Vince Lawrence – Interview
Go to: Vince Lawrence – The godfather of House artist's page.
Vince Lawrence is a music producer from Chicago. He has often been called the godfather of House music. He talks exclusively with Pluto Media about his life, lessons, the evolution of House and what he has coming up.
My early life
Perhaps we should start from the beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago and grew up all over the south and north sides of town. I am a true Chicago native, born and raised.
What was your childhood like back then?
I suppose that my childhood was a normal one for kids like me at the time. My dad and mom separated soon after my birth but I still got to know my dad and saw him from time to time. I lived in poorer neighborhoods but my mom was always striving to do better, be better. I guess that's where I get it from. Over time my mom got a promotion or better job and we moved to a better apartment in a better neighborhood. When I was eight years old my mom remarried and with that I gained a slew of other relatives. Many of them had been active in the civil rights movement. All of my new “aunties” were super present and really encouraged me to read a lot. They encouraged all the kids around them (they were everyone's babysitter at one point or another) to read something every day and know that we could be “somebody” regardless of what anyone else might say to the contrary. These became mantras for my existence and the go-to answer for any challenge.
What genres of music did you grow up listening to?
I have always listened to lots of different music. As a small boy, I remember listening to The Jackson Five, Sylvers, Osmonds and DeFrancos along with Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the Doobie Brothers and more. I would love switching LPs from Stevie Wonder's “Songs in the Key of Life” to ELO's “Out of the Blue” to Parliament Funkadelic's “Motor Booty Affair”. All in all, I listened to whatever I could get my hands on. Growing up in Chicago back then records were a bit of a luxury.
It must have been a tough place to grow up. What memories do you have of violence or street gangs?
I honestly have to say that a lot of that is just bull crap. When I grew up we ran up and down the block playing in the streets. Parents had a general rule that kids should be home “by the time that the street lights came on” but as an 8-10 year old, we would roam an area as large as 2 miles. When we got bikes, even further. Gang violence was a rumor, the truth being that gang leaders kept everyone in line, sticking to themselves. Things have really changed since those guys were killed or locked up. One needs perspective to talk about gangs in Chicago because authorities often confused gangs with activists. Was Fred Hampton a gang member? The P in “P Stone” originally stood for “peace, prosperity, people, and power.” When I was young, gangs in Chicago were organized, white and black (the Italian mob has a history in Chicago along with the Irish and Polish who became “the Mickies”, “Shields” etc.) While they had criminal enterprises, they kept everybody safe. Many gangs worked with local government as activists in the 60s. Chicago's gang history is full of both heroes and villains. Some people say the criminal enterprises were orchestrated by the government in the first place as a way to control the economic development of minorities. Ultimately the black gangs that became powerful were disbanded, leaders killed or locked up, and the fractured violent remains are what's left.
Your father worked a music label. What lessons did you learn from him?
I learned a lot from my dad, if not directly then from being around him when I had the chance. My ideas for production, promotion, distribution and marketing came from watching my dad along with Eddie Thomas. Eddie was Curtis Mayfield's partner in the original Curtom Records. Eddie also managed Captain Sky and it was on a tour with him (at 14 yrs old) that I decided to be in the music industry.
How did you get started as a musician? Tell me what led to you buying your first synthesizer.
As a 14yr old, kids in my neighborhood often went to summer camp for 2 weeks during summer break. When that time came for me, my dad said we had no money but he would “find something for me to do” while my friends were away. I ended up on a tour bus with Captain Sky with my job being pyrotechnical - setting off smoke bombs, concussion mortars etc. I created the primitive control box myself using electrical switches, wire filament and flash pots made from railroad ties. That was probably the most influential time for me. On the road I fell in love with the synthesizer. I saw it as the combination of two of my favourite things: music and science!
When I came home I learned everything I could, listening to Parliament Funkadelic records more intently, along with ELO and anything I could get from the Columbia Record club! Disco was taking off and bands were using synths sporadically in every major tune. I had a vision of creating my own band, an all synthesizer band. I wanted my own synth and got a job as an usher, taking people to their seats at concerts and sport events as a means to pay for it.
You have been called the innovator of House Music. How did you discover the house beat? What was the process?
As I said earlier, my influences have always been varied, but by the time I turned 16 everything centred around “The Parties”. Black teens on the south side were becoming entrepreneurs by throwing parties, DJing and renting sound equipment to each other. The Parties were a cultural hub for all of us and a safe place to be teenagers. For me as a shy nerdy kid, The Parties were my way to hang with the “in crowd”. So, I found ways to make myself useful. I distributed flyers at schools, hung posters and ran lights for the events. Eventually a group of us got together and rented a small hall called First Impressions and threw a party of our own. The party grew, as did our promo squad, made up of high school students from all over the city. We even merged with other party groups forming an alliance of sorts cross promoting each other's events.
The house beat and house music period was born of those parties, I just wanted to combine the best sounds from the best parts of the best records. The disco records got people to the floor most consistently, so the four by four beat was mandatory. It was the heartbeat, the peak of every party and the most physical thing coming out of the speakers. That beat represented everything we stood for.
Your music and the DJs you worked with blew up from the Detroit clubs. What do you think made them break out to an international level?
It's funny that the music was so hot and we had so much coming out that we were basically looking for more stores to sell it in. By going to Detroit, we thought we could use the same technique of working with record pools, finding stores where DJs bought their records, getting mix show play etc to create new places to sell records. Our group (Jes Say Records) had basically split the city's retailers up like a paper route. I thought going to other nearby cities would give us more stores to divide. Ultimately this led to partnering with Larry Sherman who owned the pressing plant. I couldn't afford to pay for as many records as I could sell when a song broke so we agreed to split profits if he would advance us the product. We ran all the songs under this agreement under a name I came up with... TRAX.
People underestimate the work you put in to get your records exposure. Can you talk about how you did it before the days of the internet?
I literally opened up the phone book (do I have to explain what that was?) and found every nightclub in the Chicago area. With that list, we drove to each one personally and gave DJs records, cassettes or whatever we had and watched the reaction from their dance floor. We did the same thing at the record stores. This worked promotionally and from a research perspective. We actually KNEW what worked and where it worked. We knew because we were in direct contact with the crowds at an almost personal level.
Talk to me about Slang Music. You signed some amazing artists. What do you think has been the secret to its success?
At Slang we have worked hard to help original artists define themselves. In the current climate it's hard for unique artists to even acknowledge themselves and step out of the status quo and be themselves. So much music sounds the same, courage to be different seems a commodity. Every track isn't a hit out of the gate but we truly try and work with people who want to do unique and interesting things.
What is “Chicago Fire: A Dance Music Anthology”? Can you explain it for our readers?
Chicago Fire is a collection of sound samples I organized from years of sessions. Producers can use it to get the authentic Chicago House sound: all the ingredients are there on 5 CDs for them to mix and match to create the next hit! The sounds have been refined and compressed in such a way that you only need a good imagination, the engineering work is mostly done. Pick a beat, add a bassline, keys, even vocal parts and you are on your way.
What's coming up for you? What's next?
Recently, I formed an alliance with 1st and 15th Recordings to release a series of EPs. I have remixed labelmate Lupe Fiasco's “Jump” and co-produced Princess Good Good's EP along with the label's owner Charles “Chilly” Patton. The first single “Black Business” is available everywhere.
Along with all of the records, mixes, remixes and commercial work, I have another special project. My family. My awesome wife Tara keeps me balanced while our daughter Yasmine along with 4 year old London keep me on my toes. Life, like mixing, is truly about balance.
How can people get in touch with you?
It's not hard to find me. @vingoslang on most sites. Google also works pretty well these days.