20 Questions With Todd Terry: Living Up to His Legendary Status & Why ‘Major Labels Put Out the Worst Dance Records Ever’
While house music was already popping when Todd Terry entered the scene in the late ’80s, the New York producer grabbed hold of the sound and evolved it — mixing house with breaks and hip-hop and forging an altogether grittier strain that became his signature.
This sound scored Terry a pair of No. 1’s on Dance Club Songs in the late ’90s while making him a fixture in New York clubland and points well beyond it. He, like many house producers of the day, found a particularly warm welcome in London, which in the ’90s joyfully embraced the genre that would take much of the States longer to figure out.
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Terry in fact helped put dance music on Top 40 radio in the U.S. via an England-born song, with his now-classic remix of Everything But The Girl‘s “Missing.” Terry’s edit added a beat and a New York club vibe to the previously spare track, becoming the de facto version of the song and helping push it to global ubiquity (and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100).
He’s been a constant on the scene since, dropping a steady drip of tracks, albums, compilations and remixes for the past 35 years — dropping 1,000 original productions and 1,600 remixes in total, many of them through his own InHouse Records, Freeze Records and Terminator Records.
Out today (March 24), Terry’s latest — “I Give You Love” — is a collaboration with Estonian DJ/producer Janika Tenn and U.S. vocalist Lee Wilson. The bright-as-sunlight song finds the trio bringing warmth, emotion and a classic house feel that will no doubt land in Terry’s upcoming spring and summer dates, with his name on lineups for five festivals in the U.K. and Belgium this season.
Here, Terry talks about his affection for the U.K. scene, “sometimes” selling out and how — in this post-EDM era — the scene has “come back to being real house music.”
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
I’m in Estonia now and kinda snowed in at the moment, but it’s all good, nice place here to eat and chill. Then I’m off to London next, then back to New York to see family and play a gig at the Silo club in Brooklyn.
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The first record I bought was James Brown‘s “Hot Butter Popcorn.” I couldn’t wait to bring it home and play it. The record player was in my sister’s room, so I had to wait till she left; it felt like it was forever, but it was fun to play it and dance around.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do or did they think of what you do for a living now?
My Mom would say, “Turn that music down.” I was like, “No, Ma, this is what’s gonna get us out of here.” My Mom didn’t realize that the record business was the way to go at the time. I wanted to do music for the love and for the business.
4. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
The first thing I brought was a car. A car is always the best way to listen to your music besides the club, of course! I did finally get some Cerwin Vega speakers as well with my first check.
5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance/electronic music, what would you give them?
Kraftwerk was my favorite LP. I learned so much from that album — how to arrange and how to make different sounds to make people notice your music, and that you do not have to be a great singer to make a cool song.
6. What’s the last song you listened to?
The last record I checked out was Stevie Wonder‘s Songs in the Key of Life. It’s a true classic, forever and ever. This reminds me that I still got a long way to make great music. I hope one day I’ll get a chance to make that record with a really big giant label or team — a company that really gets it. I would hate to sound like everything that’s out there. This is the bad part of the business.
7. The word “legend” is associated with your name. When do you feel most legendary?
I feel as though I have to live up to that name as strongly as possible. The word “legend” means a lot to me, to keep going no matter what. I love the respect, so I have to give it my all to live up to it.
8. When you were helping develop the sound of house music in New York, did you have a sense of how massive the genre would become?
I got the sound of house music from Chicago. I sampled Chicago to create my style. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I just wanted to sound like them. Later I learned that I had sampled Marshall Jefferson, Kevin Saunderson, Tyree Cooper and Adonis. I didn’t know anything about this style, and I was learning it as I went. To find out that it was blowing up in London really opened my eyes to do more. Then it was everywhere in the world. Wow.
9. With house music now a global phenomenon and commercial force, what’s your take on the current scene?
It’s good that it came back to being real house music. I think EDM took us away from its soul on the dancefloor, but I still think we need more songs that represent the old-school feeling that got us here, like Ten City’s “That’s The Way Love Is,” Crystal Waters‘ “Gypsy Woman” and Lil Louis’ “Club Lonely,” these type songs are just the icing.
10. What’s the best city in the world for dance music currently?
London is the best city for me. The crowd always seems open to new sounds and funky music as well. I always have to break my new music on the dancefloor there. People dancing is the power to keep you going, and they definitely gave me the power to keep going in my career. House music forever is what we need in life. Thanks to London.
11. Do you have guilty pleasure music?
Old school funk is what I really like — such as James Brown, Quincy Jones, Gap Band, Funkadelic, and Chaka Khan. When rap music came out, that made it the next level for me: Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Nas.
12. Your latest release samples Steve Miller Band‘s “Fly Like an Eagle.” What was the appeal of working with this song, 47 years after its release?
This was a song I always wanted to rock. The infusion of warped sounds in the original made it interesting to me. I love weird s–t that makes you dance, so this is a track I always wanted to do a new version of in my style. Like what I did with reworking “Keep on Jumpin‘.”
13. Are there rising artists that you’re finding particularly exciting right now?
Janika Tenn, Majestic, DJ Kash. These emerging DJ/producer/artists are coming up with new styles for house music, dance and Afrobeats. They are the reason why I keep going. Sometimes you need a new vibe to inspire you to take a different look at things.
14. The most exciting thing happening in dance music currently is _____?
That the feel of the dancefloor is back. People are having a good time and not just standing around waiting for a drum roll to get hyped. We need to keep it feeling good.
15. The most annoying thing happening in dance music currently is _____?
That the major labels put out the worst dance records ever. I find myself selling out to them as well. I’m trying to stop taking the money to please them and please myself instead.
16. The biggest difference between making music in the ’80s and making music now is ____?
Computers! I think we are less creative because of them. We gotta bring our souls back to the table and add some live musicians.
17. The proudest moment of your career thus far?
That I don’t need to shop my music to other labels. I can do what I want and put out my music myself and [the music of] some other people I like on my own labels InHouse Records, Freeze Records, and Terminator Records.
18. What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
Getting rid of Zomba as my music publisher. They held me back at the beginning of my career. You gotta watch these people putting money in your face and not caring about you and your music.
19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My mentors, in the beginning, were Mark Finkelstein of Strictly Rhythm and my attorney Christopher Whent. They taught me to get my business right first. It’s hard to do sometimes; you just want to get your music out. You gotta take a step back and listen and get the business right first.
20. One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
To take my time. It’s not always good to rush, especially when it comes to the business side. I could have made a bunch more money if I got that right, but there is still time to make the money back. All those bastards that robbed me are dead, ha!
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