Larry Heard continues to
We live in a time where music, as Larry Heard attests, is like Niagara Falls. Successful navigation of this perpetual flood of new releases is something that Heard has felt compelled to grasp over the past few years.
“It’s humanly impossible for all of it to be consumed,” Heard says. “So many of us just go along taking in connected yet disconnected information and hearing a name or two making the headlines. But I am and always will be a supporter of the underdogs. You’ve got to root for your own team.”
As one of the innovators of house music, Heard’s team has accumulated considerable weight since his years spent studiously producing tracks in Chicago while the culture pulsed forward in clubs. Many of them, including Can You Feel It and Mystery of Love, would evolve into anthems. He may be iconic in the genre, but Heard has always remained self-effacing, bashfully shrugging off such accolades throughout our conversation. Despite his creative accomplishments over the past three decades under aliases including The Gherkin Jerks, The It, Fingers Inc. and most notably Mr. Fingers, Heard has remained resiliently private, opting for the confines of his studio space at his home in Memphis, Tennessee over the club circuit.
This is by no means a recent development. As the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy were cultivating classics at Chicago’s historical venues The Warehouse and Music Box in the late 70s and early 80s, Heard spent his time flitting from one instrument to the next, far removed from late night clubbing. “Maybe it was a cultural thing or maybe it was some rite of passage but everyone in my family either learnt how to play an instrument or some form of dance like ballroom,” he reflects. “With playing in bands and holding down a job, I didn’t really have the time to go to the clubs.”
Heard started out playing drums in a jazz-fusion covers act. Leaving the group after its restrictive nature stifled his experimentalism, he purchased a drum machine and synthesiser so that he could document his compositions. With this renewed focus, Heard began to produce tracks that would eventually prove seminal to the development of Chicago house. Three of his earliest tracks were Mystery of Love, Washing Machine, and Can You Feel It. Today, this trio of releases are eulogised by audiences and DJs alike. Yet, due to Heard’s initial indifference with Chicago’s club scene, he didn’t have the means to distribute them to popular resident DJs. Instead, Heard established his own label, Alleviated Records, in 1985, as a vehicle to get his recordings shared between radio personalities and ultimately broadcasted in the clubs.
Soon after establishing Alleviated, Heard’s popularity blossomed. Having made three acetates of a Mystery of Love instrumental (one for Frankie Knuckles, one for Ron Hardy, and one for himself), the Mr. Fingers brand began to germinate and Heard eventually found himself immersed in what he now regards as a community of likeminded producers, DJs and label heads. “The form had an audience that was visibly interested in homegrown things,” he says. “And that’s the important part because everybody felt closer to it – it’s a community thing. For Chicago, we could really say, ‘here’s something’. And that ‘something’ just grew.”
The lucrative business deals that followed with the likes of DJ International or Trax Records were an exercise in common sense for Heard, who used them as a springboard for his illustrious career. “When we got involved with the natural commerce line, which was already set in place by our predecessors of disco and early electro, we started to see a global effect. The next generation inherits the structure that is already in place. Where to go with it was up to us.”
Heard poses himself as the introverted composer; an exception to the hedonism of the genre he spawned. But his work is unavoidable. More recently, Mystery of Love was sampled by Kanye West on The Life of Pablo track Fade, something that Heard attributes to luck as he shrugs it off with a laconic sigh: “By the time the record finally came out, I had been inundated with so many versions, the magic of the moment was lost. I haven’t even heard it in its entirety yet.”
"I am and always will be a supporter of the underdogs. You've got to root for your own team"
At the age of 56, you could assume that Heard would opt to ignore the trend-centric demands of today’s music industry. Again, this couldn’t be further from the truth. His output remains unyielding. But, Heard admits, his relationship with DJing live has always been somewhat tumultuous. Having contracted hearing damage in 2012, he took a hiatus from performing. “Occupational hazard, right?” he jokes.
It was assumed by fans that his condition would mean his further output would be muted. However, four years later, Heard is as productive as ever. Not only has Alleviated reissued the commercially lauded Fingers Inc. debut Another Side, we have witnessed the return of Heard’s Mr. Fingers alias for the first time in over two decades. Why now? “Instead of going from airport to airport, country to country, club to club, I’m back in the studio,” he explains. “I’ve always expressed to people around me that I feel like that’s where my talents and abilities benefit. I like DJing, it’s great to get out, but after a while it can strip you of your duties in the studio.”
Regardless of Heard’s aversion to regular appearances, he is set to headline Croatia’s Dimensions festival. It will be the first time Heard has performed live as Mr. Fingers for fifteen years. When asked about the headline show, he’s as humble as ever. “How many performances can you even do to prepare you for something like this?” Yet, in a scene that changes rapidly for the dancers and industry heads alike, Larry Heard continues to shine. This could be attributed to his ongoing commitment to expand on Chicago house’s veritable heritage, or simply his ability to never lose sight of the end goal. “Clubbing has changed so vastly over the years, but I still want to entertain and be entertained while doing it,” Heard concludes. “I hope people see that. Otherwise everything will just get so boring.”
Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers appears at Dimensions festival, Pula, Croatia, 25 – 28 August