House Pioneer Todd Terry Goes Back to the Future (Again)

TODD TERRY photo credit Krijn van Noordwijk

“Everyone thank Todd Terry / Everyone thank Todd Terry” – PM Dawn, “Shake”

Fifteen years ago I interviewed Todd “The God” Terry at Bass Hit Studios in Manhattan. I had met him previously while interviewing Masters at Work at the same studio — even getting the amazing opportunity to watch them work on a track together — but this was the first time we were connecting for a proper chat. It was late at night and Terry, who was flanked by two engineers, was hauling ass to make a deadline on a remix for Aswad’s “Shine.” These were the days when most DJs didn’t have publicists, few journalists in America gave a shit about dance music and being a fly on the wall at a remix session was possible without having to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“Again!” Terry barked as he commanded a fat, ragga bassline and lilting piano melody which bleated from the studio monitors. In not much time I witnessed Terry take the production from ideation to declaring it was a wrap. (Read the full story published in Generator here.)

All these years later Todd Terry remains as relevant and productive as ever.

Thanks to the resurgence of interest in ’90s house, The God is bringing his sound to yet another generation. Do they know that he’s the musical architect behind ’80s and ’90s house classics like “Bango (To The Batmobile)/Back To The Beat,” House Of Gypsies’ “Sume Sigh Say,” Gypsymen’s “Hear the Music” and that evergreen remix of Everything But The Girl’s “Missing”? (And let’s not forget to mention his exploits in hip-house and the array of jams he released on his Freeze Records.) Maybe? But if you’re Todd Terry, you tend to not dwell on such things. You stick to doing what you do best: making great music for the dance floor by day and stoically standing in the DJ booth like a boss by night.

Always one to march to his own beat, last year Terry released a nifty retro-flavored cut “Real House.” The kicker is that it was not issued on his Inhouse label but on Steve Angello’s X Records, the sister imprint to Angello’s Size Records.

Around the time of the track’s release I got some time on the phone with Terry before he jetted off from his home base of New York City to god knows where. The first question on my mind was: How did a legendary house pioneer connect with one of the former members of Swedish House Mafia, whose music, it can be argued, is the antithesis of the musical blueprint Terry etched all those years ago.

Terry, who is known for his directness, pulled no punches about his union with Angello or the type of music he plays.

“I don’t care who did it, where it came from or what year it came out. I’m just gonna play what I think is a very dance floor friendly record. That’s my set.” 

Love the single “Real House” and I’m a bit surprised that it’s coming out on Steve Angello’s X Records. He’s not really known for making the same kind of music that you make. How did you guys connect?

Todd Terry: Well, Steve used to make real house tracks back in the day. But people don’t know him for that — they know him only for the trance and Swedish House Mafia. He’s always been the beat guy, you know. He knows how to make beats; he knows how to make house beats, and that’s why I think Swedish House Mafia was so popular. Because [their music] had a good beat, following up after those drum rolls. He did house records back in the day and that’s how he got started. He’s a strong admirer of me, Kenny [Gonzalez], Louie [Vega] and Roger [Sanchez]. It’s just cool that he’s doing a label that’s just an underground, beat-driven type of label so that’s gonna be cool.

Have you known Steve for a while?

Yeah, yeah. I met him four or five years ago, ran into him and said what’s up and everything like that. He’s cool and everything. I saw him at a couple of those Swedish House Mafia shows and we know each other through mutual friends as well.

What you led you to giving his label a track?

I was hanging out at Junior Sanchez‘s house, and Junior is the president of the label. So he’s like, you should do a track for X. I said, “Well, what are they looking for?” He said, “I just want underground type of shit. You know, some old-school Todd shit.” So I played him this one track and he said “That’s it, right here! Let’s do it!” Junior kind of mixed it, and I mixed it with him and the next thing I knew he handed it all to Steve and it was outta here.

I think a lot of DJs and producers lost the fun from the game. I come from a world where we had to play reggae, freestyle, house, rap, R&B, funk, soul…that’s how we had to DJ. These DJs now play they play the same house beat for four hours.”

So it all sounds like it went pretty easy.

I had the track all set up and it was going to be something I put out on Inhouse Records. But you know when I played it for Junior he said, “I gotta have it, I gotta have it!” So he stole it from Inhouse, that’s what he did!

I checked your schedule and you have a busy few months coming up.

My schedule is always pretty tight. Now that the old-school house flavor is back we’ve got a real attack on it. It’s sort of like a confidence thing. I know I can get up and get out there and play old-school house records and make it work.

I saw you at PS 1 Warmup in New York a few years ago. First of all, I knew every record you played because I own all of those records but you also put a lot of newer stuff in your set too. The way you programmed your set was perfect.

Well, I’ve been studying some of the tech-house stuff too. If it has the old-school house feel, then I’m gonna play it. That’s just how I feel. I don’t care who did it, where it came from or what year it came out. I’m just gonna play what I think is a very dance floor friendly record. That’s my set. If anyone else does that you know they’re biting. I play a lot of old-school records and certain newer ones to keep in moving.

Are you surprised at all that ’90s house has come back? There’s so many people now making it, and it seems like it’s not a fad and people are taking to it.

I think it had to [come back]. It’s easier to relate to dance floor-wise and singing-wise, even hanging out-wise. It’s [music] that’s easier to relate to. I think we lost each other probably six years ago with all of this weird stuff that had no musical feeling or value to it. I think a lot of those tracks were disposable and you can’t remember half of them, you know. They were just thrown out there just for that time and nothing had that classic feel to it. I think that now a lot of these tracks are going to have more substance.

It’s so crazy that you go out now and you hear CeCe Peniston records and Frankie Knuckles and David Morales remixes being played as well as your stuff and music you wouldn’t hear out just a few years ago. It seems like it’s all really hitting now.

I think a lot of the kids want to find out where the hell this shit came from, you know. I think they sat there and go, Wow, that’s interesting that these records are 20 years old and they still have a good feel on the dance floor. We’re evolving around the same beat, whether it changes this way or that way, but it still has to have the right feel. I think thats the key to dance records — it’s all about the dance floor feel.

I’m happy that it’s back to where I can go if I feel like writing a song, you know what I’m saying. And that’s been a long time coming. There’s a lot of records out there and a lot of them don’t have a hopeful feeling to them either.

todd terry

Where is your head at right now as an artist? Obviously you have a label and can put out records and do stuff when you want. You connect with people like Steve Angello and Junior Sanchez and do things when you want. I know a few years ago you did some artist albums. Do you want to pursue the album route again, or you having fun doing tracks when you want for whomever you want and calling your own shots? What’s your artistic goal at the moment?

I’m just gonna do what I want whether people like it or not.

You’ve always done that, right?!

Yeah, I’ve always done that. Every now and then I’ll come out with something crazy track and then come out with something that you’ll respect me for. It’s just the best of both worlds. Sometimes you can test the waters; I’ll come up with a techno record or a good drum ‘n’ bass record. That’s why I test the waters. You gotta hate me for doing one record that’s out of the vein? I don’t know what to say about that. Everybody is so fickle in keeping it real. It’s almost like keeping it real dumb. I think music is music: this person appreciate it so let him buy it. That person appreciate that let them buy that. I’m just having fun with it, man. I don’t pay nobody any mind. I just do what I do.

“We’d play for five hours and you’d hear everything. You’d come to a party not just a guy smoking a cigarette in front of a computer.”

Back in the ’90s you were doing records like “Sum Sigh Say” and all of these club house records, but you also did hip-hop.

I do a little bit of it all, man. I have fun with it. I think a lot of DJs and producers lost the fun from the game. I come from a world where we had to play reggae, freestyle, house, rap, R&B, funk, soul…that’s how we had to DJ. These DJs now play they play the same house beat for four hours. I just come from a different world. I started in the hip-hop/breakbeat thing and used to cut up breakbeats and stuff like that. To come to house music I was surprised how people could dance to the same beat all night. I’m used to going into different genres and rocking the party almost like a wedding DJ [laughs].

You’re far from a wedding DJ.

[Laughs] Yeah, you know. But you know what I’m saying: I come from a different genre of playing. We would play everything. We’d play for five hours and you’d hear everything. You’d come to a party not just a guy smoking a cigarette in front of a computer.

It’s still a trip watching people DJ from a laptop. There’s a generation who’ve never seen a DJ playing on two, three or four turntables and it’s kind of sad that it’s lost.

It’s definitely going to be a lost art. I kinda notice that a little bit more. It’s almost like the kids look at you now…if you’re just doing too much you’re not hip. I’ve got to slow down my moving records and a capellas now. It’s just a little more sinister how I do it now. But it is what it is. They’re growing up in this time like when we grew up we didn’t like doo-wop.

Good point. I like every style of music but never felt doo-wop.

So there you go! That’s how I felt and I used to hear my uncles playing doo-wop. I was like, ah man, what are they doin’?

What else do you have coming up?

A bunch of stuff on Inhouse and me and Junior have another track coming out on X. It’s a good follow-up to what I just did and it’s the answer to the first one. I’m going to keep banging them out on X and it’s a fresh thing to do. I think between me, Junior and Steve it’s a good start and we can put out tracks that are fresh and new.

No pressure, right?

[Laughs] No pressure at all. He lets me do what I want to do so it’s all good.

Top image by Krijn van Noordwijk; inset via Facebook

Darren Ressler

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