Chicago legend Tyree Cooper on house music’s heritage

Tyree Cooper, the producer. An appropriately half rhyming moniker for one of the most important artists to emerge from Chicago’s fertile creative landscape. The description not only outlines his prowess in the studio, but serves as a fitting tribute to his ability to blend genres with the kind of alchemy reserved for music history’s most notable moments. Rising through the ranks of Chi-Town’s  house scene during a golden era for the city, it would be Tyree’s hip hop speckled strain of the popular new sound emanating from his part of the world that would go on to take the American and later European underground by storm, combining the best elements of both styles for a sound that was as fun as it was revolutionary.

Now in the third decade of his career as a DJ and producer, the South Side selector wastes no time in getting down to business when I call him up at his current base of Berlin to find out his thoughts and feelings on why hip house never entered the mainstream consciousness in the way its influences did.

“It was a racial thing, you know, there ain’t no need to pretend that it’s anything else. We all know… “ he begins down a crackly phone line, “we simply weren’t willing to be exploited like other scenes were and the establishment couldn’t have a free thinking continuous party happening in the areas it was happening. It was scary for them as they couldn’t understand it. Hip hop, the dances, the clothes etc. they could get a handle on what was going down a lot better, whereas with house, unless you were living it then you probably didn’t know what the fuck was happening and they didn’t care to find out.”

Having explained that he believes that the powers that be within the music industry stopped hip-house reaching its full potential for what were largely racially motivated reasons, I asked how he feels about current attitudes towards house and its heritage within the black and LGBT communities of America. A lot has changed since, but are the iPhone generation aware of the genre’s storied history within marginalised groups? Tyree says on the whole, no.

“America is still fighting against electronic music,” Tyree asserts. “It’s still only willing to jump on watered down versions of popped up shit like Calvin Harris – now I ain’t got nothing against the dude but the kind of thing he’s doing? Please. But he’s getting mad love for what he’s doing because his face fits. He can make pop music – cool – but to present it as if it’s anything like what I’m doing? Get the fuck out of here, man.  Now it ain’t his fault that the powers that be – and I don’t want to start talking about conspiracies – won’t support what I believe is real house or real techno, but it doesn’t make it any less of an issue. They want to use what we built without paying the dues. I mean, even now in the US, you can’t play “black music” on a “white” station.

“Then you got guys like Disclosure – and again I ain’t got nothing against them, I like what they do –but as soon two young white guys start making what is black music then suddenly those tracks can get played on the radio. It’s crazy.”

So where does the problem lie in 2017? Why are black American artists perhaps not being pushed in the same way as their white European counterparts and what can we do to encourage diversity within the scene?

“Well that’s the difficult thing”, laments Tyree. “As this isn’t just an issue with chart music, it runs through to what people call the underground these days, too.”

“I don’t want to sound like some old Jack Lemon grumpy motherfucker but you know what’s right is right. House is house and it’s a beautiful thing and whilst people have got love in their heart for the music, then I’ve got love for them. But we gotta discuss these things. We can’t pretend they ain’t happening as nothing gonna change until we start acknowledging the way things are.”

Having got plenty off of his chest, I ask Tyree how he feels to be on the Feelings Chicago-themed bank holiday line up in London. Does he feel ready to give those who might be hugely familiar with the sounds of his native city an education?

“For sure,” he responds. “But I got plenty of new shit too. I’ve got a lot of love for the young cats doing their thing, who be paying their dues and working to get it in. You know the people who recognise that DJing is a culture, that don’t wanna be no fly by night social media hype, they want to do something they can be proud of that will stand up in ten years as much as it does now.”

“See, it’s the little parties that let you really get it in, not the big ones. People forget that. It’s the events that you don’t get paid on that build you, where the guy runs off with the money but the party was bumping and your rep was being built.  That’s why this line up I’m on, I know every cat on there is on this for the right reasons, they’ve paid their dues, they’ve been in it for the long haul. They’ve struggled and worked themselves to the bone to make this scene what it is today and that’s what I want to support and set an example from. This is house and this is love so all are welcome if you enter with good intentions.”

And what about Tyree’s intentions for the future? What can we expect one of the game’s original figures to cook up in his lab this year?

“I got loads of shit ready to go, some from back in the day, some hot off the press”, laughs Tyree. “I’ve got a cut I recorded in 1986 which I’m going to finally release. I’ve got a backlog of hip house cuts that I need to push out. I’ve got a load of collaborations that I’m expecting big reactions from. I’m hoping for a big summer and an even bigger winter!”

Tyree Cooper plays London’s Village Underground alongside Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Glenn Underground and Virgo Four Saturday May 27th. Buy your ticket here.

Image: Marie-Staggat

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