Monday, March 25, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Chicago Techno & House Legend NEAL HOWARD

While having a late night Facebook chat with fellow Dallas jock, Scottie "Redeye" Canfield on the subject of Chicago House and Detroit techno, I became intrigued by the "where are they now" aspect of one of the "unsung" hero's" of the early Chicago scene.  The conversation was centered around a artist whose body of work was minimal, but whose releases were highly influential in ushering in the UK phenomenon that became known as the  "Summer of Love".

If the statement "Quality over Quantity" stands true, than the work of Neal Howard is it's template.  On the strength of 2 EP's, "To Be Or Not To Be" and "Indulge", Neal's music became synonymous with the "Acid House" cultural revolution with his songs inspiring a entire generation of music fans in the U.K. His body of work has long been considered "legendary" by the curators of dance music culture, and his tracks are mainstays in numerous Acid House compilations...most notably "Hacienda Acid House Classics", compiled by club owner and New Order/Joy Division bassist, Peter Hook.   Influenced equally by the nascent Detroit sound, as well as, at the time, the better known Chicago scene.  Neal's music was a template for a then unknown sub-genre, "tech-house" having brought in Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson  to remix his 1st release.  And  add to the fact that  U.K. labels such as  Warp were a direct descendant of Mr. Howards' unique sound, helping to spawn the "bleeps & blips" techno craze of the early '90's.

DISCO'S REVENGE decided to track down Mr. Howard and ask him a few questions about the past, present and future.


Before we begin in earnest, can you fill us in on how did you get started in the music business? Who were some of your early influences while you were learning your craft? (Specific people, places, events, etc.)

Born & raised in Rockford, Ill, I moved to the Chicago area after I graduated high school.  I basically got started in the music business when I met Terry "Housemaster" Baldwin & played him some tracks I was working on. From there he signed me to his label Future Sound records. Some of my early influences back then were my longtime friend Dave Merritt, who was in the group No Name ("Jason's Revenge), who took me under his wing & showed me the ins & outs of dj'ing & producing tracks. Larry Heard & Derrick May were huge influences as well. I wanted to be them both, lol! Ron Hardy, Lil' Louis & Mike "Hitman" Wilson were all huge influences djin' wise, even though I wasn't djing back then. I knew all the music, bought  all of the records and I could mix!

 At what point did you decide to begin producing music?

Pretty much since high school. I was raised on r&b & early hip-hop & discovered house from the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX. Rockford had no black radio stations, so everyone would hook up the cable from their TVs to their radios or receivers to listen to Chicago stations! Through formal music training all during middle & high school (some piano lessons & playing drums in school and neighborhood  bands), I had knowledge of basic music theory. So when I first started seeing the Roland drum machines & sequencers, I could kind of see how they worked just by looking at them. Since I had no equipment of my own, I would borrow from friends. A keyboard here, a drum machine there, a sequencer from whomever & I was good to go!

What was the inspiration behind your first EP, "To Be or Not To Be?"

I just a kid who wanted to make a record! Hanging out with my friend Dave Merritt, through him I would meet other djs & artists around Chicago. Everyone was making records back then, either on their own labels or through labels like DJ International or Trax. You had the hot mixes on the radio & you had clubs everywhere, from the mainstream  to the underground, with cats like Ron Hardy &  Lil' Louis. Also, you had different styles (such as techno, acid, hip-house, etc) all developing within a short period of time. It was really a special moment in music!

How did Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson become involved in the project?

That was through Terry Baldwin. He knew pretty much everybody. So I had Bad Boy Bill, Derrick May & Kevin Saunderson all on one record! That was huge for a nobody debut artist, lol! I had to pick them up from the airport when they came to Chicago. When I picked up Derrick, he had just released "Strings Of Life" & on the way to the studio he played me tracks for what would become his next EP "It Is What It Is". It was a blessing to have him do a mix on "To Be or Not To Be", being that I was so blatantly  trying to sound like him. When I picked up Kevin, I remember he had Blake Baxter with him. I was definitely in good company!

Your release, "Indulge" was picked up by early U.K. dance label Network, how did that relationship begin?

Again, that was through Terry. I'm guessing he had developed a relationship with Neil Rushton (Network, Kool Kat) through Kevin & Derrick, since he was pretty tight with them. So he ended up licensing the song to Network.

Your music was a prototype for what has become known as "tech-house", with many people aligning your sound more along the Detroit ethos than Chicago, was it your plan to create a hybrid sound that fit into both worlds?

I didn't have any grand designs, but I did consider them techno records, even though I was from the Chicago area. I was really impressionable back then, so I wanted to be like Derrick May & Larry Heard.

 Your releases are synonymous with the "Summer of Love" and the entire Acid House revolution in the U.K., with your songs hailed as legendary and have appeared in countless compilations and Top 25 lists. Did you ever think that your music would impact an entire generation of music lovers on a global scale?

Of course I had no idea. I wish I had the checks to reflect it, lol! I had no clue to what I was doing, so I didn't know anything about the business end, things such as publishing! But, I'm very thankful. I still have people contacting me from all over telling me about how they remember the music. Very humbling, because they didn't have to take the time to do that.

Did you have the chance to experience the UK Acid House Revolution first hand? What moments stand at the forefront of your memories from touring during the height of the madness?

I never got the chance to travel back then, so I never toured or anything. Terry & I were supposed to go to UK, but the trip fell through. I was heartbroken.

With the recent resurgence of interest in the classic sounds of Techno & House and the renaissance of the careers of artists such as Virgo Four; are there any plans to have your material remixed or re-edited by the current crop of dance music producers?

I know that Joey Negro did an the re-edit of "The Gathering" from the EP. I don't know of any others though. I welcome it all, lol!

During the '90's it seems that you backed away from the music business and fell out of the public eye, did you abandon the music industry 100% or did you maintain a presence?

I abandoned being an artist. I then had hooked up with Mike "Hitman" Wilson & worked with him on a variety of different projects, most notably Shawn Christopher "Another Sleepless Night" & "Don't Lose The Magic". A few years after that, I retreated from dance music altogether, moved back to my hometown of Rockford & opened up a studio out of my basement. Also at this time I started djing regularly, which I had never done before. It was a smooth transition because I had been around a lot djs, I knew how to mix & how to arrange & program music for a whole night. I wasn't playing house, but I could apply the same principles to hip-hop/r&b music.

I mentioned Virgo Four earlier, do you have any unreleased material laying around on reel to reel or cassette that you plan on releasing?

I might have a couple of  tracks laying around on cassette, but nothing that I would release. I have been getting the itch back to start making some music again. Just trying to find the right music making app right now!

What are your views on the dance music scene today, and what are some differences that you see from the '80's in comparison to the present?

I do think that it is over-saturated, but that is to be expected because of the technology today. I also think that there are too many sub-genres, label & categories. The volume of music coming out today is way greater that it was back in the day, so I know there's a lot of good music that gets lost & overlooked.

Which artists, if any, do you follow currently, and do you still dj?

Don't really follow any artists. I need to start getting more in tune to what's going on now. I know a lot of the older names, but I would like to find out about the things the younger guys are doing. I still dj, although I don't play much house as i would like & when I do, it's mostly old school stuff. If I hear something new that I like, I'll definitely go on Traxsource or wherever & purchase it.

Five tracks that never leave your box?

1. Lil Louis - Video Clash
2. Think Twice (Remix) - The Detroit Experiment
3. Shake Your Body - Jeanette "JT" Thomas
4. Ain't Gonna Bump No More - Joe Tex
5. Hey Hey - Dennis Ferrer (instant crowd pleaser, lol)

Italian Beef...wet or dry?

Wet, with cheese & hot peppers!

1 comment:

  1. Rockford is proud of this icon that was born and raised here. We love you and pray for your continued success!!!

    -Deuce Jibri