Dennis Ferrer may have put up some big numbers for his 2010 vocal hit “Hey Hey” and, more recently, with his chart-topping remix of Nick Curly’s “Underground,” but his background in dance music is long and varied. As a protege of Kerri Chandler, Ferrer plied his house and techno tracks for years in the underground, building his impeccable production style and eventually starting his Objektivity label, which has fostered the careers of young house phenoms The Martinez Brothers and Jovonn.
This New Year’s Eve, Ferrer is set to headline a huge party at London’s Electric Brixton. And in anticipation of the event, he released an exclusive Beatport Mix to get us in the mood. Grab the set right now on Beatport Mixes, and read on to hear what Ferrer has to say about the party and the changing landscape of the dance music scene.
For this New Year’s Eve party, you talk about bringing the Pacha vibe to Electric Brixton London. Describe that for us. What can we expect?
Well, the Pacha vibe was one of an all-out night of debauchery [laughs]. No, just kidding! Or, am I? Hmmm… Seriously, it’s just about having a good time with friends and significant others, and for at least that moment in time, nothing is wrong with the world.
Give us a little hint of what’s on the Beatport Mix. Anything new on this one?
Depends on what you consider new, I suppose. There are tons of gems that are a bit dated but never got the recognition they deserve. You hear them and you’re like, “Huh? How did I miss that?” Happens to all of us at one time, especially in this day and age where music is so disposable, unfortunately. I don’t really have a concrete answer except to just say these are the tracks that I happen to be feeling at this moment.
You’ve mentioned Kerri Chandler giving you that break early on in your career and not wanting anything in return. Explain for us what is was like for you then. Did you foresee how your career would take off?
Honestly, I never imagined any of this—not in this way, no. I still don’t believe that I’m where I am today. Yet, I’m not satisfied. I don’t think I’m quite ready to believe that “I’ve made it,” so to speak. I can’t allow myself to. It’s a very competitive business—not only with other artists, but mostly with yourself. This is one of the things most successful people are afraid to admit: Your biggest competition tends to be with yourself. When you start out, you have no worries—not a care in the world. You may be broke, but you are essentially mentally free. The only concern you have is that you just want to be somebody. [But] what nobody tells you is that being somebody comes with responsibility. Not really to anyone in particular, mind you, but to yourself and your craft. I have more to prove now than when I thought I had everything to prove, if this makes sense. It’s not getting to the top that’s hard—it’s the slippery slope that follows.
Kerri was your mentor. Do you see that kind of mentorship still happening these days? Do you see young artists seeking out mentors? And are the established professionals willing to give of their experience?
Honestly, I see so many people—young artists and old—worried about their own careers and guarded secrets that it’s really sad. [I] see, “I’m not hookin’ him up with the name of this tune,” “I need this to be my record,” or “I’m not telling him what plugin I used,” nowadays and I’ve just gotta laugh. It’s stupid; everyone thinks they’re more important than what they really are. Honestly, no one uses a tool or plays the exact same way as someone else, [so] what are you worried about? It’s your own ego that gets in the way; your own insecurities shining through for everyone to see. And you wonder why you’re gonna be called a dick later on? If you’re an amazing DJ or an amazing producer, trust me, it isn’t the plugin or the record—it’s your talent. Be confident in your talent. There’s no need to not share your knowledge. That is why a record is mass produced. It is why the plugin is not called “DJ-I-give-myself-fellatio”-izer. It wasn’t made personally for you. You can only leave behind certain things once you pass: knowledge and a manufactured record. They go on existing once you’re gone. I’d like to keep on living in this way. To know that I helped someone the same way I was helped.
You’ve produced in a variety of styles such as techno, gospel house, Afro-house, jazz, and so forth. How do you go about determining the style of the next production? And to what extent do you immerse yourself in those particular styles before beginning a production?
If you’ve moved to Rome, then you do as Romans do. And you do it well, or fuck it, stay home. That’s been my philosophy from day one. I look around, see where I think I want to live, and I go. Simple.
Do you have a favorite of your original productions?
Probably Dido ["Don't Believe in Love (Dennis Ferrer's Objektivity Remix)"]. It was one that flew under the radar, yet it got me a Grammy nomination. That’s not the reason why, though. It has more to do with how much I suppose Sony and [Dido's] fans didn’t understand what I was attempting to do. Here I was taking [this] Dido song, adding techy references, [turning it] into something you can dance to. It was too far ahead and I listen to what comes out today and say, “Damn, I wasn’t too far off.” They just didn’t get it [laughs]. For what it’s worth, I still don’t know how I made that main sound in the riff. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for a while now.
Tell us about your musical upbringing. Were you self-taught? You have great skills on the keys. Did you take piano lessons as a kid?
Self-taught. Though, I’ve been trying to officially learn how to play properly for years now and only recently have taken it very seriously. I’ve just had this uncanny knack for being able to express just barely what I need to get out in order to make a record. I’ve spoken in slang for so long that I’ve grown tired of it. If you can’t speak a language properly then it becomes difficult to fully express yourself. I have so much I want to say and I can only stammer and stumble it all out. When I was younger I didn’t give two fucks, but now I realize the error. You act ghetto for too long, you remain ghetto. You can’t get mad when you’re invited to the bankers meeting and they’re speaking millions and your stuck on dollars. It’s frustrating. I’m actually amazed I’ve gotten this far.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
It was so varied. As a kid in NYC, it was a fun time in the ’80s. There was disco, the beginnings of hip-hop, New Wave, real R&B, and very interesting dance records. It was everywhere. I have fond recollections of “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” Tom Tom Club, Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing,” S.O.S Band, [and] Vaughan Mason & Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.” You could hear this anytime, anywhere at a block party in the middle of a block in the Bronx.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
“You stupid fuck! Get your ass in there, practice, and learn the piano properly. And while you’re at it, hit that effin’ guitar or the drums. TRUST ME, YOU’RE GONNA NEED IT!”
Technology can only get you so far, kids. Sooner or later you have to rely on real skills and music theory. Otherwise, you’re just faking it. You can try like I did to convince yourself for years that what you do is credible, but [when] you begin to play with the big boys, in the big circuit, you’ll feel inadequate; and trust me, you’re gonna hate that. Though some people are content to be the big fish in the little pond, but that’s a story for a different interview.
What is your favorite instrument or piece of studio equipment?
I have so many favorites. Honestly, though, it falls between two—my Fender Rhodes 73 suitcase or my vintage Sonor Phonics drum kit. My analog synths—and they’re no slouches—of course, come a very close and tight third.
Tell us about your workflow in producing originals versus doing remixes. How do they differ?
Well I think some of the pressure is off when you remix, as half the job is pretty much done for you. The stress of writing lyrics is hard, and the added stress of writing competent ones is even worse. All the while, add the stress of having some sort of decent production and you find that it’s no wonder that tracks/instrumentals tend to be the released norm of the day. There’s a different skill set that [is] necessary to do this. Remixes are the easy ones; you’re just adding meat to the skeleton and making sure you don’t get in the way too much. (Another skill set and another conversation for another day.) Originals tend to be a feeling [or] emotional state kind of thing. I may have heard a saying, had an argument, a reflection, a reaction—positive or negative—and I’ll keep a note of it. I sit down and sketch out what I’m trying to convey; leaving it as open for interpretation as possible, as I believe that being direct is kind of cheesy most of the time. Yet, I’ll agree it does sometimes have its place. I’ll begin to sketch out a mental melody, humming it and driving anyone within a three-meter radius crazy because the whole instrumentation is happening in my head, yet all you hear is BOOM CHICKA BOOM CHICK BOOM CHICKA BOOM CHICK. I get it into Cubase or Ableton, and I just continue fine-tuning until it makes sense—which could take hours or months. I’m not in a rush. I’d rather it be right than to later feel like I took everyone’s money. So round and round I go, and eventually, voila!
What is the most important thing to making a song groove? To giving it that soul?
The kick and bass relationship with an amazing melody (vox or an instrument). A hot bassline and a kick with some “ooomph” will always get anyone’s attention. You add a memorable melody and all the rest is just filler, honestly. Think about it. Look back and check out all the groovy hot shit—they all have it in common. You can get cute if you want. You can try all the complicated chord structures your heart desires, but in the end, it’s all the same.
Tell us about your vision for Objektivity. What kinds of artists are you looking for, and is there a common thread throughout all of the music released on your label?
I pretty much have one vision: bangers—records that people go, “Oh, that’s hot!” That doesn’t mean I get it right all the time. Of course, we don’t and it’s not realistic. But I’m at a point where that’s what I want. I’m not trying to do symphonies on the dancefloor, as I’m not that crazy. I make and we release dance music. Therefore, I want to put out records that make people dance. Who are these people? The people that tend to be where I’m going to listen to music or that type of music that I’m listening to in that moment in our evolving history. I think everyone gets over-analytical and pontificating about this. This is not brain surgery, nor is it my aim to be the Stephen Hawking of dance music. I look and listen to some of the people in our scene and I’m like, “Really? Are you kidding me? You can’t, for the love of God, be serious!”
Do you know when you have a hit? Or does the success of certain productions surprise you?
Hits are subjective. They’re basically lottery tickets that come to fruition. No one really knows what’s gonna stick. I can tell you for every record someone thought was gonna stick, it won’t. And the one that will is on a hard drive with five more that he’s unaware are going to and he thinks sucks. Sure there are certain ingredients for success that become familiar to you as aural cues and you think, “Hmmm, this one has the potential to be big if I get it right.” But getting it right production-wise isn’t the only thing. Timing is an immense factor in it—one which the majority doesn’t seem to heed. Certain times and certain perfect storms occur, and if you do it enough (and study enough) you begin to become familiar with it, if you pay attention closely. That’s why sometimes people get confused when a mediocre record becomes huge and yet the kick-ass one falls by the wayside. Watch the calendar, my friends. It’s not how many you make (12 records a year doesn’t make you great, it just makes you prolific!), but the quality and timing factor in greatly.
What is the biggest pressure electronic musicians face right now?
The ability to be compensated for their productions without having to become something they don’t want to become, namely DJs. Not every producer desires this, but when you cannot live off your art, what’s the point? Don’t ask me how to fix it—I have no idea. I just know it’s a huge problem and it’s a shame. It’s difficult to excel in your craft if you don’t have the time to hone the skills necessary. Producer/DJs who read this later will totally get my point. The layman will laugh and just say, “Boo hoo. You’re getting paid right?” Some have resorted to “live shows”—views on this matter are expectedly highly polarized.
There’s a lot of talk right now about “EDM” and the “dance music crisis.” Do you think dance music is just going through adolescence? What is your take on the future of dance music, especially in America?
The only thing that has changed in dance music is that once again, and certainly not to my surprise, the majors have seen an opportunity at exploitation. Now, I don’t generally think of this as a negative, as that is the main reason a record label exists. What people tend to forget—artists, mainly—is that you as an artist are allowing your own exploitation at a price. You are taking one for the team so that you are possibly given a chance at a greater end game for yourself. A record label’s job is to exploit. End of story. They’re in the business of making money. Majors have seen a bit of an opportunity at expanding and profiting from a different genre’s fan base, and have had some artists go all in with what they believe brings them access to the most amount of opportunistic and easy money within the scene. Money—this is what has brought us EDM, yet again. (It existed before, folks.) Plain and simple. Purists are cringing, rolling their eyes. I know, I’ve done it. It’ll come and it’ll go as quickly as when the majors realize the well has run dry and they can’t exploit anyone in the scene nor benefit from the cross-collateralizing of the producers of the genres involved. And just like before, underground dance music will continue to live and thrive in some shape or form as it always has since even before disco.
How will you remember 2012? And what do you hope to accomplish in 2013? Any New Year’s resolutions yet?
I will remember it just like all the other years—I won’t [laughs]. From 2013 to beyond. I just want to be able to do what I’ve always known I lived to do: make music.