“It’s hard to care about kids at their computer clicking links”: An audience with Derrick Carter

There’s something very patient about Derrick Carter.

It’s not just that he puts up with my Skype malfunctioning as I call him in Chicago with good grace (incidentally putting on a highly creditable WWII pilot style English accent to go “HELLO? HELLO?” when my audio drops out). But his whole demeanour, the way he talks, the way he works his way around a topic, the way he lets humour seep into what he’s saying without going for the obvious zinger: all of it speaks of someone who’s willing to take time to get results.

Or maybe I’m just reading into it, given who he is. After all, this is the man who’s sustained a quarter-century career as one of the coolest and best DJs in the planet, without ever having a “hype moment” or latching onto any hip scene. He’s the guy who’ll get the most dedicatedly moody techno-heads losing their shit to ultra-emotional vocal house. Whose mixing skills are up there with the flashiest and most technical DJs, but never resorts to pyrotechnics, instead making it all about the blend and the steady-build groove.

Whatever it is, conversation with him is endlessly engaging. He has, in his words, “done it, seen it, been there… in fact I was there three times this year already,” but he’s come through all that without slipping into the stuck-in-the-past anecdotalising or pontificating common to so many “DJ legends”. Instead he is hungry to learn, hungry for the new, and – it seems – still willing to put in the hours to achieve that.

This interview was conducted ahead of Carter’s set at London’s 51st State Festival, where the photos were also taken.


How are you finding the audiences you are playing to currently?

That sounds like you’re assuming things have changed. Things have not changed. For me, things are just the way they’ve always been: I play music for people, they generally like it, I do it again, and then do it again, and do it again. It’s been that way for 20-some years, I don’t really have ups and downs, it’s been consistent. Maybe more so because I don’t really make records any more, so I’m just a hustling DJ. I go out and I’m working all the time, I slang these beats out there.

So I’m not at the whim of the record-buying public, who want to see who you are just because you’ve got a hot song, who give you as sense of being flavour of the month. I don’t have that. I just have OG status, I’ve been doing this forever, I don’t DJ because I’ve got a record out, I DJ because that’s what I do. Nothing’s changed, and with any luck, nothing’s gonna change. My aim remains the same every week: I come in, blow your party the fuck up, and then break out.

Yes, it’s traumatic for a lot of talented DJs now that they get pushed aside in favour of studio heads who’ve made one big tune, and can’t actually DJ.  Are you saying you’ve managed to rise above that pressure?

Welll… there’s obviously going to be a lot of rooms I’m not going to play. The ones that base their policy on the DJ Mag Top 100 things, on who had a hit this year, on who’s been the big festival guy this year, all that kind of thing. But that’s fine for me, those generally aren’t places I’d want to play because of the way they educate their crowd. If you’re only booking from this narrow pool of the top however many DJs, well – well, look it’s good to have a claim to fame, but let’s just say most of the people I grew up listening to, or that I respect, aren’t going to be in any of those lists.

It’s hard to care about a popularity game that’s based on kids sat at their computer clicking links. I like people who know what they’re doing, and you can go and see them and know they know what they’re doing. I want people who you know are set up to do this for a while. I’m a lifer – I’m a straight-up lifer – I got nowhere else to go, I got to bang it out every week, and every week I play like I’ve gotta secure my spot, because I have. I’ve got to hustle to take the slot of your favourite DJ, that’s my grind, I’m tryna be your new favourite DJ. Again!

Does that make you completely oblivious to trends though? Even if you’re maintaining a steady level, you must be aware that house and disco music goes through different waves of popularity… it’s certainly at a peak in the UK right now.

[Withering] If you wanna call it house music. It’s dance music. Sorta. But see, I’m not trendy. I’m not a trendy dude. I don’t have anything to do with what anyone else is doing. My aim is not to jump on somone’s trendy bandwagon, or someone’s new buzzword and ride it ’til it burns out then do whatever the next trend is. I do what I do. It’s a two-part programme: wake up… and then do it. That’s it. There’s not a lot of crowd research, there’s not a lot of committee decisions. I get records, I get promos, I download and listen to them, I think this works, I think this doesn’t work, this needs an edit, I look at how I can make it work in my sets, I go out and I play it, and that, really, is that.

How about in Chicago? At home you must be aware of ups and downs in the scene?

No. From far away across the ocean, perhaps you have different perceptions, but everyone I know has maintained somewhat regular work in the city. There’s always nights going on, there’s always a bunch of music happening, there’s always healthy events going on. Block parties, warehouse parties, clubs, it’s all happening, and has been for quite a few years. Maybe there was some kind of slowdown here and there in selling records as formats changed, but I’ve been playing consistently and pretty much regularly in Chicago since nineteen eighty… eight.

But with that length of history, that’s several generations of clubbers and DJs. Are there any obvious generation gaps in the scene?

I don’t think so. Even from when I started, parties were mixed. I was the younger generation, and sure I might’ve found the older generation then maybe stand-offish or elitist, but fuck it – they’re older, and who at 30 wants to hang around with a bunch of goofy-assed 20 year olds? When I first went out, the people in the clubs were maybe even older, like 35, and I’d show up at 18 thinking I’m hot shit, and of course they’re going to put you through your paces, of course they’re going to be somewhat protective of what they’re a part of and what they’ve built. They’re the fabric of things, and you’re the upstart, the newbie that’s coming in, so you’re going to have to show and prove.  And that’s true now. That’s not necessarily a Chicago thing, it’s not something we’ve copyrighted, that’s just how that goes.

“It’s hard to care about a popularity game that’s based on kids sat at their computer clicking links. I like people who know what they’re doing.”

Sure – but in some places, that drives a younger generation to go “well, fuck you then,” and create radically different scenes and sounds. But not with house – it may have offshoots, but new generations seem to want to keep on keeping on with the sound.

Yeah. It’s part of our fabric. It resonates. There are these kinds of finishing schools, places that exist which are institutions, and as long as they exist they will have some influence on that scenario, they will maintain the sound and maintain people wanting to perfect that sound. For example, the Smart Bar. Smart Bar is about to turn 30. How many clubs, bars, event spaces, anything, have got 30 years under their belt as a place that you can go and dance and hear current and new music, and who hire people to be the vanguard, to be the avant, to push things forwards? I would venture to say there are very, very, very, very, very few places that make it to a tenth birthday, let alone a 15th, 20th, 25th or 30th birthday, and still be on the edge and not just be the old folks’ riding club or senior citizen shuffleboard brigade’s weekly outing to dance around and go, “aww, I remember that sawwng”.

And there are a few places that might not be pushing 30, but that have a vaulted and well-storied existence – a bit more on the commercial end but places like Sound Bar has gone on a good long time. And Spy Bar is another – the guys that run that are doing fucking massive things. And they keep giving back. Dino, George and their crew are doing things like putting on warehouse parties: I went to one and oh my gaaaaawd… I do a disco party quarterly, at Smart Bar, usually on holidays – Gay Pride, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, whatever. Now this one was 4th of July, and that night Dino and the Spy Bar guys had a warehouse party going too, which had Dubfire and a few guys playing in a warehouse in Chicago!

I couldn’t handle it, actually, It was unbelievably hot in there, like 2000°, and I had brand new retro Jordans on… I didn’t want to fuck up my shoes [laughs]. But I think that kind of thing is amazing. Consistently, and without the kind of attitude that is very easily accrued when you do great things, they do great things – for the people. So you do have this consistency that goes on, you can connect the dots, the legacy is still being written, and I think that’s wonderful. That’s a big part of why house music still lives in Chicago, because there are people here who still give a shit about house music.

I hate to be all “housemusichousemusichousemusic!” because it’s not like I’m one of those people who bang the drum, who go “I’m a house head” and all of that. I like music, I’m not a zealot. But when it comes to Chicago and its legacy as hometown for this shit, I think that it’s important to be able to connect those dots, and still have offerings that are quality and attract people. And we do. There are still people who care about it, and that’s why other things have come and gone and there’s still house music in the city.

Is there any political aspect to your support of your hometown? If you look at artists like DJ Sprinkles, The Black Madonna, even Jamal Moss, there’s a strong sense that defining what house and disco music is and where it lives has strong political implications…

Here’s the thing: nothing is everything. No one thing is going to have the same meaning and attraction and gravitas for one person as it does for everyone else. When you talk about people, you’re talking about differences, that’s what a community is! There may be a radical lesbian African segment. There may be other segments. People who want to sit on the floor and listen to music and have “chill house”. Whatever. There are always going to be a lot of different factions in a musical community, especially when you’re talking about music made by artists who have a point of view. They infuse their points of view into the music and the culture, and people ask them questions: who are you? What do you think about this or that? Just like this interview. And once they get a platform, then they fucking go for it. So there will be people who do that and more.

For me? I’m not political… [hesitant] or not necessarily… but I’ve got points of view, and if you give me a chance I’ll run off at the mouth for as long as you like. Then sometimes I like to keep my points of view to myself, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist – and it’s the same for others who keep quiet: just because they choose that doesn’t mean they aren’t somewhat political or or don’t have strong beliefs. Maybe they do or do not attach them to how they feel about music, or to the way they feel about an artist community, or maybe they have different feelings about art and protest, or about how doing something as a movement affects the trajectory of the movement. I have to some degree attempted to speak out on things I think need attention called to, but I’m not marchin’! I’m not some crazy – not saying those people are crazy necessarily – but I’m not on the barricades. Especially as I get older, I got things to do, I ain’t got time to be marchin’, I ain’t got time to be putting protests together! I got a real, real life that needs attending to and I just ain’t got airtime to get downtown and be organising a rally.

What about purely in cultural terms, then? Do you feel an obligation to speak out about the real nature and history of dance music culture, for example as a generation gets into EDM and acts like it’s something new?

Well, yeah – I don’t want to be forgotten! That’s how cultures always manage to spread themselves is the story. The whole Folkways thing that went on in the early 20th century in America where these guys rode around and got stories, sang songs, visited oral traditions, that’s some important stuff there. I don’t want it all to disappear just because Coca-Cola jumped on the bandwagon and Sprite has Tiësto in a fucking commercial and they’re using some track that I know to sell a Buick, pushing cars with Avicii records. I don’t care about that. That isn’t how I get my information, it’s not how I manage to find my connections to things.

What I’ve tried to stand up for is quality, in the respect that it’s not cookie-cutter, it’s not simply “put your hands in the air and jump up and down, because here’s a song at 125bpm that has similarities to what we call dance music”. I stand up for things that have soul and vision and points of view and attempt to maybe push the envelope or stretch the fabric or right a wrong. Something clever, something that has power: I live for that, I live to find that in music, that’s what takes me to… I won’t say “happy place” because my happy place isn’t necessarily soundtracked all the time… but I do listen to music because it’s a voice that people who make the music have, and it feels like a conversation when you hear what they have to say.

You can take that on board or not, whether it’s house, EDM, or whatever. You engage with it in your way. And remember, ten years ago it was hip hop, they were using rap tracks to sell Coca-Cola and Buick and donuts, and now it’s shitty cookie-cutter put-your-hands-in-the-air records. It’s a cycle, it’s something where someone in a marketing department has made a coup and got something going, or they’re riding the momentum of the tide of youth culture, or whatever. Young people are going to be young people – that’s cool, let them do what they gonna do. My parents didn’t like my music, my father thought it was ridiculous, and that was fine. I didn’t need my parents to like what I did, because I liked what I liked.

So go ahead, EDM your ass off, why not? In liking that, there are going to be a few people who want to dig a little deeper, who see something in it but get tired of having that music pushed down their throat by everything from Volvos to baby formula and maybe step to the side a bit, from out of the mainstream and into another stream, and go, oh, OK, I don’t have to listen to that crappy first CD I bought any more. As an example, I have a friend who had a rave CD he bought when he was 12, like “James Brown is Dead” and all these kind of horrible comedic novelty songs, but that took his ears a bit, got him listening to music like that, and led him directly to the stuff he listens to now: everything from Louie Vega and the Winans Brothers to, well, we were listening to Bumblebee Unlimited the other night. So you have all these possible starting points that are ambient, as you might say – they’re just playing because you’re walking through the mall – and that might lead you to something that might have a bit more strength and power and be a bit more artist-based instead of commerce-based.

“I like music, I’m not a zealot. But when it comes to Chicago and its legacy as hometown for this shit, I think that it’s important to be able to connect those dots.”

Are there any parts of the world that leap out as particularly culturally fertile or stimulating to you right now?

The place I had the highest hopes for was Romania for a while. It was odd but they seemed to have a kind of acceptance and willingness to just get the boogie right. I haven’t heard from them in a while, I don’t know what’s going on over there. I hope they’re alright! It’s hard to say though, because I go everywhere and tend to,  like I said before, come to your fucking party, blow the bitch up, then do that again – successfully – three or four times a week depending on the season.

So my view is skewed. My bubble may be a little shinier. Because, if I manage to do that, then where I just came from is fuckin’ awesome! They were jumping around and dancing, and it feels like, wow, there’s a thousand converts, this is revolutionary, everyone’s telling you “we normally just get that kind of stuff, and now you’re playing this kind of stuff and this is what we really love” and suchlike. And that’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s what you want, but it doesn’t always speak to reality – if you’ve stepped into a vacuum, and created something in the moment, but when you leave does the vacuum return, or did what you create ignite a spark? It’s hard to tell if you’re not there a lot.

There are places that I find interesting – but the way music is going now, the way events are done, it’s hard to tell who comes from where! Take Croatia: I’ve been to Croatia four times this year already and it’s jumping, but the people I run into aren’t from Croatia. I’m not playing for the crew down at the local city hall, at the local bar. They’re people who are there on holiday, because it’s a hot spot right now. Mind you, on the other hand, I went for the opening of Barbarella’s last year, and in this instance there wasn’t a festival attached to that particular event. Usually there is, a Hideout, an Electric Elephant, Garden Festival, whatever, but last year there wasn’t – it was locals. It was a bunch of skinny big-head kids running around, just growing into their bodies, jumping about trying to hook up and smoke cigarettes, and all the shit that kids do.

And they were amazing. Everyone had a great time, and having a local crowd like that felt a lot different than that other thing where you have seasoned veterans sprinkled in between young newbies helping to get the party started. This was just young, youthful energy, and they just wanted to dance and have a good time. That was fucking awesome, because they didn’t know me, they didn’t know who I am, it’s just some old dude from Chicago, old enough to be their parents, pushing into a bit more, maybe grand-uncle or something – but they had a great time, dance around and clapped and were excited, and I loved it. In my real life I guess I’m a part-time anthropologist, as well as a pied piper and all these hats combining to make a patchwork of some sort that informs how I see things… but that doesn’t mean I know shit. I just see what I see.

That image – of goofy kids hearing the music for the first time – is something worth holding on to, right?

I think so. Yes. I play for enough of them, often enough, around the world, to help keep me from cynicism. I mean, I’m incredibly jaded. I’ve done it, seen it, been there… oh actually I was there three times this year already. It’s in a crust around me! But doing lots of events like that, even if it’s a couple of things a year, and it especially happens in the summer, it helps chip away some of that jaded-icity. It shines it up, it helps gives me a window out through that crust, a little porthole out past that. It’s renewing and invigorating, and it gives something back to you.

That’s the power of being in this business to me – it’s not about being in front of 20,000 people and playing the same ten songs as the person before me or after me, and admonishing people with those tracks in the sense of making them wait for the drop, then the bit where it comes back in, to be the points where they go wild because that’s what they’re programmed to do. In fact I purposefully re-edit almost everything I play, and take the drops out. Like “get outta here, drop!”. People put those in the song, and I’m like “nope, get that the hell away from me.” If that spoils your song structure and makes it into just a DJ tool then so be it, just get that drop outta here.

Because that’s cheating. Drop comes in, then the beat comes back, drop comes in, then the beat comes back. Hell naw – let them have the beat. I don’t want you to stop dancing. I want you to stay dancing. Keep dancing. That’s my route: that movement, that rhythm, as you work yourself into a frenzy, that’s my road into your heart, but also into your spirit. Dance, that spirit, the movement, the freedom of expression. I don’t want you to dance for one minute, then the drop comes, then dance for two minutes and the drop comes, then two minutes and the drop comes. I find that to be counterproductive to what I want. I want you to dance for two hours, from now until I leave. Just keep dancing. We not gonna stop. If you have to go to the bathroom, if you have to go get a drink then sure, do that, then come back, and dance. We just gonna keep dancing.

Well, I think that’s a beautiful note to end on, so…

WAIT! I didn’t get to talk about my new shoe line! [laughs uproariously] [pause] No, it’s true. I have a new shoe line that went live today. It’s called Chapter & Verse, and it’s lovely.

OK, great. We’ll put a picture of a shoe at the top, and cut all that unnecessary stuff about dancing…

Heh, well yes, since we were splitting hairs about art and commerce. No, dancing is where it’s at. That’s why it’s called dance music, dammit. I go to a dance club, I’m not going to a hip hop club, I’m not going to a club to jump up and down, I want to dance. Let’s dance, motherfucker!