DJ Funk is one of the originators of Chicago’s ghetto house sound. The man himself graced Crack with a super-rare interview.
Every few years, Chicago comes back with a vengeance.
From the cheaply-pressed experiments of the mid and late ’80s that defined house music, via the likes of Green Velvet’s Relief Records responsible for updating the genre a few years later, to today’s crop of juke / footwork producers who have bent the template into something new and strange, the city’s influence never sleeps for long.
Charles Chambers, a.k.a DJ Funk, has been something of a cult figure for much of that time. Part of a wave of producers emerging from Chicago’s South and West sides in the early ’90s, Funk, along with names such as Waxmaster, DJ Deeon and DJ Slugo, helped create the sound that came to be known as ghetto or booty house.
Ghetto house stripped minimal jack-tracks even further back to ultra-sparse rhythms and keyboard lines and pushed up the BPMs to 140 and beyond. It also added graphic, Miami bass-influenced raps and call-and-response chants, and a structure based around bass, toms and claps that has evolved into the sounds being created by footwork producers such as DJ Spinn, DJ Nate and DJ Roc – showcased over here on Planet Mu’s Bangs And Works compilation from earlier this year.
Funk’s own style has stayed resolutely raw, basic and filthy, with his tracks making regular appearances on some seminal mix albums over the past two decades, from Jeff Mills’ 1996 Live at the Liquid Room to Jackmaster’s recent Fabriclive 57. Successive generations of voguish artists have been influenced by him, with Daft Punk name-checking him on Teachers, Justice seeking his services to remix Let There Be Light, and Herve teaming up with him on Bounce That Ass.
Yet in many ways Funk, away from his sporadic appearances in UK clubs, has remained elusive. Look for him on the internet and, away from a MySpace page and YouTube clips put up by fans, there’s not much there. And while Dance Mania, the label he mostly releases on (and took over in 2005), has put out a limited number of digital reissues, much of the back catalogue is hard to come by.
So it was with massive excitement that Crack caught up with DJ Funk after his recent Bristol date at Timbuk2…
You’ve been pushing your sound for over 15 years now – what do you think has kept it in demand so long?
Not giving up, doing my thing. One thing I got mad at a lot of artists for is that they would make a genre or sound, and then they wouldn’t do it no more, they went super pop and sold their souls to the devil. I think that you need to keep doing whatever you are doing. Even if I wanted to do different styles of music, pop, reggae, house – or fuck it…opera, at least I’m gonna do a ghetto opera!
How have things changed in Chicago since you started to release records in the early ’90s?
Technology – people can afford equipment. The first house guys worked in studios that cost hundreds of thousands. Then it went to equipment costing thousands. Now you can get a program for free. The good thing about this is it lets some of the guys who are now prominent, but who were really poor, make music. I mean don’t get me wrong, I started out super poor and saved up all my motherfucking money – but now it’s just [clicks fingers] means the competition is there.
In terms of how the styles have shifted, a lot of people in the UK are getting into stuff by younger Chicago producers – even though no-one here can really dance to it! What do you make of the juke and footwork sound?
I think it’s beautiful. When I came up, the BPM was maybe 120 to 130, and ‘national’ BPM was like 128. You can keep a motherfucker on the floor all night at 128. With the ghetto stuff we set the BPM to 140, even though I fucked up a bit and sometimes set it to 150 laughs. With these guys they’re pushing it up to 160, and faster – so they can mix it with rap music and hip-hop, which is good. And I feel kind of honoured that the shit I been doing has inspired some other shit.
And what about the scene in the city – I know there’s sometimes a perception of there being just one ghetto house sound, whereas different styles came out of different neighbourhoods. Is there more of a single scene now?
I can’t really see it like that – it’s just about whoever’s making music. These guys are making more of the newer jukey style, but obviously there’s been a major bounce off from ghetto house styles, and another bounce-off from the likes of Lil Louis, the Hot Mix 5, and the guys who made the Trax records. And it just got mixed up, it got faster, and that’s what those guys are feeling.
You played some more recent stuff out tonight – are you still planning to continue producing yourself?
Tonight? You see the titties in my face?! I’m not trying to be a super-producer, but what I do is just make stuff that’s relevant to my life. If you try to be super-pop, make a super-pop record, it kind of fucks you up a little bit. I like to be at the show playing music that I’d actually like to be dancing to myself, the shit that’s gonna make me happy. Then hopefully it’ll make everybody else happy – and I’ll get some titties in my face!
What about Dance Mania – what’s the state of play with that now?
I own the company, but it’s really hard right now. I’ve bought up a lot of music, but I really want to put out Booty House Anthems 3 and piggyback other stuff off that. When I come out with that, there’ll probably be like 3-400 new songs on Dance Mania you can download. If you put out your pop record, even your techno record, it might have like hundreds of thousands [of dollars] behind it. But if you put out a ghetto house song, which might be a minute, two or three, it doesn’t have the same effect without all that money behind it. So you can put out all the tracks you want – they might all be ghetto hits – but unless you put out a full album there’s not so much point.
And have you any plans to reissue any more of the older Dance Mania tracks? A lot of people are into that stuff but it’s not always been easy to get hold of.
Well, I’m still in touch with the original owner, Ray Barney, and we’re working on some stuff right now. But it’s got to be mastered up, it’s got to be right, you feel me.
Yeah, it’s strange though, because a lot of your old tunes – Work That Body, Pump It, Run, Pussy Ride – have cropped up on loads of mix albums. You’re an influential guy, but if you go on the internet there’s hardly anything – I’m talking interviews, music – out there apart from on YouTube.
Well a lot of artists are like this with the internet [bends over and makes to hold arse cheeks open]. They’re all over it, all over Facebook, they’re like “interview me, interview me”. I don’t like that. You go on YouTube and everything of mine that’s been put on there has been put there by fans. That’s enough for me.
So what are your favourite all-time tracks for the club? Obviously you got through loads tonight, but if you only had a few, what would they be?
I don’t really judge my tunes – I made Booty House Anthems 1, 2 and 3 and I produced most of the stuff on the last one. I go around, and I see what DJs and fans really like – so I kind of let them choose the music.
And what do they like?
Pushing titties in my face! But no, I made all these tunes a few years ago, and I’ll be trying to work and make songs, but you can’t just come up with anthems. So I do the same shit as an old rock n’ roll group, what they do is they go around and gig songs, and people pick out some of them as their new anthems.
So has there been as much booty in your life as there is on those anthems? Is that how you stay so skinny?
There’s been way more than you can ever imagine! (laughs) Not to brag on it, but…yeah, lots of booze, lots of beautiful people – I’m an older cat now, but all of that keeps me young.
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Words: Alex Turner
Illustration: James Wilson