Making House Music at
Seagrape Studios, Chicago 1983-1994
© Mike Konopka 2017



HOUSE CONSTRUCTION AT THE FIRST SEAGRAPE

In its heyday, Chicago house dance music, with its raw grooves, locked at a steady tempo of 120 beats per minute, had dance floors, record buyers, and radio outlets worldwide thumping to its clarion call. I know, because I was there making the music. And I can point to two people in my audio past that unknowingly tilted my audio engineering skills toward the new musical direction that resulted in Chicago’s house music scene. Those two guys were David Bell and Harvey Mandel.

Working in 1982 at the first storefront Seagrape Studios at 3519 W. Montrose on Chicago’s north side, my old partner Tom Haban and I had just installed an early Neotek Series I mixing console paired to a punchy MCI two-inch sixteen track multitrack recorder.

   

David Bell was one of our first Seagrape clients. He was a long time record collector buddy, and also the tour manager for my 1970’s band Pentwater. In 1983, David was managing a performance artist named Duane Cerny, aka Danny Alias. Danny couldn’t really sing, so his recordings were either vocoder-based, or featured his poetic chanting over a basic four-on-the- floor beat as heard on his 1984 12” record release “Civil Defense.”

Even though the “Civil Defense” 12” was marketed as a dance record, the rhythm track was actually just Wilderness Road's Tom Haban on his Slingerland drum kit, and myself plunking away on a Fender P-Bass. Later, at David’s direction, Pentwater’s Tom Orsi added the Prophet 5 synth lines, sirens, and efx as overdubs. I added the violin overdub on the last verse too. And at a tempo marking of 133 bpm (beats per minute) it’s surely not a house record. That song wasn’t even cut to a drum box or click track.


Tom Haban at the Slingerlands at The First Seagrape

SEAGRAPE MEETS KNUCKLES

Through his connections in Chicago’s gay community, David Bell brought Warehouse Club’s Frankie Knuckles in to check out Seagrape at the record release party held for Danny. Frankie didn’t work on “Civil Defense” but we soon became friends with him and we worked together on many projects in those early house music days. Knuckles was a fearless tape editor and the founder of the 120 bpm based house music that was featured at the Warehouse. His sound was also opening ears all over town. Bell later signed early house artist Jamie Principle to his Persona label. After leaving the record business and becoming an AIDS activist, David Bell passed away in 1989.

 

House music founder Frankie Knuckles

 

David Bell

 

GETTING RAZOR SHARP

The other music guy who was a catalyst for my extensive work in house music was blues/jazz guitarist Harvey Mandel. Harvey, who played Woodstock with Canned Heat, and later with the Rolling Stones, wasn’t a house music artist. But with the then current popularity of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Harvey worked up two songs at Seagrape that basically had the same Linndrum programming as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” Slated for release on Nuance Records, Harvey’s label honcho, Gus Redmond, brought in Tom Tom Washington (fresh off his No Jacket Required work for Phil Collins), and The Hot Mix 5’s Mickey Mixin’ Oliver to sweeten the tracks. Mickey was in the early days of “hot mixing” on Chicago’s WBMX dance station. Hot mixing disco wasn't yet house music at that point.

 

Harvey Mandel at Woodstock

 

Mickey Mixin' Oliver

Mickey and I hit it off right away. I was a pretty decent tape editor by that time, but Mickey showed me a few key editing tricks to help me improve my razor blade skills. He was quick with the turntables and quick with the blade too. For showing me some new tape editing techniques, I later repaid him big-time at the second Seagrape Studios.

At this first Seagrape, we also met and worked with Brett Wilcots, who went on to form the classic house music imprint Gherkin Records, as well as expert tape editor Erasmo Rivera. These two were record pool guys and knew all the DJs around town. Soon after, however, the first Seagrape was forced to close due to broken water pipes in the upstairs rental units after the landlord went into receivership during the harsh winter of 1985. Yet Brett, Erasmo and I continued to make Salsoul Orchestra remix edits in my 3rd floor Rogers Park apartment as a stopgap.

A NEW GRAPE IN TOWN

While our house clients clamored for studio time, we rushed to construct the big, beautiful new Seagrape on Western Avenue across from Rosehill Cemetery on the city’s far north side. Ron "Big Daddy Sun" Cannon was construction chief. Erasmo also helped us along with several metal and rockabilly bands that were willing to trade construction work for future studio time. This new studio sported a much larger Neotek Series II console, a brand new MCI 24 track machine, and an Otari analog two track in its large multi-windowed control room. By the summer of 1985, we were back up and running. Tom Haban adopted the house nickname “Tommy White.” He would also credit his grey horse, named Specks, as assistant engineer on his future house label credits.

Many more house music clients flooded into the new studio. Along with Frankie Knuckles was The Hot Mix 5’s Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Ralphi “The Raz” Rosario, Mario Diaz, Kenny “Jammin” Jason, and Farley Keith. At the new Grape I soon met my favorite and most influential house music producer and songwriter, Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers.

Along with vocalists Robert Owens and Ron Wilson, and Larry’s unforgettable programming skills and deft musicianship, we cut dozens of Fingers Inc. and Larry Heard house music tracks that are still spinning on club turntables today. Songs such as “Distant Planet,” “I’m Strong,” “Never No More Lonely,” “Closer,” and “What About This Love?” were quickly produced and shipped out. With his easy manner and skillful touch, Larry was a joy to work with. We worked constantly. I was assisted many times by Dave Trumfio who started at Seagrape as an intern, and now owns Kingsize Recording Den in LA.

READ THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE'S STORY ABOUT
RECORDING THE SOUNDS OF HOUSE AT SEAGRAPE FROM 1989

MY NIECE SAVES HOUSE MUSIC


 

 

 

 

 

try the speak n' spell app!

 

 

Back in the Hot Mix 5 camp, I had just finished cutting and mixing Xavier Gold’s
“You Used To Hold Me” for Ralphi Rosario (a really fun guy to work with)
with Kenny Jason.

Mickey Oliver needed to up his game to match the success of his label mate’s “You Used To Hold Me” which took Chicago radio by storm with its catchy hook, driving bass line, and crazed samples. As Oliver also wasn’t a singer, he was still looking for a trademark vocal presence on his own 12” releases. We tried vocorders for him but they didn’t yield the funky house music vibe he was after. I had an idea. I suggested borrowing my niece, Kristine’s, old Speak and Spell machine to make new words and phrases. The robot voce’ tonality was the right fit. Mickey commuted that very Speak and Spell box to his Indiana home studio and with his 1/4 track machine created the basic vocabulary that resulted in his huge house hit “In-Ten-Si-T.” My idea, his blade-work building the vocabulary, and my niece’s Speak & Spell! I still have that Speak and Spell around somewhere. But I’m not holding my breath for any royalties from Mickey. It’s his best known song even today.

Other house music clients and friends we worked with at the Big Grape included many artists for Gherkin Records with producers Brett Wilcots and Jim Stivers. Gherkin really took off with their street level approach and unique slant on the house sound. Other clients included Felix Miranda, Ricky Dillard, Jim “Cheese” Romano, Candy J, Mondee Oliver, Frank Youngwerth, Riley Evans, the Motown group The Voyage Band, along with Paris Grey who sang as “Shanna Jae” for Hot Mix 5 before her later Inner City fame.

 

Gherkin Records!

 

Larry Heard aka Mr. Fingers

REMIXING WITH LARRY HEARD

Larry Heard brought in the lion’s share of the remix work as his unique sound had really connected with dance floors and major labels in London. Remixes and original work with Larry producing and myself engineering included Habit’s Precious, The It’s On Top Of The World, Desiya’s “Comin’ On Strong,” Massive Attack’s “Any Love,” and dozens more house 12” records and full length LPs.

We would obtain a 2” 24 track master copy from the original artists, wipe the tracks that we would never use, which typically included everything but their vocals, and then Larry would program his MIDI magic. We used an Atari 1040ST computer running Notator for the sequencing work in those days. Larry had a tall rack of MIDI stuff he would pile up in the back of the spacious Seagrape control room. I would cable it all up, MIDI sync it to SMPTE time code, and then Larry would let the tracks run for awhile while I equalized everything. When we were both happy with the sounds, we would track it onto the 2” 24 track at 30 inches per second. Then, we would set about doing the various mixes by shuttling the master tape around and working the Neotek’s mute switches and Penny & Giles faders. There was never any mix automation other than a razor blade on 1/2” analog mix tape. I would use the Atari to switch MIDI presets on my efx stack occasionally. The mixes were true performances with Larry and me operating the Neotek in tandem.

Here’s my post on Gearslutz.com about adding in lo-fi ambience efx for Larry Heard:

“The ambience with these works is likely a combination of several elements. A nice old Series II Neotek Console, a 1/2" Otatri MTR10 analog 2 track, Lexicon PCM 60, & 200 verbs, and a Yamaha 1st gen SPX 90. I also got those early reflections you folks are deeply speculating about by setting up two Neumann U-87s in figure eight Blumlein array. The mic array was placed midway between two Marshall 4x12" speaker cabinets spaced about 13' feet apart. The headphone cue amp at Seagrape Studios in Chicago was hefty enough to power the Marshall cabinets. Two stereo Neotek busses fed the Marshall cabs and I would route percussion elements out into the studio where the Blumlein array would re-mic the elements back into the mix via some John Hardy mic pre amps that I had built. If I didn't like what was coming off the mics, I would walk out to the wood floored studio and move the Marshalls this way and that. I would even sit between these speakers and listen to what I was sending to them. Then I would place the Blumlein pair where it sounded best. This added the lo-fi depth you might be after nowadays.”

 

WHY HOUSE STOOD

Looking back today, I think what made Chicago’s house music scene so vibrant and cool was its diversity. Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic -- we all worked together to make something bigger than the sum of its individual parts. You couldn’t get any whiter than Micky Oliver or Kenny Jason, but even the Hot Mix 5 balanced things with Ralphi Rosario, Mario Diaz, and their releases by the incredible Candy J. House music’s appeal was the result of the basic fact that the people making the music reflected the diversity of those who were dancing, grooving, and consuming it. At its best, and at that time, house music was the very essence of a grass roots musical movement.

HOUSE FALLS

The success of house music helped our Seagrape clients gain recognition worldwide. A house song I mixed was even featured in a major motion picture with The Arnold. But alas, house music's last years inevitably attracted a load of low-life, no-talent scumbags and believe me, we had our share of them walk through Seagrape’s front door. Lots of bounced checks, ignored invoices, ripoff U.K distributors, and plenty of folks that liked to steal other writers’ songs. Finally, when Madonna released “Vogue,” I knew it was the beginning of the end. House couldn’t stand forever and had enjoyed a solid 10 year run. Added to its demise were digital recording and Sound Tools (the precursor to Pro Tools) which pretty much crushed the soul out of dance music and, in my humble opinion, resulted in today’s drone-like EDM. With house music production at Seagrape we strived to support the song itself and not just mindless grooves and flashing LED light displays. The songs were the stars, not the DJs, even though most of them failed to realize it at the time. Today, I get a lot of nice folks contacting me about how great the old Seagrape records still sound. They have stood the test of time. One Brit told me that they use Larry Heard’s records I recorded to set up high end turntables and cartridges. And I’m really heartened about the resurgence of vinyl. If the right song came my way with proper house roots I would consider remixing it. After all, I know what it takes to cut great sounding vinyl records.

In 1994 I sold my share of Seagrape to Tom Haban who succeded me there. He ran it a short while longer. Clients either retained their masters or left them at Seagrape with Tom. Dave Trumfio has been out making waves in LA for many years since the house music days. We lost our friend Ron Cannon in 2013. Sometimes folks contact me and want to know if I have their master reels. Sorry, I don't. I only have the memories of a pivotal time in Chicago music and recording.

Tom Haban passed away in 2012. The British producer and Seagrape regular Renee Gelston from Black Market Records wrote a memorial note Tom would have surely loved:

"Tom you will be missed - what came out of Seagrape recording studios was the template for what now is the biggest music in the world, from Madonna to Lady GaGa."


Tom Haban with Wilderness Road

 

I have hundreds of house mixes to my credit. I’ve selected a few for your review below:

 

SELECTED HOUSE MUSIC DISCOGRAPHY RECORDED by MIKE KONOPKA

SONG TITLE

ARTIST/PRODUCER or DJ

RECORD LABEL

You Used To Hold Me

Xavier Gold / Ralphi Rosario
Hot Mix 5
Paris Grey / Mickey Oliver
Hot Mix 5
Mickey Mixin’ Oliver
Hot Mix 5
Ramos
Hot Mix 5
Candy J
Hot Mix 5
Various Artists
Hot Mix 5
Tage’ / Mickey Oliver
Hot Mix 5
Paris Grey / Kenny Jason
Hot Mix 5
Oliver & Cheese
M Records
M.C. Taste / Mickey Oliver
M Records
Fingers Inc.
Jack Trax
Fingers Inc.
Jack Trax
Fingers Inc.
Jack Trax
Robert Owens/Fingers Inc.
Jack Trax
Robert Owens
Alleviated
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
MCA
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
Black Market
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
Alleviated
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
Jack Trax
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
MCA
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
MCA
Larry Heard / Mr Fingers
MCA
Ron Wilson
Alleviated
Hex/ Ralphi Rosario
Sunset
Kasso / Frankie Knuckles / Brett Wilcots
Harristol
Ricky Dillard / Frankie Knuckles
Jack Trax
Various Artists
Gherkin
Mondee Oliver / Frankie Knuckles
Gherkin
Gallifre’ / Frankie Knuckles
Gherkin
Mondee Oliver
Gherkin
Mondee Oliver
Gherkin
Mondee Oliver
Gherkin
Frank Youngwerth
Viola Da Gamba
Riley Evans
Total Spectrum
Desiya / Larry Heard
Black Market
Habit / Larry Heard
Virgin
Felix Miranda
M Records
Voyage Band
Beet Records
Jago / Frankie Knuckles
Full Time
The It / Larry Heard
Black Market
The It / Larry Heard
Black Market
Kym Mazelle / Larry Heard
Capitol
Kriss Coleman / Larry Heard
Alleviated
Original Love / Larry Heard
Eastworld

 

^ vocal production recording by me
*** went to #1 Billboard Dance charts
^^ co engineered with Tommy White
*I also played “house guitar” as Mike K or as Richard Kimball
** mixed by me but tracked at River North, Chicago, IL


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