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Marshall Jefferson: "Suddenly, the DJ could be the artist. That was the key that unlocked everything"

Marshall Jefferson
(Image credit: Future)

“Yeah, man. I was a heavy metal kid,” laughs Jefferson. “That’s what I grew up with. I loved the energy and the power of the music. I loved the way you could immerse yourself in the sound. 

“And I might have stayed with metal if my hormones hadn’t kicked in. Ha ha! I got to, like… 16 or 17, and I suddenly began to notice that all the shows I went to were full of guys. Long-haired guys, guys with beards, sweaty guys… In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I’d quite like to meet some girls, too, but that ain’t gonna happen at a Deep Purple show’. So, I started going to clubs, and that was the first time I became aware of anything that you could call dance music or electronic music. 

“I guess I oughta say a big ‘thank you’ to Mother Nature!” he laughs.

Bizarrely, Jefferson thinks that it was all those years he spent listening to songs like Paranoid, Whole Lotta Love and Smoke on the Water that actually helped him to create a unique sound when it came to releasing his own records. 

“Obviously, I was living in Chicago at the time, so I was aware of what was happening in the clubs and how dance music was evolving. What you gotta remember, though, is that back then, there were not a lot of records for us to listen to. Dance music, house music – whatever you want to call it – was a limited commodity. 

“So, when I started writing my own songs, there was a whole bunch of other stuff still going around my head. Rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles… even Elton John. When I first started using piano on my songs, I was trying to copy Elton. But with a track like I’ve Lost Control [put together by Jefferson and Sleezy D, aka Derrick Harris, I’ve Lost Control was released in 1986 and is generally accepted as one of the songs that introduced the world to Acid House], you can definitely hear my rock background making its presence felt. It’s hard… it’s nasty. There was nothing else around that had that kind of vibe.”

Jefferson has produced under many different names and aliases over the best part of 40 years – Virgo, House to House, Hercules, Mood Life – but perhaps the most commercially successful is Ten City. Originally a Chicago three-piece fronted by vocalist Byron Stingily, they were joined by Jefferson in 1987 and went on to have a decent run of US and UK hits, including Devotion, Only Time Will Tell, That’s the Way Love Is and Right Back to You

And Ten City is the reason we’re talking to Jefferson, via Zoom of course, in his New Jersey studio. For the first time in 25 years, Jefferson and Stingily (the other two original members, Byron Burke and Herb Lawson, are not involved) have been working on a brand new single, Be Free. A quarter of a century is a long time to wait, but it’s been worth it. Be Free is classic Ten City: the totally-funked-up bass, the skip-along beat and Jefferson’s warm production, all guided by Stingily’s soulful falsetto. 

It’s bang on message and on time too. Stingily calls it, “A song about respecting and appreciating our differences”. “That’s the whole thing about house music,” Jefferson agrees. “Even right back at the start, it was music that was designed to bring people together.”

Was there any particular reason why you decided that 2021 – with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic – was the right time to get Ten City back together?

"The pandemic is probably one of the reasons we decided to start working on some new material. My main home is in New Jersey, but I also have a place in Manchester, England, and I was stuck there for a lot of last year because of Covid. 

"Obviously, there were no gigs for me to play and no shows for me to see, so I had a lot of time on my hands. Unfortunately, I only had one keyboard with me – a Roland JX-8P – but I started putting some ideas together and suddenly there are plans for a new Ten City album. 

“I have to admit that it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Byron [Stingily] is kinda like my brother and we’ve talked to each other a couple of times a week for 35 years. We always assumed that we’d do some more Ten City stuff, but we just never got around to it. Last year, the subject came up when we were chatting on the phone and Byron said, ‘Look, if we don’t do this soon, one of us is gonna die!’. 

Those boomy, underproduced, raw, honest records changed my world, but they also changed the whole world.

"He was joking – at least I think he was – but it certainly focused my mind. And the pandemic meant that I had the time to really work on it; to think about new songs, but also revisit the older tunes, like Devotion. We decided to redo a couple of them, but give them a fresh, modern sound.

"Personally, I think they’ve ended up sounding better than the originals, which is kinda strange. The originals were recorded in a big studio through a top of the range Neve desk; and the new versions were mixed and recorded in Logic with an Apollo X interface. It just shows you how far technology has moved on since the 80s.

“In fact, we wouldn’t have been able to do this album at all back then because I was in Manchester and Byron was in the US.”

You’re not one of those producers that feels you have to be there in the room when the vocals are being recorded… soaking up the vibe?

“Sure, it’s nice to all be in the same room, but I’ve been working with Byron for a long time, so we both instinctively know what’s going to work and what isn’t. The vocals you hear on the record are the vocals that Byron sent to me over email.

"I didn’t play around with them – I didn’t start chopping them up and re-tuning. All I did was add a bit of compression and reverb, then ship ’em out.”

Has the process of songwriting changed since those early Ten City sessions?

“Not really. I don’t think my songwriting has changed much since I made my first record. I write on a sequencer, using a keyboard. The big difference is, of course, speed. It’s a lot faster now. I started out with a Yamaha QX1 sequencer and you had to set aside plenty of time to write a song with that baby.

"Even something as simple as copying and pasting different bits of a song took forever. You could go downstairs, make a cup of tea, have lunch, do the washing up and the QX might just have finished when you got back in the studio.

Software can do a lot of things, but I don’t think you can duplicate the sound of something like my JX-8P. They’re getting close, but it’s not the same.

“But that was the beauty of making music back then. Everything was… amateurish. We were just making shit up as we went along. You need a bass part? OK, you gotta write a bass part. You need a piano part? There’s no way you can afford a session musician, so you write the damn thing yourself. 

"And the sequencer was crucial to that process because you could slow it down. You could get down to, like, 40bpm, write an incredible bassline, then wind it back up to 120. The sequencer and sequencing technology made us all sound like better musicians than we were. 

“Actually, I would go further than that. Without that technology, we, as non musicians, would not have been able to make our own music. Without that technology, I could not get the ideas from my head and onto vinyl.”

Marshall Jefferson

(Image credit: Future)

You were born and brought up in Chicago, the birthplace of house music. Do you think that had any bearing on what you ended up doing with your life? Do you think you could/would have made Move Your Body or I’ve Lost Control if you’d lived in Texas or Montana, or even in Swindon?

“That’s an interesting question and the answer is ‘No’. Chicago was where I met the guys from Trax Records. It was the home of Ron Hardy and the Muzic Box. Being in Chicago meant that I was able to listen to Jesse Saunders’ On and On, the song that started the whole house thing rolling along. Without Jesse, there wouldn’t be no house music. Period! 

“Maybe I would have still made music if I was born in Montana or Swindon, but I would have been making Montana music or Swindon music [Swindon Swing – Ed]. Being in Chicago at that particular point in time gave me access to… a sound, a feeling. 

"Those boomy, underproduced, raw, honest records changed my world, but they also changed the whole world. Suddenly, the DJ could be the artist. That was the key that unlocked everything.”

Is there one night from those early years that you will never forget?

“There are many memories from many nights that I will never forget. The best one? In 1984, I recorded two songs on to a reel-to-reel tape – they were the tracks I’ve Lost Control and The Pleasure Exchange. I gave it to Ron Hardy and, to be honest, I kinda forgot about it. 

"A couple of months later, I bumped into Sleezy D [aka Derrick Harris, co-producer of I’ve Lost Control] and he said, ‘Ron’s playing I’ve Lost Control and people are going crazy’. 

“Now, at the time, I was doing the graveyard shift at the Post Office, midnight to 8am, which meant I never got the chance to go to clubs. I had to get a day’s holiday to go down to the Muzic Box on a Tuesday – that was the big night – and see this thing for myself. I couldn’t believe it. 

"Ron played it eight times that night and every time there was a stampede onto the dancefloor. I heard this explosion in my head… BOOM! This is it. It’s happening.”

What did you make those records on? What was your first set-up?

“The QX1, a 303, 808 and a 707, Roland JX-8P, Korg EX-800, a Boss 8-channel mixer and Tascam Porta One. I had a good job at the Post Office, so I could afford to buy some nice equipment. And that made me very popular. 

"Sometimes, I had six or seven people staying over at my place. Tyree Cooper, Farley was over there, Maurice Joshua, Lil Louis… We were all jumping into my little studio room, one after the other. ‘You wrote a song? Great! Get out, it’s my turn.’ Naïve confidence.”

Do you still use a lot of analogue gear?

“I wouldn’t say that I use a lot, but I do like the sound of analogue keyboards and synths. Software can do a lot of things, but I don’t think you can duplicate the sound of something like my JX-8P. They’re getting close, but it’s not the same. 

"As far as ‘real instruments’ are concerned, software is already there. It’s doing it. Same with effects. All the reverbs, delays and compressors. Man, there’s so much to choose from… Waves plugins, UAD, Slate Digital. Slate have got a compressor called the FG-Stress and it is easily the best compressor I have ever used. 

“I suppose the main instruments for this new album were Logic and my Apollo interface.”

How long have you been with Logic?

“Long time. Maybe 16 years. I’ve tried all the others – Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton – but they just don’t work for me. They weren’t as intuitive and that made it hard for me to make music.

“To be honest, I try not to get caught up in the studio gear madness. Complaining that I gotta have this keyboard and this delay and the latest computer. Put me in a room with some musical equipment and I’ll try to come up with a song. When I was working on It’s Alright [1987], all I had was Sterling Void’s Ensoniq ESQ-1, but things turned out OK.”

You’ve seen house music grow from a local scene into a worldwide phenomenon. After a very difficult 12 months, where does it go from here?

“Well, at the moment, it feels like they’re trying to kill it. They got everything else up and running, apart from clubs and churches. Ironically, I had actually decided to give up DJing before the pandemic happened, so it didn’t hit me too hard. I got a few possible dates this year, but after that… I’m done. 

“One of the reasons is that I want to spend more time with my family, but the other reason is that I want to spend more time making my music, instead of playing someone else’s music. And you can’t do that unless you’re in the studio. 

"Maybe that will be one of the bizarre consequences of this crazy time we’ve been through. Everybody was locked away in their studio writing great songs and 2021 is going to be the year we upgraded the quality of the music that’s out there.” 

The new Ten City single, Be Free, is out now. An album will follow later this year. 

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