Interview: Tony Humphries

Posted: July 9th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

(Patti Labelle’s “Eyes In The Back Of My Head” is heard from the hotel bar nearby…)

That’s a big song for us. I’ve got eyes, eyes in the back of my head, I got eyes. Some wicked song. Anyway…

We’ve got this section called legends. This is where we would like to present you.

Okay. (Waiter brings a bottle of champagne) Thanks … You can have some, too, what the hell. He should bring some more glasses. Could you bring some more glasses? Thank you. Okay. So, what do you want to know?

You’ve got a long history, but you just started a label. So it would be great to hear things of the past and what you plan for the near future too. If you have look at which kind of electronic music history people refer to, it’s mostly Detroit and Chicago and New York. When it comes to New York, it’s mostly Hip Hop. Not that much house. I think House is for a special crowd.

You mean currently? That what you feel it is currently?

Yeah. It seems like people don’t really recognize the long history of House music in New York and don’t give it the attention it deserves.

Well, I believe it’s inclusive of too many different types of other genres. That’s what. It’s like too big of an animal to control. I think it’s too big of a genre because it’s inclusive of too many other little parts for the investors to try to really build upon. What I mean by that is that it is fragmented into Soulful House, Latin House, so many different types of House. Forget about it. Everybody likes to hold their own part of House music historically, so much. They all feel equally important. And it’s just too big for, like, majors to really get behind. That’s what I believe.

Would you say that when it first started out, meaning that transitional period of Disco and Garage to early House, it was as fragmented?

No, because actually from what I remember it was all just dance music. There weren’t really any labels back then. I mean I hate the term Disco but let’s say after Disco, then came House and then came all the other genre titles. And I think that’s one of the reasons it went to hell, because when you used to go to a club it was a good club. If it was a good DJ it was a good DJ. It wasn’t a DJ with a label. That DJ is good, that club is good, that night is good, that radio station is good, that show is good. It’s a dance show. It’s all it was. It was no Techno show, it was not a Hip Hop show, It was not a Garage show. Whatever… Think before the Paradise Garage club… What did they call it? Nothing but dance music. Loft, David Mancuso, all the names you’ve heard in that era, you never heard their clubs being labeled anything. They were just great clubs.

You’re talking the mid 70’s?

Mid 70’s, early 80’s, maybe even through near the end of the 80’s. There weren’t so many genres.

So would you say that the development to a more House based club soundtrack restricted your possibilities? Or was it just another sound?

No, I believe that technology, economics, experimentation, led to new types of genre names. I think it mostly happened in Europe. I don’t want to say singularly in Europe or wherever but it starts out with charts, coming with different names for charts, different names for mix shows. And then all of sudden it’s a phenomenon and you think you’re making albums out of this thing, and all of a sudden you had, Acid House, whatever… The house music genres have broken in so many fragments it looks like a subway map. I think it was more of a business thing and I think the fragmentation hurt. Just having good dance music is a power thing. The more kids were able to buy equipment and coming up with their own sounds, whether it was Minimal or whatever, and just called it something and it started a new business. It’s like new cakes or something. As it gets more and more financed these genres start to stick. And then it seemed like after the top five had profited, and anyone else didn’t, it was time for a new one. That’s what it seems like to me.

Wasn’t that the same with the early 80’s, or with dance music, when there were stars like Madonna coming up?

Madonna was not known as any type of a good dance artist, but a good artist. I don’t remember when she started out, when she used to perform at my club, doing ‘Holiday’ and the first Jellybean album and the second album, that there was a genre attached to her, she was a different sort of performer and pop people liked her and if there was something danceable, the clubs played it. I don’t remember her being attached to any particular style or genre.

How did you react to that fragmentation? You were put into the role of an ambassador for the Jersey sound, for example.

Again, it’s not something that I created, I wanted, I was sort of put there. The Jersey sound, or me… I’m a reflection of my own history. So it’s New York, it’s a whole lot of things. Garage Music, it’s a misconception that it’s only one part of the soulful thing that makes it Garage. I always try to explain this. Paradise Garage was a club that this man had for over ten years. There’s no way in the world that you can play ten years with the same type of music. He had to play so many different types of music and in that club it was like having two nights. It was like an after hour. So he started at 1 until 12 the next day. Can you imagine how much music that is? It’s impossible. Even if you thought it was just Gospel vocals to play, if you would play 12 hours of Gospel vocals, they would go home! The most religious person would go home. It’s kind of crazy, that image that Gospel or Garage has. He played so many different types of music and I followed the same way.

House music has the ability to absorb a lot of different styles. Does this have its roots in the way people played back then, because of the time to spread out and incorporate many sound?

Exactly. House started out, which was in Chicago, as a minimalist thing when guys could afford some computers and samplers back then, and started having fun. They weren’t trying to be sophisticated and doing full records, except for a few like Marshall Jefferson with Ten City, those were sort of full but the majority of them — making records they thought would work in their own house parties. It was fun. And then you had some labels who tried to exploit that. The difference to, with House, is just tempo. That’s the whole thing, it’s tempo. The best house records are the ones that sound closest to the original genre they’re trying to mimic. In other words, the ones that have lasted. The closer you are to R&B, or Latin, or Samba, whatever, then the better the record is. No one likes half assed records. I’m always asked: What do you think of the whole electronic thing? I don’t feel anything different about it because it always has been around.

It’s just evolving?

Yes. I say this all the time. Right now the people that I feel are in the power positions of House DJs, or resident DJs, or promoters, record label owners — all these people were kids in the 80’s. And now that they are putting their money and their feelings behind it, that’s why it’s so similar to the 80’s. They are the ones in charge right now. Be it Rock music, be it anything, it seems like there is a resurgence. I can play all the Chicago and Detroit stuff and play it with stuff that’s being made now, it’s exactly the same. It’s because they’re in charge. If you think about it, maybe ten years ago, everybody thought it would be a 70’s resurgence. Well, it’s generational.

It’s not really progress then.

Well, you can’t move forward until you know what happened in the past. Of course the melodies might be a little bit different, but the sounds and the feel I believe were the same. The closest music to you as an individual is the music that you grew up with as a teenager, as an adolescent. When you can afford to buy on your own albums, CD, 12”s. Or the radio in your house, whatever station you listened to, that’s your favorite music. That you listened to five, six times over and over and over. Now that you’re an owner, in a position of business, you want to reproduce that. That’s what you put your money behind.

My god, it’s Supertramp…

(laughs) Right? It’s so evident to me. It’s elementary, it’s what’s been practiced. If you grew up going to a particular type of church or something like that, and you’ve heard five to ten years repetitively some sort of music … That’s why I like backgrounds, that’s why I like pianos, whatever …it depends on the individual. And then you’ve got to put you money behind it, put it behind what you feel has made you happy.

So that led your approach when you started out producing? What are my roots, what am I going to do?

Yes. First you think of trends and then you go trends don’t bring me profit necessarily, so let me be true to myself. So if it’s not profitable at least I’m happy with what I have produced. So there is a certain balance. Correct? (laughs) I mean, I can’t be more forthcoming than that.

Yeah, sounds logical.

But people just don’t talk about stuff like that. It’s a trend in itself. Let’s say five, ten years from now whatever was hot in the 90’s will be the new thing. Oh, there is resurgence of the 90’s! And I’m thinking about that right now. But those in charge are into the 80’s.

Would you ever consider going back to a certain production standard you had? Like doing some mixes in the style of the early 90’s?

I think the core of it will be the same, it will never change. The only thing that changes is the drum patterns or the speed, or tempo. It’s the only thing that has changed. If it’s real music, it’s real music. If it’s a piano, it’s a piano. If it’s a Rhodes, it’s a Rhodes. If it’s a guitar, it’s a guitar. You can’t get away from that.

Are voices one of the most important things to you?

If you appreciate and respect live talent then it has to be number one for you if you’re going to produce. If you respect any singer or any musicianship, how they got to where they were is because they were featuring a vocalist. The track is always supposed to support the artist. The band supports the artist. Background supports the artist. Economics led to trying to make DJs into artists, then they became the focal point and they made themselves or their elements louder. It can only go as far as other people who like this sort of stuff. How global it can become. You cannot say that you respect Mary J Blige or Stevie Wonder or Elton John and then go and produce records where the artist is never heard. Or they are just sampled. It’s two-faced I would say. Contradictory.

But you won’t go so far and say that it’s disrespect if you’re not featuring?

I would. Why tone down someone’s talent if it’s there? You’re going to make the same money if you got a good contract anyway. You’re going to get the same percentages, royalties. So why put out a good product that will diminish what’s there? The drummer has lost his job so that’s a mainstay. You know that. Except for live shows, who wants to be a drummer anymore?

With your label, are you going to work with some of these singers from back then?


Just new talent?

Yes. Yes. Except for one artist I’m trying to use different people I never used before. That’s an aim of mine.

It is often told that in the beginning of House, people just started to experiment with samplers and electronic music because they couldn’t afford real musicians.

That’s right. It’s economics, that’s what I’ve said. It’s electronics and economics that started this trend, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There are extremes. I’m not going to say that hard hard Techno or blah blah blah does not make money, does not have its fan base, does not have been around for a long time. That’s not it. I’m just saying to be as global as possible, you should be inclusive of other things and other elements, which I find with the Morales’s, the Vegas, Frankie Knuckles, CJ Mackintosh, all the people who have been around because they kind of balanced the real things and what’s current. That’s what I believe. They found a happy medium between the two. Those who can do that last longer and go a lot further. Their database, their history of what they’ve done is long.

Because they didn’t limit themselves?

Exactly. Want credibility? How many instrumental records get Grammys?

Probably because the taste of the ones with the Grammys is limited.

I would guess. I’m not an expert. Probably the 60’s was the last time an instrumental got a Grammy. Billy Preston maybe? Booker T & The MG’s? You try and think of instrumental records. If you do remember, correct me. But it’s not a trend, for over than thirty or forty years.

Maybe there’s a difference between Europe and the States.

I can only tell you what I know or experienced. Again, I could be wrong, but that’s what I noticed.

Maybe the structures of the business in the States are more immobile, that instrumentals wouldn’t fit marketing strategies.

Well, instrumentals have no face if it’s all electronic. If there would be a band doing an instrumental record it would be different. A wicked band like the JB’s or whatever. But since it’s not, there is no face to it.

Would you say that’s a special New York point of view? It always seems like New York is like an island of its own when it comes to dance music and its traditions.

I wouldn’t say. Maybe in the beginning it was a New York point of view but I wouldn’t say it’s a New York point of view now because I’ve been I’ve been fortunate enough to travel since the early 90’s. So I think that’s international experience. Why I have this attitude I have. It’s not New York based at all. That’s where I come from. I did a lot of traveling, I lived in New Jersey, so it can’t be too secluded or just New York.

But there is hardly any other city with such an ongoing tradition with Soul music or the Garage style?

You never know what’s going to happen in New York. Again, it’s not just promoting New York or something. There aren’t as many super clubs as there used to be, but there sure are a whole lot of small bars and people creating their own things. You can find tons of them. You never know what’s coming out of that. It’s too big of an animal. It’s like House music, when you asked me before: How come it’s not big? Or as known? Everybody plays some form of House music in New York. It’s all over television, it’s all over the commercials. None of this suits, when to put money behind something like this. It’s too big. It’d be millions. Think about it.

I’ve been to New York this winter and it was quite strange to go to a bar where they played music as loud as in a club, where you should dance but you were not allowed to.

I don’t want to get political but it’s because of politics. I hope it changes and it will probably change soon.

So these restrictions increased?

Well, Giuliani was the first to put the crackdown on certain things and now the current mayor is a little bit lighter. We’re getting back slowly and surely.

So a standard was set that is not so easy to be reversed?

Of course after 9-11 they got really strict, it got ridiculous after that. I don’t want to get into that subject but I had my own club, I had just started, and after 9-11, forget about it. Nobody wanted to go to Manhattan, nobody wanted to travel. It’s hard to park, everyone’s afraid, your car will be towed. Anything from the 30’s to Lower Manhattan, tons of police. It just wasn’t a nightlife atmosphere anymore. It just halted. Hopefully it gets back to the way it used to be.

What kind of club was it that you ran?

It was a small club. Maybe 200 people.

With a stage for live performances or just DJing?

No, it was just DJing.

What was your ambition behind that?

I just wanted a place to play anything that I wanted, from any time, any era.

So going back to that resident DJ status?

Yes. There’s nothing like doing that in New York. If you can do that in New York you can do that anywhere. For sure. But it’s difficult. You have to give respect to those who have made it or those who have it going on. This is usually short lived.

How many in this league of Morales or Knuckles still have residencies?

Technically I can’t say because the term residency has changed. You can be a resident for three or four weeks or three or four months…

In different cities?

In different cities. Residencies before the mid-80’s meant you were in that place all the time, every weekend. At least for a year or two. That would be called a residency. It’s not the same as here. I could be a resident for the club tonight, as long as I keep coming periodically. It’s different. I don’t know their schedules but I do know that they play periodically. I know Louie Vega is a part of Cielo on Wednesdays, that’s a steady thing. But you know what, it’s time for a new group of people anyway. It’s time for you to go out, check out some new bars and new places, stop living in the past. We didn’t have jobs back then either, we had to grow into this. It’s time to see for people what’s current.

Is that still tempting you, to find a retreat for your own? To play as a resident DJ as it used to be?


Week in, week out?

Hmm… (laughs). I know it takes time to build a good residency like that, to be consistent. I wouldn’t mind doing it twice a month, or every other week somewhere. I would love to do that. Because there’s so many different people, you don’t know what’s your crowd going to be in New York. Yeah, sure. Anytime I get the opportunity to play in New York I always take it. No matter what the situation.

People always point out the connection between Detroit and Berlin. At home I found an old record to prove that there was a connection between New York and Berlin much earlier. (We show him a copy of Deskee’s “Lost In the Groove”). Do you recognize it?

Yes! Deskee!

Produced by Westbam, remixed by Tony Humphries, from 1991.

Oh my god! (laughs). A bargain!

Two years before that Tresor Techno Soul compilation…

Wow! Look at that…

Was it just the record company that asked you to do that remix?

Yeah. Again, it’s more global. You say there’s a connection between me or Detroit and Germany or whatever… What keeps me going is this funky music being made everywhere. You just have to know where it is. Why do you keep doing it? There’s always places in every city, every state, every country I go to where there’s a group of people who go mad. You like this stuff, it’s difficult, it’s not even a big moneymaker, and my heart bleeds for them. I can’t be there all the time, but once or twice a year I try and support the cause. It is amazing to me how global it became, because I was so crazy and busy back in the 90’s, I had no idea what was going on.

At the Ministry?

Yeah, when I moved it was 93. But I mean before that. I had a radio show, on Saturday, on Kiss in New York. Then I had the Zanzibar club, Friday and Saturday. Then I was doing remixes. My week was… I was a madman.

And you did a lot of radio back then…

I started in 81, with Shep Pettibone, who was involved in Madonna and Salsoul and a lot of other things. And then we moved to another Hip Hop station, Hot 97. That was later on. So, I was pretty busy. And I knew then, after moving to London, there’s was no way in the world I could handle those three positions. It almost killed me. And a girlfriend. So when I moved back I almost stopped the record label and DJing, I couldn’t handle either radio or production. It just kills you, it was too much. It was for me, anyway. That’s probably the reason while I’m still here now, because all that work and effort was put in it at that time, but it was just mad. It was actually too much.

But if you look at your website, it still incorporates a lot of areas. Not only the label, but still mix shows and so on. You kind of stuck to that…

Yes. Because I think we have a fan base for each of the departments and they always want to know.

There is this prejudice that House music is for the privileged and happy ones and Techno music is for the ghetto kids.

You got to be kidding me!

It is. Kind of. In Germany the House clubs are the posh clubs…



That is shocking to me. Really? I thought it was the reverse.

No, not really.

Why? Oh, sorry you’re interviewing me and I’m asking questions now…

I think it’s because it’s obviously more related to Soul and Soul music in Europe or at least in Germany was always posh Las Vegas entertainment too. If you were a punk rocker or a New Wave kid, Soul music was your enemy. And so was House music.

I think it also derives from the Disco clubs back then, which were glamorous and posh. House connected to that. A lot of the clubs were similar. Not any club, but a lot of.

I’d like to ask one more question. How long has this been going on, or when did that begin? What do you think? Because I had no idea that it was the other way around!

I would say the early 90’s. You had these really special gay clubs, they were different. They were rougher. Dark, sweaty clubs that were all about the music…

Yes! That’s where I come from. Only about the music…

But then there were the clubs that were more about showing off, and still are, in a way.

Wow. Well, it’s the same thing I would say it used to be. I can’t say that for sure now, but there was that prejudice before against black gay clubs. The average commercial person wouldn’t go to those clubs. But I think that has changed a little bit. It’s better that way. If you don’t label a club, you don’t know what happened. You either like it or you don’t like it. I have a problem with genres and labels with music or whatever. I don’t lose sleep over it but I think it’s unnecessary. I really do. I think it hurt the progress of a lot of production and artists out there. But it’s too big for me, too big to handle. That’s why we try to show where I was brought up, the era I was brought up, the label I had. Everything I have done is to try to show that different parts of the world have records that have the same feeling. And I will continue to do that, because I am exposed to it.

To reflect diversity?

I’m a reflection of where I’ve been. We got a couple of songs two days ago. Good stuff. The point is I like doing that. Showcasing things. Some of them I didn’t even know of they were German and I was just… funky stuff, man! And I play that stuff out. It’s so funny, in America, the same thing. Conference in Florida or whatever convention happens down there, it’s so important because we play a lot of each other’s stuff, but we have never seen each other. So that’s the one time a year… There’s some sort of respect, that never really gets done right. It’s amazing how much Chicago stuff I play and vice versa. San Francisco stuff and Florida stuff. You get to see each other. I’m used to that, playing stuff from here and all over. I don’t have any bias when I get music. I don’t. Certain names will have me listen to it, maybe make sure I listen to it, and not put it on the side, but in general, when I’m listening to fifty, sixty songs, if it’s sounds good, it gets played. That’s it! I mean that’s how whatever reputation I have, that’s how I got it. It may have taken ten, twenty years but every little group that said, you played my song, from my city, thank you. And this is going on. I’ve had little groups of support over the years. That’s why I’m here now. That’s all I do. It’s the only logical explanation.

Are you aware of this increasing German Deep House scene? Guys like Henrik Schwarz or Dixon?

Well, let me put it this way. I’ve been supporting this stuff without knowing that it’s something that’s going on. I can go through the book and probably come out with different things that you would be shocked that we’re playing it. But I didn’t know it was a phenomenon developing here.

Yeah, it is still small but…

No, it’s not about being small. You just have to be educated as to what’s going on. That’s very hard to do. That’s very hard to know what’s happening scenewise. Airport, hotel, home, airport, hotel, home.

So you can just check it with the guys you’re playing with?

Exactly. That’s fun. I can’t wait until tonight (laughs). The way they got us was that they said it was going to be a soulful tour in Germany. Really? Okay! Maybe I’m the one that’s ignorant thinking that it’s sort of hard with soulful stuff and I thought this is intriguing to me. It might be the beginning of something, it might be an oddity, but let’s do this. That’s why I’m here now.

How were the dates so far?

The first two? Shocking. Shocking.

Really good?

Yeah, because I was told the first one in Leipzig, it’s the eastern part that’s supposedly harder. It used to be, or that was the reputation. They were in it! Mid-tempo and… they were in it… Anything else?

No, that should be it. Thank you very much.

No problem. I would like to stay longer but I’ve got to work! 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. Whatever it is, you‘re going to hear it tonight.

Sounds promising…

Yeah. See you in a little bit, guys. I can’t believe you got that. Deskee! God! What was it 82, 83? No. What year was that?

No, that was 91.

91? Oh, it seems like such a long time ago. Wow. Bring it on a CD, I might play it later!

Interview by Finn Johannsen and Jan Joswig.

20 essential mixes by Tony Humphries:

1. Indeep – Last Night A DJ Saved My Life (Sound Of New York)
2. Fresh Band – Come Back Lover (Are ‘n Be)
3. Visual – The Music Got Me (A Sure Shot Mix By Tony Humphries) (Prelude)
4. Sharon Redd – Beat The Street (Special Remixed Version) (Rams Horn Records)
5. Cultural Vibe – Ma Foom Bey (Love Chant Version) (Easy Street)
6. Basement Boys – Love Don’t Live Here No More (Zanz Mix) (Jump Street)
7. Longsy D – This Is Ska (The Zanzibar Mix) (Warlock)
8. Jungle Brothers – What “U” Waitin’ “4″? (Zanzibar Mix) (Warner)
9. Ultra Naté – It’s Over Now (Tony Humphries Mix) (Warner)
10. The Beloved –  The Sun Rising (Norty’s Space Mix) (Eastwest)
11. Queen Latifah – Come Into My House (Zanzibar Mix) (Tommy Boy)
12. A Bitch Named Johanna – Freak It (Project X)
13. Deee-Lite – Power Of Love (Zanzibar Vocal Mix) (Elektra)
14. Freestyle Orchestra – Keep On Pumpin’ It Up (Zanzibar Mix) (SBK Records)
15. Urban Soul – Alright (Zanzibar Mix) (Polar)
16. The Sugarcubes – Leash Called Love (Mo Nu Dub) (Elektra)
17. The Cover Girls – Wishing On A Star (Magic Sessions Dub 1) (Epic)
18. Reese Project – Human (Tony Humphries Mix) (Network)
19. Romanthony – Falling From Grace (Tony’s Main Mix) (Azuli)
20. Mr. Fingers – On My Way (Pinky Blue Mix) (MCA)

De:Bug 07-08/07

One Comment on “Interview: Tony Humphries”

  1. 1 Tony Tony Tony Tony Humphries - Druffalo said at 1:36 pm on February 6th, 2014:

    […] Read some in this recent interview… […]

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