just sit there all day and just purchase shit. Back in the days we had to go to the shops. We had to go to Loop Records, we had to go to Imports, we had to go to Gramophone, we had to go to different places to look in the bins and get creative to find what’s hot. You could get Hot Mix 5 [house music radio show] or you could go to The Playground or the Music Box or Sawyers or what have you and you would just sit back and feel the vibe of what’s going on. You would go to the record store the next day with your tape. We had somebody to educate us, to keep music going on.
DAN: What is the Chicago sound to you?
GENE: Basically, when house music occurred, I mean we had the disco era first, but when house music first came about, we had Chip E doing shit like Time To Jack, and It’s House. We had Jesse Saunders making On and On, we had Robert Owens and Fingers Inc and Bring Down The Walls and Mysteries Of Love, Ron Hardy doing Sensation, Frankie bringing out bring out reel to reels and tape decks to play the exclusive stuff. People didn’t have a Traxsource or a Beatport, you couldn’t just go there and buy something to sound and fit like everyone. The way they’ve designed the game now is you don’t have to go fish and find your music. We would take reel to reels and grab a razor blade and splice and do edits and make stuff go backwards, with the drum machines and outboard gear like Roland 909 or 707s or 303s and we would create our own stuff to play at parties that accentuate to make us different from one another. When Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson used to come down to the Box and bring the Rhythm Is Rhythm shit and strings of life. They would come to the Music Box and give us all that shit.
DAN: So what did you think of what was happening in Detroit?
GENE: Oh, they were really starting to break that edge. You had like Blake Baxter and Model 500, Metroplex, all that shit from Inner City, all that stuff they were doing, they had their own flavour. Like they took a certain element, they added their own attribute to it, and created a sound called techno. Like when I used to take a 909 track, I would just put basslines and make it real abstract, that would be considered as techno now. I would play that with disco, I would play that with house music because it was my rendition. Okay, what makes Gene Hunt so different? Tracks! He makes acid tracks with a 909 when Phuture 303 made that shit with a 707 and and the 727… he makes his acid tracks with the 909! Oh my god!
Everybody had a different flavor. Lil’ Louis when he did French Kiss and The Music Takes Me Away… I remember when he paid 300 bucks for an 808 drum machine, he started making French Kiss, got the deal with Ray Barney [owner of Dance Mania records].
DAN: Someone said that Jesse Saunders On And On track was important because it taught the whole of Chicago that anybody could make a house record.
GENE: All that stuff was being distributed by Larry Sherman who owned Trax Records. This man had a record company, a pressing plant, right in the back of a meat market! Everybody would come down there and get their stuff pressed up and they had different labels and so forth and we’d press vinyl. You would sit there with a hammer. Me and Ron Carrol would sit over by the garbage can. Ron Hardy would be in the other room doing the shrinkwrap. Steve Poindexter would be doing the typesetting and the labels. We would have all these old K-Tel records and shit and we’d have a hammer and break the records down so we could re-melt the wax. All those records that came out, that you would see on television, we’d break the records and tear out like the vinyl part of it and press records and you’d still see the old records pressed in the new records, oh it was gangster!
DAN: Was Larry Sherman a bit dodgy?
GENE: “A bit dodgy” wasn’t the word! Haha. Let’s try “total dodgy”! But we all learned. We would take the vinyl recording, get a good quality recording of it, go downstairs, make a plate of it, then press it up. The vinyl quality was shitty but back then it was beautiful just to be able to get a record that you couldn’t get. So, Ron would take personal shit out of his collection, record it, and then put it out.
DAN: Why do you love playing records?
GENE: If you’re playing records and the record skips or the record jumps or gets dirty, that’s the fun about it. You’re really up there doing it. You’re really conducting music in a sense, to make it realistic to everybody in the room. The warm sound of a good quality recording and the fidelity that comes out of those speakers, the sound and the feeling of it, it doesn’t sound processed, it’s a real live feeling, it doesn’t have a synthetic feel whatsoever. That’s the importance of playing vinyl. The tape hiss. That analogue thickness. That warmth. It’s different from some shit being processed and watered down. It sounds too perfect. It has to be a little dirty. It has to have a little dirt, a little grunge in it to get with the natural aspect, to make it more organic.
It’s like some broccoli, if you overcook it. You cook all the nutrients out of it and you lose that crunch to it. It’s soggy and synthetic. You want to have warm and organic attributes to get the natural aspect of what you’re doing. That’s why it’s so valuable to play wax.
[Gene is eating a forkful of broccoli at this point]
Dan: What is your state of mind when you're DJing? Do you get nervous?
GENE: Not really. I know I have a job to do. I have to entertain a room full of people for a number of hours so I have to get everybody on the same page. So based on the way that I feel emotionally – If I got personal problems at home, or I’m going through some shit I’m taking my problems out on the dancefloor. So they’re loving it, and it’s helping me get through my problems. Because I’m unleashing the way that I’m feeling, I’m expressing myself to a room full of people. My car got towed, I got tickets, some shit happened, so I’m going to take it out on you guys and you’re going to love it. I like to tell a story when I play. I like to give you past, present and future. I want to give you aspects of where I started and where I came from. Let you know what’s going on in the now, and tell you things about where I want to go. It’s like a rollercoaster – you anticipate, and you go up, but you don’t know when the drop is coming. My advice is to never plan what you do. Because I want to enjoy it just as much as you want to enjoy dancing.
DAN: What do you think about EDM?
GENE: It has its moments. If you come from Chicago which is the Mecca of house music, obviously, you should have some form of education and history. You hear EDM stuff in a club – I went through this a couple of weeks ago - I’m like, “Why would they put me on to headline and they got this person and that person” It puts me in a challenging state because here I am in a room full of people who don’t have a clue about what they’re dancing to – but it feels good to them. It’s a mind opener.
DAN: Would you play a disco record to an EDM crowd?
GENE: Yes. Most definitely. I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m relentless. “Alright, they’re digging that. Let’s try this.”
I still hear Ron in my head saying, “Don’t rush that record out, you better let that record finish.”
DAN: And back to Ron – how was it working for him?
GENE: Pins and needles. Out the blue. It was scary. You never knew when he wanted to take a break – he would just say, “Get on.”
There wasn’t a plan, like, “You’re going to play 11:30 or 12:30.”
He would just play a record and then go out the back and chill out.
“Go ahead, get on.”
He’d be back there taking a nap.
I used to open up. If I was five minutes late and he gave me shit about it. At the very last Music Box – 2210 South Michigan was the very last one. I was like less than five minutes late.
“You have to be punctual, you gotta be on time.”
I’m like, “It’s nine fifty!”
“You should be here at nine thirty.”
He was in my ass because I was there at nine fifty. Subliminal mind games that just got me fucking rugged. And Frankie was the same way with me. I would pick him up – Frankie Knuckles does not drive, Frankie Knuckles does not drive a car, he’s terrified of driving a car. You have to drive him. I would meet him and he would give me music. “Give it to so-and-so, give it to so-and-so, don’t give it to so-and-so.” Specific instructions. Ron was the opposite. But they both respected one another and they were both training me.” They saw a young kid that was ambitious.
DAN: How did Frankie’s style differ to Ron’s?
GENE: Very similar and yet different. They both played the same music, they both played the same things. But the way they played them was totally different. Frankie was real sexy with it, real smooth. Ron was more aggressive. It was like passive and aggressive. But you wanted both aspects. In Chicago you couldn’t have one without the other.
DAN: Describe your style...
GENE: [smiles] That’s a good one. Once I get in the groove I want to stay in that groove. I don’t want to have any intermissions. I’m relentless. Once I get it going and once I get everybody into that mode. I keep that flavour going. I want to keep that room and give it bounce. We gotta have some vocals, we gotta have some live drums, we gotta have some groovy shit, we gotta have some sexy shit. I want to give you a four course meal of music.
DAN: Who are your current favourite Chicago DJs?
GENE: My girl Serena - CZ Boogie. She owns a publication called 5 Magazine which is like the house music almanac when it comes to parties.
We have a group in Chicago called The Untouchables – it’s me, Farley (Jackmaster Funk), Paul Johnson, a guy named DJ Box, Craig Alexander and CZ Boogie – so it’s the six of us.
How is the gay scene in Chicago?
Off the chain. It’s off the chain. We got a night on Sunday called “Queen” at Smart Bar. It just so happened that the person who does this night owns Gramaphone [legendary Chicago record emporium] - Michael Serafini. The night is explosive. Frankie’s birthday was ridiculous. You had Louie Vega, you had David Morales, you had Derrick Carter. All star lineup. You couldn’t move in the place.
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