Todd Terry was at the forefront of New York's early house sound, taking the Chicago blueprint and adding a Brooklyn sensibility, bringing tough drum sounds and a rugged street feel. Under a whole heap of aliases he sampled and blended the sounds of hip hop, early Chicago house and classic disco into hit, upon hit, upon hit! In the mid-’90s he was the highest paid of the American DJs regularly playing in the UK. And while he got some flak for his seemingly arrogant approach, playing mostly his own productions, not to mention a veritable tidal wave of actual releases, his status as a dance music icon (some fans still refer to him as God Terry) is undoubtedly assured.
Do you have a recognisable sound?
I don’t think you could recognise it right away, but you sort of get the feeling. You’d listen to it and say, ‘Only Todd would do that; that’s Todd’s drum pattern, that’s his SOUND – the dark wild hype sound.’ There’s something I’ll do in there, the atmosphere, so you’ll know it’s me.
When you’re in the studio, what do you aim for?
The hardest sound possible. I don’t wanna go for just what everybody has; I wanna go for something different. I dunno how to put it. I guess, ME. I try to put a hard flavour to everything. Try to give it some type of drive. It’s hard to explain. But it will have a lot of me in it I guess.
And you like to work in different styles.
I started more in hip hop than dance [ie house] anyway. I’m never known for hip hop, but I’d much rather do an R&B record or a hip hop record than a dance record. I would still do the dance records. I’m not giving up on either one of them. It’s just a whole different category. Next week I could be doing ballads!
Do you make records with a certain club in mind?
Every club. I try to make it for every club in the world. I can’t cater to one club. I can’t do that. The clubs got to cater to my sound; I can’t cater to them.
You get a fair amount of criticism for earning so much money as a DJ and yet playing mostly your own records.
Yeah, but I’m not a DJ.
You don’t consider yourself a DJ?
No, I’m not a DJ. I am a producer. I DJ for money, ’cos I get paid for it. I get paid to DJ two hours in a club. It’s not like I’m DJing every night at the same club; there’s a difference. I got to make these people dance for two hours. I do it as a promotion for whatever I came out with new. I get the criticism, ‘Oh he plays all his own shit – and Kenny and Louie’s shit.’ Too bad! I only play there two or three hours, you play there all your life and you have a problem with putting on one of my records. I can actually tell a room full of a hundred DJs, I can say to fifty of them, I can play them out and say, ‘Yo, you guys suck; you shouldn’t DJ no more, because what you’re trying to do, you’re not trying to please the crowd, you’re trying to please a self image as a DJ.’
So DJing is just for the money?
It’s always been just for the money and for the promotion of new records that I’m doing. Me playing for six hours? I’m not that type of DJ. Its not like I hate it... First of all I mostly get booked to play an ego trip set: of whatever records I did. It doesn’t make me hate it but its kind of weird to do that. But it’s what they want to hear. They want to hear these records that sound alike for some reason. I have rocked just so many parties with the same one sound, atmosphere. It works in every club, so I keep on doing it. I don’t mind DJing so much. I just despise the travelling aspect of it. I gotta be getting on a plane, I gotta be driving eight hours to this place and that one. It pulls a lot out of you.
Do you think the big star DJs are worth what they earn?
I’m the highest paid, and I know between my seven and my ten [his fee, ie £7,000-£10,000], its a lot to come up with. I don’t DJ in no clubs in New York. I can’t get a job in New York. Somehow when I’ve done it I make it a little bit too rowdy. I try to play hype all the time, so it keeps everybody at a hype standpoint. In England, people in the crowd that’s dancing, they just dance. They’re not caring about the political factor – that Todd Terry is playing all his own records. They’re just dancing to this beat.
How did you get into making records?
DJing gets you started. It gets everybody started I guess. And as I’m DJing parties I started hearing terrible records, and I thought. ‘Shit, they’re wasting vinyl.’ My thing is don’t waste vinyl. I try to make every record a classic. So people will go out and look for my records, collect them. I try to keep it that way. That’s how I got into it. I wanted to make a classic thing, a classic Todd Terry sound. I was working with rap groups, the Jungle Brothers. Then I got into freestyle type tracks. I did a little bit of everything.
In the UK you were first known for your Royal House records, with that Chicago sound.
That’s what they know. That was the vibe. In New York the vibe was more these hip hop tracks. And then I did some freestyle tracks like the Masters at Work tracks, alright alright and that’s what hit here. Then the house stuff. People say, ‘Oh he’s from Chicago.’ That Chicago sound. I took it to the next level. It was a whole different thing.
How do you write songs?
I get started with a bunch of pretty melodies, put it to a hard beat and bassline, and take out all the melody after the song is done. Like these pretty pianos [on the track he’s working on], you’ll never hear them on the record. That would soften it up and make it sound just like every other house record. The pretty pianos and bells and whatever that I use to write the song, I take them out and I put in some harder elements, keeping the way the singer sings the melody. Its a trick actually. I keep the basic chords but it won’t sound nowhere the same as when I did the demo. A lot of singers, when they hear the finished song they’ll be like, ‘Oh that was good, that’s interesting.’ I keep the same formula but I just change the sound. I could put a complete acid sound to it after the girl sings it.
You’re very prolific as a producer/remixer.
I slowed down a lot because I do so many records, but I do 50 or 60 a year, I come out with the EPs with five tracks on each, and the remixes at the same time as the EPs, so that’s considered 20 records in three months. Now I try to do only like two, three records a month.
That’s still a lot compared to other people.
They’re not really full records. You get a track here and a remix there. The EP things, the ‘unreleased’ type things, those are all just throw-ins, just tracks that DJs would never find or never be able to get their hands on, so I don’t consider those hits. They’re just a bunch of fill-in tracks. It’s not really too much. I can do more.
I’m trying to develop more of an artist thing at Freeze [his label]. I look into records a little bit deeper than I used to. I try to make them better. Try to give it a little bit more. So every record I come out with now, it will be better than before. It’s a little bit more studied than just throwing out records like before. A lot of records I threw out were great hits, but now I just see it a little bit different.
Nothing, just the timing of things. I don’t spend a lot of time with records I really want to spend time on, that I know I could’a made better. So now I’m gonna make them better. Do you think the hip hop and house scenes are coming closer together? They should be separate. It’s two separate mentalities. I don’t think it should mix.
Is is a gay/straight thing.
No. There’s a lot of straight people in house but they can’t actually go to a club and enjoy themselves because it’s so gay. So it sort of kills that. I’ve got my crowd, they’re dreaming of us opening up a club so they can feel a little bit relaxed. I’m not knocking the gay community but it should be fair. Everybody should be able to enjoy this music. You can somehow get a hip hop crowd and a house crowd and get them together dancing to the same music. But it would have to be a black crowd, a real bourgois Bentleys [an upscale black New York club] type crowd.
You’re known for your tracks, but this seems to be the year of Todd Terry vocals.
I gotta do songs. I have the budget for things, so I’m working on more songs I’m always gonna have the hard tracks. I’m always gonna have those dub versions that the DJs like, but as far as hitting more of a radio edge, I’m gonna have that too. I’m gonna hit both things as hard as I can.
And your remix of Everything But The Girl’s ‘Missing’ put you on a whole new level.
Me with an alternative rock band, that’s what I think always should have been. I put my hard drums into their tracks and it somehow has a atmosphere where it could get played anywhere. It won’t get played in the deep house clubs, but who cares, the money’s in the energy clubs. The money’s in the alternative hype clubs. Deep house, it’s just too deep for me. It bores me. I always want people to enjoy themselves not fall asleep on a record.
It sounds like you feel dance music is too small, and if it’s not going to get any bigger you’ve got to escape it.
I don’t have to escape it, I can always keep on doing dance, It doesn’t bother me. My thing is to always do something another producer can’t possibly do. When I hear bad records on major labels and I know they gave this guy $40,000, they could’a give that to me and I would have done at least something. Give me a good budget and I’ll go and get a singer, a name, I’ll put anybody on the record to make it work.
You’d like to see major label money invested in dance music.
What that does there it gives you a lot of creativity. If they gave me a budget from a rock aspect and they said we want you to hire any singer you want, I would go and get Axl Rose and Mick Jagger and put them together to do a duet and make something out of it. I would even hire one of the biggest well-known producers to do it with me, ’cos that’s how you make it happen. Forget about Todd Terry’s name, what happens is you make it into a big project, and they remember you for that project. That’s what I’m looking forward to do. I’ll do a band a year. That’s where I want to be. That’s the concentration I really want. Concentrating on an album for a whole year.
Like a rock producer.
Yeah, that one artist, whoever that one artist is at that time or whatever, that the person I want to be doing. I don’t want to be doing ten different acts at one time. I have to do it now, but if I ever get that triple platinum.
What keeps you going?
Money, I guess. Battling people, I guess. Somehow, I sit here and I got to beat everybody. It’s me against everybody. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what it is. It’s me against every DJ/producer that’s in house. So that’s my battle. I gotta take them out with better records.
You’re really driven.
Oh yes. Why let somebody else do it. I’m in the record business to make as much as I can and then get out.
I hate the record business; it’s just too much bullshit, too many bullshit people. You get tired of it. It’s part of the game: get in it, win it, get out of it.
Like boxing? Ha-ha-ha. Get in it and try not to get knocked out. Exactly.
What do you do when you’re not doing music?
I watch a lot of TV. Life revolves around music business. When I’m not in the studio, I’m thinking about the business. I think that’s the way to be.
Is it fun or is it a job?
I think it’s fun if it comes out overall a success. But it’s no fun if it doesn’t come out a success. What would you do if you made enough to get out of it? I’ll find something else. I don’t need the record business. If I make the money I wanna make I’m just gonna hang out and laugh at people.
© DJhistory.com 2010
Interviewed by Frank Broughton in New York, May 21, 1996