MIKE DUNN – LET THERE BE HOUSE
Nick Gordon Brown talks to the MD X-Spress
“We’re gonna have to break out the bucket of bleach water, and a can of Lysol for this one baby, it’s real funky in here” - and what are we doing now? I wrote that before the pandemic!
As Mike Dunn recalls the prophetic nature of the lyrics for his 2019 dancefloor bomb (and 2020 virtual set hit) ‘If I Can’t Get Down’, he bursts out laughing, a joyously regular occurrence in an interview that, befitting 2020, takes place over Zoom, with Mike sat in front of his live stream set up. The Chicago original, as relevant as ever in his fourth decade of producing and DJing, also regularly breaks into impromptu emcee-ing or reproduces bass and string lines human beatbox-style as he drills deep to convey the inspiration behind some of his most-loved creations.
“Every track to me that I’ve done has had something to do with where I was at that time in my life. Each one is going to say something about where I was mentally, or physically, or emotionally. I’m a storyteller, and I try always to be truthful with the stories that I tell.”
Did music feature in your life from early on?
My mom would take me to the record store every weekend; and my dad, he listened to everything, from Count Basie to Led Zeppelin. I used to set the sound system at The Warehouse to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’!
Talking of The Warehouse, tell us about how you began DJing?
My teenage years, I moved in with my grandmother in Englewood – Tyree (Cooper – fellow producer who famously “made the bass and boy it’s bangin’”) was on the next block. We started getting into DJing our late years of high school, we used to practise in our friend’s basement. Tyree was more going a lot of places up north, out west, I stayed on the South Side. We started doing all the local parties in the neighbourhood, for kids who couldn’t go out and experience things like the Music Box, kids that were under-privileged, they didn’t have any money to go downtown.”
It always sounds like Chicago was very much defined by its four ‘sides’?
Chicago is a very segregated city – so we had a lot of different places that we couldn’t go. If you were affiliated with a gang, you couldn’t be caught in certain parts – in Humboldt Park (west); up north Cabrini Green. But with house, we were able to move around a bit more, because we dressed different, looked different. I was from the South Side, Tyree’s from the South Side, Gene Hunt out west, Terry Hunter over the east - we could all move around. Downtown was the central location where everybody could come together – the hotel parties, the Bismarck.
And playing parties led directly to you starting to make tracks?
For most of us, we were just doing tracks to play at parties, to be different from the next DJ – we took that whole concept from Frankie (Knuckles) and Ronnie (Hardy), (Lil) Louis – they had stuff that we couldn’t get our hands on. It was not in the plan for it to be my career. And that’s when I got into the producing, just making a whole lot of beat tracks. Chris ‘Bam Bam’ Westbrook was running his label out of his mom’s house, that’s where we did ‘Dance You Mutha’. Later, when Bam saw some success, we built a studio in the basement from nothing, that’s where I got my education.
You worked a lot with Bam Bam, and recorded for his Westbrook label?
I learned so much from Bam on how to put songs together. Bam Bam put the bassline on ‘Dance You Mutha’, and I wanted it to stay raw and underground sounding, he ‘commercialed’ it up – I hated that version, but to get the record out I just went along with it. But that made me know the difference between making a beat and producing a song. Just that knowledge and wanting to learn more and more and more – then when Marshall (Jefferson) moved with us, I was the sponge in the house, whatever they needed me to do, I was doing it.
You love messing round with studio gear, yeh?
I’m a tech head, a geek when it comes to studio stuff. I was always taking things apart to look inside and then the challenge of making it better and putting them back together to see if it worked. And when you understand that, you can control your gear, and make it do anything you want it to do. I’m still like that, and that’s what keeps it so fresh for me. I always tell the younger cats, don’t just buy equipment because you see somebody else using it, you might not get the same results out of that equipment. Buy what works for you.
Marshall Jefferson was a big influence?
Marshall was my biggest influence, seeing him work. He’d produce the track at 75-80bpm, he’d slow everything down, ‘cos he wasn’t good at playing the keys – we used to call him three fingers, he was the King of the Triads! After he got everything together, 120, 122. Marshall Jefferson’s amazing, man.
You worked on several of his records – and he helped you out getting remix work?
Marshall was coming over to the house and recording at the studio we had in the basement. He’s in the middle of doing the Ten City album. That’s how my mix of ‘Devotion’ came about. What we know today as a remix wasn’t a remix back then, basically it was different mutes, you used some reverb, put delay on stuff – it wasn’t actually taking the music out and putting new music in. When Bam Bam moved out of the house, Marshall moved into his room. He was working on a single for Vicky Martin which came out on Movin’ Records, out of New Jersey. By this time the remix was starting to form – we were doing different things like using a sampler, and it was my first go at chopping vocals up. The challenge was to make it sound different to Marshall, and make it my own, but not take away from the song. Movin’ Records loved it and put it on the package.
Ten City got a major label deal, and as you say, Movin’ was a New Jersey label. A lot of Chicago artists ended up on labels from outside the city – some Chicago labels had got a bad reputation?
We didn’t know about the business, so if you didn’t know, you got taken advantage of. We didn’t know anything about publishing and writers’ royalties, we just wanted to see our name on a record and get a coupla hundred dollars, and that was the end of it. Because we didn’t step outside the neighbourhood, we didn’t know that our records were being sold worldwide, and didn’t know how big we were ‘til Tyree and (Fast) Eddie had a European tour – I remember Tyree coming back and saying, bro, they’re ripping us off, man our records are selling like crazy over in London. I was more cool with DJ International than I was with Trax.
Let’s talk about some of your early productions - there’s a bit of a story behind ‘Magic Feet’?
The original track was ‘Videoclash’ and that went under the name of Lil Louis, but Marshall originally did the track, but we didn’t know that ‘cos Louis kept it hidden. Because we heard Louis play it all the time, we thought it was his track. For Marshall it was a little play around track, ‘oh yeh, you can put it out.’ We used to ask Louis if we could get a copy, “nah nah nah” – so we made our own. Bam Bam was the one that put the 303 line on there. I was having fits! When K Alexi (fellow Chicago pioneer / producer of Risque III’s classic ‘Essence of a Dream’) moved in with us…well K didn’t actually move, he snuck in, and we found out he was living with us (raucous laughter) but that’s a whole other story! – Bam Bam always used to mess with our stuff. We’d be producing beats, here comes Bam Bam, straps on his electric guitar! I said to K, let him do what he do, then when he’s gone, take it off. But K didn’t put any records on Westbrook (Bam Bam’s label) – I was an artist on Westbrook so I had no choice. So that’s how the acid line (in ‘Magic Feet’) came about – I always had it from A to B, and Bam would take it from C to D. I just wanted raw, straight Chicago jackin’ tracks – I just wanted you to jack, I didn’t want you twirlin’!
You were also one of the first producers to emcee on a house track with ‘So Let It Be House’.
I used to be heavy into Run DMC and all those cats coming up – that was my thing. So I was just figuring out, how could I put that in house and make it sound good. And of course I love James Brown, so I kinda infused the funky & the rap thing together – so MD X-Spress was more like James Brown, but the earlier stuff like ‘So Let It Be House’, that was like the beginning of hip house.
The tracks kept coming in the ’90s – ‘Pressure Cooker’ is great!
That was a spin off from ‘Percolator’. Cajmere had ‘Percolator’, and I was like, what’s another kitchen tool you use that makes sound. Everything you hear, that was me – like the steam, that was me doing it with my mouth ‘cos I couldn’t find any sound effects records, back then you didn’t have the digital format where you could click on and say “I’m looking for some steam!”. The girl at the beginning of the record was actually the receptionist at DJ International. I just like experimenting with sounds. ‘Pressure Cooker’ was like gumbo. “Tastes good, I’ll just keep throwin’ stuff in!”
And of course we have to talk about ‘God Made Me Phunky’ – which started as a B side, ‘Welcome 2 Da Klub’ was the A?
Maurizio Clemente was doing a lot of work with Ten City, and doing shows with some of the New York cats – he’d bring Tony Humphries to Italy to DJ, Byron Stingily to perform, and he wanted to start a label (Nite Stuff), so he came to New York and Chicago (to sign tracks from US producers). I made ‘Welcome 2 Da Klub’. ‘God Made Me Phunky’ wasn’t even on the record. Maurizio said, “we gonna need one more to make it an EP”. I know everybody was, “that sample is out of tune”, but it was purposely out of tune, because if you listen to some of the classic records, some of those are detuned, or pitched a little bit out. That’s what gave it that funky vibe, the strings weren’t all the way in tune, the Rhodes went out of tune a bit – that’s what made it what it is. Sometimes things don’t have to sound right – they’re better felt right. I attribute the success to Tony Humphries, Tony broke that record. But then there were places I’d go, and ‘Welcome 2 Da Klub’ was the joint – I remember going to a club in Amsterdam, and when they opened their club, it was the first song they played, and they had me there performing and DJing.”
So you were a regular visitor to Europe by this time?
I was in Holland a lot. Then Germany. Holland I used to call my second home, ‘cos I knew how to get around Amsterdam without anybody chaperoning me – I started learning how to get around by counting the bridges! Amsterdam was my first love when I started travelling to Europe.
By this time, you were using a lot of different pseudonyms; it could be hard to keep up with Mike Dunn productions!
I’ve always liked playing in the background, that’s how all the names came about. I didn’t ever want to be the upfront guy. I would make up a whole lotta names, so I didn’t have to be stuck in one sound. It wouldn’t box me in.
A funky feel unites a lot of your styles and names though?
The funkiness is just who I am, what I gravitate to, what I pull from when I’m producing.
Also, I know you’ve said a lot of your most successful songs have come together quickly?
The songs that I just go in and spontaneously do, those are the songs that always work. ‘Natural High’ – that song wasn’t even finished, it was a demo – that’s why you only heard those few vocals on there. It was just the hook, and the little talking piece. Luke (Solomon, Classic Music A&R) heard that – Luke has incredible ears. ‘Phreeky MF’ was a thrown together song, I was getting ready to do The Warehouse that night, and I had about three hours before I had to get to the club to start my set. I was like, “I gotta make something that ain’t nobody heard”. Everything was in one take.
And tell us about ‘If I Can’t Get Down’, that’s been a big track this year and last…I don’t know if you ever had a dream, and some monster was chasing you, and you feel like you’re running in quicksand – that’s how it was chasing ‘God Made Me Phunky’. When I said, “I’m not gonna do that no more - leave it alone bro!”, is when ‘If I Can’t Get Down’ came about. The lyrics just flew out. It’s like something that James Brown would say – that’s why I put that “yeah!” in it, so I could be like Stubblefield at the back! (Clyde Stubblefield, Brown’s original ‘funky drummer’). So that’s what that was supposed to be like, with James Brown saying, “if I can’t get down.”
My main interview with Mike was shortly before US election day and he expressed the desire that “our 45th” (Trump was America’s 45th President) would be voted out (“it’s time to say goodbye, bro!”). With Joe Biden’s victory announced shortly before Faith went to print, we checked in again with Mike to take the temperature Stateside…
So the “45th” is going - from the UK, it looks like Black Lives Matter made a key difference, helping to get the vote out in cities like Detroit and Philly - do you think that was a factor?
All people of colour made a difference. Our black sisters, our Latino sisters made an extreme difference. Everybody came out, nobody took this election for granted like they did in 2016. The Democrats, the progressives, everybody was on edge – last time we just thought there’s no way they’re gonna vote dude in, dude just done too much, but hey, it happened. So this time everyone did their little bit, doing streams, postings, making sure everyone voted.
Do you see better days coming, or do you think America is still so polarised that a difficult period lies ahead?
I don’t see it getting any worse – we’ve stopped the haemorrhaging. He’s awakened a lot of that bad side of America – “it’s our country, get outta here”, those kind of people. We’re here – we ain’t going nowhere. Hopefully, God willing, better days are coming – we’ve stopped the bleeding now, and hopefully at least we can get this country back to being a respectable place around the world.