By Jim Schutze
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When news that Chicago house DJ and producer Derrick Carter is rolling back into Dallas hits the streets, it spreads quickly and creates quite a buzz within the Dallas house-music scene. Where Carter goes, the party people are sure to follow, and wherever that may be, ass-shaking revelry is bound to ensue.
He is that rare entity in the dance-music world. The cat that gets equal props for both his ability to move the crowd and his prowess behind the boards as one of the most in-demand house-music producers in this country and plenty of others.
Both his production style and DJ approach are often referred to as quirky because of his uncanny knack for making seemingly disparate elements work in seamlessly harmonious fashion. His ability to flip R&B a cappellas into his sets as if that's precisely where they always belonged even helped to inspire the market for bootleg remixes of current radio smashes that can now be found on the shelves in most mom-and-pop dance-record shops across the globe.
Carter's visit August 9 to Minc takes on an added significance this time as he arrives to celebrate the release of his new CD on Dallas-based dance label icon.recordings. In rock terms, this is probably akin to the Strokes deciding they want to put their next record out on Idol. It's a big deal for Luke Sardello, the man who runs icon., and adds instant prominence to a label that is only a few vinyl releases old.
But the upcoming release of Poverty De Luxe in September on Sardello's imprint is not as random an occurrence as it might initially appear, as there has been a Chicago-to-Dallas "connexas," as Carter likes to call it, since the early '90s. Sardello and Tim Shumaker, who has since relocated to Chicago and is himself an acclaimed house-music producer, used to bring Carter to town to play on the regular in support of the vinyl release of Carter's material on their now-defunct Doghouse Records.
That laid the groundwork for a dance-music pipeline between D-town and the Windy City that pushed along the careers of other Dallasites looking to get on and do their thing. Producers such as JT Donaldson (now living in Chicago) and Brett Johnson (who has an upcoming full-length release on Carter's own London-based Classic label) are getting their just due partly because of the early associations to Carter, whose star continues to rise.
He's just about as close to being a house-music lifer as one can be. In the mid-'80s, when independent releases from house pioneers such as Marshall Jefferson and Farley Jackmaster Funk were helping to define the "house sound," a 15-year-old Carter was teaching himself what he calls "the ghetto version of multi-tracking" with two tape decks, an old Casio and the sound of his voice.
Already having a solid foundation in music (he sang in the choir, played sax in the band and could play piano, as well), Carter continued developing his writing and arranging skills, and he immersed himself in the technical aspects of recording and engineering. This satisfied his need to create and worked in conjunction with his mastery of mixing records, which stemmed from his desire to please people--that underlying need that fuels so many top-flight DJs.
"I always liked playing records at parties for people," he says. "My parents or relatives would have parties, and I'd end up manning the jukebox or the stereo."
Carter relished the musical authority the grown-ups bestowed upon him and felt a responsibility to keep the party moving.
"I could always see what people liked and what they'd get into."
He did a little of everything as he continued to master his craft and build his reputation. He sang on releases, he engineered, he even dabbled in the business aspects, developing relationships with labels, distributors and record pools (which is how he first connected with Sardello and Shumaker). By the mid- to early '90s, releases on labels like Cajual and Organico helped to cement his position as a producer to be reckoned with. And by the time he embarked on his Classic label venture with U.K. producer Luke Solomon in 1996, both sides of the Atlantic were buzzing about Carter as both a top-rank producer and intuitive crowd mover.
It wasn't luck. Carter worked his ass off to create that buzz and has put himself in a position that only a handful of DJs get to experience. Classic has more than 60 releases in its catalog, including Derrick's 2002 release Squaredancing in a Roundhouse, which has moved more than 40,000 units in a genre where 10,000 is considered a hit. The reputation that Classic has built enabled the label to endure the questionable business practices of a third partner, which came to light at the same time the label's distributor went belly-up, owing them money in the six-figure neighborhood.
But Carter and Solomon have quickly rebounded with a new distributor on board and a gang of anticipated releases that will keep Classic alive when probably 95 percent of the other house labels out there would have folded. The fact that Carter had the available financial resources to tap into and clean up the mess in the first place instantly separates him from the thousands of cats around the world who play records in clubs. Aside from his producing, Carter can live very comfortably traveling the world to play parties, an amazing testament to his elite status.
He says his relentless travel schedule "would kill the normal person," as he spends approximately 35 weeks out of the year on the road. Toronto-based Most Wanted Entertainment works with Carter to help construct a schedule that at times has him playing five gigs in five countries in five days. He's played a music festival in Belgium in the afternoon and rocked London at midnight the same day. And it's not just one particular region where Carter is in such high demand, either.
"I'm constantly circulatin' all over," he says. "I feel like blood pumpin' through the system."
And yet despite his hectic travel schedule and self-described "freaky scatterbrain" nature, he somehow finds time to craft tunes that are the most distinctive sound in house music. Aside from his own projects, he has remix work on deck for the likes of Mark Farina, Audio Bullys and Seal.
Carter taps into myriad influences to shape his work and utilizes a home setup with 17 keyboards, 25 synth modules and an 80-channel mixing board, as well as a road unit composed of three Powerbooks so he can edit, render and import all at the same time. In fact, Carter's life seems like a constant struggle of time management. "I really need a 27-hour day and nine-day week to get everything done," he says.
Poverty De Luxe, which refers to the ability to make every situation seem favorable and was inspired by a photograph of kids playing basketball using a stray shopping cart hung from a trash receptacle, has a different sound from the in-your-face approach of last year's Squaredancing. De Luxe is more nuanced, textured and layered, but still prominently features Carter's fondness for unorthodox sounds--particularly on the low end.
"I like bass lines that sound slobbery," Carter explains. "Like a big old wet Saint Bernard."
That kind of uniqueness has helped build a rabid following both on car stereos and Walkmans, as well as in the clubs. He's punching his own ticket after almost two decades of constant writing, playing and producing, and he's making the most of every opportunity that bounces his way. And he's making everyone bounce along with him while he does it.