“I hear things in pieces.”
Kerri Chandler is on the phone in his studio, talking about how he processes music after thirty-plus years in the game. “The only stuff I can hear normally is acoustic recordings, because I know how they’re done,” he tells DJ Mag. “I can’t hear a normal song properly without breaking each channel down in my head so I can listen to just one particular instrument. It gets exhausting sometimes.”
Over the years, Kerri has learnt that he needs time away from music so as to keep his inner fire burning bright. On such occasions he flies kites and does “normal things” like going to the cinema with his children. He used to skateboard but that now scares the family too much, so instead he plays video games.
He also likes to walk on the beach. Even in winter he hires a small place and gets away from it all, just to watch the waves breaking and “to clear my head”. Truth is, when you get to 46 years of age, having started DJing at 13 — and engineering in a studio with Kool & The Gang soon after — you can never really switch off.
“Funny enough, when I go to the beach all I hear is fractals,” he laughs. “I hear the phasing as I walk towards the beach and they chancel each other out. It’s technical stuff all the time.”
But you sense Kerri wouldn’t have it any other way. He admits he is a geek in every aspect of what he does, and if he hadn't turned out to be “the Stevie Wonder of house music”, as one Discogs user perfectly put it, he reckons he would have been working at NASA or CERN. Even now he is known for being something of a perfectionist.
All his tracks are made and road-tested on a proper club system in the basement of his house (because he wants to know just how they will sound in the club) and he famously turns up early to every gig in order to do sound-checks more akin with The Rolling Stones than a deep house DJ.
“It’s a give and take thing,” he says when asked about the role of the DJ. “I love the energy of the room and that’s how I play; I feel the room. I’m there from the beginning of the party to the end. I like to meet people and be with them on the floor [literally, in fact, because Kerri is often known to leave the booth to go wander the club in order to check everything sounds tight]. It’s not just me as the DJ who walks in and says, ‘this is my show’.
No, I want everyone to do well. I walk in and ask for everybody’s technical rider. I wanna make sure everyone is comfortable to play. I look at what is wrong and right. ‘Don’t use those needles, use mine, I just put some new ones on’.”
By now you should be starting to get a handle on just how meticulous and heartfelt a man Kerri Chandler is. Everyone who has met him will tell you the same. It might not have been this way, though, because Kerri grew up in a tough ghetto in East Orange, New Jersey. All his friends were drug dealers, but Kerri wanted better.
Though he started out making hip-hop as well as house — as was the natural way back then, before genres became divided — it was all the possession of and talk about guns that turned him off the former and onto the latter. Oh, and getting shot at whilst he and a friend sat in a car as his daughter celebrated her first birthday didn't help either.
Naturally a peaceful guy who didn't appreciate the machismo of the West Coast sound, Kerri promised himself there and then that he would never make a record he couldn’t play for his grandma. And he stuck to it.
Something else that has defined the gently-spoken Kerri throughout his long and illustrious career was the tragic rape and murder of his wife-to-be outside the Zanzibar Club (a place made famous by legendary sets from friend and peer, Tony Humphries).
Those events lead him to make his first proper track, 'Get It Off', and to focus on the more positive messages of house music, which his late girlfriend was so passionate about. To this day he famously instils everything he does with a sense of self, a real anecdote from everyday life.
As most artists grow older, wiser and richer, they lose their drive and edge. Life becomes too comfy and inspiration escapes them. Not Kerri. Every track he makes still has a piece of himself in and displays a rare musicality, soul and feeling.
“A lot more happens, and there is a lot more I can speak about now,” he beams. “It’s real tough coming up with things when you are on your own travelling and not seeing friends, but when I’m living, things come to me, they absolutely come to me.
I’m inspired all the time on the road hanging out with my friends, but where I actually have to speak and write a song, it’s much easier to do it that way; to write about things that happen in life, in a friend’s life.”
He has the same approach with albums. The last one, in 2008, was based around his love for computer games and holograms and technology in general, but as of yet nothing has spurred him to write another.
And as such there has not been another, nor will there be until he has something real to say. Instead, he is currently working on remixes of artists like Popof, Paolo Nutini and Disclosure.
“There has to be something in the original for me to take it on,” he explains. “I like [Disclosure’s] voices and they remind me of when I was young, the way they mix songs. I like their harmonic tones on the chords, the square wave bass and their drums.”
Although he is still getting over “a little ADE flu”, Kerri is unhurried and open throughout our conversation. He never curses and is respectful of everyone, even when quizzed about his views on DJ Sneak’s penchant for a public spat.
He has many great tales, from the time his friend Femi Kuti came on stage to play horn over his beats, to the time Prince arrived at one of his gigs in LA to ask about the key of a record. “It’s in any key you want,” came Kerri’s reply, at which point The Purple One sat down and began playing along on the keys.
Every now and then he will disappear in a flurry of technical terms and explanations, will detail which bit of music-making machinery he is currently taking apart and fiddling with, and will outline what he does when not making seminal, oft-referenced and exhaustingly aped deep house cuts as he has done since 1990 on King Street, Ibadan, Nervous, Deeply Rooted...
the list goes on and on, because Kerri has unquestionably turned out more classics of the genre than anyone.
“I’ll hear something sonically like a classical piano piece or some old rock piece by Pink Floyd or The Alan Parsons Project,” he explains. “Then I’ll go back and study and try mimic how he did the whole song.
I’ll get it as close as possible to how they did it on the album, then I’ll go back and read a bit more about the machines they used and find substitutions in my studio to mimic it.”
All this fascination with the technicals makes you wonder why Kerri doesn’t run his own club or studio. Aside from the fact that he did that a lot in his early days (as resident at places like New York’s Shelter and engineer for labels like Atlantic), he reckons it simply grows too sterile, too much like a job.
“I was just punching in my time-card after a while. Everything had to be exact — ‘This is how the drums have to be mic'd, and so on’.” Instead he likes to break out the bass and play along with his 18-year-old daughter, who likes The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
When not at home, of course, Kerri traverses the globe playing every major club and festival there is. He is an energetic party-starting DJ who wants you to dance.
He can flip the mood of a club in one mix, can go from contemporary house to classic disco to techno and back again at will and, subject to a promoter’s ability to source the gear, will play keys as well as mixing, or play with holograms all around him. It means he has close ties with many places these days, but none so close as Circo Loco, the crazy Ibiza party that takes place at DC10.
He first appeared there in 2010 after much persuasion, and has since become a part of the family with the likes of Seth Troxler, Apollonia, the Martinez Brothers and Jamie Jones.
He feels meeting these people gave him a new lease of life. After years touring with old pals like Dennis Ferrer, Jerome Sydenham and Todd Terry, he “found unity with a bunch of DJs that I really, really admire. It brought me into a new mindset. No-one has an ego, we share stuff, keep in touch, DJ together, and I needed that energy.”
It was this new group of creative friends that has led Kerri to start his latest label: where MadHouse is “my baby, all about soulfulness and vocals” and MadTech is about giving “a helping hand to the next generation,” Kaoz Theory is about working with friends associated with Circo Loco and releasing music you might hear in the famous club.
So far the label has spawned a fine 16-track compilation with contributions from Seth, Chez Damier, Detroit Swindle, Rick Wade and Davide Squillace. Two newer artists, Stephane Ghenacia and Voyuer, also made the cut.
“Voyeur play what I play, exactly my style. We kept in touch after I first met them, then they opened for me and it was a perfect match,” says Kerri of the UK pair, before adding: “Stephane is Dan [Ghenacia, of Apollonia fame]’s brother, he’s gonna start making his mark now. He’s very talented and I want to see him do well.”
With only one woman on the tracklist, Kerri is keen to point out that it wasn't for lack of trying. He tapped up Nina Kraviz who was too busy, as well as Cassy and La Fleur, both of whom were having a break to have children.
“I like to help people that I know have a great head on their shoulders when it comes to making music, not people who just want to be a superstar DJ and want champagne and women and to party all the time. I like the guys who want to bring something to the scene,” he says.
Kerri himself couldn't have brought any more to the scene as either a DJ or a producer. As such he has proven himself more than most, but still he pushes forwards, avoiding the pitfalls of many of his stuck-in-a-rut, classic-playing peers.
“If I ever walk into a place and I don’t feel as I did when I was a kid, with the same amount energy, I’ll give up,” he says, signing off.
If that day ever comes, house music will have lost one of its most distinct and definitive characters.
BEHIND THE BEATS
As Kerri says in this month’s cover feature, he always likes to make music filled with personal meaning and real-world relevance. As such, we round-up some of his most storied cuts and give you the inside scoop on how and why they came to be...
'The Thing For Linda EP' (1998)
The name Linda is a recurring one in Kerri’s work. She not only lends her name to this EP, but also to 2004’s 'The Other Thing For Linda' as well as 2006’s 'After The Other Thing For Linda' and 'The 4th Thing For Linda'. So who is Linda?
“Linda is like a mother figure to me,” Kerri explains when asked about Mrs Perrone. “She used to run Downtown 161, one of the first big distributors in New York. I’ve known her since 1988 and she helped me get my first proper solo independent release on MadHouse out there.”
Close friends for many years, Linda recognised Kerri is a cut above your average producer and because of his love of strings, real arrangements and musicality, she used to refer to him as Kerri Bacharach, thus explaining the name of one of the tracks on 'The Thing For Linda 2010', whilst 'Where’s The Baby' was Linda asking after Kerri’s daughter.
Teule 'Drink One Me' (1990)
One of Kerri’s earliest jams was produced for dancer and house vocalist Teulé Brown. The main hook from the track, ‘Drink On Me’ comes from the fact that, in order to clear the dancefloor of the cheap and stiff “suit and tie people”, Kerri had arranged for bar tenders to give away free drinks whenever he played this track. It meant they all made a b-line for the bar and left the pure, music-loving dancers behind.
Kerri Chandler 'Get It Off' (1990)
Taken from his debut EP, writing this record was real therapy for Kerri who, at the time, was still trying to get over the murder of his wife-to-be. Featuring lines like “You are so vicious”, Kerri was speaking directly to the murderer whilst at the same time repeating the line “Now is the time”, meaning — “Now is the time to move on.”
At various points throughout the track, the sound of a needle being ripped from a record was introduced to try and convey how Kerri felt about having his finance ripped from his life. Knowing this makes the track all the more moving, and for Kerri it was the start of everything. “This is where I figured out, 'Wow, this is what I need to do'.”
THEORY BEHIND THE KAOZ
As he launches another new imprint, Kaoz Theory, Kerri continues to give a helping hand to the next generation. Here we speak to two such acts who featured on the label’s first compilation...
Voyeur is Leo Pickings and Benson Herbert, a UK house duo that has exclusively released on labels run by Kerri, all because one of his A&R guys was playing a remix they did for Bombay Bicycle Club. “Kerri overheard it and asked him to get in touch with us,” and the rest is history.
“Leo and I met in Leeds where we were both studying music production. We got on a track for fun and we just vibed off each other. We were both really into our hip-hop, jazz and soul, and we both wanted to try and transplant that dusty, emotive vibe into the house music we were listening to. As a pair, you both can bring different stuff to the table: Leo plays the keys and guitar, whereas I play drums and percussion.
“When I started researching dance music back to its foundations, I remember hearing 'Rain' by Kerri, and having that track on loop for about a week! I don't want to sound corny, but I remember feeling the heart and love he put into that record.
Before that point, most of the dance music I was listening to was really electronic and techy and this just showed me this whole other side of dance music, that soulful side, that feeling.
“Kerri Chandler is, hands-down, the nicest guy you will ever meet, and that man gives the best hugs in the world! He's the only DJ I've heard of who will turn up to his gig a few hours earlier to engineer the speakers to fit the acoustic space he'll be DJing in as best as possible.
We've learnt so much from the man, how he engineers the speakers to fit the room, watching and taking inspiration about how he goes about his DJ sets. I feel very blessed and lucky to be in the position we are and to have met Kerri.
We always try and keep some element of beauty/soul in our music, and some kind of authentic real feeling, if possible. That's what we love about sampling old records in our tracks, it gives it that kind of rough-around-the-edges feel, a bit of realness to it.”
As well as being an emerging producer and brother to Apollonia member Dan, Frenchman Stephane also runs his own London party and label Colors — and has done since 2013...
“I first felt in love with techno music in the middle of the '90s when I started going to raves around Paris. A few months after, I bought my first turntables. For the first couple of years I found myself in between photography and music.
My brother was already a DJ but at that age I had the need to find my own way without any interferences. Nevertheless, music was my natural love and it was the only way to go.
“Around the end of the '90s is when I got into house music, and at this point it was just impossible to escape Kerri's music... it is not for nothing that he is such a legend! In a lot of his tracks you can find a really magic atmosphere that is his trademark...
and it really touches me. Basically, when my first release was ready I sent it to my label manager [David Elkabas at MN2S] and luckily enough he was looking for music to be included on Kerri's compilation, so that's how it all started.
“As a young artist it is really unbelievable that this incredible legend of house music likes and released my first track on his label. I still feel so blessed for that, and I just met Kerri last summer at DC10. Since then we did a few gigs together and I have to say that I feel so much support from his side.
Now I just made a remix of a Jamie Jones track for Kaos Theory and it's with this kind of care that he really makes me feel part of his family. He is such an incredibly nice person with a big heart, always up and ready to push you.
“I don't really have any aim when I make my music, the only thing I want is to feel satisfied with the final track. I am naturally doing house music without thinking too much, and have only been producing for four years. I think that if I have my own sound it is because I am mature enough not to lose myself in all the possible variables, instead I stick to something that fits with my personality.”