You would probably hate Quentin Harris if he wasn’t such a thoroughly all round decent dude. He's worked with everyone, from Mariah Carey to Justin Timberlake, yet this is only half the story. Harris also makes some seriously proper house music, music that harks back of sweat and feverish dancing into the early afternoon, music that reminds you of when house meant house and wasn’t some generic term for anything that mildly appropriates a four, four. Harris is also an excellent DJ, one that is in demand all over the world. He resides, as he admits himself, in the gay world, the pop world and the house world. A man with too much talent to ever spread thin, we had a chat with Quentin in an East London hotel to discuss; roller skating, cooking, his new album, how to make a hit and New York’s fading club scene.
What are you most proud of? I’m most proud of the fact I am able to wake up in the morning and have a job that I love doing and that also touches people in many different ways.
What do you do when you’re not making music? Most of my time is spent cooking, I really like cooking. It’s something I’ve done since I was 8 years old. My mother threw me into the kitchen and said, “you’re gonna learn how to cook”! I think it’s also the fact that cooking is a creative process which is why I like doing it.
Do you see parallels between cooking and DJing? Yeah. 100%. Most of my colleagues are really good cooks. If you ever get the opportunity to have them cook for you, David Morales and Frankie Knuckles are amazing cooks! The correlation I think is the mixing process, of knowing how to add just the right amount of this, or that and trying to make something you’ve been eating for the past ten years interesting again.
Who taught you how to DJ? DJing cannot be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. I learned by watching other DJs. I’ve never been a person who learned anything from opening a book. Do steps A, B, C and E, F and G will happen later. I’ve always been a person that learned by doing and personally for me it’s always worked.
Do you know when you’ve made a hit? Never. I like some things I do more than others, but no not always. Some of my biggest productions, like Loleatta James… I had no idea they would turn into what they turned into. The ones I really loved and had the most fun doing, like Justin Timberlake, people paid less attention to them. I never know. I do what feels good.
So when you did 'Let’s Be Young', you never thought it would be a hit? No. I just thought I’d made another track. My colleague at the time had booked the flights to Miami but booked the hotel on the right day in the wrong month and I didn’t find out till the same day. Instead of getting angry I just said, you fix this right now. And then started working on something and that’s what came out. There was a story behind it, it came out of frustration and anger. He was the one that thought it was amazing and different and I was like ok whatever. You never know. Quincy Jones thought Michael Jackson should remove Billie Jean from the album!
Who were the formative influences for you going out to clubs? Well I tend to always get excited by DJs who I thought were cutting edge, or experimental, that didn’t give a shit and wanted to challenge the listener. Those DJs who will always still be in my book are DJ Ken Collier, Timmy Regisford, David Morales, Frankie Knuckles, Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia. Those DJs that challenged me in my listening process.
There are also lots of new ones like my good friend Honey Dijon, going to hear her every week is challenging and inspiring. It’s easy to turn up and play for one, two or three hours but if you have a residency, playing every weekend, week in week out, and you’re playing the same records most of the time, it’s difficult to keep yourself entertained never mind the crowd. I call it the Madonna Syndrome; I go out and listen to everything even if it’s not my scene. For instance, Victor Calderone is a good friend of mine. I don’t like everything he plays but I do go out and hear him from time to time and I’m one of those people that go and get out on the floor with the rest of the crowd, not hanging out in the booth. If I’m in a place for a long time and I hear a record and it really, really catches my attention and I get crazy about it, I’m like ok that’s the record of the night for me, I’m gonna go and find out what it is and go home [laughs].
Where did you cut your clubbing teeth? One of the first clubs I went to was in Detroit and it was called Heaven and the DJ at the club was Ken Collier. It wasn’t really a big club the walls would be sweating in there, but it was what he played! It was just a great space for music. Fights would break out in there. I’ve got Ken Collier mix tapes where there’s “security to the dance floor please!” It’s now a McDonalds. [laughs]
Also, I would go roller skating on a Saturday to experience a lot of the esoteric disco records like Kano’s I’m Ready, that’s where I heard a lot of new music. I’d hear Cybotron’s Clear or Invisible Man’s Band when I went roller skating.
What about guys like Electrifyin’ Mojo? Oh yeah. That goes without saying. I so wish radio was like it was then. It was programming to de-programming so to speak. I’d listen to him doing things like Prince versus Michael Jackson or he’d play Stevie wonder all night. I would sit there getting schooled on stuff I didn’t know. You would think with technology that there’s more opportunity for people to get their hands on music but there’s still tunnel vision. Granted, it’s an exciting time in music, but there are a lot of people who have technology who shouldn’t have it.
Are there any clubs that inspire you? I’m still old school at heart, something can be glitzy and glamorous but if you take all that away all that’s left is the music and the space. I’ve always liked places with history; Webster Hall where we did KMBA is one of them, Red Zone in Italy, Yellow in Japan, a lot of clubs in Japan.
When I get to Europe I always have this conversation. Putting everything into micro genres just fragments everything to death. It’s why parties have a smaller amount of people. I’ll never forget one time I was playing in Turnmills and I was playing all this different kinds of music and I played this dance remix of a Ne-Yo Record and this girl is at me and said, oh you were great till you played that commercial record. I said listen honey; all the stuff that is commercial was once underground and the stuff you thought was great earlier? You’re gonna be saying that’s commercial five years from now.
Do you think people are less open to a mixture of musical styles than they once where? Labels drive me insane. People want to put everything in a little box I was sitting at a table in Ibiza tow years ago, there was me, some staff at Defected and this guy said have you heard of wonky house? No I haven’t what is it? Well, you now stuff like the Percolator? Well you know when it came what were you calling it; you were calling it house were you not? When it comes to house, it’s just change and this guy says oh its a little dubstep here. I said, No it’s house. I’ll tell you why it’s not dubstep, there was a little record called French Kiss and that was called house. There are too many labels, way too many labels.
Do you still feel the same excitement when you go to clubs? Yes in certain clubs, I get more excited when I come to Europe to be honest. America has never really had a DJ culture because the DJ has never really been a superstar there. My ex-partner used to go to the Paradise Garage and when they went they didn’t care about the DJ they just wanted to hear good music, they had no idea that he would become such a big cult later on.
What’s the most superstar thing that’s ever happened to you? Definitely, almost being mobbed in South Africa! Literally, the first time I went to South Africa the promoter said, oh Quentin you’re like a superstar here. Oh whatever, you know I like what I do and I get to play music for a living. I get to this venue and apparently they’d oversold it so I go inside and there are two big glass doors. Anyway I went out on stage and it was pandemonium, it was crazy. People were trying to touch me, I was trying to give out autographs to stop the pandemonium. This girl was so desperate to get me to sign something she took off her shoe and threw it to me. I sign the most bizarre things, everything from cigarette boxes to beer cans. I played the gig and as I left I saw that those glass doors had been smashed.
How did you get into producing in the first place? I had an uncle who was about four years older than me. He was a budding rap artist in the 80s around the KRS1 period. We went to a little studio with synths and I’d play synth lines on his demos because I was the kid in the family who played piano. I went so often that I ended up controlling how they sounded and that was what a producer does. Once that stopped I had the bug to make my own music. I’d never had any formal musical training until I was about 12. When I got that formal training, I quickly became really far advanced musically, for what the tutors were trying to teach. Ok so I’m playing Bach and you want me to play the Woodchuck?! (laughs)
My last teacher was a child prodigy who was 17. He comes to our house puts his bag down, gets a piece of paper out and puts it on the piano and I’ll never forget it, it was Richard Marx and it just had chords. He said play that. I was like where are the notes?! That was my first introduction into music theory and improvisation. But he was so expensive my parents couldn’t afford him.
I started making my own music and I was singing and producing several groups and one of them got signed to a major and then shelved for a year. So I started working for Michael Powell at his recording studio in Detroit as an intern. Michael Powell produced Rapture for Anita Baker and also a group with Anita Baker called Chapter 8. I started initially as a gofer but then started cutting my chops playing on sessions for people like Aretha Franklin and Biochemists, who were a bit like the Wu Tang Clan.
So I used to make these demo tracks of one minute snippets of beats. This group in New York called the Masterminds who were working with Eminem’s producer and DJ at the time DJ Head, heard them and wanted to use them so I sent them the beats and when I got the demos back I thought, ok this sounds like my track but it doesn’t sound like my track. So they said why don’t you come out to New York for the next mixing session? I’m in the cutting room and started EQing stuff and saying ok get it as near to that as possible, because I just knew I was a producer. I ended up producing the whole of their next album. They needed a touring DJ and they said do you DJ? Yes I do. I never looked back after that. This was 97, 98.
How did you make the move from Detroit to New York? I’d been going to NY for a while before I decided to move there. But the reason I went originally was because I was producing pop and R&B and hip hop. House was something I did but never played to anybody. A lot of the people who I admired and looked up to, when I let them hear some things they’d say oh it’s not clean, it has to sound like this. So I thought oh fuck this shit, there’s too many rules in this game I’ll stick to hip hop [laughs]!
How is New York now? New York nightlife is different now. I don’t wanna come across as a moaner, because maybe to this generation what’s happening is their time, but I feel that it’s not just New York, but globally, we’re being dominated by bottles and models. Bottom line is the dollar and people looking beautiful. Why do girls think they’re more beautiful standing in the DJ booth flicking their hair back? It’s a cycle and NY has gotten smaller and a lot of things have contributed to people not going out. Drugs have played a big part in it, too, especially in the gay scene where GHB and crystal meth have ravaged the club scene. The economy as well, people just cannot afford to live in NY any more. The only way it will get better, is when people who enjoy music and also have a flair for attracting people open up clubs. The scene is much smaller than everyone thinks. It’s really small.
Tell me about Kiss My Black Ass? KMBA is the most amazing party in New York City that doesn’t happen any more in New York City, but people still talk about it which is so strange to me. I do them elsewhere, San Francisco, Toronto butI wanna start the party back up in New York but I need the right space and the right promoters. I need three different types of promoter because I exist in the gay world, in the underground clubbing world and also the pop-dance world. I still believe those worlds can exist together, simply because they did once. But it is tough to find a space. There’s a couple of people have a monopoly of the underground nightlife scene. [whispers Santos, Cielo and Pacha].
As a musician who is also a DJ do the two things dovetail into each other? It definitely ties in. The advantages are that I know I can make anything work together. Music to me is as a system of locks and keys, Timberland taking Indian music and fusing it with hip hop and pop is the perfect example of that. It’s about; this is the key that opens the lock on this door, which opens that door and so on. It’s like Lego building. It’s about finding the right pieces that fit together for what you’re doing. That’s the advantage of being a musician and DJ but there are disadvantages to it. My head is too musical for the average listener to grasp and you can go over people’s heads sometimes, so my frustration as a DJ is that I play such short sets sometimes that a lot of people do not understand me musically. Sometimes I walk into a room and play the first record and it’s amazing. Other times, like last night in Belgium, it took me two hours to find my groove. That’s the advantages of playing a long time.
Is that the advantage with having a residency? I watch Honey fight with her crowd and she has a residency. I think any DJ of the level of David Morales Frankie Knuckles, or Danny Tenaglia they all had residencies where they were heard on a consistent basis every week and they were able to hone their skills. That’s been a frustration of me working in this era. People say to me are you not upset that before DJs like Armand Van Helden were getting $50,000 to remix records? I’m not upset about that, the scene has dwindled so it’s all about two hours here and two hours there. My style of DJing in about telling a story and it’s hard to do that in two hours. I’ll never forget when I started coming to London, some people liked me but others would throw me under a bus [giggles] until one day I got to play 13 hours at the Egg and suddenly do what I can’t do in a short period of time.
Because I can really take you somewhere, I’ll play a record more than one time! The cardinal sin of the DJ! But it’s no different from hearing Rihanna every 40 minutes on the radio. It’s called programming. Why do you think people dug Heartbeat? Because Larry played it to death. Why do you think Cloud 9 was a hit? Because Timmy Regisford kept playing it. If you believe in something eventually people will come around.
What technology do you use to DJ? I use it all. Last night I used Traktor, sometimes I go places and play mainly CDs. I don’t use vinyl too much on my travels. It’s not even that it’s too heavy it’s more having to deal with customs. It’s not convenient. When I did KMBA I used vinyl because I was at home. It’s called adapt or die. That’s my mentality!
Tell me about the new album. It’s called Sacrifice and it will be out in May on Strictly Rhythm. It’s taken me two years to make the album. Probably a year of frustration also dealing with the fact that I guess now I have a sound and people will copy it. I want to evolve but also not alienate my fan base. After I got over that hurdle, the first two records that opened up the creative juices were Aniyah Day’s, Do The Right Thing and another instrumental track called Silence. It’s a little angry. If I can describe it sonically, if Prince, Murk and myself went to a studio and made an album it would sound like this. I worked with a load of old and new faces, Ultra Nate, Aniyah, David Morales, Cordell’s back, Jason’s back, Dru Vision is on it. The song I did with Ultra Nate is the one in the teaser video which has a 20 piece string arrangements. People fought me on that, why do you wanna do this, but I wanted to do it because no one else is.
Cooking or talking? Talking! Album is mixed by Steve Barkan so sonically it sounds a bit different from my previous work. It’s setting up the next phase of my evolution whatever that’s going to be. There is one song that I'm really amazed. Timmy came to me and said you should do a spoken word record because you’ve never done one. I said I don’t think it’s gonna work because if it was spoken word I’d want it to be aggressive. Anyhow, this girl Coffee comes down to the studio, I make a track and within ten minutes she wrote what’s now called Paradise. When you hear her she sounds like a cross between Rage and MC Lyte. She’s almost rapping but she’s really not. I really tried to capture the Murk and Prince minimalist funk sound.
© DJhistory.com 2010
Interviewed by Bill Brewster and Mark Treadwell in London 20.02.10