Tyree Cooper is one of house music's originals. He wouldn't claim to be one of its originators, but with his first release, the classic 'I Fear The Night', being released by DJ International subsidiary Underground in 1986, he was certainly among the first wave of producers to emerge from Chicago.
He combined with Fast Eddie on his next release for the label, 'The Whop', which was based on a dance style of the time, before releasing 'Acid Over' also in 1987. Titled in frustration at the then several years old Roland 303 acid line, it nevertheless became a classic of the genre.
Moving to parent label DJ International for his 1988 release 'Turn Up The Bass', at the instruction of label owner Rocky Jones, Cooper had followed label mate Fast Eddie in adding hip hop vocals to an uptempo and breaks influenced house track, helping to consolidate a new sub genre called hip house. Cooper would release several other singles in the genre and hip house featured prominently on his first three albums for DJ International, but it would be upon his return to making instrumental house music that he would produce his longest lasting anthem.
'Video Crash' was inspired by an unreleased Marshall Jefferson tune that some Chicago DJs, in particular Lil Louis, had been championing. Cooper's version was as bold and as basic a sound as any soundsystem could have hoped for and its longevity attests to such. Considering names such as Jefferson, Lil Louis and Mike Dunn were also associated with versions of the song, it is no small achievement that Cooper's has gone on to be the best loved, still heard regularly on dancefloors.
Cooper ceased recording for DJ International associated labels in the 90s, eventually taking them to court, but re-emerged on Chicago's Dance Mania label, producing an at times more tough and basic, underground style of house music for which the label became well known.
Following his court case with DJ International, Cooper moved to Europe and he has lived in Berlin for the best part of a decade and a half, where he continues to produces and from where he bases his international DJ career. Prior to a date at The Hare And Hounds in Birmingham on 29th September, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Cooper for a chat about then and now.
When you started producing in the 80s, who was in your crew?
Mike Dunn and Hugo H. That was my crew. There were other people too, Lidell Townsell, Chubby or William S as y'all call him, Hula Malone, Maurice Joshua, DJ Pierre, Spanky, Gene Hunt, Andre Hatchett, Pharris Thomas, Mike Williams, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, Mike Dearborn, Armando. There was so many of us that knew each other, but my crew specifically was Mike Dunn and Hugo H.
'Turn Up The Bass' held that same Lyn Collins vocal sample as Rob Base 'It Takes Two', which was released and was a hit in the same year. Was that track where you took the idea for using that sample?
No. What influenced that was the Fast Eddie track 'Yo Yo Get Funky'. Rocky Jones, the owner of DJ International, wanted me to do something similar to what Fast Eddie was doing. I told him no. So, I put together what I thought would be an underground hip hop track.
What was hip house's biggest flaw? Why did it, to a certain extent, die out?
Because we wasn't toting guns. Our subject matter wasn't the same as the west coast. The flaw was that we stayed positive, if that's a flaw. We didn't rap about selling drugs, killing anybody. We talked shit on the mic. We wasn't NWA. We wasn't the ghetto boys. They weren't necessarily promoting violence, they were just talking about a situation they were living in. And we wasn't. That's pretty much it. We were talking about the party and we were braggadocious. That was hip house.
I'm not sure those negative lyrics would have worked in an uptempo dance environment. You came to Europe in the late 80s, you saw what those dancefloors were like, what they were about, the mindset. It was more ecstatic, it was more about elation, it was more about opening up.
It could have. We (hip hop and hip house) were coming from the same neighbourhood, the same environment. Yes, those lyrics could have worked. We just elected not to talk about that.
If they accepted NWA they would have accepted Fast Eddie and Tyree, if that's what we would have come up with in the beginning. It's the same energy, it's no different. We were just an extension of hip hop, so for sure it could have worked.
Your track 'Acid Over' was named in response to the limitations you thought had already been reached by acid house. But you continued to produce using a 303 sound after its release. Why?
I call them rent tracks. I don't know if you ever heard of that term. Tracks to pay your rent. Whatever was paying your rent, that was what I would use ahahaha. I was poor. I had to work for mine, so whatever I needed to use, it was cool. I just didn't like the sound so much at that time. I just wanted it to be over.
Let's talk about 'Video Crash'. Your track and Mike Dunn's 'Magic Feet' were inspired by a Marshall Jefferson track that remained unreleased for a long time. Is that correct?
That's 100% correct.
Where had you heard this track?
Shit, from Marshall ahahaha. I remember the demo with Kym Mazelle singing on it. When he gave it to Lil Louis, Lil Louis did an edit. We knew it was Marshall. He didn't care. But we cared, cause Marshall was like our big brother, to me, Mike Dunn and Hugo. So, we were sitting there and me and Mike said, fuck it, we gonna do our own version. We talked to Marshall and he was, like, go ahead.
Why did Marshall's version go on to be released under Lil Louis's name without any credit for Marshall on the record?
I can't say for a fact. But I think Marshall told him he could have it. Maybe Lil Louis took that literally? I think that was probably a big part of it. Maybe Marshall did mean it literally? Maybe he just meant he could have it to play? I don't know.
Whose version is the best?
Well, that depends on your taste.
I'm just being honest. I'm a DJ. I can play all three and get three different responses. And I have. When the track was first released, Mike Dunn out sold everybody. The Westbrook release out sold mine and Lil Louis. It took mine being bootlegged as 'Acid Crash' to make it more famous.
I think now mine is regarded as the most classic. Which is weird.
Well, I would agree with that. I prefer yours. I'm not saying that just because I'm talking to you and you can't take anything away from Marshall because he came up with the original idea, just like he came up with a few dozen original ideas that changed the face of music, the guy's a legend.
Ahahaha. That's right.
But, sometimes the remake can be better and in this case I think it was.
I just think mine was different. Neither Mike or I were trying to do exactly the same thing that Marshall did. We were trying to do something original. Mike used acid in his. I just used what I thought would work on the dancefloor. I can't give you numbers on how many each version sold, but mine's been licensed and re-edited quite a few times.
Which of your tracks did you get the best reception for when you started coming over to Europe?
Definitely 'Turn Up The Bass'. That was the first one. Little by little they caught up with the rest of my catalogue. Different places it would be 'Video Crash', other places it would be the hip house, others again it would be the ghetto house. But at first it was definitely the hip house. I would imagine that they got 'I Fear The Night' but I wasn't there to see it. By the time I got there it was all about the hip house.
You didn't get your financial dues on some of your earliest hits. It's a familiar story heard from many Chicago house originals. But you actually went to court to try and rectify that. What was the outcome of the court case?
I won. I won it in 2000. I won all my titles back, every last one that had been on DJ International.
It took until 2000?
Well, I started the whole process in 1995. I started the court case in 1997. So, it took about 5 years.
What are your plans for the catalogue now?
Now I have my own label, Chicago Vinyl. In the future I hope I can do two albums, one of the DJ International years and one for the years I was with Dance Mania and some other European labels. I have other tracks from that era too that were outside of DJ International.
When you mention two albums from two different labels, did you take two labels to court to get the rights to your music or was it just DJ International?
Just DJ International. I already owned all my work that was on Dance Mania. Ray Barney, who ran Dance Mania, his business practices were not the same as they were at the other labels. He was different. He was more about helping brothers get in the business as opposed to helping them make money so they could take it from them. He wasn't like that. He really tried to nurture you in the business, if you allowed him to.
Respect for him for doing that. That's a not so familiar tale to come out of Chicago.
Oh man. I'm proud to tell that tale. If I'd known that from the very beginning, in 1985 when I first met Ray Barney, he would have got 'I Fear The Night', 'Turn Up The Bass', 'Video Crash', 'House Music Is My Life'. Every last record I made he would have got, if I'd known then what I know now.
What do you see as the difference between the music you made for DJ International and the music you made for Dance Mania. Because Dance Mania has got a sound all of its own.
It does have a sound of its own, you're right. Dance Mania was a different era. DJ International was around the whole beginning of the house boom. It wasn't the beginning of the music, the music already existed on the streets of Chicago, it's just that labels like Trax, DJ International picked it up and made it viable for everybody. We were only distributing it among our community. We thought it was just a Chicago thing. Because they had been in the music business for a long time they knew it could go further. By chance, Europe went big on it. They didn't know just how big Europe would go for it. Really, that was by chance. They just ran with it.
When were your earliest thoughts about moving to Europe?
Right after I had a conversation with Eddie Fowlkes. He's an inspirational brother to me. Him and my former publisher, Andy Gröber, also known as Andy Gee (who was also once a touring guitarist for Thin Lizzy – Metal Ed). They were both instrumental in me getting my catalogue back. Eddie Fowlkes grilled me for a whole year from 94-95 about my music.
Eddie gave me four parties over here in Europe that he couldn't do. I'd complained to him that nobody in Chicago was showing me any love. He said, fuck that, I got four parties you can do. I was, like, but they booked you, they're in your name. He said, fuck that, you Tyree Cooper. And I was, like, alright. I talked to the lady and she said, alright, we'll put you in his place and from that I stayed in Europe, I kept flying back and forth.
That's when I found out that with the music I could earn a living in Europe that I couldn't do living in America. The scene knew who I was there, I didn't constantly have to try and prove myself amongst my peers. I'm competitive, if it's a competitive sport. Music is a competitive sport, but I don't want it to be like that amongst my peers. I'm a team player. I played basketball when I was younger. I'm a team player and Chicago wasn't giving me that.
So, as soon as the court case was over, 2000, I came to Europe. Amsterdam was my first place, then I came to Berlin.
What do you miss most about living in Chicago?
Nothing. Nothing. I love Chicago, some of my family's still there. I love Chicago as a city. I love the people, always. Everywhere I go I'm gonna always represent Chicago. I just don't have to live there any more. It's just too much, the whole lifestyle.
As someone who now lives in Europe, what thoughts do you have when you catch the news of your homeland and see something like the reports that came in from Charlottesville the other weekend?
It's not really surprising. When you grow up being black in America, there are certain things you know. Certain things can happen and people will all of a sudden go “Wow! I can't believe that would happen!” and you're sitting there, as a black person, thinking “Humpff!” You can't be black and not know that. Every black person know that. Police been shooting at black people in Chicago for as long as I've been alive, it's just now we have video cameras.
The racism in America stems all the way back to the time they had us as slaves. They just couldn't take it. So, they kept the KKK, but they killed the Black Panther party, you know what I'm saying? They can have one, we can't. They have rights, we don't. The world sees that. Some European countries have some discrimination but they don't show it so much. America shows its all the time but tries to hide behind it, saying no, no, no, we're this, we're free, we have freedom of speech, we're the greatest nation in the world. Yes, it is. The Constitution is the greatest piece of paper ever written.
But how they interpret it is a whole other thing; it takes three black people to make one person, the Fugitive Laws, buffalo soldiers, the Jim Crow laws, all this stuff stems from back in the day. It's like the chickens coming home to roost what you have in Virginia and North Carolina. Now you got a white person running over another white person, so now it's going to get some attention.
It's shocking, but it doesn't shock me because, at the end of the day, I know this is the fabric of America. If you white, you a'right, if you black, get back.
Do you feel you made the right move in coming to Europe, to get away from all that?
Hell yeah. All day. I have peace of mind, I'm not so worried about my family walking down the street. America is not all bad. But that overtone of racism that you feel as a black man, there's just no way you can walk away from it there.
Would you recommend Europe to others?
I would recommend anything that's going to help you further yourself in life, whether that's Europe or Texas. For me it was Europe. That's where my music scene was. In America, that's not there. You had rock and roll, then hip hop, those were the big sellers. Only now has dance music started to become big, but it's none of the people who (originally) made dance music that are doing it.
There's no Farley Jackmaster Funk, no Jesse Saunders, no Juan Atkins. You have EDM, a bastardisation of what Europeans had been doing which they thought they could get away with selling to the suburban kids. They took trance music and dubstep and created.... garbage.
Tickets for Tyree Cooper at Hare & Hounds are available below.