CHIP E. IS IN his element. We're sitting in his office, desks occupied by a glowing row of computer monitors, talking about the early days of House Music - when Farley, Frankie, Steve, Chip and Ronnie were just guys checking each others beats on reel-to-reel tapes and Chicago was the nerve center of some new, untapped, unexploited consciousness.
To some people, this is just history: a series of dates and events to memorize, like battles of the Civil War. But if you were a part of it then or a part of it now, it's more than that - more than music, even. It's a culture.
A few times during our conversation, curiosity got the better of me and I stopped Chip to ask for background on an obscure figure or place. His memory is an encyclopedia of streets and names and faces. I'm positive he's been asked about them a million times, but he truly seemed to enjoy going through it again for my benefit. He flips through memories like the record sleeves at Importes, the store on Plymouth where he once pushed rare vinyl to the DJs and fans turned on to the sounds rattling in the city's underground heart.
It's that knack for telling a good story, that attention to detail and that passion for the culture of the music he helped create in the early 1980s that makes Chip E. the ideal chronicler of how it all went down.
The UnUsual Suspects: Once Upon a Time in House Music made its theatrical debut a year ago to glowing reviews. Unlike the previous documentaries I've seen that focused exclusively on the "heavy hitters" of House Music, Chip turns the camera to the dancefloor memories of the ordinary Househead without whom, as he pointed out, the Warehouse, PowerPlant and the Music Box - and this music - wouldn't have existed.
Following the release in July of The UnUsual Suspects on DVD and a limited edition reissue of his classic record "Jack Trax" on vinyl, I sat down with Chip to talk about his career as one of the original House Music producers, about being a 12 year old (!) Househead, about writing at least a dozen tracks on anyone's shortlist of the seminal dance music classics, about the film and his new career in video - about the past and the future of House Music and the incredible documentary that illustrates the power that this culture still has over us.
In the House Music documentaries I've seen, they tend to focus on the superstars of the genre. But the first thing I noticed was that The UnUsual Suspects really puts the emphasis on House as a culture and a community rather than a musical genre. Was that your intention?
That was it exactly. That's part of the name, The UnUsual Suspects, because to me, the usual suspects are Frankie Knuckles, Chip E., Farley, Steve Hurley, and so on. Typically, when people go looking for House Music stories, they don't do real journalism or investigation. They see someone else's story on the internet and say, "Okay, they interviewed Chip and Frankie and Farley and that's what I'll do." And to me, that's what they do with House Music: they round up the usual suspects.
I've seen a lot of attempts at documenting the House scene, mostly from abroad, and it's just that kind of journalism. I have to give them credit, though: at least they try, and I know they're limited in their resources and time. But we had a different perspective, my co-producer Kimmie D. and I, because we really are from the culture, and it's a look from the inside-out instead of from the outside-in. We really wanted to have more than just the heavy hitters. We wanted to embrace the culture more organically.
How long was the documentary in production?
Five years. We started off around Thanksgiving 2001, and I remember thinking, "Yeah, we'll have this out by March of next year." [laughs]
I also notice you recently released a limited edition vinyl of your "Jack Trax". Are there any plans to put out more of your material from the old DJ International catalog or are the rights in limbo?
I'm thinking about it. All of the rights reverted back to me - they only had a ten year license on it. I've kind of divested myself from the music business and have been concentrating on the video world, but with "Jack Trax", there was such a great demand for it. I felt bad that people had to go on eBay and spend $300 - one guy told me he spent $1500 on eBay for it. I just didn't think that was right. So I said, let's reissue it and let people have it again. But we didn't want to completely devalue it, so we only did 500 copies.