Interview: DJ Clent
DJ Clent has been making footwork, juke, and ghetto house tracks for about as long as I’ve been alive. He’s known everywhere for “Back Up Off Me," and in Chicago particularly for enormously influential tracks like “Bounce" and “3rd Wurle." He self-released his latest record, Clent, earlier this year.
I was listening to some of your newer tracks to prepare for this, and I noticed that a bunch of your older material shows up on the Clent EP - “shake that ass for beatdown" has the horns from “Bounce," for example.
Oh, I brought it back because for one, I don’t have the original track, and I feel like it’s a good time to bring back a different sound. It might be an old sound, but it’s new to a lot of people. That’s pretty much what it is, just paying homage to my earlier work and whatnot. Right now, there’s really no money in music, period. Not just in our music, but in music across the board. So for me, it’s really just therapy. If I’m feelin’ a way, I’ll just come down into the studio and beat on some pads, get my frustrations off.
You ever take breaks from music?
Yeah, I definitely take breaks. I’m on a break right now actually. I might make 10, 20 tracks and then disappear for a minute. I got a gang of tracks just sittin’ on my drum machine that I haven’t even recorded yet, you know? Eventually I’ll do something with it, but it’s all on me. If something comes up, I got a release I’m thinking about putting out, I’ll record that stuff.
Are you much of a dancer nowadays? What do you look for or feel like you’re getting out of the music?
I might get out and dance once every six months or something, but for me, pretty much, I’m still making something that I would dance to. I have a dancing background, just like Rashad, Spinn, RP Boo. And then if it doesn’t work, we just put that track on the shelf, you know what I mean?
Are there tracks you love that just don’t take off for other people?
Oh, it’s like that for a lot of music. I’m almost certain that all of us make something, put all this effort into it because we think this is the hit, and it usually doesn’t.
Or the reverse, people catch on to something you don’t care for that much.
Exactly, you thinkin’ it’s a throwaway track and the next thing you know, it’s the hit. “Back Up Off Me," I didn’t ever think it would get to the point that a hip-hop artist would sample it. I didn’t think it would ever get out of Chicago, then it has a whole new life in Detroit. I made that track in like ‘99, and then in 2014 they reached out to me about doing it. It was actually on a compilation record with Dance Mania, it only came out on test press though. It was called the Beatdown Compilation, it was featuring me, RP Boo, Majik Myke, and DJ Silk.
You’ve got a track with your son DJ Corey on the new record too.
You know, he kind of does his own thing - he just comes down here, cuts his stuff on, and do what he do. He’s pretty much self-taught. He goes through everything, I got like five computers around here with music all over ‘em, so he just goes through things and finds something he wants to do. He’s gettin’ it, you know what I mean? He’s pretty much open-minded, when it comes to music. He’s startin’ to become who he is, and that’s dope! He has his own path.
Had you gotten into music yet when you were his age?
Well, I was doing pretty much the same thing. It’s crazy, because when I came out, I didn’t have all of the stuff that he has at his disposal. MPCs, computers, and all of that. When I was making tracks, it was a drum machine and a push-button sampler, and we’d have to program all of that stuff by hand, manually. Before we even had a MIDI sampler, it was mainly a mixer with a four-bank sampler built-in, and we’d have to push that sample for three minutes while we recorded that track. Change sequencers on the drum machine, all at the same time.
What was the equipment that you were learning on initially? I guess this would have been with DJ Greedy?
Yeah, DJ Greedy had a R70 and a Pyramid mixer with a four-bank sampler in it. He pretty much said “this is the drum machine, this is play, this is record, these the sounds, here you go." And I did the best I could [laughs]. My first track was off like crazy, but I played it because it was mine.
What pushed you from DJing into making your own tracks?
Once I found out how easy it was, I wanted to make my own music, you know what I mean? I always thought it was somebody with some electric drums, somebody standing with a microphone singing these tracks. Come to find out it was just a drum machine and some samplers, I thought “I need to get into that!"
How’d you meet Greedy initially?
We used to have picnics on my block, growing up in the ‘90s or whatnot, and DJ Greedy came over there to sell his mixtapes. I bumped into him and we talked, and that was it.
I’m interested in where this scene was happening - where were you going and getting exposed to music?
Well, it was pretty much either picnics or skating rinks. Backyard parties or ghetto parties, you know what I mean? They would rent out a hall and just throw parties. Or, every Saturday at the skating rinks. You had Markham Skating Rink in the south suburbs, you had Rink Fitness Factory on 87th Street, Route 66 is where I started DJing, and then way up north you had Rainbo Skating Rink. And that’s pretty much - the music was livin’ there, and then various other ghetto parties.
Who was putting these on? Were there promoters, or were people just pitching in what equipment they had?
As far as the skating rinks, the skating rinks was the owners. And then as far as the ghetto parties, DJs would promote it. Even funnier, the gangs were throwing parties at one point in time.
How long had you been DJing and making tracks before you starting putting them out?
I started making tracks in the end of the summer ‘93. I was doing little mixtapes all through freshman year in high school, but it didn’t get bigger until me and DJ Flint did Southside Beatdown. I wanna say that was like ‘96? That was my first professional mixtape, and then after that was 100% Ghetto.
How would you distribute these? How far did things end up spreading if it was mostly person-to-person?
We would go to the malls, because the malls would have mixshops and whatnot. So we could drop off tapes and CDs to the mixshops and they would give us… I think it was $5 a tape and $7 a CD. It was actually higher than that - I think we would get $8 a tape and $12 a CD at one point in time, but then everybody got CD burners and it went down from there. And then either we would drive around to the mom and pop stores, or we would work with Ray Barney, who pretty much ran Dance Mania. We’d sell wholesale to him, and he’d sell them to all the stores we wouldn’t drive out to.
What kind of volume were you doing on those early tapes?
Oh, man. My first solo tape was 100% Ghetto Part 1, and I believe we sold about 3,000 of those tapes. For my first tape. And then later on, Bangin’ in the Ghetto Part 2, I believe that got to 10,000. And I was young, so I was just runnin’ through that money [laughs]. Livin’ with Mom, don’t have any bills, no children, I was just runnin’ through the money.
At this point, I assume you were hitting pretty much the whole city rather than just your local scene.
It was really a Chicago thing, not just the neighborhood. We were in the suburbs, inner city, outside the city. And then we found out it was a midwest thing because of Detroit, and that a lot of our records were selling in Detroit. I’ve been in many situations where, because of me being a DJ and somebody knowing me as a DJ from a party, it saved. And honestly, if I wasn’t a DJ I’d probably be on the block gangbangin’ and stuff. That’s what was goin’ on in the ‘90s.
So you were maybe a decade into Chicago house and people coming up out of that scene - did you feel like there was a certain path you could follow to reach whatever your goals were?
Well, honestly we never thought that the music would travel. My goal was to be a household name when it came to this music, to put out colored tapes, CDs, and records. That was my goal up until the whole Detroit thing happened. Now, I wanna be a tour DJ. I wanna be able to travel the world playing my music.
Did you hit any point where you were feeling pressure to change up your style?
Kind of, because the Detroit thing - they dancers dance to techno. So we would kind of merge juke music and the techno sounds together. They called it “ghettotech" in Detroit. But other than that, nah. I pretty much have the same sound that I’ve had since the ‘90s.
Yeah, thinking of the Detroit records I have a lot of them are at, like, 134 or 136.
But see, the thing with Detroit - when they would jit to that music they would put the records on 45. So it’d be super-duper fast, like 180 beats per minute. And we were at 160, so they would pitch that up too.
Was there any sort of creative collaboration between the two cities? Obviously tracks would cross over, but I’m thinking about somebody like DJ Assault who shared a lot of common ground with Chicago sounds.
Everybody pretty much had their own sound. When I actually ended up DJing a party with Assault and told him that I would like to do a remix to “Bangin’ the Beat," he got mad at me! Like “I’m not givin’ you that!" Wow, ok, nevermind [laughs]. It seemed like he got offended, so I just left it alone.
I read somewhere that your house burned down when you were pretty young. As far as the records and everything that you lost, how do you go about trying to rebuild that and not just give up on music entirely?
I was still young when we lost everything in the fire. I was like eleven years old. But my passion for it was unbelievable, so I couldn’t just let it go. I went back to the mixtapes, I would get the DJ Deeon mixtapes and just listen to ‘em. And for my mom, DJing was a little more of a hustle, it wasn’t a way of life. But she ended up meeting my father through DJing and making me, so I guess if you put those two hustles together it made a lifestyle. It was different when it got to me.
Was she ok with you getting into DJing?
She didn’t mind me DJing, but she wanted me to have something more stable, you know what I mean? She wanted me to have a career that I could depend on, have a check coming in every two weeks versus a hustle. Sometimes you DJing this week, sometimes you not. Even me right now, I’m 39 years old and I don’t have any life insurance or any of that. I don’t have a 401(k). This is what I’ve been doing the majority of my life, has been music.
With all the tapes you put out, even in the quantities you were selling, do you think about how hard to find a lot of that material has become? Do you keep an archive?
Oh man, I used to get all of these tapes pressed up and give one to my mom to put up. And then she’d take it to her friend like “look what my son did!" and gave it away [laughs]. So I pretty much don’t have any of my cassettes. I made a couple posts a couple of times, asking if people had them, and a few people have sold me tapes back. The highest I paid was maybe $20 for one of them, but there’s still mixtapes that are missing that I need to have. And then with time, peoples’ tape probably snapped or got ate up in the machine. I want the original, you know what I mean? But it’s hard to track down. I just want all of ‘em, so I can hang ‘em on my wall. I probably would listen to ‘em and remake a couple of tracks, but for the most part they’d be hung up on the wall.
And really, we weren’t thinking about saving things. I thought I was gonna be selling mixtapes forever. It was great money, and it just stopped, you know, because the mom and pops closed, then Ray Barney closed, then everybody’s got a CD burner in their computers now. It seems to be not even worth it anymore.
Ultimately, do you think it was the technology changing or the culture changing? People getting bored, some new sound coming along. Or all of it together?
I think it was more-or-less technology. It was really technology, and then when Best Buy, Circuit City, and Wal-Mart came. Because you can go get a CD from Wal-Mart for $9.99 versus going to a neighborhood record store selling that same CD for $20. And they’d sell it so cheap just to get you to come in and buy other things. And when you’re working with a one-stop like Ray Barney and Dance Mania, once that goes out of business they don’t have your CDs in the big stores either. It hurt us, it honestly did. It was a whole subculture of us selling mixtapes to the stores.
To what extent was the sound able to survive once you got rid of that ability to sell the music?
Once the stores were out of the question, it just became - well, we did vinyl with Godfather, out of Detroit, for a minute, then it went to .mp3s, and now it’s streaming. And it got less, less, and less, you know what I mean? Making things easily accessible for everybody, that hurt. So the music gets out there more, but you’re not seeing nothin’. It’s not an extra at all. Once file-sharing hit, it got worse - a person can just log onto Limewire and get the mix, get the track without having to pay for it. I’m pretty sure it’s a lot of people that know of me off of Limewire, but it hurt our pockets. No bookings come out of that, or any of it.
Was it odd to watch the music start to come up out of clubs, into people listening on headphones, in cars, or wherever else?
Well actually, I remember we’d be ridin’ down the street and people would be playing the music. But it’s not even like that anymore - like I said, the whole culture took a hit when the mom and pops shut down. And don’t get me wrong, we could sell our tapes and CDs at the parties, but it’s nowhere near what we used to make, what we could make.
Footwork seems like something that’s largely been driven by the community of dancers as much as anything else.
Exactly, and like I said: we made ourselves pretty much geared towards the dancers, and it was our own backgrounds that made us go that way. I felt like if Deeon and other guys had kept going, it would’ve been different. We could have had a bigger variety of music versus “ok, it’s only footwork out now." But if ghetto house kept going, if all those other type of sub-genres were still alive in Chicago, the parties would have been different. I used to DJ downtown Chicago, and they would tell us not to play juke, that it was too ghetto. But then they didn’t have a problem with us playing Waka Flocka. That point in time was crazy to me.
What pushed you from tapes into putting out a release with Dance Mania? How did you end up involved with the label?
It was the thing to do, you know? Once you had a record on Dance Mania, you’d pretty much made it. That was like the go-to label in Chicago, it was a rite of passage. Of not only being just a DJ - now I’m a real producer. It opened a whole other door for me - without Dance Mania, Detroit wouldn’t have happened; without Detroit, the Hyperdubs and all that wouldn’t have happened.
Dance Mania was structured like this: you got a $500 advance, and with Slugo he got half that. For one, I was a new artist, and at 16, you know, it was cool for me because I got a record out. I wasn’t trippin’. And Ray Barney really didn’t have any say-so on nobody’s records. It was really the other artists if anything. My first one had the stamp from Slugo because it was on his label, the Subterranean Playhouse, but that was pretty much it. It was no A&R, but doing that record with Slugo was pretty much my introduction to doing things with Ray Barney.
After signing, when did you end up starting to tour beyond Chicago?
Maybe 2005, when Godfather reached out about putting “Back Up Off Me" out on his label. It had come out on Dance Mania, but there wasn’t no label copy. Test presses was huge, if you got a test press that was like gold. Even Boo had a record like that, it’s a lot of records that were scheduled to come out but never came out. And he’d got one, reached out to Waxmaster and Waxmaster called me “hey man, it’s this cat out of Detroit who wants to do a project with you." So I gave him a call, we started going out there. I did the Movement Festival, was just hangin’ in Detroit a lot, and from there the scene got bigger and everyone got a little notoriety.
Do you like Detroit? How’s it different from Chicago for you?
You know, it’s not too much different. They not too much different than us. It’s pretty cool, Detroit people have always been pretty cool to me. Every time I went out there, I had a ball.
It sounds like between about 1999 and 2005 things really quieted down - what was going on with juke, or footwork during that period?
I wouldn’t say it was 100% dying, because we were still throwing little parties here and there. It just got further underground. I stopped for a minute - I went and got a job, I’m not gon’ lie to you. I worked at Home Depot when they first opened. But that didn’t last long, because I wanted to DJ parties and ended up quttin’. I needed to get off work at like 8 o’clock, and a lot of times it didn’t happen like that. So a lot of times, I ended up quittin’, or taking off because I needed to DJ.
When footwork started coming to the fore, what distinguished that scene or the people participating in it?
Back then, it was just something different - we didn’t want to be Deeon and Milton and all those guys, Waxmaster and Jammin’ Gerald. And really, a lot of the footworkers didn’t want to be around the homosexual community that was associated with dance groups. They started their own little battle cliques to go up and footwork, they wanted their own sound. So we came up with it, geared to the dancers. I think it was the element of competition - without the competitiveness, it wouldn’t be a battle.
Looking at the genre name, your mixtape titles, and all that, what does the concept of “ghetto" represent for you?
That’s just what the music was back then. You had the house heads, but all the house DJs had disappeared, goin’ overseas and doing whatever they was doing. So then Deeon, Milton, Slugo, and all of those guys emerged and started doing ghetto house, something for those of us that was still in Chicago. That’s pretty much what made me fall in love with the music. The harsh realities of Chicago in the ‘90s was crazy! So there you are in the house, beatin’ on this drum machine with all this aggression, just trying to do something to clear your mind or keep your mind out of the streets.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the idea that footwork is dead, and how those sorts of proclamations seem to come less from Chicago than from some totally unrelated group that might be looking to move onto the next thing.
You gotta put yourself as a consumer. If I’m constantly seeing this one thing for all these years, I’m not gonna really be into it because it don’t look like too many people into it or doing it. But if you show the full capacity of who’s making the music, who dances to the music, how to dance to the music, then the scene looks bigger. There’s no one label that all of us are on anymore, there’s no Dance Mania, so it’s way different now. Everything was so good at the time, nobody was thinking about how to make it last. I think everybody should’ve been publicized, not just one brand or one crew. The whole scene should be showcased - for everybody who might not like Clent, they might like somebody else. Everybody who just checked out Rashad or Spinn, they can go check out Roc, or Sonic D from Juke Bounce Werk.
As a producer, how do you think about the stylistic quirks that distinguish your tracks from, like, RP’s or Rashad’s?
Boo - his thing was timing. He was all about timing and weird samples. He’d take samples from various different things and make it make a sentence. Some vocal samples and put them together to say a whole sentence. Rashad was real technical; he was all over the place, one minute he’d have a ghetto house-influenced sound, and then he’d end up making a juke sound. His real thing was how he would trigger his samples, the repetitive triggering of the samples.
My characteristic is that my tracks are simple. They’re easy accessible, easy understandable, and DJ-friendly. You don’t have to hold this blend for twenty minutes before the song comes on. And I’ll try and dig and get those samples from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The last thing I wanted to ask about was that intro track from 100% Ghetto 4. I got a friend that would kill me if I didn’t find out what was going on there.
Which was that? Oh, that “you can’t fuck with Clent / 100% Ghetto!" I wanted to make it sound kind of like a dream state, thinking about if I was at a show rappin’. I pulled those drums from a Noreaga song, “Grimey." Or actually, it’s emulating that song - if you listen to it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. And I’m not a rapper by no means, I can’t wrap Christmas presents. But I thought it would be funny to take my listeners on a little journey of if I was a rapper. Then wakin’ up and acting like - “damn, that was a hella fire dream." We was just being funny and silly, you know what I mean? The people that know me know I can’t rap, so they was laughin’. Even when me and Corey do Me and My Son, the album we’re going to do, it’ll have skits on it. I don’t wanna just release a project and it’s all music; I wanna have some skits on there, make people laugh and take them on a journey.