Few artists can compare their careers to the longstanding legacy of Todd Terry. Growing up in Brooklyn, the Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer moved to house music in the 1980s after he was unable to get a break in hip hop. His unorthodox production techniques and rough approach brought with them a unique style of dance music, and he soon found himself releasing groundbreaking classics like ‘Can You Party’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ under various monikers and labels.
Being at the forefront of New York’s underground scene Terry went on to dominate Europe, gaining a high-profile residency at Ministry Of Sound, all whilst remixing the likes of George Michael and Björk. Today his career stands over four decades, playing around seventy shows yearly and continuing to educate the new school. We caught up with ‘Todd the God’ to discuss his musical beginnings, the differences between the New York and Chicago sound, and the importance of keeping it real.
You can catch Todd in action at Moondance Festival in London alongside A Guy Called Gerald, Marshall Jefferson and more on Sunday 18 September.
So you grew up in Brooklyn, what kind of music was driving the area at that point and what were you first drawn towards?
My first introduction to music was when the tail-end of the funk era was going into disco, so I had a mixture of James Brown, Quincy Jones, Ohio Players, all that stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s, that was it for me. I heard those beats and rhythm sections and really couldn’t understand how they were making the music – I was really intrigued by it. So that was what really turned me on to music, how is it done? How are they making those sounds so funky?
Were you DJing from a young age?
I was more of a listener at first because my friend used to do bazaars, which were like block parties in my neighbourhood. I’d just stand there listening and would want to buy all the records that they were playing. I was 14 at the time and would save my money and go and buy all the vinyl at Church Avenue and Coney Island and all the record shops. Once I started collecting I got the interest in DJing, because now I had, like, 13 records I could DJ with [laughs]. That’s how it was back in the day, you’d play a track right till the end and move on to the next one, it was a little different.
After that period, my friends started doing breakbeat stuff. Breakbeat came out with hip hop and I was totally into that whole movement. They were scratching records back and forth. One of my friends, Larry D, had the equipment and I used to go to his house and scratch records for hours, I’d miss school just so I could cut up tracks.
What were clubs like in New York at that time? Were they segregated in terms of what music they played or was there an openness to different genres?
Back in the day the club was more of an open format. One of the first clubs I went to was The World. They’d play hip hop, club music, rock. That’s what you had to do as a DJ back in the day. If you played six hours you played everything, the emphasis was on fun and you got a really broad selection of music. I learned everything from listening to the stuff in the clubs and then going home and trying to mimic what I heard.
We’d also go to Roseland in Manhattan which was a big deal. We had fake IDs to get in and would drink in the car park because we couldn’t afford the club drinks. We’d go and buy Brass Monkey and Night Train, all that old stuff, we were really ghetto with it.
Then there was the [Paradise] Garage. The first time we went there they wouldn’t even let us in so we came back a few times with better fake IDs and what not. The Garage was the real deal. Larry Levan was a resident and it opened us up to the real club music at the time, which was like, borderline house and disco.
When did you discover freestyle music?
Freestyle was more, for me, just after the Garage. As that movement developed I learned about it and started making freestyle music. The first records I put out were two hip hop tracks and two freestyle tracks. I was involved in anything and everything I could get my hands on at that point.
Would you say freestyle music was a natural bridge for you from hip hop to house music?
Well, freestyle was more like Kraftwerk-type beats and vocals. They were cheesy songs over hard beats and that was perfect for me. I always loved that aspect of a song and I always loved the power of beats so that’s why I liked freestyle music, I was able to do whatever I wanted. I grew up with Shannon – ‘Let The Music play’, Freeez – ‘I.O.U.’, ‘Planet Rock’. You could do what you wanted to so long as you had those sounds that appealed to people – the high-pitched synthesisers and open bass lines.
What type of equipment were you using to make music at that point?
My first pieces of equipment were a Yamaha 800 amp and a DR-55 Roland drum machine, which was really horrible to program but I learnt how to do it, and that’s how I was making beats at first. I used to throw those beats on and play the keyboard to them when I’d DJ, and everybody was really intrigued by that. The keyboard I had was a Casio RZ-1.
Had you moved away from hip hop by then?
Well, I did a bunch of hip hop records with my friends but we couldn’t get a record deal. Every time we tried we were told we were too much like Run-D.M.C., or that it didn’t sound like Public Enemy, all the labels just wanted a certain sound. I did beats with my friends and carried on trying to do it but when I did a freestyle and club record, I got a deal straight away.
Then I got into the house shit and I had ten record deals within four months, I was a beast at one point and just knew how to get a deal and keep on moving. I bought my first car in cash two months after I had record deals. The movement was there so I want to say that I became really powerful in one year throughout the whole scene. I took advantage of it, the more power I got the more shit I did.
Do you think the production techniques of drum machines and sampling that you used helped separate you from the pack and give you a unique sound in the house world?
Yeah, I think my background of funk and breakbeat type stuff meant I was able to king that situation because nobody was thinking about breakbeats over house. I always wanted to have a break in the record, that was my big deal. I came from music that had those breaks in, as far as James Brown and hip hop loops and samples, that was my whole way in, to mix those two together and take advantage of that.
Is it true that you sampled tracks from a mix cassette that had the likes of Marshall Jefferson and Kevin Saunderson on for some of your first releases as Royal House and the Todd Terry Project?
Well, that was the time when we were starting to go to the Garage, and my friend Tracks brought this cassette to me like, “Yo listen to this, this is that house music everybody is on right now you gotta do something like this”. I was already doing freestyle and hip hop and he played me that cassette with all the Chicago cats on it. I thought, “Yeah it’s alright but it sounds likes the same beat over and over again”. He wanted me to do a bunch of beats so we could listen to them in the car, so I did about four records in three days and it just so happens they were ‘Party People’ and ‘Day In The Life’. I just went crazy and came up with all this house shit.
I didn’t know who I was sampling at the time but my idea was always to manipulate what I was cutting and make it into my own. I really feel I did that with ‘Can You Party’, ‘Party People’, ‘Bango’ and all those records. I gave them a whole new outlook. Then from then on I went to some labels and next thing you know, record deals all over the place. I had two waves of success with the house and freestyle thing going at the same time so I kept on going with it and it got better and better.
And you began to release music as different aliases and projects…
I started getting signed into so many record deals that I had to make all these different names and aliases, so that’s why I had Black Riot, Swan Lake and Orange Lemon. I had to change names to make the contracts work. I couldn’t use Todd Terry on every record but I could use Black Riot or Swan Lake produced by Todd Terry, so I found a loop hole in the system. All the lawyers would be trying to get at me saying I couldn’t be on all these labels at once, but I read the contracts myself and took out paragraphs to show them that I could.
Did you find releasing as different projects over your career allowed you more freedom as an artist to explore different musical areas?
Yeah, I mean I’ve always looked at it like I’m a DJ, and I want to be able to play everything so I want to find loopholes to do that. I always try to teach people that if you got the talent to try something else, then do it. I think a lot of house guys get loopholed into thinking that they can only do house and that they’re not allowed to do anything else. I’ve broken those barriers because I’ve done hip hop albums, freestyle albums, a drum and bass album. You listen to Michael Jackson, he did rock, funk, soul, ballads. So as an artist myself, why can’t I get a piece of everything?
On the topic of breaking patterns and crossing over, ‘I’ll House U’ by the Jungle Brothers was obviously a massive hit and one of the first to merge hip hop and house, what was the initial reaction from the different scenes to that record?
That particular record solidified that we can have fun and it could be rap music and house music together. At a certain point I think hip hop guys thought that anything that was like house was very gay or whatever, but after that Jungle Brothers wave everybody came together. That was a big gap to close for New York.
Were the house scenes of the US segregated then too? As a representative of New York house did you feel the city was pushing its own movement?
Well, the Chicago guys hated me at first because I sampled them. I was more like the gangsta b-boy edit of house. At a certain point I guess I was showing I don’t give a fuck and you can’t mess with me. I was young and felt like I had all this power, so I had a cocky attitude towards anything and everything. As it got later on and I started to meet different people and learn more, I began to look at it all in a different way.
New York was tight. I schooled everybody from Louie [Vega] and Kenny [Dope], to Roger [Sanchez], to anybody in the New York camp. I was at the top of my game so a lot of people came to me for advice or to do records together. I introduced Kenny to Louie which was the main thing, and was always close with Roger and David [Morales]. David was a year ahead of me in certain stuff when it came to dance music so we learned a lot from each other. Then Frankie Knuckles came to New York from Chicago and he was crazy into us, we all got along. As I started to meet more Chicago cats we saw a lot in each other. We were the rebellious type that wanted to rock shit, we didn’t want to just sit back. In less than two years I was friends with everybody, it started out like it was going to be a little war and then all of a sudden it was all love and we all started working with each other.
As one of the first to crossover to mainstream and chart success from dance music, how did your peers around you view the transition? Were there ever purists that feared house music being popularised globally?
You always got those guys that tell you to keep it real, and I think that’s bullshit. It’s not about keeping it real, it’s about doing what you do and having fun with it. You can’t keep it real in this business, it’s kind of impossible. How are you going to do it and make money? Sooner or later you’re going to have something that’s a popular record and something that’s little bit out of the box that you can make millions of dollars with so you can keep on going. I don’t believe in what a lot of people say, I understand genres and that you need to keep some boundaries, but most of the time I’m just going to do what I want.
You also became one of the few DJs that were able to play purely their own music throughout their DJ sets.
I wanted to turn my performances into more of a DJ show, so how I would do that would be to play all new stuff, stuff I was working on, dubs, remixes, exclusives. When Ministry Of Sound happened I wanted to make a statement that I could play two to three hours of my own music and it would really work on the dancefloor. I still use this method today because no other DJ is going to play a whole set of my own music like I do, because it’s not them. You get a wide open thing when you hear me play because no one is going to have all of my records or play them my way. Sometimes it got taken like I was arrogant for playing all my own music, but it’s not an ego thing, I just want to give the crowd something different when I show up.
You’re still very active as a DJ. With such high regard in the scene that you represent do you feel it’s your duty to show the younger generations that are coming in the history of it all?
I play a lot of the same shit and the reason why I do that is because I like to beat it in the head that this is where it really came from. ‘Good Life’, ‘Jumpin’, ‘Samba’, Marshall Jefferson, this is where it all came from. I mix all that stuff in with the new stuff to show that this is why these new guys like Low Steppa are all here today. I have to give it the best of both worlds and give people a collage of what it’s all about. Let’s say someone doesn’t know anything about house music and they show up at my gig, they don’t know if that’s 20 years old or it came out yesterday.
Throughout your career you’ve taken on many versatile projects, you produced a drum and bass album as well as a trap album in more recent years. Do you feel you’ve done as much as you can for house music in terms of your discography?
I love the house scene, I just like doing different shit every now and then. I kind of do it as a joke against myself by doing a rap album or a full Latin album with a live band, to try anything. In my legacy I just want to be able to say that I did it all and that I didn’t lose any respect from it. That’s the key, if you’re going to do other genres then do it at least half good so that it doesn’t suck. It’s for my peers and fans too. I got new fans from doing some trap shit that you wouldn’t believe. I had an extra 900 people to my show from nowhere and now they’re onto house music. You never know in this game, you just have fun with it and keep it moving, it’s not like I hurt my house career by doing these projects. I mean, you’ve always got those haters that will say, “Yeah he’s trying to do this now, that shit sucks” or whatever, but that’s the most broke motherfucker ever, he ain’t got shit, he ain’t got what I’ve got. I hate to come out and start bragging but sometimes you have to shut those people down.
How do you prefer the industry today to your prime? With record sales almost non-existent these days is your focus less on releasing new music?
Now, you make the records and give them away and it gets you the gigs. It’s just a different way of looking at it, records are now a promotional thing. I don’t look to make money off them. If you want to buy it, you buy it, if you want to steal it, you can steal it, I don’t really care anymore.
And you’re still pushing a lot of music through your labels?
Yeah, InHouse is doing really well, we opened up Freeze again and now that’s doing better than InHouse which we didn’t see coming. We’re taking the old school records and having them remixed by the new guys. We’ve also got Terminator Records, which is techno. I’m not making the music but I’m picking the stuff we like and am out there talking to the kids that are making shit I don’t understand but I know is hot. Then I’ve got SoundDesign Records, which is more for the stuff that I can’t put on my other labels. It could be freestyle, a Madonna record, a Michael Jackson record, it’s going to be the “who gives a fuck” label. If I’m feeling something and a young cat needs some support to promote it then that’s what we’re going to do.
Do you think you’ll ever throw in the towel?
Every year I tell myself I’m going to slow down and then I get another 75 gigs. It’s hard to slow down, it’s hard to not accept money. With this world you might as well grab everything that you can get so that’s what I’m really trying to do. I don’t know how I’d throw in the towel. Me, Kenny, Roland Clark, Alexander Technique and Sneak were all talking about this the other day, like how do we close this chapter? We love music, music is our life, there’s no way to really close it. We could stop doing so many gigs in the summers or we could stay home and do music but no matter what, you’re still going to be involved. This is your blood. You function in life because of music, you breathe music. So it is what it is, I guess I’m here till the end!
Todd Terry plays Moondance Festival on September 18 at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Tickets available here.
Words: Callum Wright