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Caffeine Funk: An Interview With Cajmere
Melissa Bradshaw , November 7th, 2012 06:18

This month Curtis Jones - the man behind iconic house and techno anthems as Cajmere and Green Velvet - is releasing a retrospective of music from his seminal label Cajual. He speaks to Melissa Bradshaw about the house scene, spirituality and coffee

Looking back over his career in house music, Curtis Alan Jones laughs "Regrets? No, not really!" In the 90s, Jones' label Cajual (the first three letters used his initials) and its sublabels - in particular Relief - influenced a rebirth, or third wave, of house music. By the time Jones ditched his Masters degree at UC-Berkeley to return to his hometown Chicago and focus on music, two major phases in the evolution of Chicago house had passed: the early innovations on disco by the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Jesse Saunders (beginning with Knuckles using a drum machine and reel-to-reel tape edits to augment his disco sets at The Warehouse in Chicago), and the darker 'acid' sound that began with the TB-303 sound on Phuture's 'Acid Trax' and catalysed the late 80s rave scene in the UK and Europe.

Writer and theorist Kodwo Eshun has since attributed to Relief an impact on the resurgence of house, via the influence of its artists - including Gemini, Tim Harper, DJ Sneak and Boo Williams - on the likes of Armand Van Helden and Daft Punk. The Relief style of stripping the brutal but trance-inducing mechanics of acid into mean, kicking house was also an obvious precursor to ghetto house, juke and today's footwork scene. (Another sublabel of Cajual, Circuit Records, also deserves a nod in that regard.) It also wasn't just the Relief output, however, but Jones himself who bridged the distinction between house and techno. Jones created a techno persona, Green Velvet, replete with a green Mohican and a dark sense of humour, who made techno tracks about parents seeing what their children got up to at raves ('Flash') and coming home to the worst series of answerphone messages imaginable ('Answering Machine').

But Only 4 U, a double CD box set that Strut are releasing to celebrate twenty years of Cajual, is also a reminder of the other ways that the label impacted on house across the globe. With its first CD collecting some of Jones' own tracks as Cajmere (several in remix form) and the second showcasing other Cajual artists, Only 4 U recaptures how Cajual's artists reworked the gospel and 'deep' traditions in house. It also highlights how influential a persona Cajmere was in his own right.

From the way he talks, both house and techno – as lifestyle as well as the music – appear second nature to Jones. He founded his own labels "because that's what everybody did," and the two labels provided an obvious means of maintaining his two separate directions. (The standard for Chicago house labels going international had been set in 1986 by DJ International, after their artists stole the show at the New Music Seminar in New York, and the duo JM Silk were signed to RCA.)

Jones' Cajmere alter ego was born before Cajual, in 1991, with three 12"s on Clubhouse Records. (He went on to found Cajual in 1992, and Relief was born in 1993.) In 1992 he released the third of his Underground Goodies series of EPs, which included key tracks 'Chit Chat' and 'Coffee Pot'. Upon its release 'Chit Chat', featuring a rather sleazy chat-up over a swaggering groove, began to generate Cajmere attention, partly due to the support of the New York DJ Tony Humphries, who was playing the track on his radio show.

"I remix my own tracks when they're I think they're not getting the attention they should be getting," Jones laughs. For that reason he decided to remix another track on the same EP, 'Coffee Pot'. Local studios were expensive to hire, so his working method was to make the basics of a track at home and then go into a local studio. "The studio engineer was... well, let's just say, he was very good at the technical stuff," remembers Jones. "He could make anything sound like you wanted it to. And we were working on this remix, and he said something like 'I need to go and put the percolator on'. And I thought, 'Yes! That's it! It's time for the percolator!'"

The Percolator remix of 'Coffee Pot', with its jerking rhythms, siren bleeps, circling chant (the earwormy "it's time for the percolator") and equally distinct bubbling and popping synth line, became a house classic, and a prototype for the future sounds of B-more and ghetto house. Following the track's success, Cajmere's release with vocalist Dajae on the gospel-tinged 'Brighter Days' took the number two slot on the Billboard dance charts.

Cajmere entered the house stage with an idiosyncratic take on the interplay between humans, machines, sex and spirituality: what is 'Percolator's celebration of a coffee machine, if not a collective, humorous euphoria that transcends the everyday function of machines through an excess of pleasure? The apotheosis of the kitchen appliance. The percolator dance was also distinctively sexual. "I am the best dancer in the world," Jones claims. "I taught those kids to dance the percolator!" But 'Brighter Days' was also a rewrite of the house script, with its melodic swing and ravey catchiness.

Percolator doesn't feature on Only 4 U, but that's true to form: Jones wanted to draw attention to other moments in the Cajual catalogue. You might notice now that the same swagger of the 'Chit Chat' persona reappears over the ramped up machine funk of 'Midnight' (featuring Walter Phillips) and 'Let's Dance' (featuring Russoul). Those sort of flashy, funky characters were a staple of the Chicago scene since Professor Funk's regular, dressed-to-shock appearances at The Warehouse.

Perhaps understandably, given how long ago they were made, Jones is rather vague about whether specific records might have influenced seminal tracks like 'Percolator', 'Brighter Days' and Green Velvet's 'The Preacher Man'. But he does cite as influences both Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and Frankie Knuckles, and their work with vocalists Daryl Pandy and Jamie Principle respectively. 'Dream States', a collaboration with Derrick Carter, channels Principle's breathy rendition of desire on seminal Knuckles track 'Your Love'. Its vocal, exhorting the listener to "Believe in who you are, believe in what you can do, trust yourself", backed up by euphoric gospel improvisation, reworks that tradition of love and lust as a personal, spiritual matter.

Only 4 U also features 'Lalalalala (Inside My Head)', a Green Velvet and Jamie Principle team-up that declares "I just talked to God and he told me that he loves me always." The track is taken from 2007's The Call EP, whose title track tells the story of a woman who has it all being visited at night by an angel. "When an angel calls you have to answer," sings Principle over a mean and metallic bassline.

In 2006, Jones announced he had become a 'born again Christian' after his drink was spiked with GHB and he suffered a resultant overdose, but he seems keen to play it down, reminding me that "Religion - Christianity - is very different in Europe and England to how it is in America. Over there it's very, like, serious. In America it's much more, yes, evangelical. But it's also everywhere, it's much more in your face all of the time, we have preachers on the television. It's a different context." Perhaps a context in which grappling with the conceptual structures of Christianity is less surprising - and praying to God when someone has spiked your drink with GHB, even less so.

Green Velvet's 'The Preacher Man', a pumping acid-y techno track which featured Chicago's Reverend Trotter sermonising about young people these days sleeping around, was conceived when Jones got home after a night out and heard Trotter on the radio. "I thought it was really funny because he was talking about house, about playing around in the house," he says. As the beat ramps up in this particular take on the interplay between machines, spirituality and sex, it's hard to be sure whether to take the machine's function as ironic or alarming. Apparently Trotter, who is still preaching in Southside Chicago, knows about the track. "I don't think he either likes or dislikes it!"

On Only 4 U, 'Feeling Kinda High', featuring Terrence F.M., is similarly spiritually ambiguous. The singer could be evangelising about feeling kinda high in a good way, or feeling kinda high in an "Oh shit, I think I'm losing control" kind of way. The bassline beneath, and the way Jones' voice topples at its heights, makes neither of these a certainty – into spiritual euphoria there enters a potential menace.

There are more gospel-inflected tracks by other artists on Only 4 U. Andre Harris' 'I Can't Take It', the Basement Boys remix of Braxton Holmes' 'People Everyday', and Deep Sensation's 'Get Together', all from 1996-97, feature gospel vocals and the skittery, syncopated percussion that placed Cajual's output in the burgeoning garage sound that crossed over to the UK. However ungodly what descended from the two-step blueprint might seem to us now, it's a reminder that UK garage descended from a religious tradition that stretched far beyond Roy Davis Jr.'s 'Gabriel' and Todd Edwards' 'Saved My Life'. Religion and spirituality was widely and deeply ingrained in house's musical history.

The Masters at Work remix of 'Brighter Days' featured on the compilation also speaks of Cajmere's influence on the New York garage scene, and of an increased musical dialogue between New York and Chicago. Other tracks on the 2CD release embody Cajual's ventures into the deep house sound rooted in Mr Fingers' 'Can You Feel It'. Johnny Fiasco's 'Taurus' sounds initially more frenetic than deep until it spreads into mesmerising rise and fall synth chords, while 'The Wheel' by G.U. (Glenn Underground) is a hypnotic journey of echo-y handclaps and phased synths. They both sound as fresh as Maya Jane Coles or Jamie Jones – both of whom Jones says "it's no secret" that he likes.

Having embodied house and techno in his two alter egos, Jones unsurprisingly doesn't make a habit of distinguishing between the two. When I ask him - as someone has blurred the divide between house and techno in his work - what the difference between them is, he sounds momentarily flummoxed. Then he laughs, and says he's never really thought about it. Cautiously, he continues "House is more about the vocals, and songs. Techno is more instrumental, and it's a bit darker. House is really about dancing. House should make people want to dance!" He says that having a separate label for his more techno-related projects was the obvious thing to do. Bridging divisions was so natural to Jones – "I just liked them both" – that in 2006 he recorded a Ministry of Sound mix CD featuring himself versus himself - Cajmere versus Green Velvet. One Cajmere track got onto the Green Velvet CD, and vice versa.

One thing Jones is emphatic about is how the house scene in Chicago has changed. "The crowds now are a lot more white," he says. "They used to be much more mixed." When I ask if that's a kind of regression, he replies, "Well, in the 80s the house clubs were mostly black and latina. I guess when that changed was with the rave crowd, everything became much more mixed. But now the clubs are predominantly white. Because Chicago is a very segregated city, it still is. I think the thing that changed as well was [that] the black crowd started getting more into hip hop."

Asked if this change also has to do with the promoters, he laughs, "Yeah, the promoters I think. Because in the 90s all these young kids started promoting these big parties and they were much more free, they were having fun and they didn't care who they let through the door - no 'I don't like the way you look, you're not coming in.'" And original house DJs like Frankie Knuckles would play a range of different genres. "Now DJs play one thing, they're more specialised…" Jones tails off, sounding unimpressed. At a time such as now, when dance music seems obsessed with its own (commercially organised) division into genres and sub-genres and micro-genres, that seems like a significant point. Could it be that revisiting the kind of spiritual and musical heterogeneity that Jones embodied, and that Cajual worked into scene changing music, is exactly what dance music needs? In that case Cajual might have a second world impact. Another thing we can be sure of, though: there's going to be a great birthday party.

Only 4 U: The Sound of Cajmere & Cajual Records 1992-2012 is out now