Ron Trent, considered an architect of the Chicago scene, studied and collected music as a young boy, taking cues from his father who ran a record pool in the late 70’s. He became a respected DJ in his early teens, working on his own productions. This lead to his first release, the highly acclaimed "Altered States" in 1990. Through Prescription Records, Ron has notched up an extensive back catalogue of productions and introduced several key players. Prescription Records is widely regarded as one of the most influential Deep House imprints of our time. Sharon Andrews had a little chat with this living legend on the phone.
Thank you for taking the time to talk Ron. Where are you right now?
Hey, I’m in the Chi right now. Great to talk to you too.
Were you born in Chicago?
Well actually I was born in Massachusetts out East.
But you spent time in New York, right? I spent a fair bit of time there. I lived out in New York for 10 years. But earlier on both my parents went to school out in New England and that’s where I was born. When I was 2 or 3 years old, by that time we moved to Chicago. My dad was from Chicago.
Why do you think the city of Chicago has so much House history and why do we know it not just as House, but as Chicago House? What made it so special?
Well to be honest with you, the truth of the matter is that, there is a strong history between New York and Chicago. There was a guy called Mr Robert Williams. He was the creator of The Warehouse. Mr Williams is from New York and so was Frankie knuckles. Actually Mr Williams brought the culture that he had experienced and learned from New York to Chicago and he then canvassed the right DJs that he wanted to play for his venue, The Warehouse, which was the first thing on the block of its type at the time. We’re talking like 1976.. but it had been something that had been bred out of New York.
You see Robert Williams was a child of The Loft and David Mancuso, and so I think that what happened was with Chicago, which was very interesting, Chicago has a long history of R&B soul and blues and actually Rock n Roll has its roots in Chicago too. People don’t know that the Rolling Stones first got signed on a label, I think it was VJ Records I believe, if I remember correctly, they kinda touch on that too in their movie ‘Cadillac Records’ where they come to Chicago and they name their band after a song by Muddy Waters. But Chicago has a long illustrious history of music & Blues and culture and that kind of thing, so when Mr Williams brought the culture here, you had kids that were going to The Warehouse getting inspired by what Frankie was playing and you know.. from then comes the birth of house music. It wasn’t really called house music then. Frankie was just playing up tempo R n B and stuff that he was putting together in terms of his musical presentation for the people. I just think what happened in Chicago was it caught fire here because of the level of creativity in the urban black culture in the city. People got inspired by some of the records that Frankie was playing, and they tried to imitate them. That’s partially what happened.
Do you think that the city is still on fire with talent?
Erm well there is a lot of great talent in Chicago, I’m not gonna put my city down or anything like that but at the same time but I think that across the world there’s a lot of mediocrity. Mediocrity is at an all-time high right now. There’s a lot of music around man, it’s like.. hmm how can I say... the quality... somebody made a statement not too long ago something like – technology has allowed everyone to think they can make music. Everybody’s an expert.
Your father had a record pool. What exactly is a record pool?
My father was the Vice President of a record pool back in the 70s. Basically back in the day what would happen was discos became the standard form and discos were being created, it was like little organisations when groups of DJs were forming, and they got serviced with records from major labels or independents like little record clubs. Kind of like what you’re doing now with Shine. You work with a group of players you know like where you give out music to the guys and you get reports back. This was the first innovation of that. You know the first record pool was established by David Mancuso out of his Loft, with Steven and Francis Rosso, Judith Weinstein, they were the first ones to kinda push that. So my father had one here in Chicago with a guy called Donald St James in the late 70s. I grew up around that culture.
So your dad was a massive influence on you musically then..
Yes, I was into listening to music and collecting records with my pops. But I was more in playing instruments!
What was your first big musical style influence? Well I was really into Disco and making my own sounds. I had a drum machine; I was making beat tracks. But I grew up with my dad playing records and making percussion lines. That was my first engagement with music. My first experience and connection to music was through my father. I listened to music and collected with my pops. Frankie Knuckles was also a big influence. And of course, Larry Levan. I never got to hear him play so much but I so admired and respected him. I was inspired by him.
I read that you were a percussionist. That was from school, right?
No not at school. My father was a self-taught percussionist, he played all through school and college. One of his professors being the great drummer Max Roach at the University of Massachusetts. I just learned recently that my dad played in one of his sets. I wasn’t an expert at any instrument, but I could pick something up and I could get a tune out of a lot of instruments.
Altered States – did you really write it when you were 14?
Well I mean. You know ..yes that’s correct. I was playing around with drum machines and keyboards at that time. The idea back then was of course, you wanted to have rare records that people didn’t have, but what would make you stand out was that if you made records of your own. To have something that nobody else would ever have. You had guys making beats tracks, that were drum machine tracks, shit like that. By that time, I got into producing. One of my other colleagues should I say, had a little mini studio at home. I had a drum machine but this guy he had a 909, a D50, an SB01, a midi controller, this kinda shit. I booked time with him and made tracks. Altered States came out of that time and my process of experimentation. I was very familiar with making beats and stuff like that as I had a drum machine of my own and I played percussion.
Do you play the piano Ron?
When I grew up well, I was always dibbling and dabbling on a keyboard. That was the instrument my folks wanted me to take- up so they bought me a keyboard. I really love the piano.
Sounds like you were making music way before you were a DJ?
Oh, yeh in a sense. For DJing I already had the training behind me to do that. It ain’t hard.
You started Prescription with Chez Damier in 1993. How influential do you think Prescription has been on shaping the sound of house music?
I see the impact of it now. I didn’t see it then. But I see it now. I think that when we were in the process of creating & experimenting, we had a focus that we were trying to establish which was - we wanted to put a new slant if you will, on what House music coming out of Chicago sounded like. Because it had been kinda deemed as being a very track-oriented city, very raw, you know house, raw, drum machine-oriented type of city. We felt our culture was far more vast than that.
At Prescription Records we wanted to show a more well produced, a more out of bounds if you will, type of sound. So, we would take a track and put it in the big studio and add melodies and other things on top of that. We wanted to show another side of Chicago music production.
You introduced a lot of great names to the world via your labels - Glenn Underground, Norma Jean Bell, Anthony Nicholson, Peven Everett. And Moodymann too. Anyone responsible for launching that career has got to be proud right now!
Yes, so basically Kenny had already been doing his music and stuff like that. He had his own independent that he was running and selling out of Detroit locally and that kind of thing, and we got hold of one of Kenny’s projects he did with Norma Jean Bell ‘I Like The Things You Do For Me’. And when we put it out on our label, I think it definitely opened some doors for him I do believe. I mean he was talented already, it’s not like we put him in the studio and had to tell him what to do. Kenny Dixon, he already had a really established, dope sound, but we were definitely instrumental in presenting him to the public.
Are you still friends? Do you ever work together?
Oh, yeh me and Kenny and are cool. We don’t really work together (laughs). Kenny is a mini super star now.
I once sat up all night at a festival and with a couple of friends we had a ‘Ron Trent Off’. We played your tracks all night and eventually decided that our favourite was Morning Factory. You made this with Chez Damier. It’s a very special record. What does that record mean to you?
Well that record was inspired by one of our trips to the Sound Factory. I was really inspired. I am one of these types who l likes to use the inspiration experience in the studio or when I’m creating music it can be as an animation of an experience. I had bought a set of records on the trip when I went to New York. We had gone to the Sound Factory and we went from New York straight back to Detroit and came back and we went into the studio. The track is something I downed up on the MPC straight away really fast. I came up with a track and the sample and this kind of thing. I just had this idea that I wanted to fuck with and it just kinda happened. And as I did it ... Chez came in and he was like “yeah man that’s dope” and he added his spice on top of it. We had this vocal from Laura Gavoor who has sadly passed on now. She was the one who did the vocal on another project. It’s the same lady so she’s just talking about the flame and it’s just awesome. So, it all came together to be an incredibly transcendental, spiritual, inspirational record.
Why did you call ‘Pop Dip Spin’ Pop Dip & Spin?
So that was, believe it or not, don’t know if people know this shit but I created this in ‘93 or ‘94 and didn’t put it out until much later. I kinda have a thing where sometimes I have an idea and I hold on to it. And Pop Dip & Spin was from a project I wanted to create back then, which now seemed to be at the forefront of people’s minds in terms of boogie music. It’s been called ‘boogie’ but it’s really early 80s, late 70s Jazz funk/ electronic you know that type of thing, which is rather more synth influenced RnB, if I can put it like that. It was more a tribute to that style of music. Pop Dip and Spin was a term to describe a dancefloor move. I consider myself a baby powder kid! Not sure if you’re familiar with baby powder dancers but I’m an old school dancer, dancing with the powder on the floor with the spinning and the popping. That’s where it comes from!
Do you have a favourite track you made? Well one of them would probably be Pop Dip and Spin actually. The idea of this song was to capture the essence of what the spirit of dance music was then. I go back to that all the time for inspiration. Also, it reminds of the music that Frankie Knuckles would play.
What’s your idea of a good night out?
Well I’d like to be out like I said but things are kinda wack here right now [laughs]. But I spend a lot of time at home creating in the studio. That’s my favourite kinda night.
If you could give some advice to young producers, what would be your pearl of wisdom?
Take your time man. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be in a rush to be famous. Too many people wanna be famous. Like I told you there’s so much mediocrity about. You gotta stand out from the crowd. You gotta make good music. Take your time. Learn your craft. You should study the greats. When you study the greats, you learn that there’s a perfect frequency when everything is right. Study the greats and you can learn what they were trying to communicate. Take your time. Don’t be in a hurry. You got people making tracks now in like a couple of hours. You can’t make music like this.
Who’s your one to watch right now?
I’m really into Khruangbin. I think they are totally dope. I saw them when they played in Chicago. Their sound is totally unique right now.
It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you Ron. I’m going to send you my Khruangbin album.
Sharon Andrews x
Secretsundaze have compiled, mixed and edited over 2 hours of Ron's finest productions in a special 'In Focus' for NTS Radio up on the site now.