Interview with the Chicago house legend Jamie Principle

This year at the amazing Into the Valley festival in Sweden we had the chance to talk to one of the early innovators of Chicago House music, the legendary Jamie Principle. After enjoying his magical live performance where we felt transported back to the beginnings of the raw house in the 80s, we met up with Jamie and his manager Maria from NY based Def Mix records. The two of them welcomed us warmly and we felt like being friends all over the interview. To start with, we passed Jamie our questions and gave him the freedom to speak about whatever comes to his mind, and so he started to tell us his very unique history…


Jamie Principle:

Some of these questions I’m going to answer, some of these I’m going to be like Scooby Doo (laughs). Some of them are kind of… good questions I never thought about … Like how do I image the future of the House genre and will the Chicago influence persist in time. Chicago is so weird. At the beginning of house music, we were just doing what we wanted to do, there was nobody there to imitate. Now, since there are so many genres of House, everybody is trying to follow the other person. I think we’re still going to be the innovators of that field of house where we started… I don’t know if we if are getting away from that, I don’t know if we are going back to it, because in Chicago, we’re kind of in a different world form everybody else musically, because some records, by the time they get to us they are over everywhere else. We’re in a whole other time in that issue. If the new generation of house people try to not just copy what has been done by the innovators, then we will be around forever.


W.I.M: What about your own work?


J.P.: Concerning me, I’m already going out of the norm for everything that I’m doing, I don’t like being stuck in a box. So that’s why I like to work with as many people as I can because everybody does something different and in order to keep growing, expanding and staying in the system that I call house music you have to do things with other people and collaborate to get inspired. It’s hard getting inspired in Chicago right now for me.


Why is that?


Auuuhm. Because I feel like I’m hearing the same things over and over again. Chicago is a real Hip Hop and R’n’B kind of town; like when House music started you actually heard house music on the radio. You don’t hear it anymore in Chicago. It’s just Hip Hop and Pop – and well, actually a lot of EDM on the radio stations, but they haven’t come back around to accept what started in this city. You would probably here a couple of people’s mixes on the weekend, but that’s about it. There is no real radio broadcasting of house music. Back in the days, on WBMX Friday and Saturday nights there was nothing but house music, that’s all you would hear. You would here Frankie’s tapes out of people’s cars, it was nuts. We don’t have that anymore.


What was actually your relation and your level of creativity with Frankie Knuckles in your music production?


Well, I would take my song to Frankie and he would take the parts and rearrange them to make what everybody then was hearing. For instance, “Your Love” was just a 4-minute song, first it was a poem, then I went to the studio and I made it a song and then I finally convinced Frankie to produce me. The funny thing is that the actual first release on vinyl was “Waiting on my angel”, “Your love” was just out on tape {…} Frankie would deconstruct my songs, and then put it all together again… He had a vision and I had a vision, and the two were in sync, that’s how our relationship was. People get confused, because without Frankie’s production you wouldn’t be hearing what is out there, the parts of the puzzle were there, but he put the pieces together, and he always let me be free in what I wanted to say and do.

It was amazing to see Frankie work in the studio. when I played the drums live, Frankie got the EQ’s, feel, intensity and emotion behind everything right, and a lot of people don’t understand how hard that really is to do. In fact, many people think that the version on Persona records was the original, but it was a remix. The original version is the one that came out on TRAX records.


Maria (Def Mix): There was and is a lot of drama behind the actual production of “Your Love”, who stole what and who remixed things illegally.


What were your first influences when you started producing?


J.P.: I got a lot (laughs). It would be David Bowie, Prince, Parliament Funkadelics, Depeche Mode, Visage, Heaven 17, AeroSmith – I listened to a lot! I was a drummer in Church choir which had me playing classical music, I was all over the field. Musically, I listened to anything that was good, that I felt was different because I wasn’t really into mainstream. I gravitated to everything that was kind of different, I even liked Italian Disco when that came out.


And all of these records were accessible in Chicago at that time?


No, we had to hunt for those records. When I was listening to Depeche Mode, Visage or B52s, that was considered out of the norm. Especially being a black kid in Chicago that was weird because if you weren’t listening to Top 40 R’n’B you were kind of considered crazy. But I didn’t care, I just loved music.


What brought you back to be so present on stage?


Maria (Def Mix): We had to put him to work! It’s keeping a history going. If the people who are working it and helping to create it don’t keep on pushing it and let it go, it gets forgotten. Some songs like “Your Love” don’t, but there is a whole new generation of audience out there who deserves to experience the past. If you are alive, your duty is to continue letting newer generations keep on experiencing that beauty while doing things in a present tense.


J.P.: That’s why I work with younger producers like Jamie Jones. I want to reach everybody. I didn’t know that there was a new generation listening to what I was doing. Like some people tell me they thought that was knew and I’m like no, no, that was 1985 (laughs). And I love music. That is just who I am, I am just a music person. Regardless, I would be doing some type of music somewhere.


What are your projects right now?


J.P.: I can’t mention all of them, there is a big one coming. But then I’m finishing some stuff with Jamie Jones, I am going to do a follow-up with Green velvet and I’m doing a whole set of project with Felix da Housecat, David Morales and Quintin Harris of Def Mix… Frankie wants me to keep going and to say what I want to say. And I have been very fortunate to be able to stay or write the way I want to write.


When you started to produce with Frankie, did you think about the sensuality and inspiration that you pass to the people?


J.P.: This is how funny it is for me, “Your Love” is a song I wrote for a lady I was involved with and I didn’t think it was going to see the light of the day.  It took a very good friend of mines to take it without my knowledge and give it to Frankie. When he first played it in a club that’s when I first realized my calling, that’s when I saw the reaction of the people to the song and the energy and the emotion that was in there, it was like being in Church! That day I was speaking to myself, “this is your home”. It’s funny to see that something I thought was only for myself wasn’t for myself. It was for people and I think that’s my driving force in my head.

I do like to give energy to others, but in the beginning I really didn’t understand, I thought it was just for me. Now I know it’s for everyone.


Maria (Def Mix): We are in service of others. Life is about doing things for each other. You have a purpose, your pain is someone else’s inspiration. I don’t think that people grasp that. In such a self-centred world, music gives people an outside force that tells them it’s all okay.


J.P.: It was really strange when a young lady from Chicago came to me and said: “It’s a cold world” saved my life, I was going to kill myself and then I heard Cold world… And I was like “Wow”…


What stuff do you actually use for writing?


J.P.: I bounce between a lot of different softwares. Sometimes I’ll wake up with a song and just starting to write it down, and then go back to sleep. So everything starts with a melody first, then I either through it in to PreSonus, put it into Logic, or Ableton or MPC or Machine… It just depends on how I want to work. Then I mess around with it, and the good thing about it is because now that I know so many producers I can kind of think of certain ideas and say this may be good to go with this particular person because in can get like quirky… But my general stuff starts with tape recorder and some melody and then start going through all of the different software and people that I have and know and love… There is not one way. And the funny thing is that I like working how you used to work back in the 80s. You didn’t have all this gear. You bought three pieces and you made your own sound, you couldn’t save your presets and pretty much you had to do everything on the fly. I kind of miss that because now that’s just too much, there is like 120 tracks you don’t have to commit to nothing, there is so much stuff down… Back then it was 8 or 24 tracks and you had to become creative to use those tracks to get everything that you needed. Because sometimes you had to play while you were bouncing down! I love those days… I love the software people too, but …(laughs) it’s so detached from working with people, because you can just work by yourself and don’t have to have contact with anybody. But there is nothing like working in a studio with somebody. You are creatively working together. Because at home it’s just you, and what you think may be good may suck (laughs). So when you have people around in the studio everybody is just collaborating and it’s that energy that you feel that you just don’t get when you’re alone… I do miss that. 



Interviewers: David Martín and Alexandra Bussler. Photo credit: Alexandra Bussler.

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