If you met him in 1977 aged 15, in his red gym shorts and blue basketball shirt, if you saw him carrying a box full of records with his headphones around his neck, if you heard him talk about DJing, disco, and some strange music called house, you’d never have believed that he would help change the world.
And yet that teenager created the first ever house music record in 1984, set up the first house record label, was the first house artist signed to a major label, and was the first house DJ to enter the Billboard music charts.
He became known as the very “originator of house music” and in 1997, he was honoured by Chicago’s Mayor Daley with an annual celebration on July 17th in his and the Pioneers of House Music’s name.
Throughout February we’re celebrating Black History Month by interviewing some of the most important black electronic music pioneers and contributors, and we’re proud to have him as our first interviewee.
Ladies and gentleman, please stand for Jesse Saunders.
What was it like during the early days of house?
The early days were spent finding the best, most soulful, and uplifting disco records out of New York and Philly. I’m talking the late 1970s. There was only one place that carried them and it was called Sounds Good, on the northside of Chicago.
When Frankie arrived, he would get them directly from New York although Ron Hardy was already playing them at Den One before Frankie.
Lil Louis was also on top of things on the west side. A DJ by the name of Mike Ezebuku was doing it on the southside. I was 15 or so at this time, around 1977 to ‘78.
As we started to progress and bring this deep house music (as it should be called to differentiate it from the 1980s Chicago house) to the masses – teenagers and college students that didn’t go to gay clubs – the term house stuck because we would often associate it to the style that Frankie played at the Warehouse.
DJs such as myself, my brother Wayne Williams, and eventually Alan King, Tony Hatchett, and Andre Hatchett were in a crew called the Chosen Few.
We DJed every major event in Chicago from 1978 through 1984 when I made the first house record! DJs in those days had lots of love for each other – there was no fighting as to who was the best, except maybe Farley “Jackmaster” Funk!
We supported all the crews and parties that each other promoted.
I get people all the time coming into the Electronic Music Café in amazement because they think a white person started house music! All I can do is laugh…
So how would you compare it to today’s house music scene?
The camaraderie is back after suffering for many years because of the competition. The only difference in today’s scene is that we have better technology.
I think that’s good and bad at the same time. Bad, because in the early days you had to be a musician and understand song structure and songwriting to make music.
I feel that when we gave the ability for everyone to make tracks, we lost the essence of what music production is all about. On the other hand, I feel that allowing everyone the opportunity to be able to express themselves musically is a wonderful thing as well!
Why was house music important for black culture?
It was important because it once again showed that black music is always the catalyst for rhythm and musical styles that dominate pop culture.
Of course it’s a part of black history. I’m black – or at least the last time I looked I was! Although, I get people all the time coming into the Electronic Music Café in amazement because they think a white person started house music! All I can do is laugh…
You’ve been quoted as saying that there are some ‘misconceptions’ with the origins of house music. Please explain what you meant.
[laughs] There are lots of misconceptions. Most of them are due to people taking credit when they weren’t even around to witness what is was all about! Others are because people feel the need to embellish their role in the evolution.
Why did you decide to produce ‘On & On’ in 1984?
My records got stolen, which contained the original bootleg ‘On & On’ (which was my moniker). I used the bassline from Space Invaders and I wrote original arrangements around it to produce and write ‘Fantasy’!
‘On & On’ is the DJ track version of ‘Fantasy’!
Back then, had the term ‘house music’ been coined yet?
House music had been coined, but it wasn’t really associated with what we were doing. People were shortening the term Warehouse to house as early as 1978.
It was a term used to describe the style of disco that Frankie, Ronnie, and Mike were playing. Since I was capturing the essence of the style with my On & On tracks, it was a great marketing tool to utilize when we released ‘On & On’ in 1984 on Jes Say Records.
What were your musical influences at the time that you produced the track?
Electronic records such as Dr.’s Cat ‘Love Is The Drug’, anything by Kraftwerk, and the bootleg mix of ‘On & On’. It was because this record was stolen from my collection that led me to make ‘On & On’!
What is the track an ode to?
The bootleg version of ‘On & On’ was my signature record. I was the only one to play it at the time. No one knew what it was, and I wasn’t telling. What it actually was, was the B side of a Mega Mix record, which is like a mix or podcast today on vinyl.
Vince and I were basically talking nonsense on ‘On & On’! Just random things about how the music makes you feel.
So it was all pretty innocent then?
I just wanted another version that I could play in my DJ sets. A guy by the name of Frank Sells, who worked at the Importes Etc. record store told me that he could sell lots of ‘On & On’ if I released it. That’s when the light bulb came on…
Did you imagine back then that ‘On & On’ would lead to the explosion of house?
Nope! I had no idea of the magnitude because in those days there was no internet to gauge it by. It caught me completely by surprise!
What kit did you use to produce the track?
A Korg Poly 61 keyboard, a Roland 808 drum machine, and a TB 303 Bassline machine.
It made me feel very accomplished! Chicago never recognized anything that we did in the ‘80s and early ‘90s
Do you have any other unreleased productions from those early days?
I have a few actually. When I listen to them I realize that I’ve come a long way, but I understood what it took to make a hit record even at the beginning of my production career.
I plan to release them soon on Broken Records so stay tuned.
In 1997, Mayor Daley named July 17th Jesse Saunders and the Pioneers of House Music Day for Chicago. How was that?
It made me feel very accomplished! Chicago never recognized anything that we did in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. House music had become a mainstay around the world, but Chicago didn’t really appreciate it in my eyes.
So when Mayor Daley signed and presented that proclamation to me it felt like 14 years in the making had finally come to fruition. He later signed another one eight years later. Now, we have the full support from the city to host our annual House Music Reunion every 4th of July weekend in Hyde Park.
Last year over 40,000 people came out to testify and celebrate. This year we expect over 50,000! For more info check: ChosenFewDJs.com.
Who do you consider are the true ‘chosen few’ pioneers of house music?
First and foremost, I must give tribute to the man, the innovator, and the reason why we continue to blaze new trails, Ron Hardy.
If it were not for Ron Hardy, there would be no Frankie Knuckles, Jesse Saunders, Steve Hurley, Marshall Jefferson or Farley “Jackmaster” Funk!
Frankie Knuckles brought the New York soulful disco sound to Chicago.
Robert Williams had the gusto to formulate, build, and run a club that everyone else considered to be nothing more than a gay joint, which influenced the foundation to build what we know as house music today – The Warehouse!
Wayne Williams encouraged me to DJ and he had the foresight, and the drive to take this ‘Warehouse’ music into the mainstream crowd (with my help).
Lil Louis held it down on the west side while myself, Wayne, Michael Ezebuku, Frankie and Ronnie did it respectively. It was a concerted effort on all of our parts that made house music a household name in Chicago.
His record ‘French Kiss’ was a ground-breaking release worldwide that led to the explosion of house internationally.
Paul Weisberg took the initiative to bring those hard-to-find records to his store, Importes etc., and he understood that the new underground movement of house needed a retail outlet.
Marshall Jefferson provided an anthem for our cause and took the production value to new heights with his work on the Ten City albums and more.
Graham Armstrong and Lee Michaels took a chance and put house music on major Chicago radio stations WGCI and WBMX, which spearheaded the revolution and eventual takeover of radio in the ‘80s.
Vince Lawrence showed me the way to put house on wax and co-wrote most of the early hits with me!
Chip E was a good understudy and took the reins when I left for Hollywood.
Larry Sherman saw a young entrepreneur’s spirit – me – and he guided me in the right direction to make a business out of house.
Rocky Jones was a visionary, and not only promoted the first house record through his record pool Audio Talent, but he built the foundation for ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ and ‘Jack Your Body’ to become No.1 hits on Top Of The Pops in the United Kingdom.
DJ Pierre twisted our traditional house music into acid.
And Fast Eddie, Mr. Lee, Kool Rock Steady & Tyree Cooper fused rap with house to create the hip house sound.
What are your favourite early house music records?
Marshall Jefferson ‘House Music Anthem’ (’Move Your Body’)
The Force ‘It’s Ok’
Fresh ‘Dum Dum’
Lillian ‘Night Flight’
J.M. Silk ‘Music Is The Key’
Mr. Lee ‘Get Busy’
Liz Torres ‘No More Mind Games’
Fast Eddie ‘Yo Yo Get Funky’
Tyree Cooper & Kool Rock Steady ‘Turn Up The Bass’
Jesse’s Gang ‘Real Love’
Z Factor feat. Jesse Saunders ‘Fantasy’
Farley “Jackmaster” Funk & Jesse Saunders ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’
Who are your black heroes or mentors?
My hero is my grandfather, Robert H. Miller, who was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, who put his money where his mouth was and actually financed the march on Selma and walked with Martin Luther King. He was also the first black man elected to the electoral college and the only man to serve two terms as the Mayor of Bronzeville (the black section of Chicago).
My mentors are Ernie Singleton, former head of MCA (Universal Music) Black Music, and Benny Medina who guided me to become the producer that I am today by taking me under his wing when I first signed to Geffen/Warner Bros. Records in 1986.
It was with his guidance and later his trust that I was able to become the go-to guy when they needed a project finished at Warner Bros.. Some of these projects included Jermaine Stewart, Club Nouveau, Karen White, Simple Pleasure, and El DeBarge.
Have you yourself been involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
My mother was involved; my grandfather was involved, so therefore I was involved. It was a family thing and I had a major legacy to uphold. I rode on the bus that my grandfather hired to recreate the march on Selma that he did with Dr. King.
The Ku Klux Klan marched against us and we had major opposition from the police in Alabama, but at the end I was proud to be a part of erecting the statue in front of the church commemorating this historic event.