A Conversation With House Music Pioneer Lil’ Louis [1995]

lil louis interview

Chicago DJ/producer Lil’ Louis isn’t one to do many interviews. However, in 1995 I was granted an audience with the trailblazing house music pioneer. At the time, Louis was living in Manhattan, and I spent a few hours with him at his studio on West 52nd Street. During our conversation, he recalled how he got into DJing, used his musical abilities to become a producer and how he came up with his classic 1989 track, “French Kiss.” The interview was published in issue 47 of Generator, a long-defunct British dance music magazine.

Images by Kevin Knight

“They used to laugh at me, but I saw the future…” – Lil’ Louis, ”New Dance Beat”

Mark Twain once said that a classic book is one which we’ve heard about, but never actually read. While that theory might be true in the world of literature, it doesn’t hold a drop of water in clubland. We all know that a classic track has the power to fire our imaginations, time and time again.

Lil’ Louis (real name: Marvin Burns) knows a thing or two about crafting effortless, left-of-center house music which has withstood the rigors of time. Where many producers regularly pay lip service to the ideals of avoiding formula and pushing the self-inflicted boundaries of popular music, Lil’ Louis has quietly let his work do the talking.

Since accidentally falling into production in the mid-’80s after becoming one of Chicago’s hottest DJs just prior to the birth of house music, Lil’ Louis’ style has been about integrating mellifluous beats and hints of jazz into drop-dead grooves. With his penchant for incorporating moody poetry and thoughtful spoken-word phrasings, he’s reached outside of his immediate circle to achieve legendary status. As a result, he’s steadily remained a force to be reckoned with.

Despite working in a genre that, for the most part, sadly possesses an often disposable mentality, Louis has been able to keep his integrity intact while continuing to develop as an artist. Whatever he’s done in the past sounds as good today as it did when it was originally released. Take “French Kiss,” for example, which still stands as one of the seminal dance singles of all time. Exploding out of the Windy City underground to the top of the global pop charts, the song sold in excess of four million units worldwide. And, with the help of “Blackout” and “I Called U,” Louis’ debut album on Epic went gold, in 1989.

After moving from Chicago to London for a year, Louis packed up and set up shop in New York City. He launched Lil’ Louis & The World in 1992, and released one of the best, most adventurous house albums ever recorded, Journey With The Lonely. Brimming with a glorious selection of vocalists and pristine arrangements, Journey… fared well on the club charts with singles like “Club Lonely” and “Saved My Life.” Three years later, it remains in heavy demand for one good reason — nothing has since fully equaled its ingenuity.

Louis eventually ran into problems with Epic. He almost predicted his fate on “New Dance Beat,” when he waxed lyrical over a silky sax riff: “… record company recession… dance floor boredom… copy machines that spit out song after song….”

After surviving an amicable parting with Epic and a lot of bad press due to vocalist Joi Cardwell bad-mouthing Louis after her dismissal from his group (she later penned “Goodbye,” her debut solo single for Tribal America, as a parting shot to him), house music’s most enduring icon literally disappeared. There were plenty of rumors, of course. The most disturbing was that Louis had given up on music forever. The word on the street was that he’d brought his toys home and didn’t want to play anymore.

Not so.

Lil’ Louis wisely backed off on the reins and regrouped. He took over a quaint duplex in a nondescript building on West 52nd Street in Manhattan (fondly known as Swing Street, since it was a haven for aspiring songwriters during the Tin Pan Alley days). As gossip surrounding his career persisted, Louis built a state-of-the-art studio, complete with a vocal booth, seven towers of rack-mounted gear and a mini basketball court.

While he got up to speed again, he remixed Babyface’s “For The Cool In You” and Meshell Ndegeocello’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” He also produced J Quest’s “Up And Down” and helped program Donna Summer’s “Melody of Love.” Though these opportunities gave him a chance to flex his production muscles, he refused to become a hired gun and kept his remixing work at a minimum.

Recently, he’s collaborated with Louie Vega, as Lou 2, on the trippy “Freaky” for Strictly Rhythm. But what’s really brought this publicity-shy enigma out of seclusion is the forthcoming launch of his own Strictly Rhythm-distributed label, Bootleg Records. Reflecting his lifelong fascination with R&B, he’s also getting ready to introduce Tomboy, an all-girl quartet which he’s molded from scratch.

Sitting next to Lil’ Louis in front of an enormous automated mixing desk in his World Studios (which is still in the final phases of its construction), I remind him that he’s perhaps one of dance music’s most enigmatic figures. He’s purposely grabbed melodies as opposed to headlines over the years, We’ll just have to start from the top, I guess. Louis agrees.

“I really didn’t ever want to do music,” he says, as he runs his index finger gently over one of the console’s faders. “I just wanted to play sports, be a boy, and do boy-type things.”

An avid sports lover as a child, he’d take a game of hoops over a jam session any day. “My father played guitar with B.B. King and he wanted someone to carry on his name. He tried to place that responsibility on me, and, of course, I rebelled.”

Although his father’s career took off when his band recorded an album for the legendary Chess Records, he hit a crossroads and made a hard choice. “He gave up everything that he worked for as a musician, because he wanted to raise and secure his family. I thought that was a good and noble thing to do, but I also thought that it was a mistake, because he gave up playing music, which was what he loved. I don’t think that a person should ever do that. In life, you have to find a balance between your responsibilities and your passion.”

Louis’ father continued the dream through his children. He bought them instruments. Forced to take up drums at nine and bass a little later on, Louis let his parents know about his reluctance to play music. Then, unexpectedly, something miraculous happened to Louis when he was twelve.

Louis settles back in his chair and explains. “My mother used to throw these community parties for the less privileged; you know, for the gangsters and the kids who used to fight. I was serving fruit punch for my mother during one of these parties, and this guy Tommy was DJing.”

He looks down at the floor and spins the chair slightly away from the console. “Well, Tommy had an epileptic seizure right in front of the turntables. He just dropped there right on the floor. BAM! Once he was on his way to the hospital and we knew he was going to be okay, my mom said that the party had to go on. She looked at me and said, ‘Louis, go play some music!’ I put on my first record and it was over for me. I felt something that I had never felt before. It was magical.”

When Louis cued up Rufus Thomas’ “Ain’t Gonna Bump No Mo’ (With No Big Fat Women)” on that fateful day in 1974, his life changed. The vibe from the dance floor electrified him, and when he slapped on the next song, Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness,” he was already floating on another plane.

“JT had the crowd where I wanted them and I realized that a DJ could set up the atmosphere. It was a beautiful experience and it led me to fall in love with DJing.”

“The reason I got into production was because people came to my clubs with micro-cassette recorders, or they’d hook up an alternate tape deck to the sound system, and they’d tape my set and would bootleg my records. I would walk in the record store and I’d see a Lil’ Louis remix and I wouldn’t know how the hell it happened. After three or four years of seeing that, I bought a little keyboard and got to work.”

Louis’ DJing career took off, and he developed what he fondly describes as a “mini-obsession” with the time-honored art of playing records.

“When I was thirteen or fourteen, I had this little girlfriend. When I used to go to her house, I’d see this club about a block down from her, and I saw these incredible people who we used to call players back then — hustlers, players with big gangster hats and canes right out of Shaft. I was enthralled by them and wanted to be a part of that scene in some way.”

Without his parents’ permission, Louis began sneaking out late at night to taste Chicago nightlife. He’d climb down the fire escape and head to parties at places like the Kingman’s Club. Just when he thought he was getting away with it, his mother would find out and he’d have his hide tanned the next day. This activity became something of a weekly ritual for almost six months, but Louis had no other choice — he’d been seduced by club life.

“Back in the day, we didn’t mix records,” he says. “We’d have one big turntable, and it was kinda like Soul Train where you’d play a record, and when it was over, everyone on the floor would applaud. Then you’d make an announcement while you searched for another record to play.”

At an age where most are discovering themselves and struggling to find some sort of calling in society, Louis was already playing parties for adults and traveling in unique circles because of his gifted ear.

“The way I acquired the name Lil’ Louis was that there was this police raid at the River’s Edge in Chicago,” he recalls with a grin extending from ear to ear. “While | was playing, all of these cops came in there, and they went to the DJ booth and looked at me. They knew that I was underage, and the owner of the club vouched for me and told them that I didn’t drink when | was there — because I don’t drink — and that I was the entertainment. The cop looked at me and said, ‘Okay, Lil’ Louis, you’d better stay out of trouble because I’m gonna be watching you.’ The owner started calling me Lil’ Louis and it stuck.”

lil louis interview

With stints at the posh MGM Grand secured — thanks to a guy named Frenchie, who had major connections in the Chicago scene — Lil’ Louis was living the good life. At fifteen, he was dating older women and had a neat double existence. But, perhaps he came of age a little too quickly. He began reaching for something higher.

“At that point, I was getting tired of being treated as a DJ. Now DJs are glorified and put on a pedestal, but in the pre-disco years, we were treated like peasants. We were record players. Jukeboxes. I’ve always had a lot of confidence instilled in me from my parents. My mom always taught me to keep my head up. So when I got out in the world, I couldn’t deal with someone treating me in a subservient way.”

More often than not, Louis’ brash streak of self-confidence got him hired and promptly fired from clubs. “One of the owners would come up to me and would tell me, ‘Play this record now?’ If I didn’t feel like it, I wouldn’t, so I’d get thrown out.”

He shakes his head and smiles. “I had a gun pulled on me once by a club owner when I was nineteen or twenty,” he offers matter-of-factly. “This guy told me to play a blues record that I hated, and I wouldn’t play it because I was right in the middle of my set. I felt like the crowd was going the way that I wanted them to go and I was pacing them. So he insisted on me playing that record. I refused so he took the record off that I was playing and put his on. Right after that, there was this contest. Eddie Murphy had an album where he said something vulgar like, ‘fuck you, motherfucker.’ So right in the middle of this contest, I kept repeating those words. The owner threw the mic. down, came to the booth and pulled a gun on me.”

Okay, call me a coward, but that must’ve been a scary experience, right?

“Well, it was interesting. I didn’t back down, but it showed me that sometimes in life you can’t worry about saving face. Those were kind of the battles that I’ve taken on, because I always felt that as a creator of anything, you have to stick to what you believe in and shouldn’t compromise your principles. To me, art is made up of interpretation, and if it’s your interpretation, it shouldn’t be directed by anyone else.”

“Everything kinda crashed on me in the mid-eighties because I wouldn’t compromise the music.”

As Louis reached adulthood, he graduated to managing clubs. His sound became increasingly more underground, and he developed a faithful gay crowd, who were the first to flack in droves to his sound. In retrospect, he describes that time as his musical metamorphosis, which also saw him wrestle with some demons.

Going down memory lane has led Louis to a story he wants to tell. “I remember about a month into promoting these parties with my mom, having just one person in there on a Friday night. My entire family was there and everyone was a little sad. I told them, ‘Look, let’s pretend that this is family night and let’s include this one guy named Lamont in on the family. So I locked the doors to the club and we started screaming and we stayed there ‘til about six o’clock. The guy had such a good time that he brought three hundred people the next week, The fact that we weren’t depressed about what happened started something and after that, the parties took off to where we had a thousand people a night.”

He might’ve had fame at an early age, but the raves Louis threw around Chicago made him a legendary fixture. Drawing regularly between one and four thousand people, he admits that he was living something of a blessed life just prior to house music’s birth. Then the dark days set in.

“Everything kinda crashed on me in the mid-eighties because I wouldn’t compromise the music,” he admits. “I felt that dance music needed to be safeguarded and protected. I was a total purist then; I still am now to a degree, although my definition of dance music has broadened. Now, when I play in clubs, I’ll play anything you can dance to. At a recent party in Italy, I played Sade. It’s not about tempo… when I was into pure disco, I felt that the uptempo thing was the thing that I had to protect.”

According to Louis, the club scene in Chicago fizzled out because people were so busy cutting each other’s throats. He says that rivalries between competing promoters got so intense that his competitors would distribute flyers prior to Louis’ gigs saying that his event was canceled. In one instance, they even advertised that Louis had died.

While he stuck to a core of close friends and gave opportunities to people like DJ Pierre, who unveiled “Acid Tracks” at one of his parties, Louis began dabbling in production work. He reworked tracks like First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” and “Love Thang,” Billy Paul’s “Only The Strong Survive,” “Hercules,” “Seven Ways To Jack,” Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” Vince Montana’s “Heavy Vibes” and various cuts for Teddy Pendergrass.

“The reason I got into production was because people came to my clubs with micro-cassette recorders, or they’d hook up an alternate tape deck to the sound system, and they’d tape my set and would bootleg my records. I would walk in the record store and I’d see a Lil’ Louis remix and I wouldn’t know how the hell it happened. After three or four years of seeing that, I bought a little keyboard and got to work.”

That leads us to the story behind “French Kiss” and Louis looks almost shy to talk about it. “Back in the mid-eighties, I got a little frustrated with DJing because everyone was doing it. I started feeling like I was getting lost in the shuffle and that I needed something to separate me from everyone else, So what I did before every party was to come up with a track that I would only play for that party. “French Kiss” was one of those tracks, and the reason why I slowed it down was because I had this late-night conversation with this young lady about the differences in the way that people make love. You know, quickies versus those who take their time. As she was talking to me, I just started slowing the record down and it sounded better slow to me. It was a fluke, and when I first played it at this club called Medusa’s, the crowd started howling! I couldn’t hear the record because they were yelling so loud. The next week, we had to throw these two people out of the club for having sex during the song, so I knew that I had something magical.”

From a repertoire of over seven hundred tracks, Louis only put out three or four. “I just wanted them for the moment for that party. I could put out albums of these tracks, but I’ve graduated to another level. I still appreciate anything that moves people, but it’s about the song to me. Tracks come and go, but songs remain forever. When I write a song now, it has to have some meaning or I can’t feel it.”

Originally issued on Louis’ own label, the demand for “French Kiss” far exceeded his means. In three consecutive weeks, orders topped 70,000, and he couldn’t keep up with the demand. Naturally, a bidding war ensued, and Louis signed a U.K. deal with London after being courted by Pete Tong.

Looking back on those days, Louis says that it was perhaps the craziest point in his life. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on because my whole objective on that record was just to again separate myself from the rest of the pack – it wasn’t to make a lot of money off of it or anything — and the results were astounding and I couldn’t believe what was happening.”

Given the single’s international success, Louis was suddenly thrust into a new arena where he trotted around the world like a madman in order to fulfill promotional commitments. Though he nearly lost his marbles in the process, he says that he learned several valuable lessons.

“I learned about planning and the lack of planning. I’d say that the most painful time about that point in my life was that everything happened at once and I couldn’t handle it,” he maintains. I like planning things and I pay a lot of attention to detail. That’s one of the reasons why my clubs in Chicago really worked, and I’m the only person who gave parties for five and six thousand people. Period. Nobody else can claim that, and that’s because I paid attention to detail.”

“Now, in 1987 or 1988, when this record hit, I’m being pulled here and there and my family is going crazy. I was still young — about 26 — and even though I understood responsibility, I didn’t to that degree. At that point, I had just had a child, and that was another amazing thing that I was going through with the baby’s mother, because all of a sudden I went from plain Lil’ Louis to Lil’ Louis, the guy with money. It hurt because I didn’t want to pace my life that way. I had no time except for getting on a plane and going to wherever, coming back, and then going into the studio. | wasn’t eating, and I got very sick.”

“I don’t think that dance producers go for originality like we should. In R&B, although a lot of it tends to copy what’s popular, at least there’s variety. With dance music, it’s so formulated to the point it’s monotonous.”

Luckily, that reality check helped him continue the next leg of his musical journey. “I realized that you have to give control over and that you can’t control destiny as much as you’d want to. You can plan your life, but you can’t control it. The only thing that you can do is to try to stay on the road that God built, even when it seems like you should turn, you should stay focused and on it. That’s how I live life now, and it’s much easier.”

While Journey With The Lonely wasn’t as commercially successful as his From The Mind of Lil’ Louis debut, it outdid its predecessor in every possible way. Even today, the album’s freshness and creativity stand as the benchmark by which all other house albums are measured.

“Dance music has been under-appreciated for so long, but part of the responsibility for that lies with the artists,” he says, admitting that he’s always gone out of his way to bring new ideas to the dance floor. “I don’t think that dance producers go for originality like we should. In R&B, although a lot of it tends to copy what’s popular, at least there’s variety. With dance music, it’s so formulated to the point it’s monotonous.”

With his mother’s determined spirit and his father’s quest for originality instilled deeply within his psyche, Lil’ Louis is looking ahead with glee, He’s visibly excited about the realization of Tomboy, which has been two years in the making, and says that he’s committed to giving the group his complete dedication. Despite his love for creating tracks, the world of R&B is calling Lil’ Louis, and Tomboy’s mixes will be divided between down n’ dirty R&B and slammin’ house.

“The dance community is very lazy,” he argues. Louis offers up a few names he’s impressed by, but the list isn’t too long. “There are a few who shine through, but overall, instead of crying about the state of the dance industry, they should do something about it on the creative end. Don’t follow the pack. That’s the only way things will progress. Nothing is out of your reach if you really want it. No one can tell me that anything is impossible.”

Two of the members of Tomboy have popped by the studio to do a session for their album, and Louis politely excuses himself to say hello to them. When he returns to the room, he reiterates how impressed he is with the quartet’s dedication and hopes that he’ll be able to help them reach their dreams.

“Marvin Gaye once said that a good artist suffers for the people. I’ve always felt like that has applied to me,” he says. “The ups and downs are fine, because I look at those as just marker points. I don’t compromise. If you knock me down, I’ll just get right back up again.”

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Darren Ressler

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