Marshall Jefferson Interview: The House Music Anthem Maker
Marshall Jefferson spoke to Mark Dale about his abundance of seminal house productions, lyrical inspiration and jacking your body.
Date published: 23rd Mar 2016
Chicago native Marshall Jefferson is a pretty modest chap. Though many names such as Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Jesse Saunders are frequently mentioned in telling of the birth of house music, there's little doubt that as a music producer Marshall Jefferson did more than any other single contributor in forming and consolidating the music we know today as house music.
Inspired by a wide range of rock, pop, soul and dance music, Marshall's earliest productions were similarly varied. His earliest productions were taken on tape to The Music Box club in Chicago and road tested by its revered resident DJ Ron Hardy, who soon became a fan.
Marshall issued his first 12”s in 1986 on the Trax label, one being the piano lead 'The House Music Anthem (Move Your Body)' which remains one of the genre's biggest tracks to this day.
Under a variety of aliases, either solo or in collaboration, Jefferson was responsible for more bona fide early classics such as Hercules' '7 Ways', Jungle Wonz' 'Bird In A Gilded Cage' and 'Time Marches On', plus Ragtyme 'I Can't Stay Away'. He set, alongside fellow Chicago producer Larry Heard, the template for the music that would become known as deep house.
Working with vocalist Ce Ce Rogers he produced another anthem in 'Someday', the call for unity, like many other Marshall Jefferson tracks, achieving anthem status at European clubs like The Hacienda, helping to spread the Chicago sound to a global audience.
He worked many times with major label signing, singer Kym Mazelle and another vocalist, Byron Stingily, who Marshall worked with as Ragtyme, formed a group called Ten City and signed to Atlantic Records. Marshall followed them there as a producer and Ten City went on to issue four albums, the first two of which remain among the best albums ever made in the house genre. Singles like 'That's The Way Love Is' and 'Devotion' became hits on dancefloors across the world.
Still active in music production and as a DJ but now more regularly to be found in Europe than back in Chicago, we caught up with Marshall Jefferson to ask about some of his favourite tracks prior to his appearance at the Dance 88/89 event.
Did you go to clubs before you started making music?
Yeah. I used to go to a bunch of them. Copherbox, The Nimbus, Dingbat's, where Mr T was a doorman, The Penthouse, The Tree Of Life, The Playground, Sauer's.
I heard that famed Chicago DJ Ron Hardy played some of your tracks off tape before you had a record out. How was that able to happen? Did you know him or could anyone just come up and hand him a tape and he'd listen to it?
No, I didn't know him at first. Anyone could go up to Ron Hardy and give him a tape. It just had to be good [laughs]. Sometimes he would listen to it there and then, in the booth, sometimes he would take it home and listen to it and if it was good enough he'd play it the next week.
But, as he got to know me, all of my stuff he would listen to then and there, in the booth. I'd had seven of my songs given to him, I think he thought my friend Sleazy had made them, but then he met me and that's where our relationship began.
You produced '7 Ways' by Hercules. That's like a guide of how to jack your body. In the guide jacking sounds pretty much like simulating sex in a dance. Would you agree? Is that how people danced? Why do you think that term jack your body stuck around?
Well, yeah. That's how people danced back in the day. At The Music Box it was very sexual. The first time I heard the term jack your body was when Sleazy would dance. Some of the girls were so into the music, Sleazy would grab them on the dancefloor and me and the other fellas would say "Sleazy's jacking the freaks" [laughs]. That's the first I ever heard it, he was jacking their bodies.
So the phrase was in general circulation before the Steve Silk Hurley song 'Jack Your Body'?
You are one of the originators of house music, but in almost every interview you give you always say that Jesse Saunders played an important part, but he didn't have nearly as many big records as you and some of the other guy's from Chicago. Why do you count him as being so important? Was he a friend of yours?
No, he was never a friend, he was like the man. He was the first one to come out with records. If he'd hadn't have come out with those records like 'On and On', none of us would have done it. If him and Vince Lawrence hadn't put those out I would never have made a single record. I would still probably be working at the post office or something.
Jesse was a known DJ. I was a DJ too and I thought, well, I can make records just like Jesse. That's how I started. It gave me the confidence to start making music.
One of your tracks, 'Ride The Rhythm' by On The House, has one side mixed by Frankie Knuckles and one side mixed by Ron Hardy. What was the idea behind doing that, giving a side each to these guys to do the mix? And which is your favourite mix of it?
Well, they were the top two house DJs in the city and they both wanted to mix the song, especially after the success of the previous single 'Move Your Body', so it was kinda non-negotiable [laughs]. I kinda had to let them do it... or else! [laughs] For me, I think Ron Hardy's mix is a little more energetic.
The Free Yourself EP by Virgo is one of my favourites. I love the drum programming, the space in the music and the melodies. It sounds like music from outer space to me. Was science fiction ever an influence to you?
Oh, yeah. I was always heavily into science fiction. All the way back to Jules Verne and Star Trek. I'm not really a Star Wars fan though. There's not enough sex in it for me. Captain Kirk screwed everything, so I was into Star Trek. I was a big time Trekkie.
In the Ragtyme song 'I Can't Stay Away' Byron sings that for 'a chance to see you smile I would wrestle crocodiles'. That doesn't sound like a very good idea to me.
Were crocodiles a big problem in Chicago for people going on early dates?
Naw, naw, naw [laughs]. No crocodiles in Chicago, Byron was just writing a narrative. I guess he really wanted that girl! [laughs]
Why did Ragtyme change their name to Ten City?
Well, actually Ragtyme was Byron Stingily and Byron Burke. We went to New York and all the majors wanted Byron (Stingily) as a solo act. But he said "I always wanted to be in a group." So we decided to do a group. He brought Byron Burke and got Herb Lawson, the guitarist, and formed Ten City.
I came up with the name. It was short for Intensity. It had a dual meaning. The number ten was like perfect, ten out of ten, so it was the perfect city, the perfect place to go and jack your body.
Was the Ten City album your first album project? How was it different? A lot of your 1980s productions were written in a home studio, but the Ten City albums, certainly by 1990's State Of Mind, have a lot more going on in them musically and in the production than some of your earlier releases. How was that experience for you?
Well, actually it was my second album. The first album I had done was with On The House, but it was never released because of legal stuff with Trax records. Producing those albums was a lot more interesting and fun. The whole set up was a lot more preferable creatively.
At the home studio you're just laying down beats, but when you go to the big studio you've got to worry about the way you're recording it, the musicians who come in to play on it. Maybe they're not playing it well sometimes. You might have to pick one string player out of an eleven piece string section who's not doing it properly or the drummer isn't in tune with what else is down.
There's all kinds of things that you learn and it's fun, but it's a little bit too much to work with technically.
Byron sometimes reminds some people of Sylvester. Do you think that's a fair comparison?
Well, yeah. They both sing high. Byron had a lot more power I believe. I think maybe a more appropriate comparison might be with Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire. Sylvester sang falsetto. Byron's high tenor was diaphragmed (sic).
When you recorded the track 'Message To Ron' with K Alexi Shelby what was the actual message you would have liked to have gotten to Ron?
That we were still thinking about him, remembering him. That kind of thing. The record was a tribute.
K Alexi has been around a long time too, since records like Risque III. You've known him a long time and he's had a hand in a lot of fantastic music. Do you think he gets the credit he deserves? Do you keep in touch? What's he doing now?
He doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he was right there at every juncture of house music's origins and development. He was right there in the booth with Ron Hardy. He lived with me in that crazy house. There was me, K Alexi, Mike Dunn, Bam Bam, Reggie Hall, Kim English, Armando.
There was a bunch of us in that house and it was just a wild house. It was laugh a minute there. Do I keep in touch with him? I last spoke with him yesterday. He's still making music. He's still fighting the good fight. In fact yesterday I agreed to do a remix for him on a song with Robert Owens.
The lyrics to Truth 'Open Our Eyes' are quite spiritual. Where did they come from?
Well, that was Byron (Stingily). I did all the music but I built the whole track around what Byron had told me. We were in the car and he told me the words and I was like "Oh, man, that's dope! I gotta do a song for that, I'm inspired."
The Jungle Wonz track 'Bird In A Gilded Cage'. That's a strange title. Where did that come from?
That was Harry Dennis. Harry came up with Bird In A Gilded Cage, he came up with all of the words for the Jungle Wonz stuff.
And you came up with the bird noises?
Yeah, I came up with the bird noises! [Laughs]
What was the inspiration for the lyrics to the Ce Ce Rogers track 'Someday'? You mention South Africa.
Well, I just came up with them. I guess I just felt love for the world and I wanted to spread love. South Africa is mentioned, but that's just in the last line. It's not really the focus of the song, but everybody did focus on it.
What happened was there was this big fight in South Africa. Boxing. Big John Tate vs Gerrie Coetzee. Big John Tate was American and Gerrie Coetzee was South African and for John Tate to enter the country he had to get changed to an honorary white man.
So I guess what I found out from that is that blacks weren't... humans, in that country. So that's why I said I'll go to South Africa and be called a man.
Who's your favourite vocalist you ever worked with?
Oh man... It's between Ce Ce Rogers and Byron Stingily. We're brothers. I can't separate one from the other. I had a lot of fun with both of them.
Yeah, it's a true story. I never saw either of them again, they were living in Florida and I was living in Chicago.
The song 'Video Crash' has got a bit of a confused history. It was released by Tyree, Mike Dunn and Lil Louis. What are the origins of that track?
Ha! Well, I did the song originally, back in Chicago. I was very close with Mike Dunn and Tyree. We were all living together. At that time I had gotten Ten City signed to a major, I got Ce Ce Rogers signed to Atlantic, I got Kym Mazelle signed to EMI.
Everyone was signed to majors labels and I just forgot the track. It was one of the hottest cuts in the city at the time! So, my 'friends' [laughs] decided to do, I guess, tribute versions of it.
Lil Louis was the first one to play it. He blew it up. He had a party that was like 5000 kids and higher every week and he would blow up the party with that song. Nobody knew what it was. When I started doing the majors I guess Tyree and Mike thought, well, he's doing songs now, he's gonna forget all about this, so they went and did their versions.
So Lil Louis got mad and he said, man, we gotta put out the original version. I was like, man, I ain't even thinking about that song. He was like, aw, come on, let me put it out! I agreed and he put it out, so the Lil Louis version is actually the original version of Video Clash.