Filed under: Interview
“Times have changed; now you don’t sell records, you play gigs. Before it was about selling records so you wouldn’t have to do gigs. Now I basically give the records away, because it’s better promotion for me to get the gigs. And that’s how I make money, by playing gigs.”
20 years after first establishing himself as one of New York’s definitive producers of house, Todd Terry remains at the top of the dance music tree, both as a producer and one of the biggest, most respected DJs throughout the world. With a production CV that includes crossover pop hits like Somethin Going On’ and Everything But The Girl’s comeback smash Missing, coupled with work for everybody from Annie Lennox to George Michael to Bjork he’s also highly successful, making his words all the more significant.
“I don’t make money on record sales alone anymore. By the time you release a record anywhere, it’s over,” he declares, “In four or five days, when in the past you used to sell ten/twenty thousand copies, you are lucky if you sell three.”
Coming up through Brooklyn’s meanest streets of the 80s, he first made his name on the block party circuits that also spawned hip hop, choosing music over the short term attractions of his local gangs.
“My big dream when I was growing up was to own my block, that’s how we were brought up. The attitude was, it’s my block, and nobody better than me can come up into my block or they are going to be shot,” he recalls.
“That was the mentality when we were growing up. This was our dream: we were going to deal drugs, we were going to gang bang only on our block, we were going to run that block and the whole world was going to know about our block and not mess with us. That was the mentality, silly as it may sound today.”
Instead his current surroundings are the opulence of Ibiza, where he has just opened promotion company MN2’s new season at El Divino in Ibiza Town, not that he’s particularly swayed by the island’s perceived glamour.
“Ibiza seems it has changed a little bit recently, it used to be about the commercial crowd’s love for the underground, now it seems to be about the underground crowd being into the commercial stuff,” he muses, “It’s gone kind of backwards.”
“Ibiza goes up and down for me, it is a really commercial place, so I guess it’s not difficult for a DJ to play over there but you need to listen, check things out, and find out what’s going on a couple of days before your gig, because doing that will make it much easier to understand what’s happening on the island.”
Interview & Introduction by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff) : You’re opening Milk N 2 Sugar’s season at El Divino’s, when you DJ these days, are you generally concentrating on playing new stuff?
Todd Terry : I play everything including new stuff and my own tunes, I also play Chicago house a lot now, and I’ll be going into the old school stuff at the end of the set. I’ll try to get everybody into what I can get them into, then just go for the Detroit/Chicago style towards the end of the set. That’s how I’ve been planning everything lately.
Skrufff : Do you find DJing gets easier or harder over the years?
Todd Terry : Anybody can do it now, so I guess it’s not so special anymore. It doesn’t take a major talent to go out and DJ with records anymore. Anybody can just start and become a star very rapidly. I have no problem with that. I don’t see it as a hard path to follow.
Skrufff : How does that affect you; the fact that anyone can now do it?
Todd Terry : Luckily, the only thing I have is the records. That’s what I have above everybody else; I have been putting out records that have lasted for twenty years, so I really don’t have a problem in getting gigs. I guess all year round clubbers hear a bunch of DJs playing a bunch of current stuff, so with me it might be a breath of fresh air for them; to hear a bunch of old records or records you used to like five years ago. That’s what I tend to do, bring back something you might have missed maybe five years ago, I’ll try and find that record and act like it’s the biggest thing ever.
Skrufff : How do you feel about people approaching you in the booth while you are DJing?
Todd Terry : It’s definitely the worst thing in the world, and it’s a big problem when you are trying to concentrate on a mix and someone is tapping you on the shoulder wanting to talk about everything. I try to keep everybody out of the DJ booth at least until the end of my set, when I am comfortable with the surroundings, then it’s different. You can’t have anybody balling you while you are mixing. Then people get mad at you because you aren’t talking to them, which is also a problem, but that’s DJing. Nothing is going to be grand and perfect for you.
Skrufff : How different is it for you nowadays that people are looking at you as opposed to looking at each other?
Todd Terry : If the crowd is interacting with you, you have to interact back. Put your hands up at them; shake people’s hands and everything. I have seen some DJ’s who won’t even shake people’s hands, which I find ridiculous. I don’t care how big a star you are, these are your fans; but for some DJs it works being an asshole. It makes people want to deal with them more, just because they are assholes. They are still pulling a crowd. DJing is weird. It can work negatively as well as positively.
Skrufff : What is your assessment of the health of house music, in terms of tracks out there right now?
Todd Terry : The last project I’ve been doing is an ‘All Star Project’ where myself, Kenny (Dope), Louis (Vegas), Roger (Sanchez), Terry Hunter, DJ Sneak, Jazzy Jeff, Armand Van Helden, Junior Sanchez, all went into the studio, about thirty of us, and we put together this album. We’re still working on it, we have many of the tracks together and we are going to shop it to a label and take it from there piece by piece. It was interesting for all of us to be in the studio, joking around, I filmed it all. It was good, just filming, hanging out, eating together; it really was fun. When you put everybody together in a room, if they are all able to see eye to eye, that’s definitely the chance of a lifetime which I think is needed in this business right now because I think it has become stale. I feel the industry has messed it all up, not the people; the people are still great, but the industry has done a disservice for them. When they are not putting out our music, they are washing it up and they don’t really realize it.
Skrufff : What do you mean by ‘washing it up’?
Todd Terry : The Industry glorifies one-off producers, those who make these one-off hits, by giving them huge album deals just on the strength of those one record, but forget about the guys who’ve had fifteen or twenty hits, by not offering them similar arrangements. I guess they don’t see how they are tearing the business down with their own hands. They should always keep a pioneer, or someone who has been known as such in their roster, because it keeps it authentic. I’m not saying that I should have album deal offers everywhere, rather they should take responsibility for washing it out, because that’s what happens if you don’t cater for those who made it all happen.
Skrufff : Is it harder to make money now than it was five years ago?
Todd Terry : Times have changed; now you don’t sell records, you play gigs. Before it was about selling records so you wouldn’t have to do gigs. Now I basically give the records away, because it’s better promotion for me to get the gigs. And that’s how I make money, by playing gigs; I don’t make money on record sales alone anymore. By the time you release a record anywhere, it’s over. In four or five days, when in the past you used to sell ten/twenty thousand copies, you are lucky if you sell three.
Skrufff :During the 90s major labels would pay five figure sums for remixes…
Todd Terry : Remixing was just a phase; I did a bunch of remixes but, to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe in it. If the record couldn’t stand on it’s own, why do you need twelve different remixes of it to make it popular. You are washing out. Now every song in the dance community is a novelty, because we don’t have artists who can really portray it by playing real shows, or a DJ who’s always out there DJing to push it and make it work. That’s why it just goes back to being a one off type thing.
Skrufff : What do you make of the club scene in New York these days?
Todd Terry : I haven’t seen it in nearly ten years. The club scene in the US is more rap and R&B oriented, but I don’t know whether there actually is a happening club scene in New York. Back in the days it had coolness to it and I think it just lost that completely thirteen or fourteen years ago. I don’t think there’s anything like that going on now. It was cool to hang out in the house clubs, but I don’t think it is anymore.
Skrufff : You grew up in Brooklyn in the 80s when gang culture was rife…
Todd Terry : I came from that scene before I got into DJing, I was associated with these people before I got into the record business. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’m known through Brooklyn. It could never faze me, it wasn’t messing with me, and it’s been more a big-up when it came to me. They were happy to see one of their people not being associated with drugs and gangs making it. When I drop down the block in Bay Ridge or Coney Island or wherever, I’m never disrespected, rather I feel more like I’m highly respected, because they know what I’ve been through to get to where I’m at.
Skrufff : For you to go the path you’ve gone in – were you particularly motivated or more driven to be in music?
Todd Terry : I think everybody in their lives gets a wake up call at some point. I received mine maybe twenty-two years ago. I got into incidents where I had to wake up and ask myself ‘Do you wanna’ die or you want to live?’ How you answer that wake up call immediately, that’s how you portray your life.
Skrufff : So since then you’ve been on this new music path, essentially?
Todd Terry : The new path I chose was not to be involved with certain people because with them I wasn’t about to go anywhere. Guns, drugs and whatever else they can get their hands on, it doesn’t turn into anything. You can only make so much money drug dealing. Even if it’s twenty million dollars you still can’t have it, because you are not going to live it all the way through. I don’t know any drug dealer who’s lived it all the way through and hasn’t been caught, or any gang leader who’s lived it all the way through and not have messed it up somewhere down the line. So the odds on that sort of lifestyle are about a half out of ten. I didn’t see the guys who’ve really made it through successfully not to have had any problems, whether it was with the mob, drugs, prostitution or whatever it was, I haven’t seen any of them make it through; but because I’ve seen people in the music business make it through, I went with the odds that this was probably what I had to get into.
Skrufff : Did you travel to Manhattan a lot when you were a kid?
Todd Terry : No, but my big dream when I was growing up was to own my block; that OK, I’m just going rent?’ That’s how we were brought up. The attitude was, it’s my block, and nobody better come up into my block or they are going to be shot’. That was the mentality when we were growing up. This was our dream: we were going to deal drugs, we were going to gang bang only on our block, we were going to run that block and the whole world was going to know about our block and not mess with us. That was the mentality, silly as it may sound today. It was just a power obsession. We would control our streets and the cops were not going to do anything to us because we knew what we were doing. This was the mentality; obviously it doesn’t work, but you won’t find that out until you get a wake up call and then you have to make the decision. This is not going to work. This doesn’t make any sense.
Skrufff : Did you know Grandmaster Flash and people like that back in those days?
Todd Terry : When I got into DJing, I started to go to 125th Street (In Harlem) to see (Grandmaster) Flash and Theodore play and I started to get into that whole culture. I got really heavily into the whole rap scene; I was definitely there and out there checking it out, rapping, throwing parties and all that stuff. That’s what I was into back then.
Skrufff : Do you still come across the phrase ‘Todd Is God’ much these days?
Todd Terry : It’s great to have that respect and everything, but I always have to live up to it, I guess, until we get the ‘Todd is dead’ thing. And it’s a good thing, it keeps me going, it keeps me living up to it, I always have to come out with a new great record and I always have to play a great DJ set. It’s that force that helps me to keep going. I can’t actually turn away from it or turn it down. I have to fulfill that image, because I guess that’s an image that could last forever. I try to portray it as much as I can, even though I won’t be able to portray it forever, but I’ll try.
Skrufff : You will be forty in a few months time, is that a big deal for you?
Todd Terry : I’ll be forty in April next year.
Skrufff : Is that a date you are thinking you are going to chill out or change?
Todd Terry : It’s not about the change. Believe it or not, I’m one of the youngest out of the crew. The only one who’s younger than me is Kenny (Kenny Dope Gonzalez). All the others, nobody knows this, but they are four and five years older than me. Some of them, many of the DJ’s, the older school guys, are even ten years older than me. I could give it another two or three years with no problem.
Skrufff : What do you make of Tiesto and these kind of superstar DJs as the dance mags call them?
Todd Terry : Good for him. I’m not the one who’s going to sit here and knock them for what they do or what they have, but to me, that music is still a downplay on what many of us (other DJ’s) are trying to get out there to the people. So what happens is that something similar to what Tiesto and a lot of these DJ’s play won’t necessarily be the dance music we want to portray. That to me is the side of dance music that made it become un-cool to go to a club. I don’t know anybody in my crew that would feel cool dancing to that kind of stuff. It doesn’t portray a serious type of sound. That’s why it goes into novelty and stays as a novelty and that’s where we are at right now; we are in a big novelty phase, and it’s basically now that we can see there is no way out.
Skrufff : Are you still in touch with Ben Watts from Everything But The Girl?
Todd Terry : I spoke to him back in those days, but never since. There was nothing amazing going on between us and that was it. No disrespect to Ben or Tracey, but what should have worked out to be complete magic, just didn’t. I think they felt as though I took away from their sound instead of adding to their sound, so I guess it just ended up as that. I couldn’t figure out if I was being respected or disrespected for it, so I just left it alone, no problem. I tried doing more records with them and it just didn’t happen.
Skrufff : I imagined you being really close…
Todd Terry : No. I only spoke to them once, one time, and that’s what happened. Too bad. It could have been a match made in heaven. I could have been doing beats and albums with them and we would have been killing it. I think Tracey’s soft voice over my hard beats was a great element, you couldn’t lose with that, but they just didn’t want to do it.
Skrufff : Does making records get easier over time?
Todd Terry : Now I guess I’m not doing it as shabby as I did back in the days. That’s the word I want to use, because now I’m thinking, whereas before I wasn’t really thinking; it didn’t really matter to me, I was putting out fifty records and if I get five of them to hit, I’m still the shit. That’s how the business was, but now if I make ten records, I really want all ten of them to be good, because I don’t want to go back in the studio to make forty more records just to make the hype happen again. Maybe I could just make five great records so everybody will say ‘Oh he’s really doing good work again’. You know how people will just say anything they want to say, so I have to think about what they would say about me.
End of the interview
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