Todd Terry Interview: House Of God

Mark Dale caught up with the legend to talk about his approach to sampling, DJing and studio work and some of Terry's biggest hits.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 17th Nov 2015.
Originally published: 12th Nov 2015

Image: Todd Terry

In the early to mid 1960s American blues music had inspired a British blues boom. Groups like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were the hottest acts around and emerging guitar talents like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Brian Jones were becoming revered by audiences who would hold them dear for many years to come.

One of their peers, Eric Clapton, a former Yardbird and Bluesbreaker, was reckoned by many to be the best. Late in 1967, even as otherworldly American Jimi Hendrix was scoring top ten hits with his new UK based band The Experience, one fan spray painted “Clapton Is God” on Islington Tube station, the immortal graffiti going on to be copied on walls up and down the country.

In the late 1980s the UK was in the grip of another US lead music craze. House music had arrived, revolutionising Britain's nightclubs and this music had a new God. 

Todd “The God” Terry was a New York hip hop kid, hip to the dance music sounds coming from DJs like Larry Levan and Tony Humphries at their Paradise Garage and Zanzibar residencies that he visited. He embraced house music upon its mid eighties emergence, both as a DJ and a fledgling producer.

By 1987 he was being considered as important a contributor to the early music as peers in Chicago. Before the eighties was over he would score huge international club hits with tracks like Jungle Brothers 'I'll House You', Royal House 'Can You Party', Black Riot 'A Day In The Life', Orange Lemon 'Dreams Of Santa Anna' and 'Weekend', a cover of Patrick Adams's disco group Phreek.

Marked by his heavy and creative use of samples, an inspiration taken from his beloved hip hop, plus his distinct, peak time percussion sound, Todd Terry became one of the most recognisable mixers and wanted remixers in house music, going on to work with the likes of Bjork, Garbage, Kylie Minogue and Michael Jackson.

In 1993 he plundered the Patrick Adams back catalogue again, this time cutting up Musique's 'Keep On Jumpin' with Yello's 'Bostich'. The resultant track, the explosive disco house classic 'Jumpin' (listen above) was issued on the fourth part of Terry's Unreleased Project series, but was soon licensed to labels worldwide as it became a club smash.

In 1995 he scored his biggest hit to date when he remixed 'Missing' for Everything But The Girl, the record charting globally and simply refusing to go away. In 1996 he scored another huge club and chart hit when he remade Musique's 'Keep On Jumpin' with legendary ladies Jocelyn Brown and Martha Wash. He teamed up with the duo again in 1997 for the massive gospel-tinged house hit 'Something Goin On', both tracks appearing on his popular 'Ready For A New Day' album.

Todd Terry is one of house music's early innovators, still operating with a high profile to the present day as a DJ, a remixer and running his own label InHouse.

We caught up with him prior to appearances at Tribal Sessions in London, Cream in Birmingham and Liverpool, History in Sheffield and for Better Days in Cleethorpes.

Hi Todd! Where you at and what you up to today?

I'm in New Jersey right now. I'm working on some tracks right now and working on the real business stuff of the label. I'm doing a track for Just Ice, an old school rapper. I'm actually producing his next album.

It's a rap album, basically what's out there today plus some of the stuff from the real old school, so we're trying to merge them together. I always liked the old school rap, so we're trying to balance some of that with what the kids are used to these days.

Johnny D, the boss of the New York house label Henry Street, which you recorded for a few times, told me this about sample clearance back in the day “I'm Johnny D from Henry Street and I might sell 500 copies of a record. Here's Puff Daddy, who's gonna sell 5 million copies of an album.

We both want to clear 'I'm Coming Out' by Diana Ross. We go to the publishing and they're gonna hit us for this much money. They don't give a fuck if it's Puffy or Johnny D, basically making it impossible to clear. So, you have to do it the ghetto way. The ghetto way is you put the record out, if it blows up, if it makes enough noise, they come after you.” Does that ring true to you? The ghetto way?

That quote has its hits and misses, you know. It's courting what record it is, who's out there, which artist it is, how much you spent on the video. If you do something like that and you've already spent $30, 000 on a video and now you've gotta pull that version, do it all over, recreate the loop or something, playing it over, a little differently... It was a different era back then, for sure.

I think now people are trying to play over samples more, recreate the old music. Back then, that was one of those eras where sampling was so big in rap. That was the way to make a hit, grab something familiar and put the best rapper and singer you can on it.

At the time of you remixing 'Missing', their record label in the U.S. were considering dropping EBTG. Your remix changed things around for them. How did the Everything But The Girl remix come about? Who decided to get Todd Terry to mix it? Your mix has quite a different energy to the original. What did you think when you first heard it?

It was the whole Atlantic crew, Joey Carvello, Johnny D, Rich Christina, Craig Colman that got me to do it. I thought the original was great. I was just going for a great song. And I wanted to do more alternative stuff.

I figured if I had more alternative vocals on top of my beats, that would be the best way to cross over, rather than make a pure house vocal and try and cross over with that. I still believe that to this day. If I have Mick Jagger on one of my records now, that would be the best way to cross over. I'd do a pop version for the radio and a dub for the club DJs to play.

You had a club hit in the mid nineties with 'Jumpin', a disco house record that sampled 'Keep On Jumpin' by Musique. Having previously worked with a lot of sample based tracks, why did you decide to remake that song 'Keep On Jumpin', without samples, as a completely original studio recording with Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown?

Well, like we were just saying, I think Johnny D had his concept of sampling and I had mine. With that track, my concept was that I sampled the original record “Keep On Jumpin” and I saw that it did really well in the clubs. So, I decided I would go and do the original record over.

When I originally made 'Jumpin' I didn't really see any of the tracks on that EP having that kind of standpoint, that kind of potential. I was just grabbing a bunch of ideas, a bunch of loops and just throwing them out there. That's why the original EP was called The Unreleased Project, that was just a way to see what everybody was interested in and then go to the next level with it.

Whether it was 'Jumpin' or something else off it, you couldn't really tell at the time. It was just one of those times where somebody needed a hit record to keep it going and I kinda got lucky. 

'Jumpin' didn't just sample Musique's 'Keep On Jumpin', it also sampled 'Bostich' by Yello, almost like a DJ mix where you create something new during the blend of two records. That was quite unusual. Where did you get your ideas from for sampling in such a creative way?

I just learned sampling. I really feel I was one of the first to start sampling in that style on house records, where you really changed it up instead of just making it a loop. I really wanted to create a style where I made my music out of sampling. I would make music out of somebody else's music rather than just leave it looped.

Much in the way that sampling was being used creatively in hip hop, rather than house.

Yes. So, that was always my concept. I think there were only a few more producers who would have that concept at the time. One was DJ Premier (Gangstarr). Another was Pete Rock. These guys would grab samples, but they would make new music out of the samples. That's where my head was at as well.

You worked again with those two singers, your new two tonnes of fun, Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown, on 'Something Goin On' (above). Were those tracks, 'Keep On Jumpin' and 'Something Goin On' recorded at the same time, during the same session with Martha and Jocelyn in the studio?

No. They were not only recorded at a different time, there was never actually a session with Martha and Jocelyn in the studio! They were never there in the studio at the same time.

I grabbed a bunch of vocals from Jocelyn and a bunch of vocals from Martha and I pieced it together bit by bit. I moved the adlibs, moved the samples around, just worked it from minute 15 all the way to eight minutes. 

Oh wow, that's incredible.

I just had them sing 'em and then I picked which person to go to for this part and which person to go to for that part. Then they each did their adlibs and I made them answer each other. I just asked them to sing like it was theirs, which they did and then I pieced them together.

I never would have guessed. Particularly on 'Something Goin On', those vocals just sit together perfectly, in a gospel way, as though they're feeding off each other during the recording performance.

Yeah, it does sound like they were there together, like they were being directed that way, but that was just a case of piecing it together really well, sitting there and doing all that painstaking stuff like adding a double, when she needed a double, adding echo, moving sections back and forth until it sounded like they were signalling each other.

The first time I heard you DJ was at The Hacienda in Manchester and you played quite a lot of your own records. Is that something you specifically did for your UK/European audiences where your records were being well received?

If the fans show up for me generally they want to hear these records that I produced. So the first hour particularly I really try to give them all the hits. That's what they came for, they want to hear 'Something Goin On', 'Keep On Jumpin', 'Bango', 'Can You Party?', Jungle Brothers (below) and I just kinda go through a collage of that stuff.

I give them what they want and I think that's the way of doing it so it will be my set. Nobody else can do that, so I take advantage. I can literally go anywhere in the world and play my 20 tracks.

Do you approach playing in your home town differently?

I just played a bowling alley in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and there I played some of my stuff, some other house, but also a lot more old school, freestyle. Stuff like James Brown, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Planet Rock, Afrika Bambaataa, things that my friends and me grew up with. I cater to my boys if I see them all there.

Do you remember your first visits to the UK? Other than The Hacienda, do you remember any of the other early clubs you played?

Uff, I can't remember. The Fridge was one, The Wag was one of the others. When I played at The Wag it was the whole Sleeping Bag era, so it was me, Mantronix, Just Ice, T La Rock, Nice & Smooth, it was all of us there and we just went for it. We really tore it down. 

The club scene over here exploded with a love for house music here in the late eighties, early nineties. Do you remember there being a distinct difference in the clubs over here at that time to how the clubs were back home?

They were definitely more receptive in Manchester and London than in New York. New York was just kinda catching on, there were only certain clubs that were doing it. Then New York got into it for a little while, then they lost it, then got back into it. New York was really fickle. But in the UK, once it took hold that was it! You guys really seemed to stay strong with that sound.

Did the European scene you DJed to back in the day have any influence on your production sound and if so how?

It let me know that I'd be right in what I was doing, being different. I didn't have to sound the same as Chicago house or New York piano house or whatever. I didn't have to fit in, I could just do whatever I wanted.

So my house music was freestyle, in a way. Beat driven and hip hop inspired, sample heavy and song based. I just wanted to have a collage of music, I didn't want everything to be in the same vein.

Which were the DJs that influenced you when you were coming up?

I went to the Garage in New York and the Zanzibar in New Jersey, so Larry and Tony Humphries were certainly big influences. We used to hang out at Zanzibar. Tony Smith too, Jellybean Benitez, DJ Raoul at Broadway 96, all these old school DJs.

That's how I got into it. They would play records and it would just mesmerise me and I would try and mimic that mood. 

What music are you enjoying at the moment? What might we hear in a Todd Terry set these days, aside from some of your own?

You never know what you're gonna get from me. I'll play a load of stuff everybody knows, then I'll play a lot of my own experimental tracks. I got all types of different mixes, some are just ideas that I'm working on and I try them out in the mix. It's a good way of testing them out. I can play anything.

There's a Drake remix I could play, a Dr. Dre one, aNicki Minaj one. You can't really tell it's them because they've got warped or dubbed out vocals, stuff like that. Then I got some brand new stuff that people might not know, new artists like MC E.

So I just play around with different ideas, make a collage, keep it interesting because you're not only playing for the older crowd, you're playing for the younger kids too. So I mix it up.

Back in the day there used to be a noticeable difference in a record from New York to one from New Jersey, Detroit or Chicago, but it doesn't seem to be like that anymore. House music seems to be globalised. Would you agree? Do these cities still have their own sound?

If a bunch of guys get together and their style is to make the snare drum louder than the other records coming out, or they use more reverb, then they got a sound. It's like Passaic techno.

I think you can make a style with a crew of people who are doing the same kind of thing, who come out of the same studios, so to a degree you could have things like that happening again, but generally I don't think it's like that no more. It would be more of a sound associated with a crew or a label these days rather than a city.

Todd Terry will be performing at Cream’s Grand Finale at Nation in Liverpool on Boxing Night. Grab your tickets for Cream

More like this? Read our interview with Hacienda legend Tom Wainwright.

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