The Story Of Acid House: As Told By DJ Pierre

Chicago-born Nathaniel Pierre Jones aka DJ Pierre is a true dance music pioneer. Recording as DJ Pierre, Phortune, Phantasy Club, Photon Inc and a myriad of other aliases, it was his early acid house group Phuture – with friends Spanky and Herb J – that changed the game forever with the Acid Tracks EP in 1987, an undisputed classic and key moment in dance music. After moving away from Chicago in 1990 and heading to New York, Pierre became in-house producer and head of A&R at Strictly Rhythm and was responsible for releasing another string of hugely influential tracks such as Photon Inc’s “Generate Power” and Joint Venture’s “Master Blaster”, as well as his signature ‘Wild Pitch’ sound. But here, Pierre tells us first hand the first half of his story: the story of acid house. You can listen to the audio version of this over at RBMA Radio. 

 

How I started getting into DJing and mixing is, basically, I kinda attribute it to the Hot Mix 5. I wanted to be a radio DJ because of the Hot Mix 5. The Hot Mix 5 was made up of five different DJs, all with their unique styles, and their mixes were so perfect – the way they would blend. All of them had a different style and I just remember that you couldn’t wait until the weekend because the Hot Mix 5 were on.

The person I thought was the best Hot Mix 5 DJ was always Farley. I just liked how he scratched, his creativeness on the turntables. I saw him live one time DJing and he lifted the turntable up in his hand, and the record wasn’t playing when he lifted it up. But when he lifted it up, he was tapping on the turntable to make a beat, and I thought that was really creative and interesting that he did that, and he went from that back into another turntable that was playing some music. So, I thought that was kind of crazy.

“It was like, that 303 and I connected, in a way that I had never connected to a piece of equipment before.”

We were trying to find a sound, and we bought keyboards and everything, and nothing kind of clicked with us. We would come up with basslines, we would try out different bass sounds, and I don’t know why but we just weren’t satisfied with any sound that we were working with. This guy named Jasper G, who was just a friend of ours, made a track, and when I heard his track, I was liken “Yo, what did you use for the bassline?” And he said, “A Roland TB-303.” We didn’t know what that was. I went by his house and I saw it, I was like, “Ah, that’s nice right there.” And when I saw it, I didn’t touch it at all, I didn’t see him programme it, but he just was playing a beat straight and it had that bassline in it. And the bassline wasn’t tweaking like acid tweaks, as we know it today, but it was just being used for what it was meant to be used for: as a bassline machine.

So, I liked the texture of it, so told Spanky about it – Spanky’s the other member of Phuture, along with me and Herbert J – and he went out and got one for, like, $40. He said, “Oh, I found it in the secondhand shop, come over. I’m trying to figure out how to programme this thing.” So, I came over to his house, and he already had a beat plan, but we didn’t know how to programme it. We had it synched up, and it was playing some stuff, and I started just tweaking knobs and turning stuff, and Spanky was like, “Woah woah woah. Keep doing that, keep doing that.” So, I kept twisting knobs, and the next thing you know, we were there for like an hour or two, just twisting knobs and programming things. The funny thing is, that first day, we made “Acid Tracks”. It was quite spiritual, to be honest. It was like, that 303 and I connected, in a way that I had never connected to a piece of equipment before. Looking back on it, for sure, that machine gave us a start in a sound into this world.

Ron Hardy Ron Hardy We recorded on a cassette tape, and we were thinking, “Wow, man! Who do we give this to?” Spanky’s like, “Yo, Ron Hardy. I think that’s the only person I can imagine playing this.” Because Ron Hardy, he was so open. He would drop Slick Rick, he would play crazy tracks from Larry Heard and different things. So, we just knew that it kind of fit. So, we gave it to him, and he didn’t say a word. He just listened to it very straight-faced. He didn’t do much of anything. Me and Spanky were looking at each other, saying, “OK, he probably don’t like it, then.” And the track was literally 15 minutes long. And he listened to the whole 15 minutes. He didn’t stop after a couple of minutes. ‘Cause we were recording when we were tweaking it, so it was like we never knew when to stop [laughs]. Spanky was dropping beats in and out, I’m twisting knobs. So, it was like a jam session and we recorded the whole thing. So, after it finished, he just looked up and said, “When can I get a copy?” We was like, “Alright! [laughs] We’ll come back Friday and bring you a copy.”

We came back later that night to see if he would play it, and then it sounded so good. It was kind of early, so it wasn’t packed yet. So, people were just like, “What is this he’s playing?” Early on, people tend to think, “Aw, he’s testing out some new music or something.” So, we thought that was it, that was the end of it. He played it and we’d have to come back another day to see if he plays it again. So, we stayed there for the rest of the party, and an hour later, it’s starting to fill up. And he drops it again. These people were like, kinda stopped dancing, it was just like, “Alright, we don’t like this one. We’ll just sit this one out til the next track.” We thought, “That’s it, he’s not gonna play this track because the people aren’t getting into it.” So, an hour later, he dropped it again. And then the people go like, “What the heck is this track?” So, they didn’t stop dancing, they danced through it, and was still like unsure of what’s going on – what to do on it, what to think.

Ron Hardy would go for like 12 hours, so [laughs] people would stay there the whole time. Sometimes, you’d sit down in the corner on the floor, doze off, or do whatever. So, that happened, and all I know is I heard the bells, the whistles in the track going again. Just the beat part, I didn’t hear the acid. I had my eyes closed, and I was thinking, “That sound like “Acid Tracks” coming in.” And then I popped my eyes open, I said, “Spanky, that’s our track playing, that’s our track!” So, we jump up and run to the dance area, and we’re just really excited because this guy’s already played it three times, so he’s playing it a fourth time. And when it came in, people just went crazy in that place. They didn’t even know what to do, they didn’t know what they were doing, they were jumping up and down. I will never forget this guy, he was laying on his back, and kicking his legs up in the air [laughs], and I was like, “What’s he doing?” I’ve never seen anyone react to a song like that. And I’m not even saying it just because it was our track. I just think that people had no idea how to behave on it [laughs], so they just went totally crazy, in a way.

We didn’t think anymore of it. We didn’t think of what we were going to do with the track. We weren’t thinking, “Oh, we’re going to make a record, we’re going to press it.” An associate came to me when I was out and about, and he said, “Yo man, have you heard Ron Hardy got this new track called “Acid Track”?” And I was like, “Wow, that sounds exciting!” He’s like, “Yeah, they call it “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track”. People go crazy for it, I can’t even describe what it sounds like, it’s just something you never heard and it’s just incredible.” And we was like, “Man, I wish I could hear it,” and he was like, “You want to hear it? I got it on tape. I recorded it on my microcassette recorder.” So, it was like a live recording.

“We were just like going to libraries, trying to find books – how do you make a record?”

He played the track, and I just remember thinking, “That’s our track!” I said, “We made that track!” And the guy’s looking at me like, ‘whatever, you didn’t make that track.’ I was like, “That’s our track right there. We gave it to Ron Hardy, that’s our track.” And I produced a cassette on cue, because I always had my music with me. I pulled it out and he played the track, and it was crisp, clear, and he knew that it was our track, because we wouldn’t have had it. And he was like, “Woah, that’s your track, man? They’re calling it “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track”!” I said, “Well, OK, we’re just going to take the “Ron Hardy” off and call it “Acid Tracks”.” So, that’s kind of how the track got its name, and that’s how the music got back to us. Just thinking about during those times, it was such a wild, wild west of music. The word of mouth, how things got around, there wasn’t all these magazines. So, it was exhilarating.

We heard about how popular “Acid Tracks” was from other people. We were saying, “Yo man, we got to figure out how to make a record.” We were just like going to libraries, trying to find books – how do you make a record? [laughs] How is it done? [laughs] It’s funny to think about, compared to people nowadays, because it’s just out there. The only record labels we’d heard of were like Epic Records, Universal – these big, huge labels that didn’t do electronic music.

So, On The House, which was Marshall Jefferson’s group, was performing at the Power Plant. They’re on stage and they’re doing “Move Your Body”, which was the biggest record at the time. I just remember, I wrote down on a piece of paper before I left home, cause I knew Marshall was going to be there, I put on the paper, I remember, “I’m DJ Pierre, I’m with the group called Phuture and we made the track that Ron Hardy is playing called “Acid Tracks”. Can you call us and tell us how to produce a record?” I was holding the paper up because the stage was elevated, so you’re holding the paper up in the air, and you’d have to bend down and grab it if you were on stage. So, I’m doing that and I couldn’t get Marshall’s attention, but Curtis McClain, he’d seen me. So, I gave it to him and he took it. And I told him, “Could you give this to Marshall?” And that was it, I didn’t see them after the show, so I think God is good because I had the notion to do it then; not to wait until after the show and try to give it to them.

Marshall Jefferson Marshall Jefferson

The next morning, coming in and and out of the house, going places, I came back in the house and my mom used to post all kind of messages on the fridge, and it said, “Marshall Jefferson called,” and had a phone number. I’m thinking, “No, it can’t be. It’s not enough time passed. It was just last night.” And I’d told all my friends what I was going to do, so I thought, “OK, somebody’s playing a trick on me.” But I called the number anyway. When Marshall answered the phone, I was just like, “Wow. It’s Marshall Jefferson.”

So, we talked and we set up a recording session, and I remember at the time we had “Acid Tracks” going like 128. I remember Marshall saying, “Pierre, you need to slow that down because they’re not going to play that in New York. New York they play things much slower.” And I was thinking, “Yeah, but we like it fast.” And he said, “Pierre, if the DJs want to speed it up, let them pitch it up.” So, you know, we listened, slowed it down to 120. He gave us good advice and he mixed the track as far as setting levels and stuff. But as far as producing, he didn’t add any new sounds to it or anything like that.

We had this other track called “Your Only Friend”, which was real popular as well, when it came out. It was my voice on there, so it wasn’t like a deep cocaine voice that people now associate with the group Phuture, it was just a light voice, my voice, saying the words. And Marshall said, “This is cocaine talking, right? So, it needs to be something scary, something that makes people like ‘woah, who’s that speaking?’ Because cocaine isn’t good, cocaine is bad, so you wanna get this across, you want it to be gotten across by the voice. You should have Spanky do it,” because Spanky has a deeper voice than me, “And I’m gonna put some harmonizer on it to sound deep.” So, Marshall did that, which was a blessing, because to this day, that’s our thing with that deep voice. So, it was great, working with Marshall. I think he really gave us some good advice. And I respect him for just taking the time. He didn’t know who we were, he didn’t have to call me or anything like that. So, he set all that up, and the rest is history.

Some of the acid tracks that are out there, I think are genius, I remember when I first heard “Acid Over” by Tyree Cooper. I was just amazed at how he blended a jazz piano with the acid. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was Peter Black that played on there. I just thought it was amazing. It was kind of funky, jazzy and soulful. But it was acid. Which, up to that point, you never really thought about acid as being funky or jazzy or soulful.

Josh Wink “Higher State Of Consciousness” was just incredible to me. I like the big, huge break. If it wasn’t the first, it was among the first type of big crazy breaks in acid tracks, so I really loved it. I think Josh makes pretty good acid tracks. And Hardfloor – I know we used more than one acid line on a track before, but Hardfloor, the way they combine two or three different acid lines was incredible. I think the intensity and energy that they brought to acid house was definitely the start of things going toward that trancey direction with other elements that they included in their acid tracks. So, they’re one of the true greats at making acid. And Armando, God rest his soul, had made some incredible acid. He made the first acid that I thought was funky, without putting anything else in it, but acid. “Land Of Confusion” was just one funky acid line that you just felt like you didn’t dance the same way that you would dance to other acid tracks. You moved your body different on that track. It was one of the first tracks that people that didn’t even like acid house would play, would blend in with their vocal tracks or other type of instrumental tracks, or whatever. They could play “Land Of Confusion”. Armando was also a master at using a 303.

When I first moved to New York, the first record I made was called “Generate Power”. In New York, I saw a vibrant scene going on there, and I met certain DJs – I went to some parties with different people. I thought, “Man, this is the place to be. If I’m going to continue doing house music, I don’t want to put out anymore music on any Chicago labels.”

“You have to understand, back in the mid-80s, you didn’t really imagine connecting outside of your city, let alone your whole country.”

I moved to New York because things were kind of not working out so well in the music industry in Chicago. People were ripping you off too much, you didn’t make any royalties on the music that you produced. When we made “Acid Tracks”, there wasn’t a way to find out or to even know that it was being licensed and shipped out to Europe and the UK specifically, because – you have to understand, back in the mid-80s, you didn’t really imagine connecting outside of your city, let alone your whole country. Our whole house world seemed just our thing, just a Chicago thing, that kind of leaked out over into Detroit, New York, but basically you didn’t imagine that it went to another country, overseas.

Our world was a very small world, and there weren’t magazines talking about music like that, either. So, it was easy for the record labels to deceive us, and they were sending music out there, selling hundreds of thousands of vinyls, telling us they only sold, maybe three or four thousand, and not really compensating us. When I first really heard about it was when a reporter came to me from Record Mirror Magazine, out of the UK, talking about the ‘Summer Of Love’ and how acid house had just totally went through the UK, and how big it was. And telling me that if I were to come over to the UK, I might get arrested if I said [laughs] I made acid house. So, he said [laughs], “The queen don’t want people listening to your music.” [laughs] Because of all that, I really got disgruntled with the music industry out of Chicago. And then the mayor of Chicago started cracking down on all the clubs, clubs had to close at two o clock, so the scene was kind of really getting messed up. So, I kind of got a deal with Jive Records at that time. I was going back and forth to New York.

As far as thinking "Acid Tracks" was a turning point for Chicago house, I think it was more of a turning point for electronic music. Because that sound was so futuristic, which is why we even chose the name Phuture for the group. As you can see today, some of the biggest people at the forefront of electronic music today are putting acid in their music, and you got to think, this is something that came out in ‘86.

The introduction of acid kind of really changed the house scene as far as like the beginning of raves, just massive, crazy parties. It just opened the door for techno, electro – just planted the seeds for these sounds. As far as the Chicago scene, it definitely added that new genre to it. Because I thought we had something special that was only ours, in a way. I remember hearing, I think it was “Land Of Confusion” or it was “151” by Armando, and when I heard it, the first thing I thought was, “Woah. That’s the 303. Someone else has one.” [laughs] It was kind of amazing in a way. That Roland machine that was dead to Roland. I mean, look at it now, you have people using the term ‘acid’. All the companies use that as mixing it in with certain preset titles. You even have Acid Audio making acid loops, which I don’t even understand why they use the term ‘acid’, because it’s just loops of any kind. I guess they’re just stealing the word because they knew it would bring attention to the product.

I feel like the group Phuture and the acid sound has impacted the electronic music industry probably unlike any one group or sound has done. So, it’s definitely something that’s incredible to think about.
 

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