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.
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.
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
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
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.
music founder Frankie Knuckles
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.
Mandel at Woodstock
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.
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.
NEW GRAPE IN TOWN
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.
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.
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.
in the Hot Mix 5 camp, I had just finished cutting and mixing Xavier
“You Used To Hold Me” for Ralphi Rosario (a really fun guy to work
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.
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.
Heard aka Mr. Fingers
WITH LARRY HEARD
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
have hundreds of house mixes to my credit. I’ve selected a few for
your review below:
HOUSE MUSIC DISCOGRAPHY RECORDED by MIKE KONOPKA
^ 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