Chez Damier – Life of a revolutionary

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Most interviews with Chez Damier are about the past – about Prescription and Balance Records; about The Music Institute in Detroit; about KMS and the Belleville Three and Chez’s role, seemingly everywhere that electronic music was being made when it was first being created…

This interview with Chez Damier is not about the past. It’s about history that’s being made today – and the anti-star named Chez Damier who is making it.

In a career spanning four decades, Chez’s been a musical revolutionary – his tracks from the 1990s were so far ahead of their time that the great masses have only now begun to catch up.

But more than that, Chez’s a different kind of radical – an advocate of the revolutionary notion that even in the music industry, a life is still judged by what you’ve given back, not by what you’ve taken.

This is a hype-driven business in which many of his peers toil largely for their own glorification. But you can still find Chez giving up the spotlight to his “students” – the younger producers who to Chez Damier represent the future of House Music.

If you know me, I’m not a “self-proclaimed” anything. I’m not a god, so please don’t put me up on a pedestal. I’m influenced by a number of the younger producers as well.

You’re a monthly resident at Boom Boom Room now. It’s been awhile since you’ve had one here – actually, what was your last residency?
This is the first residency ever! Not just in Chicago but anywhere. I spent my first period in Chicago, and then after high school I moved to East Lansing, Michigan. That was actually where I first saw “The Wizard,” Jeff Mills. Then it was to Detroit where I met Derrick [May], Kevin [Saunderson] and Juan [Atkins]. Then I moved to New York, then to Paris, and then back here where Ron and I started working together, ran Prescription out of the Cajual office and then moved downstairs. In that time I was always on the road. It was only recently that I realized how important a residency is.

I’m still always on the road. In the last two years, I’ve never worked this much. I’m thankful. I went 13 years without playing in this House or underground music playground and for the last two years I’ve really been embraced. I’m floored by the reception. I’m more excited than ever and this time I see a purpose in it, which I think I didn’t see before.

I see a lot of releases under the label “Balance Alliance”, but your own productions appear on Mojuba. What’s Mojuba and why the split?
It’s actually a subdivision of G.O.D. Records which you may have heard of. After I split with Ron [Trent], I didn’t want to re-start Balance as a self-proclaimed label with just my own releases. That was never the intention of Prescription when we started it, to make it a “C’N’R imprint” with just our own material.

That’s pretty much a rarity of these times – for an accomplished artist to have a label without thoroughly populating its catalog with his or her own releases. You’re a man out of time.
Yes, I’m a time traveler! With Mojuba Records, I wanted to find someone who had energy, someone I could feel inspired by. I always looked at myself as finding underdogs of the art and Thomas Wendell, who runs Mojuba from Berlin, is very knowledgeable in music and we’ve become good friends. It’s a perfect match. He can handle “Chez Damier” as an artist, and that frees me to run Balance Alliance as a vehicle for other producers and artists.

With Balance Alliance, I was inspired, actually, when I was traveling a lot and seeing all of the airlines merging together. I added the word “alliance” to it, to form “Balance Alliance”. This is my label where I can work with the new generation, developing good producers to do their best. With all of the labels I work with, I’m trying to develop them. They’re young and inspired and are already putting good products out. But I want to use my brand and what “Chez Damier” means to be a highway to them.

I know that some people from Detroit, some people from Chicago didn’t understand why I made this decision to release things with a label in Europe. There’s a “Chicago mentality”: it’s a proud and unspoken arrogance. I should say it’s mostly among the older producers – I haven’t met as many of the younger ones. They have a kind of hidden arrogance that it’s done the best way in the world here – and not just the best way but the ONLY way. But this music is a house with many rooms now.

It’s interesting to me to see that purist attitude in Chicago, especially with a style of music that has been more popular in the past than it is now, and in a city that’s had such a huge outflow of talent going abroad.
You see a lot of that dynamic both cross-culturally and musically, both in what’s said and not said. It’s very unfortunate that it appears in music at all because this is my spiritual belief: this is the only form of freedom that we have. We fought for freedom of speech but look at how that can be taken away. All art but music especially can say so much.

It’s unfortunate that people put shields around it. It takes away from the intent, the ability to say who you are, who you think you are. It’s important to know the source of things but all of the places I go, I hear “This is Techno” or “This is House” or all of these sublanguages. When I was growing up, there was more of a fusion – of punk, new wave, House, Euro, pop. It was such a combination. Radio was able to lead to a lot of interesting directions.

Chicago is the hardest city to play in, maybe outside of New York. It’s a classics city and everyone knows that. And then there’s the old school, who don’t necessarily know everything but do recognize quality, and the new school. It really depends on what circuit you’re on.

With the sub-genres, it’s strange because this is the only case I can think of where marketing – and that’s all this is – is actually dividing people.
I don’t like to point the finger but I think this was the fault of my British brothers. It was an essential place and when they were importing this music, they felt the need to clarify and name it. Now we’re flooded with titles. After the rave generation hit, there were all these new categories. After Drum’n’Bass hit, there were now sub-categories: Garage, Speed Garage, Trance… It confused me.

And then we have a lot of people who are content to stand on the side, like when Minimal was huge. Ron Trent and I did “Morning Factory” which was as “minimal” as you can get. What Minimal was giving the people and what made it so prominent was the energy. When you look at it like that, rather than disparaging it, you suddenly understand why it was so prominent. And it makes people uncomfortable that this music was giving them something they were lacking.

Do you think, with all of this in mind, that there can be a “hit record” now?
How can there be? There’s just so much music! I had an email account dedicated just for promos but somehow it started spilling over into my personal account too. Now I’ll be getting ready for a new show and I’ll sit down and get a headache. After four hours I might have found four tracks I like and might play. I don’t bother anymore. Now, when I select music, it’s like being broke but needing a new outfit: you just step into the closet and get creative…

We need to make new classics. Not play – make. Much of this comes down to what school you come from as a DJ too. When I play a show, some things stay in my show for many months. That’s how I try to make them classics. Some people from a different school insist on only playing the newest material – they’re looking for that “wow factor”. But if you’re not making new classics, then who is?

Think about when you were young: the old classics were once new songs that were branded into you when you where that age. But now we find it hard to find stuff that lasts in anyone’s show for more than a year.

With that in mind, how do you feel about the Deep House revival in Europe? In my view, a new appreciation for your work from the ’90s on Prescription with Ron Trent is really at the heart of it.
I think it’s wonderful. It’s just the same as when we were inspired by Disco. It showed in our music. People are inspired right now by our music and I’ve totally embraced it. That doesn’t mean I want to go back and make the same things over and over again. We need to do something else and I’m in a different place spiritually. Ron called me and wanted to work on new stuff maybe a year ago, but it was the same: it wasn’t exciting. Our relationship didn’t have the necessary ingredients to do it and that’s why I kept putting it off and avoiding sessions we had booked.

But I’m greatly encouraged by this. I don’t want to set myself up as a “father” of anything – that kind of thing is funny to me. I understand the respect but I don’t want to be pegged as “legendary” this or “legendary” that. People can put whatever names they want on you but you have to stay true to what you believe.

If you know me, I’m not a “self-proclaimed” anything. I’m not a god, so please don’t put me up on a pedestal. I’m influenced by a number of the younger producers as well.

You quit making music and I think left the industry for a number of years. What led you to this?
This is what happened and made me stop. A label brought me over to Paris and there were seven magazines there to interview me. I gave the interviews and when I saw them published… every word I said was taken out of context and ran completely counter to my intent. My words were totally manipulated to fit what the writer wanted to say. I just thought, I don’t want to be in this business if it means I have to give up what I believe in in order to look good.

If they make you, they’ll break you. I’ve always been rooted in not believing the hype. I think you should believe in yourself but if I tell you every day you’re something, you’ll believe it. If it’s positive, if it’s negative… Suddenly it’s lights, camera, action and that’s who you are. If they make you, they can break you. I wanted to be Chez forever.

I’d like to challenge you to ask this question to some of the older generation when you interview them: How do you keep this thing alive without putting something back into it?

How important is it to you to work with the next generation like this?
This is my university. I don’t have many students here [in Chicago] so I have them scattered around the world, in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France.. When I call them “students”, I really mean “mentorship”. Apart from my own personal work with Balance Alliance, this is where I invest my time.

Some of them are Ricardo Sole (Demo Records, Romania), Samann/Salvatore Policastrese (Italy), Jef K (Silver Network, Paris), Brawther (Courtesy of Balance Records, Paris), Demetrio Giannice (Enterbt Records, Zurich), Michael Zucker (Revival Records, Florida), Kai Alce (NDATL, Atlanta), Yossi Amoyal (Sushitech, Berlin).

like to challenge you to ask this question to some of the older generation when you interview them: How do you keep this thing alive without putting something back into it?

I challenge my brothers from Chicago and Detroit: who have you helped develop? What are you giving back? A lot of people are afraid to do this because their heads have been filled with stories of how great they are, or they’re afraid of someone younger taking their place.

When Silver or Freerange ask me for a remix for a young, inspired producer, I love to be given that opportunity and I’m so thankful to form an alliance with them. I don’t try to come off as the established guy and treat everybody as nobodies. You know what? I love nobodies! Nobodies are greatness!

Okay, you’ve told me who your teachers are, but who are your students? It’s just as important to reach forward as it is to reach back


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