Steve Silk Hurley House legend DJ Steve “Silk” Hurley is back in action. After producing and remixing some of the biggest names in music, Silk has become a household name. Check out this interview where he talks about Janet Jackson, Cece Peniston, and the house vibe of today.
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: What have you been up to lately? Steve Hurley: I’ve been working on a few different projects. One is the singles from the “Chicago” LP that we released last year. This was an SNS record, which were me and DJ Skip. If you want to get more information on that go to www.snschicago.com. You’ll see the project on there. Basically, we’re getting ready to drop the singles off of that project. We wanted to release the album first and let people get to know the album and now we’re going to drop the singles, which will bring a whole lot more attention to the project. The other project I’m working on is my daughter’s album. Her name is B Lauren. She’s an R&B singer/songwriter and her first single is going to be featuring Twista. That’s coming out in the next few months. I’m also doing my stuff for Tom Joyner. The old school/new school remixes that I do.
WHO?MAG: Tell about the Globalmixx conference you’re involved with? Steve Hurley: It’s something that Mary Datcher is doing. I’ve known her since she was the intern at one of the radio stations. She’s always been a go-getter and for years we’ve been putting on a conference to bring the energy to Chicago to network with Chicago industry people. It’s been growing every year. It’s mostly geared toward mix show DJs and DJs in general because Chicago is basically a DJ town. So what better place to have a DJ conference? We used to have Billboard conference here every year and they stopped doing in Chicago. It’s kind of filling a void. I think it’s a great thing.
WHO?MAG: How did you get into DJing and House music? Steve Hurley: That’s a good long story, but I’m going to make it short. (Laughs). I was always the guy with the boombox back in the days making cassette tapes. I heard these guys Peter Lewiky and Kenny Jason on a station called Disco Dai Plan and they were mixing disco record together, but they were mixing Chaka Khan, Donna Summers that kind of stuff. They were actually blending from one song to another. That was my first experience hearing someone actually mixing and it sounded so cool that I wanted to learn how to do it myself. Basically, I was working at the grocery store at the time and I was still in high school. I decided to take my grocery store money and buy some turntables. I got myself a DJ case and I eventually was able to buy a few records. I only had 5 records. I used to go to the parties and tap everybody on their shoulders and ask if I could play my 5 records. (Laughs). Eventually, somebody got me into a DJ battle at a place called Sawyers, which was a hot spot for the young crowd that was into the stuff that we eventually called House music. House music back then in ’82-’83 was the music Frankie Knuckles was playing at the Warehouse which was old disco and current New York club music. I ended up winning the DJ battle and I got the spot to DJ at the Sawyer and the rest is history after that. I remember shortly there after when I was spinning at Sawyers, I started making my own versions of some of the disco songs with the drum machines and a borrowed keyboard. I eventually bought a keyboard. I just gradually started getting into production like that. That was my journey of getting into DJing. It was a whole lot of practicing in between just so I could win the DJ battle. It took around 2 to 3 years of practicing in the basement and not really getting an opportunity than just DJing in people’s basements. I did a lot of parties for free, just for people to hear me. That was pretty much the battle exposing me on a big level here in Chicago.
WHO?MAG: What was the first big song that you produced that got you notoriety? Steve Hurley: Actually, what’s funny is the tracks that I started making, I made one “Music is the Key” which was one of the first house record that I did and it reached the Billboard charts. When that happened, I made some other records like “Jack your Body” and “Shadows of your Love”. When I did that, I had a guy named Keith Numbly sing on the record because it did well. We ended up forming a group called Jay and Silk. We ended up working on an album and eventually got signed to RCA Records. While that was going on, I was still doing production. I think my first remix for a major artist was Funkytown by Pseudo Echo on RCA records which was a big pop records. Eventually, I noticed I didn’t want to be an artist because I wasn’t really a singer. I was more of a producer. I just wanted to get my songs out there. I started doing more and more remixes which some of them were Ten City all of their earlier work. Inner City’s “Good Life”, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna. It just started snowballing at that point. I had a group called Jamanda which was one of my most successful remixes. The song was “Got A Love For You” which was on Big Beat Records, an independent label, but the record did really well actually because of my remix. I took the vocals and sampled them. I totally rearranged the song and made a whole new music track. I kind of started a trend. Remixing used to be that you would take the existing track of someone’s song and you would rearrange it and make it DJ friendly. I turned it into reproducing the song and change the music totally and making a whole new track. This is the norm now for remixes, but back in the days, people would add percussion and a couple of breaks to the song and make it sound better in the club. They would re-EQ it. This is the norm now, to rearrange the song on all remixes. Except on the hip-hop side, which is usually the same song, but with a rapper on top of it. It’s usually not totally remixed. Although sometimes it is. People are confused as to what a remix is because they do the new version with a rapper on top of it.
WHO?MAG: How did you end up doing the remix for “Welcome to My Groove” by Mellow Man Ace and the production process behind it? Steve Hurley: In Chicago, they didn’t play it as much as in other cities and overseas. At the time, I was on Warner Bros. Benny Medina hired me, the guy who developed The Fresh Prince story. He was an A&R person at Warner Bros and I had done mixing for him for Prince, like the song “Get Off” and few other Warner Bros projects and he gave me that song to remix. I thought it was a cool track and I hadn’t done a whole lot of house mixes of rap songs, even though my very first song had a rap in it with me rapping in it. I’m not too proud of my rap, but it was a rap I guess. (laughs) It was a transition from DJing to remixing to songwriting, because at the same time, I was a songwriter too, because it was my very first song I wrote all the lyrics and arranged all the vocals and all that too. I kind of was songwriter and producer from day one, but I kind of became an artist and then I became a remixer and then I got back into my songwriting again. Then I started working with Cece Peniston and Shante Savage. Then I got back into my remixing as well. I did stuff for Mary J Blige, R Kelly, I wrote a song for a soundtrack for Donnell Jones with Rashaan Paterson, another artist I worked with on the Love and Basketball soundtrack. I also worked with Oprah on her version of American Idol. We did the album in two weeks. I wasn’t too proud because of the short period of time. We didn’t have time to be creative. Now I’ve come full circle where I’m doing all those things and I’m working with my daughter who I think is one of the most talented singer/songwriters out there that you’ll be hearing about real soon. If I recall, that song had a sample. I can’t remember right now. They already had cleared the sample, so I was able to use it and the music around it. I don’t know what the process was to clear the sample, but it was cleared before they put it out. Basically on my version, I took the sample and put more of house feel around the sample. I don’t remember how the original was but I went in more of a house direction. I tried to make it fit as if I was DJing as far as how I wanted it to sound.
WHO?MAG: How did end up doing the remixes for Janet Jackson and Cece Peniston? Steve Hurley: It was around the same time. Cece Peniston, she actually picked a song that I wrote called “Keep on Walking” and another one called “We Got a Love Thing” with E Smooth and Jerry McAllen and Shante Savage wrote and I had produced. I ended up doing those two songs on her first album because at the time when “Finally” took off which a lot of people think I did that song; which I didn’t. I had a song named “Too Blind to See it Out” by a girl named Kim Sands who was in our camp and it was out at the same time as “Finally”. The guy who was the A&R liked my production on that and wanted to see if I had any more stuff in that vein. That’s how I ended up with “We Got a Love Thing”. He wanted something kind of R&B but with a dance flavor. That’s what “Keep on Walking” ended up being. I wrote that song and did the track as well. Basically after that, we worked on the second album. I did the song “I’m in Mood” and “I’m Not Over You” which were more on the R&B side. I was able to branch out and do some stuff on the R&B side. While I was doing that, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis started hiring me to do a lot A&M B tracks and Mint Condition and I ended up giving them a Janet Jackson remix in the process as well.
WHO?MAG: How was it working with Cece Peniston in the studio? Steve Hurley: I remember on the first album on “We Got a Love Thing” and “Keep on Walking” there were some high notes she was struggling to hit. I had to kind of crack the whip because I knew she could do it. She was real young, but she was determined to get it done. I could tell it was hard for her because she really wanted to hit the notes and the notes she didn’t hit them. I didn’t know what we were going to do because the notes made the song what it was. It was like the peak of the song. She found a way a way to get through it and she did. To this day, she always says she grew from that situation as a vocalist. The next time I saw her, she performed it and she hit the note on stage with no problem. She’s always great to work with because she’s professional and fun hitting the notes right and adding her flavor to a song. She did a few tracks for my label too which did good for me independently. We still have a great rapport.
WHO?MAG: How did you hook up with Rashaan Paterson? Steve Hurley: In 1996-97, I was in the airport. I was a real quiet guy. I was on a thing that I felt I needed to always network at that point because I had gone through a lawsuit. I saw a lady with an MCA [records] jacket and I went and introduced myself to her. Her name was Madelyn Randolph. She actually was the A&R for Rashaan Paterson. When I introduced myself, she said she knew all my work and that she was trying to get in touch with me. It was the most unbelievable thing because I ended up doing a house remix for his song “Where You Are”. After that, we developed a great rapport and we did some R&B tracks with him as well. He did some songs for my label too that are ready to come out.
WHO?MAG: Production-wise what equipment are you using and DJ equipment what are using? Steve Hurley: Right now, I used to use Digital Performer for year. Then I switched to Protools and I had a whole bunch of gear, like all the keyboards that came out, all the stuff that most people have. Recently I got Logic Pro 8. I had Logic before, but I never used it. When Logic 8 came out it was very user friendly. I’ve been using that for music programming. I also use M Audio products as well. I used M Powered in my laptop and I use Torque to DJ. I get a lot of my ideas from Torque as well. I use Reason also. I’ve used 1200s ever since I started DJing, but now that I’m using the Exponent. I use the 1200s less and less, even though I can control them from the Torque software. I’m finding that I’m becoming more of a live remixer than a turntablist now because there’s so much I can do. Technology has let me rearrange songs on the fly while I’m DJing. That’s what I use, the Torque for everything now. I hardly ever use the turntables anymore. I do love the feel of the turntable. With Torque Exponent I can remix live and layer things. I still twist knobs and make things happen. I not just behind a computer letting the songs mix on their own.
WHO?MAG: How do you approach to producing a song or a remix? Steve Hurley: A lot of times, it’ll start with the track because I’m primarily a track maker, even though I write songs. I write maybe about 50 tracks for every song I write because the music comes too much faster than the lyrics. But if I have concept, then I might take some chords to the concept, if I have melody and a lyric idea. I might figure that out in my head before I get into the track. Then I’ll get the chord in the track and the song will still be there. When I’m getting into a track, I’ll start with either a particular drum sound or I might start with a keyboard. I still like starting with chords because I feel like chords are what really move people with the melody and get them into the melody of the song. With remixes, I’ll just pull up the acapella and I’ll just start playing keyboards and try to find something musically that’ll go great wit the vocal. I’ll act as if I’m collaborating with the artist in the room. Once I get that figured out, then I can make my track and it’ll be in the right key. As long as I use the chords that I came up with as the structure and the basis for any instruments that I play, it will work and it’ll get the feel that I want to get. I try to play emotion into the remix not just a nice beat. A nice beat is good, but if musically it doesn’t do anything for you, I think it’s going to blend in with all the rest. I like to do music that’ll hopefully become classics that 10 years from now, you’ll listen to it saying “man it sounds good even now!” That’s what I’m always striving for.
WHO?MAG: How did you get your nickname Silk? Steve Hurley: When was like 11 or 12, I think. A few friends and I started a dance group. Even though I can’t dance, I was still part of the dance group. (laughs) There were three of us in the group and we had t-shirts with nicknames on the back. I had to have a nickname one guy was Stretch because his arms were real long. Another guys name was Herc because he was real muscle bound like Hercules or whatever. They were like “why don’t you call yourself Silk “because I had wavy hair. After I used the name for that, when I got into DJing, I used the name to say my blends were smooth and I was smooth on the turntables. That’s how that came about, by accident I guess.
WHO?MAG: Have you ever had any issues clearing samples? Steve Hurley: Back in the day a lot of people started putting drum loops on their music in the 90s. I kind of followed suit because I thought you don’t really get sued for that. I did a song which used the sample of “Impeach the President” I think. I ended up having to pay afterwards but they didn’t hit us so hard because it was a drum loop. On that same song, I used some vocals from “Let No Man Put us Under” which was a popular disco song back in the days that we considered house music and I put that on there. I pretty much ended up doing two remixes for the price of one with the label to get the sample cleared. It was crazy, but it was cool, because I still ended up making money on it, but I just had to do the remixes for less. I kind of bartered for using the sample.
WHO?MAG: How do you feel about house music today? Steve Hurley: It went global. I was in Latvia DJing, which was part of the Soviet Union, but it’s a free country for the past 10 years. We were DJing at this festival in front of 65,000 people and it was crazy. We were playing nothing but Chicago style house music, which a lot of the more popular house music is more electro, techno, or harder house music. We feel house music is bigger than ever. Actually people like Kanye West and Ne Yo and Rihanna and a lot of R&B/Pop artists are doing or making house albums. Beyonce is making a house music album now. Madonna made one. It’s still pretty large. It’s just that house music has struggled to have its own house music stars. The closest thing we had to that was maybe Crystal Waters and Cece Peniston. Cece Peniston is also an R&B artist as well. When you grow up singing R&B, you don’t want to just be a house music star. You want to express yourself in any kind of music that you’re doing. For me as a producer, I don’t like to just do house music, but I like to do R&B music too. I kind of get to live that dream out. It’s funny that its come full circle that house music is accepted in the R&B/pop music world.